Panorama-cinéma is back at TIFF after a four-year absence! Our columnist Mike Hoolboom, one of the most famous and lovely experimental filmmakers in the country, will share his thoughts about some films from the Festival lineup. Don't miss this chance to attend the event by proxy, but mostly to bask in Mike's unique and rousing verve, which will undoubtedly manage to fill your mind with images both inspiring and horrendous, as if you were attending the crowded Lightbox screenings in person.
— Olivier Thibodeau, editor Festivals section
:: Let's Talk (2023) [Simon Liu]
Simon Liu is a dedicated maximalist. In a world already too filled with images, he is determined to tuck as many as he can into his short movies, typically layering scores of pictures that appear as a frenzied archaeology of the present. Simon makes his home in Brooklyn now, after graduating from New York University Tisch School of Arts in 2008. So perhaps it’s not unusual that he continues to work in film (an extravagantly expensive choice accompanied by a delay-ridden work flow), because New York is a city that remains in thrall to its own history, and pop-up screenings offering analog film continue unabated.
Since 2014, Liu’s work has been focused on city portraits of Hong Kong where his family continues to reside. Family visits occasion bouts of shooting as he gathers evidence of the city’s restless transformations and newly encroaching pressures, as it continues to absorb the passing from the colonial rule of the British to the Chinese.
In Let’s Talk (2023), his propensity for dense constructions appears mainly on the soundtrack, with its slowed voices and electronic squiggles, its layered drones and reworked radio chatter producing a restless cacophony. The accompanying images are a charged flow filled with moments of acute seeing. Oranges are tossed onto a fruit stand, though we don’t see the fruit packer, so they appear as if by magic. A gloved hand appears to conduct traffic, light flickers on a yellow wall. Urban signage create a series of found intertitles, most ironically pointing to the city’s new government. “A New Era. Realising Your Imagination. Rebuild.” Pixilated windows animate frames to receive the city, sometimes covered over in mesh and wire, as if the entire populace lived behind bars. Surveillance cameras underscore the ruler’s view, though these look outs are followed by night-time passages where Liu shoots with an open shutter one frame at a time, producing a suite of frantic, light-streaked, urban escapes.
The camera is always held in the artist’s hands, as if to rescale the city, bringing its taxonomy of signs into the trembling body of a single observer. Many passages are edited in-camera, which grant them a particularly live quality, preserving the energy of original contact. The palpable joys of encounter are forever fresh, as this seasoned artist brings a host of precise camera gestures to play. He suddenly switches to in-camera slow motion as an elderly lady makes her way up a steep flight of stairs into the light of a subway exit. He shoots with the lens turret not quite in place, so that the circular apertures show. Loosening the pressure plate that keeps the film secure produces blurry crescendos of descent. Each camera trick deepens a moment of seeing, producing a feeling of compressed intensities and engagement.
This mini-city symphony is a celebration of impermanence. Nothing lasts, one moment inexorably gives way to another. The act of seeing is foregrounded, as if the artist can become fully alive only when he is behind his camera armour, jittering and reframing, always on the look out for an arresting colour display, a street clown, and then a street cleaner washing it all away.
A sense of palpable menace builds, centred on a cartoon billboard where police keep pedestrians away from a broken tree. The drawing’s hazard tape boundary is a reminder of how the new government is determined to project its borders into the lives of its citizens, creating forbidden zones of self, family, neighbourhood. The flow of images now appears as part of an unstoppable flood the population is helpless to resist. Lobsters piled into tanks await slaughter, rapid traffic goes nowhere, faded graffiti shows a frayed heart. The final image of this wordless mini-essay: a series of large industrial products glimpsed out of doors are covered with red wraps that blow violently in the wind. Red China has already arrived and covers everything, it is the new lens through which the city can understand itself.
After the ending, a new set of questions arose. Is this film part of the new Cold War that is being engineered by the US, with its recent moves to arm China’s neighbours, because China will not “do the right thing” and follow American orders like so much of the rest of the world? Is the artist pitting the romantic hero that stood at the heart of the American avant-garde project of the 60s—best symbolized by the camera rhetorics of the famous wind-up Bolex that Liu uses to such dramatic effect here—against the state oppressions of China? Before the Extradition Bill protests of 2019, Liu’s movies appeared as perceptual thrill rides, palimpsests of chance encounters with threatening undertones. But just as Let’s Talk shows how the city is reframed by China, perhaps the artist’s work is similarly framed by the empire that he resides in. One of the keynotes of American exceptionalism has been its uncanny ability to rebrand its imperial ambitions (overthrowing dozens of governments around the world, waging war either overtly or through sanctions and trade), at least to its own population, while painting the dreaded communists with a different brush. If only America was a democracy. If only China was communist.
How to situate oneself as a citizen of the avant-garde, someone who is at home in two cities, straddling two empires? The title of the film, Let’s Talk, appears ironic, not least because no legible voice appears in the movie. It suggests not that we are being invited to participate in an ongoing conversation, but that the time for talking is already past. For the silent American heroes of experimental film’s golden age, this might have been true. But what about today, when the Cold War has been reignited in Ukraine, and threatens to expand into the Western Pacific? What is the role of the marginal media artist amidst the overreach and blowback of empires?
Arundathi Roy: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.” 
 Arundathi Roy, The End of Imagination (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 9,
Mike Hoolboom began making movies in 1980. Making as practice, a daily application. Ongoing remixology. Since 2000 there has been a steady drip of found footage bio docs. The animating question of community: how can I help you? Interviews with media artists for 3 decades. Monographs and books, written, edited, co-edited. Local ecologies. Volunteerism. Opening the door.
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