Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Hauntingly Beautiful Immigrant Song

Vitalina Varela (2019) - Costa
In a barely lit alley created by towering concrete slap walls, we see a funeral procession of a day laborer in the urban slums of Lisbon. So starts Vitalina Varela, another stunning masterpiece by Pedro Costa, one of the greatest living directors.

Ever since Casa de Lava (1994), Costa has been tracing the flight of Cape Verdean immigrants, specifically concentrating on the inhabitants of Fontainhas, the concrete urban slum in the outskirts of Lisbon with series of films since 1997. The last couple of films, Colossal Youth and Horse Money, it was Ventura who was the focus of interest with Vitalina playing a supporting role. Now it is Vitalina who is getting the spotlight.

Just where Costa draws the line between fiction and reality, memories and present is difficult to decipher. His highly formalist approach doesn't help the matter either. But boy, it nevertheless creates a glorious cinematic experience.

Vitalina arrives from Cape Verde, a Portuguese colonial island off the cost of Africa, to attend her bricklayer husband's funeral. But she is three days too late. In a highly artificial, even invoking a Kaurismaki comedy, she emerges from the airplane, soaking wet and barefooted. She is greeted not by family, but a group of immigrant workers working as a airport crew. They tell her, “Go back to Cape Verde, Vitalina there is nothing for you here.”

Vitalina situate herself in her husband's concrete shack, getting used to the low doorframes, meeting both hostile and friendly interlopers. We get use to the space too, trying to navigate our way in what seems to be forever nights, poorly lit interiors where we can barely make out the contours of a face or slumping bodies.

Vitalina finds solace in an empty church, presided by a frail preacher (played by Ventura). No one ever comes here anymore, the preacher tells her. She questions why would her husband leaving her, promising her a better life some 20 years ago, only to endure harsh life in a foreign land just to die? The shack is not the palace he promised her. And why is she there in Portugal?

A torrential downpour hits the leaky corrugated roof and makes terrible and frightening noises. Neighbors promised to help to fix it when her husband was alive but the promise was never kept. Even though her husband is gone and unseen, it's as if all the dark corners of the slum is permeated with the ghosts of the past, ready to emerge any minute like some jump scares in a horror movie.

Vitalina hosts a younger homeless couple and feed them, only to find out the girl has died since. People appear and disappear, slowly moving across the frame like zombies in Costa universe, existing and not existing at the same time.

Like Ventura's, Vitalina's weathered and angular face tells thousand stories. Her huge eyes reflect the darkness of the exteriors as well as sorrows inside. She becomes an iconic living statue in Costa's observations of the netherworld.

As usual, Vitalina Varela is stunning to look at. Every frame is a work of art. Greatly aided by Leonardo Simões, Costa's cinematographer since Colossal Youth, and João Gazua and Hugo Leitão's sound work, the film gives the lives of its inhabitants the poeticism they deserve.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Grief and Human Folly

I Was at Home, But... (2019) - Schanelec
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Angela Schanelec's take on the effects of grief in I Was at Home, But... might be less inscrutable than her last film The Dreamed Path, but that doesn't make it any less challenging. It mostly concerns Astrid (Schanelec regular Maren Eggert) a widowed mother of two - young daughter Flo and troubled teenage son Philip. As typical in Schanelec universe, in series of image fragments without much dialogue through out the film, we gather that the father who was in theater had been ill and died about two years ago. Philip (Jacob Lasalle) had been missing but emerges from the forest, with his yellow jacket all muddied up and an injury to his foot. Astrid is elated, as seen in a silent scene where shehugs Philip and motionless for a while until the camera cuts. One could guess that the death of the father contributed Philip's behavior.

Astrid is in a vulnerable state emotionally and acts out her frustrations outward to any human contact. There is a lengthy segment where she buys a second-hand bicycle from an old man who uses an electro-voice box to communicate. After finding out the bicycle is a junk, she tries to confront the old man and get the money back. Even though the old man offers to fix the bike, Astrid is belligerent. She assumes Philip's teachers are considering expelling him for his off screen unseen behaviors and lashes out on them. She also scolds a filmmaker friend rather harshly, on his use of a terminally ill in his film that she just saw. She says that there is no truth in acting and it was irresponsible for him to have the terminally ill person being in the scene with actors 'pretending'. She explodes at her children when they make too much noise or make mess in the kitchen (even if it was well intentioned). However the small and insignificant these interactions are, they poke at her raw emotions yet healed.

The silent pastoral scene involving a rabbit, a donkey and a dog bookends the film. Schanelec's affinity with Bresson is a known fact. But the appearance of donkey really tickles the senses here. As the dog takes apart the rabbit because it's his nature to do so, we see it laying to sleep under the watch of the donkey. In Au Hussard Balthazar, donkey is seen as an allegory for Jesus who forgives all our sins. Does Schanelec equates grief as one our natural tendencies that lashing out against death is forgivable? Then there is motive of crown keeps popping up and I can't help reverting back to the crown of thorns/flowers in the Bresson film. Then what about Hamlet high school recital where Philip plays the ill fated Danish prince?

