False Eden, real hell
Two outstanding movies at the 76th Cannes Film Festival
Sometimes Cannes pulls a poker face and smacks a big surprise down on its famous red carpet, all without a blink or a wink. This year, it comes in the form of a three-and-a-half-hour documentary about Chinese sweatshop workers, shot entirely in a crummy garment district on the mainland's eastern coast.
This is Youth (Spring), a film at once utterly simple and stubbornly audacious by doc-maker Wang Bing, and it's featured in the Competition section -- meaning the red-carpet treatment (without the dress code thankfully) and a projection in the festival's Grande Theatre Lumiere. Youth (Spring) is the first documentary in 19 years -- the previous one was Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 -- to be selected in Cannes' elite competition section.
Wang Bing walked the red-carpet -- though it was a 3pm screening and thus without a gaggle of models in low-cut dresses and aspiring starlets sauntering down the walkway. Usually, the film's cast accompanies the director on the walk. But not here: none of the greasy-faced young men and women we see hunching over sewing machines in the film was in Cannes to premiere the film with Wang. That's not the point of the film -- and that, to think about it, is never the point of cinema. Cannes may give off a vibe of excess, of a hyped-up, glammed-up exclusive club of the finest artists and beautiful people who make films. But sometimes it also gives us Wang Bing, and there we can't really complain.
Youth (Spring) was shot between 2014 and 2109 in Zhili, 150km from Shanghai, a town dedicated to textile manufacturing (the Spring attached to the film title signifies that this is the first part of an ongoing project). Zhili is where thousands and thousands of young Chinese, mostly in their early 20s and from across the Yangtze River, arrive every year to work in 20,000 garment factories, toiling long hours and bunking in dormitories with the hope of saving enough money to begin their future. Between shifts they hang out, hook up, drink and sing and dream, and Wang's camera is always there with them.
Basically, Wang's film watches these people work. Just like that: the camera is there looking at them work in dreary workshops with hardly any windows. We see their names and ages in captions, but nothing else. And while each of these young workers has personality and appearance, soon they begin not just to look and feel the same -- but altogether they've also come to represent a collective force, a collective dream, something massive, palpitating and invincible.
The Zone Of Interest.
On the surface, Wang's film has no formal aesthetic -- it's a straight, observant documentary with no narration. But the key is its length, the 200 minutes we spend watching these people doing pretty much the same thing over and over and arguing pretty much about the same subject again and again -- mostly demanding more wages. The amount of time the film invests in the subjects, and the same amount of time we're asked to invest in watching them, gives Youth (Spring) a pulsing, experiential, lived-in quality that goes beyond any ordinary "informative" or "fly-on-the-wall" TV docs.
The last time a documentary was in Cannes' top-tier selection, it won the Palme d'Or (Quentin Tarantino was the jury president that year, and he awarded the top prize to Fahrenheit 9/11 to the surprise of, well, everyone). It's unlikely that Youth (Spring) will repeat that same coup, and yet it's amazing enough that Cannes puts this gritty Chinese verite in the main competition.
On the opposite end of formalist construct, the 76th Cannes Film Festival also gives us the chilly-as-hell The Zone Of Interest. Adapted from a Martin Amis' novel -- Amis died one day after the film's premiere in Cannes -- the film is directed by Jonathan Glazer, the British filmmaker whose previous work was the Scarlett Johansson-starring Under The Skin. In short, The Zone Of Interest is a film about the Holocaust without the Holocaust. It's also a masterclass in film adaption and how to preserve the essence of the book without having to preserving its storyline; very likely it must win something when the Ruben Ostlund-led jury convenes to decide the awards on Saturday.
The opening shot summarily declares the film's deceptive tone. We see an idyllic scene of a family picnicking by a lake, the rapturously green grass foregrounding marble-white German bodies lounging by the water. A happy Sunday perhaps, serene, carefree and blissful -- except that this false Eden is located literally next to Auschwitz. Christian Friedel plays a Nazi camp commander skilled in designing the most efficient industrial massacre. Sandra Huller plays his wife. Together they live in a beautiful villa with a flourishing flower garden with their kids, their dog and their Jew maidservants, a villa that shares a wall with the killing factory next door.
The soil of paradise is nurtured by the ashes burnt in hell. So is Commander Rudolf's house and garden. The Zone Of Interest never shows us the terror inside the camp, never once do we see what's happening inside Auschwitz. Instead, the whole film is constructed around unruffled domestic life -- family meals, a pool party, their children, her mother's visit, etc. But while the pristine normalcy of the house is smack in front, behind it we see a furnace blowing black smoke. We hear constant, unidentified gunshots; we hear screams and shouts. None of this is explained, nor does it need to be. Two things are happening simultaneously in every scene: the happy life of a Nazi family that we see, and that unspeakable, unseeable horror of the concentration camp that we don't.
In the Martin Amis' original novel, the story is told through different points of view, and there's a plot about a young Nazi officer falling in love with Rudolf's wife. In the film, there's hardly any clear story or plot, while emotion is pared to its essence. But what's sustained throughout is a pervading sense of dread -- you don't have to see people being gassed when you can hear their screams in the middle of the night. Glazer gives us a version of hell as cold as the Arctic, and as bright as the most beautiful summer day in Berlin.
There's no information on whether Youth (Spring) and The Zone Of Interest will be coming to Thailand or not.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival will announce its winners on Saturday.