A look at three of the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival's most fascinating features
A trio of appraisals in the festival's enduring "New International Cinema" and "American Visions" showcases. | By Jason Fuhrman and Grant Phipps
To wrap up our preview coverage of the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, we wanted to get a little deeper into three standout feature-length selections in the lineup. Of the narrative features on offer, the best would have to include one of 2019's most critically acclaimed chronicles thus far, Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White, as well as Aaron Schimberg's intricate skewering of Hollywood celebrity and self-image, Chained For Life, and Wanuri Kahiu's celebratory and vibrant LGBTQ love story, Rafiki. Here's more on each of those.
Ash Is Purest White (April 5, 3 p.m. and April 6, 6:15 p.m., both at AMC Madison)
While not as prolific lately as he was in the aughts, veteran writer-director Jia Zhangke has continued to refine his stylistic voice in mainland China this decade through a unique union of interpersonal drama and brutal action (see 2013's A Touch Of Sin). His latest and most evocatively titled, Ash Is Purest White, challenges a narrative template that leans closest to the genre film, shedding light on the country's shadowy criminal underworld in the twenty-first century. The film's nearly 17-year, three-act plot elevates a potentially predictable tale of vengeance to something remarkably thought-provoking and even empathetic.
Rather than honing in on the hierarchy of men of "jianghu" (gangster) affiliation, Jia finds inspiration in the hardships and resolve of young dancer Qiao's burgeoning agency. Jia's longtime collaborator Zhao Tao stars as this heroine, who comfortably profits from the perks of her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan)'s backroom parlor dealings in Datong. In the first act, which takes place in the spring of 2001, the film begins to drop hints that Bin's stubbornness and short-sighted schemes will eventually drive them apart, as the couple privately chat about what they hope to achieve together. The dialogue is often terse but compellingly conceived and psychologically revealing, illustrating a chasm between their wants—Qiao searching for security and love and Bin clinging to his pride, clout, reputation.
Following the film's most shatteringly violent sequence, Qiao pledges to take the fall for possessing an illegal handgun, a crime that seemingly carries more severe consequences than the ruthless behavior of the gangsters themselves. After dutifully serving an inequitable five-year sentence, Qiao travels to Chaozhou by ferry to reunite with Bin, only to be evaded and rebuffed. In these trying moments, Zhao portrays Qiao with such artful nuance that the mere act of watching her in silence becomes a genuine thrill, as Qiao travels to another region (Fengjie) to employ the sorts of conniving deceptions she learned from her time in the underworld as a means of attaining personal redemption.
But the scope of Jia's vision isn't strictly limited to the experiences of these two characters. Ash Is Purest White's first half feels expansive, as idiosyncratically funny asides share conversational space with desperate fears of a mining operation laying off hundreds of workers. Approaching its final act, the film embraces tangentially cosmic oddity through a loquacious man aboard a train who claims to be doing extraterrestrial research for Xiajiang County tours. Taiwanese electronic musician Lim Giong's intermittent synthesized soundscapes instill the richness of these narrative and tonal shifts with an element of haunted mystery in its ever-changing landscapes, distilling an ambiguous sensibility comparable to Lee Chang-dong's Burning, one of the most acclaimed films of 2018. —Grant Phipps
Chained For Life (April 9, 6 p.m., AMC Madison)
A captivating, humorous, and singular look at the complexity, importance, and lasting effects of media representation, Chained For Life―which also happens to be the name of a cheesy 1952 exploitation film featuring real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton―perpetually compels viewers to question the nature of what they are seeing and thinking. It opens with a lengthy, scrolling quotation from film critic Pauline Kael on the usual standard of actors and actresses being "more beautiful than ordinary people," thus setting the stage for the conflicts that follow.
