Being a young correspondent at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) means you don’t get to queue in the ticketholder line, but that you must arrive extremely early to claim one of the limited spots allotted to passholders and stand in line with gregarious, though often confused, industry people. Compared to the very placid crowd that contemporary cinema in Vancouver draws during the rest of the year, the atmosphere of the festival can be remarkably hostile at times. This is due in part to an audience that mixes regular cinematheque goers with festival patrons, who typically only show up to the movies for this once-a-year event, ostensibly to check off the art-house box in their annual cultural inventory. Though I arrived at every queue armed with a book and sound cancelling headphones, it became somewhat of a morbid pastime to try and spot the patrons. I had the opportunity to watch—and judge, apparently—how people would behave outside the screenings, then try to reconcile what I observed with the fact they were about to watch a film about how people are selfish and horrible (Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless) or selfishly motivated to help others (Ruben Ostlund’s The Square). I watched people shove each other in order for the chance to attend a sold out screening of a documentary about First Nations peoples against the state and developers (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city). As a result, my festival was coloured by and sensitized towards films that addressed impulses to observe human behaviours.
This extended to an interest in several of this year’s selections that dealt with surveillance. The heaviest and most obvious example of this was Chinese artist Xu Bing’s first feature length film Dragonfly Eyes, a 90-minute collage of CCTV camera footage in China raked from what is only generically referred to as “the cloud.” Xu’s large scale sculptures have involved salvaging or collecting materials that are imbued with the meaning of their source and context—and his first foray into filmmaking mobilizes a similar approach. Dragonfly Eyes could have been a meditation on the privacy that a nation obsessed with security forfeits, that the norm of mass surveillance has subconsciously charged society with the idea that people—women especially—must be beautiful, as they are never not being looked at. However, though the concept is bold and interesting in description, Xu has undermined the success of this project by superimposing a tangential stalker story and medical horror plot half-baked inside a love story buttressed by identity theft.
The central character of Xu’s film is Qing Ting (‘Dragonfly’ voiced by poet Liu Yongfang). She drops out of her training at a buddhist monastery and captures the affection of a overly protective and hot-tempered agricultural technician, Ke Fan (voiced by Su Shangqing), who ends up in jail after committing vehicular assault in her honour. While Ke is in jail, Qing Ting gets plastic surgery and changes her identity, maybe, just maybe, so that her emotionally disturbed boyfriend can’t find her when he gets out of jail. When Ke Fan completes his three year sentence, he, of course, goes looking for Qing Ting, and cannot find her despite visiting all her former places of employment. Are we supposed to cheer him on in his search for his love?
There are text-to-speech interludes that spout platitudes about identity, a man who is “seen 3000 times a day,” a woman whose “privacy is all used up” and then interspersed footage of unrelated disaster porn and domestic abuse to bolster the already meager sense of superficial intensity. Xu is trained as a printmaker, the Vice President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and in a generation of Chinese conceptualists is considered the politically palatable counterpart to Ai Weiwei. How radical of a film could we hope for? His assistants are purported to have watched 10,000 hours of footage to collage together the edit for this awkwardly built narrative—but if you think about it, this is an extremely narrow cross-section in the grand scheme of things. If there are 8760 hours in a year, 10,000 hours only amounts to just over a year of footage captured by a single 24 hour camera, but there are over twenty million CCTV cameras installed in China. We see a bias towards the morbid and banal. Yes, terrible and boring things happen all the time, but these images are primed for the audience’s dissociation if we are subject to viewing them in succession through the fog of a bad story.
The morbid and banal find equilibrium in Michael Haneke’s Happy End. Haneke deploys that pairing as the foundation for his film and incorporates the screen of digital media as the preeminent site for the terrible and boring. The film opens with the screen-cum-viewfinder of a smartphone. The length of a short hallway separates the user of the device and a bathroom door where we see a woman conducting her evening routine. We are looking at this woman through the apparatus of a livestreaming app as commentary predicts her actions—piss, wash, brush, spit—floats up on screen. The clinical commentary disparagingly continues in other frames of this woman. Whoever is watching her is a resident voyeur, attuned to her habits, passing judgement, and definitely plotting. The vertical aspect ratio of the smartphone returns periodically throughout the film as an apparatus to frame a meditation on, or premeditation for, death. The user turns out to be the perceptive and subtly macabre thirteen year old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), who comes to live with her father’s family after her mother is hospitalized. The film also portrays the composition of lustful emails and instant messaging dialogue. The language of romance here is, as I’ve been told by a native speaker, antiquated, overblown, and very French. The stilted tapping on the keyboard is a comical overture for the salacious correspondence, but perhaps it’s nice to see that the neutered interface of social media network platforms don’t seem to obstruct truly libidinal expressions.