There is a slight subplot involving Lars (Transit's Franz Rogowski), one of the teachers in Philip's school who is going through a break up. There is a heart breaking scene at night in an empty parking lot. Lars wants a child, because he is afraid of vanishing. There is nothing to show for their love ever existed. But she doesn't want to. She can't be anyone's wife, because she is on a mission. A mission to be alone and lonely. For what, exasperated Lars asks. She doesn't know.

Just like other Schanelec's work, I Was at Home, But... is a puzzle piece that is never solvable. We have opaque characters with Bresson style delivery. We instead concentrate on gestures, details inside the frame in compensation for the lack of dialogue. It's that fragmentary images and colors that we play around our heads long after we leave the theater to make sense of it. Even more so than Godard's, Schanelec's cinema concentrates on 'visual' part of the medium. It is the best kind of cinema I can think of.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Ghost Story with Female Solidarity Twist

Atlantics (2019) - Diop
Mati Diop, better known as an actress for such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Simon Killer and Hermia & Helena, makes her feature directorial debut with dazzling Atlantics, based on her 2009 short of the same name. In her short, young Senegalese boys were shown discussing the pros and cons of leaving the country for Europe on the beach at night. The feature narrative version expands the premise with a whole narrative that shifts from the male to female perspective, as women are usually the ones left behind with the emotional trauma and economical hardships to deal with.

Atlantics starts with a young day laborer Souleiman (Traore) along with hundreds of others working on a futuristic glass tower in outskirts of Dakar. They eat and sleep together in a cramped bunk bed housing. Against the hypnotic, undulating ocean in the background, they go on about their back breaking work. The whole sequence has a documentary feel to it.

The workers haven't gotten paid for months and things are heating up at the payroll office. Souleiman is in love with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman who's still living with her parents. Her conservative friend in hijab, Mariama (Mariama Gassama), chastise her for leading him on even though she is set to marry a local hotshot businessman Omar - arranged by their parents. Defiantly, she goes off to see Souleiman. Even though clearly something is eating at him, Ada urges him to wait until they meet again at the local beach bar run by her friend. She sneaks out through the window at night to the bar, only to find out that Souleiman, along with many of his friends set sail to make a dangerous trip across the Atlantic to Spain. Then the news arrive of a capsized refugee boat. Ada is crestfallen.

Someone torches Ada's bridal bed on her wedding night. It prompts a police investigation. The main suspect is Souleiman since there are some witnesses who saw him at the wedding. Police detective Issa (Amadu Mbou), who is suffering from dizzy spell at night, is determined to solve this mystery. Convinced that Ada is protecting Souleiman, he interrogates her harshly and starts trailing her.

Then local girls, including Ada's friends start appearing at night with milky eyes at the house of shady construction manager Mr. N'Diaye, demanding the wages he owes to the workers. It's the spirits of the drowned boys taking over the bodies of girls temporarily every night, haunting the greedy man. The girls, found in various places in the morning, has no recollection of the events. Sometimes the possessed girls show up at the bar, asking for food since they are starving.

Expertly weaving the current headlines of marine disasters, which countless African refugees searching for better life meet their watery grave at the bottom Atlantic ocean, and the ghost story with the female solidarity twist, Atlantics has all the right ingredient to be a success story of a small art film breakthrough recalling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a melancholic romance film set in bustling Dakar, featuring the lives and hopes of young Senegalese we seldom get to see. It's also hopeful and lyrical yet pointy. And without a doubt, it is my choice for the best film of the year.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Justified Mayhem

Bacurau (2019) - Filho, Dornelles
Let's consider what's been happening in Brazil before we talk about bat shit crazy movie that is Bacurau (from the makers of Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius - Director Kleber Mendonça Filho and co-director/production designer Juliano Dornelles). In early 2018, Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, commonly known as Lula, a much loved labor leader and former two-term Brazilian president, was barred to run for president again because of trumped up corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison in all likelihood by opposing conservative Social Liberal Party, led by foul mouthed, all out bigoted racist who ran on his presidential campaign of fear and hate (sounds familiar?). It was widely expected that Lula was going to win. But him being jailed, his Worker's party's nominee Fernando Haddard ended up losing to Bolsonaro in the runoff. So now Brazil has the social conservative and known racist Bolsonaro for president. His pro-corporate, pro-logging, anti-regulation agenda is creating perhaps the most serious eco-disaster in the Amazon Rainforest right now, as the rest of the world helplessly watch it burn in the sidelines.

