Sunday, March 24, 2019

Hu Bo's “An Elephant Sitting Still” at Northwest Film Forum: Apr 6 - 17

This past year saw a trio of masterful films emerge from Chinese mainland directors, both new and old. Representing for China's sixth generation was the director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now, Jia Zhang-ke. The eerily futurist sheen of his "Ash Is Purest White" lent a distinct glow to the social realist grit of the director's recent turn into crime drama. The second would be the dream of a movie that is Bi Gan's sophomore effort, "Long Day's Journey Into Night". The first hour centers around the noirish pursuit of a love from years past, setting the tone for film's extended set piece in its second half. All of which culminating in a highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, wherein "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic". Most elusive of this trio was the single directorial work by novelist Hu Bo before his untimely suicide in late 2017 at the age of 29. Based on the story from his novel "Huge Crack" of that same year, Hu's extended duration film swept critical attention and gained great notice at this past year's Berlin International Film Festival. The film's title, concerning a folk tale of an elephant in the Manzhouli zoo, both acts as a commentary on surviving in increasingly demanding times, and a zen ideal to strive toward. Its parable resonates among the film's youthful protagonists, all deeply unhappy in their isolated industrial locale, as they struggle with the conflicting forces of apathy and meaning. Unrelenting as its tone and duration may be, “An Elephant Sitting Still” proves a delicately layered, subtly shot work that distinguishes itself with lived-in characters expressing a set of incisive statements on the prevalence of apathy, arrogance and egotism in modern China. “An Elephant Sitting Still: Melancholic and Mesmerising" in the extreme, conveyed in long, uncut sequences and a muted tonal palette, the film follows its protagonists in their inward and outward search for liberation from the entrenchment of their personal and social conditions. "An Elephant Sitting Still's Bleak, Graceful Realism" coming to envelop completely as the viewer joins them in the miasma of this, "Shattering, Soul-Searching Chinese One-Off". Hu Bo's singular directorial vision will finally hit domestic screens next month, including a brief run at Northwest Film Forum.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Bi Gan's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" & Jia Zhang-ke's "Ash is Purest White" at SIFF Cinema: Apr 5 - 18

In his year end overview, The New Yorker's Richard Brody tackles the single most significant factor in the contemporary landscape of moving pictures; “2018 has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex, or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theatres - between the cinema of resistance and the cinema of consensus - is wider than ever." For evidence supporting Brody's assertion, look no further than this past year's selection on offer at Cannes and Venice, and contrast these with domestic cinema programming over the ensuing year. The two pieces of new Asian cinema belatedly screening at SIFF Cinema this next month are perfectly illustrative of the depth of this divide. Each ranked highly in Film Comment, The Guardian, Cinema-Scope, and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound annual overviews for 2018, yet only now arriving on domestic screens.

Elsewhere in the world, the Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. China under President Xi Jinping continues to carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression in the "30 Years of Amnesia" since the events that culminated in the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno" in growing numbers and diversity.

Ranking among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2015, Bi Gan's remarkable arthouse debut swept up Locarno's Best New Director prize, and was hailed as one of the most assured directorial debuts of the decade by both Film Comment and Cinema-Scope. Ostensibly the story of a middle aged doctor and ex-con searching for his young nephew, "Kaili Blues" offers up an increasingly dreamlike elegy for bygone Miao traditions, and the sweeping changes seen throughout the landscape of mainland China. Most striking is the emphatically experimental detour in it's middle passage into a "Dreamy Trek With Otherworldly Beauty", as the narrative proceeds into an extended exercise in cinematic time and space. Delivered through extended shots and images that are achingly melancholy, and teasingly cluttered, "Kaili Blues: A Dream Without Limits" describes the subtropical province of Guizhou, a mountainous, lush region of sporadic human habitations. Intriguing associations of the narrative's emotional landscape can be found in the depicted real-world recurrences of transition and disrepair. Considering the "Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million into China’s Cities" expected to unfold over the course of the next decade, one doesn't need to extend the "Pitfalls that Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City" far to conceive them applying to a country in flux, and to a people in dislocation. The film's sensibility for the subject, and setting of this abstract chronicle of persons lost and a past revealed, is best expressed in Mark Chan's Short Take for Film Comment; "one of the rare moments in recent cinema where ostentatious screen-craft proves equal to the task of channeling a multitude of these inexpressible sorrows".

