ALTHOUGH THE GOLDEN HORSE traditionally serves as the most coveted launching pad for Chinese-language filmmaking, this year, because of political tensions that have boiled over into official policy, there was a noticeable absence of films from mainland China. Given the brain drain currently afflicting the major cultural capitals of the mainland and Hong Kong, traditionally the intellectual beating heart of the region, it seems obvious that Taiwan, with its rich and dynamic cultural landscape—including an outsized filmmaking tradition that can comfortably stand its ground alongside South Korea and Japan—should emerge as the new artistic center of the Sinophone world. Throughout the month of November, the Golden Horse demonstrated that, in terms of global cinema at least, this tiny island has the wherewithal to refute any and all forms of tyranny.
A highlight among the Taiwanese films, the 216-minute documentary The King of Wuxia is a brilliant scholarly excavation of the life and work of King Hu (1932-1997), universally considered to be the master of the wuxia movie. As director Jing-Jie Lin shows, however, Hu’s artistry clearly extended beyond the limitations of genre (and budget); furthermore, he demonstrates the extent to which wuxia, for Hu, was a fine art form. For he was first and foremost an intellectual with a profound knowledge of traditional and classical Chinese culture, knowledge he brought to bear in all of his films. His fight sequences, for instance, weren’t the verité slugfests that we’ve come to accept as the meat of the martial arts flick, but were taken directly from the choreography of fight sequences in Peking opera—hence, no realism necessary. Hu was the first to invent the “flying” effect, widely celebrated in more mainstream adventures like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), using hidden trampolines to send his gravity-defying protagonists through bamboo forests as his crew stoked fires in the background to elicit the effect of mist. Divided into two sections—the first half focuses on the work, the second half on his biography—The King of Wuxia is a brilliant and well-rounded portrait of a tragically under-recognized artist.
Few if any of the many films about the recent protests in Hong Kong surpass Chan Tze-woon’s Blue Island, whose screening carried a particular poignancy among a packed audience which included a great number of exiles from that city now living in Taiwan. What distinguishes Blue Island is its linking of those protests to earlier movements of dissent in both the mainland and Hong Kong—including an anticolonial movement of the 1960s that embraced Chinese nationalism, an anathema to today’s young protesters. The film is also marked by its valedictory tone: With the elevation of John Lee—the police chief who oversaw the violent suppression of the final protests—to Hong Kong’s highest office and the passage of laws that essentially outlaw any whisper of dissent, accompanied by the ramping-up of ideological brainwashing in its schools, we might say that the story of Hong Kong has reached its tragic end. The final scene, a series of filmed portraits of those currently behind bars (most of whom are in their early twenties) is a damning indictment of a society that has locked away its best and brightest.
Those who have evaded imprisonment for exercising their human right of resistance are often forced to expatriate with no hope of return: a fate that makes for compelling material for the art of documentary film. Yet Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s The Exiles, centered on the displaced leaders of 1989’s Tiananmen Square student protests in Beijing, suffers from a structural flaw in its split premise: It can’t decide whether its subject is the leaders themselves or the flamboyant chain-smoking filmmaker Christine Choy, who originally shot interviews with the students shortly after their exile for a project she eventually shelved. It really could have been broken up into two separate movies.
With new films by Aleksandr Sokurov, Sean Baker, Francois Ozon, Lav Diaz, Ulrich Seidl, and Albert Serra on the program, one might conjecture that it would be awfully difficult for a debut feature to stand out. But Autobiography, from the Indonesian film-critic-turned-director Makbul Mubarak, managed to do just that, overpowering the work of these heavyweights with a finely acted, scripted, and edited piece of superlative storytelling about class, social status, and the implicit violence behind such hierarchies that so readily turns explicit. The film, which would go on to win both the NETPAC Award for New Asian Talent and the Observation Missions for New Cinema Award (the lion’s share of the prizes went to more mainstream fare from Taiwan), focuses on a particular feudal structure still pervasive in Indonesia, in which wealthy families employ the housekeeping services of a subordinate family, an arrangement that often lasts for generations. In this case, a young man is left to serve a retired general alone when his father is sent to jail, giving rise to a highly complex relationship between the two men that eventually builds to a final reckoning only one of them will survive.
Of the abovementioned auteurs’ works, there were some strong moments, but each was marred by weakness, usually in the writing, implying a certain haste in execution; blame it on the travails caused by the Covid-19 crisis, or the myriad distractions of the digital age, but there was more than a little brainfog clouding these proceedings. Baker and Ozon’s films, Red Rocket and Peter von Kant, respectively, are both solid, though they hardly rise to their directors’ brightest moments. Serra’s film, Pacifiction, is the best of the bunch, but its merits lie primarily in its gorgeous tropical scenery (the film was shot on location in Tahiti); its relatively competent execution of standard neo-noir tropes; and the lead performance of Benoît Magimel, who brings much nuance and grace to the character of a flawed and conflicted high commissioner in French Polynesia. Unfortunately, the film peters out in its last third, inexplicably casting an important subplot to the side and culminating in a monologue by a secondary character that feels tacked-on, unable to tie up loose strands and articulate what could have been a fascinating and powerful assertion of colonial arrogance.
Rimini, Ulrich Seidl’s latest, had similar issues. While it retains much of its director’s genius in depicting the sardonic grotesque—to the extent that it made the gentleman sitting next to me barf midway through (thankfully he was seated on the aisle)—the whys here are somewhat underdeveloped. It depicts a washed-up alcoholic Austrian Schlager singer residing in the titular northern Italian coastal city, living off concert gigs in rented halls and prostituting himself to his aged female fans willing to make the pilgrimage. Where the film goes astray is in its clumsy introduction of its main point of conflict: the appearance of the singer’s adult daughter, who demands money and reentry into his life. Neither the conflict nor her character is given more than a one-dimensional treatment; that she has married a Muslim immigrant who constantly hovers in the background is one thing, but why they are traveling with a nomadic caravan of other immigrants is never really explained. It would seem that Seidl wants to put forth a provocative message about immigration, but isn’t entirely sure of what he wishes to say.
Unfortunately, Lav Diaz goes further in this fulminatory direction, producing a piece of lame agitprop in the form of his latest film, When the Waves Are Gone. Again, the seeds of brilliance are planted, in this case in the central premise of a police investigator losing his soul amid the ruthless violence of former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, developing psoriasis as a result of the stress—a clear metaphor for the corrosion afflicting Diaz’s native country. But When the Waves Are Gone is overacted and its intentions overstated in the dialogue; by the time the film reaches its melodramatic conclusion, its audience has been lost.
A die-hard Sokurov fan, I have been considerably worried about the aging director’s fate since he has fallen afoul of Putin’s regime and been banned from leaving Russia. But I was disappointed by his long-awaited Fairytale, his first film since 2015’s Francofonia. In this case, the premise would seem like prime fodder for someone of Sokurov’s literary capacity; he is typically as fine a writer as he is a director, deeply ensconced in the Russian tradition of master novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Using AI animation technology, Sokurov conjures an inferno populated by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Churchill. While the visual gimmickry works, the downside is the bumbling dialogue, which hardly lives up to our great Sokurovian expectations and fails to transcend the stereotypical: Mussolini and Hitler think fascism is just great, as Stalin does communism, and the dead leaders’ various exchanges rarely attain much depth or wit. A promising idea, but tragically, a failed experiment.