Brazilian film scene was having its renaissance in the last decade under the Lula's Worker's Party leadership. The money was flowing in to arts and to the once neglected regions of Brazil. Pernambuco, a north east state with its multi-culti capital Recife became an economical, cultural hub, producing many emerging film directors like Filho, Adirley Queirós and Gabriel Mascaro. Bolsonaro's austerity measures will undoubtedly, put a damp on this growing Brazilian film movement perhaps the most significant since the days of Cinema Novo.

So Bacurau is an angry film and deservedly so. It takes place in the near future. A dusty small town called Bacurau in the north east region of Brazil, is inhabited by a fiercely independent, self sustaining, proud people largely cut off from the outside world. The glimpse of satellite TV and radio tell grim stories of lawless in urban areas. Teresa (Barbara Colen) is returning to attend the funeral of the town's matriach. Evading the law and roadblocks guarded by heavily armed government troops, she is bringing medical supplies to the residents of Bacurau. There's shortage of everything - food, water, medicine, household items, tampons, etc. Everything is brought in from outside world and distributed among the townsfolk for their needs. Bacurauans seems to be a well organized social collective, living relatively well despite the rest of the world seems falling apart. The town, like any other small towns, people know one another and there are some frictions among them. But generally they get along.

Then we see a sign of trouble brewing. First, a farmer spots a UFO shaped drone in the sky. And two city folks in fancy motorbikes in neon colored spandex show up in town, confusing everyone. Their cockiness and otherworldliness is noted. They turn out to be a sort of a local guide for a heavily armed mostly American mercenaries, led by Michael (Udo Kier). They are there to literally wipe Bacurau off the map. Most of these gungho people-hunters are ex-military officers trying to blow off some steam by going to third-world countries and killing its inhabitants. They are armed with various antique weaponry of their choice and follow rules only they seem to understand. It's a game to them and has no interest even in where they are.

After few horrible massacres outskirts of the city, Bacurauans realize what's happening to them. But what the hunting party doesn't realize is that these Brazilian country hicks are weather worn, experienced and deeply proud people who are not going to go down easily. One by one, the hunters become the hunted.

It's kind of a departure for Filho since his previous films are, for better or worse, a lot more subtle in presenting the gentrification and monied people in fastly developing urban areas. Perhaps it's Dornelles' contribution to make Bacurau a little more obvious and bloody. Its cartoonish violence that Bacurauan inflicts on the hunting party is so over the top, you can't help but chuckling along. The acting also is very over the top. Udo Kier delivers some hilarious lines which only he could deliver. Great Sonia Braga (last seen in Filho's fantastic Aquarius) who plays the jealous sister of the dead matriach/the local doctor in the movie, grounds the film with her presence and charisma.

As the Bacurauans get rid of foreigners and local traitors, at a glance, without the context of what's happening in Brazil, the film is a silly, tacky man-hunting-man akin to The Most Dangerous Game or Naked Prey. But it isn't. Bacurau highlights the resilience and resolve of Brazilian people against mounting assault of multi-national corporations backed by Government military to devastate their beautiful, once burgeoning country. One of the year's best.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Warning White Colonialists: Don't Mess with Voodoo

Zombi Child (2019) - Bonello
Zombi Child
Bertrand Bonello, a director of such sensual films as House of Pleasures, Saint Laurent and pointy, up to date social critique Nocturama, dabbles here in Zombie movie genre and turns it into cautionary tale in the post-colonial, multi-ethnic France.

It's an interesting investigation that is more in line with Jacques Tourneur's I Walk with a Zombie and Serpent and the Rainbow of Haitian voodoo than the current crop of zombie themed films and TV shows where chemical, nuclear or disease has been the cause of making the dead come alive and gorging human flesh.

The film cuts back and forth between 1962 and present day. The past portion of the film takes place in Haiti. A man named Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) is fallen into a voodoo spell by his brother and declared dead. A huge, elaborate funeral is performed where he is buried alive. Then he is dug up by zombie traders who put him in the field with other zombie-fied men to work in a sugar cane plantation as a sort of slave labor force. You see, zombies are just normal people, who has fallen into a spell (brought on by psychotropic powder that causes neuro-paralysis) who appears dead for a while, with their memories erased.

Fanny (Louis Labeque), is a student in an all-girl prep school in an idyllic woodsy setting. It's a very liberal school for only chosen few whose parents are deemed as important in French meritocracy. She is deeply in love with her boyfriend and writes letters to him everyday. Her reading those letters accompany the daily school activities as the girls take classes, play sports in a gym, and gossip. There is a new black girl Méllisa (Wislanda Louimat) and Fanny and her small, all white sorority want to have her as a member. Méllisa obliges to go through a test at night in the school's library. She is asked to reveal her most important secret. She says her aunt is a mambo, a voodoo priestess. Wow, that's cool. She is in.

