Women make waves

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Big budget commercial film directing is a field still dominated by men but there’s scope for females to make an impact with artistic product at festivals. And indeed it’s women, the octogenarian Agnes Varda and twenty-something Yin Lichuan, who made two of the finest films being screened tonight at TIFF.

Knitting is only the second feature film by Yin Lichuan but she’s already showing great ability in setting up intimate scenes, which explore the relationship between her main characters. She’s not as accomplished in dealing with action sequences and her command of narrative isn’t brilliant either—yet. Given the opportunity, though, she’s bound to develop into a major Chinese filmmaker.

Knitting explores a rather innocent ménage-a-trois between handsome drifter Chen Jin (Lu Yulai), current girlfriend Li Daping (Zhang Yi) and the older more experienced Zhang Haili (Yan Bingyan). While Li Daping, a conventional girl from the north, is content to spend time with Chen Ji, knitting and making love, Zhang Haili wants more out of life. A former lover of Chen, she enters their lives like a hurricane, dominating their home while coming up with shady schemes to make money for all of them.

Chen and Zhang immediately start working together, to the horror of Li, who desires a simple, honest life. Inevitably, the duo is busted for forgery, dashing their hopes for quick profits. When Zhang falls ill with a fever, the shallow Chen forces her out of their home, leaving him alone again with Li. Almost immediately Li becomes pregnant–and soon after, Chen departs, though his disappearance is partially explained by yet another scam gone awry.

And here, surprisingly, the heart of the film is revealed. Zhang returns and helps Li through her pregnancy. Yin Lichuan’s film turns out to be more about the complex friendship and rivalry between the two women and less about their feelings for Chen.

Shot in a minimalist style that recalls Iranian cinema of the ‘90s, Knitting is a lovely small film. Yin Lichuan is clearly a talent on the rise.

Les Plages d’Agnes (The Beaches of Agnes) is a wonderfully well made autobiographical work by Agnes Varda. Back in the 1950s, while still working mainly as a photographer, Varda directed a pioneering feature film, La pointe courte, which announced the arrival of the French New Wave and feminist filmmaking. She married the romantic film director Jacques Demy—most famous for the acclaimed Michel Legrand musical Les parapluies de Cherbourg—and the two raised their children while making films in France and, for a while, in Los Angeles during the revolutionary late 60s.

Varda’s feature films include the famous feminist works L’Une chante, l’autre pas; one of the first narratives to deal with anger and homelessness Vagabond, and the great documentary Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. As Demy was dying of AIDS in the late ‘80s, she made the beautiful drama Jacquot de Nantes, which looked fondly back at his youth in France in the 1930s.

Now, she’s made a film that incorporates footage from those and other films as well as her brilliant portrait photography and reminisces from the days of her life. A true artist and intellectual, Varda has lived a grand life, full of love and sorrow, triumphs and the ultimate tragedy, the loss of Demy.

This is a rare and precious film, a jewel to be embraced, sent with love from Varda to North America through TIFF.

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