[Editor's Note: Our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]
Just like Toronto 2011 and many festivals over the past year, the digital evolution stumbled big when VIFF scheduled numerous DCP (Digital Cinema Projection, the gold standard of high definition digital cinema) screenings in the Granville 7, the biggest house in the Granville multiplex, only to be left high and dry with two faulty projectors. Yes, the emergency system flown in to replace the first also failed to work and in place of high quality, 4K DCP prints, audiences were left with projected DVD screeners (complete with company watermarks) of some of the most heavily attended films of the first weekend. I sat through one but couldn't do it a second time when The Front Line came out bleary and blurry, with colors off and an incorrect aspect ratio. Some of those problems were fixed a few minutes after I ducked out, I've been informed, but it's still an inadequate substitute for what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art digital presentation. I've adjusted my Sunday schedule accordingly to skip the DCP presentations entirely (unless I hear that the system has been repaired) and look to other theaters. Meanwhile, here are some quick notes on what I saw on Saturday, October 1, my second day at VIFF.
The Color Wheel (U.S, dir: Alex Ross Perry): After leaving The Front Line, I went small screen for this block of time via a DVD screener. Low budget, B&W, what they once called mumblecore until the term finally died its deserved death, it's the kind of bickering sibling road trip comedy you usually get between competitive brothers, and sometimes between two sisters. That this is a brother/sister pair of estranged siblings (played by director Alex Ross Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) already gives it a distinctive chemistry. That they can make such unpleasant specimens of humanity so entertaining is a feat in itself, and the low-key approach to character comedy and situational disasters is refreshing. The improvisational method is apparent in stumbled lines and often awkward exchanges, but its also the spontaneous quality that defines the characters: they are simply not as clever, smooth or smart as they think they are.
Mr. Tree (China, dir/scr: Han Jie): Mr. Tree is Shu (which is also the Chinese term for tree, according the film). He's what would once have been called the village idiot: likable, slow, borderline mentally handicapped, prone to drink too much and ill-equipped to take care of himself in this inland village transforming into a mining town. His story is set against the changing landscape of China, physical and economic, and as the provincial village gets swallowed by the new business (run by a gangster of a mine manager), Shu slips into battering memories, ghosts of past traumas and fantasies of importance. On the one hand he's a modern portrait of the crazy man as village mystic, on the other a drop-out slipping through the cracks of society, all in a visually graceful style (full of gliding cameras and gorgeous crane shots) and an impressionistic, at times choppy narrative style, which all but unravels by the end as his subjective life spins farther out of the objective situation. And seriously, has there ever been a Chinese mining town drama with a sunny outlook on the future? Produced by Jia Zhang-ke.
Sauna on Moon (China, dir/scr: Zou Peng): Another portrait of the new business culture of China, this one set in a sauna and massage parlor with benefits in Macau, the growing vacation center of southern China. This isn't the den of drug addicts and indentured women imprisoned by gangsters but a modern business run by a hard-working boss who is more manager than pimp. In this new culture, the old ways of strong-arm tactics are a thing of the past and swept away by both the girls and the cops, who have a piece of the business action. Boss Wu (Wu Yuchi) is quite the entrepreneur—he ingeniously concocts new offerings that minimize actual sexual contact between the girls and the customers while maximizing show-business spectacle—and his girls, in particular his den mother Li, are partners pulled together by social events and team-building exercises. This is less a classic narrative than snapshots of a life in progress, the old brothel model being remade as a modern business and a communal effort: just one big, happy family that happens to be in the sex trade. And making quite a go of it too.
For a complete schedule and other information, visit the VIFF website.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. His work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and Senses of Cinema, among other publications. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.