As synopsized by Strand Releasing (who has picked up the film for distribution): "Julio is a struggling young writer who has hit a wall. Unemployed and involved in a half-hearted relationship with his neighbor, things are finally starting to look up when he gets an interview with a renowned author to transcribe his latest work. Things don't go as planned, however, and Julio doesn't get the job. Instead of admitting the truth to his girlfriend, he pretends to be transcribing the novel when actually writing his own story. Searching for inspiration and a plot, Julio revisits a romance he had eight years ago when studying literature in Valdivia. As Julio's novel progresses, so does his fondness for the past and of the love he let slip away. Based on an internationally acclaimed novella [by Alejandro Zambra], Bonsái is a subtly affecting examination of the lies we tell ourselves in order to get by."
I first caught Bonsái at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival where the film had its North American premiere. It continues on its festival rounds with an appearance at the 55th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (co-presented by Litquake), and then on to the inaugural edition of the Panamá International Film Festival.
The critical reception has been favorable. At Variety, Robert Koehler characterized Bonsái as "one of the finest accomplishments from the freewheeling new generation of Chilean filmmakers", adding that by turns the film is "gentle, deadpan, droll and sarcastic." At The House Next Door / Slant, Oscar Moralde wrote that Bonsái "throws out suspense as one of its tools with a flourish that makes it obvious it has far more at its disposal." Finessing the film's title, Moralde added: "It may come as no surprise that the titular tree is used as a metaphor for Julio's writing; he's told that the goal of bonsai is to 'reproduce the effects of nature on the tree,' a process which aptly describes what the film accomplishes as well." At Eye For Film, Amber Wilkinson described Jiménez as "an imaginative—if occasionally unruly—talent to watch" and complimented the film's "considerable humor and charm, particularly in its portrayal of the fumblings, posturings and overexuberance of student love."
El tesoro de los caracoles (2004) and XX (2006)—Jiménez wrote and directed his first feature Ilusiones óptica (Optical Illusions, 2009), which premiered at the San Sebastián Film Festival in 2009 and screened around the world, with a commercial release in Europe, Chile and the United States. My thanks to Blanca Granados for arranging time in Toronto for me to sit down with Cristián Jiménez and Bonsái's lead actor Diego Noguera, whose deadpan performance as the fumbling protagonist Julio brings a comic authenticity and poignant longing to the role.
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adapted from Alejandro Zambra's novel. How faithful is your film to his novel?
Cristián Jiménez: Zambra's novel is a particular kind of novel; it's very short. It's about 90 pages long and when it first came out many people said, "This is not a novel." This was pretty much the debate that was the subject of the novel itself. It's a novel about fiction. Its structure, its shape, and its language deals with the same issues that the story is dealing with. I thought that was interesting because that's pretty much how I see filmmaking: as storytelling that has many angles; a screenplay that has to be illustrated somehow. The language in the novel is general. It doesn't have scenes. It's not a novel that you could easily adapt. So—though I kept some stuff—I basically got rid of a lot and had to invent a lot; but, I kept the spirit of the novel. One could say that the film reads the novel and that there is a sort of synchronicity with the book. I discussed that with Alejandro and he agreed that some things are the same and some things are different—based on my personal life and from the town where I grew up—but there still remains a strong connection between the book and the film.
Guillén: When you say your film is faithful to the "spirit" of the novel, how would you define that spirit?
Jiménez: On the one hand, the spirit relates to the tone, which I would describe as sober and austere; but, at the same time, it's a bit funny and light with hints of humor. It's on the edge between melancholy and humor. What I felt I had to adapt when I was working with the novel was not just the story, but the project of the novel and the idea that I was going to make a bonsai film where bonsai is fiction. I wanted to make a film that could be thought of in different ways, but that was not something obvious. We had to discuss what the novel meant and how we could translate that meaning and tell it from a filmic point of view. I don't think that's a straight answer to your question, but I hope the film raises feelings and questions about that issue. The film is always showing something and then telling it again. It's not just words.
Guillén: I admire the film's literary quality and the central metaphor of the practice of bonsai, where a gardener trims the roots and keeps them tightly contained to produce a desired effect. I think that's what people basically do with their memories. When you look back on the past, you—in effect—go back to the root and cut off the excess so that what your life becomes by way of memory is something that has been manicured and shaped and—in a sense—reconfigured to match your self-identity in later years.
Diego Noguera: The script was already done and finished.
Guillén: I ask because the film has an improvisational feel and I was wondering if that came up during the process of shooting.
Jiménez: Diego can answer from his perspective, but I don't really improvise. As a director, I want to have a little bit of distance and I think that comes out of precision. The French say le juste, just the right point, and to get to that point it's important when I'm shooting, for example, to just shoot without letting the actors do anything else other than to find their positions on the set, not rehearsing the lines or anything. Even though the actors had not rehearsed, I did so many auditions that, in a way, the auditions were the rehearsal. So we didn't rehearse with the sound man—we just did it—and then if it didn't work, I start fixing it and doing the fine tuning until it's done; but, this is not one of those films that has a spontaneous approach.
Guillén: No, it has a definite structure but it does have a spontaneous feel.
Noguera: There was a strong structure to the script, but—within the strength of that structure—we, as actors, could find bits of liberty even though there was no improvisation with the text. There may have been some improvisation with the timing, the tone, but not the text, whose structure was clear to us from the beginning. When a structure is so clear, as an actor you get to find spots of liberty inbetween the text.
Guillén: In terms of your characterization of Julio, how did you craft the difference between how he was when he was younger and how he was eight years later? How did you decide to show that difference? Or to register his regret?
Noguera: There were two levels to doing that. The first level was simply the physical level—that he'd grown a beard, that I had to do a lot of exercises to lose weight—and the next level was more a psychological level, but it shows in concrete terms. His eyes are not the same. Julio's not lost everything from his youth—he still looks at the world with a lot of curiosity—but, perhaps, he hides it a little better? He's learned how to hide himself better than when he was young and open-eyed by looking down and away. It was those little things that helped me age him. It was difficult because it was only an eight-year difference. It's not like he was 50 years old where you could apply make-up and show the aging more visibly. It was only the difference of eight years and how do you show what you've lost or won in the period of eight years? I had to do it through little things—the eyes, the rhythm of the character, how he looks at the world, what he expects from the world—those things come together and make that difference.
Guillén: What I liked was that Julio was still close enough to his original experience of love that he was still processing it, in contrast to—let's say—being 20 and then 50. I'm nearly 60 years old and so my memories of being 20 have been long processed and manicured and suited to my own personal mythology, appropriate to the self-understanding of my middle years. In your performance, however, Julio is still processing the loss of his first love.
Noguera: Yes, that's one of the great things about the character of Julio. While he's processing, he adds a little bit of fiction through his memories, you know? He configures the world in a certain way that helps him accept the world. That's why he lies a little bit. He's not lying in a bad way.
Guillén: He's imagining a better past that he can be at peace with.
Noguera: Yes, a more interesting past maybe.
Jiménez: I think that comes from when Julio is writing—the moment of the experience and the moment of his reflection—and though we don't know exactly what he is writing, we know what is being said about the writing and what is being said about the experience and we know that somewhere inbetween some of what is being said doesn't really fit; but, at the same time, we understand that there is no actual exact fit. There is just the construction of another new layer. In a way the character is coming to terms with that fact: the fact that he has to construct these new layers for himself. He needs the story.
Guillén: The film's seesaw narrative device of going back and forth between the eight years, was that in Zambra's novel?
Jiménez: Not really.
Guillén: You applied that structure to the film?
Jiménez: Yes. The "fake" novel comes fairly late in Zambra's novel. It's, in fact, the way Zambra closes his novel. But he has chapters, which is something I wanted to keep, and the point of view is much more divided between Julio and the girls. Zambra's novel has a really strong narrator who is stronger than any other character, making comments, jumping around in time, starting to tell something and then saying, "But that's not relevant. What matters is Julio." It's the narrator who puts the story in front of the reader, which we felt was important to do, but in a more cinematic way.
I'd like to add something onto what Diego just said. I agree that—when we were working on how to depict the difference over eight years—what was key were the small things. Because the body doesn't change so much in just eight years. I mean, sometimes it does; but, that wasn't really so important. It's the small things that add up. You have four or five small things that you look at and, through them, you can sense the time that went through those few moments. A lot of the work we did had to do with those little things. With regard to what Diego was saying about improvisation while we were directing, basically we had the structure to the scenes; but—when we were working on the little things like a word or a movement—we kept repeating the scenes until we achieved the meaningful images we were looking for.
Guillén: When I first watched Bonsái, I considered it a sophisticated study of human relationships and it helped me realize why I hate Hollywood romantic comedies, which are sketched so broadly.
Jiménez: Everything is black and white.
Guillén: Yes. Whereas your film was full of attenuated moments that felt authentic and natural in terms of depicting relationships. I also considered Bonsái quite brave in its frank depictions of sexuality. It seemed much more sensual than an American film would be with its nude love scenes, etc.
The bonsai metaphor is the metaphor of an object and I thought, "This needs to be a material film. We're going to look through the camera at the trees and the plants, and we're going to look at the books as well, and the bodies." In the same way that you can observe and describe a book and have it be interesting in a film, you're not looking at the story, you're not reading it, you're looking at the book as an object and how it can play different roles in the film. You're not reading it as he does in the film. I thought that—since we had this biological metaphor, this gardening metaphor—we would look at their bodies as if they were elements of nature. Not necessarily in a scientific way but more with the approach of curiosity, as if you're looking at a plant, without showing the nasty differences between the way you look at a girl and the way you look at a boy, trying to just be open about it.
Guillén: One of my favorite moments in the film is when Julio is writing the false book in longhand and then feels the need to put a coffee stain on it to add authenticity to the manuscript. For me, this revealed Julio's commitment to creating this fantasy as thoroughly as possible. Can you speak to that moment and how it came about?
Jiménez: Actually, that is part of the novel. It's one of those moments in the novel—there were not many—that was really visual. In one single action it shows the absurdity of what Julio is doing. One could say that these days with the sort of political economy that rules the world, spending time to write is novel is crazy but pretending to write a novel, pretending to be transcribing somebody else's writing, is even more crazy, though he's doing it in a meaningful way. In his own twisted way.
Jiménez: Also in that moment, though Julio is faking the manuscript so that it will look like an original, at the same time he's learning that being a storyteller means to fabricate an object. Storytelling means you make something. It's not just an intellectual exercise. There's a point when the story becomes something in the world, something that's made. That's something I liked in the novel that it says about literature, but I would also apply that to film.
Guillén: I like how you're speaking of the materiality of both books and films; that they are physical objects in the world that the author or filmmaker must make, not just imagine. This tracks with the Proustian references in your narrative in an inverted way. Proust proved to us that something as tangible as eating a madeleine can, in turn, trigger a whole suite of memories.
Have the two of you worked together before?
Guillén: Will you work together again?
Noguera: Yeah, maybe.
Jiménez: It's not so easy for me to keep working with the same actors. Some directors like to do that, but, I need a little bit of time and need to change them. If, for example, I were to make my next movie with Diego, I would feel like I was making Bonsái 2 and that would bore me.
Guillén: [Chuckling]. So no plans any time soon for a Bonsái franchise?
Jiménez: No, no.
Guillén: Let's discuss your film within the parameters of a national cinema. Do you identify yourself as a Chilean filmmaker? Is Bonsái a characteristically Chilean film? Or do you think that by its presence in international film festivals it's something more?
Guillén: Out of curiosity, did you write your script in longhand?
Jiménez: No. I do a lot of handwriting. I write a lot of notes in notebooks. Normally I develop the structure by hand and—when I research and do interviews—I always take notes; I don't use a recorder. But then, when the writing moment comes, that's when all those handwritten notes get translated into the computer.
Guillén: I relate to that because I have always written, ever since I was a child, partly because I always felt that I was somehow invisible and that I needed to write in order to prove to myself that I existed. Even now, I often return to my handwritten journals of when I was 16 or 17 for the tactile pleasure. It's almost like braille. I like the feel of how hard I used to write into the paper, the inks I would choose to use, the way my penmanship was then in contrast to now. These days because I do so much writing and it all has to be produced so fast, I rarely write by hand but I really miss it. I sometimes think that writing in longhand is a youthful activity, moreso than when you're older. Do you agree?
Jiménez: Yes, I agree.
Noguera: There's the scene in the movie where—when Julio finishes the false manuscript—he touches it and there's a little bit about what you're saying.
Jiménez: There's textures. There's colors. There's life. There's a moment when it was written. There's a moment when what has been written is being read and—though it's not the same—there's still a connection.
Guillén: So from Bonsái, where are you going?
Jiménez: I'm developing two projects. One is more developed than the other. I'm still working with the guys who co-produced Bonsái; Chilean friends who were the co-producers. It's been a great experience so we're going to do those two new films together. If everything works out well, I hope I can begin shooting next year.
Guillén: I've interviewed several young Chilean filmmakers, and some more established filmmakers like Miguel Littin, and it makes me curious if there is a strong community of Chilean filmmakers? Do you all know each other? Do you work with each other?