Bi Gan returned in 2018 with a sophomore leap into neo-noir centering around the fading embers of a mysterious romance told in the key of early Wong Kar-Wai. In this dream of a movie, much of it told through almost omnipresent voiceover, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" centers around the return of Luo Hongwu to his hometown (again) in Guizhou province, to find the woman he’s loved and never forgotten. This most noirish of storytelling devices circles around a set of recurring concepts, whether journeys, romantic encounters, the abstraction of recollection, time, (or during one startling technical sequence) cinema itself, all expressed with the same half-remembered quality. Mention should be made of the strength of the film's independent components. Particularly Liu Qiang’s set design, a explicit selection of Cantonese pop, and the ethereal electro-acoustic score supplied Lim Giong and Point Hsu. Most significantly, during the film's initial sequence the sensuous and atmospheric cinematography of Yao Hung-I and Dong Jinsong, setting the tone for the extended set piece that culminates this highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, whereafter "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic".

The seconds notable film is the newest by the previously mentioned sixth generation Chinese director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now. In dedicating one of their Great Directors features to Jia Zhang-ke, Senses of Cinema predicated the recognition that would later come for the quietly controversial, deeply humanistic vision alive in his body of work. Zhang-ke's earliest acclaim originating from his string of first features, "The Pickpocket", "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures" spanning the years 1998-2002. It was his examination of Globalization and China's absorption of western market and consumer values in 2004's "The World" that he gained attention outside the European cinema festivals. Becoming in a short succession of years a internationally recognized filmmaking voice that strode a very precarious balance with China's censorship and state-run cinema funding. So that much more startling then, that when his next film set within the otherworldly landscape of the Three Gorges Damn Project. A film of lives changed, homes lost and cultural legacy literally washed away, 2006's masterwork "Still Life" not only winning him top prize at the Berlin and Venice Film Festivals, but paradoxically earning praise from China's then vice-President, Xi Jinping.

With Jia's own perspective on the current state of his country offered in the pages of The Guardian, "China Must End Silence on Injustice, Warns Film Director Jia Zhang-ke" on the subjects of growing wealth inequality, worker exploitation and eroding social cohesion. That year saw him blending of his usual documentary aptitude with a newfound flare for bloodletting. His "A Touch of Sin" can be seen as the director's response to the growing backlash of mass protest, worker suicides, public violence, labor riots, upheaval against for-profit land seizures and the growing extremity of corruption of state and local officials. Jia's depiction of the rising occurrence of mainland China's explosive public response to social injustice explored in Tony Rayns' "A Touch of Sin: New China’s Loss of Social Cohesion Leads to Violence". In the long arc of Jia Zhang-ke's increasingly expansive art, he has constructed a body of observations on globalism, largely comprised of a mildly surreal tangent of social realism, with an unexpected recent turn into the realm of politically conscious crime drama. As Peter Bradshaw's review details, "Ash is Purest White" falls into the classification of the latter. Setting this tale of how "Love Smolders and Crime Pays in a Changing China" apart, Zhang-ke has imbued his crime tale with what Bradshaw describes as a "miasma of visionary strangeness", giving a distinct glow to the film's social realist grit. Seen through the film's eerily futurist sheen, this complex romantic tragedy set within China’s crime classes is a "Chinese Gangster’s Girlfriend Saga that Burns Bright".

