Retour  Short Documentary On MUBI: A Chris Marker Styled Time Travel
Retour Review: If there is one filmmaker whose cinema best represents the cliched phrase: ‘Taking a trip down memory lane’, it has got to be Chris Marker. Memories, nostalgia, time and travel (often combining the latter two), are recurring motifs in his films. After watching two shorts of the budding Taiwanese filmmaker, Huang Pang-Chuan on MUBI and identifying the above-mentioned themes in them, it didn’t come as a surprise to me later when I learned that Chris Marker’s films have been a major influence on him.
Born in 1988, Huang Pang-Chuan went on to study Graphic Design in Taiwan and later moved to France to study Cinema and Audiovisual from Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle. Both of Huang’s films Retour (2017) and Last Year When The Train Passed By (2018), were screened in numerous international festivals and won many awards. He won the Grand Prix in Lab competition at the Clermont-Ferrand Festival for both the films, two years in a row.
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In Retour (Return), two journeys from different eras run parallel, evoking an experience of time travel. One is a train journey across two continents taken by Huang from France to his native in Taiwan; the other uses an old family photograph to trace back to life during wartime, echoing his grandfather’s journey abroad many decades ago. The film cuts back and forth between these two journeys as if they were the two parallel lines of a track. The rhythmic swaying of the train merges past and present, revealing a long-forgotten memory buried in dust. One would be instantly reminded of Chris Marker’s classic short film La Jetee (1962).
I got the opportunity to chat with Huang on a social media platform and understand the filmmaking process of Retour. The 20-minute short is a stop-motion film made using B&W still images and zero video footage. Huang shot the images in his train trip, bringing with him audio-recording equipment and four still cameras, including three Canon EE Demi 17, a split-frame model that captures two images per regular 35mm frame. He uses these cameras brilliantly in different sequences throughout the film to alter the speed of the train journey. Towards the end of Retour, the frame speed is rushed to a high pace, making one feel as if the train is transcending time and returning to the past.
Huang consumed 250 rolls of Kodak films to snap thousands of images! The usage of grainy analogue images over digital ones evokes a nostalgic feeling which is key to the theme of the film. He explains in an interview the advantages of using still images over video footage in a train travel film. “Everyone can do an experiment comparing two versions of a sequence, in the same train station with the same position of camera: first a video with synchronized sound, and then a still image captured from that video, using the same audio source. It turns out that the still image gives more space for the imagination, and brings us back to the place more easily.”
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Huang’s graphic design studies in Taiwan are evident in the handwritten credits, timestamps, inter-titles and arrows that appear throughout, subtly evoking the feeling of a letter or postcard sent from a distant country. Taiwanese pop star Lim Giong provides the haunting, minimalist score. Retour was produced while Huang was studying at Le Fresnoy – Studio national des arts contemporains, art and film school whose graduates are more and more often among the most exciting new artists in France.
A follow-up and epilogue to Retour, his next short Last Year When The Train Passed By, is also a compelling watch employing the same themes of memories and nostalgia. Fusing photography with nonfiction filmmaking, the haunting short digs into the core of rural life while posing key questions about the very essence of being. “What were you doing last year, when I took this photo from a train passing by your house?” Carrying a picture taken in the train a year ago, Huang revisits places he had photographed, asking the subjects what they were doing then.
His Love Story Before Dawn (2020), a documentary short shot in Tokyo and co-directed with Chunni Lin, is expected to be available soon on streaming, and he is currently developing a project on the French-Polish psychologist Françoise Minkowska for both traditional documentary and VR formats.
Retour (Return) Trailer
RETOUR (RETURN) LINK – IMDB