Philipp Jedicke’s biopic “Shut Up and Play the Piano”

Philipp Jedicke’s biopic “Shut Up and Play the Piano” about the Grammy-winning Canadian  composer, piano virtuoso and entertainer Chilly Gonzales, is a witty, self-reflexive and self-mocking documentary, which not only truthfully assembles a portrait of this megalomaniac, eccentric and attention-seeking artist, but also contemplates on our contemporary media culture.

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A biopic about someone who is still alive is never easy, especially when the character is as versatile and changeable as Chilly Gonzales. Yet I think Shut Up and Play the Piano has struck the right balance between staying true to the character, adding an extra layer of the director’s viewpoint, interweaving different levels of fictiveness, and entertaining the viewers. It truly renders justice to the artist who influenced a wide range of musicians including Feist, Jarvis Cocker, Peaches, Daft Punk and Drake. The documentary traces back to the beginning of Chilly Gonzales’ career as “Gonzales” in the Canadian music scene, his success in the Berlin underground punk scene in the late 90s, his Paris period, and then to his most recent performance in Kölner Philharmonie in bathrobe and socks. It playfully combines unpublished materials from Chilly Gonzales’ own video archive with new interview materials, footage of live concerts and fictional staged scenes. We see Gonzales’ music styles transforming from jazz, pop, to punk, rap, freestyle, electronics during his Berlin period, and further to his return to solo piano and a more mature melange between classical piano compositions and pop music sensibility, between musicality and entertainment. Being very talented at using extra-musical elements of music making to attract attention, he builds up an eccentric stage persona for himself to the extent of announcing his candidacy for President of the Berlin Underground at a press conference in 2003. He would also jump “inside” a grand piano and request surprised and stern-looking philharmonic audiences to take him crowdsurfing. The film plays along with Chilly Gonzales’ artefacts of performance art; it stages the casting of Chilly Gonzales’ search for someone who could be Chilly Gonzales and lets him interact with the recorded images of Jarvis Cocker projected on a TV screen. We are never sure when the documentary ends and when the fiction world starts, when we see Chilly Gonzales being himself and when we see him playing the role of Chilly Gonzales – all boundaries seem deliberately blurred and trespassed.

Originally published on Goethe-Institut Online Magazine.

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INTERVIEW WITH LIU JIAN: “THERE IS NO SHORT CUT.”

The first Chinese animation to enter the Competition section of the Berlinale 2017, Liu Jian’s “Have A Nice Day” (好极了) is a beautifully orchestrated black comedy about a group of unrelated people chasing a bag of cash. With stunning images, a stylish soundtrack and vivid details of everyday life, it is an animated tableau that assembles characters with different professions and priorities yet with the same desire for wealth. In two days this ground-breaking film will be released in China under a new Chinese title “大世界”. It is the therefore the opportune occasion to re-read the interview with the director Liu Jian about cinema, observation in life, and art.

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Have A Nice Day | © Nezha Bros.

The use of multiple narratives in “Have A Nice Day” and its visual style is reminiscent of other films such as Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, as well as a number of comics and animated works such as Derf Backderf’s “Trashed” and Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World”. Which films, and in particular which animation films, influence your work the most?

There is no single film that I would say influences my work the most, because I have been generally influenced by a lot of works. I started making animation films because I was inspired by Mezame No Hakobune’s Ghost in the Shell 1 – only the first one. I thought it was such a great film. After that I watched Kon Satoshi’s Tokyo Godfathers, which I really liked. That’s why I decided to devote myself to animation films. These two animation films had a great impact on me. Of course there are films by other filmmakers that I really like, such as Clint Eastwood, Takeshi Kitano, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

Can you tell us more about the two stream of consciousness segments? In one segment, when two characters who encounter each other in an elevator start talking about Shangri-La, the film cuts immediately to a musical sequence. In the other segment we see a fixed frame of waves accompanied by music for one minute.