Things take a drastic turn when Fanny receives devastating news from Pablo. He is breaking up with her. Suffering from a broken heart, she appears at the doorstep of Méllisa's aunt's house, asking to perform a voodoo magic. She wants to become Pablo or something like that. She will pay for the ritual.

Bonello, forever sensualist, presents some beautiful, lyrical shots of Narcisse the zombie standing erect motionlessly, looking afar in the fields, in ancient ruins. It is pretty evident that he takes much of the lyricism from I Walk with a Zombie.

Fanny's silly school girl story aside, Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty western appropriation of everything non-european, non-anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse’s journey back home is more interesting than Fanny’s story here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Desplechin's Law and Order Episode

Oh Mercy! (2019) - Desplechin
oh mercy
Roubaix, a little northern French town near Belgian border, is where Arnaud Desplechin's new film, Oh Mercy! takes place. It happens to be the director's hometown. He didn't have good things to say about Roubaix in Ismael's Ghost, his last film. He described it as the poorest, crime-ridden rathole, the city in decline. But when I interviewed him, he told me that he is making a film about its townsfolk in the next film. As a result, Oh Mercy! is Desplechin's episode of Law and Order with some compelling acting by two of France's leading actresses - Léa Seydoux and Sarah Forestier.

Narrated by a well meaning young cop Louis(Antoine Reinartz) who was just transferred from another town, Oh Mercy!'s trajectory is just as erratic and unexpected as many of Desplechin's past work. And it's delightful. Anchored by Chief Daoud (great Roschdy Zem), the police precinct tries to keep law and order where drug abuses, runaway cases, disorderly conduct, break-ins, false accusations based on racism are daily occurrence. The town is in bad shape with years of neglect and its mostly immigrant population barely getting by. Born in Algeria, but Daoud has been living in Roubaix most of his life. He knows the streets and he knows its people. He never raises his voice when questioning or interrogating suspects. He is firm yet deeply cares about what's happening in the lives of his townsfolk.

The film follows multiple threads at first, in real Desplechin fashion. Only in mid-way we revisit the one of the threads involving two young women which takes over the rest of the film. Claude (Lea Seydoux) and Marie (Sarah Forestier), two druggy friends living in a dangerously under-occupied, decrepit building in a neighborhood where you don't want to go out at night. They called the police before for breaking and entering, which Louis couldn't solve. It is most likely the girls lied, trying to get others in trouble. This time though, they report someone breaking into another apartment in their building. And the Daoud team finds an old woman strangled to death in a burglary-gone-wrong situation. All the usual suspects threads lead them to nowhere. And there's something that doesn't really add up in two girls' testimonies.

Louis, who has slight feelings for Claude, struggles to keep his temper in check when interviewing her. He knows she's lying. Marie, who is withdrawn and extremely shy, with her deer in the headlight expression leaves everything up to Claude when testimonies are concerned. They will need to interrogate the girls separately. It will be a she said, she said situation. Someone's gonna crack and spill the beans.

Seydoux and Forestier are great in their very unglamorous roles playing petite criminelles. But it's Roschdy Zem deserves an award for this. The sordid story is nothing to brag home about. There are millions stories like this we see on TV every night. But it's Desplechin's so very human portrait of these characters that is the heart of the film. There are several compelling scenes in the film but the one most stuck with me is Daoud's cool observation of the girls' relationship that sums up their entire history. He tells Claude what he sees - A pretty girl who was popular in school. But she finds out she can't really get what she wants or want others to get it for her in real life. Time in a town like Roubaix wasn't kind to her. She is stuck with her childhood friend who still worships her. They live in a day to day life in a squalor. It's a bad relationship. She knows it all to be true.

Oh Mercy! is certainly different from any other Desplechin film I watched over the years. But it's any less intriguing. The love he has for his hometown and its inhabitants are undoubtedly palpable. Desplechin is a master storyteller and humanist. Oh Mercy! is a very moving experience.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tropical Noir

Wild Goose Lake (2019) - Diao
Wild Goose Lake
The follow up to Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan's blistering noir that put him on the international cinema map, Wild Goose Lake is another stylish noir/policier. If Black Coal Thin Ice was a cold noir with its wintry setting, Wild Goose Lake is the opposite- its subtropical setting and constant rain provide the film soaked with atmosphere and vivid colors under flickering fluorescent lights. And it's a beauty, thanks to Diao's regular cinematographer Dong Jingsong. Along with recent Long Day's Journey into Night, Wild Goose Lake continues the tradition of 'Tropical Noir' of Wong Kar-Wai's work.

It starts out with a large gathering of motorbike stealing street gangs in the basement of a hotel. While divvying up the territories, a scuffle breaks out among rival gangs. When the dust is settled, a thin truce is made between the Crazy Cat Brothers and Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge). But unbeknownst Zhou's gang, the rising Crazy Cat Brothers made a deal behind the scenes to take over Zhou's territory, starting the same night. Zhou's gang gets attacked, and Zhou becomes a subject of a manhunt after he accidentally kills a cop while on the run.

Police Chief (Fan Liao of Ash is Purist White, Black Coal Thin Ice) organizes a large tactical unit near Wild Goose Lake to scour the erea and apprehend Zhou. Wearing civilian clothes, these cops are stationed in every nooks and crannies on the street, always watching every movement of extremely busy and crowded tourist town. But Zhou remains elusive. He gets help from Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei), a 'bathing beauty'- a euphemism for lakeside prostitutes, who was sent by Zhou's gang. But now Zhou has large reward money on his head, he wants to turn himself in in custody of his estranged wife, Shujun (Regina Wan), so she can get the reward money. Things get messy of course, since everyone has his/her own agenda.

The police chief's relentless pursuit yields many close calls with Zhou. On motor bikes and on foot, its frenetic, large scale chase scenes in the squalid living quarters of densely populated suburban sprawl provide some of the most thrilling moments in the film. There are also some kinetic, almost cartoonish violences happening here and there: there's a sudden decapitation on a motorbike and one involving an umbrella. I laughed out loud at its Takashi Miike level inventiveness.

The film also showcases the changing China: from the emergence of middle class and its subculture - 'bathing beauties' with their wide brimmed straw hats, lessons in which motorbikes are more valuable and easier to steal, to the rigid police state with CCTV in every corner and sheer precision of its well trained tactical force in action. Attention to detail and controlled chaos Diao manages in the film is nothing short of astounding.

Wild Goose Lake is a good looking film to be sure and well acted, especially Hu Ge, with his soulful long-face and Kwei Lun-Mei as unlikely femme fatale. Yet it is not as taut as Black Coal Thin Ice. It sets up the motion nicely, but it doesn't have a momentum to follow through its 113 minute running time. Watch it for its beauty. Watch it for atmosphere. The film is still well worth the ticket.

Night of Sexual Escapade

Liberté (2019) - Serra
Catalan director Albert Serra has been practicing his brand powdered-wig costume dramas in cinema, art galleries and on stage (not particularly in that order) for quite some time now. First conceived as a gallery performance art, his The Death of Louis XIV and its companion piece Roi Soleil were either stroke of genius cinematic daring-dos or insufferable indulgence pieces depending on whom you ask in the cinema circle.

Then comes Liberté which started out as the stage opera first commissioned by Berlin’s Volksbühne in 2018, Serra seems to take advantage on the film medium and expound/expand his horizon of the limitless possibilities of ways in presenting the same subject. And he seems to be relishing it in this film version.

In Liberté, we are introduced to a group of French ex-patriots in the woods at night in ornate hand-drawn carriages fleeing in the eve of the revolution. They are on the run in Germany, where they hope to spread a philosophy of moral, political and sexual indulgence. They are regrouping with the help of Duc de Walchen (played by Helmut Berger of Visconti films). Slowly but surely, the group engages in voyeurism, all sorts of pan-sexual and s&m activities all night until dawn.

The film is intentionally minimally lit. It's in the woods, there are trees and leaves everywhere to obscure the views. And it's criminally dark. If grandiose and ornate production design and suggestive nature were the point of his stage version of Liberté, It’s the darkness and restraint from showing too much is the point in his film version. Yet the film is still filled with graphic sexual imagery.

It slowly starts with these libertines lurking and spying on each other in underbrush. Placid penises appear here and there. Mind you, these are not the most attractive people. What we can make out, many of them are hideously overweight, deformed and amputated. They whisper to each other some of the most pornographic scenes imaginable.

Serra is making the most out of cinematic medium here that he couldn't dare do on stage - graphic sex scenes obscured and not full on porno level but are still very shocking nonetheless: close ups of vaginas, pissing, flogging, bondage, etc. And in turn, he makes voyeurs out of all of us. And it goes on and on and on. The hushed moaning and screaming are mostly drawn out by the chorus of insects at night.

But these repetitive and prolonged sequences reminded me of the effects of repeated sex scene in Cronenberg’s Crash. You don’t see the eroticism anymore after a while. You become numb. Like most of Serra’s work, there is a hint of parody in these shenanigans. I mean, it’s actors in wigs stroking themselves in the woods in a movie called ‘freedom’. I think with Liberté, Serra reached the new height in his formalist approach to costume dramas. He is an artist who will run amok with his approach when given a chance and Liberté is probably the best example. I do like the playfulness in his method when it comes to parody when seeing the past with irony. Liberté goes on a little too long but it’s still a fascinating ride.

