Under Review


Lush Reeds

Yang Yishu (Director)


Yang Yishu’s Lush Reeds is about a journalist, Xiayin, concerned with social stories in an inhospitable journalistic climate. Motivated by repeat encounters with Gao, a refugee farmer, she visits the countryside to report on suspect waste practices. This synopses suggests that Lush Reeds is an investigative thriller, an expose of corporate misdeeds in the countryside, far from the eyes of regional authorities. But these are broad strokes, and ultimately misleading.

Yang Yishu, a professor of filmmaking and dramatic arts, infuses her film with intellectual overtures —offhand remarks about the transformation of Chinese tradition, and the displacement and redevelopment induced by flows of capital. But Lush Reeds is an ambiguous and elliptical story, more about alienation, more about Xiayin and her meanderings through a ghost-city perpetually under construction, and a return to nature suffused with menace and mystery.

The unnamed city Xiayin inhabits seems growing but stillborn, and is cast in a filter of depressive blue. The audience enters Lush Reeds through screens of blue: a flash-forward to a twilight journey through the bush near the film’s conclusion, workers on an unfinished bridge that stretches across the Yangtze into a haze, a shoe by the side of a river. The shoe is an artefact of suicide, one of the hazy details that constitute a series of meanderings and subtle aggressions.

We do understand that Xiayin has come across the scene, and that the shoe belonged to one of her colleagues. This death weighs heavily on Xiayan, though her response is subdued, and much of the film consists of her passive emotional conflicts. Yishu makes canny choices, often shooting Xiayin outside herself with the camera encountering her by surprise in a hallway, or placing her outside of the frame, only visible in a window’s reflection.

References to feminist labour, right to the city, and the rural/urban divide position Lush Reeds as a political film. But Yishu is most committed to the existential and phenomenal, as the film’s surreal turn in its second-half makes clear. Lush Reeds first half can be oppressive, but Yishu demonstrates throughout her sharp mind for images the vivid internal life of its protagonist.

Lush Reeds is not a hopeful film with answers to the questions it poses. Its title (suggesting growth and rejuvenation) is suffused with irony. It situates Xiayin in a landscape of patriarchal revanchism, environmental destruction and global capitalism. It challenges the intellectuals who theorize freedom while they remain insensitive to the struggle around them. It is a clear-eyed portrayal of internal ambiguity, where alienation follows the urbanite to a compromised pastoral. Lush Reeds does provide a yearning desire for sense in an insensate world, and at its highest points the film captures that moral act of searching, even as it contends with a bitter realism.

If I were to be so bold as to characterize recurring tropes in Canadian cinema, some that come to mind include a suspicion of stable narratives, ironic sensibilities and an attention to intimacy. These all, more or less, exist in reaction to the grandstanding canvases that compel American cinema.

This is all to say that if a preview of three selections is any indication, VIFF’s Various Positions series, showcasing the work of new Canadian directors, is similarly compelled to look beyond the surface, and to wiggle outside the boundaries of genre. As part of the preview for Various Positions, I was able to view three films: an experimental documentary, a piece of pure cinema and a short fiction.

Hazel Isle, directed by Jessica Johnson, is a phenomenal piece of polyphonic documentary with art gallery tendencies that nonetheless land closer to familial than obscure. In warm analogue, Johnson documents a small community on the Scottish Isle of Coll. Local townspeople reminisce about old folk songs, and the incursion of Anglophonic chauvinism (colonization by way of phonetics). Conversations drift in and out of Hazel Isle, thick accents lingering in the backdrop, over picturesque shots of the oceanic landscape: green grass, pink skies and a sea-to-sky that melds together. It’s a quotidian slice of psychedelia that makes vivid the evocative power of the Gaelic landscape.

Norm Li’s Under the Viaduct, composed of one slow-take under the Georgia Viaduct, is a penetrating short of vision, purpose and serendipity. Despite its scant run time, the textures of Under the Viaduct are exemplary; the camera diverts from the height of the viaduct, to the horizon peeking underneath, and the neglected lots of land that give way to a surreal expression of violent currents underneath Vancouver’s polite surface. Li, who has worked on several films, including as Director of Photography for cult-classic Beyond the Black Rainbow, demonstrates a promising future at the helm of his own projects.

Brendan Prost, who focuses onHonest, earnest, character-driven Canadian cinema” (as characterized on his website), presents Loretta’s Flowers, a welcome expression of a kind of intimacy our national milieu celebrates. The short documents a day in the life of Loretta, as she bikes from spot to spot in Toronto. And it’s telling that despite the metropolitan setting, we’re ensconced at the ground-level suburbs and residential streets, lush with foliage. Loretta’s day is composed with three romantic encounters, each being of various closeness and intimacy. Despite the freedom these encounters and Loretta’s idle bike-rides entail, Prost is concerned with the implications of each scene— implications that simmer in a quietly emotional climax.


Image from Hazel IsleTrue North Shorts: Various Positions plays on Oct 10 at Vancouver International Film Festival.