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Seattle Symphony's Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center Opening and Contemporary Music Marathon: Mar 23 - 24 | Heiner Goebbels' "Surrogate Cities": Apr 25 - 26 | Ludovic Morlot's Final Season with Seattle Symphony

While the 2019 season will mark the end of his tenure as conductor and Music Director at Seattle Symphony, since his arrival in 2011 Ludovic Morlot has launched a number of significant modern music initiatives. Alex Ross positing that from the week of his debut, the conductor not only stepping out with a strong start musically, but a reshaping of the orchestra's image, effectively in many ways, the "Symphony’s New Leader Took Seattle by Storm". Not least among his accomplishments, the late-night [untitled] chamber music series which brought contemporary works back into symphony's lexicon, after almost a decade of being remiss in the frequency of their performance. Morlot brought a higher profile and further prestige to the city with his commissioning of "John Luther Adams Pulitzer Prize Winning 'Become Ocean'" which was recorded with the Seattle Symphony in 2013. Last summer also saw the conductor's hand at work in Adams' continuation of the cycle, with the premier of "Become Desert". Yet the seasonal [untitled] program may prove to be Morlot's greatest contemporary music contribution during his tenure. The series' installments cumulatively reading as a who's-who of 20th and 21st Century avant-garde and modernism. Including in its breadth works by such notable (and rarely performed) composers as George Crumb, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Terry Riley and Giacinto Scelsi. Other high points include 2015's performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's groundbreaking electro-acoustic, "Gesang der Jünglinge", and the series' initiation with the realization of Olivier Messiaen's massive symphonic work, "Turangalîla". In the way of other contemporary works,  this next month Seattle Symphony performs a compelling and rare Heiner Goebbels piece on the march of history through the modern urban diaspora. Featuring additional sound design work from Ensemble Modern's Norbert Ommer, vocalist Jocelyn B. Smith's sultry intimacy, and the spectrum of noir radio inflection to Dada theatrics supplied by David Moss, this large scale conceptual work bears some correspondence to the postmodern music theater of it's text contributor, Heiner Müller. To quote ECM Records, "Surrogate Cities" is; "Concerned with the dynamic power and the power dynamics of the modern city, it is an examination of the concrete jungle in all its complexity, complete with musical-historical flashbacks. Literary quotations and text setting are also integral to the work, and it incorporates words by Paul Auster, Hugo Hamilton, and Heiner Müller".

As the 2019-2020 season commences, under the aegis of the symphony's new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard, one final grand project of Morlot's tenure is to be realized. The month of March sees the opening of LMN Architects reconceiving the former Southbridge Music Discovery Center into a nexus of technology and heightened acoustic experience as Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center. The features of the facility as a versatile technology-enhanced performance and multimedia community space are detailed in Seattle Symphony's announcement; "Combining a modular surround video screen with 13 moveable panels, 10 ultra-short-throw projectors, motion-capture cameras, and a state-of-the-art Meyer Sound Constellation Acoustic System with 42 speakers and 30 microphones, the technology can create a 360° shared virtual experience or be adapatable to disappear into the background for a more traditional setting. A series of custom system presets will provide supportive acoustic environments for a variety of ensembles, and additional settings can be customized producing a range of possible acoustic environments. Cellist and experimental artist Seth Parker Woods will become Octave 9’s first Artist in Residence for the 2019-2020 season. During his residency, he will premiere a number of new works for cello and multimedia from a diverse group of composers and visual artists." A set of local press including Met's "Octave 9 Is Another Symphonic World", and Seattle Times' "You Have to Hear it to Believe It: Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9", proceeded its its public opening on March 3. GeekWire's "Inside Octave 9: A High-Tech Venue that lets Seattle Symphony Explore the Future of Music" offering a more in-depth assessment of the facility's resources on offer. Yet it will be the venue's inaugural event, the Contemporary Music Marathon, spanning 24 hours beginning March 23, to day's end on March 24th, that will be the true test of Octave 9's resources. Encompassing a qualitative body of 20th and 21st century composers, the day-in and day-out performance by an array of ensembles will include such works as John Luther Adams' "The Light Within" & "Songbirds", David Lang's "Breathless", Annea Lockwood's "In Our Name", and Kaija Saariaho's "Spins and Spells". Beginning in the long hours of the first night, Helmut Lachenmann's rarely performed work, "Serynade" is then followed in the early morning by political composer Frederic Rzewski's "Piano Piece No. 3 & 4", and the afternoon is ushered in with American minimalists, represented by Terry Riley's "G-Song", and Philip Glass' "String Quartet No. 6".