New Directors / New Films: Ten directors make their debut in 2021

So many films, so little time, and I somehow managed to see a little over 15 of them thanks to the magic of never leaving my house. Again, it’s my luck that the pandemic seems to have changed the way we watch movies. Thanks to an all-movie pass I caught this festival almost in its entirety, leaving some that I felt I couldn’t really talk about aside for a future view.

The first of these is a standout movie from India. Pebbles, directed by P. S. Vinothraj, makes for a striking debut in a sea of new movies all trying to make their mark for the first time and establish careers. Essentially a two-character movie, its story seems ripped out of the bowels of a James Baldwin short story. When we enter the movie proper, we see the father (Karuthadayaan) strutting into the frame, anger pouring out from his body from all sides. He’s come to the school where his son (Chellapandi) goes to pick him up drag him out into the blazing heat to go after the mother, who’d left the family.

Their trip, fraught with chance encounters that always end in violence, essentially establishes a painful dysfunction in which the patriarchy reduces women to practically nothing, and woe to them if they were to leave. Throughout their journey, however, as the father implodes into a mess of rage and petty, toxic masculinity that renders him slightly above bestial, the son slowly starts to assert himself into the story’s hero, exacting near-silent defiance against his father and taking in a puppy as a pet (despite the father’s objections). There are some poetic choices that elevate the movie from its desolate surroundings — a drone camera circulating a scene where the father beats his son is a standout that keeps us in the story while denying us the horror of witnessing such abuse. That the abuse even touches some outsiders — a mother in a bus has to get off to avoid a fight that the father starts and gets left stranded in the middle of nowhere, the camera staying with her as she sits under a tree, waiting perhaps for another bus to pass — makes Pebbles unique in that it seems to tell a story of an entire nation and how domestic violence creeps into the fabric of society.

If I had one complaint was a section involving a family that feeds on rats. Vinothraj focuses on the rats a little too closely as they become dinner. I think that perhaps there may have been a point in presenting the ravages of extreme poverty and hunger, but it may offend some sensitive tastes watching this movie. Other than that, this is a solid, excellent short movie that seems, however, destined to go to MUBI or arthouse platforms rather than a theater proper.

Still from Pebbles

Coming into Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser feels like witnessing the Earth breathe. Silva’s movie zeroes in on the volcanoes of Hawaii — particularly Mauna Kea, with its continually erupting volcano — and gives us a front-row seat into a world that is still shaping itself, alive and red on the inside, black and shiny on the outside. This is a world that respects no community, no human structure or roads because of course, it doesn’t. Its sole purpose is to add on to itself and by doing so release energy into the air and be a part of a larger whole that is the Earth.

This is Rock Bottom Riser’s best asset. However, Silva then inserts narratives that dilute the terrible beauty of his film. Not one of them truly captures the attention of the viewer as an eruption but serves to pepper some backstory into the culture of Hawaii, colonialism, and even the geo-location of Hawaii that allows for the construction of a 30-meter telescope in which astronomers can watch the stars. Dwayne Johnson makes an appearance, and knowing that he is actually Samoan made me scratch my head, but okay. Another misstep is to include a teacher so hippy that, well… you’d have to see it yourself to wonder what the heck was this appearance about when it adds next to zero to the geographic wonder that is Hawaii’s volcanoes. My only guess is that there was a need to flesh out what would have been essentially a 20-minute movie into a full-feature-length movie, and while a lot of it doesn’t quite gel, it makes for a little over an hour of escapism.

I can’t review Apples without somehow inserting myself into their premise. I work with memory so for me, remembering details — even minute ones — is a matter of life or death to me. When I came into the world of Christos Nikou’s Apples and met Aris (Aris Servertalis), a man who unexpectedly has forgotten who he is and, unclaimed by his family — who also may have forgotten about him — now has to fend for himself, I literally cringed. How can anyone live under such circumstances? Nikou never gives a straight answer — apparently, characters are able to perform menial activities with no problem, but as of anything involving memories, that points to a cold room. During the movie’s run time Aris meets and starts a tentative friendship with a woman named Anna (Sofia Georgeovassili), and I kept wondering if they would know each other the next time they saw each other. It was almost like watching a younger version of Sanremo, without the dementia part. Their story was rather interesting, and I wish that Nikou would have allowed it to breathe more rather than choosing to let his movie stay in a sense of limbo, but again, when all you have are automatons living on basic motor functions and the barest of memories enhanced by photography, asking for more might be a bit much.

