Spank's LFF Diary, Wednesday 05/10/2022
Spank's LFF Diary, Friday 07/10/2022

Spank's LFF Diary, Thursday 06/10/2022

Reviewed today: Hidden Letters, LFF Expanded.

Walzer11.00am: LFF Expanded [official site]

This time last year, I don’t think we’d even heard of Leake Street. Round the back of Waterloo, you say? It’s hardly one of the must-see districts of London, surely? And then we went to 26 Leake Street during the 2021 festival for LFF Expanded, their second attempt at a showcase of (and I’m quoting here) ‘immersive art and extended reality’. It’s then we discovered that the Leake Street Arches are home to all manner of trendy businesses, plus a huge stretch of graffiti art that tourists flock to from all over the world to take pictures.

We’re returning to Leake Street one year later, and the biggest change is that BrewDog have opened a bloody enormous bar at one end of the street. (There goes the neighbourhood.) But the plan at number 26 is still the same: an exhibition that moves beyond the standard definitions of moving image artwork. Probably the most radical of these is As Mine Exactly, in which you’re locked on your own in a room with Charlie Shackleton while he shows you his family album through a VR helmet. For a number of reasons, we’re not seeing that one, but we get to experience half a dozen of the other works during our 90 minute timeslot, with the help of some ruthless time management (i.e. walking away from a piece if it gets boring).

I think we walked away from Wu Tsang's A Mighty Mass Emerges [trailer] early: it’s hard to tell. The premise is sound – a series of imaginary seascapes giving you a whale’s eye view of the ocean – but they’re so slow-moving that it’s hard to engage with the piece, and the repetition of some sequences makes me unsure if it’s on a loop or not. There’s also the problem that when you hold a static POV for a couple of minutes – even if it’s a 360 degree one – it gives you time to notice the low-quality rendering of some of the imagery. We definitely walked away from ScanLAB's Framerate: Pulse Of The Earth [official site] early, because it’s 25 minutes long and we don’t have time for it. As it is, it’s a standard multi-screen video installation like you’d see in any modern art gallery these days: the individual loops of time lapse footage are pretty, but together they don’t add up to much.

Two of the pieces we see are narrative-based, and regular readers will know about one of them already. Clément Deneux's Missing Pictures Episode 3: The Monkey Wrench Gang [trailer] is the third chapter of the ongoing series where directors talk about the movies that got away. Here, it’s Catherine Hardwicke outlining her adaptation of Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which failed to get off the ground despite a William Goldman script and an all-star cast. We get an enjoyably animated summary of the plot on screen, but like the Abel Ferrara episode it’s too keen to use the full three-sixty viewpoint just because it can: there’s not really any reason why this couldn’t have been a single-screen animated short. Mélanie Courtinat’s All Unsaved Progress Will Be Lost [official site], however, uses the medium of VR effectively, taking you on a slow walk through an increasingly devastated landscape while onscreen captions tell you the story of one person who refused to leave there – made all the more alarming at the end when the source of the quotes is revealed (though you may have guessed it by then).

My two favourite pieces, though, are entirely non-narrative. Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli's Pan + Tilt [artists' site] is a diptych of complementary VR experiences inspired by the work of choreographer Joan Skinner. Tilt doesn’t seem to do much other than change colour depending on your movement: Pan is where the real fun is, as you walk between three different stages where abstract forms dance alarmingly close to you. The interactivity of you having to find the locations (hint: head towards the floor blobs) is part of what makes it engaging, and that goes double for Frieda Gustavs and Leo Erken's Walzer [official site]. You’re given a headset and a pair of joysticks, and get to navigate your way through a huge landscape made up of fragments of old photos. Aside from the traditional video game frustration at not being able to go down particular paths for non-specific reasons, every corner you turn brings up a whole new set of sights to be seen. Of the six pieces we saw, Walzer is the one I could happily have wandered around for another half hour or so, although I have to admit I didn't pick up on any of the narrative threads described on the official site. (If you somehow happen to have access to Oculus TV, Walzer is one of a small subset of the LFF Expanded experiences you can watch at home until October 23rd.)

Is this the sort of area that the LFF should be dabbling in? On balance, I’d say yes: as moving image technologies evolve, a film festival needs to adapt or die, particularly following the shocking news today that Edinburgh's film festival has died. But having given the Expanded strand a chunk of my time for three years in a row, I suspect the novelty’s starting to wear off. In future years, I’ll probably wait and see what’s showing before making the decision whether to attend or not.

Hidden Letters4.00pm: Hidden Letters [official site]

Two of my favourite things are ticked off by a single film here: documentaries, and stories of contemporary China. Although this one doesn’t start out contemporary. A century or so ago, when Chinese women were at their most oppressed, some of them invented a secret written language called Nushu: men didn’t understand it, so it allowed them to share their hidden thoughts with other women. Most of their writings went with their writers to the grave, so Nushu has largely remained obscure: these days, there are only half a dozen or so women who are registered practitioners of it.

Violet Du Feng’s film (with Zhao Qing credited as co-director) focusses on two of the younger women in that group of six. Hu Xin has become the public face of the language, giving calligraphy demonstrations and talking to older women about their experiences using it. Simu is a singer and artist who uses the language in her work. Both of them, somewhat predictably, experience pushback when they go out into modern China to explain what this language signifies in terms of women’s role in society: things may not be as bad as they were a century ago, but they’re still far from perfect.

If you had to sit down and write a satirical comedy on the patriarchy in China, you’d probably end up with something a lot like this. Sure, the women’s stories are fascinating and moving, but it’s the sly humour that I enjoyed the most. As Hu Xin and Simu patiently explain the historical importance of Nushu, the men they talk to consistently do one of two things: they either belittle it, or argue about ways to exploit it financially. (Amazingly, ‘Nushu engraved nunchucks’ is not the most stupid idea put forward by a man here.) If there’s one scene that feels almost too perfect to be true, it’s the official opening of a Nushu cultural centre, in which everyone involved in the ceremony is male, and none of them is capable of unveiling a plaque without ballsing it up.

This is Du Feng’s first film as a director after several years as a producer, and it’s a lovely piece of work: the deep emotional pull of its two central stories is beautifully balanced by the dark wit of its depiction of men failing to engage, featuring more exasperated looks to camera from the leads than you'd get in your average episode of The Office. She’s a name to watch in future years, I think.


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