The festival put me in the Seacloud Hotel this year rather than the Grand, where I usually stay. I stayed at the Seacloud once when it first opened and liked its efficiency rooms with a sink, stovetop, and even a washer. I also liked the wood floors and the somewhat antiseptic decor–the bathroom was a frosted-glass cubicle sitting in the middle of an enormous space. Times have changed. The room I got this time is much smaller and the efficiency functions are turned off unless you ask them to turn them on. More discouraging is that the area where the Seacloud is located has been built up, so the view out my window is the wall of the building next door, about three meters away. I miss the Grand, not only its more conventional “luxury” features, but its convenience (most of the press functions are there), though the Seacloud is closer to the subway station and the Megabox multiplex.
That latter point was well appreciated last night after I saw Wang Bing’s “Til Madness Do Us Part,” an unfortunate title for an extraordinary but exhausting movie. Bing is the guy who directed “West of Tracks,” the monumental nine-hour documentary about an industrial complex in northern China being dismantled. His films are always long though rarely tedious. They are, however, relentless, and this one amounted to 3 hours and 47 minutes, almost all of which is set in a hospital in Yunnan Province for the mentally ill. Though it’s clear that most of the “patients” have serious emotional and mental issues, many are there for what we would normally call petty crimes–fighting, public drunkenness, vagrancy, even complaining about the authorities. Also, quite a few have been committed by families who clearly don’t want to put up with them, and there is obviously no state system to address this kind of health problem. The facility is appalling. The patients live four or five to a room, with only a narrow hallway surrounding a light court as their common space. One guy has been there for 20 years, though most seem to have been put away for less than ten. All they do is sleep and smoke. Whatever measure of civility they once practiced on the outside is gone. They piss and defecate everywhere, and mostly walk around in a zombie state thanks to their “treatment,” which is essentially lots of medication that is literally forced on them. For punishment, one patient had to wear handcuffs and after several hours he was clearly in agony, but the doctors wouldn’t take them off until he was sufficiently humiliated. And yet, thanks to Wang’s relentlessness, some humanity does emerge from all this, which makes the movie even more appalling. These guys (there are women there, too, but Wang apparently wasn’t allowed in their quarters) try desperately for some kind of connection through the fog of chemicals and abject misery.
Misery was kind of the theme of the day. In the morning I saw Jafar Panahi’s new film, “Closed Curtain,” which, like his last one, is about him, though in a more indirect way. The reason I’ve always liked Panahi is because he’s less allegorical than other Iranian directors. This one is clearly an allegory on his own situation as a banned artist in his country. It begins with a writer stealing away to a seaside villa with his seemingly contraband dog and sealing the place up with black cloth so that no light from inside will tell outsiders that someone is home. From there it shifts plot gears more than once and eventually we see the “story” as a possible film in Panahi’s head that gets mixed up with his own life of internal exile. It’s affecting and extremely well made but I prefer Panahi in more literal mode.
The misery in “Nagima” is very literal. The title character of this Kazakhstan film is an orphan girl who recently turned 18 and thus was kicked out of the orphanage where she was raised. She and her only friend in the world, another orphan girl she’s known since they were 5, have not been prepared for the world at all, and within that world seem as mentally and emotionally unfit as the people in Wang Bing’s doc. The friend becomes pregnant and then sick, but the pair doesn’t even know enough to go to a doctor, until it’s too late. The friend dies in childbirth though the baby survives and Nagima decides to raise it herself, with disastrous consequences. At first, the constant depressive mood turned me off. Nagima, skinny and sickly, with perpetually slumped shoulders, is almost a caricature of unhappiness, but it does get to you. After being cruelly rejected by her birth mother she goes to a grocer, the only person in town who has even showed her any kindness, and begs him to tell her that he loves her, even if it’s a lie. When he does, she smiles for the first time in the movie and it is absolutely heartbreaking.
I was also a bit turned off for a while by Jia Zhangke’s new film, “A Touch of Sin.” Though I was encouraged to find out he has returned to straightforward narrative films, this is certainly the most conventional movie he’s ever made. Violent and rather trite in its moral tone, it nevertheless ended up entertaining me. By the end I was totally wrapped up in his whole purpose, which is to show how the commercial exigencies of the new, emergent China have cheapened human intercourse. For several protagonists who are pushed to the breaking point, the consequences are lethal, and the violence is fast, brutal, and in one instance almost hilariously cartoonish. Sometimes the literal-mindedness can be both ridiculous and horrifying, like the scene in which an arriviste local official beats a young woman he mistakes for a whore with a wad of cash. It’s like it will never end, as he keeps screaming that he can do anything he wants because he has money.
After Wang’s long dirty bath I needed a palate cleanser and went to the party honoring veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-taek at the Paradise. Unfortunately, we had to wait until all the speeches were done before we could get at the food, and they were all long and in Korean (the English interpreting was perfunctory, which gives you some idea of the content, I suppose). The foreign guests chatted among themselves, oblivious to the real purpose of the party. It’s like we were in two different worlds while in the same ballroom.