Running in reel time

Reviews from reelout 9’s first weekend: lesbians in rural China, the story of a soundtrack and a collection of shorts from Western Canada

The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters features lush cinematic landscapes to compliment a slow and solemn story.
The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters features lush cinematic landscapes to compliment a slow and solemn story.
Credit: 
Supplied

The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters

Outlawed lesbian love in rural China disturbs the feng shui of an agrarian utopia in The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters—a lethargicyet visually captivating illicit romance set in the early ’90s.

Like many films set in rural Asia (although set in China, this film was shot in the lavish jungles of Vietnam) the images have that hallucinatory quality of surreal beauty—the camera glides smoothly across the still waters of untouched valleys, slowly panning across the forest floor as green hues blend with the bright reds of rustic Asia—and, accompanied by an extravagant soundtrack full of string instruments, this pastoral tale does its landscape justice. The plot, on the other hand, is stone sober.

At the outset of the film, after the camera does its first of many silent swoops over a serene Vietnamese countryside, Li Min (the French-born, half-Chinese Mylene Jampanoi), who has been parentless since the age of three, leaves the orphanage she calls home to serve as a trainee for the famed and notoriously strict Chen (Dongfu Lin). Enter the one and only laugh-worthy moment in the film when Chen gives Li Min a housewarming gift—a talking bird that repeats “Long live Chairman Mao!”

The beautiful Cheng An (Li Xiaoran) is the daughter-turned-servant of Chen, who has, since the passing of his wife, become obsessed with exactitude and routine. Their beautiful botanical island for three quickly, inevitably, and rather anticlimactically, begins blooming the seed of sensual romance between Min and An.

When An’s brother comes home from military duties in Tibet, Chen immediately convinces his son to propose to the shy Min. After a couple awkward scenes of forced emotion, Min agrees to the proposal after chasing down a distraught An and convincing her, via the unleashing of love-birds to the wild—a thoroughly unoriginal, saccharine moment—that it’s only through this marriage that they will truly be together, as sisters-in-law.

The narrative finally has some pull when, on their honeymoon to a sub-par hotel where they eat takeout and sleep on the floor, Min is forced to explain her loss of virginity to her big, bad, heteronormative husband, or face the consequences. Min stubbornly refuses, instigating domestic abuse.

To its credit, the film does capture a couple moments of heart-wrenching dramatics, but they lack strength or terseness, consistently relying on melodramatic music and beautiful scenery to evoke some form of emotion in the audience. What should be heartbreakingly tragic is merely ordinary and stereotypical—a tale of raw passion and persecution dealt with in an excessively delicate manner, detracting from candidness and overly embellishing its decorum.

—Taylor Burns

Fairies from the Prairies

The Wild West has more to offer than archaic gender stereotypes. There’s a sense of adventure and exploration as well as tradition and home that can translate into cutting-edge yet remarkably relatable art. Fairies from the Prairies, one of two short programs featured in this year’s festival, offers film-goers a glimpse into the queer artistic landscape that has come out of the western provinces. Growing into its place among Canadian film festivals, reelout makes available to the Kingston community some Canada’s most progressive shorts. Whether following an experimental or conventional narrative path, the programme’s films all have one thing in common: the film-makers call the prairies home.

With this root of creation in common, the package threads the films together and still leaves room for variation. Acknowledging the rural west as a site of groundbreaking creativity adds a refreshing twist to the festival because it broadens its scope while keeping it within national boundaries. Beginning the package is Keith Murray’s “Cowboi,” where a cowboy in underwear dances to a remixed club version of a Woody Guthrie song. The clash of gay and Western culture as embodied by the dancer is intriguing at first but the two-minute short pales in comparison to some of the other more intricate and entertaining shorts.

Murray’s other film in the program,“DIY: Do It Yourself,” is playful and more meaningful as it depicts a fervent sexual tryst that attempts to reconcile one’s masculine and feminine identities both internally and externally.

“Archaeology And You” by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan is a brilliant, fragmented monologue that delves into humanity’s relationship with history and language. Millan bares herself naked, from the shoulders up, and delivers lucid and honest thoughts as the camera cuts—at varied speeds—to her speaking in front of different coloured backdrops. She contemplates an individual’s place in history without seeming didactic or pompous and it’s not surprising that the piece has also been part of the artists’ video installation that appeared at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Trevor Anderson’s films standout as polished and well-executed. “Rock Pocket” reaches into Anderson’s memory and recalls a childhood realization that he would never have the opportunity to walk with his hand his boyfriend’s pocket at the local town fair. In his film he and a straight friend go to the midway, hands in each other’s back pockets as Anderson’s soundtrack rocks out.

The plot is simple but the filming brings more to the table, as it zooms into his 10-year-old self’s head-gear and flashes of a dizzying, rural midway. Anderson’s sense of vocal narration treats the topic with humour and analysis.

Other highlights include the hilarious “Helpless Maiden Makes an ‘I’ Statement,” which juxtaposes scenes with hallmark wicked witches such as Anjelica Houston and the Queen from Snow White against a hand-cuffed woman trying to tell her lover that she’s domineering. Stop-motion animation using dolls also makes an appearance in the roster as Roewan Crowe debunks Western archetypal patriarchy, represented by figurine John Wane in “Queer Grit,” with a young woman’s coming out. The dolls are actually charming as actors and balance surrealism with real issues.

What’s most astounding is that it’s some of the lower budget films that really make an impact. Michelle Wong’s “Do Wok A Do” is clearly high-budget but its poor acting, fast pace and awkward dialogue fail to charm the audience the way a coming of age story should.

Themes of self-discovery and home are well-worn. But this short programme expresses them with refreshing and subversive perspectives as artists present their stories—fictional, real or a combination of both.

—Adèle Barclay

Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig

John Cameron Mitchell’s musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an instant cult hit, but the fandom didn’t end there. The film, which tells the story of a transsexual punk rocker from East Germany, was originally an Off-Broadway musical.

Music was so integral to the story that two years after the film was released, it spawned a tribute album, Wig in a Box, released in 2003.

One of the films screened at last weekend’s reelout events, Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, is a documentary about the making of Wig in a Box.

The small movie with a big cast is directed by Katherine Linton. The film presents an interesting dichotomy: it often has the look and intimacy of a low-budget student film, and yet it also features some of the biggest names in indie rock.

The film splits its narrative focus between two stories: the recording of the tribute album, featuring high-profile artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Polyphonic Spree, Ben Folds, Spoon, Pixies and Yo La Tengo, and the lives of students at the Harvey Milk School for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered teens, for which the album raises money.

Follow My Voice tracks the creation of Wig in a Box, mainly through footage of recording sessions and interviews. At the same time, it takes a more inventive approach to documenting the students at Harvey Milk School. Linton allows for the action to unfold naturally, giving four students their own cameras for video diaries and following them for an extended period of time. She doesn’t use a narrator, but rather gives focus and direction to the film by paralleling events in the students’ lives with the recording of songs that have a similar mood.

There’s a loose connection drawn between the two stories so the film at times feels disjointed. It’s never explained why Chris Slusarenko, the man responsible for the creation and production of the album, chose to benefit the Harvey Milk School in New York City. In general, not a great deal of attention is paid to those creating the album, aside from studio footage of them recording tracks. This, juxtaposed with the intimate portrayals of the students, leaves the audience wishing for more insight into the motivations of the album’s creative team. Additionally, while the trials and triumphs of the students are often affecting, the “day-in-the-life” approach goes anywhere. We learn of the problems faced by LGBT teens—and teens in general—but none of it is particularly groundbreaking.

Consequently, though the teens’ struggles are compelling and endearing to witness and never feel like the lesser part of the film, this half of the documentary seems to lack a purpose and couldn’t stand alone without the overarching story of the album creation to anchor it. Indeed, the film could easily be recommended on the strength of the musical performances alone. Along with documenting the recording of most of the songs, the film shows candid moments with the performers. You can see The Breeders preparing their arrangement of “Wicked Little Town” and Yoko Ono instructing the writer of Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell, to “just hit her” when it’s her cue.

Overall, the film’s an enjoyable one to watch. The musical footage—and a surprise third act voice-over from Stephen Colbert—is worthwhile and the students at Harvey Milk School give great insight into what it is to be an LGBT teen in America. Though not quite revolutionary, the film was made with a great deal of love for its subjects and subject matter, which deserves admiration at the very least.

—Tekla Nagel

-----------------
reelout continues running films and parties this weekend on campus and at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre. For more information check out reelout.ca. Individual tickets are $9 at the door.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.