Identity Crisis

Synonyms (2019) - Lapid
Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man, is first seen with spitting out words and their synonyms, like a broken automated dictionary, in French which is obviously not his native tongue. He arrives in a posh part of Paris, gets all of his meager belongings stolen in a flash, including clothes and a sleeping bag that he just laid out on the floor, in a large empty apartment. And there is no hot water. He passes out from exhaustion and hypothermia. His young neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire of Anaud Desplechin's My Golden Days) and Caroline (Louise Chevillote), find him and revive him. They are almost parody of what 'a Parisian couple' is like - Emile is a writer who is forever working on a book titled, "Night of Inertia" and sexually ambiguous, coquettish Caroline plays oboe in an orchestra in her spare time. Emile, fascinated by this hunky, naked young foreigner, gives him clothes, a cellphone and wads of cash.

Soon Yoav moves into a squalid apartment across the river, still keeping contact with the young couple. He is an angry young man who is running away from home and refuses to speak Hebrew. He describes Israel as Ignorant, mean-spirited and crude. He is fit and has strict daily regimen for survival. He is listless, directionless and tactless. He gets a job as a security detail at the Israeli consulate. There he befriends with a typical macho soldier type, Yaron (Uria Hayik), who describe France as a hornet's nest for terrorists. Yaron forcefully asserts his Jewishness everywhere he goes by shouting "I am Jewish!" and humming Israeli national anthem loudly in a crowded subway to Parisians who could care less.

With his good physique and boyish good looks, Yoav gets involved in the art project by some pervert French photographer who tells him to penetrate himself while naked spread eagle on the floor, yelling in faux ecstasy in Hebrew. He feeds stories from his military service to impressionable Emile, telling him that he can have all of his stories as if he can truly hand over his former life to someone. He gets involved with Caroline even though whose high culture antics doesn't sit well with him. The flashback from his military service plays out, accented with absurd moments like dancing soldiers serenading a pop song during a military honor awarding ceremony.

Synonyms can be a difficult film: it can be seen as rudderless and abrasive. Sense of irony dominates the film as Yoav struggles with his identity. It's packed with dueling exaggerated visions of perverted and uncaring Europe (France in particular) and the uber military culture the director Nadav Lapid grew up with. The film concludes, as Yoav trying to open the door by slamming his body against it, you can't escape where you came from and the gap between the world you are trying to assimilate remains shut closed. But the film works, thanks largely to Tom mercier's physical as well as verbal, at times verging on slapstick level on both counts. The film is often hilarious and at times poignant and filled with manic energy. Shai Goldman's handheld camera work is aces also.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Female Gaze

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) - Sciamma
Talking about female gaze. It's all about that. Sciamma's period piece centers around two women. One, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait painter whose job is that of a photographer back then. The other, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), fresh plucked out of the convent to get married off to her dead sister’s Italian suitor that she’s never met. It was her mother (Valeria Golino)’s insistence that her portrait be painted and sent to Italy before the wedding. Marianne is supposed to be there for a week. In and out. A quickie.

Héloïse already refused to pose and to be painted by another portrait artist and sent him packing, leaving a creepy portrait painting without a face when Marianne arrives by the sea. But the mother insists on Marianne not telling Héloïse that she is there to paint her portrait, but paint her in secret from glimpses while acting as ‘walking companion’.

With their walks by the beach together, they get to know each other a little. Héloïse is understandably gloomy about her impending fate. Marianne sympathizes while trying to get glances of her subject of the painting. Marianne paints a portrait quickly in a week. But since she feels guilty of not informing her subject, she wants to show it to Héloïse before she says goodbye.
Héloïse’s reaction takes Marianne by surprise. She thinks it’s lifeless. It is not nice to assume that she knows the subject. Deeply offended and ashamed, she smears the painting and asks the mother to give her more time. Héloïse, now intrigued, volunteers to pose. They get 5 more days.

Whether it was due to Héloïse jumping into the ocean, Marianne's lascivious (but professional) glances or Marianne seeing Héloïse’s dress catching fire by the bonfire at the beach, they fall in love. They have only few days together and when they depart, their heart will break.

What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vivrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad. Certainly one of the year’s best.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Charming Klutz

A New Leaf (1971) - May
It comes as a big surprise to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) that he is broke. It seems that his trust fund has run out and his contemptuous uncle isn't helping. What about his ferrari, what about his tailored suits, what about all the exclusive restaurants and clubs he frequents, what about his butler?

With the help of his butler whose job is at stake, Henry gets a brilliant idea of marrying some rich society girl for money in order to secure a loan from his uncle. He finds his intended victim in Henrietta (director Elaine May), a extremely klutzy botanist with big round glasses that don't seem to stay on her face ever. And she seems to gobble up all of Henry's sweet talk into marriage after three days of courtship.

Henry's scheme of marrying someone/anyone for money and killing her off takes a different direction as he becomes in charge of her estate which is in total disarray. He gets to like his position being a protector of a hot mess of a woman.

