Review: I Am Greta

As the title suggests, Nathan Grossman’s documentary about teen climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg is more about the person than the activist, though, with someone like Greta, the distinction may be moot. Consequently, the viewer often gets the feeling that Grossman doesn’t know which direction to take, and while Greta herself doesn’t really seem to mind his camera being around all the time, she rarely treats it or Grossman with undue attention. She’s essentially saying to us, “This is what you get,” but that may be more than she thinks.

The movie covers about a year in time, from Greta’s first brush with notoriety, when she went on a solo school strike in Stockholm at the age of 15 to draw attention to global warming in August 2018 and get her native Sweden to join the Paris Accords, until September 2019 when she gave a withering speech blasting world leaders at the UN for their failure to initiate any meaningful action to address climate change. What’s clear from the very beginning is that Greta takes it all very personally. Her dour, scolding attitude springs from an acute realization that her generation will bear the brunt of the climate crisis while those who now exacerbate it in the name of growth and progress will be dead sooner than later. This is, of course, what her dectractors fail to grasp about her. They think her attitude is a function of her Asperger’s (a Fox News pundit calls her a “child with a mental illness”) and makes her out to be malleable to left-wing adults who want to push their alarmist, anti-capitalist agenda, but one thing the movie makes clear is that Greta defies manipulation. Her own father, Svante, who tends to be the only adult she listens to with any deference, says outright that it was Greta who changed his own mind about global warming through the force of her considerable will, and while he necessarily has to chaperone her and make sure she doesn’t collapse psychologically under the weight of all she’s taken on, he knows his own limits as a parent and guardian. There are a number of tense scenes where father and daughter square off over some matter of protocol or safety.

Certainly, too much will be assigned to the Asperger’s, but Greta’s savant tendencies certainly work to her advantage in terms of the work she’s taken on. She’s got a photographic memory, and her stubborn streak means she can’t be swayed by sentimentality or material temptations. Like many young people of her particular temperament, she gets along with animals better than with people, and her veganism, not to mention her disregard for consumerism, are not things she even thinks twice about. For sure, when she embarks on her trip to New York from Europe on a sailboat, because flying would give her opponents ammunition, she is reluctant, mainly because she will be separated from her beloved dogs and horses for so long, but also because the isolation and deprivation will be a trial. She, more than anyone, understands that she comes from a position of privilege, and, in a way, the sea voyage can be seen as Greta testing her own resolve, which may explain why her speech at the UN right after she finished the voyage was so vociferous. 

Grossman perhaps overdoes the nerdy teen thing. “I don’t care about being popular,” Greta says at one point about the disparagement directed at her by trolls and climate change deniers, but the director frames it as the statement of purpose of a contrarian adolescent toward the cool kids in class. If Greta the climate firebrand seems inseparable from Greta the moody teenager it only plays up her integrity as a lightning rod for others her age who are similarly distressed about their futures. She doesn’t do things by half-measures because she knows definitively that half-measures will not save the planet. She’s as honest with herself as she is about the world. 

In Swedish and English. Opens Oct. 22 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

I Am Greta home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 B-Reel Films AB

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An interview with Todd Haynes, 2008

The following is a transcript of a telephone conversation I had with director Todd Haynes in 2008 about his movie, I’m Not There, a kind of fantasia about Bob Dylan. It was done for the Asahi Shimbun’s English language edition and, thus, has never been made available online. The article itself was much shorter and contained only a few brief quotes. (I have appended it to the transcript) With the recent release of Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary, I thought people might be interested in reading what he had to say about Dylan. But, in any case, if you haven’t seen the movie you should. It really is a trip.

-How have you felt about the reception so far?

I’m happy. It’s received good notices amidst a crowded and generally high-quality movie season.

-Was that helped in any way by Dylan’s own resurgence as an artist?

There’s no question. The general interest in Dylan never goes away, but it’s compounded by the quality of work he’s put out recently, starting with his last three releases, and then the book and the radio show. He’s been conveying a crazy generosity in the quality of his work. It’s the radio show and the book to me, indicating the Dylan who is there to stand for the history of American popular music in all its various forms, and as somebody who still wants to act as a link to the earliest traditional music and even contemporary music.

-We can’t hear the radio show in Japan.

