Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF27) Dispatch #2 // BOSTON HASSLE

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The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia from November 3-19. The Boston Hassle’s Joshua Polanski will be reviewing and interviewing live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage. 

INSIDE THE YELLOW COCOON SHELL (2023) — dir. Pham Thien An

The winner of the Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell will surely join the ranks as the latest surefire Letterboxd-type cinephile slow-cinema favorite. A Vietnamese language film co-produced by Vietnam, Singapore, France, and Spain, Pham Thien An’s feature debut impresses on many fronts. 

The film opens with a long peaceful scene of deep philosophical conversation taking place at an outside restaurant in Saigon. The serenity is suddenly interrupted by a mostly off-screen act of violence as Thien’s (Le Phong Vu) sister-in-law Teresa dies in a motorcycle accident just a few meters away. Her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh) survives the crash. Thien carries the burden of responsibility for his sister-in-law’s funeral and Dao before he eventually embarks on a quest to find his long-lost brother.

The film is bound to draw comparisons to the favorites of slow cinema, especially with the major Asian directors of the movement—Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, etc—and that’s not entirely just because it’s a mode of filmmaking with limited popular interest and thus limited exemplars. There is something to the comparisons, especially with the great Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang. An’s debut is less meandering than Tsai’s best works but, beyond that, feels very much of a piece with the great director. Obstructed framing, slow and drawn-out camera movements, a more stunning use of colors than one would find in most other slow cinema films, and a conservative yet moving score. There’s not a frame of the movie that’s a bore to look at, even if it requires a good dose of patience to view the scenes collectively.

I was reminded of the late-stage films of Jia Zhangke in the early Saigon scenes. Technology intrudes on the natural pace of life, contributing to or even causing the hectic bustle of contemporary urban life. An incessantly ringing phone interrupts a sexy massage scene, for example, and the general pace of the early Saigon scenes—including the death and the only (proper) sex scene—significantly outpaces the rest of the film after Thien takes Dao and his sister-in-law’s body to the rural countryside where he grew up. The slowing of the pace also aesthetically reflects Thien’s spiritual quest to find meaning in the tragedy. Time slows with the divine.

Including the crash and the massage scene, there are at least three completely tranquil scenes that downturn into something either tragic or dispiriting. The use of interruption and violence in these low-energy scenes reminded me of Italian neo-realism and especially Bicycle Thieves (1948). It also helps separate the film from its most obvious source inspirations, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

An’s film just had its Estonian premiere as part of the Screen International Critics’ Choice at PӦFF in Tallinn. The screening I attended started full… but ended with about three-fourths of its original audience; still, I wouldn’t put too much on this single reception. Slow cinema, no matter how excellent, will never manage to retain the full attention of an audience of normal filmgoers or even unacquainted cinephiles. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell deserves a more patient audience.

TEN MONTHS (2023) — dir. Idan Hubel

Nothing compels in Ten Months, the Israeli film from Idan Hubel that just had its world premiere as part of the Official Selection – Competition of the Black Nights festival. The film burdens itself by being too simplistic in its premise, execution, and even presentation. 

Merav (Shiri Gadni) is in her early 40s and is still childless after many years of trying. She experiences a false pregnancy and instead of ending it, she “follows her body” and intends to carry the “pregnancy” to term. Her husband, played by Tom Hagi, and mother (Idit Teperson) understandably struggle to support her in her decision to have a mental breakdown. She needs their help though because if she begins to feel not-pregnant, she trembles with fears that her body may return to normality. 

The entirety of the film is a domestic trainwreck with an alarm clock waiting to ding. But the ending’s always clear, at least in the sense that she will enter complete hysteria and her loved ones will individually need to make a fundamental decision: what’s the best way to love her amidst her crazed episode? 

Shot entirely hand-held and with what appears to look like basically the default settings on any DSLR camera, it would be misleading to speak of a visual style. There isn’t really one, at least not one that feels intentional. The camera occasionally sways to imitate instability, I guess, if that counts? 

Ten Months
dir. Idan Hubel
80 min.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
dir. Pham Thien An
179 min.

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