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April 25, 2021

What Little Writing I Have Salvaged from 2020

 It appears the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has spent the last 14 months watching the same six to twelve films. There were a lot more out there. I have spent eons writing about the films of 2020, but through technical disasters have lost untold hours of it. Here's what little is left (and the images will probably not come through):


Our Time Machine (China)

The opening title card quotes H.G. Wells: "We all have our time machine, don't we. Those that take us back are memories... and those that carry us forward are dreams."

Had my dear friend, painter Vikki Fields, not recommended this 86-minute Chinese film to me, I might never have watched this remarkably moving film, and what a loss that would have been. This has to be one of the most artistically profound films of 2020. “Our Time Machine,” co-directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang, chronicles the herculean effort of Shanghai artist and puppeteer Maleonn to realize a production of his theatrical puppet creation in honor of his father, Ma Ke, who was director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater and responsible for a remarkable 80 productions during his prolific career -- but is now a victim of Alzheimer’s. Maleonn’s wood and metal and nuts and bolts and found object puppets have a bit of a Steam Punk aesthetic, but they are perhaps more compellingly, emotionally life-like than any puppets ever created. The stage production that ultimately ensues is heartrendingly magical. A stunning meditation on creativity, art, love and legacy.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The Mole Agent (Chile)


 In this fascinating semi-documentary, Maite Alberrdi enlists octogenarian Sergio Chamy as an undercover detective to infiltrate a nursing home and investigate possible abuse. What he encounters is anything but abuse. Rather he finds a loving, supportive community of which he becomes the most integral part. One of the most touching films of the year.

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Welcome to Chechnya

 We naively want to believe we have evolved, but reality perpetually tells us otherwise. Inspired by the New Yorker article “Forbidden Lies: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” (Masha Gessen, June 26, 2017), director David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya” invites us to witness the late winter of 2017, when a drug raid triggered a witch hunt against the LGBT community, which has resulted in a perpetual onslaught of extrajudicial torture and killings. Chechnya is primarily Muslim and is now controlled by Putin appointed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Our narrator, a human rights activist with the Russian LGBT Network that resettled 151 people abroad in the two years since 2017 explains, “It is a disgrace to be gay in Chechnya. And for a family to find out someone is gay? It is a shame so strong, it can only be washed away by blood.” Ordinary citizens and police alike claim, “All of our problems are because of you.” A whole cast of face and voice doubles was employed to provide digital disguises for the persecuted who were willing to speak out. The end title cards inform us that “Canada granted refugee status to 44 [refugees] with the help of Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad. The Trump administration has not accepted any LGBT refugees from Chechnya.”

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy and HBO

 Collective (Romania)

 Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s “Collective” investigates the October 15, 2015 fire at a Bucharest nightclub with no fire escapes and the consequences for those trapped inside in its aftermath. The deaths of 27 people in the fire would have been tragic enough, but the known septic conditions in Romanian hospitals that eventually killed 37 more burn victims is the more shocking story in this relentless investigative story.

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 The Cordillera of Dreams (Chile)

 Patricio Guzman's phenomenal documentary begins with an exquisite meditation on the Cordillera of the Chilean Andes -- a sculptor, a writer, an historian and the filmmaker all reflect on the profound experience of living under the spiritual aura of this geographical phenomenon, but it gradually shifts into an equally deep inquiry into the bloody Pinoche coup d'etat and the neoliberal economic capitalism it left in its wake. "Cordillera" concludes a trilogy that began in 2010 with "Nostalgia for the Light" (available on Amazon to rent/buy) and 2015's "The Pearl Button." Guzman sees the Cordillera as an eye-witness to his homeland's fate. 

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy


 Family Romance, LLC (USA/Japan)

 Werner Herzog doesn’t reference “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry,” an April 30, 2018 article in the New Yorker, but his remarkably touching and engaging film “Family Romance, LLC.” certainly came about as a result of his awareness of an odd industry emerging in that country. As Herzog says, in the must-see interview after the conclusion of the film, he foresaw as early as 1980 that the cascading communication possibilities multiplying before us at that time would have consequences of greater and greater “solitudes.” To this end, Japan has developed enterprises that – for a fee, and with agents and stables of role-playing actors – provide substitute companions, dead relatives, estranged spouses, absent parents, et al.

“Family Romance, LLC.” is not a documentary. Rather, it is a Russian doll of a film. Herzog enlists the talents of non-actors, central to which is the star of the film, entrepreneur Yuichi Ishii who does and does not play himself. Among other relationships he cultivates as an avatar for his clients’ wishes, is his central role as father to Mahiro, a ten-year-old girl whose father left her mother when she was a tot. This relationship is the thread that creates the through-line for the film and acts as its moral compass as we explore what love, family, and human connection in general mean – in the contemporary world of technology and robotics, as well as in the most ancient sense of human community.

