There’s nothing quite like an accomplished debut film. It’s a thrill to see someone marshal the hundreds of moving parts that make up a feature into something fluid and distinctive on their first attempt. And critics love betting the house on debuts, for it allows them to say, I've just discovered someone amazing.
Two recent debut features, both by women directors, are part of the MUBI roster this month. Déa Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning (2020) was added on 29 January (there’s a conversation between her and director Luca Guadagnino appended to the film on MUBI). And from 12 February, Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs (2018) will stream exclusively on the platform. The films could not be more different, yet they are united by the evident control of their makers and the specificity of their vision.
Beginning made the official selection for the Cannes Film Festival last year, and could well have been among the awardees had the festival taken place. It’s a formidable work by Georgian director Kulumbegashvili, a 100-proof distillation of art film rigour and patience. If this makes Beginning sound a bit forbidding, that is my intention. It begins with an attack on a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a provincial Georgian town, a long uninterrupted sequence observed at a remove by a static camera. The same technique is maintained through the film: extended, unbroken scenes, with the camera only moving on rare occasions.
After the attack, which we learn is just one of several the community has suffered, we see the fallout through the eyes of Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), wife of religious leader David (Rati Oneli, also the film’s co-writer). She is—or was—an actor, having given that up for her husband’s career. They have a precocious young son, and while she’s affectionate to the boy, she’s unmoored and unhappy in her life. A visit from a shadowy detective results in more trouble—the scene where they are talking in her house is made scarier by Kulumbegashvili’s severe framing (when the camera slowly pans, the movement gave me a start, which is testament to the oppressive stillness of the scene till then).
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas is executive producer, and there’s something of his mix of brutality and austere beauty in Beginning. But the film is its own thing—though that experience can be difficult, even for someone versed in the ways of slow cinema. There’s a seven-minute static shot of Yana lying on the grass, a scene both believable and difficult to sit through. Despite its formal beauty, Kulumbegashvili’s control and subtle grasp of colour, this unforgiving film requires considerable commitment from the viewer.
It was a relief to follow the rigours of Beginning with the easy charm of Dead Pigs. Cathy Yan’s comic drama is set in Shanghai, where, for reasons unknown, pigs start to die. They are thrown into the canal by farmers and wash up on the banks (this actually happened in 2013). One such farmer is Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), an eccentric indebted to a couple of impatient lenders. He reaches out for a loan to his sister, Candy Wang (a scene-stealing Vivian Wu), the tough-as-nails owner of a hair salon who is having her own problems, with a big corporation looking to convince her to move so they can build a posh neighbourhood where her family home is. And there’s Yang’s son, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee), a waiter in love with a rich girl, Xia Xia (Meng Li), who visits his restaurant with her friends.
Yan interweaves these strands into a funny and caustic look at modern-day China, with its pampered youth listening to American pop and the middle class sold dreams of VR sets and “Spanish” housing projects (there’s a fourth, less successful, subplot concerning an American architect with the company that’s trying to evict Candy). The tone is never far from satire but there’s a palpable concern for ordinary folk swept aside by the juggernaut of capitalism. There’s a lovely scene where Zhen, whose father thinks he’s a successful businessman, takes the old man for lunch at a fancy restaurant. It’s an exquisite bit of role-playing, with Lee assuming the brisk manner of a time-strapped executive even though he’s in as bad shape as his father (he becomes a professional accident victim for a spell).
Yan, who lives in New York, made the jump to studio films with her sophomore effort, the Harley Quinn solo vehicle Birds Of Prey (2020). You can see seeds of that in the use of pop music and the wacky humour of her debut. My favourite bit in Dead Pigs is when, for no good reason, it turns into a musical. The song is I Only Care About You by Teresa Teng, the late Taiwanese singer popular in mainland China despite her criticism of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. Fittingly, there’s a hint of another, more recent protest in this sequence. When the actors unfurl coloured umbrellas, it’s tough not to think of the pro-democracy protests of 2014 in Hong Kong: the Umbrella Movement.
'Beginning' is streaming on MUBI; 'Dead Pigs' will stream from 12 February.