That’s too bad. The songs are so great and it’s so cool how much time he’s obviously put in, with a staff of writers, and his own taste, and how much time he’s put into talking between and setting up the songs and sharing really cool kernels of wisdom and stories about each artist. And it’s yet another character: this droll, witty old-timer. [mimics Dylan’s voice introducing Leadbelly and Blur].

-I’m sure he’s riffing on the DJs he listened to as a kid, too.


-What was your first impression of Dylan?

I don’t really remember a first time of actually hearing his voice. Those songs were in the culture of the American Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles where I grew up. I remember “Blowing in the Wind” being played in a circle alongside “Silver and Gold” and falling into that great tradition of American folk songs that became part of the new left of the 60s and was already making its way into places like that. But it was high school where I discovered the singer and the artist, and fell in love with his music and his whole persona and character and style. One of my best friends in high school was Elizabeth McGovern, the actress, and we were soulmates. And I remember her saying once, If you could look like anybody other than yourself, who would it be? And I remember picking Dylan. Because that was a cool look, even in the mid-70s.

-How did your feelings about him change over the years?

I kind of stopped listening to his music for about 20 years. I didn’t stay on top of his releases through the 80s and 90s. I never outright rejected him. I was just moving on to different kinds of music and different genres. It’s what made this strange season at the end of the 90s, at the end of the millennium so interesting and surprising, when I found myself craving him deeply, and needing to hear that music. And I know now how much that was an indicator of changes in my life that would materialize shortly thereafter. A need for a real radical change in my life and a break from my 15 years in New York City. I drove cross-country at the very beginning of 2000 to get away from New York, to go to Portland where my sister lived, just to get away to write. I was writing my last film, Far From Heaven. But my daily, hourly obsession was Dylan, and it kept growing and involving reading biographies again and discovering interviews I’d never read before. And discovering all that amazing music that had never been officially released. And it was in that new climate that I latched on to this idea of him as a shape-shifting artist, and suddenly had this craving to make a film about it, and to address that practice of constant defining change in the concept of these multiple characters.

-How much of that was pure nostalgia?

I don’t think it was nostalgia at all, unless it was nostalgia for my own adolescence. There’s something about Dylan’s fearlessness as an artist and creator that defines even his best studio recordings that there were very few examples of and which condoned a sense of change as a positive thing. And I needed that much more in my later years, when change is no longer simply the definition of your future as a young person but actually as something scary because it’s an uprooting of all that you’ve done to define yourself. I needed an uprooting and I went to somebody who’d been doing it so well for so long.

-When did you come up with the concept of the movie?

It was during that time, but I can’t put my finger on a eureka moment. My conceptual centerpiece of the film is almost banal, this idea of Dylan as someone who is always changing, particularly in the 60s and the 70s. And when you think about it, even the things for those people who don’t know much about him at all, what they do know are these events that are events of radical change and disappointment, like plugging in electric. These are the myths that never die around him, but they come from an actual practice that he was exploring in every possible way. So when you really look at it I don’t feel like I was inventing anything, let alone imposing something on his story or his biography. Just trying to get something core about him as a person.

-It’s interesting in that regard to compare your movie to this whole slew of musical biopics right now, which attempt to provide some verisimilitude.

In fact, the reason those kinds of films receive a lot of criticism, especially from critics and also from filmgoers who still go to see them, like myself, but who groan at the conventions, is that it isn’t verisimilitude at all.

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Review: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

As a kind of adjunct local release to Minamata, the controversial feature film treatment about American photographer W. Eugene Smith’s black-and-white record of the first major industrial pollution case to garner global headlines, Sara Fishko’s 2015 documentary The Jazz Loft actually does a much better job of explaining Smith’s unique position in the history of photojournalism, not to mention his prickly, contrarian personality. Between 1957 and 1965, Smith’s illegally occupied home and office was a loft in a broken down old commercial building in New York’s wholesale flower district, at 821 Sixth Avenue, which also contained a kind of makeshift space for jazz musicians to meet and jam and bullshit into the wee hours without drawing complaints or the cops. Smith, seemingly the only other round-the-clock tenant in the building, didn’t mind the racket at all. In fact, he installed his own wiring and microphones and recorded much of the activity there, complementing his own voluminous photographic record of the musicians with taped performances and conversations. As you can imagine, all this material is priceless from the perspective of the history of the New York jazz scene, and Fishko has done an incredible job of assembling it all into a coherent and fascinating chronicle of the times. Dare I say, it’s the perfect companion piece to Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the Velvet Underground, which charts another facet of the New York underground art scene.

