VANCOUVER, CANADA—For an event of its size—300-plus films over two and a half weeks—the Vancouver International Film Festival has always maintained a pleasing illusion of smallness, not least because this most convivial and cinephilic of North American fests is, by design, more movie club than market. For its 24th edition, which wrapped up in mid October, VIFF shifted its focal point to the imposing Vancouver International Film Centre, but the housewarming festivities were, true to form, eccentric and devoid of bombast (or at any rate eccentric in their idea of bombast). VIFF christened its new 175-seat theater with Claire Denis’s globe-trotting delirium The Intruder, continued the trippy travelogue theme with James Benning’s elemental “found paintings” 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, and turned over the stage to film scholar David Bordwell for a lively lecture on the aesthetics of CinemaScope—prelude to a screening of Otto Preminger’s deliriously queasy 1958 widescreen melodrama Bonjour Tristesse.
Bordwell was serving jury duty on programmer Tony Rayns’s “Dragons and Tigers” survey of East Asian cinema, and as it happened, the D&T prize went to a movie notable for its inspired use of the Scope format (one that certainly disproves Fritz Lang’s contention that it was suited only for snakes and funerals). Liu Jiayin’s Ox Hide uses 23 artfully framed fixed-angle shots—all within her cramped Beijing house, with the director and her parents playing themselves—to chart an increasingly cantankerous domestic situation as the stubborn father’s leather-bag business flounders. Ox Hide invents a simultaneously literal and reflexive form of arte povera—it’s the most exciting Chinese-indie discovery since Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu, not to mention a wittier example of confessional art than U.S. counterparts like Tarnation and The Talent Given Us. Runners-up included a pair of warped child’s-eye-view fantasies by women directors. Noriko Shibutani’s Bambi ♥ Bone nestles into the make-believe world of two troubled Tokyo preadolescents, and Shin Jane’s Buñuel-meets-Vigo parable Shin Sung-Il Is Lost is set at a Christian orphanage in rural Korea where eating is a sin.
The best annual showcase of Pacific Rim cinema outside Asia, Rayns’s program was marginally curtailed due to overlap with the Pusan festival but suffered no drop in quality. His big coup this year: the world premiere of Shunichi Nagasaki’s Heart, Beating in the Dark, which revisits the Japanese director’s new-wavey Super-8 1982 landmark of the same title, in which a young couple attempts to flee a guilty past. The second Heart, at once remake, sequel, and making-of, performs a kind of cosmic triangulation. Its themes—culpability, memory, the capacity for change, the passage of time—take on a vertiginous depth as it darts among three couples: the one in the first film, their counterparts in a present-day remake-within-the-film, and the two original actors (Shigeru Muroi and Takeshi Naito), now middle-aged. One of the most underseen of working Japanese masters, the 49-year-old Nagasaki will be the subject of a mid- career retro at the upcoming Rotterdam Film Festival.
As always, browsing through VIFF’s non-Asian fare turned up gems that had bypassed Sundance, Toronto, and New York. Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, which follows the romantic misadventures of a new-to-Williamsburg indie rocker, is no less uncomfortably precise—and a good deal harsher—in its view of passive-aggressive slacker mating rituals than his debut, Funny Ha Ha. And in Odete, Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (whose O Fantasma was about a gay trash collector overcome by canine impulses) conjures up the ultimate fag hag: a supermarket price checker convinced she’s pregnant with the child of a dead gay man. (It’s not exactly a coincidence that the title is poised between Ordet and Mouchette.) From Bright Eyes’ “A Perfect Sonnet” to Andy Williams’s Muzak “Both Sides Now” to various versions of “Moon River,” Odete has the most ingeniously deployed soundtrack of any film I’ve seen this year, and its genuinely subversive post-camp genderfuck is exactly what’s been missing from Almodóvar’s films for nearly two decades now.