In my daily reports on this blog I reviewed movies I had seen in screenings at the festival, but I also saw other films online and in the Video Library. Here are observations of those movies. Festival section names in parentheses.
A Wing and a Prayer (Jiseok): This is the first feature I’ve seen by former Hong Sang-soo assistant Lee Kwang-kuk, and while it follows the general Hong template of seemingly aimless conversations that only add up in hindsight, it also has more of a conventional structure. Two female BFFs in their 20s make an impromptu night bus trip to the coastal town of Donghae to watch the sun rise over the sea, only to fall asleep on the beach and miss it. Predictably, the pair bicker and go their separate ways, each making a new friend in the process. Lee trusts his instincts insofar as the resulting action doesn’t go where you might expect it to go, but although I liked the characters and found everything plausible, it didn’t offer enough dramatic substance to make a deep impression, except, that is, for one scene of bullying that really got my blood pressure up. Contrast, or just that Lee really know how to depict cruelty?
Universe Department Store (Wide Angle: Documentary Showcase): Not so much a documentary as a personal exploration of memory, Wong Tae-woong’s expressionistic film was sparked by the news that a teahouse he’d once frequented had closed because the department store that contained it was being demolished for a redevelopment project. The news revived memories of the Universe Department Story, which stood on the same spot for only three years in the 1980s before the department store with the teahouse was built, but Wong’s recollection of the store (he was in elementary school) are fuzzy to the point where he wondered if it even existed. Soliciting others with memories of the place he finds that most of what he remembered was true, but everyone favors different details—for instance, the “space ship ride” that stood in front of the building seemed to have different functions for different witnesses. Wong also patronizes a hypnotist to better plumb his own brain reserves. In the end, what emerges is a capsule summary of the Korean middle class of that era, but the mystery of the place remains a mystery, if for no other reason than that it’s difficult to believe that there are no records about the store, but Wong does a good job of describing his own feelings about it.
Little Blue (A Window on Asian Cinema): This Taiwanese movie is yet another look at how social media has affected—or, in this case, twisted—young people who seem to have no other outlet for self-expression. Director Lee Yifang conveys it completely through a teenage girl’s awkward and desperate sexual awakening, a risky move that only partially pays off. Xiao Lan is introduced as a model student with a streak of cynicism, especially with regard to friends and acquaintances who are already sexually active. Part of the reason for her attitude is her single mother, a realtor who readily sleeps around, even with clients, though it isn’t apparent in the beginning how much Xiao Lan knows about this. When a popular, somewhat disreputable boy in her class hits on her she eventually gives in and, of course, falls in love, which is not something he’s willing to reciprocate, and as a result she goes off the deep end by sleeping with everyone who swipes her on Tinder (or whatever the dating app they use in Taiwan). Lee depends way too much on coincidence and plot short cuts to make a case. The movie is well made but it seems to describe a situation that could only happen on screen.
Star of Ulsan (Korean Cinema Today: Vision): Kim Guem-soon won this year’s female acting prize at the festival for her almost radical portrayal of a welder in South Korea’s historically significant shipbuilding center, Ulsan, who loses her job due to company politics and her own unruly temper. Sporting a severe butch cut and a manner straight out of a Scorsese movie, Yunhwa fits in on the dockyards but nowhere else, especially at home, where she has raised two children after her husband was killed on the job (also as a welder) many years ago. Director Jung Ki-hyuk is good at creating urban and workplace atmospheres, and the circumstances surrounding Yunhwa’s layoff, as well as her violent rejection of it, have a grass-roots credibility that invites close scrutiny. Unfortunately, there are just too many depressive plotlines to contend with, including her son’s unfortunate dabbling in crypto-currency, her daughter’s interest in becoming a makeup artist, and her in-laws’ determination to sell off land that is in her name. One downer working class tale is enough, thank you.
The Football Aficionado (Wide Angle: Documentary Competition): The runner-up winner of the Documentary Competition (the winner was A Table for Two, which I talked about elsewhere on this blog), this Iranian film about a female soccer fan who continually tries to get into matches even though women are not allowed to attend them, is a bit sloppy, but the subject is so fascinating and the coverage so vivid that I found myself constantly surprised. Zahra goes to enormous lengths to get into stadiums, and while she isn’t the only woman or girl who does this, the directors, a man and a woman, single her out because she’s so extroverted about the process. (She’s an Instagram star.) In fact, given the current situation in Iran, with women openly protesting their lot at the risk of imprisonment or even injury and death, the documentary is instructive in how it shows women fearlessly standing up to men. Outside the stadium gates, these women chide and curse the guards who won’t let them in, and when Zahra goes to great time and expense to disguise herself as a man, on those occasions when she’s caught, she’s still defiant. The scenes of cosmetic surgery (caution: graphic) and wild shopping sprees are mostly gravy. The meat of the movie is its derisive exploration of a society where women, in general, just resent men wholesale. Even Zahra’s mother, who is still wed to her father (not shown), urges her to never get married.
