In addition to running a marathon, getting scuba certified, doing an open water swim, and joining a writers’ group, going to a film festival is something I’ve always wanted to do but for some reason could never get myself to do until coming to Taiwan.
Perhaps it’s the fact that when in the comfort zone of your own city, state, country, etc., small shocks to your norm render larger readings on your personal Richter Scale. BUT, when shoved from outside your base comfort zone, these small shocks suddenly shrink.
When I heard the Taipei International Film Festival would be June 26th to July 16th, I was a bit annoyed. School ended June 30th and I left for Mongolia on July 2nd, leaving only a few nights and a day free to catch some films. When I saw that Slow West was playing at noon on July 1st with the filmmaker’s attendance, I KNEW I had to go because: 1) a friend had written a positive review, 2) the filmmaker would be there and that’s pretty cool, 3) MICHAEL FASSBENDER IS AN ADONIS I WOULD WATCH HIM EVEN IF ALL HE HAD WAS A BURLAP SACK ON HIS BODY (or a foam sphere on his head). I stood in a line on the opening night of the festival*, prepared to buy my Slow West ticket. I had seen a few other films that looks interesting, including 2 playing on Tuesday after my work would be over. But I thought, maybe it’s best to take Tuesday afternoon to finish packing and prepping for my early Thursday departure.
As I waited, I realized how lame that would be. At a film festival in Taiwan I see an English movie and that’s it. How expat. No. That’s not who I want to be. Someone who recreates America in Taiwan. So I bought tickets for Kommander Kulas, The Inseminator, and Slow West.
First up: Kommander Kulas. 5 PM. Shin Kong Cineplex. Finding the theatre was challenging. It was the top floor of a mall inside a larger dilapidated building. The mall had the aesthetic of 1980s, recession-era, middle-America squished to fit the crowded Ximen district of Taipei. But while asceding the final escalator, the tight corridors opened up to a spacious and clean minimalist theatre lobby. I treated myself to popcorn and Coke as a reward for coming and found my seat in the theatre.
Ten minutes to showtime and there are only 2 other people in the 200+ seat theatre. People slowly trickle in through the opening advertisements for the festival. But by the time the film actually started, there were still less than 30 of us, mostly Taiwanese, but a few foreigners. One Indian woman took her seat next to me. Her phone rand during the opening sequence and the man sitting next to her whispered something. She turned the screen dark for a bit, but after a few minutes she was texting again.
Her blue light wasn’t distracting, however, because the film was so intriguing. If you can’t tell that this is an experimental film by the insanely long film title, certainly the title credits – which have characters like: “whore heart; body: Sue Prado; voice: Angela Chavez”** – should let you know what you’re in for. I picked it because it was experimental and had an interesting description. I thought it sounded somewhat Don Quixote-esque. But it was just so weird. The film opens with static shots of a painting of a family, with a narrator (with a rather dull cadence) explaining for minutes the “narrative arc” (Kulas has had his heart stolen and he must find it.) of the film. Then we see Kulas on his ox Carabao at a distance on a rural road. Static shot as Kulas and Carabao approach the camera. Just as they get close enough that we could discern some detail in Kulas, cut to a portrait shot of a woman standing in a dilapidated grey room, holding rosary beads. Her voice over speaks for her in verses of a poem. Then, cut to a bamboo piano on the side of an urban road and an oldies Filipino love song begins to play.
This is repeated TWELVE TIMES. Kulas is always trekking down a different road. The portrait is always a different subject with a different poem. The piano is always by a different road with a different love song playing. But that general structure is repeated. In the absence of plot and character, all you have left is tone. By far, the most striking parts of the film were the portraits. When the shot of a large woman squatting above a bowl looking back at us over her shoulder came on screen, one man left the theatre. After the next portrait, the Indian woman next to me leaned over and asked: “is this Labor of Love?”
“No, this is Kommander Kulas.”
“So this is not Labor of Love?”
“When did this start?”
“Oh,” she looked at her phone close reading 5:20pm. “Excuse me.” She got up and left.
A steady stream of people left during the portraits. One or two when it was a man with a woman’s freshly cut-off breasts glued to his chest. One or two when it was a man with no clothes on looking in a mirror. One or two when it was a naked woman lying down wither her feet tied together and puncture wounds in her wrists. No one left when it was a naked man standing on rubble making out with a pig’s head, but I think that’s just because everyone who wasn’t down for this type of thing had already left.
The portrait shots were emotional and the voice-over poems were sometimes very lyrical and profound, but mostly just seemed confusing for the sake of being confusing. And sandwiched between a man riding an ox and cheesy love song, it made no sense. I spent the whole film trying to connect all three in a meaningful way, but I couldn’t. At present, I figure the love songs are a decompression tactic, a period of time for you to consider what you’ve just heard/seen. I mostly zoned out, except when the piano was on fire in an alley halfway through the film***. Like I said, the poems (adapted from a book of poems by the Director, I think…) were interesting. I could smell some criticisms of the Catholic church, but nothing too concrete. I’d like to find the original text as I think it would be easier to discern meaning with the words written out static before me. The imaged DEFINITELY make the words more powerful, but when you don’t understand what’s being said, it’s like the boxer with the strongest arm throwing punches that keep missing wide.
Perhaps the director should instead considered making a mixed media book with the poems on one side and the portrait on the other. But that would’ve been less striking probably. And it would also leave out the Kulas and piano parts and those must’ve had a purpose, right? Okay, I’m done ranting about this unsatisfying film. Strange that I would spend so much time on it, but it doesn’t do it justice to just say it wasn’t good.
