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Feast or Famine? Why Reality Television and Filmmaking Don’t Mix

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Feast or Famine? Why Reality Television and Filmmaking Don’t Mix

Last weekend marked a dubious footnote in movie history. After nearly a year’s worth of delays, Feast, a.k.a. “The Project Greenlight movie,” was finally released in theaters. Not that you heard about it. The movie was barely advertised, with much of the heavy lifting done by niche media and the internet; it was booked onto a handful of screens, predominantly in small art-house theaters in major cities. If hadn’t been charting its release myself, odds are the film would have come and gone without my realizing it.

In an industry climate where $60 million productions are left for dead by their distributors after a disappointing Friday opening, there’s nothing surprising about an inexpensive movie with questionable financial upside like Feast getting less than first-class treatment. But this is no ordinary act of disrespect. Feast was’t just dumped, it was buried—given a two week release, playing just two days of the week (Friday and Saturday) for one show per day (the latest one theater owners would allow).

Granted, each year hundreds of features—a great many better than Feast—are never even projected in front of a paying audience. Films that five years ago might have gotten snatched up for theatrical distribution after a decent debut at Sundance or Toronto limp along unnoticed before collapsing onto a shelf at Blockbuster. This article won’t address whether the treatment of Feast by its distributor was fair, but whether Feast—or for that matter, any film produced under the microscope of television cameras—has a chance at any sort of success, critical or financial.

Serving the twofold purpose of discovering new talent and providing material for an unscripted HBO series, “Greenlight” was created by actor-screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck along with producer Chris Moore (American Pie) to prove that there really were talented writers and directors outside of the Hollywood system, and that given the right guidance and resources, they could make a viable motion picture which would then be released by now-defunct Disney subsidiary Miramax. Themselves the subject of a Cinderella tale thanks to their Oscar-winning collaboration on Good Will Hunting, Damon and Affleck’s vision could have been—to borrow a hack screenwriter’s lingo—Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store meets the Powerball Lotto Jackpot.

Unfortunately, Greenlight was mostly a disaster. The three features produced by the contest—in order, Stolen Summer, The Battle of Shaker Heights and Feast—generated no buzz apart from their connection to the TV series; the first two were critical and box office flops, and the third movie’s prospects seem no less grim. The careers that were supposed to be launched into the stratosphere went down in flames, with Stolen Summer auteur Pete Jones and Shaker Heights co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle reduced to walking punchlines. Even the modestly-budgeted series that chronicled the productions was a financial loser: HBO it eventually dropped the series after season two, and Bravo picked it up for one more year, then cancelled it in May, 2005. The only Greenlight legacy is the fact that it made for addictive TV, earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Reality Program and confirmed for people across the nation that actors and filmmakers can be just as petty as the co-worker who stole your parking spot.

After cultivating two DOA titles (both glorified afterschool specials about middle-class white kids coming of age), Greenlight restructured for its third season. The mandate was sent down from on high (and you don’t get more higher than studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein): if Miramax was going to continue to bankroll Matt and Ben’s pet project, it would have to pay for itself. That meant retreating to the safer waters of genre, where budgets are capped, stars are less important and teenage boys provide a built-in core audience. Miramax’s horror division, Dimension—run by Harvey’s brother Bob Weinstein—was put in charge of Feast, while day-to-day producing duties were entrusted to Joel Soisson and Michael Leahy, veterans of such direct-to-video horror sequels as The Prophecy 3: The Ascent and Children of the Corn: Revelation. Recurring Greenlight producer Chris Moore, who ruled the previous two productions with an iron fist and a husky drawl you couldn’t help but imitate, gladly joined Damon and Affleck as an executive producer (along with grand horror Pooh-Bah Wes Craven), and seemed delighted to stop holding neophyte filmmakers’ hands.