A New Leaf highlights May's comic talents - the toga scene where Henry and Henrietta is spending honeymoon and Henry cutting off price tag hanging from Henrietta's oversized clothes while she is wearing them are some of the many uproariously funny bits in the movie. Matthau's smarmy, nonchalance matches perfectly with May's discombobulated eclecticism. The movie is a blast. I can't wait to check out May's other films.

Sunday, August 25, 2019


Drift (2017) - Wittmann
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Helena Wittmann build a feature around the hypnotic 30 minute sequence at the sea in the middle while lightly sketching out a portrait of a traveling German woman (Theresa George). She travels from the coast of North Sea to a Caribbean then across the Atlantic ocean in a sailing boat. Drift is not Antonioni level existential drama with nature reflecting internal life. It's much gentler, quieter contemplation on us facing something bigger than ourselves and learning from it.

In that mesmerizing sequence, the ocean takes many shapes - at times it's like a marble stretching unbroken miles, other times it's gigantic swelling monstrocity, threatening everything we hold dear, then it's a large silk cloth with delicate rippling patterns, all still hiding what's underneath the surface. Time stand still, no earthly matters concern us. Forever undulating, moving things to and fro, being in the ocean remind you of impermanence of human existience. Nika Breithaupt's sound design and score helps here tremendously with the images of the surface of the changing ocean, lulling us in a hypnotic state. The woman goes back to the land. Has she learned from her experience and has a different view on life? I sure have.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Bad Metaphor

Parasite (2019) - Bong
It's a pity that Bong Joonho's Parasite comes out after Lee Changdong's masterful Burning since both films deal with economic disparity, because the comparison would be inevitable. It is also ironic that after Cannes awarded good natured people living in the economical margins in another Asian movie, Shoplifters, just a year before (and Burning competed the same year), they did a one hundred eighty degree turn and award something called Parasite, a deeply cynical film which the title is meant for the very people living in the economical margins.

People of lesser means have been Bong's bread and butter. He's been sketching these poor funny people trying to eke out a living and constantly going in and out of moral muck with sympathetic eyes. In his view, in this world, no one comes out clean. That everyone is guilty one way or another. Also in Bong's world, the rich and powerful have always been rich and powerful and the poor have always been poor. There's never been cause and effect shown. Granted that in a rigid society like Korea, the upward mobility is almost impossible. Except for his big monied, international productions - Snow Piercer and Okja and his native Korean creature feature hit, The Host, where villians are cartoonish and literal monsters, his other films, villians are usually themselves, the everyman.

Now Bong tackles head on the economic disparities with Parasite. It tells a story of a swindler family who lives in a tiny basement apartment. There is a bumbling unemployed dad (Song Kangho), a former track and field athlete mom- also unemployed (Jang Hyejin), a forever jaesusang (a High School graduate who's failed college entrance exams multiple times) son (Choi Woosik) and an artistically inclined daughter (Park Sodam) who is also a jaesusang. The opportunity comes for the son, Kiwoo, to take over the tutoring duties from a childhood friend who is now a college student. He is to tutor a High School Sophomore girl whose family is uber-rich while his friend is studying abroad. With a fake resume (provided by his sister Kijung), Kiwoo gets a foothold in Mr. Park's household and earns the trust of naive Mrs. Park. One by one, with some devious, ingenious planning, the poor family gets hired in various positions - tutors for children (Son and daughter), a driver (Dad) & a live-in maid (mom) without revealing that they are family.

Things get nutty when they discover the hidden basement and find a person who's been secretly living there for years. Upper class/under class metaphor physically manifests.

Here is the thing. Bong is masterful at technical filmmaking and has an amazing eye for mise-en-scene and great imagination to boot. Also love human comedy he brings with his everyman characters. But he fails when things get serious. The major problem in Parasite is that there are no real villains. Uber-rich Park's family is neither monster nor cartoonish. They are just nice people who might be a little clueless. There is no context to the upper/under class struggle here other than material things to compare each other with.

I shouldn't compare Bong's dramedy to serious drama like Haneke's Caché or Code Unknown or anything. But in Burning, without making Steven Yeun's uber-rich character too over the top, Lee created a subtley menacing villian who really got under your skin. However fantastical Emir Kusturica's Underground (another Palme d'Or winner), at least there was a heavy context for history and war of the former Yugoslavia to force people living underground. What I'm saying is Bong's populist shtick alone doesn't quite work when there is no clear enemy and no context. Calling his everyman Parasite doesn't help the matters too much either. With Kiwoo's epilogue, Bong, who didn't have to give us the definite ending in Memories of Murder, is forced to give answer here, just because he handles economic disparity head on. And he seems to say unconvincingly (even to himself) that the enemy is not the wealth but instead, lack of money. And without providing context, that's a terrible answer.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Amour fou

