There is no dearth of writing on the human cost of technology, urban anonymity, and the monstrous conquest of cultures by bottom line values. Yet there remains more and more to say and a need for our artists to have their say. I note with pleasure three must-see NYFF 2015 films that do the necessary, opening lines of communication with our hearts and arming us against chaos and disengagement.
The first is by Jia Zhang-ke, returning to the New York Film Festival with Mountains May Depart (131 mins.), a film about changing cultural tides in China that offers a fresh and gloriously cinematic perspective on modern alienation. The director’s press kit refers his film’s title to Buddhism, “Buddhist thought sees four stages in the flow of life: birth, old age, sickness, and death….Whatever times we live through, none of us can avoid experiencing those states, those difficult moments. Mountains may depart, relationships may endure.” Strangely enough, precisely those same words occur in the English Standard Version of the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “For the mountains may depart and hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you….” Both assert the inevitability of tribulation, but with differences that will strike different chords with different people. The Old Testament affirms abundant hope in the steadfastness of the The Lord while Jia’s Buddhism offers only a thin slice of consolation. Or does his film offer even that?
Mountains May Depart agonizes over the power of money in the new China, through its depiction of the vicissitudes of the life of the lovely Tao (Zhao Tao), who chooses affluent but patently shallow Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over rock solid but poor Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). At first she seems to have made an obvious and terrible mistake; however, as the film unfolds, we discover that happiness for her was always an impossibility, given the new Chinese context. Liangzi’s strong character and ideals will doom him to the life of a miner, and the lung cancer endemic to an industry in which the worker is routinely sacrificed to the profit motive, while Zhang’s callous greed inevitably leads to wealth and dehumanization. Tao’s alternatives are desperate. Choosing Liangzi would have meant grinding poverty and the loss of her husband, but choosing Zhang has meant divorce and losing custody of her son (Dong Zijian) whom Zhang raises in Australia cut off from his mother and his culture. As the film moves from 1999 to 2014 and then leaps to 2025, the China around Tao reflects her dilemma, gaining in material wealth at the same time that it visibly loses the warmth and richness of community. Jia intentionally thins out the presence of human beings and bleaches out the colors in his frame compositions as time marches forward, until we are left with solitary figures in colorless horizons.
But in the lonely future, Jia tantalizes us with an inexplicable moment of contact—perhaps. Lost and confused in an Australian summer, Tao’s son whispers his mother’s name, and Tao, whose enigmatically smiling face threads this film like silver moonglow, at that moment, hears his voice thousands of miles away in wintry Fengyang. She brushes away this aural apparition as implausible. Some in the audience may do the same. But those of us who cling to possibility (though mountains may depart) will yield to the poetry of Jia’s (possible) salute to the power of the primary human connection and to Tao’s (possible) assertion of the endurance of joy as she dances alone while the snow falls around her. You will have to see the film to determine for yourself whether this delicate conclusion is a funereal coda to a downward cultural slide, or the indomitable laughter of Sisyphus in the face of despair.
The Witness (86 mins.) directed by James D. Solomon, is rather in the Sisyphean category when it comes to questions of human interconnection, though laughter is not quite the form of resistance this documentary takes through its revision of urban legends about the famous Kitty Genovese case. In 1964, as reported by A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times, Kitty was returning home from work at about 3:00 a.m., when 38 people stood by the windows of their apartments and watched her being murdered by Winston Moseley, who assaulted her three times during a period of about 40 minutes in which no one did anything to help her. That was Rosenthal’s story. In 2004, Kitty’s brother William undertook a lengthy re-examination of the facts of his family’s tragedy, and that is Solomon’s story.
The double perspective, that of the Times and William Genovese’s as it evolves, is the fulcrum of this film. Suffice it to say that you will discover that it is most likely that it was neither Kitty’s neighbors, nor the psychotic Moseley, who committed the greatest crimes, but rather a cowardly and arrogant American press, which misreported important facts in order to “get a better story.” The fact that William Genovese had both of his legs amputated because of wounds he suffered during the Vietnam War, a war based on the deception of the American people, brings yet another layer to his journey, through which he, and perhaps we, achieve some closure. Genovese, who had felt adrift on a sea of doubts, finds a kind of peace through his investigations. The fact remains that his is a victory, qualified by his painful awareness that nothing can ever reconnect him with Kitty, and that he can never know the incontrovertible truth, since many of the witnesses are dead, and perhaps the newsmen and the remaining witnesses he interviews are reinventing the situation to save their own faces—a model to all of us who hunger for reality in a complex world.
Finally, we come to Measure of a Man a film by Stephane Brizé, (93 mins.)—its French title, La Loi du Marche, or the law of the marketplace. Now, imagine, if you can, that a hand is gently touching your face but that you feel as though you have been walloped hard enough to be knocked off your feet, and you will have some idea of the experience in store for you when you see this film. (As you should do.) Brizé draws a brilliantly understated, quiet portrait of Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), a man in his fifties who has lost his job and is valiantly seeking a way to support his family: you barely know that your heart is being wrenched until the tears stream down your face (yes, the men in the audience too).
Actor Vincent Lindon carries forward the torch of Jean Gabin, whose muted but intense portrayals of an iconic, devastatingly attractive, sublimely decent and strong French working man in a number of movies defined the French cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. Lindon updates that man as he exists in the increasingly dehumanized France of today, and we watch him tap every resource open to him, however unpromising, while continuing to warmly lavish love and care upon his supportive and lively wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and his feisty and upbeat disabled son (Matthieu Schaller). It doesn’t look good. Lindon’s Thierry is so impassive in the face of the ineffective government bureaucracy and the venal callousness of big business that he seems to be on his way to becoming numb. However, when the inhumanity around him reaches an impossible nadir, you realize you have been watching a deeply compassionate person being pushed beyond his limits. His final heroism defeats every American stereotype of a real man, an act of truth you must discover for yourself because any verbal description would diminish its astonishingly reserved beauty.
This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.
Martha P. Nochimson is a film and media critic, and the author of David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire (University of Texas Press, 2013). More about her work can be found here.