Jiménez: We all know each other, yes, and there is quite a bit of collaboration. I've worked with Alicia Scherson, for example.
Guillén: She was the first Chilean filmmaker I ever interviewed, back when she brought Play to the San Francisco International and was really why I became interested in Chilean film. I remember at the time I asked her whose work I should be watching from Chile, which has become something of a stock question for me. I pose the same question to you. Who are the filmmakers in Chile that you watch and admire and hope international audiences will discover? And in conjunction with that—because I'm concerned that North America does not receive Chilean film criticism—who are the film critics and journalists working in your country who you most admire?
Jiménez: Returning, first, to your question about the film community in Chile. There is a scene. Everyone knows each other. We talk with each other. I talk to people I have nothing to do with artistically. There are certain "gangs", one could say, and there's collaboration within those gangs where the work fits in. There is a community, though there is no common discourse or common project. It's not like at the end of the '60s when Ruiz and Littin had these manifestoes, which expressed their differences. The Littinistas were the realists and the Ruizianos were more expressionistic; but, they were all left wing and wanting to change the society. There's not anything like that now; but, there is a sense of something that unites us. There's quite a bit of help and encouragement, I would say.
Guillén: Chile doesn't have a lot of government subsidies for filmmaking, do they?
Jiménez: There's more than compared to 20 years ago, when government subsidies literally didn't exist; but, they remain small even by Latin American standards.
Guillén: I'm trying to put a finger on it because—of the Chilean films I've had the good fortune to see—I find I really like them and I'm trying to articulate for myself why they're different than Argentine films or Brazilian films and I'm trying to determine if there's a common aesthetic to them.
Jiménez: That's a question I cannot answer, though it's a question that's frequently asked and which I've often discussed. I've been on panels with other Chilean filmmakers and critics talking about this exact subject and we always come to the conclusion that it's too early to talk about it. The new generation of Chilean filmmakers are still coming up. In the '60s there were the Littinistas and the Ruizianos and any new guys could choose: they could go this way or that way. That was it, you know? Then there were people making documentaries. Now, the Chilean film scene is still being built and shaped. This year there's actually going to be a book brought out by the Valdivia Film Festival—in which I have been interviewed—that will profile 21 Chilean filmmakers. I think that collection of interviews will be an attempt to answer your question; but, I would say I know most of the work and to me this is a tricky question. It's hard. For example, every two years or so there's a new wave of films and positions move a little bit.
But getting back to your question about who to watch, if I think of my parents or grandparents who were making films before 1973 and are still making films, I would have to mention the documentary filmmaker Ignacio Agüero. His films are so unique. They have a magical and light touch, even as he deals with the most complicated social and political issues; issues that are tragic, but in which he finds what is fun and fresh. His work is very intelligent and there's something about his films that really make me think that they are exceptional, even though they're relatively unknown outside of Latin America. He's becoming more and more appreciated within Chile, which is a start.
Among the young filmmakers in their mid-20s, there's already a whole group at that age making films. They're about 10 years younger than me. I would mention "Che" Sandoval. He's making strange male coming-of-age stories about guys who basically want to have sex. His films are telling that story, but underneath they go beyond that and become more philosophical and profound and concern the quest for masculine identity. I know some people who hate his work but I think there's something powerful in what he's doing. It's honest and fresh material and has some connection to what is called the mumblecore movement in North America.
Those two are Chilean filmmakers who are not well-known and—not only should be—but will be.
Guillén: And Chilean critics?
Jiménez: La Fuga and Mabuse are the two strongest sites.
Guillén: You trust their writing and their perception of films?
Jiménez: They are competitive and have their differences, but—with the decline of print journalism, which is happening all over the place—it's only been good news with these guys. The real thoughtful film criticism is happening on the Net. Even the writers who have space in the newspapers have such limited space that they only can only write short observations, whereas La Fuga and Mabuse organize events and are now starting to publish books. The fact that the scene we have in Chile is so vital is linked not only to the fact that we have directors and writers and actors who have built up professional expertise, but also to these guys. Mainstream film journalism in Chile is cornered by the limitations of print. These guys write great stuff on their own blogs.
Portraits of Cristián Jiménez courtesy of Antoine Doyen. Portrait of Diego Noguera with bonsai courtesy of Carla Pinilla, El Mercurio. Portrait of Alejandro Zambra courtesy of Omar Faundez, The Nation. Production stills courtesy of Strand Releasing.