Jessica Beshir’s documentary (and a love letter to her native Ethiopia) Faya Dayi shows the promise of a filmmaker able to conjure poignant tone poems and diaries of a world that no longer belongs to her (as she was raised in Mexico). Here she paints a world gone to stagnancy due to people stuck in the industry of harvesting khat. Khat is one of Ethiopia’s largest exportation products. Chewing it also ensures that its consumer never parts with it. Much like any other plant that can produce addiction, khat becomes the organically produced cord that obliterates a man’s identity and leaves him a shell of himself, his dreams lost, his life lain to waste. Several narratives emerge and meander about the movie, letting the viewer into the quotidian lives of its people as the ubiquitous plant — itself a sentient being and harbinger of malaise — haunts the frame. Shot in gorgeous, velvety black and white except for one sequence in blazing color, Beshir’s movie is a sad glimpse into the trappings of the industry as boys dream about moving away (but never do) and families become divided. If there is any fault here, it is the length. At two hours, the documentary would have benefitted by at least one less story or a good 30 minutes less, but as it stands, it is a strong debut.

Still from Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi

Also in black and white is Mengqiao Li’s Bipolar, a story set in China in which a young woman (Leah Dou, Faye Wong’s daughter) sets on a road trip of discovery after stealing a sacred lobster from its tank. Usually, movies like these will often go into surrealist narratives meant to bring us, the viewer, into the character’s state of mind, and in that manner, Bipolar does not disappoint. The problem I felt with Li’s movie is that despite the somewhat quirkiness of its lead actress, who also seems to be experimenting with gender identity, I never quite felt engaged with her, or her discovery, and the reason propelling her forward. The one salient point in the movie was the lobster in itself. It starts out as a Neptunian creature filled with ghostly mystery, pregnant with holiness, and progressively morphs back to its animal state. One could say that in this respect the movie succeeds in neatly bringing down the walls of ascribing divinity to creatures that live in their own reality. But in the end, the myth of Orpheus that the notes seem to point at don’t quite come together, and Bipolar, a movie that demands a lot of focus from its viewer, never quite comes into its own.

Two South Korean movies make their American debut at New Directors: Short Vacation and Gull. Both movies could not have been more different. Short Vacation, directed by Han-sol Seo, tells the non-eventful story of four teenage girls attending photography class. On a lark, the girls decide to take a trip “to the end of the world”. Sounds like a fantasy, but for the quartet, that turns out to be a lot more accessible. They take the train to the end of the line, all the time simply hanging out, taking in their surroundings. Meanwhile, the director, the camera, and we linger on, mere observers, making no effort to intervene. Night falls, one girl briefly disappears, and yet, no one bats an eyelash at the fact that they are far from home and four sets of parents wait. You would say that a movie this lacking in drama would be a bore-fest, but I think that perhaps despite its serenity, its documentarian style, Short Vacation, with its brief running time of barely 75 minutes counting credits, floats into its own in the same way that the slowest portions of Enchanted April did 30 years ago.

The second movie, Gull, takes a different approach (but still manages to be strictly observational). Kim Mi-jo tells the story of O-Bok, an older woman — I believe she is meant to be in her 60s — who works in a fish market and gets raped by a colleague who happens to be a man who runs the market’s union. Torn between her need for justice and the shame that she will bring to her family on the eve of her daughter’s wedding should this story leak out, O-Bok spends most of the movie nursing her own wounds while silently seething in unresolved rage. Attempts to get help from a female friend and coworker come to blows when the friend, acting like the rest of the critical world, turns the tables on O-Bok and blames her for her misfortune. Kim Mi-jo refrains from steeping her vibrant story into too much emotion, so much that it reads close to the best of Italian Neo-realism from the late 40s. The ending, which comes as an abrupt, but fitting exclamation point, might be a bit unsatisfying to some — the music of choice doesn’t help and robs it of its significance –, but serves the location and the culture of this movie well.

