In the 90′s and 00′s, a group of international directors began to shape a new genre of cinema . . . unaware of each other or the synthesis they were fumbling towards. They were filmmakers from cinematically-marginalized countries such as Vietnam, Hungary, South Korea, Iran, Taiwan, Mexico, and Thailand. They admired the plot-light, mood-heavy cinema of directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Eric Rohmer, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Robert Bresson. Their films were in turn ethereal, tangential, lazily-paced, and contemplative. The camera would often loiter over a seemingly-insignificant detail — a ball of smoke, blowing leaves, or a reflection in a pool. The works can leave us lost, puzzled, and unsure of the overall meaning. But like a great piece of classical music, the beauty lies not in a tightly-plotted story, but in rhythm, color, and composition. The category is so hard to rope that there is no agreed-upon genre name and not much scholarly study. Perhaps Gary Tooze in his writings on DVDBeaver in the early 00′s was the first to draw attention to the commonalities of the films. Unspoken Cinema casts the net a bit wider than I do under the moniker Contemporary Contemplative Cinema. Through an excellent Unspoken Cinema article by Harry Tuttle (go read it), I learned critic Matthew Flanagan names this type of work the “Aesthetics of Slow.” Check out Matthew’s original article on the blog 16-9. All the directors I’m discussing would certainly fall under the category of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC), but I would narrow the net by adding this distinction: the filmmakers discussed here share a preoccupation with life in the minute details — a nostalgia for natural processes. We see this in the extreme closeups of sewing needles, moles, frogs, and more in Gyorgy Palfi’s Hukkle; tiny cars driving down vast blowing landscapes in Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us; closeups of vegetables being sliced, diced, and prepared in Tran Anh Hung’s Vertical Ray of the Sun; and characters/spaces as a single organism in the works of Hou Hsiao Hsien. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the films by coining a placeholder phrase I hope evokes life, ineffability, and vitality: Cinema Anima.
The roots lie in Tarkovsky’s fascination with non-human objects, the rhythmic stiltedness of Bresson’s actors, and the subtle frays behind life’s mundane routines in the works of Chantal Akerman. Anima crops up in the gleeful rebellion of Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, the smoke-and-mirror mysticism of Bergman’s The Magician, and in the intensity behind Maria Falconetti‘s stare in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Ark. Victor Erice further defined the style in his mysterious and masterful 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive. The beauty lies in the details. Here is a profile of some of the contemporary directors harnessing “Cinema Anima.”
Abbas Kiarostami — Iran
Iranian national treasure Abass Kiarostami has been making contemplative cinema since the 1970′s, and I wondered whether I should list him in the influences rather than here. However, he continues to make new work, and his films of the last 15 years perfectly fit Cinema Anima. In films by Kiarostami, every word of dialogue is perfectly timed, every shot carefully composed. He purposely leaves gaps in order to create, as he said in a 1995 essay, “a half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience.” His characters are out of place in their environments, unconnected to the surrounding culture. Repetition is important, such as the reporter’s mantra of (if I remember correctly) “Yes” spoken throughout The Wind Will Carry Us. We are left to meditate during wordless flowing landscape shots of grass, plants, and winding roads. Kiarostami is an influence to nearly every other director in this list, and he continues to make masterful spiritual cinema.
Bela Tarr — Hungary
Bela Tarr’s films are low on plot and high on atmosphere, shot in start black and white with single-camera shots lasting up to 20 minutes. Perhaps more-so than any other director, the texture of his objects really leap out of the screen. You can almost touch the onscreen items. Less tangible are his characters, who seem to drift in a dream-like haze, reminding me of the nonprofessional actors under hypnosis in Herzog’s Heart of Glass. Because of methodical pacing and long run times, watching his films is often an exercise in endurance; but the images haunt you for years to come. Pure visual poetry.
Hou Hsiao-hsien – Taiwan
Like Kiarostami and Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien is a universally-acclaimed film master. His characters are not muzzled by plot contrivances. Their lives are messy, mundane, and impenetrable, often to the befuddlement of those of us trying to follow along. Like most of the directors profiled here, dialogue is sparse. Hsiao-hsien is fascinated by how characters operate within spaces. Movement, color, and atmosphere reign supreme. Nothing is explained, and there is much to contemplate. We can only smell the incense, taste the sugar, and try to make sense of it all.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul — Thailand
Fresh off a Palme d’Or win at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and a ‘Best Film of the Decade’ nod by TIFF Cinematheque for Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is poised to lead the next generation of master filmmakers. If most films race through the rapids and plunge over the waterfall, Weerasethakul’s movies float lazily down a quiet brook, occasionally meandering down side streams and getting caught in tangles of vines. Like all of the directors in this list, Weerasethakul knows how to pluck an inconsequential detail and imbibe it with all the life and emotion of the characters. One such moment happens in Syndromes and a Century when a classical guitarist plays a piece at an outdoor concert. It is the most moving musical performance I have ever seen in a fictional film.
