I normally start a post by relating some of the other things I’ve watched during the week. On this occasion, however, it’s quite a long story, dealing as it does with my attending the closing night of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. I’ve therefore placed that section below and instead will jump straight into this week’s entry. Representing Armenia therefore is the Armenia-Canada-Germany co-production:
(1993) Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Calendar is a slightly unusual film offering, written, filmed, directed, performed and possibly even fixed together with Scotch tape by Atom Egoyan, with this being my first trip into his cinematic world. It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort, which reaches its crescendo as their true nature unfolds, all the while within some wonderful Armenian landscapes.
“It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort”
The plot concerns a Canadian-Armenian photographer returned to the land of his ancestors with the job of photographing his homeland’s most picturesque churches for a forthcoming calendar. He is accompanied by his Armenian wife, acting as translator for the local driver and guide they have hired to provide them with background information on all the sites visited. The unassuming beginning suggests that this is more or less the sum-total of the film, but with every new location, we slowly learn of the deeply fragmented relationship present between the married couple and the cause of the ensuing distance between them. The way in which the film is shot helps to underscore this gulf, with the photographer never seen with his wife in the same place at the same time. Indeed, we only see him some time after the calendar has been printed, while we only see her during the photoshoot, very tellingly only in the company of the driver.
In some ways, Calendar is rather difficult to watch, with the characters becoming more and more grotesque as the narrative progresses, especially that of the photographer, whose mounting jealousy (which could itself be described as a grotesque emotion) is exacerbated further by his unpleasant personality, particularly evident throughout scenes occurring in the present where, still emotionally in orbit around his estranged wife, he ‘auditions’ a long line of potential replacements (something that is not explicitly stated, so other viewers may have a different interpretation). Yet the film is shot in a very simple and effective way, which captures the claustrophobic mood of the piece while highlighting the wonderful natural backdrop. The camera is locked off in every scene, perhaps to mimic the still photography of the calendar itself, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to the tense and unspoken decay of the relationship. The still frame, accompanied by the subjects frequently in mid to long shot, further symbolize the distance felt by the man behind the camera and only serve to heighten his sense of isolation. These sequences are intercut with handicam footage of the characters’ journey through Armenia, and yet despite providing the opportunity for motion, it is no more comforting, with the bluish tint and frequent lack of sound simply another form of isolation.
Egoyan is clearly a skilled photographer, and he lovingly captures the churches with the warmth and texture you would expect to see on a professional calendar. This only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves, which Egoyan as the photographer and Arsinee Khanjian as the wife expertly create. It’s certainly not a pleasant cinematic adventure, but anyone who has experienced that phase of a relationship will at least know the horrible awkwardness created between two people who were once close, and the helpless feeling of loss as a result. Unfortunately, drawn as he is, it is well-nigh impossible to sympathize with the protagonist’s predicament, though his wife is by no means a victim.
“[The wonderful back drop] only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves “
The deeply personal discomfort, while real, does perhaps ensure Calendar is probably not something I could sit through too often, but the effective minimalist approach on the production side and the jarring juxtaposition of cold, reserved knife-edge drama against the ultimately inconsequential polychromatic background has imbued a strong sense of the Atom Egoyan style. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but a director guaranteed to provoke thought. I’m certainly curious enough to explore some of his back catalogue some day.
Last Friday evening, I managed to catch the tail end of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. The largest such event in Korea is hands down the Pusan International Film Festival, but CHIFFS is undoubtedly the second-largest, having run this year from September 2-11. Chungmuro was the seat of the local film industry as far back as the early 1960s, and although the major studios have since expanded and relocated to the now wealthier southern district of Gangnam (herein one finds the headquarters of the nation’s conglomerates and the city’s major convention centres), it still symbolizes all things cinema to many. Running since 2007, CHIFFS has been an attempt to keep its legacy alive by screening the festival’s large selection of features at venues in and around the area.
Rain-soaked skies bookended the finale, but the crowd assembled were of a respectable size. Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed. The aged venue was a far cry from the modern, cookie-cutter multiplex behemoths, with absolutely no neon lighting or overpriced snack bar (although having skipped dinner to reach Seoul, this would have been a welcome sight). A high stage that could easily double for the other definition of theatre held the large screen on which we would see the final hurrah for CHIFFS 2010. I had travelled a long way to see this film and was eager to see it begin.
“Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.”