In nearby Hong Kong, a German woman Anke (Anke Bak) has come to visit her estranged son in Jonas Bak’s delicate little drama Wood and Water. This is the type of movie that, like Short Vacation, almost feels like a book of memories that segues naturally into guerrilla filmmaking. I loved how early on, I witnessed snippets of this woman’s life through her pat interactions at home. It was, as a matter of fact, almost heartbreaking to see her sit by herself in a near-empty house, staring into nothing at all, almost wondering where the time went.

Imagine how jarring it is, once her place in Germany is established, to see Hong Kong through her eyes as she cabs her way to a hotel. Here is where the story takes off, and the lingering question is, will she get to make amends with her son. Meantime, she establishes nascent acquaintances with the locals (and, early in the movie, a never-seen tourist looking for a job there as well) and this sets the stage for something bigger than the premise. A horoscope has Anke venturing deeper into the country where she finds a certain closure that the movie suggests she might not find with her also never-seen son.

I found this movie to be supremely beautiful in letting me into the world of this woman. It never tries to patch things up neatly but to present the life of a woman simply trying to do right, not because she did wrong, but because her instinct tells her to. The topic of depression filters its way into the story, so get an idea that there is more to the rift between Anke and her son, but all that takes almost a second stage to Anke’s own story, which is deeply personal, and features a single, final shot that is bursting at the seams with equal parts satisfaction and sadness.

Friends and Strangers is a movie that might be about aimless millennials and their eccentric but older parents but manages to insert a clever statement about the effects of colonialism in a country that once was the home to aborigines. It starts rather well (if a little boring), with Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) having a conversation that has little in substance, and leads to an outing that goes rather awry. Were then privy to Ray, now on his way to a job interview, having to get rescued by his mother when his car has a problem. Once Ray gets to his appointed meeting, things start to go weird, and then the movie takes a more ominous shape. Somehow, all characters manage to converge into one grand finale that has the vaguest shades of a nightmare seen with eyes wide open and makes you question what it was that you just witnessed. James Vaughan’s comedy is equal parts mumblecore and absurd, with paintings that may not look the same twice and a soundtrack that is jarringly intrusive and unsettling, If it has anything to go against it, it would be its dedication to the Eora and Nginnawal people, and while the white people seem to be clueless about the country’s heritage, the entire dedication seems a bit tacked on. Perhaps that was the intent all along: to make a commentary on colonialism that didn’t seem too preachy, but oblique. It’s still a fun movie.

Anna Cobb in “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair”

Lastly, there is the creepiest entry in this year’s festival and it is We Are All Going to the World’s Fair by Jane Schoenbrun. This is the type of movie that reminded me of the early days of the internet. You would log on, usually to an IRC chat or some chatting software embedded in, let’s say, AOL, and chat up with someone without knowing who that someone was. It should be noted the use of creepy avatars — while I never used anything that feral looking, it still gave a sense of faux-originality and autonomy that now not even your own picture can give you.

In short, you would make connections with total strangers to whom you would pour your heart (while they did the same). Caution to the wind was the norm; all the time you could be getting fed lies by a raving psychopath trying to lure you in for something unsavory. In the end, you would manage to sometimes meet the person, but mostly, it was left to peer-to-peer chat with little to no hope of ever connecting.

We Are Going to the World’s Fair hinges on this premise to tell the story of a young girl named Casey (Anna Cobb) who seems to have no friends of her own, who wants to connect. An online game which forms the title of the movie becomes her way into a community of loners posting into the void, hoping for someone to hold on to. In the meantime, the movie (and a secondary character played by Michael J Rogers) informs that the game is in fact dangerous and will suck a player in until they are essentially no more. To make its point, the movie gives us two fringe characters — one, a young boy who literally gets sucked into the game by a creepy claw, and even more shocking, a boy who starts to cut himself, revealing not blood but tickets.

As Casey delves deeper into the game it becomes clear she has started to lose bits of herself. Rogers, an outsider looking in, at first enables Casey to express herself in the darkest of manners, but when Casey outperforms, it sets the stage for something sinister lurking in the movie’s outer frames.

This is not a horror movie per se, but We Are All Going to the World’s Fair often skirts the edges of a girl’s coming of age in a small town and skinny-dips into the macabre. The sheer creepiness of the online friendship that gets established, and goes much deeper than a simple digital exchange, makes Schoenbrun’s movie a disturbing watch.

None of these movies have yet been picked up for distribution.

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