New York Film Festival: Cinema as introspection
The writer gives us a glimpse of the ongoing 58th New York Film Festival
About halfway through Nicolás Pereda's Fauna, the film takes an audacious turn. Surreal in effect, not necessarily in execution, the characters and their landscape transform into a film (from a book) within the film. Luisa (Luisa Pardo) arrives at her hometown with her boyfriend Paco (Francisco Barreiro) — both actors by profession — and meet her brother Gabino (Gabino Rodriguez) along the way. These parts are unimpressive but also funny in a muted, dark way as Luisa's idiosyncratic family warms up to Paco. Her father doubts Paco's talent and asks him to audition in the thinly packed bar. Several times. Luisa too is insecure about her acting abilities. Barreiro has had a substantial role in Narcos: Mexico and this is not lost on Pereda. There is a direct reference, a mirror held to the world that sees Mexico through such pop-culture artefacts. Luisa soon asks Gabino about a book he's reading, and he begins to explain when the tonal shift occurs.
It's as if Paco's performance within the performance of Barreiro is a prelude to everything that follows. Pereda quickly transports these actors into a different terrain, they are in a motel and the character played by Gabino is looking for a mythical man named Rosendo Mendieta. The roles are reversed. Gabino in the motel is circumspect, naive and anxious — with what looks like an intentionally bad wig (he is bald as Luisa's brother) — while Gabino in the hometown is assertive, standoffish, but also resigned to himself. Flora (Luisa again) and Paco are more confident in their roles, a complete opposite of how we know them to be. Luisa even recruits the gullible Gabino to play a part in a drama she wants to enact for her sister — Fauna.
The film doesn't shy away from turning into a coil of self-reflexivity, and even the story within the story references characters from each other — we hear about a miners' strike in which the local waitress's father was killed. We also learn that Gabino was drunk, walking in between miners going to work on dirt bikes. Fauna is like a walk through a maze, where we keep going in circles and there are mirrors on all sides.
In Song Fang's The Calming, Lin Tong (Xi Qi) walks a lot. Alone. She walks home alone, she walks to the railway station alone, she is alone in the supermarket aisle, she is on the train and ferry alone, eats by herself at a restaurant, and she hikes through forests alone. She walks away from a crowded store after pausing for a minute on the road.
The Calming is pensive, wistful even, in its long passages of silence, otherwise filled only by ambient sounds. Its world is sparse, stripped off people. In a way, it resembles the locked down cities of 2020 with not a life in sight in public spaces. Lin Tong, a documentary filmmaker, is suffering through the aftermath of a bad breakup. But life still brims in the film, crawling and surviving, one with nature and weather. We begin in the winters of Japan, where Lin arrives for the screening of her film, and then move to the spring and summer of China. It's almost counter-intuitive how her solitude is starker in the summer than during winter.
Later, her mother solves that puzzle - "You always loved the snow." The mourning period is going to last a while, but it is receding as she spends more time with her parents, talking about couples growing old together and taking — what else — walks with them. I wondered why Lin had to be a documentary filmmaker but then the scenes where she's editing her footage are where she's immersed in peace. Loneliness might be an ailment, but it is also a time to reflect and becomes its own cure in The Calming, that revels in stationary life filmed in smooth, fluid visuals.
As always, there's nothing fluid in Jafar Panahi's new short film Hidden. A mobile phone camera on the dashboard of the car he's driving and another mobile phone in the hands of his daughter in the backseat. They are joined by his daughter's friend, who has asked Mr Panahi to help her with something in a village just outside the city. We move from heavy traffic to the arid lands in shaky frames captured by the phones. They are going to the village to convince a talented girl to sing in the friend's play, a play with only women crew. It feels like Panahi's 3 Faces shortened to 18 minutes. And then the friend goes, "This is just like your 3 Faces!" But that was cinema, this is reality, he says. Is it? Maybe Nicolás Pereda can answer.