Day 10 is a day of love and it consists of two movies from actress-turn-director women. Both are the more feminist look on the notion of love. For Lady Bird, it’s a coming of a tale of a girl examining her love with her Mom and her hometown; for Love Education, it’s a tale of romantic love and family. Both Sylvia Chang and Greta Gerwig might be remembered more as an actress (for all the right reasons too), but you could view those films as their passion project. They wrote (in case of Chang, co-wrote) and involved in many stages of the production. Day 10 also boasts some of the stronger performances by female leads: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in the Sacramento-set film and Sylvia Chang herself with Wu Yanshu in the latter. Click on to see how these two fare. For past coverage, just click on the image on the sidebar, it’ll lead you to the Festival’s main page.
Technical note: for some reasons the sliders in previous posts didn’t work properly so in the meantime, I’m changing to this slider layout. Still prefer the shortcodes version (since it’s handy) but won’t use it until it fixes the issues.
Greta Gerwig: born in 1983, is an American actress, director, and writer. She first garnered attention after appearing in numerous mumblecore movies. Since 2010, Gerwig has collaborated with her boyfriend Noah Baumbach on numerous films, including ‘Frances Ha,’ ‘Greenberg’ and ‘Mistress America.’ As a solo director, she has contributed to the critically acclaimed fun drama flick ‘Lady Bird’ that earned her two Academy Award nominations.
“I definitely wanted to make a movie about Sacramento, and the first germ of the movie was how I would go about telling that story. None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth. I think I always have to start from some emotional truth and build out from there. Most of it is not real, but certainly there is a core that is.”
Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical directorial debut by Greta Gerwig, transforms a well-rodden coming-of-age story with wit and insight. Watching the film second time, I even become softer to some of my criticisms about it from the first viewing. It’s true that her romances are conventional and they span out quickly – by the time of half an hour mark Christine (I use her real name to separate her character from the film’s title) was done with her first crush Danny and she broke up with her second date Kyle after reaching an hour mark. Yet this time it hits me that her coming-of-age tale isn’t the film’s main focus. Well, yes it still is but the film’s big arc has to do with her relation to her hometown Sacramento and her relation to her mother, both she feels frustrated towards but always finds herself reevaluating time and again. That’s the main reason why Lady Bird skims the surface of her mundane growing up experience (her score-cheating, her prom) into vignettes just like how you page through someone’s personal photo gallery. And like looking through someone’s pictures you can sense the specific atmosphere of that certain era and how the subject change over the time.
And Lady Bird has no amount of shortage when it comes to projecting Christine’s perspective and fleshing out her character. Christine is, simply put, one of the best well-written teenage characters in years. She’s a bag of contradictions: hates her Mom’s gut but always defenses her when someone badmouth her; asserts her personality into almost everything, even if she doesn’t totally get it; her “doesn’t-give-a-damn” attitude, yet still seeking for peer-acceptance. In order words, Christine behaves exactly like teenagers at that age: confuse, always something more. Christine role feels like a breakout performance from a newbie who gives this role their all. The fact that it comes from a twice Oscar-nominated star Saoirse Ronan who goes back to her root is even more impressive.
It helps that Gerwig writes many snappy quotable dialogues that it’s just an earworm to listen to and see how the characters play out. The film literally starts off with a bona-fide exchange between Christine and her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when the two switch between shared emotion to heatly argument to her jumping off a moving car in a span of minutes with easy. Almost every character has killer lines (my favorite: “The Tempest is a titular role”). In addition, the film’s effortless editing makes the film flow breezly (some might say, too breezly).
But the central heart the film tracks down her relationship with her mom, two strong personalities find themselves at war with each other. Lashing out in one moment, tendering the next moment, they clearly love each other, but both doesn’t know how to reach the other. Metcalf is superb in the role, tough, intimidating but ultimately real. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be” says her, in which Christine promptly asks “What if this is the best version?”. Their dynamic in particular, and Lady Bird as a whole, has its achingly keen inside about relationship and growing up. Her almost silent detour at the airport, when we finally see her hard shelf breaks, it lands and it lands hard. The naked truth in emotions and growing extend to her feeling of her hometown, Sacramento too. Gerwig herself is a Sacramento native and we can see her love to this hometown through the way she pays attention to the places. Just like how a nun talks to Christine. Although she always claims she hates this boring town, reading from her writing piece she can tell that it is not the case. That eventually when she’s in the new place she starts to call back all the corners, the town, the people. Homeplace and family, after all, are the root of a person’s identity. Until she can embrace those as part of make her herself, then it’s a mark of her maturity.
