BIFF Day 3

Supposedly a typhoon is on its way. It’s been windy and overcast since yesterday morning, but strangely warm, too; warm enough for T-shirts. And last night there was a brief squall, but luckily I was inside at the time. Though the festival is not exactly a well-oiled machine, it would seriously be disrupted by a major weather front.

“Ceylon,” which I saw yesterday morning at a press screening, is about the Sri Lankan civil war of 2009. It’s one of those well-meaning films that doesn’t take a side, per se (though the government soldiers come off much worse than the rebels), but condemns war in general. It was directed by Santosh Sivan, an Indian, who made “Malli,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen about terrorism. That was a fairly internal film, diving into the mind of the girl who was selected to be a suicide bomber. Since then Sivan has become more commercial, so to speak, though he continues in the same vein. “Ceylon” tries to take in too much while offering something that can also be considered entertaining. It takes place on a beautiful island where a bunch of young people orphaned by the civil war live in a commune run by a kind but strict middle aged woman. Eventually, the war comes to the island with terrible consequences, but it’s not particularly affecting. Sivan seems enamored of Terrence Malick, or maybe it’s just that any movie shot on a tropical island beset by war looks like “The Thin Red Line.”

I didn’t expect much of “Tamako in Moratorium” and so it was better than I expected. It’s one of only two Japanese premiers at the festival, all the other movies having already opened in Japan. The big thing about “Tamako” is that it stars Atsuko Maeda, formerly of AKB48, in a straight dramatic role, though the movie is really a comedy, albeit a very low-key one. Tamako returns from college to her father’s home in Kofu and does nothing. At first her dad needles her about her layabout ways and then just puts up with it, which exacerbates the problem. In the end, the movie is really about this relationship, and is perhaps too subtle for its own good. Or maybe I’m giving it too much credit. The director, Nobuhiro Yamashita, uses Maeda ironically, and it works on that level without seeming like a gimmick. At one point, Tamako decides to audition for a talent agency and has bromides made up. But when her father encourages her along these lines she gets mad and abandons the idea. “I’m sick of people telling me how cute I am,” she yells. I think we can all understand.

The Singapore movie, “Ilo Ilo,” has been getting a lot of good press. I liked it mainly for what it wasn’t. A black domestic comedy that takes place during an economic recession, it avoids all sentimentality even though the potential for pathos is ripe. The Chinese-speaking family at the center is middle class but not rich at all. They hire a Filipino maid because both husband and wife work and their son is a huge pain in the ass. So while the maid has to suck up all the humiliations the couple and their devil son pile on her, the family is also treated sympathetically. They are just trying to get by and not doing it very successfully. And while the son at first persecutes the maid cruelly, he eventually, and without any phony epiphanies, comes to appreciate the maid’s situation. There is no happy ending. Life just keeps happening.

In the evening I took in a Hong Sangsoo double feature. The guy released two movies this year. It’s easy when every film you make has almost the exact same plot and the same revolving cast of characters, but I’ll have to admit he’s actually getting better at this refined sort of sex comedy. “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” was the lesser of the two, about a student who revives an affair with an older, married college professor after her mother moves overseas. It’s basically Hong in a nutshell: men are selfish dolts when it comes to sex and women, while understanding their power in the transaction, get carried away with the idea of “romance.” The second movie, “Our Sunhi,” uses the same theme but in a funnier and more inventive way. The title character is a film school graduate who returns to her old university to get a letter of recommendation from one of her professors and in the process meets up with a former boyfriend and another fellow student who had a crush on her, as did the professor. In a series of drunken conversations, the kind of thing only Hong can do, certain observations are made and distributed among these four without the other three knowing, and by the end all three suitors have the exact same analysis of their object of affection’s special traits without realizing that they arrived at these conclusions in sync. The audience was howling the whole time, which is why I always enjoy watching Hong’s movies at the festival. In Japan you barely hear a chuckle. And the laughter is infectious, though sometimes a little embarrassing. Because the subtitles often arrive a split second before the corresponding spoken line, I laugh before anyone else does.

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