Tuesday, January 03, 2017

First Look ’17: Out There

Chun Chiu Ma feels rather rootless and stateless, but you really can’t blame him. According to the U.S. government, his country does not exist, even though we have pledged to defend it should it ever be attacked. The young filmmaker will shuttle between his native Taiwan and Japan, where a documentarian is trying his best to profile him in Takehiro Ito’s hybrid-documentary (with the emphasis on hybrid) Out There (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

It is hard to say where the would-be documentary ends and the film project Ma is trying to resurrect begins, because Out There is that kind of film. At least we can easily differentiate the countries, because the Japanese sequences are almost always shot in black-and-white and the Taiwan scenes are in color. Ma (and the audience) get a lucky break when Ayako auditions for him. They definitely have chemistry together.

Throughout the film’s (duly labelled) first part, episodes from Ayako’s audition, Ma’s filming, his own interview segments, and his parents’ reminiscences in Taiwan echo and repeat each other. Although Edward Yang’s influence is central to the film, the initial half plays like Hong Sang-soo cranked up to eleven (but with less booze). There is plenty of gamesmanship and the protagonist is even a neurotic filmmaker.

Ito lets the proceedings lose focus and veers a bit into Malickian excess during the second part (we’re talking about a two and a half hour running time here), but there are still moments of pay-off to be found. Despite fitting under a vaguely experimental rubric, Out There is surprisingly wistful and even sentimental. He and co-screenwriter Ma (playing a meta version of himself) explore the nostalgia younger generations often feel for their parents’ presumably simpler times. Yet, it is most centrally about the fundamental but messy urge to forge human connections.

Ma is indeed like an archetypal Hong protagonist—capable of self-analysis to a crippling degree. Best known for her widely acclaimed adolescent debut in Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, Ayu Kitaura gives a smart, mature, exquisitely reserved, and altogether luminous performance as Ayako.

Yasuyuki Sasaki’s black-and-white cinematography is striking and his color work evokes the mood of Yang’s films. In a way, Out There also has a Woody Allen vibe, especially in the manner Ito uses locations and music. The piano themes “Mood” and “Nostalgia” composed and performed by Alexandra Barkovskaya are really quite lovely. Frankly, Out There is that rare avant-garde-ish film that is actually . . . [gasp, choke, guffaw] . . . re-watchable. Highly recommended for Hong Sang-soo fans, Out There screens this Saturday (1/7) as one of the highlights of First Look at MoMI.