After the Dust Settles – feature

ANDREW LATIMER reviews WEST OF THE TRACKS for AV FESTIVAL – 6.3.14

It’s a rare privilege to launch a festival with UK film premières, particularly when they may never be seen in the region again. Acclaimed Chinese documentarian Wang Bing has five works available at AV Festival 14: Extraction, all of them a mixture of national and local premières. West of the Tracks, filmed between 1999 and 2001, is a rather epic yet utterly engrossing introduction into Wang’s filmmaking.

Split into three durational instalments – RustRemnants and Rails which total over 9 hours of viewing – Wang profiles the generational dying embers of heavy industry that have left many Chinese labourers destitute. In Rust, he shadows factory workers in the Tiexi district of Shenyang: once the industrial beating heart of north-east China, which houses vast plots of smelting plants and sheet metal factories. Wang steps out into the surrounding shantytowns (nicknamed “Rainbow Row”) in Remnants, magnifying the conditions of life and particularly the children who are born into poverty. Finally, he looks more closely and personally at a scavenging father and son in Rails whose excruciating loneliness and struggle find a form of unlikely stability.

All three pieces only lock into place when viewed as a whole, as if stepping back on a mosaic. Watching them is a lot like getting comfortable inside a slowly closing vice: factories filing for bankruptcy in Rust, families evicted from their homes in Remnants and parents arrested in Rails. If there are politics to be found in Wang’s epic, they are of a people so detached from economic empowerment as to be disconnected from the discussion itself. Wang has picked up a rock and looked underneath – with a telescope. Of course, the tragic legacy is that the rock used to be diamond: massive profit potential, skilled labour and global contribution all to be found within.

And yet, the apparent lack of authorial presence in West of the Tracks – and indeed many of Wang’s films – is curious. He’s the silent voyeur whose gaze mirrors our own, shooting from first-person with a handheld digital camera for maximum intimacy. There appears to be little editorialising; Wang either allows individuals to speak freely about their lives, or simply captures their arguments from across the room. He then edits together long panning shots of derelict structures, constantly framing his footage in motion – travelling by train or simply wandering aimlessly through vacant buildings. As he records, we are accompanied only by the sonic soul of industry: wailing train horns, screeching tracks, echoes of clattering metal and roaring furnaces. Each of them haunting yet, over time, eerily soothing.

This hints at a greater exploration of paradox, as a theme, that Wang teases out. As the eastern tech business grows, and mismanagement takes hold of traditional engineering, the debate is shoehorned into the pursuit of “progression”. In West of the Tracks, we see the people who weren’t brought along for the ride. Thus, the concept of labour is thwarted, puzzlingly in an area of China which has more labour than anywhere else. It’s as if the Tiexi district of Shenyang itself has become so economically frozen, it has immobilised all who dwell within it. And really, this permanent sense of idleness is what remains with viewers at the closing stages of Wang’s marathon film.

Salvo – review

ANDREW LATIMER reviews SALVO for TVBOMB – 23.2.14

3 stars ★★★☆☆

More frequently, there is a need to turn away from the taste of the American hit-man movie. All sequels all the time. It’s a shame that début directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza can’t capitalise on this, with a fascinatingly Melvillesque – but potholed – story of a Mafioso bodyguard in Sicily. The titular assassin (Saleh Bakri) survives an attack from another gangster family and sets out to seek revenge, but in the process falls in love with his assailant’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco). He kidnaps and secludes her, much to the fury of the boss man, and is forced to ultimately decide who is more important.

There is much to be studied in the cinematography and direction of Salvo: third-person, over the shoulder shooting gives menace, tension and mood to the whole film. We experience it almost as if we were playing it as a video game. And yet, because of the huge gaps in the story, the fact that the characters don’t gel and the questionable honesty of the performances to say the least, it ultimately becomes a dull and lifeless thriller. The contrast of beautiful landscapes, from the scrambling Italian side-streets to the rhythmic ocean waves, mirror that of Salvo’s paradoxical life as a desperado and gentle romantic, but there is little more to be enjoyed here.