Herzog and the other great contemporary documentarian Errol Morris share a quest into the question of truth. Art is artifice and yet it reveals truth with a capital “T.” Morris wrote an entire book exploring this question on the subject of photography, “Believing Is Seeing.” Once we distill anything, it is no longer lived experience. So, is it truth? That is the question.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Leap (China) Based on a True Story

The Painted Bird (Czechoslovakia)

 “The Painted Bird” is the brilliant creation of Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul – who wrote, directed and produced. The film is adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel and has been compared to the sensibility of Andrei Tarkovsky. As a Tarkovsky devote, I beg to differ. Though apparently many film critics walked out on its various 2019 premieres, citing its violence as gratuitous, I found it rather tame by comparison to Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See,” a much more parallel comparison. Both films see the devolution in Eastern Europe of fascism into nihilism, as WWII wore on, from a child’s point of view. The power of this perspective cannot be overstated. Adults are already inured. The film has also been described as a catalogue of Nazi atrocities. As a percentage, the Nazi atrocities figure to a much lesser degree in the film than the sadism mounted by peasant superstition, scapegoating and misdirected revenge. I see "The Painted Bird" not so much as a film about the evils of Nazism as about the eternal evils of the human race.

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 Beanpole (Russia)

 Russian director Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole” is another WWII narrative (and as far as I am concerned, there can never be enough). New York Times critic Manohla Dargis makes the insightful observation about this post WWII drama, set in 1945 Leningrad, that "the men and women in this startling movie don't complain or even speak much about their suffering, perhaps it would be because it would be like describing the air they breathe."

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 Mr. Jones (Poland)

 Based on the true story of Welch journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), who, in 1933, attempted to reveal the truth of Stalin’s politically created famine (known as the Holodomor or the Terror-Famine), which killed an estimated 3.5 million, Agnieska Holland’s film, in its early scenes, rhythmically shifts between its primary narrative and George Orwell penning his allegorical masterpiece "Animal Farm." Juxtaposed against the investigative journalism of Jones is New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who won a Pulitzer for his Stalin apologia reportage -- an honor that has never been revoked.

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 Buoyancy (Cambodia)

In his 2011 book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," Steven Pinker argues that, historically, violence has been abating globally. He cites a decrease in war and improved conditions for children, claiming that we now live in the most peaceful time in the history of humanity. May I call upon Voltaire's rejection in "Candide" of Leibniz's position: "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?" Were we to take into account human trafficking in all its horrific manifestations: sex, child labor, and slave trafficking, ad nauseam, would our present moment be our best possible world? (Take a look at your computer or cell phone and consider the human misery that went into the mining of tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold and other rare metals that allowed its manufacture and function.) 

 Rodd Rathjen's "Buoyancy" follows the horrific plight of a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who, in trying to escape his father's exploitation, inadvertently finds himself enslaved on a Thai fishing boat. Though the film is a dramatic narrative, the story is all too true. The film's penultimate title card cites an anonymous Cambodian survivor: "Torture is every day and killing about every second day. You are afraid of people, even of daylight. No one can hear you out there. You have no papers, nobody knows you exist. I want to tell people about our nightmares."

 The final title card "...gratefully acknowledges the many survivors of modern slavery in South East Asia who shared their stories. An estimated 200,000 men and boys are thought to be in slavery and forced labour in the fishing industry in South East Asia. It is an industry worth over $6 billion that supplies fish products to the world." (The same is true of Mexicans held hostage to harvest tomato crops in the U.S. And the list goes on...)

Amazon Rent

 The Wolf House (Chile)

 Bacurau (Brazil)

 House of Hummingbird (South Korea)

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 The Man Standing Next (South Korea)

 Another Round (Denmark)

 Tommaso (Italy)

 A White, White Day (Iceland)


 Tigertail (USA/China)

 In Alan Yang's "Tigertail," a parentless young boy, Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee as the young Pin-Jui and Tzi Ma as the adult) works his grandparent's rice fields. In an odd coincidence, he befriends a girl of means, but their class disparity ensures their estrangement. As a young adult working in the brutal factory where his mother is employed, the factory boss makes a deal with Pin-Jui: in exchange for marriage to his daughter, he will pay for the couple to move to New York City. "Tigertail" turns the feel-good immigrant story on its head.


 The Wild Goose Lake (China)


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