Aaron Schimberg's surreal film-within-a-film involves a schlock horror production about physical abnormalities helmed by a pretentious auteur, "Herr Director" (Charlie Korsmo), whose appearance, voice and mannerisms suggest a comical hybrid of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Federico Fellini, but devoid of artistic integrity. Herr Director's movie, entitled Marked For Life, stars a classically beautiful actress named Mabel (Jess Weixler) as Freda, a blind patient in a mysterious private hospital where a deranged Teutonic doctor (Stephen Plunkett) presides over secret genetic experiments in the hope of eradicating all human "aberrations."
In a series of bold casting choices, Herr Director has selected a variety of performers with physical disabilities to populate the hospital setting. Mabel's co-star is a non-professional actor afflicted with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson from Under The Skin), a condition that leaves his face disfigured by benign nervous-system tumors both onscreen and in real life. As the two develop a special offscreen relationship, Chained For Life weaves seamlessly through parallel cinematic worlds. Schimberg, who has undergone dozens of reconstructive surgeries throughout his life to address a bilateral cleft palate, consistently keeps the audience off-balance with self-referential tonal and stylistic shifts that challenge our perceptions of so-called "reality."
Chained For Life addresses an exhilarating array of topics, such as mutating ideals of beauty in American society, political correctness, the history of exploitation in film, cultural appropriation, the subtle perversions of language that shape reality, and the volatility of outward appearances.
Shot on vibrant, grainy Super 16mm, Schimberg's film comments on the death of celluloid and how technological advancements in cinema mirror the human impulse to manipulate surfaces in accordance with unrealistic aesthetic ideals. As one of Herr Director's crew members poignantly remarks, "Digital effects are the plastic surgery of the moving image," amidst a density of sly cinematic references like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980).
Chained For Life emerges as a compassionate, elusive, and intricately layered meta-narrative that distorts the binary relationship between reality and fiction, while inviting viewers to contemplate the power of moving images in a consumer culture where notions of normality are continuously redefined. Despite its use of distancing effects and a fundamental ambiguity that may alienate some viewers, Schimberg's film reveals a profoundly humanistic outlook by skillfully demonstrating that enduring issues of identity and representation in cinema demand our constant attention, and may never be completely resolved. ―Jason Fuhrman
Rafiki (April 5, 4:30 p.m., Union South Marquee and April 6, 9 p.m., AMC Madison)
The first-ever Kenyan film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival, director Wanuri Kahiu's second feature, Rafiki ("Friend"), was initially banned by her country's film classification board "due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans." Adapting Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko's 2007 short story "Jambula Tree," Rafiki observes two young women falling in love amid the hostile environment of a bustling, provincial, close-knit community on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Samantha Mugatsia stars as Kena, the gifted daughter of a shopkeeper running as a candidate in an upcoming local election. While she awaits exam results that will determine her academic future, Kena spends her free time blithely skateboarding, playing soccer, and hanging out with a group of exclusively male friends. Her life seems relatively simple until one day, she suddenly notices Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a vivacious, well-to-do girl with a flamboyant personal style whose conservative father happens to be the political rival of Kena's father. In a sort of grand Shakespearean setup, the two begin to furtively kindle a romantic relationship, while masquerading as merely close friends. Kena and Ziki discover genuine happiness together, but their idyllic, forbidden romance inevitably clashes with the narrow-minded intolerance of friends, family, neighbors, and religion.
Kahiu's straightforward, lyrical, exuberant style pulses with vigor and energy, vividly bringing the specific milieu of Rafiki to life in a burst of striking, iridescent images and realistic textures. The director has described her distinctive style of filmmaking as "Afro bubblegum," which she defines as "art and culture from Africa and people of color" with "hope and joy at the center of it." And while Rafiki embraces relatively conventional storytelling methods, this effervescent, sensitive portrait of pure romantic love represents a bold gesture in a country where homosexuality remains a criminal offense with harsh penalties (sodomy carries a 14-year term sentence). Considering the historically negative representation of same-sex relationships in film, Kahiu's familiar approach actually heightens the subtly subversive power of her tale. Rafiki dares to imagine that different types of love are possible simply by celebrating something real. ―Jason Fuhrman