Take the Shangri-La segment, for example. There are two layers of meaning to it. On the first level it serves a narrative purpose, while on the second it enhances the film’s aesthetics and adds something to the overall film structure. It is like adding flavourings to food while cooking. As this is a film with black humour, these elements are the strong flavours in the film. As for the long take on river waves, it is there because we need a buffer zone at that point, emotionally speaking. It is like breathing. We all need to breathe and take a break from time to time. This is the same as the concept of “leaving unpainted space” in Chinese paintings. Everyone is free to have their own interpretation. When I was creating this film, I had my own ideas but I would not tell the public what I thought. If I told you how to read the film, the film would lose its meaning, so I would encourage everyone to watch the film with an open mind.

The film is set in an unspecified city that could be any one of many different places in China. Is this intentional?

The setting is supposed to be a small town on the margins of a city in the south of China. There are a lot of similar cities in China that have outskirts like that.

The characters of Uncle Liu, the gangster boss who was the meant to be the recipient of the bag of money and his childhood friend, the painter, who has been captured by the painter because of an affair with his wife, are quite notable. At one point there’s an interesting discussion between the two about the art world being full of sarcasm and humour. Did you create the characters for reasons of self-mockery and self-reflection?

I am also a painter so I am familiar with the art scene and as such do have a deeper understanding of these characters. I can therefore portray them in a more accurate way. The other reason why I chose these characters is that I wanted to give a sense of different generations. Uncle Liu and the painter belong to the older generation in the film as compared to the other characters.

The rest of your characters are also presented in very rich detail in terms of their differences and individualities. Where did you observe them?

I did not observe them in specific places, but rather came up with the idea for them from my daily observations and own understanding of life.

While the film industry as a whole is tending to divide filmmaking into different segments, each of which is becoming increasingly specialized, you follow the opposite approach, carrying out different roles and making the film almost single-handedly. What do you think about interdisciplinary arts?

For me it is all the same. I did not have a very strong sense of crossing disciplines. Even today I still regard film art as merely one part of my artistic creation, though I do see it as the most enjoyable, challenging and worthwhile part. At its core, film art is the same as contemporary art and paintings, so what it expresses should also be the same. In other words, this is a very natural process for me.

What is your mode when you are working?

My mode is exactly the same as in big production. It’s just that there are a lot of practical matters that I need to handle myself. Things need to be done step by step. There is no short cut when making animation films. The images must be painted one by one.

Can you tell us how you started working with the producer Yang Cheng?

Yang Cheng entered this film project in 2013, though he was still working for another company at the time. Although he was very keen to promote this film project, there were some difficulties and obstacles. It was only when he founded his own company, Nezha Bros. Pictures, and had full decision-making power that our collaboration became smoother. After that the project moved forward much more quickly.

What will your next film be?

My third film is at the pre-production stage. I cannot reveal the content yet.

(Originally published on https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/en/kul/sup/b17/20929286.html)

Almost Like a Trance: “Ghost in the Mountains” of Yang Heng

A migrant worker returns to his hometown, a godforsaken region strewn with ruined buildings and forlorn-looking streets, which feels more like a ghost town than home.

Ghost in the Mountains

Visually stunning and narratively intriguing, Heng Yang’s Ghost in the Mountains is a beautiful meditative process. The film is set against the backdrop of mystic mountains, sometimes sunny and sometimes misty. Lao Liu, a middle-aged man who has worked in big cities for decades, suddenly returns to his hometown. Here, in a place now populated by the elderly and adolescents, he chain-smokes and binge-drinks with an old buddy, visits the tomb of a deceased friend and meets up with his childhood sweetheart who is about to marry a wealthy elderly man in the south. The settings feel at once realistic yet otherworldly; we accompany Lao Lius as he wanders among deserted ruins, alongside the picturesque lake, inside hermitic caves deep in the mountains, and to local restaurant-bars piled high with empty beer bottles. Using predominantly medium to long shots, the camera avoids getting too close to faces and objects, creating instead a theatrical stage upon which characters appear contrapuntally. The camera pans very calmly and at times panoramically to reveal the off-screen space. Although some of the film’s themes, such as crime, violence, adultery or death, might invite a faster pace of filming, Ghost in the Mountains does not want to rush at all. It composes each frame in a picturesque and painterly way, and allows us to enter a meditative, trance-like state.

