BIFF 2020: Oct. 27

Sister Sister (c) Truong Binh Thuong

I haven’t seen that many Vietnamese movies, but all the ones I’ve seen I’ve seen at BIFF, and I’m pretty sure all of them were about people of limited means, which I interpreted to represent the bulk of the population. Sister Sister, reportedly the biggest box office hit in Vietnam in 2019, is a decidedly different species of movie. It’s about the rich, or, perhaps I should say the new rich, since we are talking about a country whose communist government still has authoritarian powers over most of the population’s lives. At first, I found the story quaint in a way that perhaps revealed my prejudices about entertainment in developing countries, even those who already have created a 1% upper layer. Kim (Thanh Hang), the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, hosts a popular radio talk show where she listens to callers discuss their family problems. One, a young woman having an affair with a married man who dumps her after he finds she’s pregnant, is a frequent caller to the show and has forged a kind of spiritual bond with Kim. When the woman, Nhi (Chi Pu), indicates she’s been a victim of sexual violence from her boss at the restaurant where she works, Kim meets her in private and invites her to stay temporarily at the mansion she shares with her husband, Huy (Lanh Thanh), an up-and-coming architect at her father’s company. Huy, as well as the couple’s maid, resent this interloper and are suspicious of her intentions, but Kim becomes more attached to the young woman, and it seems to have something to do with the fact that Kim recently lost her own baby.

It’s a pretty standard TV soap, but about halfway through it becomes something that could have been conceived by James Cain, and things turn pretty wild. It’s a fun movie that has some obvious structural and continuity problems, and in a sense it has the kind of glittery sheen that makes you wonder how much of it is supposed to be a joke. Certainly, the sex scenes are not supposed to be taken seriously, but it’s difficult to discern how much of director Kathy Uyen’s depiction of “traditional family values” are supposed to be critical. Initially, Kim’s peculiar brand of broadcast therapy is meant to seem progressive in that a soon-to-be single mother like Nhi is normally ostracized by good society, and Kim gets grief for it (but not by her employer, since she gets high ratings). But as the twisty, sordid plot reaches the home stretch, the cynicism toward not only acquired bourgeois attitudes but also the attendant soft-hearted Western liberalism feels like a feint. As it happens, Uyen is Vietnamese-American, born in San Jose, so she has a foot in both traditions. Her debut is canny and, for me at least, a bit too calculating in its effort to have its moral cake and eat it too. 

200 Meters (c) Alaa Aliabdallah

The family depicted in the Palestinian film 200 Meters is more conventionally “happy” in that their love for one another is solid. However, the social milieu they have to navigate is much more complicated, even absurd. The head of the household, Mustafa (Ali Suleiman), lives in the West Bank at his family home, while his wife and three children live in a house in Israel, on the other side of the wall, but only 200 meters away, meaning close enough so that when he goes to sleep at night he can signal to them his “good night” with a light on the roof. The director, Ameen Nayfeh, never fully explains why the family is separated, though one gets the feeling that Mustafa is not comfortable living in Israel. In any event, he has to work there, and thus must endure the grueling checkpoint process on an almost daily basis. 

This process becomes the movie’s leitmotif, a gauntlet of humiliation and potential danger that is stretched out almost interminably during the movie’s second half, when Mustafa, cut off in the West Bank over the weekend due to an expired permit, has to hire a smuggler to get him into Israel after his son is injured in a traffic accident. That 200 meters turns into a taut day-long journey involving switching cars, enduring the annoying peccadillos of strangers, and being stuffed in a trunk for hours as a life-and-death drama he doesn’t even know about is taking place only feet away. Though there are several implausibilities in Nayfeh’s script, he keeps the politicizing to a minimum and trains his dramatic firepower on Mustafa’s anxiety, which is all the more visceral because he is a good man, albeit an often impatient one. Even the ringer in the story, a young German filmmaker who tags along on the smuggling expedition to get some good footage, doesn’t feel gratuitous, even if some of the English dialogue sounds forced. And if the ending seems too faintly happy, the context gives it poignance. Mustafa is just going to have to get up the next day and do it all again. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 26

Good Person (Korean Academy of Film Arts)

Debut features, especially by university trained directors, are a crap shoot, since they often replicate graduation projects. That isn’t usually the case, however, in South Korea, where film students with real ambition and talent are put through the ringer, and that tends to describe a large number of them, so I try to take in as many Korean debuts as I can at BIFF, time willing. Good Person, a World Premiere mystery by Jung Wook, born in 1987, was produced by the Korean Academy of Film Arts, which automatically recommends it as a fine-tuned commercial offering by an excellent student, and it delivered, even though I watched it in the morning with a lot of interruptions.

The interruptions, in fact, were often welcome since at times I found the movie almost too painful to watch. Popular actor Kim Tae-hun plays Choi Kyung-seok, who teaches at an all-male high school. Tae-hun obviously thinks of himself as a good person, a conscientious teacher who seems to be respected by his charges, though sometimes grudgingly so. When a student’s wallet is stolen, he gives the culprit a chance to turn himself in without being exposed as such to the other students, but, of course, no one steps forward, and when one student quietly indicates it may have been the class’s black sheep, Se-ik, Tae-hun gives the sullen suspect, who denies the theft, the benefit of the doubt, but not before lecturing him in such a patronizing way as to let himself off the hook should things go south, which they do in very short order.

The script is almost granular in its attention to plot detail and credible motivations, though the accumulation of left turns may leave your head spinning. Tae-hun’s virtue signaling, as it turns out, is mostly compensation for a failed marriage and a drinking problem that he believes he’s overcome. But as one bad decision leads to another, the personality pluses turn into minuses, guaranteeing that Tae-hun’s spiral to the bottom is fast and relentless. Though not particularly original, Good Person is technically and narratively irreproachable, with a theme that resonates through its supreme downer tone. And like a lot of South Korean debuts that are this accomplished, it will leave you either cold (because it is cold) or desiring of a long shower. It may sound like a cliche to predict that Jung has a bright future, but, yeah, I can’t wait to see what he does next. 

Cleaners

High school is also the setting for the Philippine movie Cleaners, which takes a conventional film genre, the gross-out school comedy, and jigs it up visually and aurally. Divided into six sections, each of which addresses a cliche of Catholic high school life, the film is almost painfully amateurish, but director Glenn Barit processes it all through a stop-motion filter and then adds hand-painted day-glo colors to the black-and-white cells (or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to look like; it’s probably all done digitally), giving the whole production a surreal cast. And while the situations are trite enough—loser courting pregnant popular girl, a bunch of skater-emo kids entering a dance contest and turning it on its head, the rich boy upending his privilege—Barit adds some fairly shocking scatology and self-mutilation just for fun. Though it’s easy to laugh at the corners cut and the rawness of the acting, there’s emotional grit mixed in with the sentimentality that’s leavened by Barit’s clever and catchy indie music score. Humor-wise, it’s not my cup of tea, but it did give me a pretty good idea what it might have been like growing up in a middle class suburb in the Philippines in 2007. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 25

(c) Shisso Production Inc.

I spent all day on Kazuo Hara’s latest epic, Minamata Mandala, which is six hours and 12 minutes, thus making it almost twice as long as his last epic, Sennan Asbestos Disaster. The two documentaries are very similar in both subject matter and theme, but I would hardly call them redundant. Both address the grievances of people who have suffered medically for the neglect of the state and attempt to gain redress only to spend many years in an agonizing tug-of-war with the bureaucracy, which is invariably implacable. 

Minamata is, of course, synonymous with structural neglect. Lawsuits to gain some measure of relief for the tens of thousands of people injured by the organic mercury pollution let loose by the Chisso Corporation in the middle of the 20th century in the seas off Kumamoto Prefecture have been going on for almost 60 years, and are still going on for some people. Minamata has been seared in the mind of the world through the photos of W. Eugene Smith, whose own biopic with Johnny Depp playing the late photographer who made those iconic B&W prints of Minamata Disease victims will open theatrically pretty soon, and likely upstage the message this movie is trying to convey. As with Sennan, here Hara is not so much interested in the original crime, which is pretty cut-and-dry, but rather the process of wearing-down that those in power put in motion in order to make an inconvenient problem go away. And while it doesn’t go away, it may not reach the ears of the general public in a way that will make much difference. Hara’s job is to place the viewer right in the middle of the controversy, and while he doesn’t bother to ask for the other side’s view of the matter at hand, you can tell from the action he does put on film that the other side doesn’t give two shits about what the public might think. To them, silence is golden, since it is the most absolute way of asserting power, especially in Japan, where those who are not directly affected are not likely to profess more than token sympathy.

Hara breaks the film, which was was shot over a period of some 20 years, into three parts. The first establishes the science behind the plaintiffs’ claim, which finds the government’s various remedies to be self-serving and insufficient. The criteria for providing compensation and medical treatment established in 1977 was based on medical findings that said Minamata Disease was all about damaged nerves, a decision that excluded many patients who, when tested, presented no nerve damage. Two doctors from Kumamoto, however, theorized quite early on that Minamata Disease was about losing brain function, or, more precisely, it was a disease of “sensory disturbance.” People’s sense of taste and smell were diminished, they lost peripheral vision and some feeling in their extremities, and had trouble communicating, but none of these symptoms presented as damaged nerves because the problem was in the brain and its ability to send the proper signals to the body. It wasn’t until 2006 and the Supreme Court case handling the suit brought by a group of Minamata victims who were living in the Kansai region that the sensory disturbance  explanation was taken seriously. 

The rest of the film presents how this inconvenient ruling was ignored by both the Environmental Ministry and Kumamoto Prefecture, which stalled in its duty to rectify its certification processes for Minamata victims. It’s a maddening journey, filled with court victories that prove to be empty, either because the authorities appeal them again, drawing out the agony for sick people who are at death’s door, or because they simply interpret the court ruling in a way that allows them not to admit they ever did anything wrong. As with Sennan, the movie’s climax is a showdown in the halls of Kasumigaseki with a bunch of youthful civil servants, who know very little about the history of the problem, being dispatched to receive the withering anger of people who have nothing left to lose. But this is even more intense, climaxing in a bit of showy violence when one plaintiff rips the notes out of the hand of a bureaucrat to find out if his “apology” is sincere or not. To make matters worse, these people essentially reenact this farce several days later in the Kumamoto Prefecture offices, where the governor says he will get down on his knees and apologize “if you want me to.”

Interspersed throughout this drama are interludes with various victims of the disease, which offer the requisite human side of the tragedy but, thanks to Hara’s immersive approach, give us a world beyond the hospitals and care homes. I was particularly moved by a certain Mr. Ikoma, who contracted Minamata Disease as a teenager and, despite the widespread prejudice against patients, wed a woman through an arranged marriage. When Hara finds out that the woman is Korean, his investigative antennae go up and he asks the couple and their matchmaker (another Minamata victim—one of the strongest suits of the film is the way it conveys a sense of community among patients) if anti-Korean prejudices had anything to do with the arrangement and the couple says it did not. Hara seems deflated, and, probably the audience is as well, and the mystery endures. Maybe that’s as it should be. Some things just can’t be explained so neatly. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 24

The Slaughterhouse

This is the first time in recent memory that there hasn’t been an Iranian film directed by someone I’m familiar with; or maybe I should say it’s the first time there hasn’t been an available Iranian film directed by someone I’m familiar with. As with South Korea, Iranian cinema exists, to me at least, on a slightly higher plane than other national cinemas, meaning that besides the pleasures of art house features that are unique to Iran, the country’s mainstream films are technically, stylistically, and narratively more sophisticated across the board. Which isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional dud, but even when an Iranian movie falls into trite sentimentality or over-earnestness, there’s still something refreshingly original about it, and, again, as with South Korean films, I think it has something to do with the enormous amount of competition among the country’s established film professionals.

So I felt rather confident in choosing to watch The Slaughterhouse at random. It’s the third feature by Abbas Amini, who initially made his name with socially minded documentaries, and there’s a studied quality to the story that shows how a great deal of research went into the theme. It’s basically a thriller, but one whose central mystery becomes almost incidental to the larger picture, even though it spurs the action right up until the end. Abed, an excitable middle aged man who once worked for the government but now makes a living as a security guard at a slaughterhouse, finds three dead men locked in the facility’s large refrigerator. He calls the owner as well as his own son, Amir, who has recently been released from prison, where he spent two years for assaulting a policeman in France. The owner blames Abed for the deaths, saying that the men must have wandered into the refrigerator and the door shut behind them. Faced with an obvious police interrogation and probably punishment for death by neglect, Abed begs his son to help him get rid of the bodies, and the three men bury them in a shallow grave near a wall of the abattoir. 

It’s hardly an original idea, and the viewer automatically perceives that the worst is bound to happen to one if not all three of the men involved, but then Amini’s skills with social investigation kicks in and we find that the slaughterhouse is mainly a front business. The owner mostly makes a living by smuggling dollars into Iran and exchanging them on the black market. Abed seems to know something about this occupation, since he once partook of it himself (it may be the reason he lost his government job), but Amir, the protagonist and the person with the most to lose, given his ex-con status, is sucked in as well, not only because he desperately needs money to get out of his father’s house, but also in order to put the ugly incident of the secret burial behind him, which is easier said than done. Needless to say, the deeper he dives into the illegal black market in dollars, the closer he gets to finding out the truth about the three dead men.

Besides having a close understanding of this world, Amini knows how to use that knowledge to create tension, and along the way he shows, through implication and indirection, how the isolation of Iran by both its own government and the rest of the world (it’s particularly ironic that dollars are so valuable, given that the U.S. is Iran’s chief nemesis) has crippled its economy so completely. The requisite scenes of animals being made into meat in the slaughterhouse fit nicely alongside those with men crowded in a dark plaza trading their dollars for the best prices, as if they were brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Someone is being skinned. 

Vestige

In that light, the movie I chose next, mainly because of its brevity, was perfect in contrast. As I said, South Korean films are a cut above, regardless where they start from. Vestige, a 70-minute curiosity made up of two short films commissioned for a film festival in the mountain town of Muju, was hardly a promotional or vanity project. I have no idea if the two directors, Kim Jong-kwan or Jang Kun-jae, are from Muju, but they seem to have a deep empathy for small town lives. 

Kim’s offering presents a scraggly woman who gets off a bus in Muju and proceeds to walk a long distance into a forest, where she digs up a metal container. She takes the container, along with some candles she buys at a convenience store, to an abandoned house, where she performs a kind of exorcising ritual. In a brief flashback, we learn that she once lived in this house with her teenage daughter, and that she made some kind of living as a shaman. The film is nearly wordless, highly evocative of the location, and spooky in a Lynchian way. And while it isn’t scary, its particular breed of melancholy gets under your skin.

Jang’s half elaborates on this theme by focusing on two civil servants who are cohabitating in a house that looks suspiciously similar to the one in Kim’s film. They discuss the friends who went away and those who never will. As a precis of small town life it’s both familiar and haunting. Just from their conversations, one gets an intimate feeling of what it’s like to grow up here, and the movie mirrors the first one with a tribute to all those inhabitants who are no longer around to defend their corner of the world. I don’t know if this is what Muju had in mind when they asked these two filmmakers to honor their town, but what they got was extraordinarily poignant and evocative. What’s particularly striking is that this movie, made so exactly to specifications, will probably never be seen by anyone other than its target viewership, and yet it deserves so much more attention. 

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Review: Destroyer

“High-concept” is a term used to describe Hollywood projects that are based on extremely easy-to-grasp ideas that have little to do with story or production values. They’re more like riffs on traditional genre tropes: zombies on Mars, say, or Shakespeare in Mumbai. Destroyer fits the high-concept bill, but in the past decade or so, the idea of “A-list movie star uglying up to play a degenerate” has already become a commonplace. Here, Nicole Kidman is an alcoholic, clearly psychologically damaged L.A. detective with looks to match. Nailing accents is something she perfected decades ago, but this appearance is something new, and it would have been nice if that high-concept had included a script that justified it.

First off, Destroyer uses one of those “start at the end” plot devices that require an incredible sensitivity to narrative development in order to pull off credibly, and from the get-go director Karyn Kusama seems uninterested in untangling the inconsistencies in Phil Hay’s and Matt Manfredi’s script, if, in fact, she even notices them. Through a series of flashbacks embedded a little too deep in the story, we learn that L.A. officer Erin Bell (Kidman) once infiltrated a gang of particularly skilled bank robbers with her lover-mentor (Sebastian Stan), and that they were eventually found out due to a mistake on her part, and that the mentor was killed as a result. She blames the mastermind for that death, but he runs underground. Seventeen years later, evidence from that last fateful bank robbery surfaces mysteriously, indicating that the mastermind is back in business, and Erin goes all lone wolf rogue to exact revenge. 

Of course, a lot has happened in the intervening 17 years, most of it to Erin’s face, which is dried-out, pock-marked, and dreary to beat the band. She’s got a disaffected daughter (Jad Pettyjohn), the product of her dalliance with the mentor, who tends to trust more in one of Erin’s subsequent boyfriends than she does in her mother, who isn’t around for her. The mother-daughter thing is a distraction, though, from the ongoing self-debasement that Erin undergoes in order to catch her prey, a process that entails not only lying to her colleagues and pulling patently illegal stunts, but also pissing off other gangland types to the point where they think nothing of beating the shit out of her and leaving her for dead. The point seems to be to allow the transformation that Kidman’s normally pristine features undergo to stand in for what we would usually expect of “screen acting,” but without the support of a story that makes sense or develops a dramatic arc. The scene where Erin gives a handjob in exchange for information doesn’t elicit anything but disgust, and if that’s the point then Kusama has really misunderstood the potential audience for this movie. One of the definitions of high-concept is that it’s also high-risk.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Destroyer home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 30West Destroyer, LLC

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 23

Everyday Is a Lullaby

Though I’m not writing for a paying media outlet this year, I was still hoping to “attend” a few press conferences. There aren’t that many except for the Opening and Closing films and the features in the Gala Section. Last month, the press office asked me if I was interested in participating and I said, yes, but yesterday I learned that they were only making the PCs available to Korean journalists because not enough foreign reporters expressed interest, which makes sense since the Opening/Closing/Gala films are not available on the online press screening platform. My guess is that it’s because it’s something of a pain to provide English interpreting for Zoom conferences—I know because I had a lot of trouble with the English channel for the BIFF announcement PC in September—but the two PCs I wanted to see were for Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, so I didn’t need English interpreting, but apparently once these decisions are made they’re difficult to reverse. Interestingly, I was invited to the PC for the American movie Minari, which is about a Korean family moving to a farm in Arkansas, probably because most of it would be in English anyway, but while they did send me the email invitation ten minutes before the PC was to start this afternoon, they forgot to attach the link, and by the time they realized this and sent me the link the PC was over.

Well, more time to watch movies. However, based on the first one I chose, Everyday Is a Lullaby, from Indonesia, I’m getting the feeling that every Asian filmmaker in the last year has binged on Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Putrama Tuta, Everyday is one of those films about films, with a debauched screenwriter protagonist desperate to get out of his successful rut writing ghost stories. From the outside, Rektra (Anjasmara Prasetya) seems to have it made: fame, money, a gorgeous actress girlfriend. But he’s seriously depressed, and though his only three activities are writing, sex, and smoking weed, he partakes of the last two only to provide “inspiration” for the first. Needless to say, it doesn’t really get him anywhere, and it doesn’t really get the viewer anywhere, either. The narrative weaves in and out of rambling conversations and expressionistic tableaux with no fixed destination. In one early scene, a hard-assed producer who refuses to take on Rektra’s new “indie crap” illustrates the limitations of artistic wankery by pointing to the cheap quality of the sets she’s building for yet another horror movie. “This is Indonesia,” she points out. Unfortunately, from that point on you can’t help but notice that every scene seems to take place on a cheap set, and while this aspect gives the film a dreamlike quality, it also draws attention to Tuta’s unsubstantial theme and desperation to make an impression, manifested by car crashes and an odd interlude featuring a glory hole. 

Coalesce

By this point I was desperate for a movie about something real, and turned to the Cambodian-French co-production Coalesce, directed by Parisian Jesse Miceli. Coalesce is the kind of Asian indie that BIFF has always championed: socially relevant, shot on a shoestring, and realistic. All the actors are local amateurs and look it, but the real star of the film is the urbanization of Phnom Penh, which, as is often the case in Southeast Asia, seems to be moving ahead faster than its people can handle. The story has three threads, each pulled by a young man. Songsa is a reticent rural teen who is sent to the city to sell clothes out of a neighbor’s jitney and ends up overwhelmed by the pace and depravity of it all. Thy, who has just turned 20, gets a job in a gay bar as a dancer-cum-hustler for foreign men and is saving his money for a motorcycle. Married Phearum drives an off-grid taxi in order to feed his extended family and buy land for an auto sales business someday. As the title suggests, these three storylines will merge in some way, but Miceli isn’t obsessed with the process. He’s more interested in the milieu and some well-observed incidentals, including a backroom abortion, a foreign element, both Chinese and Western, that sees Cambodia as a chicken ready to pluck, and a casual native attitude toward violence that is shocking, but mainly in retrospect. Best of all, it really does feel up-to-the-minute.

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Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

The title tells you right off the bat what you’re getting into with this supposedly definitive documentary about The Band: Robbie’s version, which has been contentious for years owing to how much drummer/singer/nominal frontman Levon Helm resented his post-breakup stewardship, which translated into taking the lion’s share of the group’s royalties and, for the most part, deciding that the organization was finished. Levon’s dead, of course, as are both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, so there is hardly anyone left to be contentious. (Survivor Garth Hudson always seemed the neutral-man-out, so I wouldn’t expect him to be contentious about anything) That said, the movie does make a case that drugs were their downfall, and only Robertson and Hudson (who probably didn’t do drugs) managed to get out with their lives, so in hindsight there’s much to be said for Robbie’s pulling himself together and at least making sure the legacy has reach.

Still, Robbie is as much of an asshole as he is a mensch, and his narration has the over-excited tenor of a pitchman, which is perhaps appropriate because, as he points out so convincingly, The Band started out as a bunch of teenagers who were essentially hawking their wares—they were even dubbed the Hawks by their first real mentor, rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, who is still feisty enough to repeat for the millionth time that line about how he got the Canadians (Helm, the sole American, was already working for him) on board: you won’t make any money, but you’ll get more pussy than Sinatra. And the doc’s real worth is how it plays up this pre-Dylan period in the ensemble’s career, which consisted of countless nights in dives playing R&B staples and Hawkins’ narrow cross-section of regional “hits.” 

The Dylan era is given less focus, which probably has something to do with copyrights (even if Bob himself shows up to offer up his own unique effusions), but that somehow feels right given that they were definitely in his shadow; that is, until they did the Basement Tapes in Saugerties, New York, at Big Pink, an event that is rightly mythologized here. Director Daniel Roher is careful to make all these elements coalesce into a satisfying hypothesis of what made these five musicians worthy of the bold moniker The Band. And that’s another reason why Robertson’s pushy personal take on the story, cribbed from his autobiography, grates a little. Roher is up to the task, but that task is to burnish Robbie’s reputation, which may explain why he didn’t get any on-film comments from Hudson. In fact, the one person who makes Robbie’s dominance acceptable is his wife, Dominique, who provides witness to the horrors of the group’s drug-taking days, including those in which her husband participated. None of this biographical material overshadows the musical import of the documentary, but The Band’s stature as perhaps the greatest, most organic North American group of the rock era is already carved in stone. The movie simply gives a few more examples of their musical greatness. What we come to Once Were Brothers for is the truth behind the myth, and Robbie is still sort of blocking the view. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), White Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-6712-7225).

Once Were Brothers home page in Japanese

photo (c) Robbie Documentary Productions Inc. 2019

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 22

GV for Peninsula (credit: BIFF)

In-person events are the bread and butter of the Busan International Film Festival, which, despite its global reputation as the most important international film festival in Asia and the significance of its concurrent Asian Content Film Market, is by and large a fan-centered event, with dozens of opportunities for Korean movie freaks to meet and talk to actors and filmmakers. Their post-screening Q&As are legendary, and often spill out of the theaters and into the lobbies of wherever the screenings are taking place. Obviously, all in-person events are cancelled this year, which is a bigger blow for BIFF than it probably is for other major world fests, but, apparently, they’ve found some small ways to make up for the loss. According to a press release, there were two screenings today that linked up simultaneously with screenings in the countries where the movies were made, and afterwards, the two sets of audiences were able to interact online. One was the documentary School Town King from Thailand and the other, the hit Vietnamese film Sister Sister, directed by a Vietnamese-American actor-director. In addition, a local screening of the zombie epic Peninsula, which is already in wide release in South Korea, included a “hybrid guest visit” afterwards, at which the producer and main actor showed up in the theater while the director “attended” online, wearing a mask, of course.

Back here in the BIFF annex at chez Brasor, I had a slight problem with a movie I had been looking forward to, The Man Standing Next, a fictionalized rendering of the activities of KCIA director Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun) during the 40-day period prior to his assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. Ever since seeing the farcical but supposedly entirely factual (according to its director, anyway) The President’s Last Bang, I’ve always been fascinated by the murder of the great dictator, but, unfortunately, the version that was uploaded to the press screening platform does not have English subtitles. Should I send a message or let it slide?

Me and Me

So instead I watched another movie from the Panorama section, Me and Me, the debut feature by veteran actor Jung Jin-young. A fantasy with elements of a stalled police procedural, the movie is difficult to describe. A young couple have moved from Seoul to a remote village where the husband takes a teaching job. The couple has a secret that eventually leaks to the surrounding community, which becomes concerned about their well-being and tries to create an environment wherein everyone feels safe, but the plan leads to disaster. As a local police detective, investigating the disaster, starts getting closer to the bizarre truth of the matter he finds himself literally changed into someone else, though his mind still clings to his former life. At first I found the continuing shifts in tone and logical development annoying and the idea of completely replacing one set of protagonists for another halfway through confounding, but eventually the film sort of won me over with its idea that we are all different people from time to time; it’s just that some of us adjust better to these displacements than others do. Jung and his main actor, Cho Jin-woong, conveyed the complete helplessness of a man caught up in a nightmare with a visceral power that was difficult to shake, and I can’t say that the nominally semi-happy ending made be feel any better. It’s hard to recommend, but it’s certainly original. 

Also original was the short documentary essay from the Wide Angle section, When a Hen Crows, an obvious student project by a young woman named Dabin. Mostly a contemplation of her coming out, so to speak, as a feminist in South Korea in 2020 (she says she became a feminist three years earlier), the movie has a tentative mood that reflects it’s narrator-maker’s lack of confidence in both her storytelling skills and her credentials as an “enlightened” woman. Though 25 when she made the film, she was still struggling with whether or not she could leave her apartment sans makeup. She scours public toilet stalls for hidden spycams and attends the recent street demonstrations celebrating the lifting of the abortion ban. On trips to her family home in some unidentified town, she reverts to old habits that were the product of being a plain girl in a household where her older brother had precedent. Of frail health most of her life—chronic hypothyroidism made her the envy of her classmates because it prevented her from getting fat—she equates illness with just being a woman. 

When the Hen Crows (c) Bean Film

By telling her story in the third person, Dabin makes the case for all women, though the personal touches are what really make the pronouncement universal, like when she overhears a neighbor complaining about domestic abuse at the hands of a family member and feels relief that it’s someone else who’s the statistic. The writing is more impressionistic than the images, and sometimes you can’t quite figure out what she’s getting at, but that would seem to be the purpose of the film in the first place. She knows she’ll never understand how to make her way in this environment as a woman without interrogating her present life out loud, and wielding a camera, to boot. As much as I admired how she made the personal compelling, I feared for her choices, especially the one guy identified as her boyfriend, who sits silently, nodding and grunting as she tries to explain how all men and women, especially those in relationships, can’t help but play the roles their upbringing has assigned to them. I’m hoping she took her own words to heart and dumped the guy shortly thereafter.

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Review: Madre

The news that Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen was going to expand his Oscar-nominated 2017 short film to feature length was met with both excitement and dread. The premise of the short was high-concept to the point of gimmickry, and yet Sorogoyen pulled it off impressively, thanks mainly to his lead actress, Marta Nieto, playing a woman in Madrid who receives a phone call from her six-year-old son, Ivan, who is visiting his father in France. Ivan is on a beach he doesn’t know, alone, and as his mother, Elena, attempts to get him oriented and in touch with either his father or a person of authority, she slowly starts to lose her grip. Over a period of 15 minutes the situation escalates into something truly terrifying. 

Though some would say Sorogoyen was being manipulative, his idea of expansion is completely the opposite. In fact, anyone expecting the usual searching-for-the-missing child thriller will be deeply disappointed. Following the opening sequence, which is exactly the same short film that was nominated for the Academy Award, Sorogoyen moves the narrative forward ten years, with Elena now working at a beach in France, presumably the one from which Ivan called her and, as we soon discern, disappeared from completely. Though we assume Elena is there to look for him, nothing she does indicates as much. She works as a manager of a seaside restaurant and goes about her chores as if everything were normal, because, after ten years, everything is as normal as it’s going to get. She goes home at night to her boyfriend, Joseba (Alex Brandemuhl), who we figure out almost immediately is not Ivan’s father, and they have dinner. The only thing that seems slightly off is that Elena doesn’t have much energy.

And then she sees a teenage boy on the beach one day, a refugee from Paris, there with his family on vacation. Elena’s intent gaze implies she thinks he at least looks like what Ivan would look like now, and she starts to stalk him. Eventually, they meet by accident, and enter into conversation that leads to a budding friendship. By this point, the viewer is becoming increasingly uncomfortable, not because we necessarily believe the boy, Jean (Jules Porier), really is Ivan, but because the relationship feels fraught with emotional if not downright physical danger. Inevitably, Elena meets the parents (Anne Consigny, Frederic Pierrot), who see nothing wrong with a fortyish woman hanging out with their 16-year-old son, but those feelings are bound to change as well.

The sexual frisson is unmistakable, at least from Jean’s point of view. Elena’s is more difficult to gauge, but in a sense Jean as an individual who’s completely separate from Ivan starts to provoke Elena’s sympathies, and while I wouldn’t want to call it something as trite as “maternal instinct,” she empathizes with Jean’s normal adolescent anxieties in ways that are particularly charged given her background. There seems to be something actually healthy in her regard for Jean’s well-being, even if you dread what will come of it. It’s a test of Sorogoyen’s mettle as a storyteller that he can take such perfect grist for a conventional thriller and turn it into a stomach-churner of a completely different sort.

In French and Spanish. Opens Oct. 23 in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebish Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Madre home page in Japanese

photo (c) Manolo Pavon

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 21

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

I was finally given the tools I needed to register for online press screenings for the Busan International Film Festival. Obviously, I’m not there in person, but the organizers were kind enough to invite me to “attend” remotely, the benefit of which is that I get to see this year’s selections at home without having to hustle to a ticket booth and wait in line for something that everyone else usually wants to see. The disadvantage, at least this year, is that the online selection is limited, as it usually is in the video room where you can call up those films that don’t fit into your schedule—but only if the distributors or producers deign to make them available. This year, only about half the 200+ films being screened are available online, and most of the major ones, including the this-year-only “Cannes” section, are not on the list. These are films that were supposed to premier at the cancelled 2020 Cannes International Film Festival. Also, many of the big Japanese films, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, are not available, which is not as big a deal as it seems since many have already opened in Japan or will shortly, but it would have been nice to see them here since I missed the domestic press screenings due to pandemic protocols. I’ve been informed that there was not enough foreign press interest expressed for the Gala films, so we won’t have access to the films or the press conferences save one, the American film Minari. Also, no Hong Sang-soo online, which already feels like a big hole for me; but, then again, I’ve become spoiled watching Hong movies with Korean audiences, who tend to laugh their asses off, so I’m sure it wouldn’t be the same watching The Woman Who Ran on my iMac. 

That still leaves a lot of movies that I can see, though. Choosing which ones might be a chore this time, since I don’t have ready, physical access to fellow press people who can recommend which ones are worth seeing and which ones to avoid. 

But there are a few no-brainers, one of which is Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, which I just finished watching. This is Jia’s third in a series of documentaries about the arts in China, and while I prefer Jia’s narrative films, the movie was engrossing in ways that the previous two installments weren’t, probably due to the subject matter. The first two films were about visual arts and fashion design, and mostly dealt with professionals who came of age during or after the 1990s. Swimming is about literature, and focuses on four writers who cover the entirety of the communist era. The impetus for the film was a literary festival that Jia attended in his home province of Shanxi. There he met three of China’s most celebrated poets/novelists, as well as the daughter of another, Ma Feng, a controversial figure who was central to the heroic style that the Party insisted on during its early years. 

All these artists are from Shanxi or nearby, and the common theme that runs through their ruminations is that you are nothing without the place that produced you. Even Ma had to return to his roots in order to produce works that people wanted to read. Jia juxtaposes static interviews with illustrative everyday scenes from Shanxi comprising 18 “chapters” that are supposed to “play like a symphony,” a metaphor made somewhat trite by the liberal use of classical music on the soundtrack, especially Shostakovich. Still, the witnesses prove their literary worth with stories that are both entertaining and enlightening about their respective artistic developments. Jia Pingwa explains how his father was purged during the Cultural Revolution, which means he grew up on a reeducation farm. But because he grew up on a reeducation farm he was urged by the authorities to attend university since they wanted more peasants to earn a higher education. There he was exposed to Western art and literature, which helped him hone his craft, even though he had to publish work that was acceptable to the Party. It wasn’t until after he moved back to the countryside that he found his real voice.

The most colorful figure is Yu Hua, who came of age in the late 70s. Though obsessed with literature, he couldn’t pass the university exam and so went to vocational school to become a dentist. Assigned to a hospital in a big city he noticed that people who worked for the Cultural Bureau just walked around town all day. “That’s for me,” he said, and started writing fiction. After years of rejection letters a Beijing publisher finally took him on and he was able to secure a position in the Cultural Bureau, but by then he was a real writer, and, like Jia, moved back to the countryside, where he became a bestselling novelist. The third writer, Liang Hong, did attend university in Beijing, where she majored in literature, but it was her impoverished upbringing and the unusual circumstances of her family life that informed her work, which is personal and tragic (“my family was the village soap opera”). The interview with her 14-year-old son is priceless, as he represents the next generation, and Jia is canny enough to leave any speculation to himself. The son says he wants to be a physicist, but his sly way with words definitely pegs him as his mother’s son.

Empty Body

A very different mother-son combination is explored in Kim Ui-seok’s Empty Body, part of the Korean Cinema Today-Panorama section. The Korean selections are mostly grouped into two categories: Panorama, which are generally movies by established directors, and Vision, which showcases new Korean filmmakers. Empty Body doesn’t come across as either, really. It’s Kim’s second film, following his well-regarded debut, After My Death. Empty Body is obtuse speculative fiction. Moon So-ri plays a rich, seemingly single woman whose 23-year-old son dies in a car wreck and the police can’t determine if it was accidental or deliberate. The mother opts to transplant the son’s brain into a made-to-order android that eventually “deletes” the son’s consciousness. There’s a weird court trial to decide if the android effectively “murdered” its “owner,” and the android repeatedly assures the mother that her son wanted to die and resented that she forced him “back to life.” There’s a lot of existential heavy lifting going on, and the mood is depressingly, relentlessly bleak. Supposedly, the 90-minute film was expanded from a 50-minute TV broadcast, and the padding shows, mostly in the over-use of long takes filled with uncomfortable silences. It doesn’t have a lot going for it in terms of entertainment or thematic originality. It’s essentially high-concept art house cinema that runs off the rails. 

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