There’s little to recommend about Ruijun Li’s plodding Walking Past the Future. Electronics factory worker Yaoting’s (Yang Zishan) father is in need of back surgery. To ease the city stress on him, Yaoting helps her parents move out of Shenzhen and back to their home province of Gansu. Alone in the city, and having been sent on extended leave by her employer, Yaoting looks to pick up odd jobs, but they soon turn into medical trials when she meets young hustler Xinmin (Yin Fang).
The film is clearly intended to offer a look at the tough realities of the Chinese lower classes, but Li never achieves any sense of insightfulness. For a film that could have addressed the heartbreaking human costs of China’s unprecedented growth, Walking Past the Future is too melodramatic and pretentious to convince. Li stations his camera simply, leaving his long takes to sit there with minimal movement, as if a “slow cinema” aesthetic automatically elevates dreary material. His actors do little to bring the drama to life either. Neither Yang or Yin bring any kind of spark to the screen and they play out the romantic developments mechanically.
Li sticks large smartphones in the hands of his adolescent characters but, rather than making any interesting comments on phone culture, he simply states that it exists and moves on. Li admonishes young people’s symbiotic relationship with these handheld screens but then indulges in exactly that, as (deeply uncinematic) texting becomes a key part of the film’s progression for some unknown reason. The instant message-related developments are as cold and insincere as you might expect.
The inertia is heightened by the visual blandness, as plain interiors and uninspiring locations dominate the frame. There’s one stylish drone shot, but it seems so out of place it perplexes rather than impresses. There’s also minimal score, so there’s nothing to excite the eyes or the ears, and the silence leads to stagnancy in countless scenes. The young characters are also a challenge to relate to. Their problems don’t seem big – and they are of course (having a sick parent is devastating) – but it’s hard to feel anything for them. Nothing hits home and the dullness of Li’s characters makes the drama a real chore. The wooden dialogue doesn’t help either. Walking Past the Future runs over two hours. If you’re still with it by the embarrassing CGI smudged final scene, then more power to you, because I certainly wasn’t.
A farmer’s love for his animals knows no bounds in Bloody Milk, a genre-inflected story of man and livestock. Pierre (Swann Arlaud) runs a dairy farm in France. His herd is small, but he loves them all dearly. When a new bovine virus threatens his herd, he goes to great lengths to protect them from the ruthless hand of the animal protection authorities.
The film never fully delivers on its evocative, although strangely translated title (a more literal reading would be “little farmer”, which is often used derogatorily, synonymous with a term like “hillbilly”). Pierre gets his hands dirty quite early on, but this doesn’t crescendo as an exploitation film would. Instead of indulging in the film’s genre elements, first-time director Hubert Charuel opts for a more downbeat, pensive, finale.
This is to be expected from a film with an almost documentary-like aesthetic. A real cow gives birth in immense, goopy detail, and Charuel follows Pierre’s routine moment-to-moment in early scenes. This is enhanced by Arlaud superlative performance. His love for his animals is deeply sincere and genuine, but his sense of comic timing also excels when Pierre has to start covering his tracks. Charuel treats the character very sincerely too. Pierre lives with his parents but the film never mocks him. When tending to his cattle, his loving strokes are beautifully human rather than odd or creepy.
This is aided by some lovely scenarios Charuel dreams up, presumably inspired by his family’s long history of farming. Wider themes do come into play, but the film’s primary concern is, unashamedly, the farming community. Pierre’s entertaining group of friends are farmers and they chat and debate their trade even during social gatherings; the film addresses the mechanised debate and values the human touch when it comes to animal care. In a way, this specificity, and avoidance of grander issues, holds Bloody Milk back from greatness, but it’s certainly an engaging curio of genre realism.
Slight, but sweet, Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera runs a mere 69 minutes and sees Isabelle Huppert play the titular divine character, as she visits the French town of Cannes and has a profound effect on the lives of three Korean film industry professionals. Manhee (played by The Handmaiden’s Kim Min-hee) has been fired from her job but returns to Cannes on new business. Her old boss is also in town and is currently dating film director So, whom Manhee has history with. Then, along comes Claire, who spends time separately with both So and the boss, and with Manhee. By showing them photos of each other taken with her Polaroid camera, she helps them to process their parting, before drawing them together to face their pasts once and for all.
Dialogue scenes play out in long takes and give the four central actors a great deal to do, especially when their scenes are in English, a common second language between all of the characters. And these sections certainly play like they’re performed in a second language. They are stilted, with long pauses and simplistic dialogue, as if improvised. As a result, some of the English language dialogue makes the characters seems child-like, but Hong uses this to comment on the petty nature of the Korean’s split. It also means that, when the characters are finally brought back together in Korean language scenes, their performances are immediately imbued with a clarity and power, despite (and ultimately because of) the language barrier with the audience. It’s a clever trick of Hong’s and turns language and comprehension into a key element of the film.
Claire’s Camera celebrates the camera and the process of image making. Photographs are presented as clarifying hindsight, providing an ability to look back and directly compare with one’s current situation. Even so, the cinematography is noticeably rudimentary. Hong regularly uses zooms, which gives the film a documentary-like aesthetic – fiction films usually physically move the camera towards or away from the subject to change the scale of the image (these are known as dolly shots). This helps the film occupy an intriguing middle ground between reality and fiction. The subtlety of the character scenes and the dialogue feels very real and creates great humour from language barriers and cross-cultural clashes. The rapport that develops between the characters is also strong. Claire’s Camera lives and dies on the interest of its characters and their undulating relationships and, by never outstaying their welcome, Hong and his cast are successful in that regard.
Claire’s Camera is out now on limited release in the US.
“It becomes difficult to get swept up in this bizarre story”
I reviewed (the Netflix furore triggering) Okja for Bloody Disgusting:
“Delves so deep into one man’s innermost self that it felt like the most monumental film at this year’s festival, and the very best”
I reviewed the stunning You Were Never Really Here for Bloody Disgusting, awarding it my first ever Editor’s Choice badge:
I dropped by the Super Bailey Bros. in Movie Land podcast to chat this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Includes my top picks, a couple to avoid; plus thoughts on Netflix, booing and Will Smith.
Listen here: http://superbaileybros.com/2017/06/02/cannes-film-festival-special-with-benedict-seal/
“the biggest bum note yet from one of the most overrated directors in the art-house world”
I reviewed The Killing of a Sacred Deer for Bloody Disgusting: