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An elderly and middle aged man stroll down a trail surrounded by snags (rotting trees), the sight of them walking is neither picturesque or unpleasant but the context is obvious. The two men are surrounded by death. Life After Life is a ghost story. The middle aged man is Mingchuan, a farmer whose rural way of life, in the face of China’s industrialization, is coming to a somber end. One day, while collecting firewood with his son, he is approached by the spirit of his dead wife. She has “borrowed” the body of their son to request one thing of Mingchuan. To move the tree she planted in their property before they were married. The choice to use the son as a vessel for his wife’s spirit is an odd one. It makes sense thematically—the son is the one person bonding the two—but tonally and dramatically it’s the most non-sensual and unerotic choice for a story whose nature seems inherently romantic.
The images speak for themselves in Life After Life, a film not about the things we leave behind after a loved one’s death, but the things that we hold onto after they die. Zhang Hanyi (in his directorial debut) approaches his film with a striking literalism that’s neither expressive or understated. I don’t think Hanyi yet knows how to completely capture either mood. Images of industrial complexes, wastelands and earthy infertility are filmed with a subtle touch of low-key realism, but the “dying way of life” message they invoke come across as neither subtle or low-key. Life After Life is not creepy, romantic, sad or even that naturalistic, but you’ll find Hanyi crafts his film with such tenderness and detail it’s hard not appreciate every image and the meaning he imbues into them.
I like to think of The Student as a total inversion of that pro-Christian blunder God’s Not Dead. Instead of the squeaky wheel Christian as the underdog trying to fight the system, try picturing him as a tyrant utterly controlling it. The Student, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, made a film to intellectually counteract the empowerment of the Orthodox Church in Russia, just as God’s Not Dead sought to combat its decline in the American Midwest. The only difference is that one of these “problems” actually seems to be a problem. The Student is a thrillingly crafted but often mismanaged piece of pro-secular agitprop. I agree with most of its ideas but I can’t help but despise it for using the same forceful, browbeating tactics it’s apparently fighting against.
There’s actually a lot I admired about The Student. I often found it informatively funny and assertive, there’s a surprising frailness to a homoerotic subplot in it and there’s a rhythm to its length that makes the whole thing annoyingly watchable. The characters in his film, unfortunately, don’t feel like characters. They’re too stiffly drawn and too fixed to set ideas and attitudes. The one plus here is Victoria Isakova—playing the atheist biology teacher—who unleashes a flurry of emotions that aren’t chained to the film’s monosyllabic argumentation. The Student sets out to fight fire with fire through an ambitious blend of black comedy and social commentary. But no amount of logic and directorial control can justify the movie’s moral hypocrisy.
For a film that better explores the same concerns over the control of the Orthodox Church, but with more melodious reserve, complex characterization, and an intensely “human” approach, try Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014).
Being 17 is a lukewarm, sometimes funny and sometimes boring exploration of the type of passionate frustration that comes with a sexual awakening. This French film, directed by André Téchiné (second generation Cahiers du cinéma), seems to wrestle between finding its own voice (which it often does) and fostering obvious clichés—the two boys hate each other at the start of the film, can you guess where they’ll be by the end? While it offers some unique perspectives on masculinity—one of the boys lives in a military family and the other is the son to rural farmers—its insistence to try and “earn” as many endearment points in the first hour before anything interesting happens makes its misadventures feel slightly immobile up toward a superior, more self-assured final act.
The relationship between the two young men starts as a petty rivalry at their high school, where the biracial Thomas, the adopted son of two farmers, picks on the wealthier and more intelligent Damien. Why does he pick on him? It’s unclear, but there’s a reasonable amount of class conflict and cross-cultural tension between the two. At a certain point, it feels the two only get into fisticuffs just to experience some form of sexual release. There’s a unique erotic tension between the two that never lets up or tones down. The movie, however, becomes startlingly absurd when Damien’s mother, who is also Thomas’ doctor, invites the young man to live with the two of them (while Thomas’s adoptive mother stays at the hospital). The strange yet invigorating set-up of Damien’s and Thomas’s relationship—a truly likable (if somewhat predictable) mismatch—is misspent on a premise so implausibly dim-witted you’d feel its brand of steamy fantasy role-play would feel more at home in a smut film than French art-house.