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Cemetery of Splendor (all stills courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center)

If the 53rd New York Film Festival is any indication, the world’s filmmakers are feeling the heat. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with the long-presumed “death of film.” If anything, this year’s festival showed that the medium is anything but lacking for confidence and energy. Rather, the films on display, lovingly brought to Manhattan by the Film Society of Lincoln Center from Cannes, Berlin, and Locarno, betrayed a tangible unease about the state of the world, depicting instability and corruption writ large while denying any comfortable reassurance that everything will turn out all right in the end. In contrast to the cool linearity of Lincoln Center’s mid-century modernist campus, the tenor of the festival’s lineup was nervy and urgent.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that some of the festival’s most exhilarating works derived their power from sweep and ambition rather than tidy cohesion. Jia Zhang-ke, whose critiques have paradoxically become more severe and insistent as he’s become firmly established in both the international film circuit and Chinese culture, attempted to predict the future with Mountains May Depart. Working with a tripartite narrative structure, as in his previous work, 2013’s genre flick-inspired morality play A Touch of Sin, Jia here weaves a generation-spanning epic out of intimate, minor-key moments, guiding his viewer through China’s recent past, present, and, perhaps, its displaced future. The film’s tonal and stylistic register shifts with the times, beginning in a squarish 1.33:1 frame that Jia says he employed in order to intersperse actual documentary footage he shot in Fenyang at the turn of the millennium, before broadening to 1.85:1 and ultimately wielding an uncomfortably immersive 2.35 widescreen to depict the year 2025. This fascinating, frustrating final act finds the protagonist’s estranged, privileged son, Daole (after the U.S. currency, of course) departing China for the jarringly clean air of Melbourne, marking Jia’s somewhat awkward first attempt at English-language filmmaking. Nevertheless, Jia retains his ability to imbue stories of personal loss and alienation with social significance, and his way of doing so is unique and positively piercing.

Mountains May Depart

Where Jia divided his film into three parts, Portugal’s Miguel Gomes divided his Arabian Nights, a work without a category, into three feature-length films. Transposing the structure (if not the content) of the Islamic classic to latter day Portugal, Gomes’ film(s) jump unpredictably between bawdy humor, surrealist allegory, pointed social realism, and, notably, poetic ethnographic documentary, developing a sort of jazzy macro-scale rhythm rarely found in cinema (though it’s worth noting that most films are less than six hours long). Gomes worked with a team of journalists to scope out real-life stories from Portugal’s bout with austerity, yet the resulting film is less a portrait of his country than a crazy-quilt inspired by it.

Comedy continues to serve as a wellspring of cinematic invention, accounting for some of the festival’s most notable titles. The best joke in Yorgos Lanthimos’ buzzy absurdist parable The Lobster is its general conceit: a dystopian future in which single people are brought to a grim hotel in which they must either find a mate or be turned into – wait for it – an animal! From here, the allegory, a sendup of relationships and loneliness, is broad, which can become trying during the handful of moments that Lanthimos decides to underscore his points by going for the gut. That said, the movie contains some moments of genuine visual comedy, often provided by the scene-stealing Ariane Lebed (the director’s wife), just one gem in a stellar cast that also includes Colin Ferrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, and Ben Wishaw, not to mention Lea Seydoux and Peep Show’s Olivia Colman.

Right Now, Wrong Then

Less high concept but no less conceptual were two films by modern masters. Korea’s philosophically bemused Hong Sang-Soo has atomized and reconstructed modern day rituals of seduction and separation over the 17 films he has made since his 1996 debut, a pace made all the more astounding by the consistent brilliance of his work. His Janus-faced masterwork, Wrong Now, Right Then is a film cleft in twain, stopping abruptly halfway through to repeat the same situations, albeit with crucial differences and divergent results. Hong’s filmography works better as the the gradual revelation of his worldview than as the backdrop for a few attention-grabbing masterpieces – more a forest to get lost in than mountains to admire – but Wrong Now, Right Then hits a strikingly satisfying note even by Hong’s usually high standards. For the uninitiated, it’s an ideal entry point to his singular blend of melancholy and comedy, observational rigor and narrative play.

Like Hong’s film, Corneliu Pormboiu’s meticulously constructed The Treasure takes a deceptively simple comic scenario and teases out more expansive meanings. The hero of The Treasure undertakes to uncover the riches that his friend’s grandfather is said to have buried so as to safeguard them from the Communists. Through a number of comically slow-burning episodes, including a bravura half-hour-long excavation scene, Porumboiu builds precise, piercing commentary on human foibles, desires, and no less than Romania’s fraught history and uncertain future.

The Assassin

Oddly, two of the festival’s most challenging works double as its foremost sensual pleasures. Taiwanese legend Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s returned from an eight-year hiatus with the high modernist martial arts movie The Assassin. Punctuating its decidedly oblique narrative and languorous, long-take sequences with spurts of violence, Hou’s film is more likely to please fans of Chinese painting than Bruce Lee connoisseurs, yet its visual beauty and gravity-defying rhythms are genuinely hypnotic. Likewise, Thai film magus Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned with Cemetery of Splendor, his most overtly political work to date. The film’s plot, concerning unconscious soldiers made to do the bidding of undead powers in their dreams (a subplot no less haunting for remaining completely unseen), neatly reflects upon Thailand’s repressive monarchy. Nonetheless, the film’s real coup lies in the way Weerasethakul manages to overlay everyday life with an awareness of the otherworldly.

Unfortunately, the most significant event of the festival was the tragic death of legendary Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, whose tremendous influence is difficult to fully comprehend. Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, played in the festival’s main slate, preceded by powerful reminiscences by festival programmers Kent Jones and Amy Taubin. Taking the form of a documentary about the filmmaker’s dying mother, whose disintegration is wrenchingly though unsentimentally depicted, No Home Movie doubles as a study of Akerman’s own grief and dislocation. Throughout, Akerman’s imbues everyday images — a tree blowing in the wind, a shadow in a murky pond, and, finally, an empty room — with transformative force, testifying to the power of the one-of-a-kind eye we’ve lost. Though, as her movie makes achingly clear, every loss, as it turns out, is one of a kind.

The 53rd New York Film Festival took place September 25–October 11, 2015.

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Daniel Witkin

Daniel Witkin is a writer, critic, and translator living in Brooklyn, New York. His interests include cinema. He was formerly based in Moscow, Russia.