Busan International Film Festival, Oct. 9, 2022

The weather has been perfect so far—sunny and cool, though a bit windy. Today it is supposed to rain, which means I have to carry an umbrella. I’m already carrying too much.

Yesterday, I expanded a bit beyond Korean cinema. In the morning I saw Myanmar Diaries, a compilation of videos created by anonymous Burmese, some taken during pro-democracy demonstrations and others dramatized renderings of life in Burma since the Feb. 2021 coup. It’s pretty devastating, especially the footage of police and hired thugs beating demonstrators and hauling them off the jail as their loved ones plead and wail. But it also holds together as an integrated film. There are no credits; though, apparently the production was overseen by some Dutch filmmakers. There’s a lot of careful overlap between the purely documentary material and the more expressive stuff, and the movie has an easy fluidity that takes nothing away from its power to shock. It’s an impressive feat, though I doubt it will see a lot of exposure.

I’ve heard talk that this year’s Iranian offerings are strong, but I haven’t heard anything particular about individual movies except Holy Spider, which was banned in Iran and filmed in Jordan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a ticket to the only public screening that will take place while I’m in town, and it isn’t available online or in the video library. Instead, I went to see Life & Life, the Iranian submission to the new Jiseok section, which contains the kind of Asian films that the late programmer Kim Jiseok liked to bring to BIFF. The director apparently isn’t here for the screening and recorded a message that was played before the film screened. In it, he said that he was not after any kind of “technique,” but simply wanted to tell a story. Actually, Life & Life betrays almost no technique at all—which isn’t necessarily a put-down, but sometimes I got the feeling he was simply going with what he had and wasn’t really after anything definite. It’s strongest element is its handling of the COVID pandemic as a fact of life. A school teacher and her five-year-old daughter are trying to travel to the village where she normally teaches, but due to COVID the main roads are closed to anything but emergency vehicles, so she is forced to take backroads through the desert. It turns out to be a perilous endeavor because the roads are all dirt or sand and the directions she receives from various passers-by are invariably wrong. Along the way, the precocious daughter asks lots of probing questions about her absent father and life in general, and her mother tries to answer these questions as sincerely as possible, but, being a teacher, she can’t do so without trying to made some kind of moral or ethical point. Though not a dull movie, Life & Life gets a bit tiring with all this sermonizing, and I wonder, given the current situation in Iran, what with women rioting over the lack of control they have over their lives, how they would react to this teacher’s sense of pride and purpose, not to mention entitlement. 

Pride and purpose threw me for a loop in Brillante Mendoza’s newest film, Feast, which was produced by a Hong Kong company. One of Mendoza’s rare “conventional” movies, it really threw me for a loop, and not because it doesn’t really play up to his normal strengths, but rather because it travels in a direction that I would never associate with Mendoza. It’s essentially about how a traffic accident affects two families, one very well-off, and the other poor. But it’s also about food and its preparation, and sometimes the two themes seem quite far apart. I think Mendoza is more religious than I previously thought, because the power of prayer and Biblical knowledge had a prominent position in the dramatic development. I wasn’t expecting a tale of revenge or retribution, but I would never have predicted he’d make a movie that basically pities the rich. I couldn’t stay for the Q&A, but apparently he said he shot and alternate ending that was much darker. I’m not sure if that would have been a better movie, but I would definitely like to see it.

The reason I couldn’t stay for the Q&A is because I had ten minutes before Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave started. Fortunately, the festival added a press screening after the first day, because I’m sure it would have been difficult to get tickets for the only public screening that’s taking place while I’m here. It definitely lives up to the hype, and after seeing it I really can’t think of another living director who makes such consistently high quality work. Even when I don’t like his stories or themes—I’m not a huge fan of Old Boy, and The Thirst was downright awful—I have to admit he knows exactly how to put a film together. Decision to Leave is blessed with a great script with a ridiculously convoluted story that just keeps pulling you further and further into its universe. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it the best femme fatale movie since Double Indemnity, and yet it succeeds as a deliriously romantic film without resorting to any sex or even much violence (at least, compared to past Park movies). And it’s a movie about ideas, too: about insomnia, the malleability of language, the appeal of being “wanted” (as a suspect, in this case), and the real definition of fidelity. And Park Hae-il’s character enters the noir canon as one of the most original cops ever conceived, a man who loves his work to the point that he has to quit when he believes he’s compromised his professional ethics. See it, and find fulfillment. 

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