Eve’s tendency to wield her smartphone as a diaristic device is telling of her inner mental life, of which we are not privy to any other character. She is as emotionally savvy as she is tech savvy, but an internet audience might consider her prematurely dark. An archetype of a moody teenager with a smartphone, but Haneke avoids it. Eve’s presence in the film functions as a kind of lightning rod for her father’s European bourgeois family’s slanted morality. After hacking into her father’s laptop to discover messages from another woman and becoming the confidant for her grandfather’s not-so-secret desire to die, Eve’s ability to process the counternarratives of adulthood magnifies the fallacy of maturity, which is that when you get older, you don’t become a better or happier person, but just necessarily more agile and clandestine about fulfilling your motives, wherever they fall on a spectrum between the individualistic or utilitarian. Eve is a camera for the audience who processes her family’s image against the more placid one they wish to impress upon her. Certain cameras upon us invoke the feeling of surveillance. Other cameras, when their lens is upon us, say “I see you” and this can be affectionate, threatening, and mostly unnerving because this camera is attached to an operator that might hold you accountable for the images it produces. Eve’s combined ability to quietly observe as well as infiltrate the privacy of her family members is surely a consummate amalgam of both.
In Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera, the film begins when Manhee (Kim Min-hee), a Korean film sales rep, is getting dismissed from her job while working in Cannes. Her boss, Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee), has come to the realization that Manhee is a “dishonest person” and can no longer in good conscience employ her. While Manhee processes the confusion around what might have precipitated this judgement call, she suddenly proposes taking a selfie with Yanghye to “commemorate” the firing. Yanghye asks ‘Is this necessary?,” but Manhee’s phone is already poised to take the selfie, and she strikes a pursed smile. By initiating the selfie, we witness an unexpected redistribution of power over the situation—although it’s a petty triumph, Manhee has at least made her former boss feel sufficiently awkward.
Manhee remains in Cannes despite being severed from her reason to be there. Claire (Isabelle Huppert) spots her strolling on the beach and asks to take her picture with her instant camera. Claire has come to Cannes with a friend who is premiering a film, but Sang-soo has done well to completely excise any of the characteristic chaos that the cast, crew and characters would normally face at Cannes, where the film was shot on location last year. Claire’s pragmatic and candid charms also find her in the company of Director So and Manhee’s former boss. In stark contrast to the kind of frenzied glamour regularly ascribed to the festival, scenes between Claire and Manhee, So, and Yanghye have a leisurely pace.
After Claire takes Manhee’s picture, they exchange compliments about their respective beauty in simple conversational English and then Manhee offers to make her lunch. They walk across a bridge together while Manhee sings a jingle she wrote about counting to ten. Claire remarks approvingly. As a backdrop, the festival recedes so perfectly and the film’s placid quirkiness really becomes an inside joke for the whole film industry.
As demonstrated in the selfie scene, taking a picture has a way of imposing an ill-defined importance to a moment, but Claire’s approach to capturing her subjects with her instant camera gives texture to the amicable prelude of befriending strangers in an unfamiliar place. While the pictures she makes may not be very formally interesting, they are an accessory to propelling life and conversation, rather than invoking the weightiness of documentation. As the pictures accumulate in her little blue purse, they become an index of everyone she meets. When Manhee and Yanghye and So, separately, shuffle through them to find pictures of each other, it catalyzes a quiet resolve to address the problematic workplace dynamic among them. Claire’s not watching anyone—she doesn’t even watch a single film—but taking pictures is her way of saying “I see you, and now I have also met you.”
Neither of Haneke and Sang-soo’s two very different films is about surveillance, but each film’s incorporation of the lens of contemporary media impressed upon me more relevant, more applicable commentaries on casual surveillance and image production. Their subtle use of social media and nostalgic photographic devices had more to say on the subject than Xu Bing’s head-on approach. Xu and his assistants spent a lot of time watching footage of people, but his intention wasn’t to see them any differently than the twenty million cameras installed across his country.
The Vancouver International Film Festival ran from September 28 to October 13, 2017.
STEFFANIE LING is a writer, critic, and curator at VIVO Media Arts Centre in Vancouver, Canada. Her books are Nascar (Blank Cheque, 2016) and Cuts of Thin Meat (Spare Room, 2015).