7:40 PM. Zongshan Theatre Hall. The Inseminator. The promotional still for this Vietnamese film is a woman bathing in the eddy of a river, surrounded by red plastic baby dolls so… you know shit’s GONNA GET WEIRD. But there was a clear narrative arc to it: grown up daughter can’t get married and leave her father and brother until the latter, who’s developmentally-challenged, finds a woman to bare his children. Although it’s set in Vietnam, something about the mountain landscape, prominent in the film’s stunning cinematography, made me think of Appalachia and immediately the universality of the film was apparent.
The first act is a bit slow, but that accentuates the at times surreal / mystical / psychological drama of the second and third acts. The thing I liked most was that the daughter was given sexual desires of her own. I feel like many films are similar to the basic story in The Inseminator, with the daughter wanting to marry a kind, sweet man but she’s confined by her family / societal laws to either marry someone else or wait to get married. In this, there is no specific man. A male is shown, but never his face, so he becomes just the idea of sexual satisfaction. And that is (for some reason) a transgressive / progressive idea in the U.S. still as well as many other countries including, I assume, Vietnam, where the film was banned. The ending was INSANE. Like INSANE IN A GOOD WAY. I don’t want to say anymore than that. You should go see it. It’s an apt example of how the patriarchy hurts women AND men.
When the credits began to roll, I wanted to start clapping, but no one else was. Once the credit ended, there was some applause, but much less than I thought the film deserved. The program said the filmmaker would be present so I hoped it would be the female writer / director Bui Kim Quy and she would for some reason speak in English so I could learn a little more about the film and the process behind it, but it was one of the producers. And he responded to questions in Vietnamese that was then translated into Chinese, so completely irrelevant for me to stay.
But I saw him before the Slow West showing the next day and told him I thought The Inseminator was an amazing film. He said thank you.
1:30 PM. Zhongshan Hall. Slow West. Slow West is the only movie your likely to be able to see (you could probably find The Inseminator with some sleuthing), so I’ll just say, GO WATCH IT! It started and I was like “oh, is this just gonna be like every other thing?” Boy (Jay) loses girl (Rose) and has to go on a quest to get her back. The flashbacks showing Jay and Rose’s relationship are extremely economical and reminded me of Memento, probably why I also worried Rose would just be an object as was Lenny’s wife. BUT NO. She’s real and badass and she is no one’s object. The storytelling is efficient and surreal and self-aware (it almost feels like Tarantino if Tarantino weren’t a vengeful gore-monger)., which allows for mixing tones such that you can be on the verge of tears one moment an laughing out loud the next (re: a sequence of shots showing literal and figurative “salt on a wound”). It took a while for me as a viewer to settle into the surrealism, but once it did, it was worth it.
The best part of watching Slow West at the Taipei International Film Festival was the Q and A with John Maclean after the film. With a pudgy belly, 5 o’clock shadow, and thick-lensed glasses, Maclean smiled as he listened and responded to questions about his process in coming up with the story and the characters, and working with Michael Fassbender. Pretty much all the characters in the film are recent immigrants to America (Scottish, Swedish, German, Irish) which is both historically accurate (those populations where pioneers) and rare in film portrayals I’ve seen of the West. The other fresh thing about Slow West is the feminism (I think the tagline could be: “come for the Fassbender, stay for the feminism”). Maclean explained how Rose is the hero of the story. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but in the way that the men are all trying to save her, but she doesn’t need them to and in fact they just make it worse and she ends up saving herself.
I wanted to ask him: “why slow west?” After the Q and A, I followed him as he walked to the lobby where there would be additional reception time. I asked, and like the overly eager Princeton student in precept trying to impress the Professor, I told him what I thought before he could answer.
“When I think of Westerns,” I began, “I usually think of, like, fastest gun in the West, but, this isn’t your average Western, so you’re kind of tipping us off to that at the beginning.”
“Yes, exactly!” He said. Then, “do you want to be my intern?” Because my answer impressed him so much.
In reality, he said: “Yes, exactly. And you know, it’s a slow story. Things take time.” I wanted to stick around and hear more of his responses to other questions, but I had other plans booked, so I peeled off as he kept walking to the lobby. But I made sure to say: “Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed the feminism!”
As I left, I saw people were asking him for pictures and autographs. I felt a tinge of regret not getting a keepsake of our brief interaction. Maybe I should’ve asked for a picture. But I’ve done that before and I always feels so skeezy. Celebrity culture is annoying. Holding some individuals in higher esteem than others just doesn’t seem right. Yes, I value the art he’s created and that’s maybe a reason to praise him differently than a paper pusher at the IRS, but I probably wouldn’t have asked the writer / director of The Inseminator for her autograph or a selfie. So why Maclean? Because it’s a film my friends in America will have seen or heard of so I seem cool if I’ve got the writer / director’s autograph or if I post our pic on Facebook?
I know, why don’t I sign a piece of paper with my own signature and then use that as incentive to just become a famous writer / director. Because ultimately I don’t want to just get an autograph or a picture with people who’s art I admire, or even have a few questions answered. I want to have long, legit conversations about what things might mean and why certain style choices were made, and where weak points are. So actually there’s no need for me to be a famous writer / director, just as long as I run in circles with people who like to do that?
LOL. BYE. Pigs are flying outside; gotta go take a picture.
*Always anxious standing in line here. What if it’s the wrong line?!? It’s often not as easy as asking someone because of my non-existent Chinese ability and my embarrassment that I can’t speak Chinese.
**I’m not sure if those where actually the actresses who played the body and voice of the “whore heart,” but those are actresses listed on this review.
***It was on fire one sequence and the next it was totally fine, like Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction).