Cannes 2024: Blue Sun Palace, Julie Keeps Quiet, Simon of the Mountain


Critics Week at Cannes, of course, is where new rising filmmakers are often found, mostly presenting their first feature. Sometimes there’s an obvious theme to be sussed out, but mostly the spiritual theme is the energy of young filmmakers plying their trade. The three films in this dispatch have some light parallels, two of them are coming-of-age works. Two others are pictures distinctly about women’s stories. But the overarching connection appears to be the debilitating hurt of feeling invisible, whether that invisibility arises from an unacknowledged trauma, a sense of place in the world or within themselves.    

The more I think about writer/director Constance Tsang’s “Blue Sun Palace,” a film premiering in Critics Week at Cannes, the more it seeps into my muscles and my bones. While Tsang’s assured debut feature mostly takes place in a Chinese massage parlor, its opening scene occurs in a Chinese restaurant. Didi (Haipeng Xu) and Cheung (Kang-sheng Lee) are on a date, sharing food and ideas for a vacation. Rather than cut between one-shots, Tsang and her DP instead rely on continuous pans between these two lovebirds. Amy, a masseuse, is playful; Cheung is shy. They go back to her place, the shop where two other massage therapists live, waking the next day with dreams of life together. Those desires, unfortunately, crumble when tragedy befalls the couple. It’s a challenging opening, one that spells the confidence of a director beyond their years. 

“Blue Sun Palace” moves with startling patience, zeroing in on Didi’s best friend Amy (Wu Ke-Xi) and Cheung learning to process their grief. For the former, it’s a bit harder. She has to deal with pervy and under-paying clients, both forcing her to grapple with the seeming worthlessness the world projects on her. Cheung, meanwhile, tries to find comfort in her by literally recreating the growing relationship he had with Didi. Wu crafts a visceral performance as a woman searching for belonging, forgiveness, and self-worth. It’s a pleasure to see her grow this character toward her final cathartic scream for self-respect, a big note in a quiet film that is wholly earned. 

With the presence of Lee as the romantic foil, it’s easy for his collaborations with Tsai Ming-Liang to immediately come to mind. That instinct isn’t unfounded. This film breathes the slow cinematic air of Tsai. And not just in its utilization of long takes, but also in its interest in spaces and people within those spaces. The massage parlor, for instance, becomes a space of community and isolation. Though we rarely see the neighborhood, the film, mostly scripted in Mandarin, is set in Queens. The parlor becomes its own world, as does the grief Amy is confronting. By its final grace note, one that considers the reality that some wounds aren’t meant to heal, “Blue Sun Palace,” a soulful and passionate meditation on loss, shines as a new gem of slow cinema. 

A teenage Julie (Tessa Van den Broeck) is a promising and intense tennis player. Nearing an important tryout for the Belgian Tennis Federation (BFT), however, her world is crumbling. She has fallen behind her schoolwork, become a recluse among her friends, and has now lost her coach, Jeremy, to an internal investigation about the death-by-suicide of a young girl at the tennis academy where she trains. It’s difficult to know what’s going on inside her mind, as she grapples with the fallout from her coach—she rarely lets anyone in. Rather one must read between her stoic glances and her refrain of “I’m fine” to know the pain that lurks beneath the trauma. 

Julie Keeps Quiet,” the feature directorial debut from Leonardo Van Dijl, is a taut, haunting character study whose patient rhythms effectively breeds inescapable tension. Tennis is a fast-paced sport, but each drop of information and every revelation that seems to sharply volley back at us comes deliberately. Sometimes it happens visually, the filmmaker and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis often obscure Juliet wholly in shadow, indicating the hollowness she feels inside. Illicit phone calls and texts between Julie and Jeremy provide further clues, as does Julie’s fraught relationship with her new coach—which, what might seem uncharacteristic for her, appears to be healthy. But most of all, it’s Julie herself, given a layered inner life by Van den Broeck in an incredible debut performance, who keeps our attention.

She has very few lines of dialogue, some of it repeated heavily, mostly because she can’t put into words what she’s feeling or has experienced. Rather she keeps everyone—competitors, family, and classmates—at arm’s length. A telling juxtaposition is created when Julie, in the latter stages of the investigation, does begin to open up by making new friends. The cloud that usually hangs over her, nevertheless, is never too far away. It’s why Van Dijl often frames Julie, alone, while playing tennis, and why she refuses to participate in the investigation as she grinds toward her tryout. It’s how “Julie Keeps Quiet” is an exercise in patience, the kind of film, told subtly, with careful hands, without fault.

What does it mean to be so invisible, you wish you could be another person? “Simon of the Mountain” takes that question to the extreme. Federico Luis Tachella’s film is an unusual character study about Simon (Lorenzo Ferro), a young man who hides in plain sight in the hopes of being seen. We first see Simon trapped on a Brazilian mountain pass with his best friend Pehuen (Pehuen Pedre) and their class of children and young adults with intellectual disabilities. Simon’s head switches, he seems deaf, and it’s difficult for him to sit still. And yet, Simon and his classmates still have the same desires as anyone else; for instance, Colo (Kiara Supini), a girl in the class, has a crush on him. 

When Pehuen is caught being intimate with a girl in the shower room, not only are her parents’ irate, so is the school’s principal, and Simon’s mother. She doesn’t understand why her son is here. Mostly because he doesn’t appear to have an intellectual disability. Simon is a mimic, passing as disabled so he might be conferred with the advantages of that status, such as community, special treatment, and being seen. 

It’s a tantalizing premise, one given greater life by Ferro’s committed performance. He mines a palpability from Simon that speaks to the 21-year old’s sense of isolation, especially around his vexed mother (Laura Nevole) and her irate boyfriend (Agustin Toscano, one of the film’s co-writers). Even with Ferro’s turn and a camera unafraid to look deeply in the gaze of a trickster performing random acts of selfishness, such as the way he leads on Colo, “Simon of the Mountains” struggles to be anything more than a premise before it suddenly peters out, leaving far more questions than it can ever hope to answer. 

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