Amidst all the buzz of anticipation about the Toronto Film Festival in September, something very quiet and very engaging has settled into the exhibition space at TIFF. Chinese visual artist and filmmaker, Yang Fudong, was commissioned by TIFF to develop a movie-related installation, and the result has arrived in the form of five screens showing silent, black and white movie vignettes of women in motion (masterfully lighted and filmed) in such a way as to live up to that little word with amazing depths—namely, “New.”
Where, specifically, does the “newness” of these vignettes reside? We definitely are not being informed of some unprecedented range of employment and/or social, economic, political power being captured by dazzlingly (and rationally) competent and daring females. Nor are we being treated to new inventiveness as to true romance and child-rearing in face of demanding careers.
No, this is a sense of innovation uniquely suited to disclosure in cinematic ways. The figures strike forth not to gain spectacular advantages, but to temper the thrust for advantage while going for a coherence of sensual motion more directly compelling than loot and applause.Thus the five screens play for us variants of embracing that “more real” which also comes to be known as “sur-real.”
Also coming to bear within that exuberant enactment of sufficiency (reasoning superseding classical rationalism) are the downsides of struggling with the elusiveness of traction for that flare—and its flair—and with a social/historical surround that cannot abide such a mode of dynamics.
The attraction of these works is multifaceted. There are moments of the simplest of motions, gracefully performed and suffused with a charge toward yet another small but richly uncanny elaboration.
At the same time, there is an apprehension that the galvanizating must take into account and engage a pervasive canny, antquated refusal to accompany such uncanniness.
This cinema can be absorbed screen-by-screen; or by noticing a field of movement through the five screens. You might think, on first encountering this panorama, that a very clannish energy is in play. But, like the recent movies of Nicolas Refn (often dismissed as about a clan of stupid violence), not to mention those of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Lars von Trier (likewise exorcized)—or Terrence Malick (generally seen to be a meditation-bound obscurantist); or Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and Leos Carax (faulted for deliberately confusing their audiences—this project by Yang Fudong is up-to-the-minute (along with those filmmakers) in being in the grip of a dilemma of making waves with the stoney arbiters of mainstream world history.
That stoniness especially comes to bear by way of the settings of New Women—ancient classical columns, vases, basins and statues; and metal, wooden chaise longues, tables and dressers (and even a piano upon which one of the protagonists sleeps!) from a chronologically less distant past, which does nothing to mitigate the impasse—inert and light years away from the dynamics of the women. Sometimes we have them playing their fingers across shell-like, stone constructs, in their glowing nudity bringing to mind a birth of Venus. Sometimes we have them with strands of blossoms; and, as with the stoneworks, there is a variability in their comportment toward these living-but-not-human objects.
Often singly for a while amidst these intractable features, but frequently in the company of other protagonists closely resembling the soloist, the cast soon mesmerizes us with their poised, candidly sensual presence, lighted to accentuate the verve of their intent.
The extensive specifics of this all-but-totally-ignored gem cannot be done justice to at this time. But let’s look at a few highlights.
A woman on a large turntable quietly thrills to being drawn under the spell of a crystal chandelier. Where did the artist see and so incisively take to heart Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a tale of squandering the vivacious promises of love for the sake of a jewellery-based solvency that fails? (Where, also, did he catch up with the Surrealist [and chandelier-rich] prototype of Demy’s art, namely, Jean Cocteau’s Beaty and the Beast?) (In another vignette, another woman turns, by her own devices, under the same cut mineral. Her visage is more subdued; her thrill more cogent.)
A woman with blossoms in her hair, carrying branches of cherry blossoms, carries herself with a disinterested air; and we are reminded of the disinterested and sublime donkey in Robert Bresson’s Balthazar at Risk.
There is a bonsai plant and a miniature mountain. There is a scale-model city amongst and over which the women tower and lend vital motion to. There are sculpted, deracinated shrubs, overwhelmed by icy white planters. The textures of the protagonists’ skin and the pulsations of their motions (after we see them very still, save for their almost imperceptible blinking and their breathing which causes their dangling earrings to move ever so slightly) trace to a new physical domain.
A woman caresses the torso of an ancient stone sculpture, enacting an exigency to somehow get blood out of a stone on a seriously enervated planet.
Amidst rather cloying decor, a woman reads on a chaise longue. She is very still, save for turning a page. Then she looks up toward us, her face (as with several other vignettes) a mixture of anxiety and hard-won composure. (In one such incident, a woman looks our way with nearly imperceptible dread. She manages to sustain a sense of adventure.)