There’s a stillness in the air of Edinburgh. One of Europe’s great cities, and thusly one of its most popular tourist destinations, this tranquility came as something of a surprise to me, a first time visitor, and could be found in even the busiest streets, however fleetingly. The Royal Mile, home to the majority of the crowds I encountered, is easily escapable via any one of several long, steep and partially hidden staired side-streets that sit along its edge, each peppered with small shops and pubs, leading down to Market Street below — perhaps the greatest thrill of my short time in Edinburgh was discovering that these escape routes were the rule and the crowds were the exception.
My time, then, all two days of it, was split fairly evenly between exploring the city (15.5 miles walked in total, I’m reliably informed by my iPhone, and about half of those lost in Princes Street Gardens) and watching films at various multiplex cinemas. The physical effort I exerted to reach the top of Calton Hill, for example, was matched by my strenuous attempts to comprehend the side-quest machinations of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, seen in the Vue Omni in the centre of town but outside of the festival — for £5.99, I should say, around one third of multiplex prices in central London. The three films I saw as part of the festival were located slightly further afield, and as someone with no prior experience of navigating Edinburgh and no context for where things are within it, these cinemas took some finding. Appropriately enough, each film was, in its own way, about the value there is to finding something that you’re looking for, even if you don’t quite end up finding it. Thankfully, I found my way to all three without very much trouble at all.
A lot has already been written about Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still since its premiere in Berlin earlier this year. The tragically young director’s first, last and only film, and one virtually impossible to untangle from its creator’s suicide in October last year, follows four people, three young and one old, over the course of a day as, for different reasons that amount to the same thing, they each begin to gravitate towards the far away city of Manzhouli, in which a circus elephant is said to simply sit and ignore the world. This elephant presents an intriguing concept to these exasperated people, whose lives are in direct opposition to a world that’s in the process of abandoning them. A man forced out of his home by his adult son’s need for more space for his young family; a boy forced to flee town before an accidental act of violence can be avenged by gangsters; a school girl groomed and abused by her teacher but treated as a criminal when word starts to spread; and a guilt-ridden young man indirectly responsible for his best friend’s suicide left with nobody to turn to for solace. Hu’s camera follows them all in long, unbroken shots, often directly behind their heads as they drift around a grayscale, wintry city of sheet metal and concrete, fully aware that they have no control over their future but forced to continue towards one anyway, the world ahead of them completely out of focus. “The world is a wasteland,” one character says, and An Elephant Sitting Still is a relentlessly bleak depiction of such a wasteland, a place consumed by blackmail, violence, and abuse, and one that offers no chance of escape from the fog that lingers ominously over the top of it. A roar from a darkness that offers nothing to see, An Elephant Sitting Still feels like a film made from beyond the point of no return. I hope Hu found some kind of peace in its creation but it’s hard to imagine that he did.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, then, and Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing, a hyper-stylised sex thriller, adapted from a novel by Ryū Murakami, in which a man plots to kill a prostitute in order to quell his murderous urges towards his newborn baby. Opening with a geometric model cityscape seemingly pieced together with split-screen frames within frames, Pesce immediately evokes the meticulous high-concept visual style of late Wes Anderson in his observations of an anxious, mumbling man practicing “the perfect murder” alone in a hotel room. The eerie sounds of gushing blood and breaking bones are layered over the top of these masturbatory rehearsals, while a soundtrack of lounge music bubbles underneath it all to double down on the jarring tonal dissonance. When the prostitute finally arrives, his plan, inevitably, begins to go awry, and the absurd succession of events that follow are framed in a series of carefully composed wide shots that leave characters isolated and powerless in comically compromising positions. Beyond the underlying comedy of these images lies a barely glimpsed at history that points to why this man wants to kill this woman, but Pesce is far more interested in pushing this game of cat and mouse to its highest conceptual limits. The psychology that drives it all is so clearly of no interest to him as to beg the question of why it is even there in the first place — a question that could justifiably be asked about almost any aspect of this film. This decision to focus on images over context is hard to fathom, particularly due to Pesce’s oft-noted reverence of Takashi Miike’s Audition, another Murakami adaptation that hits so hard in no small part due to the time Miike devotes to obsessively probing the inner desires, fallibilities and histories of its characters. As such, Piercing feels like a lot and nothing all at once. A broad idea played for goofy laughs, half-heartedly fleshed out through obligation rather than curiosity.
In Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, a poorly fleshed out idea has consequence far beyond mild irritation and disappointment. A young woman is tasked with creating a detailed audio description for a film to provide context of its images to an audience of blind and partially-blind men and women. She presents drafts of her work to a focus group and gathers their feedback, before making revisions and presenting a new version to the same people again later. During these revisions, her work is admonished by a former photographer, a man who is still learning to live with a degenerative eye disease that forced him to painfully abandon his successful career, and her perspective on the value of her own work is challenged: is it possible to create an interpretation of an artwork without unknowingly communicating one’s own subjective biases? Meanwhile, the young woman embarks upon a relationship with the man and his work: specifically a series of photographs that recall to her childhood memories of her missing father. Is she interested in this man because of who he is or of what his work brings out in her? Does it matter if it amounts to the same thing? Shot in Kawase’s typically gorgeous visual style: all natural sunlight and pastel colours, delicately romantic close-ups and a patient focus on developing her characters through action rather than words; there lies in Radiance a deceptively rich juxtaposition of what’s real and what’s imagined. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” echoes the refrain that reverberates throughout the film within the film, about a man’s inability to recapture the memory of the love of his life in his old age and his desperate longing to do so before it’s too late. In this film, he creates a sculpture of sand on a beach in an attempt to remember her that soon crumbles away, leaving nothing but an empty space where his memory of her used to be. It’s a simple image to comprehend if you can see it, but a difficult one for the young interpreter to describe accurately without imposing her own feelings towards it on the audience. After countless revisions, arguments and tears, she finally finds the right words to do justice to the image, realising in the process that it’s not the image itself that matters, but rather the ability to interpret an image as you wish. It’s incredibly easy to take something as natural as interpretation for granted, and if I’ve learned anything from my brief time in Edinburgh it’s that being able to simply experience something and make up your own mind about it is a beautiful thing, whether that’s the surprising serenity of a major European city, or the complicated radiance of cinema.