Go! – review

ANDREW LATIMER reviews GO! for TVBOMB – 13.2.14

4 stars ★★★★☆

One overarching theme at this year’s Manipulate festival has been ritual. From the religious worship of Greek Gods in Bestiaires, the nomadic daily habits in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, through to our self-destructive will to engage in warfare as told in Grit, the routines that define and devastate our lives are not told as precisely as they are in Polina Borisova’s Go!. This entrancingly poignant account of vanishing memories is a tonally exceptional journey through one elderly woman’s recollections of former loves.

With exquisite technical skill, Borisova uses a roll of tape to map out the figures in her mind. Against a black curtain backdrop, she sketches out an old flame, the cat that she still puts food out for and the doorway which may lead to even deeper alcoves of her psyche. There’s a sadness to these losses, as she glances back on life rather than ahead, yet so much dry humour has been buried within the piece you can’t help but feel uplifted. The moment of clarity upon noticing the outline of a cat in the window provides as much joy as it does empathy. Fragile, powerful and meticulous, this is earnest visual theatre which inspires one to consider life and its encounters with greater fondness than we do regret.

Hôtel de Rive – review

ANDREW LATIMER reviews HÔTEL DE RIVE for TVBOMB – 7.2.14

2 stars ★★☆☆☆

On the more literary side of visual theatre comes Hôtel de Rive, a tailspin into the headspace of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti – known largely for his crucial role in the development of Surrealism. Manipulate welcomes back Figurentheater Tübingen to present interpretations of four short texts by Giacometti, as inquisitive as they are impassable. This hour-long piece is far from glib, with much probable reward for anyone who is informed and learned on Giacometti’s existential angst. He walled himself off at the titular hotel in Geneva in an attempt to reignite his creative fire and actor Patrick Michaelis journeys from Giacometti’s childhood through to his artistic crisis.

Using a mixture of live filming, alphorn and trumpet music, and delicate material puppetry, we are dragged into the freewheeling life of a frustrated but deeply poetic mind. By no means accidentally, the puppets are familiar of Giacometti’s most famous work – L’Homme qui marche I – which sold at auction (including premium) for £65m. Arched, spindly characters float, hover and dance around Michaelis, who retells these peculiar stories in multilingual verse. The dim and dusty mood is like Beckett meets Bukowski: hallucinatory, darkly comic and drawn-out. This kind of enigmatic theatre may appeal to the steadfast avant-garde enthusiast, but is broadly unengaging and remote, and in no way refreshes or innovates multidisciplinary theatre.

Grit – review

ANDREW LATIMER reviews GRIT for TVBOMB – 7.2.14

3 stars ★★★☆☆

Perhaps the ugliest notion of war today is its apparent omnipresence. It’s actually hard to even pinpoint and define, as cybercrime and economic sanctions play equal roles in continuing imperialism and escalating modern conflicts. It’s also why visual theatre – an art-form with the capacity to immerse like few others – is so successful at mirroring back to us the horrors of combat. Tortoise in a Nutshell have revived their 2012 Fringe hit to remind us of the darker side of human nature, as Amy rummages through the possessions of her late father: a wartime photojournalist.

Told through stunning object theatre, shadow puppetry and projection, Grit explores extreme childhood encounters with war: from playful games of cops-and-robbers to devastating invasion. As is expected with this talented company, the technical wizardry on display is near-flawless but the story seems to suffer in the same way that last year’s Feral did. There is only one sequence of real magic: a young boy plays in a sandpit as the objects around him turn from buckets and spades to guns and bombs. This frightening vision of war; pervasive, unforgiving, ageless, is the greatest achievement in an otherwise intelligent piece of visual theatre. However, if Grit focussed more on the journey of its protagonists, as in The Last Miner, the political outcome would carry even more clout.

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