2015年3月30日 星期一

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (鴿子在樹上反思存在意義)

Roy Anderson (b. 1943) is a film maker from Sweden known by very few people in Hong Kong but in fact, he already made a very successful first film in 1970: A Swedish Love Story which won 4 awards at the 20th Berlin Film Festival, then went on to make a black comedy: Giliap(1975), a critical and financial flop, after which he quit cinema for a quarter of a century and concentrated on making commercials. He returned to film making only in 2000 with his Songs from the Second Floor, an absurdist comedy consisting of 46 surrealist tableaux caricaturing Swedish life and culture which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and which was followed by You, the Living (2007) examining the lives of an overweight woman, a disgruntled psychiatrist, a heartbroken groupie, a carpenter, a business consultant, and a school teacher and her rug-selling husband. 

At this year's HKIFF, we have his latest film: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence ( (Swedish: En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron)(2014) as the third part what's been called his "living"-trilogy,(the two previous being Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living). Anderson names this film after a 1565 painting by  elder Pieter Bruegel: The Hunters in the Snow depicting the winter countryside with some birds perched on tree branches, watching the people below and to him, probably wondering what they are doing. He says at the 71th Venice International Film Festival in which he won the Golden Lion award, that he was inspired by the 1948 Italian film Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica and describes it as "a deep and fantastic, humorous and tragic, philosophical, Dostoyevsky film."

The film opens with a fat man examining some specimens of bird on a branch in a museum enclosed in a glass case, his wife waiting impatiently. Then we are shown 3 deaths: the man in the museum dies whilst trying to uncork a bottle of wine at the door of a kitchen whilst his wife is totally engaged doing something or other in that kitchen, her back towards his back; a thin old dying woman on a hospital bed clinging to her handbag containing her wedding ring, some jewelry and cash whilst both her sons fight to snatch it from her tight grasp on the ground that she can't and doesn't need to bring that to heaven and the captain of a ferry having to decide what to do with an already paid but unconsumed meal left behind by another fat man who had just suffered a fatal heart attack, Then the film continues with a kaleidoscopic tour in a series of tableaux or sketches of the kinds of things that people do in their daily life, mostly through the eyes of two comical door-to-door salesman Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) the junior of whom is always complaining that his superior is angry with him and the latter of whom always has always to console him, such sequences always shot from a fixed angle at a distance from what is happening on the screen. What joins all the scenes, often grotesque and surrealist, is the theme of how absurd, how fragile and how vulnerable human existence really is: how we are always exposed to the risk of being ignored, insulted, exploited and cheated by others or subjugated to their authority, of our need to earn our living, of our need of having always to rely upon others and being exposed to the injustices and cruelty they may inflict upon us and how meaningless are the contents of a lot of what we regard as instant communication through the digital phone and finally how we are all exposed to the ultimate risk of death. Through such exploration, Anderson makes us reflect as the birds in Breugel's painting of winter, two eternal questions which have plagued all philosophers and all religious leaders and all of us lesser mortals for as long as man has started to think: what we are doing and where we are going to.

Some of the more important tableaux (there are a total nearly 30) relate to how a rather plump female flamenco dance instructor exploits her teaching authority to caress the body of one of her young male students and how in the end she is heartbroken because he refuses to accept her amorous attentions; how customers evade their responsibility and legal duty of paying their debts; how when the ferry captain honestly tells his sick barber relative's customer the true level of his skill as a replacement barber, the latter slinks away; how to test the endurance level of the monkey for pain and various indexes of their physiology or neurology, people subject monkeys to electric shocks, causing them great suffering and to emit cries of  pain to the utter oblivion of the experimenter who continues to talk on the telephone about some trivial subjects; how even during an operation, the surgeon would stop just to talk on the digital phone to express the same meaningless sentiment which is endlessly repeated by the CEO of a big corporation as well as the supermarket employee or the cleaning lady or a mother who takes her baby on a pram to a barren patch serving as a riverside "park" forget what day of the week it was, whilst repeating the same meaningless string of words "I'm happy to hear that everything is fine with you"; how an old man in a bar would take one glass after another of wine because he has nothing else better to do and how people who wish to help him often can't because the old man is hard of hearing; how in the same bar, a singing bar maid remembers how years ago when she was much younger, she would offer free drinks to the sailors and soldiers who couldn't pay in exchange for a kiss and an embrace from them; how two young lovers try to caress each other without any passion on a deserted beach close to some low cost housing estate with their dog at their side showing not the slightest interest; how the gay young Charles II of Sweden (1682-1718) and his cavalry and foot soldiers would suddenly appear on a street outside the cafe bar and how some of them would come in to drive out all women by swishing and swinging their swords to enable their king to come in on his horse back to have a drink: how the king then took a fancy to a good looking adolescent boy serving the drink and declared that he should be in his army tent and how his servile uniformed men instantly put their heads together on how best to satisfy the king's desire; how the king wanted to use its toilet but found the door stuck; how in the next scene we see the soldiers in the street outside marching in the opposite direction, tired, heads down, apparently after one of Charles II's disastrous defeats; how a number of blacks in chains are hustled into a huge copper barrel by European soldiers dressed in 19th century uniforms at gun point and with whips which they would not hesitate to use on a crouching woman with a baby on her back who found it too tired to walk and then set the rotating barrel on fire to the sound of organ music; how a dozen of old people from a coffin or box like funeral parlour building would suddenly all come out and line themselves neatly in two rows to watch that spectacle of group death in progress.His survey seems to extend across both time and space. Yet they show a remarkable similarity of absurdity, indifference etc.

Anderson presents everything with irony and deadpan humor: the two bickering door to door salesmen would always begin their sales talk with exactly the same lines and exactly the same presentation method no matter who their prospective customers may be: people at the hospital, people selling toys, small stores, people having a coffee at a public park etc: selling always only 3 types of "novelty" toy : their vampire fangs (standard or extra-long), laughter bags (which they say is "a classic") or their "latest" : a rubber mask of 'Uncle One-Tooth' doing their incompetent and lack lustre best to persuade their prospective customers that with such toys they can help people to have "fun". Yet their own lives are anything but "fun": they seldom succeed in selling anything and if they do, their customers would default in payment so that they themselves would also be pressed by their own boss for payment;they live in a prison like dormitory, each shut off in their own tiny rented cubicle and they would lose their way on their sale travels. Aren't we all that much different from Sam and Jonathan, always doing our incompetent best to hawk to others our two or three saleable items which we think others may be interested in, something which we think will bring them a little fun and enjoyment, with more or less the same lack of true enthusiasm as the two salesmen? Sam complains that Jonathan walks like a zombie. Are the action all the other characters in this film, who all  also look either tired and indifferent and without the slightest expression of joy, with their faces all painted a deathly white, very different? In none of the tableaux shown do we get any impression that life is "fun". With few exceptions, all we got are either complete lack of emotions or expression of boredom, of ennui, of indifference, of fear, of anxiety, of frustration. When the film ends, we find a number of expressionless people waiting at a bus stop but we don't see any bus coming. But where will the bus journey take them? Aren't we all waiting for our bus towards that inevitable final destination which awaits us at the end life, rather like the two tramps Estragon and Vladimir waiting in the public garden for some one called "Godot" who may or may never arrive, in Sameul Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot"?  In the meantime, the same circus like music, which accompanies the action of each tableau will be played in all the intervening scenes and life would move on, as in a circus in which all of us may well be mere clowns.