AFI Fest 2013: “The Wind Rises” & “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear”

AFI Fest 2013Another year, another AFI Fest. It’s hard to believe I’ve been attending this Los Angeles institution for seven years now, but there’s nothing I look forward to more each November. And while I’m no longer able to see the ludicrous number of movies I once was—back in 2007 and 2008, I ignored my undergraduate obligations to catch over 30 selections during the fest’s then-10 day run—my more moderate load this year still yielded great rewards. It’s not just the films themselves that are enjoyable, either; for a festival of this size, AFI Fest is incredibly well-run, with the majority of shows starting on-time. That the tickets are free makes its logistical ease all the more impressive. Sure, there are instances when I wish the festival go back to its previous pay model—getting shut out of Ti West’s “The Sacrament” despite arriving a half-hour early stung—but that AFI runs such a superlative event without charging is quite the community service. On to the movies…

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises."
A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Hayao Miyazaki’s most reality-based work is also his most ambitious ever, but “The Wind Rises” is so palpably a passion project for the legendary animator that it stands a perfect final film in spite of its disconnectedness from the rest of his fantastical, child-friendly oeuvre. Loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of Japanese fighter planes during World War II, the film contemplatively wrestles with the question of whether the potentially devastating consequences of technological innovation should deter man from pursuing such. Jiro (voice of Hideaki Anno) has loved planes from his early youth, and his mission in life is simply to build the best one he can. In his sleep, Jiro is counseled by the pioneering Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni (Mansai Nomura), who reminds him that that planes should not be built for war or profit, but for “beautiful dreams.” (These happen to be the only typically Miyazakian sequences in the whole film, as they feature the two standing on the wings of planes in flight.)

Perhaps Miyazaki arrives at the conclusion that innovation should not be suppressed by circumstance a little too easily in the end, given the earlier wrestling, but for a filmmaker whose body of work has been built on optimism, pacifism, and the vitality of simple-yet-profound design, this only seems like an appropriate final note. Needless to say, “The Wind Rises” is also a lovely swansong for Miyazaki’s unique style of hand-drawn animation; while Studio Ghibli will undoubtedly continue with the same basic aesthetic, there is something special about its employment in a Miyazaki-directed feature. The scenes of flying, in particular, will take your breath away with their sheer sense of wonder. Also worth celebrating: the film’s dignified treatment of Japanese history, from the Kanto of Earthquake of 1923 to the decades-long tuberculosis epidemic, and its tender, bittersweet romance between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto). It’s sad to see Miyazaki’s enduring career end, but gratifying that he has gone out on a high. A-

Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer star in Denis Côté’s "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear."
Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer star in Denis Côté’s “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.”

It would be impossible for me to smoothly tradition into Denis Côté’s dark, perverse “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear,” so I won’t make an embarrassing attempt. The film, shot in the backwoods of Quebec, plays its cards close to the vest: we never find out what the titular lesbian lovers and ex-cons (Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer) did to land themselves in prison. But we always get the sense that something bad is going to happen—eventually, that is, as the pace is playfully slow—because of the general ominousness exuded by the film’s sense of mystery and its ornate drumbeat of a score. Throughout, I was transfixed by Côté’s dense atmosphere and the performances—both of the leads, bottling up so much inside, and an increasingly sinister supporting turn by Marie Brassard—but by the violent end, I wondered if Côté simply made “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” to get a rise out of the audience. The conclusion is at least ten times more obnoxious than the title’s arbitrary grammar. This is an intriguing, shocking film, no doubt, but do intrigue and shock alone justify a film’s existence? C+

AFI Fest 2013 reviews to come: “The Known Unknown,” “The Past,” “Our Sunhi,” “The Green Inferno.”