(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
Oh, day five? Already? I’m now just past the halfway point for my time at CIFF, and while I can’t call myself a huge fan of most of what I’ve seen so far, I at least appreciate what most of them are going for. Paula Hernández’s entry of the festival gave me another instance along those lines. As my first Sunday film, The Sleepwalkers follows a family that goes to a house in the woods for their New Year’s celebration. They bask in the summer sun and have bonfires at night, and for a while, the Argentine wilderness provides the most sense of place.
Hernández’s fly-on-the-wall direction spends most of its time buzzing around Ana (Ornella D’Elía), the only teenage girl of the group. She also suffers from sleepwalking, which the movie uses as a metaphor for… wayward behavior? Anyways, she spends her time trying to evade her mother’s (Valeria Lois) uptight parenting while forging a relationship of sorts with Alejo (Rafael Federman), who puts on a bad boy act in front of both Ana and, for some reason, her mom also.
It’s how The Sleepwalkers hazes through its relationships that works best. The dynamics aren’t that well developed and characters can blend together at points; some conflicts are organic while others play like attempts at differentiating each generation. These, however, are more indicative of larger issues: its buildup goes on for too long given its style, and its later attempts at feminist storytelling come off as more of a punishment of its women despite how positive Hernández’s intentions may be. Suffice it to say that it reaches a low when it uses a certain issue as a plot device instead of a topic, and ultimately, it isn’t too tactful.
Your mileage will vary even more with Shengze Zhu’s Present.Perfect., though, a remarkably objective look at empathy in the Internet age. The director/editor follows a handful of people across China, crosscutting between their live-streams for 124 minutes. There’s no structure or rhythm, and that’s by design: the concept of watching those who want to be watched and getting tired of it from time to time. It’s one thing to put this on the big screen. It’s another to see it with strangers, your mind wandering from one steam to the next.
In what might be his film’s most divisive aspect, Shengze doesn’t care about making a capital-P Point. She forces us to see people on shallow terms—the factory worker, the girl in a wheelchair, the androgynous guy—until we connect them to a basic worldview (assuming they express one). It shows live-streaming as cinèma vérité’s next step, but its presentation is all the more salient. Present.Perfect. invites us into a theater, makes us watch strangers, and then has us see each other log out of the cinema in the event that we just don’t care.
There were about 30 audience members when my screening started, and at least 10 walked out. “That’s a little premature,” I thought at first. Then more trickled out. I sat there wondering who would leave next, and as they did, I began to realize why Shengze doesn’t show any chat room boxes: everyone in that theater is someone typing a question and getting impatient when they don’t get what they wanted. It makes for an unexpectedly cinematic experience, and I’m curious to have it drag me across the web when I watch it on my laptop in the future.
This leads us to another documentary, this time in the form of the more traditionally made Cordillera of Dreams. It’s also a much more personal one: director Patricio Guzmán has been making films about Chile for over half a century, but very few of them were made in the country. Part self-reflection and part history lesson, it looks at the effects of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship that stood 1973 to 1990, as well as the country’s resulting shift from democratic socialism to neoliberalism.
Suffice it to say that Guzmán’s film doesn’t paint the latter too highly. It’s not a polemic, though; it’s much more lamenting, a confluence of what was beautiful and what has replaced it. In that way, it’s fitting that the movie never leans too much into the director’s previous works or childhood. (He’s lived in France since Pinochet’s earliest days in power.) Instead, he looks at those who have done similar work, mostly those such as filmmaker Pablo Salas and writer Jorge Baradit. Some others get talking heads, but alas, those are more extraneous.
The rotation between the two, as well as the director himself, ebb and flow between political commentary and personal anecdotes to mostly successful results. Yet, it’s the silence that says the most as The Cordillera of Dreams shows footage of social unrest and police brutality, the content of which Guzmán has no intention of altering. It’s a hard viewing that links to today, and its biggest problem by far is the pacing earlier on. This film is 85 minutes, and it’s not until 25 minutes in that its motifs, narration, and symbolism justify themselves.
With my appreciation for the last two, it might sound crazy for me to say that I couldn’t help but see my next movie as a hollow exercise. Diao Yi’nan’s The Wild Goose Lake focuses on Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a gangster on the run after killing a police officer. He meets a woman named Alai (Kwei Lun-Mei), falls for her, and carnage ensues as they try to escape. A rhythm of action and stagnation ensues, and Diao indulges himself a depiction of water and mist that borders on the fetishistic. So why wasn’t I into it?
The bullet to Goose Lake’s head has to do with how sclerotic it becomes at times compared to how swift it thinks it is. Characters remain largely unchanged, and while that’s fine, the film doesn’t have enough of a philosophical or even thematic undercurrent to back that up. Instead, we get some admittedly clever camerawork courtesy from Diao and Dong Jing-song (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), which, while attentive in its relationships between the human body and its environments, is at the mercy of the editing.
Kong Jing-lei and Matthieu Laclau cut some scenes with great attention to detail. At the worst is a choppiness that dulls the gnarliest bloodletting. (One bit involving an umbrella is covered and stitched in a way that practically forces the viewer two steps ahead of the rest of the scene.) The final nail in the coffin, though, is how grating Diao’s fatalism becomes, using potshots like rape to achieve… what, exactly? When Goose Lake reaches its end, it’s gone from an in-joke to a nicely lit cliché.