The Tsugua Diaries: A perfect pandemic meta film

Express News Service

In Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro’s new film The Tsugua Diaries, part of Currents lineup at the recently concluded New York Film Festival, temporal specificities are opaque at best, at least in the beginning. The film moves in reverse gear throughout like flipping a diary backwards from Day 22 to Day 1, each one titled just that—Day X. A company of three begins to party on Day 22 and it ends in a kiss that feels like a moment that wasn’t part of the script.

We later learn how and why it wasn’t. As the days wear on, we realise we are watching a film within a film—The Tsugua Diaries is about the making of The Tsugua Diaries, recorded in reverse with as minimal a crew as possible in the early days of the pandemic. Pandemic films have come and gone but here is a meta film. The film comes apart from an almost realised project to the bare details being etched out—like the actors (Carloto Cotta, Crista Alfaiate, and Joao Nunes Monteiro forming the menage a trois) questioning the motivations of their characters or the deliberate absence of the director duo—Gomes and Fazendeiro—during the filming of a key sequence.

The film, shot in 16 mm, evokes Eric Rohmer like leisure and atmospheric looseness. We are led to believe that the group is on a short holiday far from bustling activities only to gradually uncover its disposition, a limited set of film crew working in accordance with pandemic restrictions in Portugal and the guidelines imposed by Portugal Film Commission. The Tsugua Diaries unravels the way it unravels the butterfly house that is at the core of the film within the film, the minor and major details jostling for attention as we move from one side of the camera to the other. An actor is pulled up for going surfing and risking a possible exposure to Covid-19 by getting out of the bubble. But that is what Gomes and Fazendeiro design here, the bubble that we have heard so much about in the last one and a half years—a word used largely in sporting events. 

The film exists in a bubble away from reality only to zoom out to reveal the bubble itself and how people within negotiate the confinement. They have both practical and professional limitations, the latter brought in forcefully by the filmmakers. As we move towards the beginning of the production, it is interesting to gauge the seriousness and apprehensions of the crew. We see people masked less irregularly compared to beginning of the film which is about 20 days into filming and rigid around one another. The actors are also more involved in the production early on, they do things apart from “acting”. The Tsugua Diaries is one of the better pandemic films in 2021 among many that were showcased at film festivals around the world. It takes a more matter of fact approach to the role of cinema and at the same time making sure the whole exercise doesn’t turn into a humourless tired spectacle.

Hong Sangsoo’s second film of the year can be categorised as humourless. In his In Front of Your Face (he already had Introduction at Berlinale this year), a semi-retired actress played by Lee Hye-young returns to Korea to reconnect with her immediate family and a filmmaker who’s always fancied her. In Front of Your Face is Sangsoo in his usual conversational and contemplative mood, but there is something artificial in both the visuals and the subject here, a complain uncharacteristic to make of this prolific filmmaker. The film opens with a window overlooking a residential complex, the bars imprisoning her in her younger sister’s home. She is forlorn and so is the film, distant from the audience and lacking the sleight of hand that holds the frame and lets the words flow in a Sangsoo film. Two characters walk into a café and spend very little time with very little food. In another encounter, food is almost an afterthought. Are we really in Sangsoo universe?