SIFF Day 3 – Trust your gut (within reason)

From China’s Yunnan province, A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE represents one end of the quality spectrum, while Thailand’s THE LITTLE COMEDIAN represents the other…

Hao Yupeng and Wang Xueqi in A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE

>>> 消失的村庄 (A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE) (2011, China, 84′) Dir./Scr. Lin Lisheng – DP. Qu Li’nan – Music. Shen Yiling [Screening in New Chinese Productions & Media Award block]

When choosing from a festival line-up I place the most responsibility on my gut. With a loose quota of Chinese films to fill (so as not to ignore the material produced in my current backyard) I more or less judged my choice of films based on single images and the first two lines of each film’s synopsis. This practice can yield wildly mixed results but it pays-off with a kick when confronted with a gem like A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE at 13:30 on a dull, humid Monday.

City official, Lü Guo (Ren Long) gathers together his friends and younger brother to return to their home village in China’s Yunnan province to bury his father, who has supposedly been killed by the chicken thieves that have been pillaging the community of late. When the young men arrive to find Old Lü (Wang Xueqi) alive and well, they wonder exactly why any of them should have been called back and, tempted by the comforts and sentiments of their old home, decide to stay and root-out the chicken thieves. The witness testimonial hearing conducted by officious rookie police officer, Houdan (Xu Jindong) sets the tone for the increasingly ham-fisted investigation, as Houdan slips quickly to the end of his tether when interviewing his spritely, partially deaf elderly uncle. Parallel to the chicken-thieves is the issue of the villagers’ relocation, which Lü Guo is handling for the government that looks to turn the area into a sanctuary for the local crane population. (Much has been made of the film’s “green” credentials by various government bodies within China, whose funds contributed substantially to this remarkable film). Lü Guo’s meek but dutiful nature does not help the fact that in order to convince the villagers to move, he must first convince his father, whose checkered history with his younger son, Lü Shan (Zhu Yuchen), fuels the rage and bitterness that now maintains the old man’s glacial stubborness.

Lin Lisheng’s pitch-perfect rural drama finely blends its matter-of-fact comic style with a story of beligerant emotional neglect and characters bound by barely tangible invisible cords, tethering them to frustration and regret. In a film with so many visual gags and crackling jabs at the pomposity of China’s recently urbanized rural youth it is a testament to the talents of Lisheng and his cast that every comic character gets a naturally expressed history of emotional highs and lows and even some insight into how these have motivated their morally righteous and morally irresponsible decisions. That said, it is a film that reveals much about its central characters but leaves the details of their backstory quite unspecified. This might sound like a major flaw, yet there is a point in the backstory where prior motives and events lose their significance as the characters involved transform into the people now dealing with the present. A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE has many strong cards in its hand, but perhaps none stronger than the plausible and unpredictable transformation of its characters.

The synergy between script, actor and camera is remarkable, at first seeming only to lend greatest impact to the openly comedic scenes in theatrical wide shots and caricaturish close-ups (the first of which ends with the timeless line, “How did you find a man who castrates pigs to pull out your tooth?”). As connections between the characters deepen and old wounds are opened, Lisheng and cinematographer, Qu Li’nan’s, patient and dramatically staged tableaux take on even more memorable compositions as they reveal the slow unravelling of the invisible cords holding the protagonists a hair’s breadth away from happiness.

In every respect, this is exactly the kind of film that festivals exist to reveal; surfacing with none of the pretense and pomposity easily infused in dramas surrounding environmental issues or the disruption of rural life. Perhaps this is because the film is so clearly about much more than these two subjects and peopled with characters so deeply of their time and place, yet universally relatable. It’ll be a tough act to beat in the days that follow.

Chawin likitjareonpong and a duck in THE LITTLE COMEDIAN

>>> บ้านฉัน…ตลกไว้ก่อน (พ่อสอนไว้ (a.k.a THE LITTLE COMEDIAN(2010, Thailand, 129′) Dir. Witthaya Thongyooyong/Mez Tharatorn – Scr. Witthaya Thongyooyong/Mez Tharatorn/Aummaraporn Phandingtong – DP. Naruepol Chokkanapitaks – Music. Hualampong Riddim/Vichaya Vatanaspat – Prod. Jira Maligool/Vanridee Pongsittisak/Chenchonnanee Sonnthonsaratul/Suvimon Techasupinun [Screening in Thai Week block]

Proud, though I am, of my gut’s ability to pick a winner like A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE out of the festival programme, I must concede that even my gut cannot be trusted all the time. Case-in-point: THE LITTLE COMEDIAN, a loving tribute to Thailand’s waning troupes of cafe comics, whose jokes and routines are passed-down over decades, and have fallen on increasingly hard times since the turn of the millenium. Tock (Chawin Litkitjareonpong) is the heir to the great comedic history of the Plern family but he cannot deliver a joke to save his life. His father (Jaturong Mokjok) despairs over the boy’s unfunniness and wonders what will become of the generations-old Plern comedy troupe. One day, when following a classmate to the local clinic (for some graphic treatment of pimples), Tock encounters the beautiful, squeaky-clean Dr Nam Kan (Paula Taylor), the only person in the world that laughs at his jokes, and immediately falls head-over-heels in love.

Of the many problems that arise within the first ten minutes of THE LITTLE COMEDIAN, the biggest is the fact that not only is Tock not funny, but neither is his father, for all we know. He and his troupe are not shown to pull-off any one joke together and, on top of everything, the film’s sense of humor, both in and around the troupe, is excruciatingly lame. Despite of some genuinely charming and amusing performances from its supporting child actors (especially Nichapat Jaruratnawaree as Tock’s sister, Salmon) no laughs arise from the staid jokes, bland musical score, over-mugged on-screen laughs or the incessant use of drum snaps and whistle tubes to sweeten every punchline that belly flops its way from script to screen.

Though I found myself in an audience not lacking for fans of this brand of humor (the woman next to me would have been well advised to wear a TENA pad), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if a comedy about comedians requires non-stop sound effects to get the message across, then the writers should take a stab at tragedy instead.

After 45 minutes of abject mirthlessness, it dawned on me that somewhere I had read the running time of the film and I decided that another 84 minutes of comedy record scratches and fingers in a duck’s arse-hole was more than I could take.

A DISAPPEARING VILLAGE trailer (Mandarin – English subs – SPOILERS!)

^ THE LITTLE COMEDIAN trailer (Thai – English subs)

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