Did Vivian Qu, writer and director of 'Trap Street' ('Shui Yinjie', 2014) ever read Kafka's 'The Castle'? It would have been interesting to ask her, but she wasn't present at today's screening at IFFR. For the premise of her chilling paranoia thriller - a young surveyor gets caught up in sinister state machinations without ever finding out exactly why - fits the archetype of 'The Castle' perfectly.
Except, of course, that this is modern-day China, and the all-powerful state with its vast, shady bureaucracy and obsession with secrets is only one part of the nightmare. The other part is China's cutthroat, free-for-all capitalism that leaves all players, from consumers to small and large businesses alike, constantly vulnerable to being swindled, spied upon, ripped of or forced out business when the right palms have not been greased.
And then there is a classic femme fatale, whose motives remain inscrutable throughout...
Starting out lightheartedly, 'Trap Street' builds up slowly before ensnaring its protagonist. A trap street refers to the practice of adding a fictitious street to a map as a way of copyright control, but in this case the reverse is also true: the young surveyor, working for a map company, discovers a dead-end street that is not on the city map and resists being surveyed - it is "rejected by the system".
In this dark, tree-lined lane he meets a young woman who apparently works there, at a mysterious office called Lab 203, and he starts hanging around the street long enough to attract not only her attention, but unwanted government attention as well. Revealing more would spoil the plot, so suffice to say that when the trap snaps shut, it is to utterly crush the young surveyor as well as his budding relationship with the beauty from the officially non-existent Forest Lane.
Modern China, 'Trap Street' concludes coldly, is no place for trust. But like in 'The Castle', its sense of broken hope and mistrust goes beyond modern bureacracy, surveillance and greed to encompass a more existential theme of man's struggle for his place in an ultimately incomprehensible world.
As a side note, seeing 'Trap Street' on the same day as Kelly Reichardt's new film 'Night Moves', it appears that the serious paranoia thriller is back from a long absence. Not since Alan Pakula's 1970s 'paranoia trilogy' have we seen such pervasive fear of society as seen from the perspective of outsiders - either forcefully ejected as in 'Trap Street' or on a chosen path of radicalism as in 'Night Moves'.
The resulting modern symptoms, however, are similar: 1) get rid of your sim card, 2) avoid cameras as much as possible, and 3) trust no one.
Update: Director Vivian Qu was kind enough to answer my question via email. Here is what she said:
The answer is yes and no. Or maybe I should put it this way: I think Kafka is an expert on Chinese society :)
In fact, almost all the inspiration for this film comes from reality -- the little things that we see and hear around us in today's China. When you piece them together, they seem unmistakably Kafkaesque. The society may seem changed in dramatic ways, but the inner-workings which is what interests me in making this film, has not changed much.
Modern Iranian cinema, always prominently present at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is known for its poetic, metaphorical storytelling, beloved by Western audiences but often born of sheer necessity: to circumvent the censors. Social and political themes cannot be broached directly, but they can be cloaked in subtle fables, usually taking place indoors or inside cars as these provide relatively inconspicuous locations to shoot.
'Manuscripts Don't Burn' ('Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoozand', 2013) furiously breaks with this tradition and confronts the Iranian censorship and repression head-on. A pitch-dark political thriller about the authorities' ruthless efforts to cover up an earlier attempt to assassinate a group of intellectuals, the film follows two writers who attempt to hide a manuscript exposing this government plot, as well as the members of the secret police who are sent after them.
The scenes of the two henchmen and their slithery boss interrogating the writers create harrowing moments, but more oppressive is the film's general atmosphere of mundane, routine terror. The writers know they are doomed, and though they put up a fight, even making plans to illegally publish the manuscript, it feels like they might well be the last ones standing. And the secret police members, driving around with their victim in the trunk of their car, well, for them it's just another job. One of them can't pay the bills for his sick child in hospital, and while he has moments of doubt - is his child being punished for his sins? - his colleague reassures him, in what sounds like a trite formula, that they are complying with shari'a law.
Director Mohammad Rasoulof, who was banned from filming by the authorities in 2011, made the film in secret and has since had his passport confiscated. From Tehran he sent a director's statement read before the screening, warning the audience that this would not be an enjoyable film, made about a particularly dark period of his life - referring to the so-called Chain Murders in Iran that it was based on.
Indeed, the film seems to offer little hope of change in Iran, except perhaps for its title, which quotes Bulgakov's famous Stalin-era novel 'The Master and Margarita' and its conviction that ideas can never be supressed entirely.
That, and the fact that 'Manuscripts Don't Burn' was made at all and shown, at least, internationally.
The film also provides a grim background to another film shown at IFFR, the Swiss documentary 'L'escale' ('Stop-Over', 2014), an intimate portrait of a group of illegal Iranian immigrants stuck in Athens. This film restricts itself to the daily life of waiting and hoping of these young men and doesn't pry into their motives or backgrounds - as their landlord, another Iranian immigrant remarks, it's a rule of his 'hostel': "Here we don't ask questions. The past is the past."
So we are left guessing about their reasons for leaving their country - perhaps fleeing persecution, perhaps purely economic. But as we witness a few of these men, supplied with stolen passports whose photographs resemble them somewhat (in one case rather ludicrously), make the risky jump further into Europe, you'd like to think one of them was carrying a manuscript...
Each day we live is a glass room
Until we break it with the thrusting
Of the spirit and pass through
The splintered walls to the green pastures
Where the birds and buds are breaking
Into fabulous song and hue
By the still waters.
Each day is a glass room unless
We break it: but how rare's the day
We have the power to raise the dead
And walk on air to the green pastures!
For the clouded glass, or clay,
Is blind with usage, though the Lord
Walk the still waters.
- Mervyn Peake
Besides his nonsense poems, like 'O'er Seas That Have No Beaches', Peake also wrote a lot of serious poetry. His 'Collected Poems', which only came out in 2008, is a treasure trove for fans of his work.
Written in 1946, soon after WWII, this poem uses imagery from Psalm 23 but repositions it for modern, war-weary, skeptic man. The green pastures and still waters are still there, they're just so much harder to reach...
The new year's bonfire in Scheveningen, a roaring inferno that made the surrounding fireworks seem puny and pointless - like carrying water to the sea. This is the bonfire on the north beach, in annual community-dividing competition with the one on the south beach.