Report on FICValdivia: New Pathways, Tokyo avant-garde and rebellious Sion Sono

Report on FICValdivia: New Pathways, Tokyo avant-garde and rebellious Sion Sono

One of the pleasures of attending a festival is being able to follow the myriad overlapping conversations created by its programmers. This was certainly the case at the 24th edition of FICValdivia, a festival that took place in the south of Chile this past October, and which I attended for the second consecutive year (this time serving on a jury with filmmakers Kiro Russo and Jerónimo Rodriguez).

Beyond the competitive sections, Nuevos Caminos (New Pathways), curated by Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria, is the one section that always sets the tone for the festival. For the second year in a row there was a decidedly dark underside to the shorts in this section—a ripple of dissent and concern over work (its inequality or lack), environment (physical and viral), and the state of our minds as we glue ourselves to television or increasingly to our laptop screens.

It is perhaps no surprise that a short like Loukianos Moshonas’s Young Men at Their Window (2017, 18 min), a prizewinner at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, in which two young office workers anxiously scan, magnify and analyze a tiny speck on their computers until they make all kinds of morbid assumptions about it, made the selection. In turns poignant, blasé and ultimately sad, it is a fine compass for today’s zeitgeist. We could call it nostalgic, but then the men who decry the lack of today’s revolutionary ethos are too young to have lived the upheavals of 1968.

A different kind of angst fuels the clever, zappy Armageddon 2 (2016, 6 min) by Corey Huges, whose wheeling, nonsensical narrative—from bananas to chips to end time—is ultimately about the vagaries and occasional insanity of the Internet.

Then there is Pia Borg’s gorgeous and cleverly sly, Silica (2017, 22 min, also premiered in Locarno). Biorg visits the former sci-film sites in Australia with subaltern churches and homes built for nuclear doomsday. It is an eerie tale, and Borg narrates it with a dreamy, breathy voice that perfectly conveys a sense of dislocation—her fight to Australia is long, her time zones get out of whack, and the sites don’t always look exactly like in the movies. Yet there’s also genuine creepiness, captured as if Biorg were making a dystopian sci-fi of her own.

Biorg’s film features stunning landscapes, sweeping enough for us to imagine them, given right angle and lens, as another world. The film highlights what Nuevos Caminos is ultimately about—that uncanny jitter of new or bizarre, a sense of risk taken in breaking down genres, narrative molds, even images themselves.

Such is the case of the most memorable film in the selection, Takashi Makino’s On Generation and Corruption (2017, 26 min), which had its premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Although “memorable” may not be the right word for a film that for about five, six minutes leaves us in darkness and then, imperceptibly, emerges as flickers of faintest color, set to the ambient sound designed by experimental musician Jim O’Rourke. There is no plot, character or denouement to “remember.” Only the general feeling of anticipation, waiting for something to appear, and then to metamorphose, at the edge of one’s perception.

Do all viewers see the same film? Sight being subjective, some must literally see more, others less. Perhaps not all are as crushed when Makino’s flickers finally coalesce into a landscape—or at least, an illusion of one—only to immediately begin to disintegrate. As in Aristotle’s treatise (evocatively alternatively titled as, On Coming to Be and Passing Away), we’ve been promised generation and corruption. The word “painterly” comes to mind, though Makino doesn’t exactly work like a painter. After all, the latter achieves some degree of permanence (the only similar artwork I’ve seen this year would be the portrait of presented at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, yet Makino’s work is admittedly more abstract).

Makino’s film created a beautiful conversation with the Japanese avant-garde 16mm films from the 1960s to the 80s, gathered in the Gran Ola de Tokio (The Great Tokyo Wave) program curated by Isabel Orellana, who explained in her pre-screening introduction that the name was rather ironic, as there truly was no “great” or “big” wave to speak of, for a movement so experimental and marginal.

A number of films in this section were by Takashi Ito, whose shorts fall between photography and cinema. Ito’s general cinematic method lies in joining an endless number of photographs, creating a kind of primitive cinema—imagine a picture book’s pages flipped rapidly to “animate” the images.

