Even after 43 years, each edition of New Directors/New Films feels like a revelation. Maybe it has something to do with the crisp March air, the unshakeable sense of spring’s impending blossom and bloom. Indeed, spring is no time for old masters, it’s a time for the young, for fresh starts, and this year’s ND/NF selection—totaling 27 features and 13 shorts—is a typically bright sampling of emerging international talent. While a number of this year’s films have already garnered initial buzz following their festival debuts, I’d like to highlight a couple titles I feel are especially deserving of consideration.
Sly and elusive, Ramon Zürcher’s Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat) is a marvel, so assured and cohesive that it’s tough to believe the film is Zürcher’s directorial debut. While the film might at first appear straightforward and unambiguous, shot with static, clean camerawork, the clarity of form belies deceptively complex personal relations and simmering tensions. The narrative is equally tidy, set almost entirely within a middle-class family household on a single day. What might seem simple is actually anything but, as routine episodes of everyday life gradually feel subject to a permeating sense of the extraordinary, almost mystical. This all might sound exceptionally heady, but Zürcher’s command of the form manages to balance a seemingly effortless buoyancy with gnawing tension, like a floating balloon or bubble threatening to burst at any moment. Such mastery of visual storytelling is rare for established filmmakers, let alone one making his debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Like The Strange Little Cat, Vivian Qu’s Shuiyin Jie (Trap Street) sneaks up on you. Though at first the small-scale narrative seems to posit itself as a tale of youth and romance, a surprisingly layered plot of surveillance agencies and secret laboratories eventually (and organically) emerges. Things are going pretty smoothly for the young protagonist, Li Qiuming, as he works a surveying job, plays video games with his roommates (in what is clearly his first apartment), goes drinking, and lets his jaw drop at the sight of a beautiful girl. As Li gets involved with one such girl—and becomes increasingly curious about her work on the unmapped Forest Lane—the film takes an ambitious turn, playing a pervasive sense of paranoia against youthful naivety. Trap Street is surprisingly deft and well paced, introducing revelations about its main characters without resorting to forced “twists” or tired plotting devices. Though Trap Street is Qu’s directorial debut, her work as a producer has been receiving accolades as well, most recently for the Chinese procedural noir Bai Ri Yan Huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice), which took home the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International FIlm Festival
As celluloid continues to be swiftly and relentlessly steamrolled by the digital revolution, the rich, grainy 16mm footage that weaves itself throughout Jessica Oreck’s breathtaking The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga feels refreshing and raw, and this is doubtlessly a conscious decision. Part cine-essay, part Eastern European fairytale, and part premonition against rash environmental destruction, Oreck’s Vanquishing manages to pack an extraordinary amount of ideas into a lean 73 minutes. Switching from cut-out animation and observational documentary glimpses of urban and rural life—all set to poetic voiceovers and soaring synthesizers—Oreck shows an editor’s eye for rhythms and dissonance, allowing the disparate threads to coalesce into a remarkably alluring and haunting world, one possibly teetering on the edge of extinction. Step inside.
The 2014 New Directors/New Films festival continues through March 30 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and MoMA’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters. Tickets are on sale now.