When the dithering crowd made little effort to actually sit down, a helpful announcer reminded them that everyone was keen to get the evening’s entertainment underway. This seemed to prompt people into action, and they at last managed to settle into their high-backed cushioned wooden seats – volunteers would excitedly relocate anyone who had unhelpfully chosen the side aisles to the centre, so as to help maintain the illusion of a full house. At last, the lights dimmed and a video retrospective hurriedly skimmed through the highlights of the last week-and-a-half. The helpful alacrity was then halted, as the house once again lit up and a glittering woman took the stage –our host for the evening.
One of the criticisms of many Korean events that purport to be international is the lazy lack of proper bilingualism. Even as I write, the English version of the CHIFFS website (http://www.chiffs.kr/eng/main.asp) is still yet to be finished and contains only about 10% of the information found on the Korean site – much of that information crucial, such as a schedule of events and explanations as to precisely how one can buy tickets. This half-hearted approach was in evidence that final evening, as the host would very helpfully give a cursory translation of her far more animated Korean pronouncements, as though having to relate her words in another language was an unnecessary evil. She would then, in English, introduce one of the aforementioned dignitaries to the stage, who would then proceed to give what could have been a brief history of the Sydney Mardis Gras, for it was not translated. This continued through several speech-makers: introduction in English, speech in Korean. I dutifully clapped at the appropriate moment, beginning to wonder if the film had actually been subtitled as advertised.
The film of course, was not in any danger of starting anytime soon. Next to appear on stage, director Tony Chan, who, in muted tones, explained the thinking behind his brand new epic, Hot Summer Days – a U.S-China-Hong Kong extravaganza. In the story, Hong Kong, thanks to global warming, is experiencing its hottest summer ever, with citizens regularly collapsing to the ground in exhaustion and ice-cream available only to the highest bidder. Anyone familiar with interviews conducted on local television with someone who only speaks English would have recognised the odd spectacle now before us: the host confidently asked her questions in Korean, an interpreter would quickly whisper a translation into Chan’s ear, he would then address the crowd in English, followed by the host providing a summary in Korean. It was difficult not to think of the Sooty Show during the exchange. “What’s that, Sooty? Why did I make a film about the hottest summer ever? Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy?”
Chan’s answer to this question, meanwhile, seemed to sum up the amount of intellectualising he had put into the script. “Well, uh, I wrote the film in the middle of Winter, and it was really cold. So I didn’t want to write a film about Winter and it just came to me. Of course, we didn’t actually have 100 days of Summer to shoot, and that was the most difficult part.” The warning bells were ringing, but it was too late. I was committed by this point no matter what happened. Nonetheless, I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.
“I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.”
Although I couldn’t see any obvious connection to the festival with Josh Groban’s motivational ‘You Raise Me Up’, the opera-capable male quartet who brought it to life certainly delivered a very capable rendition. It was upbeat, after all, and that at least was the intended spirit of the event. Which doesn’t explain the next two barbershop quartet showtunes, mercifully sang in Korean, thus obscuring their saccharine lyrics. Finally, the mystifying musical entertainment was over and an intermission was called – presumably to give people time to check that they’d come to the right place. A resigned 10 minutes passed and then, mercifully, Hot Summer Days finally rolled.
And it was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure. A romance-comedy, it featured the courtship and mishaps of a series of couples across Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Romance comedies typically rely on a string of improbable coincidences to ensure both conflict and happy endings, but Tony Chan clearly felt that these alone were enough to construct a film – that and the presence of the usual HK film stars, such as Nicholas Tse and Jacky Cheung. I won’t even bother to relate the involvement of the talking goldfish. It was like the worst excesses of the genre, only super-concentrated, and I was not the only viewer present to writhe in my seat as, with every passing minute, Chan blew raspberries at improbability, laying down track after track of cliché and cornball nonsense until the credits rolled – 90 minutes after the debacle had begun. If you weren’t diabetic going in, you certainly were going out.
Several minutes later, one of my companions was heard to wonder in hushed tones how something like this had ever been selected for the closing ceremony. The indifferent rain continued to hurl itself at the ground as he puffed away thoughtfully on a cigarette. Nonetheless, we all agreed that it had been worth coming. Exploration is what film festivals are all about. Hopefully the next adventure will be a little more savoury. And without a barbershop quartet.
“It was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure.”
Hell on earth: imprisoned in the wilds of 19th Century Tasmania, a group of repeat-offenders make a desperate bid for escape across one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes – a realm where even the Aboriginal natives can’t survive. A true story from Australia’s dark convict past unfolds in the uncompromising 2009 epic, Van Diemen’s Land. The official trailer appears below: