Archive for the Film category

July 6th, 2013

The Nightless City

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Film, Maps, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
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Most people use Google Street View for directions; Yuichiro Tamura uses it to make movies. “I became interested in Street View’s images because they’re very anonymous,” says the 36-year-old Berlin-based Japanese artist. Never before has there been such an extensive and dispassionate repository of world scenes. “Nobody knows who takes them, and they aren’t shooting [the landscape] – they’re scanning it,” he says.

Bit by bit, Tamura captured screenshots from Street View and painstakingly compiled them in Final Cut Pro, eventually producing a 10-minute video that depicts a road trip through Nebraska, Chiba, Alaska, Portugal and Marseille. He called it Nightless, alluding to the fact that all of Street View’s images were recorded during the day, and narrated the first half in thickly-accented English; the second half features a soundtrack culled from various corners of YouTube, like a car stereo scanning radio frequencies.

That was in 2010; Tamura has since made 10 more versions of Nightless, and his goal is to eventually make a feature-length film. His most recent work took him to Hong Kong, where he created a new Nightless video for Tokyo gallery Yuka Tsuruno. “In the past versions, I chose random images, but this time, I visited for 10 days and I researched the history of Hong Kong,” he says. He also made platinum prints of Hong Kong screenshots, which were exhibited in wooden frames engraved with internet search terms by Buddhist funerary carvers. “Google Street View images are temporary—there are only a few months or a year before they change it—but platinum prints last 200 or 300 years. I’m interested in how it restores narrative to the image.”


April 2nd, 2012

A Nation Slips Beneath the Sea

Posted in Environment, Film, Politics, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla

Sweep your eyes across any world map or globe and, unless you squint closely on the ocean expanse just west of India, they can be easy to miss: a chain of about 1,200 tiny islands marching almost in a straight line, from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Chagos Archipelago to the south — the Maldives. With a population of only 350,000 spread over one of the most geographically dispersed landmasses of any state, the country is about as far as possible from a byword for “crowded”. Malé, the capital, is an exception.

With around a third of the country’s population primarily located on an island that’s less than six square kilometers large, the landmass the city occupies has now been entirely urbanized. Save the occasional landfill project, that’s left the growing settlement with nowhere to go but up; aerial views reveal a city that looks like a miniaturized, tropical Manhattan that’s somehow drifted into the south seas. In fact, the Maldivian capital is more densely populated than its famously vertical stateside twin; Malé is actually the fourth most densely populated island in the world (Manhattan, by comparison, is only seventh).

The Maldives’ official tourism website has even begun promoting its “spectacular skyline of candy-coloured skyscrapers” alongside the upscale resorts on which the country’s economy depends most heavily. But total urbanization has actually become a serious problem for Malé; it’s left the city’s population virtually nowhere to flee in the event of flash floods. Monsoon rains turn its streets into waterways on an annual basis; the Maldives are the world’s most low-lying country, with no place more than three meters above sea level. The real wake-up call came during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when two-thirds of the city were entirely inundated by the sea.

So great was the tsunami’s impact on the Maldives — 50% of its GDP was washed away over the course of a few hours — that it unleashed pent-up demands for political reform. Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, was swept into office in 2008, bringing to a close the the 30-year regime of Maumool Abdul Gayoom. The top of his agenda quickly became climate change; as he successfully made clear to much of the world in the coming years, rising sea levels were due to turn the Maldives into the blank spot on the world map that so many had accidentally perceived.


October 31st, 2011

“Urbanized”: Democracy and Design

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Film, Politics, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Gary Hustwit clearly wanted his new documentary, Urbanized, to get more people talking or writing about cities. But he might not have expected the very literal way that admirers at Field Notes, a stationery company, would help facilitate that goal — by supplying notepads branded with the film’s logo to audiences attending early theatrical runs.

According to info printed inside, the notebooks, which are like disposable Moleskines, were inspired by “the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books”, boasting “innards printed on a Miller TP104 28″ x 40″ 2-color printing press,” and were inevitably produced in Portland, Oregon — capital of all that’s preciously artisanal. It’s not exactly surprising that any tribute to Hustwit would come in the form of such obsessively crafted items; his first two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have attained a certain cult status among font geeks and industrial design nerds, respectively.

Urbanized, the third in Hustwit’s so-called “design trilogy,” has a slightly different valence. There’s a definite utilitarian logic in the decision to value Helvetica over another font, or in thinking about how to craft a tool or household object. But urban design impacts many more lives on a scale orders of magnitude larger than either.

As the film chronicles, that realization has forced a once-distant discipline to consult, increasingly, those whose lives it affects. Many of the ideas the documentary presents underscore Hustwit’s enthusiasm for such engagement — whether initiated by planners and architects or their erstwhile subjects. “You have book clubs,” he implored, after a recent screening in Manhattan, “start city clubs!” Urbanized could be seen as a simple, layered presentation of world cities’ design choices — but to the extent that the documentary moves in any one direction, it’s as a meditation on how and why urban design should be democratized.


May 31st, 2011

Rooftop Dystopia

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Two years ago, I spent a lot of time exploring the rooftop squatter villages that spread across the city like mushrooms on a tree stump. There’s an eerie feeling that comes over you as you walk through these settlements. Weeds poke through cracks in concrete walls; birds chirp and cicadas whir in the hot summer sun. It’s as though you’re in an isolated country village, except when you look down, water pipes run along the path in front of you, and when you look to the side, you see a forest of highrises. The nearest street is ten stories below.

Inspired by this very feeling, a young German filmmaker named Marco Sparmberg has created Squattertown, a new mini-series based on a dystopian vision of Hong Kong. In this parallel universe, the wealth gap has grown so large, a vast underclass is forced to live in a ramshackle, parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent. Threatened by this sprawling rooftop shantytown, the wealthy from below send up a thug to terrorize the leader of the roof society.

It’s what Sparmberg calls a “Dim Sum Western,” a new genre that draws from the genre-redefining syncretism of two hallmark film movements: the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s.

The scenario is fantasy, but like any good allegory, it’s not too far removed from reality.

“I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push out people by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” said Sparmberg when I met him on the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Last fall, he spent two months scouting rooftops that would be good for shooting. He found most of them on buildings slated for redevelopment by property developers and the Urban Renewal Authority.


March 3rd, 2011

Voodoo Gentrification

Posted in Film, History, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
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You’ve probably heard the term “voodoo economics” before. Famously used by George H.W. Bush to denounce Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down wealth when the two were vying head-to-head for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, they never again escaped the elder Bush’s lips after he became Reagan’s running mate in that year’s general election. The former’s subsequent silence and the latter’s historic victory ensured that voodoo economics would reign unchallenged throughout the 80s, fueling a period remembered for overall prosperity — but an alarmingly huge income gap.

It’s no coincidence that the 80s were also the period when the word “gentrification” began to play a major role in US public discourse. So did “yuppies”, who became the subject of routine social satire during the decade. Less well documented, though, are the earlier, murkier beginnings of postwar gentrification, well before the tipping point that brought the concept into mass consciousness. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as white flight continued hollowing out American city centers, the first gentrifiers were also taking their initial, cautious steps into what is now some of the most coveted real estate in the country.

Director Hal Ashby’s first film, a 1970 comedy called The Landlord, marks the period well. The protagonist is Elgar Enders, a dandy-suited suburban WASP who lives off his parents’ money — the original trust fund kid. His plan to buy a ghetto tenement, evict its tenants, and transform it into into his new mansion seems rebellious and eccentric, though it’s no less whimsical than the change of tastes that brought mass gentrification to similar Brooklyn neighborhoods (the movie was filmed in a now unrecognizably destitute Park Slope) in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Enders’ scheme might have been prophetic — in the last decade, the mansionization of New York apartment buildings has become a small trend.


November 5th, 2010

Barcelona: tapas et soleil?

Posted in Europe, Film, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Poble Sec, Barcelona

Je viens de quitter Madrid, après un passage à Barcelona au préalable, question de me faire une opinion sur ces villes. Et quel regard : pas celui du citadin qui connait trop bien – et donc déforme – sa vision urbaine d’une cité. Plutôt celui du voyageur, curieux et anthropologue, qui n’a que le passage et l’insouciance pour se faire une idée – un cliché au sens photographique – et dessiner une esquisse de la ville.

Déjà lorsqu’on débarque à Barcelona, au coeur de Poble Sec, à un jet de pierre du vieux Barrio ChinoEl Raval – et du port industriel, poussiéreux, de l’antique cité maritime, l’on élimine tout les stéréotypes qu’on rêvait à l’écoute de l’Auberge Espagnol (Klapisch : 2002) et autres Vicky Christina Barcelona (Allen : 2008). Exit la musique, l’innocence et les courtisans, guitare à la main. Exit la ville balnéaire à l’insouciance légendaire. Nous sommes davantage dans le monde noire et migratoire de Biutiful (Iñárritu : 2010).

Barcelona, au sens du rêve, n’existe pas dans le réel, et prend forcément son ancrage dans le désir et la volonté pour la culture catalane de s’exprimer en terme de mondialisation et d’internationalisation.

Barcelona, ville encore plus désirable, de par sa substance réelle, pauvre et industrielle, riche et balnéaire dans une certaine mesure, et certainement une terre d’accueil pour les chercheurs d’asile et de refuge.


October 6th, 2010

The Industrial City Deconstructed

Posted in Film, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Daniel Corbeil

Détroit: Ville Sauvage (Detroit Wild City), film de Florent Tillon (2010), présente de façon particulièrement poétique et imagée la réversibilité du processus d’urbanisation. Dans le cas très précis de Détroit, il s’agît d’un phénomène directement lié à la baisse de production dans l’industrie automobile américaine et des pertes d’emplois qui sont une conséquence directe des déboires dans cette industrie.

Les quartiers anciens de la ville – ainsi que certaines banlieues – sont laissés à l’abandon, vidés de leurs habitants. Plusieurs tours anciennes du centre-ville sont en attente d’un preneur et d’une nouvelle occupation. D’autres sont simplement détruites… Une attention particulière à été porté aux sonorités ambiantes, ce qui plonge le spectateur dans un environnement sonore particulièrement persistant, qui marque.

Quel est le destin des mégapoles en perte de vitesse? Quel est l’avenir du mode d’urbanisation nord-américain? Peut-on sauver ces témoins de notre passé industriel, lorsque les ressources financières se font rares? Quelle est la valeur – et le sens – de notre banlieue, si la ville centrale disparait?


October 4th, 2010

Lost in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Imagine if all of your most mundane moments were set to a melodramatic Hans Zimmer soundtrack and filmed like a Hollywood suspense flick. That’s a bit what Edwin Lee‘s new video is like. It’s a straightforward piece of work: a guy in a “I Am Lost in Hong Kong” t-shirt stumbles around the city looking vaguely bewildered. But Lee has filmed him with an anamorphic lens, which has the ability to make anything seem more purposeful and dramatic than it actually is. The effect is cheeky but gorgeous, especially since Lee has gone a very good job of choosing locations, including the Mong Kok Road footbridge and the Western District Public Cargo Working Area.

July 19th, 2010

The View from Above

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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Part of the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window was the way it acknowledged voyeurism as part of urban life. In the city, we’re always being watched and we’re always watching others, be it on the street, from across a café or on the web, through street photography.

I’d be lying if I said that the thrill of spying on others wasn’t part of the reason why I like rooftops. The exchange of glances on the street is replaced by a position that gives you a privileged view of everything around. I’ve never seen anything particularly exciting from a roof — it’s not like I bring a pair of binoculars — but I do enjoy catching the occasional glimpse into the normally sheltered world of somebody’s private life. Not too long ago, while hanging out on a friend’s rooftop, I was able to catch part of a World Cup game being watched on a large high-definition TV in the building next door.

Obviously I’m not alone. Peepers, a new film by Montreal’s Automatic Vaudeville Studios, takes the idea of rooftop voyeurism and builds a movie around it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m happy to see some of the rooftops I know and love featured in the trailer. At least one of the scenes looks like was filmed on the rooftop where writer/actor Mark Slutsky lives — a rooftop my friends and I have snuck up to many times.

July 9th, 2010

Hey, Rialto!

The Rialto Theatre is located on the corner of rue Bernard and avenue du Parc, in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It was built in 1924 and was one of thousands of ornate movie theatres built in North America at the turn of the century, at a time when films were first entering the mainstream.

These theatres were called movie palaces — a fitting title as they were defined by an over-the-top ornamental aesthetic that evoked old world grandeur. Think limestone balustrades, wrought iron railings, gold molding and red velvet curtains. Most of the movie palaces in the 1920s were built to pay homage to architectural monuments in Europe. The Rialto itself was styled after the Paris Opera House by Montreal architect Joseph Raoul Gariepy. It has been designated as a heritage site by all three levels of government and is considered by its residents to be as much a part of the fabric of Mile End as its bagel shops, cafes and madcap personalities.

The Rialto has stood mostly vacant for the past few years, while its owner, Elias Kalogeras, looked for buyers. Kalogeras had owned the theatre since 1983. During this time it underwent a number of transformations. He purchased the Rialto with hopes of turning it into a mini-Eaton Centre, but the Ministry of Culture intervened and his plans never materialized. Since then it has been a nightclub, a concert venue, a repertory theatre, and a steakhouse. Kalogeras was confronted with many of the problems owners of defunct movie palaces faced: the difficulty of successfully filling such a cavernous space while maintaining the charm of a historic building and keeping it updated to the needs of contemporary society.


April 15th, 2010

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Outdoor screening of Jacques Tati’s 1953 comedy, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, in an amphitheatre near Lan Kwai Fong

January 21st, 2010

Inside the World’s Largest Human Migration

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Last Saturday, I stumbled into Cinema du Parc after fighting a losing battle with some serious wind-chill. I found myself watching Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, a jarring film that expertly chronicles the world’s largest human migration.

Every year, 130 million Chinese migrant workers attempt to make it back to their homes in rural China in time to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The last decade has seen China catapulted into a new economic reality as its GDP and infrastructure experience sustained and unprecedented growth. This has resulted in the dismantling of families in China’s poverty stricken countryside as younger members leave their homes for the city.

The film follows the lives of one family, the Zhangs, as they take part in this annual migration. The mother and father have gone to pursue jobs in Guangzhou and they have left behind their children and aging grandmother. Through the story of this family, Fan addresses the much bigger story of globalization and a country’s struggle between old values and new realities.


November 12th, 2009

Asia’s Only Jewish Film Festival

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Howard Elias

Howard Elias, founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival

There aren’t a lot of Jews in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the centre of Jewish life in Asia, with one of the continent’s oldest synagogues, an active community centre and the only Jewish film festival on this side of the world.

Hong Kong’s first Jews arrived with the British in 1842 — many had been trading in nearby Canton, now known as Guangzhou — and by the turn of the twentieth century, some of the territory’s most prominent families were Jewish, including the Kadoories and Sassoons, whose names have been enshrined in streets, hills and institutions across the city. (Andy Lau, arguably Hong Kong’s biggest pop star, lives in a mansion on Kadoorie Avenue.) One of Hong Kong’s early governors, Sir Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, and though he wasn’t local — Hong Kong was just one of his many stops in the imperial service — he did provide the community with a certain amount of official attention.

Despite a small influx of Jews from Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin after the Japanese invasion of China, Hong Kong’s Jewish community remained tiny until quite recently; it numbered 200 in 1968 and 2,500 in 1998. Recently, though, more and more Jewish expatriates have been moving to Hong Kong, and the community numbers somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 — about the same size as the Jewish communities in Calgary, Frankfurt and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Howard Elias, the Toronto-born founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, for CNNGo, where you can find a partial transcript of our conversation.

September 10th, 2009

A City on Screen and in Paint

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Chow Chun Fai

Infernal Affairs, “I want my identity back”
Enamel paint on canvas, 100cm(H) x 150cm(W), 2007

Hong Kong’s story is one best told on screen, through dihn ying, electric shadows. For decades, it was one of the world’s film capitals, and it was through film that Hong Kong projected itself onto the world with action films and comedies that, beyond their mass appeal, explored the deeper corners of Hong Kong’s psyche.

Since 2006, Chow Chun Fai, one of Hong Kong’s most interesting artists, has reproduced stills from more than 100 movies, complete with English and Chinese subtitles. Each painting captures a small truth about Hong Kong’s culture and identity; together, they form a sweeping and surprisingly nuanced narrative of the city’s history from the 1970s to the present day.

Earlier this summer, I paid a visit to Chow’s airy studio in Fotan, an industrial district in the New Territories. As I sat beneath his fastidiously-organized collection of books, Chow made me coffee and we talked about art, Hong Kong and a show in which he reproduced Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting.” What really interested me, though, was his film series. Below is a short and lightly edited excerpt from our hour-long conversation.