Hail to Hell (New Currents): I would rate this debut feature more highly if the English title had been Hooray to Hell, because it fits the mocking tone better. As with A Wing and a Prayer, the protagonists are a pair of young women, though in this case they’re in high school and their friendship is initially deceptive. Both are victims of school bullies, though we eventually learn that one of the two once tormented the other before she herself became a target. After a comically botched suicide attempt, they decide to travel to Seoul, where they have learned that their tormentor, whose family had to move due to bandruptcy, is again on top and aiming to go overseas to study. Their aim is to get back at her in some way they haven’t figured out yet, but when they get there they find that their nemesis has not only joined a religious cult, but that she’s confessed to and repented for her former bullying behavior. In fact, she welcomes her former classmates for the opportunity to be punished and forgiven, which is the whole point of the movie’s take on redemption. The story constantly moves in unexpected directions and though it may not be the last word on bullying—a topic Korean filmmakers have cornered, sometimes to their own detriment—it is certainly the most original take on the subject I’ve seen.
a Wild Roomer (New Currents): The co-winner of the New Currents prize for directors who have made fewer than three features, this shaggy dog movie doesn’t have much of a plot, but does tell a kind of a story. Gi-hong is a carpenter with a mild hustle. He does interiors, telling clients he is also a designer, thus saving them money, though all he does is copy ideas out of magazines. He also uses shortcuts to save time and money. It turns out he doesn’t even have much experience, but for some reason he gets work—that is, until he doesn’t. But that’s not the core idea of the movie. It’s just an aspect that feeds into Gi-hong’s character. Most of the screen time is taken up with Gi-hong and his well-off, seemingly unemployed landlord hanging out together, usually drinking. If there’s anything resembling a through line it’s Gi-hong’s investigation into how his work van’s roof became dented, a detective tale that gets to where it’s going fairly quickly and then turns into something completely different. Though there isn’t much to a Wild Roomer, and what there is is stretched out to more than two hours, the film’s loose narrative and casual take on just barely getting by is refreshing and far from boring. It’s easy to see why it won, but hard to explain.
Shivamma (New Currents): The other co-winner of the New Currents prize is this Indian film, one of two Kannada language features at the festival, that takes place in a poor rural village. The title character is a middle aged woman whose daughter is getting married. She needs money for the dowry and resorts to a multi-level marketing scheme for a food supplement, which means she has to spend money to make money, and thus has to borrow. At first, everything seems OK. She touts the supplement’s medicinal properties to her relatives and neighbors, how it will cure everything from listlessness to baldness, and people want to believe her. The audience knows this will end badly, and it does in the tragic style that movies about the poor always do. Hubris turns to humiliation, but the setting makes the comedown particularly brutal, because the relative ignorance of the village, which knows as little about this kind of scam as they do about medicine, makes their reaction all the harsher. Kudos to the filmmakers for melding the traditional and the up-to-the-minute in such a compelling fashion, but the movie is decidedly lo-fi in execution—literally, when it comes to the dodgy sound design.
December (Jiseok): The second feature by Indian director Anshul Chauhan, who came to Japan to study animation, is an emotionally fraught family melodrama that attempts to be more straightforward about its subject matter than the average Japanese movie would be. Seven years after a teenage girl was murdered by a classmate, the killer has been granted a retrial on the grounds that her 20-year sentence is too harsh for a minor. The divorced parents of the murdered girl–the wife remarried and the husband drinking aimlessly all day–have to endure the trial and each other in order to make sure the killer, who fully accepts her punishment, stays in jail for as long as possible. Complicating the matter is a defense lawyer who hopes to see some compensation money from the government. Though fairly thoughtful and competently staged, December suffers from an oversupply of information—everything these people feel is exposed through the most obvious dialogue, and the circumstances of these revelations have an automatic feel to them, as if the whole movie had been laid out on a spreadsheet, which then served as the script. Also, some of the legal particulars aren’t credible. No one in Japan ever gets 20 years for a single, first-time murder, even an adult.