Two very different exercises in you-are-there, both from Russia: Sergei Loznitsa’s black-and-white archival documentary The Event (Grade: B-) and Ilya Naishuller’s live-action first-person shooter Hardcore (Grade: C). The Belarusian-born, Ukrainian-raised, German-based Loznitsa’s latest is so squarely a companion piece to both his seminal Siege Of Leningrad documentary Blockade and his recent, much-ballyhooed Maidan that one can’t help but resist both comparisons, and instead try to take on The Event as a record of how people looked, dressed, and walked at a moment now deemed historically important. (Admittedly, this is also an important part of Maidan and especially Blockade; so much for that.)
The title, which smacks of Eastern Bloc sci-fi, refers to the August Putsch, the failed coup d’état which occurred just months before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union. Loznitsa’s angle is oblique; all of the footage used here was shot in Leningrad, rather than Moscow, where the coup attempt occurred. These people are, in other words, at once in a historic episode and outside of it, building barricades and reading speeches in preparation for a moment that would never come to them. (Key moment: An offscreen voice shouting “Volodya! Volodya!” to a man who turns out to be Vladimir Putin, then an advisor to the mayor’s office.) Offhand and minor by design, the footage collected in The Event still probably qualifies as a major resource on the atrocious perms, math-teacher mustaches, owlish glasses, and windbreaker jackets that defined the Soviet Union in its final years.
“Like watching someone else play a video game” has become a go-to dis for effects-heavy action flicks, but it’s pretty much the whole selling point of Naishuller’s movie, which was shot with GoPros mounted to a stuntman’s head. The problem—aside from the nausea factor—is that said video game isn’t very good, being a generic super-soldier shooter with sub-Duke Nukem humor. Naushuller’s slavish reproduction of modern-day game design tics (silent protagonist, last-second waypoint changes, etc., etc.) is fascinating in its own way, though, like most experiments in big-screen first-person perspective, Hardcore is kind of a technical failure. (In my row alone, five people had to leave due to motion sickness.)
Aside from a mind-control dance sequence lifted wholesale from Neveldine & Taylor’s Gamer, the best moments in this feature-length novelty viral video are the ones where the crappy 720p video quality gets completely whacked out on rapid motion and sputters out into banded abstract blurs that look like something out of Wavelengths, TIFF’s avant-garde program. Of course, Hardcore has a Wavelengths counterpart in the first-person game—May We Sleep Soundly (Grade: B-), a 14-minute piece by Canadian director Denis Côté (Vic + Flo Saw A Bear) that plays like the world’s most beatific home invasion thriller.
Côté’s camera adopts the perspective of a silent figure creeping into houses on a winter afternoon, occasionally prodding open doors to spy on the inhabitants, all slumbering comfortably under thick blankets; sometimes, it encounters cats. It’s one of a handful of Wavelengths titles I find myself catching up with in TIFF’s screener library, which is located in the basement of a hotel and resembles a high school computer lab even more than the average festival press lounge. It’s here that I find myself regretting that I couldn’t first see Peter Tscherkassky’s The Exquisite Corpus (Grade: A-)—which finds the Austrian filmmaker shredding and warping vintage Euro porn flicks into a deranged collage of motions—on the big screen. (One highlight of many: Bits of a presumably overlong shot of man running his hand up a woman’s skirt—source unknown, but seemingly mid-1970s—layered over each other, creating a pulsating jellyfish of erotic outlines.)
Tscherkassky’s unique style of deconstructing and re-printing movies into shimmers is often nightmarish, and here he uses the stiff, stilted motions of skin flicks to create explosions of mechanical sex. (The uninitiated are hereby advised to acquaint themselves with Outer Space, Tscherkassky’s take on the 1982 horror film The Entity.) A zipper moves up and down in triplicate while awkwardly postured, merkin-clad nudes cross frame like ghosts of turn-ons past.
The African warlord as Fagin figure: Beasts Of No Nation (Grade: B-) finds pre-teen soldiers clinging to the Commandant (Idris Elba, very good), a child molester leading a unit in an unspecified civil war. Cary Fukunaga’s studied designer seriousness is the closest thing the director has to a signature, and like his severely muted adaptation of Jane Eyre, this is a collection of tasteful aesthetic choices (long takes, a Tangerine Dream-by-way-of-M83 synth score, etc.) than rarely mature into meaningful expressive qualities, the exception being a deliberately anti-climactic ending—changed from Uzodinma Iweala’s source novel—that leaves the movie in a state of unresolved suspense.
Alternately gruesome and restrained, Beasts is impressive mostly for its professionalism, which probably isn’t the quality needed in a movie that signals its child protagonist’s disaffection by having him shoot a woman he mistakes for his mother in the head before his buddies are done raping her. It’s a vision of hell without anguish, with Fukunaga deliberately structuring the movie so that it depends as little on its young cast as possible. There are plenty of pretty handheld shots of child soldiers staring out while sitting in Toyota Hiluxes, and Elba is typically charismatic, but what’s missing is a sense of risk—a quality Marco Bellocchio’s decidedly more minor and less fully realized Blood Of My Blood (Grade: B-) has in spades, connecting a story about a vampire-like racketeer (shades of Black Mass) with a 17th century tale about a soldier who has to get a woman to confess to being a witch in order to keep his brother from being buried in “the donkey cemetery.”
Less florid and operatic than the Italian filmmaker’s Vincere and Dormant Beauty, Blood Of My Blood cracks with out-there touches, be it the recurring use of a choral cover of “Nothing Else Matters” on the soundtrack or the decision to shoot the final scenes in bleary, mid-2000s-style digital video; it’s just that it doesn’t add up to all that much. However, no project at TIFF seemed riskier than Tsai Ming-liang’s Afternoon (Grade: B+), a 137-minute conversation between the director and his best friend/onscreen alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng, shot in a dilapidated farm house and presented with only three cuts.
The Taiwanese filmmaker’s stark, locked-in films (Stray Dogs, Good Bye, Dragon Inn) have never made much use of dialogue, operating mostly on the level of gesture; this project, which could have easily been little more than a Blu-ray special feature, is part therapy session, part self-intervention, with the anxious Tsai using the excuse of a film crew to force himself to ask his leading man (and, it turns out, housemate) questions that seem to have nagged him for years. (“Will you cry when I die?”, “Do you ever hate me?”, “My sexual orientation: Has it ever bothered you?”, ”How do you like my cooking?”)
The experience is clearly difficult for both—with Tsai sobbing before the 10-minute mark, and Lee often locking up into an empty stare—but what it ends up presenting is a portrait of the unique, complicated relationship between a queer artist and the largely silent, sports-car-fixated straight collaborator who used to anxiously wait for him outside of bath houses and cruising spots. The pair barely discuss their own movies—or anyone else’s, for that matter. Instead, Tsai—who does three-quarters of the talking, letting the laconic Lee crack the occasionally deadpan joke—extrapolates on his anxieties about death, his deeply-held Buddhist beliefs, and his complicated feelings toward Lee. Not for everyone, Afternoon risks self-indulgence and comes out with insight.