The notoriously difficult Smith was perhaps the most famous American photographer at the time and could have made a fortune on commissions, but turned down job after job in order to follow whatever non-lucrative muse caught his fancy, and, as the electrical works proved, he put everything into the jazz loft, though Fishko wisely doesn’t limit her study to him alone. The movie exists because of Smith, because of his photos and tapes, but since it was his desire to record what was happening, whether for posterity or his own artistic obsessions, Fishko is supplied with ample resources to delve into the New York jazz scene. Surviving jazz musicians who frequented the loft remember Smith as a mad workaholic, addicted to amphetamines, constantly taking and developing pictures (the chemicals he used and his peculiar methods in the dark room probably shortened his life), and inserting himself into the lives of musicians who accepted him as a fellow artist. Fishko also goes into the economics; how visiting jazz musicians would usually play gigs elsewhere in Manhattan and then schlep downtown to the loft where they’d spend the night jamming, drinking, and doing drugs. But it wasn’t just hedonism. Connections were made. Another main character in the movie is Hall Overton, the classical composer and teacher at Juilliard who also moved into the loft in 1954 and became a jazz aficionado. In return, he taught many jazz musicians theory on a private basis, including Thelonious Monk, who is considered one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers of all time. There is also plenty of first-hand testimony speaking to the role, both creative and destructive, that drugs, mainly heroin, played in this milieu. 

The movie also briefly charts Smith’s own life, both before and after he lived in the loft, though this exposition is mainly provided for context. Smith likely suffered from some kind of personality disorder exacerbated by the horrible wounds he received covering the Pacific Theater in World War II (he was one of the first genuinely embedded photojournalists), and the drugs and alcohol he consumed in lieu of food. As a result, he was, by his children’s own estimation, the worst father and husband you could imagine. But he sure knew how to make images, and sounds, too. Those sounds!

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema, Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Jazz Loft home page in Japanese

photo by W. Eugene Smith, 1959 (c) 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

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Media Mix, Oct. 16, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which covers a documentary feature about climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg and Japan’s own response to the crisis. After I wrote the column, Syukuro Manabe won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in “physical modeling of Earth’s climate.” During the press conference following the announcement, a member of the committee was asked if the prize was supposed to send a message to world leaders about the importance of the climate crisis, and the answer was that if any world leader hadn’t gotten the message yet it’s doubtful the prize would make them get it now. This is a slightly more diplomatic way of saying the same thing that Greta Thunberg has been harping on for three years: we can nag and nag, but until something concrete is actually done, we can’t trust any governments to act on all the promises they keep making. It would be nice if Manabe’s award stimulated the Japanese media to prod the Japanese government into some kind of demonstrable action. As pointed out in the column, last year when he was prime minister, Yoshihide Suga pledged to reduce greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, but in the meantime has the government acted on that pledge in any way? Perhaps one year is not enough, but as Greta has made abundantly clear, we’ve already wasted too much time. The crisis is upon us and each day we don’t act brings us closer to a tipping point where there is no turning back. 

In any case, the media hasn’t really used Manabe’s win to bring greater attention to the climate crisis in Japan, where it’s never been much of a story. First of all, Manabe, though born in Japan, works and lives in the U.S., and from statements he’s made that have been covered much more thoroughly than his research, he doesn’t seem interested in coming back to Japan for any reason. Secondly, he seems to want to avoid getting into any possible political controversy by talking about the climate crisis. He’s just a scientist who has come up with a method for studying climate changes more accurately. The fact is, Japan really needs a young person, a Greta of its own, to bring the issue to bear on those who make the decisions, because it’s young people who will have to put up with the long-term effects of climate change and global warming, and until the Japanese media takes the matter as seriously as some media do in the West, it will be difficult to transfer that sense of crisis to the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders. But maybe that has more to do with political realities in Japan than it does with media complacency. 

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Review: Our Friend

The problem with cancer movies isn’t that the disease is often meant to symbolize something else, but rather that in showing the process of dying over a period of time the natural instincts of a filmmaker work to elide anything that doesn’t touch directly on the effects of cancer. Our Friend, a long movie based on a long magazine essay by Matthew Teague, essentially tries to get at that process more honestly, but uses a device that necessarily distracts from what the movie really wants to say, which is that dying from cancer is messy and horrible, and covers it up with the redemption story of a man who never knew what he had in him.

Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) lead a relative privileged life for people who make money as, respectively, a freelance journalist and a part-time actress in a local theater company in suburban Alabama. After Nicole is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her condition worsens, the couple’s old friend, Dane (Jason Segel), volunteers to move in and take care of the house and Nicole during the last year of her life so that both she and Matt can get through the ordeal without destroying Matt and their children. The movie, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, goes to great pains to show how Dane has nowhere to go and no particular goal in life. At the time he moves in, he’s barely holding down a sales job at a sporting goods store. Occasionally, he talks about trying his hand at standup comedy, but flashbacks indicate he’s been at loose ends for as long as he’s known Matt and Nicole, and approaching his forties all his friends are married with kids. At first, moving in and taking care of the family more or less seems like a way for Dane to get free room and board, but, in any case, the family welcomes him, and, in the end, is glad they did.

Because the script tends to jump around a lot in time, the full impact of Nicole’s illness is muted for about two-thirds of the movie, but in its final rush to the end it picks up the details of dying in small, potent ways that are much more affecting than the usual emergency-room-visits-and-puking scenes you normally get in cancer movies. (Our Friend has those, too, but they’re strangely low-key) The point is that cancer destroys not just the person who has it, but often their loved ones as well, and the core of Teague’s story is that his family didn’t implode because of Dane, who, perhaps because his decency was always in plain sight but untapped (he talks a lot about working abroad for an NGO), becomes the hero no one could ever expect him to be, including Matt, who’s always thought of him as a screwup. If the movie fails anyone, it’s Nicole, whose illness is almost taken for granted, and while Johnson makes her into a fully inhabited human being who once strayed and whose loss will be deeply felt by those around her, Cowperthwaite spends much much time on Matt’s and Dane’s relationship, probably because it is Matt who now feels at loose ends, not knowing how to act around his wife or his daughters. In the end, Dane is mainly there for him rather than for Nicole, who, in the final days, at least has a hospice attendant (Cherry Jones). Dane is not portrayed as a saint or even someone who finds his purpose. He simply rises to the occasion, whatever that occasion happens to be at the moment, and the beauty of the movie is the way is stays in its lane and suppresses the usual melodrama in favor of the everyday satisfactions of good companionship and quiet throughtfulness. It’s devastating in its own unusual way.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Our Friend home page in Japanese

photo (c) BBP Friend LLC 2020

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BIFF 21: Oct. 15

still from The Apartment With Two Women (c) KAFA

The 26th Busan International Film Festival concludes today and the festival has already released its final report summarizing the crowd numbers and other relevant data: 223 films were screened comprising works from 70 countries; 76,072 distinct attendances, including for both physical and online screenings; 31 special programs featuring in-person appearances; 191 guest visits to screenings, including 40 online; and, perhaps most interestingly, only 69 “international guests” as opposed to 1,079 “domestic guests,” which means, despite the festival’s claim that it is “the first international event in Korea to be held during the pandemic,” it’s an international event only open to people who are already in the country or those from overseas who received special permission to attend, and that would seem to include guests who attend the market events. There’s nothing untoward about such a claim, but, obviously, BIFF can’t possibly reassert itself as the biggest and best film festival in Asia until the actual international component of its attendance regains its old potency. A lot of people I know can’t wait to get back.

As mentioned in an earlier post, there is no overall competition at BIFF, though a lot of niche awards are given out. The only film competition that’s sponsored by the festival is the New Currents Award for new filmmakers, which went to two films, Chinese director Wang Er Zhuo’s Farewell, My Hometown, which I didn’t see, and Korean director Kim Se-in’s The Apartment With Two Women, which I did. The latter also won the New Currents Audience Award as well as the festival’s Actress of the Year Award for the performance of Im Jee-ho. Outside the festival, Apartment also won the NETPAC Award, which is given by representatives of foreign film festivals, and the Watcha Award, a Korean prize for new filmmakers. Im’s award seems appropriate because Apartment is, if anyting, a real actors’ showcase. Kim’s script and direction exude a strong sense of autobiography spiked with hyperbolic depictions of scenes plucked from real life. Still, it’s difficult to imagine the protagonist, Yijung (Im), as a proxy for the director, who, after all, possessed the wherewithal to get into film school and make this ambitious 140-minute portrayal of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that oftens descends into comic, albeit blood-shedding arguments. Though the theme is hardly original, Kim earns points for avoiding much of the sentimental undertow that characterizes such movies. She doesn’t bother with a back story, so we never know who Yijung’s father is or why he isn’t in the picture. And though the mother, Sookyung (Yang Mal-bok), has some good reasons for demanding her 20-something daughter move out, her abject intolerance of Yijung’s presence will itself be intolerable to most sentient viewers; and while Yijung may attract sympathy for having to put up with the emotional and physical violence inherent in her mother’s attitude, her glum behavior is just as off-putting. Kim makes it very difficult to like either woman, and yet the long running time never becomes a tortuous slog because of her talent for couching these stereotypes—especially Sookyung’s penchant for youthful fashions that are not only out of her age league, but feel at least 20 years out of date—in episodes that are both credible and dramatically compelling. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but as with so many Korean films by new directors, it shows how adept the film education system is at instilling in film students the importance of conveying, as directly as possible, an original vision, even if the tools are well worn. 

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Review: Candyman

Though billed and plotted as a sequel to Bernard Rose’s very influential 1992 horror film, the fact that Nia Dacosta’s movie has the exact same title indicates that more is at stake here. And for sure, the director and her co-writer and producer, Jordan Peele, seem determined to reclaim the Candyman character and story for Black people, since the milieu of the story was an infamous Chicago public housing project and the title character the vengeful spirit of a murdered slave. More significantly, the protagonist of Rose’s movie was white, so DaCosta’s and Peele’s aim here is to situate the legend of Candyman among the people he terrorized, but in a post-George Floyd world.

Having never seen the original, I felt at a loss walking into the screening of the new one, thinking that much of the story wouldn’t make sense, but the script (Win Rosenfield also contributed) does an excellent job of incorporating as much of the original tale as possible without bogging down the continuing exposition. And while it seems counterintuitive for a monster, out of vengeance for having been killed by a mob of racists, to prey upon his own people, inevitably the logic of the situations depicted bring the viewer around to the conclusion that anger of such monumental proportions is destructive to everyone. And rest assured, white people here get theirs, which may be the point in the end.

Set among the bohemian Black middle class of Chicago, who have moved into the gentrified housing complex that replaced the demolished project, Candyman also does a wickedly good job of lampooning the tastes of the educated Black striver. Tony (Yahya Abdul-Mareen II) is an artist who is dating an up-and-coming gallery owner, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), and suffering from lack of new ideas when he hits upon the legend of the Candyman as the subject for a series of works. According to the legend, anyone who says Candyman’s name five times while staring into a mirror summons the demon, who will then dispatch the summoner in a very bloody way. After Tony publicizes his series at a gallery opening, the idea spreads throughout the art community and beyond, and several people, just as a joke, summon the Candyman and end up very dead. As with the white academic in Rose’s movie, Tony becomes a suspect in these murders, and as he grows to realize the power of his incantation and the true meaning of the Candyman he himself becomes a kind of inverted superhero. The Candyman is not just one demon, but the collective consciousness of dead Black men with scores to settle. 

DaCosta delivers on the requisite gore, though often laterally and with a certain measure of jokey verve. But what really sets Candyman apart from its ilk is the way it describes the everyday socioeconomic circumstances of Black people as a horror show. Tony and Brianna have climbed the ladder successfully and on their own merits, but it doesn’t take much for them to fall back, and it’s that acknowledgement that underscores the themes that this new version of the Candyman tale sets forth so convincingly and, dare I say, so satisfyingly. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Candyman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and BRON Creative MG1, LLC

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BIFF 21: Oct. 14

still from Missing (c) Missing Film Partners

In most people’s minds, film festivals without the word “fantastic” attached to them mostly deal in art house cinema, though these days the big ones show Hollywood blockbusters, even if they draw the line at the Marvel cinematic universe. In that regard, BIFF has a leg up on the competition since such distinctions in Korea tend to be purely economic. There are lots of Korean indie art house features released every year, but they get little exposure. Even the work of Hong Sang-soo, which is celebrated the world over and tends to find wide distribution in Europe, doesn’t make much money in his home country. But what would derisively be called “middle-brow cinema” in other countries gets fair play in Korea, and often the distinction between such fare and obvious blockbusters is blurry. That’s why BIFF often screens the biggest box office hits in Korea that have already been in theaters for months. For one thing, it’s a means of showing off the national product to international players (including journalists) who are coming to the festival, and it’s also a way of allowing hardcore local fans to interact with the directors and actors responsible for these hits. 

Invariably, a lot of these movies that blur the line between art house and mainstream are genre exercises, and it’s interesting that two of the entries in the New Currents section this year are pulpy indies that are obviously meant to appeal to more general audiences. One, the second feature from Japanese director Shinzo Katayama, who has worked with Bong Joon-ho, belongs to the ever-popular serial killer genre, though the production notes try to make the case that it is a trenchant study of “human nature.” The English title, Missing, does the film no favors since I can think of at least two other movies off the top of my head with the same title. (The Japanese title, Sagasu–Search–is probably no better) Those who seek it out for the kind of excitement one expects from a thriller will probably not be disappointed, but despite a few odd twists and an unconventional structure, I’m not sure if they will come away impressed. 

The premise seems simple enough. Harada (Jiro Sato) is a widower raising a high school age daughter, Kaede (Aoi Ito), on meager means. Having made a mess of a business he started, he goes from one low-paying odd job to another and finds it difficult to save enough money. Still, Kaede loves him as much as an intelligent, independent teenager can, and when he purposely goes missing one day, she rustles up all her resources to find him on her own, since the police don’t seem to take the case seriously. Her only clue is that before he disappeared, Harada said he had seen a fugitive serial killer on the train and wanted to look for him in order to claim the ¥3 million reward.

Had Katayama stuck to this simple, serviceable story–which is based on a real life serial killer story–it might have generated the requisite suspense you anticipate in such movies, but he wants too much in terms of the aforementioned “human nature” exploration, and the exposition necessitates a flashback structure that dulls the momentum of the plot and, even worse, strands the most interesting character, Kaede, in movieland limbo for almost a full hour. By the time she reappears her role in the story has changed for the worse. She goes from dogged seeker of truth to proxy conscience without proceeding through the phases that usually come with such a transformation. This lack of clear character motivation extends to the other primary characters, whose more extreme actions range from the blackly comic to conventionally grand guignol to stomach-churningly repulsive. Katayama seems to know he’s going out on a limb with these characters because he over-explains them at every turn through redundant dialogue. In the end, the viewer thinks more about the mechanics of the plotting than about what makes the characters tick.

Seire (c) BIFF

The Korean film Seire, by first-time director Park Kang, is more straghtforward about adhering to its genre protocols. In this case the genre is ghost stories. The title refers to a Korean custom surrounding the birth of a child. For a 21-day period that extends from just before the birth to after it, the parents must follow certain rituals and avoid certain behaviors, otherwise bad luck could befall the child. The protagonist, Woojin (Seo Hyun-woo), is the new father, a salesman who takes his responsibilities seriously. He thinks the seire custom is a lot of hooey, but puts up with it for his wife’s sake. However, during the seire period he receives a message saying his old girl friend has died and he decides to go to the funeral despite his wife’s strong entreaties not to go, since one of the prohibitions of seire is that the parent must not go to a funeral. As it turns out, she’s right, but not necessarily for occult reasons. Woojin broke up with his former girlfriend after she miscarried a child that he didn’t really want in the first place, and, according to her twin sister (whom Woojin didn’t know about), the girlfriend never got over the miscarriage, or Woojin. 

Park does some very interesting things with regard to Woojin’s difficulty in distinguishing between dreams and reality, and it becomes clear rather early on that the spooky things that happen around him are mostly projections of his own nagging guilt. Given that the South Korean birth rate is even lower than Japan’s, Seire will probably not be welcomed by those in the government whose job it is to convince young Koreans to have more babies. Children themselves are not scary in Seire the way they often are in other horror movies having to do with childbirth, but Park pretty much shows everything that could possibly go wrong when you decide to have a baby. 

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BIFF 21: Oct. 13

still from Pedro (c) BIFF

As I wrote yesterday, one of the challenges of attending BIFF and making the most of your time there is being able to pick up on the buzz and then responding to it. Observing the festival remotely, it’s very difficult to pick up on any buzz, but early on I heard good things about the Indian movie Pedro, which was supposed to make its world premiere last year in the Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section, but didn’t since the whole festival was cancelled. Consequently, it’s making its debut at BIFF as part of the New Currents lineup. As befits the section, it is 26-year-old director Natesh Hegde’s first feature film, following two shorts that, according to him, cover similar stories and themes. 