Another thing that evokes a sense of meditation is the film’s circular and parallel narrative structure. Whereas Lao Liu and his friends could represent the future for the young delinquents in the village, are these teenagers their past or perhaps their re-embodiment and reincarnation? With much intentional ambiguity and fluidity, the film merely provokes thoughts and poses questions without attempting to provide answers.

There are some very zen moments that I particularly like, such as when we see two chairs face to face in front of a leafless trees, or when two characters are depicted standing on a veranda that defines the space with its various geometric lines. With cleverly orchestrated scenes such as these, Ghost in the Mountains beautifully illustrates a popular Chinese saying: “lift something heavy with the same ease as you lift something light”. It is uncomfortable to see how regional wealth divide is an everyday reality or to watch gratuitous crimes committed, yet there is also a great deal of lightness in the film, such as in the way absurd moments are made humorous and ruins are reclaimed by nature.

Originally published on Goethe Intitut: goethe.de

Filmstill © Yang Heng | „Ghost in the Mountains“

A DISORIENTING AND DISORIENTED WORLD: “THE FOOLISH BIRD”

(To celebrate “The Foolish Bird”‘s winning of the Best Artistic Discovery at the 11th First International Film Festival in Xining, China, I am reposting my review which was originally published during the Berlinale on Goethe-Institut’s online magazine.)

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Co-directed by Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka, “The Foolish Bird” portrays the left-behind teenager Lynn who cruises through life in a society where only money and smartphones matter.

The Foolish Bird is one of two films in this year’s Berlinale programme which has been co-directed by a culturally mixed couple. Just like the Georgian story My Happy Family, which is directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili from Georgia and Simon Groß from Germany, this film by Chinese director Huang Ji and Japanese director Ryuji Otsuka is a beautiful demonstration of how cinema transcends borders of culture and language.

The 16-year-old Lynn, living with her grandparents and three much younger cousins, spends her time hanging out in internet cafes and trying to earn a little extra pocket money. Her mother runs a business in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai and only ever comes back when sheencounters financial difficulties and needs to borrow money from a former classmate. Meanwhile, the town is haunted by an unresolved case of rape murder.

In this town full of unemployed people, the elderly are scammed out of their savings by tricksters who sell supposed “high-tech” health care products and promise additional free gifts and prestige. At the same time, the teens are straggling in their own existential rat race. In Lynn’s world it seems like everything can be achieved with a smartphone in hand and there’s nothing that cannot be bought with money. The smartphone becomes synonymous with social class and power, and is even used as a tool for revenge. Since everything is consumable, school fails to defend the education, home does not offer much warmth, a bus becomes a black market, the police station where stolen smartphones are pushed and a hair salon can turn into a trap. All these details are occasionally messy, but they are well-observed with profound social awareness. Through Lynn’s perspective enhanced by intense close-ups and a colour palette which alternates according to the time of the day, there is a strong sense of dysfunctional places and misplaced relationships. Lynn hides her face behind her long straight hair most of the time. When riding a bike alone on an empty street in misty darkness, her silhouette reveals her loneliness and persistence, as well as tinting the film with a touch of thriller feeling.

In The Foolish Bird, Lynn’s grandfather hunts birds to perform shamanism for families who wish to have babies and to give to people as presents or bribes. This by no means makes the birds foolish animals, but they do occasionally get trapped in a disorienting and disoriented world.

A JOURNEY BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH

(While the filmmaker Carol Salter is about to go to Shanghai International Film Festival to present Almost Heaven, it is a good opportunity to introduce this brilliant documentary film again.)

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“Almost Heaven” – a tender coming-of-age documentary about young undertakers at a funeral home in Hunan Province.

