Film Review: The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021)

Cinema has always been a medium in dialogue with the present. Seismic real world events have shaped its form and function throughout history, if not for World War 2 we would not have the grit of Italian Neorealism, if not for the imposition of martial law by the Kuomintang government we would not have the sharp observations of New Taiwanese Cinema and so on. It would stand to reason that a global event as huge and all encompassing as the Covid-19 pandemic would have an equal effect, perhaps even greater since it's not localised to a single area. Unfortunately as of late, projects based around Covid have been, at best, gimmicky, and at worst hackneyed and slightly insensitive. With the tone being set by the most prominent pandemic project, Bo Burnham’s Inside (2021), where an extremely wealthy and successful man moans and groans through songs about capitalism, being sad and staying at home. Now added to the growing pile of projects is The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021), a joint anthology between filmmakers spanning across the globe: ranging from documentarians, Laura Poitras and Malik Vitthal (both from America), festival darlings Anthony Chen (from Singapore), Dominga Sotomayor (from Chile) and David Lowery (also America) and esteemed world cinema favourites, Jafar Panahi (from Iran) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (from Thailand). 

However, despite the pedigree of talent attached, the short films presented here fall into the same traps as most pandemic productions, they reduce what could be an exciting sub-genre to a simple binary, either “films that take place in a single location” or “films that take place on a phone or computer screen”. Not that these aren’t defining characteristics of the pandemic, and a guiding thread seems to be that the short films were made based on the limitations lockdown provided. Yet, it becomes very clear that for the majority of the films there is a distinct failure to innovate formally or provide an experience that does not feel utterly disposable. 

The first film in the lineup is Jafar Panahi’s Life, a charming documentary providing a snapshot of his home life under lockdown. Panahi is perhaps one of the remaining bastions of the Iranian New Wave within the international festival circuit, a movement that sought to continuously cut down the barrier between fact and fiction. It makes sense that filmmakers of this milieu have tended to champion digital filmmaking over the past 20 years, embracing a form of production that allows them to film discreetly under oppressive conditions and capture images of a quality more familiar to common folk. Panahi follows this line of thinking to the next logical step, choosing to film his documentary on his phone, with an undynamic flat sheen to the images, mirroring the litany of videos family members have sent each other throughout lockdowns. 

The film operates in the grand tradition of the “look at my cute elderly mother” auteur documentary a la Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974), which allows the filmmaker to flesh out their own public image in subtle ways. That’s not to discredit his mother, who is indeed cute, showing up in full PPE at her son’s door and continuously expressing her displeasure at his pet iguana. The unfortunate effect of the off the cuff nature of the film, consisting of Panahi whipping out his phone to show whatever’s amusing, is that the film feels less like an attempt to portray how pockets of life can still thrive under Covid, despite outside adversities or a lack of filmmaking resources, instead it feels like a funny video your uncle would send you on Whatsapp. Perhaps there is some artistic value in taking your uncle’s funny videos of iguanas to Cannes, but it feels like a weak start to the anthology. 

Next up is Anthony Chen, the hometown darling fresh off his sophomore film Wet Season (2019), with The Break Away. Perhaps the most surprising feature of his film is that he eschews his usual Singapore setting for China, capturing the life of a young couple and their child in quarantine, with up and coming actress Zhong Dongyu in tow. As one of the purely fictional films within the lineup it does a good job at capturing the quotidian details of life under lockdown, the gruelling repetitiveness that creates strains between family members, as expenses on groceries and delivery start to rack up, even as their economic livelihoods take a hit. There is a fine use of the space within their apartment, which feels especially dreary at night and downright claustrophobic by the end as we see them progress from day 7 to day 45 of lockdown. Yet, Chen’s worst instincts as a writer betray him as he still feels the need to take big melodramatic swings in a film that otherwise presents itself as realistic. These moments include a scene of the child peeing his pants as dramatic music swells and one where he has a dance party to What Does the Fox Say (do kids even still listen to this?) with his father, which ends in bodily harm.  

Perhaps the most moving of the films is Malik Vitthal’s documentary Little Measures, which presents a creative mix of phone footage sourced from Facetime and the like with buoyant animation. It traces the story of Bobby Yay Yay Jones and his fight to regain custody of his children who have been split into three foster homes. It is the first of the films presented to rise above the shallow requirements of the anthology thus far, making a film formally centered around aesthetic signifiers of the pandemic era: video chats, vertical phone screens etc, but exploring an experience not inherently beholden to the era. 

For Jones, contacting his family solely from his phone is not something thrust onto him by the pandemic like many of us, but one unfortunately prescribed by a broken judicial system. It is heartbreaking to see his conversations with his kids, despite their genial attitude, you can tell that there’s only so much he can express through his phone screen and the unfortunate limitations of a choppy signal. The film also finds a workaround for the potentially unengaging visual aspect of a phone screen film, supplementing it with expressive animation coupled by a bouncy score by Flying Lotus. What Vitthal’s film ultimately exposes is that the limitations caused by the pandemic people groan about are just the everyday realities of many, and that Covid has simply helped strip bare the existing deficiencies of inept systems. 

However, in comparison to what preceded it Laura Poitras’ documentary Terror Contagion is a downright masterpiece of pandemic filmmaking. Poitras uses every resource available to her to their fullest capability, presenting a delirious mix of eerie shots of the interior of her apartment, outdoor drone footage, zoom calls and visualised data charts. The film follows an investigative journalist group known as Forensic Architecture as they explore spyware created by an Isreali cyber arms firm known as the NSO Group, which has allowed foreign governments to target dissidents, translating online surveillance into real life violence. 