The titular character, played by Hegde’s father, is an electrician in a small village in Karnataka in western India. His reputation as a hard worker endears him to one of the local landowners who runs a large farm. He is also introduced early on as a doting father to a young boy, meticulously bathing him in a scene that practically glows with familial affection. Also living in the same small house is the boy’s mother, Julie, and Julie’s mother. The first hint of drama arrives at night, with the mad, drunken  shoutings of a man outside their home, most of which is aimed at Julie. Eventually, we learn that this man is Pedro’s younger brother, Bastyava, who is actually Julie’s husband. However, due to his reckless drinking habit, she kicked him out and Pedro has taken his place. 

The landowner, who allows Bastyava to bunk on his property, hires Pedro to patrol his land when his regular security guard dies suddenly. Pedro has never handled a gun, but he reluctantly takes the assignment since he needs the money for his family. His inexperience, combined with what seems to be a low sense of self-esteem, leads to a stupid mistake whose negative resonance in the village Pedro compounds through his stubborn resentments. In essence, he trades places with his brother as the village black sheep, a situation that the landowner and Pedro’s few friends try to remedy through negotiation and expiation, but Pedro is too far gone in his anger.

As a story, Pedro is a classic tragedy, except that the protagonist who is brought down by a fatal character flaw is not high-born. In fact, one of the film’s nagging mysteries is Pedro’s origin. When the villagers turn against him, they start referring to him as an “outsider,” and while the Western provenance of his given name sets him apart from others, it’s not clear from Hegde’s bare bones exposition what makes him different. In a phone conversation with the director two days after the sold-out world premiere of his movie, he told me that Pedro belongs to a lower caste and had been raised by Catholics, while the dominant culture in this part of India, which speaks the Kannada dialect, is Hindu. Pedro’s “mistake” was basically an affront to this culture, which is even worse to the villagers since they see him as being from “outside” that culture. Moreover, the authority in the village is split among the main landowner and various village leaders whose interests often conflict. There is no overriding and objective legal authority to mediate his situation, and thus he is at the mercy of the villagers’ random feelings toward him and responds with equally bitter scorn. The story’s spiraling contours are like something out of Steinbeck, where one bad decision leads to another in rapid succession until the whole world spins out of control. But Hegde’s fatalism is the quiet kind. Though the emotional violence is palpable, all physical violence takes place off screen, except for one instance when Bastyava encounters Julie alone and starts beating her for abandoning him. 

Hegde says that the village depicted is an “extension” of the place where he grew up, and most of the actors are acquaintances. When he tells me he wanted to explore what makes people go to extremes under circumstances that don’t really call for it, I ask him if his actors understood this theme and whether they accepted and appreciated it. He says that he never explained motivation or the overarching idea of the film to any of the actors. He simply put them in specific situations and asked them to “be in those moments.” He doesn’t believe they thought much about what the movie was trying to say, even though they understood the plot. The result of this kind of open-ended direction is strangely precise, from the way he incorporates the lush natural setting into the film’s emotional tone, to those scenes where the naturalism of the characters overflow into new modes of expression that convey not only how these people feel, but how the village as a whole operates. It’s an incredibly organic film, which is probably why it strikes so many people as being mysterious when, in fact, it’s so everyday.

Hegde says he did not study film. He studied journalism, and his desire to make films started after he wrote and published some short stories. He saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Closeup and, realizing film was a more “intimate medium,” decided to transmute his talent for storytelling to a visual form. He also mentions as influences Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose penchant for stationary cameras and long master takes are evident throughout Pedro. Having never studied film formally—when I ask him if he used storyboards, he laughs and says the script was only 30 pages—he approaches everything personally. His goal was to tell a story that people didn’t have to think too much about in a “landscape” that he knew like the back of his hand. 

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BIFF 2021: Oct. 12

still from Asteroid (c) BIFF

Since there are so many movies at BIFF, I usually spend the first day or two just figuring out what I want to see. I always try to do as much research as possible before arriving Thursday afternoon, and because I am a guest the press office allows me to reserve seats for almost any public screening I want to see. At first, I always took this privilege seriously, and tried to get as many screenings booked as possible so as to save time during the festival itself, but after a few years I found this to be a bad idea. Without pre-reservations of films that are not being screened specifically for the press (and even for those that are, since the press and industry screenings are fixed and thus sometimes overlap with other things I want to do or see) you have to wait in line at one of the ticketing venues early in the morning so as to make sure you get a seat, since you are competing not only with other guests and journalists, but also with the public, who are quite keen about BIFF. Still, the movies I pre-reserve tend to be those I already knew something about or whose directors I’ve seen before, but after a day or two at the festival you hear about other movies through word-of-mouth and want to see those. So I started cutting down on the number of pre-reservation ticket requests and just kept my ears open and my mind free. Of course, often I couldn’t get tickets due to scheduling or availability, and in such cases I would go to the video room and watch the movie on VOD (if, in fact, it was made available on VOD by the distributor or producer). Because, in the end, those kinds of surprises—finding a new director, for instance—are what film festivals should be about.

