Film still from “Ash Wednesday” as part of The Turning, 2013, directed by Marieka Walsh. Photo by Marieka Walsh. Courtesy Arenamedia, Melbourne.

Aug 20 2014

Film Blog: The Turning

by Susanna Chen

From Forrest Gump (1994) to Hugo (2011), countless novels have been adapted as screenplays, ending up as successful movies adored by millions. The Turning (2013), one of the films shown at the 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year, belongs in this category—the original book, written by Australian author Tim Winton and published in 2005, is a collection of linked short stories illustrating the lives of people along the coast of Western Australia. But, at times, the experimental yet mesmerizing film interpretation that resulted seems closer to a piece of video art.

Eighteen individual directors directed a separate chapter for the anthology, which each express their interpretation of Winton’s text by re-imagining and re-creating the story. The filmmakers were given the freedom to embed their own styles in their chosen segment, yet the various stories and themes are all intertwined. All of the characters are somehow related to a recurring figure named Vic Lang, played by eight different actors (sharing few physical similarities) in eight different chapters. The complete work indirectly documents his life across 30 years.

The film begins and ends with the first and second half of an animated short, “Ash Wednesday,” directed by Marieka Walsh, set at a bonfire party on a beach—an event that is mentioned several times in the original book. The burning of kites and the spearing of sharks shown in the animated scenes symbolize the cruelty of life. A disembodied voice intones TS Eliot’s eponymous poem, complete with an accompaniment of heavy-hearted piano notes, indicating the theme of the entire three-hour movie: people’s struggles and their changing attitudes toward life.

Film still from “Big World” as part of The Turning, 2013, video: 10 min 8 sec, directed by Warwick Thornton. Photo by Kath Shelper. Courtesy Arenamedia, Melbourne.

Each chapter lasts ten minutes and appears according to its place in the book. Most of them depict depressing issues, such as attempted murder, alcoholism and domestic violence, utilizing hauntingly beautiful narration methods. Warwick Thornton directs the first chapter, “Big World,” using wide cinematic shots to capture Australia’s clear blue sky and breathtaking landscapes, and employing voice-over narration to tell its story rather than through dialogue. His cinematographic direction is based on photographic composition and aimed at creating a sense of space, effectively connecting the image on screen to the title of the chapter.

Despite the beautiful, expansive shots, the main storyline remains unknown to the viewers, and the discontinuity of the various directorial styles and seemingly illogical arrangement of chapters make it difficult for audiences to comprehend the plot. It is only in the sixth chapter, “On Her Knees,” which illustrates the conflicting relationship of the teen Vic Lang with his mother, that viewers start to gain an insight into the link between the various segments. From then on, the protagonist’s struggles is gradually revealed.

Film still from “Long, Clear View” as part of The Turning, 2013, video: 9 min 26 sec, directed by Mia Wasikowska. Photo by Marzena Wasikowska. Courtesy Arenamedia, Melbourne.

A particular standout among the segments is the directorial debut of film actress Mia Wasikowska. Entitled “Long, Clear View,” this chapter explores a darker theme—a child’s intention to kill. However, unlike the somber tone of the rest of the movie, this chapter is a piece of black comedy, exposing little Vic’s fascination with guns. Instead of straightforward narration, the director includes close-ups of environmental elements—the shadow of a patterned curtain, floating dust in the air and the child’s hands—to show things from the boy’s perspective, highlighting his strangeness.

Another twist in the film’s narrative style appears in “Immunity,” which features a beautifully choreographed piece of contemporary dance. The emotional and enchanting routine is directed by Yaron Lifschitz, artistic director of an innovative, Brisbane-based circus called Circa. Chairs are arranged in a line to transform the stage into a train setting. As the music begins, a female dancer starts swaying and posing, moving toward a boy she is attracted to—Vic Lang. The vague, ambiguous atmosphere, created by slow motion and lighting, denotes the uncertainty of romantic relationships. Though the segment does not fit well with the rest of the film, it stands alone in the richness of its visual language and emotion.

Film still from “Immunity” as part of The Turning, 2013, video: 8 min 17 sec, directed by Yaron Lifschitz. Photo by Vince Valitutti. Courtesy Arenamedia, Melbourne.

The film closes with the second half of “Ash Wednesday,” in which actor Colin Friels once again narrates TS Eliot’s poem in a low, raspy voice: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn . . .” This epilogue echoes with the prelude, reminding viewers of the film’s theme before the curtain falls. At the end of the The Turning’s Hong Kong screening, some viewers seemed bemused, while a few clapped and shouted “Bravo!” The ambitious collaboration within the film may lack a cohesive shooting style, but the disparity of its chapters enhances the film. The Turning, with its innovative modes of expression, challenges the audience to connect the characters in each of its stories. It may require a second or third viewing, but the more you watch the film, the more you discover—whether it be the plot, the aesthetics, the “Australia-ness,” or the intimacy that one can find in moving images.