Sylvia Chang: Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, born in Taiwan and based in Hong Kong since the late 1970s, has had an astonishing and creative film career over the past 40 years in the field of acting, writing, producing and directing. In 1981, she made her directorial debut, Once Upon a Time, as well as winning the Golden Horse Best Actress Award for her performance in My Grandfather. Since then, she has appeared in more than 100 feature films, working with some of the best directors in the Chinese cinema. Undisputedly one of the most accomplished directors in the Hong Kong cinema, Ms Chang is renowned for the delicate portrayal of her female characters.
“ to me home is where my family is and where my love is. Therefore, to me the distance occurs if you are searching for something outside that. I find that people nowadays are always searching so much for other things, material things, fame, richness, success, whatever, but that is really away from them, the distance became big and once you have searched in that direction you end up really away from where your heart really is.”
Love Education starts on such a wrong note that had me worried for a bit. It begins with the final moments of Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang, who also directed) mother on her dying bed. Visualizing a person’s final moments is always a tricky job, and Sylvia Chang’s use of frozen motion, dreamy out-of-consciousness visual and over-melodramatic score feel oddly artificial, given the context. Thankfully, Love Education picks up when the main plot kick in. Directed, co-written and acted by a long-lasting career Sylvia Chang (in that order of sufficiency), the story the serves as an examination of what constitutes love through three main women in different stages of their lives. Huiying wants to move her father’s grave close to her Mom’s as her final wish, the only issue with that is that his grave is looked after by his first wife, Nana (the veteran Wu Yanshu). Throughout the burial dispute between them, the women (including Huiying’s sheltered daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting) has a chance to reevaluate their view on love and their own relationship.
At the centre of this storm is the old woman Nana. We soon learn that it was an arranged marriage and her husband left her within a year for Taiwan. The next time she met him again was him in a coffin. Yet it’s her role as wife/widow and her blind loyalty to the man who eventually betrays her that makes a tragic character. It might sound like her character begs for our sympathy but thankfully, Yanshu shows many new sides to the character. Her “pinching the ear” is both hilarious and tells us her more childish side, and her opening up Weiwei and her boyfriend adds up a lot to her complexity. Likewise, Huiying, whose fear of her coming retirement, her occasional issues with her husband plus her demanding personality make her a force to be reckoned with. Chang’s never shy on showing her character’s stubbornness, but at the same time never overplays it, so that she doesn’t come off as unbearable or unrelatable. It’s the film’s substantial character writing and moreover, the skillful acting of the main leads that make Love Education raise above it’s more hammy plot developments.
Then we have serviceable, albeit unremarkable outlook to Weiwei character. She has enough of her Mom’s strictness, she has a boyfriend who wants to move on to the next stage. As she gets closer to Nana, we can see that while their attitude about love and commitment might be different, their situations as womanhood aren’t that much different. Her singer boyfriend A-Da (Song Ning) doesn’t have much screentime but he does the best he could there. I particularly like the moment he lies down inside the coffin before making up his mind to leave. The film doesn’t delve into it much but I can understand the feeling where you’re inside the coffin, you have an urge to speed up because time doesn’t wait for anyone. The bright chemistry between Weiwei and Nana is also the film’s good touch as it brings out the best from the two characters.
Occasionally, Love Education serves as a social commentary on the ever-growing industrial society that it modernises everything with the cost of its past. Both Nana and Huiying’s trouble to find proof for her/her Mom marriage certificate for example. At one point, Huiying and her husband (Tian Zhuangzhuang) go back to the Street Office where they used to live just so that the place resembles nothing to the old place. Or the cycle of passing authorial responsibility that a simple proof just gets harder and harder. Most notably, Weiwei’s workplace, a reality program that goes out its way to meet audience’s interest by exploiting the privacy of Huiying and Nana. These factors provide another edge to the film, while never overwhelming the characters’ drama for it. Still, many of Love Education’s progressions aren’t subtle at all. It closes its thread well enough, but moments like Nana’s (photoshopped) picture with her husband got wet and blurred right at his face is a bit on the nose, the same goes for the many sub-subplots like A-Da’s ex partner or the Huiying’s husband student. Even though Mark Lee Ping-bing serves as a cinematographer, the film is unpolished in terms of visual, with often-time dull lighting. Love, and the importance of family, as Love Education suggest, might take different forms through many generations, yet at its core they’re almost the same.
So another day runs by. In Day 11, we’ll head to two films that are characteristically the product of their countries, in a sense that they tackle their own customs that further mark the diversity of cinema medium. We’ll head to Palestine for Wajib by Annemarie Jacir, about a titular Palestine custom of visiting friends’ to hand-deliver wedding invitation by the real-life father and son, and then we’ll move to Indonesia for the lyrical The Seen and the Unseen by Kamila Andini about a girl who fuses Indonesian mythology to cope with her brother’s sudden illness. I’ll see you shortly there.