The most inspired aspect of the film is her adoption of the Screenlife genre, a style of filmmaking that primarily takes place on phone or computer screens, arguably one of the few genuine cinematic innovations of the past few years. As genre innovator Timur Bekmambetov stated about Screenlife: “There are no Sergei Eistensteins, no John Fords, nobody! So you can do whatever you want.” If the ethos of any new cinematic movement is an aberration of form and a unique visual language that distinctly speaks to the times then Screenlife is the natural visual tool in which to portray the pandemic era where people are scrunched inside their laptops and Zoom calls. Poitras understands the genre deeply and creates genuine thrills through moving between Zoom boxes, dragging over video clips and googling images. Another key component of her film is the visualisation of data through an interactive chart that traces the number of cyber and physical attacks in different areas. As the numbers are reduced to dots and lines you are able to clearly see the correlation between actions. This use of raw data as a storytelling tool has slowly gained prominence within the documentary world, especially with the likes of Jon Bois whose presentation of sports team statistics borders on obsessive. Through her adoption of emerging cinematic techniques, Poitras is able to stun with a film whose visual language feels both genuinely progressive and inherently indebted to the pandemic era. 

Unfortunately, the succeeding two films are the weakest of the bunch. The first being Dominga Sotomayor’s Sin Titulo, 2020, which answers the question: What does an extremely rich woman do during a pandemic? The answer appears to be not much. The film follows an elderly singer as she ambles around her home, visits her daughter who just gave birth and records one of those inspirational acapella videos like the infamous celebrity rendition of Imagine. Sotomayor’s camera has absolutely no focus, choosing instead to distract us with a garish pink Instagram filter splattered across every scene, trying to convince you to take screenshots to add to your mood boards, never mind the fact the cutesy aesthetic already feels woefully dated. 

The second being David Lowery’s Dig Up My Darling, Lowery himself having a banner year along with the release of The Green Knight (2021), which has racked up high praise among the A24 faithful. Lowery is a filmmaker who alternates between folksy pieces of Americana and Disney movies, after all is not the current modus operandi of American cinema the Sundance to Disney+ pipeline? His style especially came into focus with A Ghost Story (2018) which sought to bring Apichatpong Weerasethakul-style slow cinema aesthetics and spiritual musings onto American audiences. Dig Up My Darling, follows in the same vein with its story of a woman living in her car during the pandemic, finding a box of letters from the pioneer days and following them to a grave. 

It makes the same grave error as A Ghost Story (2018) in suggesting that white American culture has any semblance of a profound shared folklore or spiritual center on par with the deep cultural heritage that runs through places like Thailand or even England, as he explored in The Green Knight (2021). While others like Terrence Malick or Kelly Reichardt have been able to draw links between the country’s past and present through the evolution of its ideals, Lowery’s assumptions of a nebulous shared spirituality within America makes the film feel weightless and mostly perfunctory. It also continues in his unfortunate run of terribly colour graded films, images that have any semblance of life drained out to achieve a faux folksy aesthetic. Perhaps future children will remember Peter Pan (his next project) as being composed of blobs of beige and grey. 

Finally that leaves Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Night Colonies, which compared to what came before feels like an absolute godsend. Many will tell you that Weerasethakul’s film is the only reason to see this and perhaps they are correct. Night Colonies functions as more of an installation than a narrative film, which of course has never been Weerasethakul’s main focus. Over successive shots we see insects swarm around a bed that is revealed to be surrounded by blaring LED lights. Weerasethakul seems to be the only filmmaker here who is interested in any sort of abstraction, refusing to take the assignment literally. The film is in equal parts an elegant metaphor for how modern society continues to be ill equipped to handle the problems of the natural world and a literal time capsule with sound bites from Thai reform protests from 2020. It is the film here that best captures the mood of the pandemic as decay and civil disobedience swept the globe. 

Despite a handful of good films, one leaves The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021) feeling less hopeful about the ever growing subgenre of Covid-fiilms than before. Perhaps what we are actually seeing here is an attempt by a handful of filmmakers to discover what the future of cinema is, an industry that has constantly been disrupted, overturned and reshaped by on and off lockdowns and pandemic concerns. By having their resources stripped down, especially with smaller crew sizes, they test the limits of what can pass as “cinematic” and add to the dialogue surrounding cinema’s evolution in the light of emerging platforms and technologies. Through sifting through all of this one can surmise that the only way forward that feels genuinely fresh is the integration of Screenlife into more conventional narrative forms. After all, as aforementioned, cinema is a medium meant to reflect the present, and at this moment, pandemic or not, are most people’s lives not centered around a screen of some kind? 

But of course, after seeing The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021), one can resign themselves to the fact that the majority of Covid-films will likely resemble some variation of frustrated people trapped in a house yelling at each other, with these films likely clogging up student film showcases and festival short film selections. Perhaps to the average viewer pandemic era filmmaking will unfortunately always be associated with Bo Burnham singing silly songs in his underwear.

Review by Matthew Chan

The Year of the Everlasting Storm had its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival as a special screening in July this year. It is currently screening in Singapore at selected Golden Village Cinemas and Filmgarde Bugis+.

The Year of the Everlasting Storm was also screened on 13 October as part of Still Somehow, It’s Illusions We Recall, a film programme curated by Jeremy Chua in line with an ongoing exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum titled The Gift. The Gift, runs from 2 October to 4 November with on-site screenings at National Gallery Singapore and is centred around the theme of affinities and entanglements. Th film programme features a series of feature films and short films by local and international directors, which conjure and reconfigure familiar aspects of life in ways that are intimate, yet alienating.

Check out our interview with Jeremy Chua here.
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