THE RISE OF INTERNATIONAL FILM AND THE CURRENT INTERNATIONALSTYLE
With the American movie-making industry scrambled by the effects of our prolonged pandemic - whether they be the economic slowing or the artistic stalemate many filmmakers find themselves in - a new spotlight seems to be shining onto the international film industry, which has been increasing in its own right over the past several years. Well, sure, the Golden Globes still found a way to evade this new attention with the really fucking clever semantics of their “Foreign Language Category,” but in general, international
filmmaking is gaining an increased foothold in a variety of markets. In the case of independent film in particular, the virtual nonexistence of new independent releases in the States has left arthouse cinemas increasingly dependent on foreign imports; mainstream American releases, meanwhile, have been generally mediocre or completely befuddling, marred by the ever-present depression tint of the COVID conditions in which they were
All of this is to say that this year, more than any other, my ‘new release’ radar was,
and continues to be, filled primarily with international films. Admittedly, I’m already
someone who spends most of their time covering long-dead, no longer relevant films (you know, my usual ‘90s bullshit), so it’s not like this was too significant of a change for my movie-watching habits; as in, my ‘new release’ radar is far from the majority of my watchlist. Still, with almost an entire year of quarantine under my belt, I thought I’d survey some of the top international films I’ve had the pleasure to see - You Wil Die At Twenty (2020) dir. Amjad Abu Alala, Twilight’s Kiss (2019) dir. Ray Yeung - and ponder, with my usual gravity, what this means for the film industry as a whole.
The first thing that strikes me, from my limited, American view, is how good of a
substitute these films are for Hollywood. I mean, sure, that’s arguably a pretty low bar these days, but it used to be that the standard of compelling five-act structure, high production value, naturalistic dialogue, etc. etc. was trademarked as unique to this continent and Western Europe. To see that a film like, say, You Wil Die At Twenty, which is both Alala’s feature-length debut and the first ever (sadly rejected) Oscar submission to come from Sudan, is at the very least on par with and by many standards way above your average dramatic Hollywood release is a wonderful, wonderful thing. The film is moving, starkly photographed, and handles its incredibly compelling premise well enough to warrant its own special shout-out; not to mention its vibrant voice and breathtaking use of surrealistic tableau cut-ins. Indeed, the polished products of high-value production inputs are becoming more and more accessible across the globe, hopefully heralding a greater foothold for new voices in the currently quite monopolistic entertainment industry.
Flowing immediately out of this realization, however, is a feeling of how badly these international releases must pander to global, Americanized standards. This is a subset of films largely oriented at Western distribution and the Western festival circuit, and the result is an overwhelmingly similar tendency towards pensive, beautifully photographed, soft-core realistic filmmaking. It reminds me horribly of the mumblecore tendencies of American indie filmmaking, its consistent focuses on anti-climactic plot structure and softly-lit cinematography carrying over to the international stage. My personal feelings for the style aside, it’s fascinating how this has become the baseline for international filmmaking,reflecting in a multitude of features from the already-discussed You Wil Die to Twilight’s Kiss,
a mumblecore queer romance consisting primarily of slice-of-life interactions and cozily-lit scenes. In this case, at least, the low-key approach of the film has a function, subverting our expectations of bombastic period pieces featuring young, white actors declaring passionate love to one another in pretty verses, but the same cannot be said for every film.
Most upsetting, in my eyes, is the tendency towards ‘anti-resolution’ endings, where the primary conflict of the film is left to be resolved by the passage of time. Even in films that aren’t fully committed to the whole mumblecore bit, there’s a strong tendency towards such easy resolutions, making the entirety of the plot susceptible to feeling incidental and underwhelming. Each of the films on my list, in fact, seems to lean into this tendency at least somewhat.
So what, exactly, is so upsetting to me about this tendency? Other than my personal distaste for the genre’s stylings, it feels like a dampening of the potential for true diversity on the international stage. What good is cultural diversity if it’s showcased primarily as an ornamental feature of the set design, differentiating only which foods the families in Twilight’s Kiss eat or what the setting of You Wil Die At Twenty looks like? This is, of course,an oversimplification, as analysis always is, but it still stands that the power of cultural traditions seems to have been eroded. To put it more succinctly: where is the appreciation for national cultural innovations in the realms of storytelling and artistic technique? Is there even a room for such appreciation in our current cinematic production? In stark opposition to this polished, commercial style was Lili Horvát’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020), an openly gritty and cold story of false love
and obsession. With tight compositions filled with deep shadows and grimy Tungsten lighting, the obvious Eastern Bloc influences on the Hungarian Preparations present it as an almost direct visual antithesis to the cozy, sunlit stylings of mumblecore works. Narratively,
its attempts at thrilling intrigue still seem to fall into the ‘anti-resolution’ trap, ultimately
unable to present a cohesive conflict, but that seems to matter less in the face of its obvious
dedication to presenting something unique to the world stage.
The film I truly want to focus on, though, is Philipe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings (2020),
a testament to the powers of storytelling, political landscape, heritage, and spirituality. Set in the MACA, a prison with an exceedingly low reputation, the film focuses on the storytelling ritual enacted by the prisoners interned there, melding the reality of prison life with the wonder of the story relayed by Roman, the storyteller. On its basic level, the film is still mainstream enough to make its international mumblecore influences evident, with a
sprawling, vaguely anticlimactic plot structure and classical cinematography that earned it a place on the Oscars’ shortlist.
The film is also more than that, however. Its elements of magical realism are more
well-developed than in most mumblecore features, committing fully to the world of oral tradition and extraordinary history the film establishes.
Even more importantly, its several plot-lines come together with a dynamic synthesis that is uncommon for the straightforward narratives behind these other features, the worlds of the prison, outside world, and imagined history all interacting with and evoking each other. It’s got a compelling kineticism that is wholly unusual to the forced, generalized reality of Twilight’s Kiss, a kineticism that is only
furthered by the various art forms encompassed within this film, from song to dance and bodily movement. It’s enough of a distinction to separate the film from the rest of the pack, giving it its own unique voice and style, while still remaining with the parameters of this new international style. All of this is done in support of conveying the importance of oral tradition and storytelling, which is a startling invocation of the very point I’m trying to make; the film does a better job of conveying all of this than I ever could. Much of the dialogue within the film is a story of some sort, including both the primary story of the film - the one recounted by Roman - and the chance encounters the protagonist has with a variety of other inmates;
locked up within the walls of the prison,the men turn towards one of the fundamental
modes of human communication out there - storytelling. More specifically, this is a
storytelling of distinctly Ivorian characteristics, openly referencing traditions of dance and oral history while continuously referring to the political and cultural contexts of the film. The very narrative construction of the film is based on these cultural understandings, making the film fundamentally reliant on these national characteristics.
The present wave of new international releases has obviously been shaped within a distinctly American-dominated world; the only thing that has changed, perhaps, is the amount of attention shed on international works. All of these films seem to reference a
common, international style, one that has largely been determined by Western preferences over the last decade or so, and true success seems to depend on being able to work within that style while still presenting palatable innovations.
No matter what, I can only hope that, in the wake of the Coronavirus, the film
sector will continue to evolve. With America’s hold on the industry swayed somewhat, perhaps a greater appreciation for a wider mode of narrative and artistic conventions can
BY A. DZH