But even at the outset of production, the Faustian bargain brokered to bring back Greenlight visibly rubbed Damon and Affleck the wrong way. As the executive producers, Soisson, Leahy and Dimension suits gathered to pick a screenplay from the top three finalists, it was universally understood that Feast—by first-time scribes Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton—was not the most original script, but represented the easiest job for Dimension’s marketing department. When Damon protested the project’s apparent compromise so early in the process, he was shouted down with taunting reminders of what happened the last time they went “all artsy.” It’s common knowledge that Hollywood lets potentially good projects wither on the vine while embracing clearly inferior ones. Project Greenlight’s choice of Feast does, however, remind us that bad films are made not just made by dolts or vulgarians, but by pragmatists angling for a sure thing. It also reaffirms that screenplay contests rarely produce great material (this is from someone who has been an administrator for years on one such contest). It’s no mean feat to circumnavigate judges with divergent backgrounds and interests who are often required to read dozens of scripts a week; a screenplay generally won’t make it to the finish line unless it’s as lowest-common-denominator as possible.

Damon (and the audience) may have been stuck with Feast, but he’d have the last laugh on the money men yet. When it came time to select the Feast’s director, Damon put his foot down and insisted on John Gulager, a chunky fortysomething wedding documentarian who used his audition time with the producers to demonstrate sound effects with his mouth. His saving grace was his reel, which demonstrated an eye for lighting and composition that clearly trumped the competition. Was Damon championing a diamond in the rough, the only candidate who could save a generic horror script obnoxiously pitched by its writers as “Evil Dead meets Diner?” Was he sabotaging the project once he realized his altruistic vision had become corrupted? Or was he acting in the show’s best interests by picking a protagonist who guaranteed nine episodes of conflict? Maybe a bit of all three—but in the end, only the last angle panned out.

Like all unscripted series, Greenlight was cast to maximize drama, something which anyone who’s spent time on a set can attest is never a given in filmmaking. Enter Gulager, whose first initiative was to pack his cast with friends and family who had acted in his short films. It takes a special kind of naïveté to think a major studio film would bankroll a film with the director’s middle-aged, live-in girlfriend as its female lead and his brother as the comic relief character, but God bless the man for trying.

However, just as Gulager was chosen partly for his on-camera eccentricity, he was also cursed with a crew and support staff guaranteed to make his life hell. First among equals was casting director Michelle Gertz (American Pie 2, Donnie Darko), who flashed a Beverly Hills smile while undermining Gulager at every turn. At the peak of her hubris, she ignored the wishes of the film’s producers and its director and offered the lead female role to her best friend, The O.C. costar Navi Rawat. (The conflict played out with underhanded behavior and throw-your-popcorn-at-the-television melodrama. Still, though, you had to wonder: on an untelevised film shoot, would a casting director be allowed to cut her bosses off at the knees?) When another actress, Krista Allen—a one-time staple of soft-core “Skin-amax” films—refused to do a nude scene, Gulager was tasked with coaxing her out of her clothes (it never happened). The film’s script supervisor Harri James, a friend of Gulager’s, was unceremoniously fired after butting-heads with the production’s smarmy assistant director. Gulager’s relationship with crotchety cinematographer Thomas L. Calloway was depicted as contentious. Why was the production allowed to carry on this way? Why did neither Leahy nor Soisson (both who struck me as even-keeled, decent men) step in to smooth things over?

Of course, that’s simply how the footage was presented. So-called “reality” series may be unscripted during shooting, but they’re scripted after the fact through editing, with raw footage assembled to reflect the preferred narrative of the show’s producers. But is it possible to put this knowledge aside when watching a series? And at what point does the editing room construct “John Gulager, bumbling director” become reality? He might have been even worse at his job than we saw, but he might also have been much better. We’ll never know, but it doesn’t matter; after watching Greenlight 3, it’s hard to imagine any producer rolling the dice on Gulager again.

When the Weinsteins parted ways with Miramax last year, they took Feast along to their new company, then bounced it around the release schedule, saddled it with the abovementioned bizarre screening pattern, and scheduled its DVD release about a month later. The movie’s producers claim the limited screenings are meant to galvanize the film’s core supporters and raise awareness for the DVD, but I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than a contractual obligation being carried out in the most perfunctory way imaginable.

After all that televised drama, Feast itself is an afterthought: a by-the-book horror film that repeatedly and pointedly reminds of of its place within “horror filmmaking mythology” (thanks a million, Kevin Williamson). Its “plot” consists of colorful stock characters getting killed in fiendish ways, and the movie remains so detached from said characters that it can’t be bothered to name them beyond vague labels (Hero, Heroine, Bossman, Grandma, etc…) that flash onscreen along with “fun facts” (”…is going to have a gruesome onscreen death in 70 minutes”) and presumed life expectancy based on genre tropes. (Needless to say, the film’s sole African-American character isn’t given the same odds as the gunslinging, stubble-faced Kurt Russell type.)

