The Locarno Festival 2018 (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Detective Lok (Peter Yu)in Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined.

2018 was a transitional year at the Locarno Festival, formerly known as the Locarno Film Festival and one of Switzerland’s most popular arts events. In its last year under the direction of Carlo Chatrian (starting in 2019, Chatrian will assume the position of artistic director of the Berlin Film Festival), the festival showcased a number of films of interest—although few of them proved enormously galvanizing for critics or audiences. It was not a year replete with masterpieces, but one chock full of small, modest discoveries. 

Festival reports often inspire unwittingly comic critical attempts to superimpose themes and motifs upon a disparate group of films that in fact share little in common. Nevertheless, even if Locarno 2018 cannot be summed up by identifying an overarching pattern, it’s worthwhile to examine several examples of the festival trend to feature films that tackle social and political themes while encased in the occasionally antithetical tradition of postmodern “art cinema.” 

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, which, to many festivalgoers’ surprise, won Locarno’s top prize, the Golden Leopard (and the first awarded to a Singaporean film), demonstrates that art cinema can be as formulaic as its commercial counterpart. The slender narrative highlights the hidden world of transient labor in Singapore. Wang, a Chinese guest worker toiling on a land reclamation project, goes missing and Lok, a police detective, is dispatched to Wang’s work site to investigate his disappearance. Despite his veneer of noirish world-weariness, Lok is shocked by the workers’ living conditions. It seems odd that a cynical cop is not aware that there’s a seamy side of Singapore, far removed from the opulence celebrated in Crazy Rich Asians

Although the film’s opening scenes falsely prime us to expect a standard policier, the plotting becomes increasingly murky. A work-related accident seems to trigger Wang’s already incipient alienation. Unhelpful explanatory flashbacks probe Wang’s friendship with a Bengali co-worker, as well as his dalliance with a mysterious video game enthusiast. This leads to a conclusion that trade critics have labeled “Lynchian” but might be better characterized as facilely opaque. Unfortunately, Hideho Urata’s luminous cinematography is nothing more than genteelly decorative. A documentary or social realist fiction film on the harrowing lives of foreign workers in Singapore would have been much more satisfying. 

Ying Liang’s  A Family Tour .

Ying Liang’s A Family Tour.

Curiously enough, another competition entry, Ying Liang’s A Family Tour—a much more successful meld of social commentary and art cinema, remained prizeless. Ying’s film is a dazzling metacommentary (he’s described it as “semiautobiographical”) on his own career as a dissident filmmaker. The narrative structure resembles a hall of funhouse mirrors in which the filmmaker assesses his bureaucratic skirmishes with the Chinese authorities with wry detachment. Forced to flee China after When Night Falls, a docudrama detailing the malfeasance of the Chinese legal system during a rigged murder trial enraged the authorities, the Hong Kong-based director has become one of the most exciting figures on the festival scene. A Family Tour oscillates between nostalgia for his homeland and fear for the fate of his relatives left behind in Shanghai. A cross between self-therapy and Brechtian distantiation, the tone of A Family Tour melds anguished introspection and comic desperation.

The reportedly ebullient Ying (in Cinema Scope, Clarence Tsui describes him as “radiating positivity.”) reimagines himself as Yang Shu, a chronically depressed female Chinese director living in troubled exile in Hong Kong. This ruse enables Ying to playfully fictionalize what have must have been an emotionally turbulent reunion with his family in Taiwan. The movie’s transmutation of raw experience into drama plunges Yang Shu into a slightly absurdist reunion with her mother since a mainland Chinese tour guide keeps them at arm’s length during their sightseeing regimen. Both melancholy and amusing, A Family Tour illuminates its irascible protagonist’s plight with a self-reflexive aesthetic that never degenerates into empty gamesmanship. 

Vergil Vernier’s Sophia Antipolis, screened as part of the Filmmakers of the Present sidebar, also managed to create a novel strategy for merging political outrage with formal invention. Even though the film occasionally threatens to sink under the weight of its conceptual baggage, Vernier’s visual acuity and his frequently bleakly humorous view of a gaggle of modern misfits saves the film from being merely gimmicky.

Vergil Vernier’s Sophia Antipolis.

The film’s title, with its misleadingly classical connotations, refers to a technology park in the south of France, a soulless enclave on the Riviera where a motley group of rootless protagonists refuse to embrace the neoliberal optimism that this antiseptic enterprise zone represents. Designed as a utopian oasis, Vernier acknowledges in an interview with Film Comment that Sophia Antipolis is actually a synthesis of utopian and dystopian elements. Modeled on Silicon Valley, it sought to bring a combination of high tech and Las Vegas-style razzmatazz to the region but ended up being more like a no man’s land where business thrives and human misery abounds.

With oblique nods to films such as La Ronde and Slacker, Vernier focuses on three misbegotten characters—a Vietnamese woman who canvasses for a mlllenarian cult, a young man recruited by a paramilitary organization, and a forlorn teenaged girl whose charred body is discovered in a factory. Vernier documents the dashed hopes and casual cruelty endemic to a region where the bonds of solidarity have eroded and are not likely to re-emerge at any time in the near future.

This year’s festival featured a tribute to Leo McCarey.

This year’s festival featured a tribute to Leo McCarey.

For festivalgoers fatigued by the shock of the new, Locarno served up another of its impressive, comprehensive retrospectives—an eye-opening tribute to Leo McCarey. McCarey, who honed his technique in silent comedy with brilliant shorts starring Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, reached his creative zenith in the Thirties with The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, and continued to make two of the most bizarre anticommunist films of the Cold War era, My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps, is far from an unknown quality. Still, it was bracing to see Liberty, one of his most successful collaborations with Laurel and Hardy, projected in the Piazza Grande’s vast open-air cinema. 

Edmund Lowe and Leila Hyams in McCarey’s seldom seen Part Time Wife (1930).

In addition, a rarely screened film, 1930’s Part Time Wife proved fascinating for foreshadowing the comic finesse of 1937’s The Awful Truth, one of McCarey’s most warmly remembered comic achievements. Despite missing one reel, Part Time Wife demonstrates that, at an early phase in his career, McCarey was already besotted with what the late Stanley Cavell labeled “comedies of remarriage” in his landmark critical study, Pursuits of Happiness. When Jim Murdock (Edmund Lowe) proceeds to neglect his golfer wife (Lelia Hyams), their marriage appears doomed. The bickering couple is ultimately reunited through the efforts of an impish intermediary—Jim’s young Irish caddy. Admittedly a minor, if charming, film, Part Time Wife is suffused with McCarey’s trademark blend of humor and pathos. Few directors but McCarey could get away with briefly short-circuiting a marital comedy with a potentially bathetic scene in which the caddie’s dog, imprisoned at a pound, escapes certain death in the nick of time. At Locarno, where a cinematic antique like Part Time Wife can seem avant-garde and the avant-garde occasionally seems hackneyed, the McCarey retrospective proved that a conservative, long-dead auteur might still have something to teach a new generation of filmmakers.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due in 2019 from Verso in a revised second edition.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1