NZ IFF 2020 Day 1

Film festivals have been hard-hit by COVID-19. My favourite NZ French Film Festival had only just gotten underway when the country went into level 4; there wasn’t much the NZ FFF could do about that (although I will note that while one of the theatres that I had booked tickets at refunded them unprompted, Penthouse didn’t), but the NZ IFF folks spend L4 working out what to do. Their response was to focus on pulling together their “at-home” response; that is to say, a streaming setup.

Since New Zealand pulled together, for the most part, on not being idiots about this (David Seymour, Plan B, and a handful of other cretins aside) we’re back in Level 1, but online-first (and for some films, online-only) is the experience this year. I’m impressed with how quickly they’ve been able to stand things up, although the booking system has been a pile of frustration and confusion, with it being extremely unclear which films have what limitations around their rental window expiring (some 2 days! Some mere hours!) or whether or not there are limits to the number of tickets to the stream.

The streaming itself, happily, has been more successful than the confusion of the booking system; while I’m a little disappointed that it’s limited to 1080p (with only a 5 Mbps bit rate) and stereo sound, the streams themselves are solid and reliable. Boo for not having an AppleTV app or working with the XBox Edge browser, either of which would be a great deal more convenient than hooking my laptop up to the AV receiver.

Those caveats aside, let’s dive into some films.

Suk Suk

Suk Suk is the story of two aging gay men in Hong Kong. Pak is a taxi driver, married, a man who escaped from the mainland in his youth, and has lived what would be the dream for those of his generation - after years spent labouring, he earned enough to buy his own taxi and has spent the last 20 years raising his family; a son who is doing well enough to support him if he retires; a daughter who is just now marrying to a young man who will take over the taxi - but all is not perfect in his world: his wife is unhappy with his easy-going manner, and, of course, he is a deeply closeted homosexual. His world is cruising toilets for anonymous sex, and he he no connection with the broader gay community in Hong Kong, until he chances on another man, Hoi, who demurs his initial advance, demanding that “we must be friends first”.

The latter’s life is very different: a self-confessed “terrible husband”, his wife left him with their son many years ago. He has raised they boy into a man who is married, well-to-do, and has his father live with the family in his retirement in the traditional fashion. And while he remains deeply closeted, he has a community: a long-time patron of Hong Kong bathhouses, he is at ease with the aging gay community of his generation, with friends and lovers. He adores and tries to spoil his grand-daughter, and has managed to create an emotionally and sexually fulfilling life split between his desires and his family duties.

But all is not well there, either: his son is an extremely socially conservative Christian convert, and his wife likewise. The boy is domineering over wife, daughter, and father, the last of whom lives with the fear that he will be cut off should his secret be known. He lives on a knife-edge between his community - who, inspired by younger generations of gay men, are agitating for a gay rest home and other recognition - and his fear of a son who is in many ways vastly more regressive than the society around them.

These tensions, and the very different experience of homosexuality between the lovers, are the heart of the film, and deliver moments by turn beautiful, as Hoi brings Pak into a world of love, affection, and tenderness that he has never before know, and poignant or even outright painful, as the two of them collide, individually and together, against the limits of their lives and the times in which they live.

This is a lovely, slow moving film.

La Vérité/The Truth

The contrast between two of my favourite actresses - Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Hupert - is on show with Deneuve’s role here; while Hupert roams over a tremendous variety of roles, relentlessly exploring new ways to test herself, Deneuve delivers a brilliant performance exploring a life that could be her own, with a performance honed to perfection. Here, she is Fabienne, an aging grande dame of French cinema, and the film opens with the arrival of Lumir, her daugher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter’s family - American bit-part actor Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their daughter Charlotte.

When the film commences we are treated to the obvious contempt Fabi has for her son-in-law, the roles she’s offered, and the younger actresses who might dare to be compared to her, or her deceased friend, the latter of whom clearly casts a shadow over Fabi’s career and her relationship with Lumir. We do not know what happened, and unwinding this is one of the major threads of the story, but it is clear that it is one of the things poisoning their distant relationship.

Another is Fabi’s autobiography, about to be published. A monument to her ego, and to her delusions, Lumir is furious to discover it contains a rich and entirely fabricated history of Fabi as a caring and devoted mother who mixed an attentive motherhood with her acting genius. Fabi is uninterested in Lumir’s rage: it is a story about her, and if the cast of her life are unhappy with her memories and the role they play in them, she does not see that as being her problem. At all.