In the black-and-white short, Spacy (1981, 9 min), Ito’s graduation thesis at the Kyushu Institute of Design under another key experimental filmmaker, Toshio Matsumoto, Ito animates architectural interior of a basketball court. He sets up a picture-within-a-picture game: photographs on stills that replicate the court. As the camera zooms in on each still, it is as if we were entering the picture.

A dreamier, more loosely associative effect is created in Thunder (1982, 5 min), in which we repeatedly see a face of a young woman, as if the images were originating in her memory or subconscious. The flashing lights in the film recall neural synapses, or else suggest an atmosphere of danger, of foreboding. The illusive nature of capturing an image when it flashes so quickly, near subliminally, recalls some of the preoccupations with optics and the mechanics of vision of the international arts movement, Op-Art, popular in the 60s.

Last but not the least, it was great to see the experimentation before watching a film like Sion Sono’s Love Exposure (2008), one of the six features presented in the retrospective of the Japanese cult filmmaker, curated by Jaime Grijalba and with Sion Sono in attendance. At the sessions I attended the crowd was predominantly young, FICValdivia being a university festival, but nevertheless, more so than at any other section. It’s a testimony to just how much allure Siono’s pop-art aesthetic holds for the young viewers. And rightfully so. Love Exposure is perverse in the most delicious sense—funny and corny, dirty and yet incurably sweet. Sono manages to channel the romantic idea of love and devotion, while also taking stabs at mass culture, at religious devotion and piety of any kind.

Two restless teenagers Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) and Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) are yin and yang: Yoko’s all cool veneer while tremulous and kind inside, Yu’s a geek who also channels his rebellion against his father’s bizarre love-hate relationship with priesthood and obvious needs for sexual contact. As in a Shakespearean comedy—and really, when was ribald Shakespeare ever afraid melodrama or raunchiness—Yu and Yoko, united as brother and sister through their parents’ love affair, wish they could be someone else, unleashed from the adults’ cycle of guilt. When Yu poses as and gains Yoko’s admiration in a female costume, as Ms. Scorpion, the stage is set for a comedy of mistaken identities and sexes.

The young in Sono are hormonal and hilarious, particularly Yu and his gang of misfits who devote themselves to capturing candid shots of girls’ panties. When mischievous mastermind and “it” girl, Koike (the superb Sakura Andô, whose Koike is by far the best written and acted character in the film), usurps Ms. Scorpion’s identity and infiltrates Yu’s household, games turn serious: the whole family falls into the hands of a religious cult, triggering Yu’s descend into madness.

This being Sono, the imagery is more powerful than the plot. Siono puts Christian iconography through the grinder of porn, and the result is always strange and exhilarating. In addition, there are gems that seem to spring from nowhere: such as Koike’s sensual fondness for her parakeet, and thus a scene in which her bloodied body has the parakeet emerge, as if sprung up literally from her heart or, in a more literal reading, her blouse—an evocation of both innocence and bestiality.  

If kitsch and comedy lie at the heart of Sono’s filmography, so does his tireless pursuit of striking, oftentimes absurdist, imagery—a fever-dream that echoes the pictorial perversity of surrealism, mixed up with pop culture’s detritus of signs and all kinds of visual noise. In this, the sheer visual instinct of a filmmaker like Takashi Ito or Takashi Makino finds plenty of reverberation.

About The Author

Ela Bittencourt

A writer, film critic and curator, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil. Her essays and interviews have appeared in publications including Artforum, Cineaste, Film Comment, Frieze and Sight & Sound Magazine. Bittencourt was the curator of the 2015 Neither/Nor retrospective of Polish nonfiction films at the True/False Film Festival, as well as the author of the accompanying monograph,Neither/Nor: Chimeric Cinema, Poland, 1970s-1990s. She also co-curated Stories of Transformation, a Polish film retrospective in Brazil in 2015 and serves on the selection committee for the It’s All True International Documentary Film Festival in São Paulo.

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