In Meek's Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt told a nineteenth-century story about people crossing the Oregon High Desert. Old Joy (2006) was about two friends who reunite for a camping trip. Reichardt's new film First Cow hacks out a path between these two premises. We open in the present day, with the discovery of buried bodies that have rotted into skeletons. Who? How? Why? That's the rest of the film — though it's not as suspenseful or gruesome as this initial image might suggest. For a lot of the time, First Cow plays like a Coen Brothers' comedy. But with heart. And without the snark.
We are, once again, in old-time Oregon, with odd-couple friends. One of the men — "Cookie", played by John Magaro — is, well, a cook. He tags along with hunting groups, picking mushrooms and other edibles to keep the pot boiling. One day, he runs into a Chinese immigrant (King-Lu, played by Orion Lee) who's on the run from the nineteenth-century equivalent of Russian gangsters. They both have dreams. Cookie wants to open a bakery. King-Lu looks at the abundant beaver population and wonders how profitable it would be to ship their oil to Canton. He tells Cookie, "Men like us have to make our own way. We have to take what we can when the taking is good." It's the good ol' Frontier spirit. Or good ol' American capitalism.
They start a small trade in something they call "oily cakes", made with milk. (Where are they getting it from? Look, again, at the title.) The cakes are a huge hit. But they don't quit while they are ahead, and… Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond (he wrote the book on which the film is based), keeps mining a small patch of cinematic soil, but each time, she excavates a movie of great beauty. First Cow ambles along at first, but gradually becomes an udder delight. We keep getting "period films", but rarely do these films put us into the period like Reichardt's work does. Her instincts regarding time and place are astounding.
At one point, the story takes an adventurous turn, and you may be reminded of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Only, the starry swagger is replaced with a sense of how a real chase would unfold. (There's no background score.) The ending is a heartbreaker, harking back to the William Blake proverb that opens the movie: The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. The natural state for humankind is companionship, whether through romance or — in this case — bromance. Like a nest, like a web, First Cow contains no artifice. It seems spun from the surroundings. Reichardt doesn't push an emotion so much as cradle it. The syrup is solely in the oily cakes.
Jia Zhang-ke's Ash is Purest White followed a gangster and his girl from 2001 to 2018. As China changes, so does the relationship. His new film, a documentary titled Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, again reflects on the changes in Chinese society, but this time through the eyes of writers and scholars (they gather in the director's hometown in Shanxi province) — and it's an even longer timeframe, going back to 1949. From the festival notes: "Jia founded a new film festival in Pingyao in 2017 and, as cultural ambassador of the region, also launched a literary festival in 2019. It was in this context that he made this documentary."
The film is divided into chapters. The first one (titled "Eating") focusses on an old man, a resident of Jia Family Village. He talks of the alkaline soil of the region, and how families came together to solve the problem with what Chairman Mao called "strength in unity". Other villages still relied on food coupons, but they had a grain surplus. In Chapter 2 ("Love"), another old man talks about finding partners. "Arranged marriages were outlawed. We were free to find our partners." Where is the writing connect? Well, all these stories loop back to a local writer named Ma Feng.
Each of the writers featured in this film — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua (whose To Live was made into a celebrated movie by Zhang Yimou) and Liang Hong — was influenced by Ma Feng, and their writing is so rooted that it brings out facets of Chinese society even as they seem to be talking about their own lives and families and circumstances and how they got interested in literature. Even the way they speak is writerly. We hear of how hot it used to be, because the sweat left the outline of one's body on the mat. We hear of a dead mother who's still a shadow in the heart that never goes away. These reflections may ramble, but they always huddle under the umbrella of a bigger, cohesive story.
But given that all of this is "spoken", is this "cinema"? I had a small argument about this with the person next to me (a Polish radio-show host), as we were killing time before a screening. She said, "It's fine. But it belongs in a history museum, not a theatre." I'm not so sure. For one, there is definitely a sense of flow and form in the film, and the spoken narrative is in no way inferior to a visual-oriented approach. And two, this is a way to reach vast numbers of people. As Jia told Variety, "The most important thing about documentaries is that they help people understand and remember what we've lived through. Chinese people are living in the midst of such enormous change; we shouldn't forget yesterday just because we're experiencing today."
Philippe Garrel makes a Philippe Garrel movie with The Salt of Tears . In other words, we are once again in the realm of love, with childlike men and their negotiations with family and (girl)friends. Garrel once said in an interview, "When you write the screenplay, you have to specifically refer to things you're ashamed of in your own life, not the things that you're proud of. Then the audience is going to recognize things that they're ashamed of in themselves, and they're going to feel connected with it. That's why you feel like you're understanding a secret — because it taps into your own secrets." If that's true, then Garrel has been a very, very bad boy.
Consider his protagonist, Luc (Logann Antuofermo). He falls for Djemila, then Geneviéve, and then Betsy, who — with his knowledge — likes to sleep with a colleague who becomes a roommate. Does Luc feel anything for these women? He behaves terribly with them, but in a shocking scene, he behaves terribly with his father, too. And this is a man he adores. This gentle but insubstantial film follows a man who wants to open up, but perhaps cannot — but then, that may be too Romantic a description of someone who's basically a dick. Like many of Garrel's films, The Salt of Tears feels like a time warp. I was reminded, throughout, of Truffaut and his Antoine Doinel series. These men do bad things, but they aren't — essentially — bad men. Or are they?