At the same time we have the device of a film within a film: Fabi has been invited to play the role in a science fiction movie where the lead is an admirier of her, and also being spoken of as “the new Susan”, her dead friend. While Fabi finds the comparison odious, she takes on the role, and it is one of the bearings upon which the film pivots our understanding od Fabi and Lumir’s lives, and the lives of their intimates: the sci-fi film concerns a woman who, in order to avoid dying young, must live in space, visiting her husband and daughter every 7 years. Fabi plays the daughter at 73, as they say good bye for what is to be the last time, the mother ageless, untouched, while the daughter marches towards the end of her life.

This is the device that unpicks our characters: Lumir’s certitude about the wrongs of her mother, her happy but perhaps average life in the face of her mother’s brilliance; her mother’s conviction of her own brilliance and the profound rightness of her every decision, no matter how heartless, to persue her absolute commitment to acting. The truths that are revealed are decidedly more complex than the simple set-up that we are offered, and the film becomes a rich exploration of the trickery of memory, ambition, and legacy.

Relic

Relic premiered at 21h. By then the rest of the family were in bed upstairs, and I was watching it in my home theatre space downstairs1. This was… a mistake.

When people talk about “great super-hero movies” they tend to try to big up one of the big-budget Marvel movies, or Nolan’s Batman films, but after I saw Logan, these aren’t even in the same discussion. Logan was a breathtaking use of genre fiction to examine more weighty topics through the medium of stabbing people in the face with adamantium claws.

I jest, but Logan was and is a standout movie: it deals with aging, with families of choice and blood. The horrors of dementia, particularly in a man long admired for his intellect. The fear of failure of a son for adopted father, and a father for the ways in which he has let down his children. The fear of responsibility. No small feat, then, to tackle topics which are often individually the stuff of Serious Film, and to do so while honouring and respecting the genre conventions and characters the film is using to explore them.

Logan is what comes to mind with Relic because it is an abolutely masterful exploration of complex, sophisticated themse weaved into the fabric of the horror genre. Now, to be fair, horror is a genre with is generally rich in theme: so much of the genre is picking on an anxiety point and dressing it up as a monster so that we look at it without having to confront it too directly. Whether you think of the alcoholism and family violence that permeates The Shining, the misogyny of Carrie, the meditations on what it means to be an outsider or the dominant culture in I am Legend, the ruminations on womanhood and madness in The Haunting of Hill House, the pregnancy metaphors of Alien… I could go on, but I won’t. It is not, therefore, especially unusual for horror to tackle weighty topics, but it’s also common for them to be rather blunt instruments in doing so.

Relic, on the other hand, is a stiletto that stabs into your anxieties again and again: about age, about responsibilities for parents, or madness, or the weight of care and gender and the uneven burdens we live with. It is light, darting little cuts again and again.

Much of what makes the film so successful is that it is so very true to the sad progress of degenerative disorders. Dementia, alzheimers, the label doesn’t matter, but the notes Sam keeps finding all over the house, as Edna strives to remind herself how to cope with simple day-to-day tasks? They are heart-wrenchingly true. But on the other hand, it uses the same device to perfectly create the tension of a fine horror film, with Sam finding increasingly disturbing commentary on grandma’s notes that impluy something even darker than age or infirmity at work.

Relic’s exploration of gender roles deepens where-ever you look: the local cop, the search and rescue, the neighbour, all men, are there for her when she’s missing or eccentric, but when the degree to which she has become difficult, they quickly withdraw, leaving Kay and Sam, daughter and grand-daughter, to care for Edna.

There are meditations, too, on how we think about elder care: we see Kay explore the possibility of a home, while Sam is outraged at the idea of fobbing Edna off on strangers, rather than moving in with Kay. But Edna’s own father-in-law stayed at home, and was left to rot there. There are, the film spells out, no simple answers (and we get those gender roles again; Edna’s husband leaves his rather to fall apart while providing a cottage on the property, while Edna’s child and grandchild want to care for her).

For me the most brilliant sequence of the film comes towards the end: as Sam is driven through a harrowing, claustrophic experience with the rotting house, the audience (well, this part of it, anyway) can comfort itself with the assurance that the house is, of course, merely a metaphor for grandma’s degenerating faculties, and that everything will be all right. Monsters aren’t real. They can’t hurt you.

The audience is wrong.

And the sequence encapsulates so much of what is brilliant about Relic: it whips you from metaphor to supernatural horror again and again to unsettle you, to make you jump, and ultimately, to make you think.

You must see it. Just maybe not alone, late at night.


  1. Yes, I am aware how incredibly bougie that sounds and I don’t care because I can’t hear you over the sound of my powered speakers.
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