Like many teenagers who have to move to urban areas for work, 17-year-old Ying Ling left the village where she grew up to become an undertaker at one of China’s largest funeral homes in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. While training to qualify, she lives in the shared dormitory and learns from the elders (who are in fact only a couple of years older). The documentary’s focus on undertakers and its frank depiction of dead bodies on screen are doubtless unusual, but at no time does it feel disrespectful or inappropriate. There are even some moments of humour, which may well turn out to be the most memorable of this year’s Berlinale. For example, at one point Ying Ling’s classmate is lying on the undertaker’s table, playing the role of the corpse during a practice funeral. Half-way through the ceremony, the initially silent “corpse” suddenly opens his mouth to jokingly complain that his face has been rubbed for too long and that his arm was not massaged affectionately enough. The abrupt “revival” of the dead and the “corpse’s” witty remarks cause the audience to burst out laughing. This is precisely where the film’s magic lies; for all that it pays due respect to death, it equally celebrates and appreciates the joy of life.

It is impressive that the British filmmaker Carol Salter managed to obtain permission from the funeral directors and their clients. In a documentary which elegantly handles some of life’s most difficult themes, we see how an extended machine arm lifts a coffin upwards to the ceremonial room, as if reaching up into celestial space; how funeral readings are rehearsed; how different families express their feelings; how prices are negotiated next to the deceased, and how undertakers attempt to kill mosquitos with an electric fly swat. We also get to see close-ups of the deceased, including shots of their toe nails being trimmed, their faces being made up, their arms being wiped and their hair being combed. The film also provides close-up shots of living bodies, with Ying Ling asking obsessive questions about her colleague’s extra-long eye lashes and the ritualistic putting-on and taking-off of plastic gloves.

I discussed this film in great detail with my fellow film critics after the press screening, and we were all happy to admit that we had wept during the film. It is difficult to explain our tears. Maybe it is because the film struck a chord in our hearts when we saw the departure of loved ones? Or perhaps we are not used to contemplating the mortality of our bodies and existence on earth? Almost Heaven juxtaposes life and death, and it seems as if we’ve almost forgotten that this is also how nature presents life to us.

(Originally published on Goethe Institut)

Interview with Joanna Hogg about Exhibition (2013)

With her third feature film Exhibition, acclaimed British director Joanna Hogg explores new possibilities of film space. A surreal drama about a couple trying to sell their London townhouse, the film moves towards a less linear narrative structure to give audiences more freedom of interpretation.

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The interplay between exhibition and exhibitionism, as well as between the process of envisaging an art installation and film as an art installation is especially interesting in Exhibition. Would you like to say a little bit more about that?

JH: Actually the idea of the film as an exhibition came later on when I was editing. I never find the title for my film until much later. When I have a little bit of distance from it, I can see or start to see what it is and what it has become. The fact that this film was about this play between between exhibition and exhibitionism became more clear to me when we were editing. Up until that point I was focusing on the idea of the house, which is like a gallery space too, as a container for all the ideas, the dreams and the memories, the life of this married couple.

The house is a very interesting setting in Exhibition. D wears clothes in stripes of different kinds all the time and in a way the house is like a prison but at the same time it is their relationship which is imprisoning sometimes. What do you think about the house?

JH: Both a prison but also a haven, it’s also a place to escape to and to feel safe in. I was always interested in the idea of the house and the story being inside-out. The idea of stripes came less from the idea of the prison because they are horizontal lines rather than vertical ones. It’s more that she was becoming part of the house, as the windows blinds are horizontal. It’s almost like she is becoming part of the architecture and she disappeared into a house. But yes, it is also a prison and she was trying to leave the confines of the house.

Her body movement and interaction with furniture and objects play into that as well, as she interacts a lot more with furniture and objects than with her partner…

JH: In a way she is in a relationship with the house. That’s an easier relationship for her than the relationship with her husband, which is more challenging, as she exposes more of her self than with her husband. With the house they sort of melt into each other, and they become the same thing. I was always interested in the story about the three characters, or maybe you could even say one character, the house. The house is the main character, the main idea, and everything else exists within that.