Gyorgy Palfi — Hungary
The 2003 St. Louis International Film Festival changed my life. Here I was introduced me to Gyorgy Palfi’s Hukkle and Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis — two of my favorite films and early exposure to Cinema Anima. When I returned from the fest, I went on an obsessive search to find each on dvd. I discovered DVDBeaver and the hidden world of foreign market dvds. Nevermind the 4 years of film school when I was exposed only to library vhs and the occasional 16mm screening – with the explosion of international cinema on dvd, my film education truly began.
Hukkle is a film like no other. Calling it a film may even be inaccurate. Think of it as puzzle game or visual illusion. Hukkle is a wordless meander through a small Hungarian town, as told by townsfolk, insects, moles, frogs, cg’d airplanes, the digestive tract, and more. At its heart lies a murder mystery. Like any good visual illusion, the clues are out in the open, but the solution requires study. Simultaneously more ineffable and more satisfying than David Lynch on his best day, Hukkle is the embodiment of Cinema Anima.
Shunji Iwai — Japan
Shunji Iwai was one of the first directors to take digital video and make it an art form. In films such as the indescribable All About Lily Chou Chou and the delicate Hana and Alice, Iwai makes use of lens filters, gels, and post-processing to hyper-realize his colors. His films possess recognizable plots (albeit told in unconventional ways); but the other-worldly colors transform us to a place which only exists in dreams. At times nostalgic and at times unsparing, Iwai’s films are truly one of a kind.
Tran Anh Hung — France/Vietnam
Many of French/Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s films are shot on location in rural Vietnam. They are lush, musical, drunk with life. More so than any other director here, he is concerned with the oft-missed details, the daily actions, and the spaces between words. He uses mixtures of traditional Vietnamese, scored, and Western music to shift our perspective and turn daily life into opera. Tran Anh Hung’s films are experiences, rites of passing. They have more in common with long hikes through wildlife preserves than with modern fare at cineplexes. Yet they are not without humor. One of my favorite moments in any film is in The Scent of Green Papaya when a young boy walks up a to girl, stops, promptly farts,turns around, and walks away. Tran Anh Hung’s two masterpieces The Scent of Green Papaya and Vertical Ray of the Sun are what inspired me to first think about Cinema Anima.
Tsai Ming-liang — Taiwan
No director since Antonioni has been able to evoke loneliness and isolation as well as Tsai Ming-liang. He tells dialogue-sparse, lightly-plotted stories (really not plot per say; more like a sequence of events) about alienated characters in claustrophobic environments. He belongs to Cinema Anima through static shot composition, uneven framings, and uncomfortably-long shot lengths — all intentional techniques to evoke that which the characters lack the eloquence to say. Yet for all the bleakness, Ming-liang’s films are full of life. Just when we think we’ve had enough, Ming-liang will pause over a vivid, drifting exotic fish in a tank (What Time Is It There?) or burst out into an out-of-nowhere musical number (The Wayward Cloud). Each of his films riff on loneliness in unique ways — The Wayward Cloud through the lens of a twisted technicolor musical; Goodbye Dragon Inn as a Robert Altman ensemble minus the witty repartee. Like all the directors featured here, Ming-liang has embraced the medium of cinema, eschewing “I am happy, I am sad” dialogue for the more subtle, complicated, and rewarding techniques of rhythm, color, and composition, groping at a greater truth.
Carlos Reygadas — Mexico
While waiting for Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven to begin at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, I struck up a conversation with another film-goer about the films of Tsia Ming-Liang. We spoke the same cinema language. He told me he’d been watching 6 films a day in the TIFF press screening room for the length of the festival. I asked him what brought him to the fest. His answer: “I can’t tell you yet.” At the end of the film, he got up on stage, introduced himself as Carlos Reygadas, and began to field questions from the audience.
Reygadas made two excellent films Japon and Battle in Heaven before making his Cinema Anima masterpiece, Silent Light. The film begins with the most breathtaking time-lapse shot in cinema history. Silent Light‘s dialogue is in Plautdietsch, the language of the Russian Mennonites. The cast is comprised of non-professional actors, real life Mennonites. Reygadas tells stories through movement, stillness, glances, and pauses. When the car encircles the camera in Silent Light, I’m reminded of a similar scene in Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small; and I wonder if the well-studied film scholar was paying homage. The film is quite plainly inspired by Dreyer’s Ordet. Both films deal with the loss of a family member in a small rural village. Both feature miraculous endings during in-home funerals. Ordet is a statement of faith (as an Atheist, this is where it loses me), but I’m not so sure about Silent Light. Perhaps it is a statement of life.
Here ends my guide to Cinema Anima. Because of length, I had to excise some directors I wanted to include. I could have easily written about South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ki-duk and Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson. Then there are the directors that may or may not fit the definition: Lucrecia Martel, Catherine Breillat, the Dardenne Brothers, Jessica Hausner, Bahman Ghobadi, Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akin, Wisit Sasanatieng, Montxo Armendariz, Mohammad Rasoulof, Ramin Bahrani, and Lisandro Alonso. Can you think of others? Is my placeholder term Cinema Anima even needed? I would love to hear your feedback.
Tony Youngblood is a pretentious film and music snob who produces the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.