Since I’m not there this year, there’s no face-to-face interactions and thus fewer opportunities to pick up the skinny on what’s good and what isn’t, but a friend who knows one of the programmers told me that the New Current section was especially strong this year. New directors are mainly showcased in the New Currents section, the only group of films for which BIFF itself sets up a dedicated picture competition. The films in the section are supposed to be the first or second feature of the connected director, and thus there’s little pre-festival buzz accompanying them, but once the fest starts most of the journalists who are serious about film try to see all the movies in the section, because one will win a prize. Festival competitions, after all, are carried out to generate publicity. Most directors I’ve met say they hate them. But in the case of New Currents, the end result—more exposure not only for the winner, but all the directors in the section—is effective, and invariably they were the movies I heard most about at parties and casual run-ins with friends and acquaintances. 

I’ve never seen all the movies in the section in a given year, and this year is no exception, but yesterday I watched the two Iranian entries, which offered perhaps the starkest example of the polar differences in what Iranian cinema has to offer these days. Asteroid, the debut feature of veteran film and TV editor Mehdi Hoseinivand Aalipour, is almost a throwback to the formative days of Iranian cinema when children were used to deliver themes that couldn’t be handled easily with adult stories, since censorship was more severe. Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House is the most representative example, but Asteroid doesn’t have to carry that kind of burden. In the production notes, the director says he was inspired by an experience working on a film shoot in the desert where he saw a village boy who knew nothing “about life except working.” But rather than be appalled by the boy’s circumstances he found his attitude almost saintly and immediately tried to write a script about someone like him. As a result, the movie is more of a portrait than a story, though Aalipour does an effective job of filling in the environment without making any editorial judgements about how that environment shapes the boy’s character. 

Ebrahim is one of six siblings living with their single mother, whose husband and oldest son left one day to work far away and never came back. No explanation is given for their disappearance though at one point Ebrahim’s mother wonders if they weren’t waylaid in a foreign country. Though not yet an adolescent, Ebrahim becomes the de facto breadwinner of the family, and works any job thrown his way, from date orchard worker to stable boy to B&B runner to housemaid for a well-to-do widower. Except for one incident where he actually loses a bunch of foreign tourists in the desert while they’re seeing the sights, he never causes trouble and is always considerate and subservient to a fault. He has accepted his lot with humility, even when his best friend, another young boy who works at the date orchard, tries to enlist him to come to the city and join him in a delivery venture. Ebrahim’s work ethic has a purpose: to help his mother and siblings not just survive, but be happy, which is why he tends to spend the money he earns on presents for them, a penchant his mother finds both endearing and frustrating. Aalipour is not interested in plumbing Ebrahim’s soul or charting his emotional landscape. At one point his mother apologizes that he has to work so much, saying he should be in school, but Ebrahim doesn’t really seem put out by his lack of educational opportunity, and, in truth, I wanted to know more about the socioeconomic situation in this remote part of Iran. The only inkling we get is when the mother consults with a local official about finally getting national IDs for her family, which involves paying for DNA tests since her kids don’t have birth certificates. As it stands, the IDs are necessary for her to take out a loan to finish building her house, so it’s not as if the family is destitute. A scene involving Ebrahim making a pizza for the family from scratch shows that resourcefulness can trump material lack in most cases. And when Ebrahim and his older siblings are invited to the rich family’s weekend getaway it’s presented as the nice time it is, though the hosts still treat Ebrahim as a kind of servant. Which is to say that Aalipour wants to celebrate a kid like Ebrahim, not analyze him, and that makes Asteroid (whose title isn’t clarified, though there’s lots of talk about the sky and the stars) an unusual entry in the New Currents section, which when addressing movies about children usually go for something more dramatic or distressing. Ebrahim is to be admired, not pitied. 

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