What is different from your previous films is the fact that you used a lot of dream and recollection images in Exhibition, which are like ghostly presence in the house and which intrude into their reality.

JH: Yes, this was something I was experimenting with for the first time. My other two films, in a way, are just on one level of the reality. Here I was challenging myself to work with, first of all, the less linear structure, but also to incorporate dreams and memories. It was the house itself that sort of provided me with the idea or was the springboard for those ideas. I was interested in not just presenting dreams as you often have in the dream, where you have a dream sequence but having more of a confusion between what’s dream and what’s reality. In a funny sort of way the two previous films, **Unrelated** and **Archipelago** kind of seem more real but actually this [Exhibition] feels like a more realistic depiction of my own life or how dream is life in some level and how one is constantly dreaming and remembering but is also in the present moment as well. So it is a more accurate representation of that somehow. For me it is more realistic.

 As you are using more dream images in Exhibition, does that change your relationship and the film’s relationship with the spectator in a way?

JH: Yes it does. What I discovered is that it is more challenging for the audience to enter that space and to understand it, so I often have a response, such as “I sort of don’t get it” or “I am kind of not in there”. But I also have the opposite response, which is audience who really understand it and get it. They either enter into the space or they don’t. There doesn’t seem to be a mid-way point. That’s interesting, as right now I am in Lithuania presenting all three films and I am observing the different responses to each film. For example, for the Q&A for Unrelated and Archipelago, especially Archipelago actually, everyone wants to stay for the Q&A. With Exhibition, half of the audience left. I have to accept. That’s just how it is. I don’t think that necessarily tells me that I should go back to making films like Unrelated and Archipelago but I am just dealing with something more challenging. But because it is less linear as a story and there’s less of a story, I mean I think there is a lot of story in Exhibition personally, but I think the audience finds that more difficult to sort of see it. Yes I am not disheartened by that but just accept that there is a different kind of response to each film. Despite that I want to continue exploring different ways of not just telling stories but depicting how I observe life to be.

Is that the direction which you want to go for your next project?

JH: It’s really hard to say. At the moment I am working on a story set in early 1980s and it’s quite a personal story and in fact, there is quite a lot of events in it, but I am not necessarily going to talk about these events in a linear way, but I am not necessarily going to continue in the direction of where Exhibition has gone to. I don’t know because I am writing it and like to challenge myself, so I might find myself in a very different direction. I might find this new film will have a very strong narrative. That’s not because I am looking for that, but it might just naturally come out from these memories I have, this period of time that I want to depict.

You are exploring women’s sexuality in such a subtle way which is difficult to be seen in male filmmakers’ works. What do you think about the role as a female filmmaker in a male-dominated industry?

JH: It’s important that there should be more female filmmakers as there is a tiny percentage of them at the moment. It’s important to me to explore themes that are personal to me, maybe not just as a woman but as a human being. I definitely found in the reception of my films, especially Unrelated the first one, which was dealing with a kind of taboo subject in a way, which is the menopause. I found definitely certain male audience members finding that difficult or finding that in some way that’s something they don’t want to look at or think about. I am aware that there is a sort of limitation in this kind of subject from a male point of view. I have to say that I think less about being a female filmmaker now than when I was directing television. That was an issue in an everyday way, where I was often working with male crews who clearly had a problem with the woman telling what they wanted. That was continually a problem working in television series, so in a different world. Having done that for 12 years, I came out of that, determined to create my own world of filmmaking where I could choose who worked with me, who the crew members were, who the cast were. To feel safe in an environment of my own making. It’s less a problem now so I think about it less. I only think about it in a more political way in terms of how many women assist men in making films, and I want to encourage more women to find their own voices, less in the way in a way that I am actually touching myself. Like I say, I am protecting myself from that.

(A shorter version of this interview was published on Exberliner.)