The Souvenir (2019) - Hogg
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Joanna Hogg's new film, The Souvenir, drawing from her own experience from her 20s, tells a delicate story of amour fou. On the onset it looks like another one of those involving a charismatic older man taking advantage of a younger, more fragile woman story, or some fluff about a rich white girl being manipulated, but Hogg is such a strong director/writer who has an ability to deeply empathize with her characters, you can't help but be moved by it in the end.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a film school student from an affluent family. She is still figuring things out. She wants to make a film about working class people in Sunderland: a story of a boy and his strong attachment to his mother. Her advisors try to steer her toward making something that she knows and perhaps comfortable with. But just like anyone around that age, she is quietly rebellious and want to go through it in her own way. She is afraid that she won't grow as a person if she doesn't get out of her comfort zones.

Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke). With his slurring words, arrogant but confident attitude and bitter outlooks on life, he is extremely magnetic to her. He is apparently working for the Foreign Affairs agency or something mysterious like that (we never get to see him working really). It's the Thatcher's England in the 80s. There are bombs going off on the street and news of kidnappings on the radio.

The romantic notion of being in a relationship with a mysterious, intelligent, charismatic person, Julie neglects to see his imperfections - he is always broke and constantly asking for money and has needle marks on his arms. She is so green that it takes her a while to realize that Anthony is a heroin addict. It is infuriating for the viewer as she forgives him and lets him get away with taking full advantages of her financially time and time again as he lies and even steals from her to satiate his habit. Against good judgment, she keeps asking for money from her parents, especially from her stern but caring mother (Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton byrne's real life mother).

Their intense relationship is eating Julie up and she falls behind in her studies and gets isolated from her circle of friends. But the film makes unexpected turns: after catching him red handed with a needle, she finally kicks him out. She puts her life back on track - studies, new lovers etc. Anthony appears in her life again. He is still broke, charming but broken. He cries and suffers greatly while kicking the habit.

Even the power dynamic has changed, Julie can't help but loving him.

Every writer or film director encounters the criticism at some point or another when they try to create something not related to your life or your background. The Souvenir examines this aspect in the film. But every film Hogg has done so far, there are elements from her life in it. And she is not apologetic about it. Calling The Souvenir an autobiographical filmmaking would be selling the film short. It's a delicate film that doesn't seem to have a special agenda other than humanizing the aspect of the people she encountered earlier in her life. With her baby face and pale complexion and her gaping mouth, Swinton Byrne is terrific in the role of Julie. But it's Tom Burke who steals the show here. His charming yet slightly dangerous demeanor - a cross between Oliver Reed and Hugh Grant is magnetic.

We meet people in our lives who changes and shapes you when you are on the verge of adulthood for better or worse. The Souvenir succeeds in eulogizing that period of your life lovingly and poignantly. One of the year's best.

Saturday, July 27, 2019


The Rovolutionary Road (2008) - Mendes
Despite excellent acting by two leads, The Revolutionary Road can't escape its original source material trapped in its time, the 50s America where things were regressive to say the least. Frank Wheeler (Leo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet at some Manhattan party and becomes a couple. She's an aspiring actress, he works for some soul crushing boring company that his father worked for. They buy a house, move to the suburbs, have two kids. From the outside perspective, the Wheelers are the American Dream personified. But April is not happy with the way things are. Her life feels like a trap. They are still young and idealistic. Frank just turned thirty. So April one day suggests that they sell the house and with the savings, they move to Paris: the city Frank once been and always enthusiastically talked about. She almost convinces frank, "We gotta go for what we want in life. You hate your job. You don't know what you want in life but you will figure it out while I get a job there and you can have time to figure yourself out." So they convince themselves that they are moving in the fall. The summer seems magical with dreams. All the people around them are happy for them but not happy. They tell themselves that they are making a childish mistake even though moving to Paris and getting out of the life called trap sounds courageous and wonderful.

The point of the revolutionary road is that people think getting in (to life) instead of living an ordinary life you hate seems crazy. This notion is exemplified by Michael Shannon, a former mathematician who has mental problems and no social grace. He steals the show whenever he goes on tangents: when they first met, he goes on and on about the stupid rat-race called life. And the young couple tell them that they are moving to paris to pursue their dreams. he is awestruck. They are talking the same language! The second time they meet him after they decided not to go (because Frank is tempted by big promotion), shannon character lays down on them. It's brutal. Honesty hurts and Frank can't take it.

I really liked the film up until the end. I understand being truthful to the source material - a book written in 1961. And I understand it's a period piece. But the theme is not confined to the 50s. It's very much universal and that's why I was disappointed by its tiresome ending.

Acting is superb. Casting is impeccable. Youngish Dicaprio is perfect. With his still boyish face, he looks like he is still playing dress up. Compared to him, Winslet could play his mother- which is also perfect. I wished they updated this to make it more contemporary, at least the ending.