At first it’s to watch Feast subvert its own self-aware groundwork; being an adorable child or a devoted mother is no guarantee of survival. But the premise wears thin when you realize it’s the film’s sole distinction. Feast is essentially 99 minutes of the infamous Samuel L. Jackson scene from Deep Blue Sea. It wears its emotional detachment on its bloody sleeve; not only does it refuse to name its characters properly (with one notable, famous exception, which I won’t reveal because it’s the film’s best gag) but there’s no pretense of explaining what these creatures are, how many there are, or where they came from. Feast pays lip service to the standard scene where the oldest person in the joint reveals that he knows how to defeat the monsters, but the setup never pays off. That’s Feast in a nutshell: smart enough to realize how crummy it is, but too lazy to do anything about fixing it.

Most irritating of all is the film’s willingness to anoint itself a cult classic before the audience can even voice an opinion. Every visual gag seems pitched at the gorehound and stoner sects. An Ewok-sized creature humps a mounted moose head in extreme close up. One creature’s excommunicated genitalia (yes folks, a monster cock cameo) provides the lubricant for a slip-and-slide scene. Two of the creatures screw against a car, setting off a predictable car-alarm joke; how depressing is it that in a film with three beautiful actresses in cleavage-busting outfits, only the monsters are game for gratuitous sex?

It’s hard to fault Gulager for the film’s too-cool-for-school posturing (Sam Raimi on his best day couldn’t make Judah Friedlander’s Beer Guy into anything but a shrill target for gross-out gags), but his alleged strengths are nowhere in sight. It’s a lurching film that’s never quite able to pull off a set-piece. Gulager’s action scenes are often geographically incoherent and unimaginatively staged, with the camera whipping around while the editors vary the frame rate to make things even more chaotic. Gulager also never exploits the script’s few clever elements. For instance, we see the creatures can re-spawn and multiply immediately through monster sex, yet aside from a brief “Boo!” scare, this bit of information leads nowhere.

Unsurprisingly for a guy who seemed more comfortable hosing his actors down with goo and fake blood than talking to them, Gulager seems to have let his actors do whatever they wanted, even if what they wanted was to be obvious. The latter’s ranks include John Gulager’s father Clu (one of two relatives the director managed to sneak into the film) whose shit-kicking bartender barks out an unending stream of profanity and grizzled cowboy-speak with all the conviction of an old lady waffling between two soups of the day at the deli counter. (At least Rawat’s performance as “Heroine” affords Gulager a rare bit of vindication. She delivers every line in a detached, valley girl accent that begs for derisive snickering during serious scenes; when an unpleasant fate befalls her, applause may follow.)

I don’t know if Feast would have been a good movie without a video crew documenting the production’s every move, but I know I wouldn’t have spent so much time monitoring the varied lengths of star Balthazar Getty’s hair or whether Krista Allen’s nipples were poking through her tank top (I know that makes me sound like a perv, but honestly, it was a plot point on the the show). The filmmakers’ missteps would have remained speculative rather than being enshrined on a sitcom with no laugh track. It could be argued that without Greenlight, Gulager and writers Melton and Dunstan would never have a career—but between the series and the movie, what career would that be?

Moore has speculated that Greenlight is dead at this point, not because the Weinsteins are unwilling to finance the films (masochists that they are), but because no network will air the show. This is a loss for television and a bittersweet victory for movies. Aware as I am of Greenlight’s potential to harm unknown filmmakers, I could watch another 10 seasons of of Moore blowing his stack and threatening to fire the director; but as a film fan, I know this contest, in its current incarnation, will never produce a great feature (or even a good one). I love the idea of guys like Damon and Affleck helping newcomers break into the business, and I hope Greenlight’s failure won’t deter them from doing so. But some things are not meant to be dissected, manipulated and repackaged for the viewing public. If filmmaking was so inherently thrilling to observe, people might actually watch those “making of” documentaries that they slap onto DVD’s. Making a movie is hard enough without having to play to the cameras. Let’s limit reality television to less important subjects, like building houses, choosing pop singers, eating cow uteruses, and politics.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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