Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Let It Happen." Alan Gomis Talks about His New Film, Félicité

Gomis
After winning Grand Jury Prize at Berlin early this year, Alain Gomis's Félicité played as part of the slim but always robust Main Slate at New York Film Festival. Featuring great Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu as the title role, a single mother and a singer struggling to survive in the bustling streets of Kinshasa while trying to find love, Félicité is a structurally daring, vibrant, sensual and hopeful African film that you don't get to experience often. For me it was one of the highlights of the festival.

Gomis, a Senegalese director, was in town for the festival and I was lucky enough to have a chat with him about doing a film in Congo for the first time, the state of African cinema, his relationship with his generous and talented collaborators and on his method/non method- letting things take its own course. Even though suffering from a cold, Gomis was very generous and open with his answers.

And I am very happy that the film was announced Senegal's official entry for the Oscars and is getting a theatrical run here in the States starting 10/26 at Quad Cinema in NY.

The music seems to be the heart of the film. I heard that you are a big fan of The Kasai All-stars and the whole project began with them in mind. So if you can tell me about that a bit?

I’ve heard their music a few years before, introduced by a girl I know. It was through their album called Congotronics- several music groups from Kinshasa, playing the music called ‘Tradi-moderne’ in French, a mix of traditional Congolese music and modern stuff. Most of it is traditional music but the fact it’s played in the city of Kinshasa, it’s mixed with electric guitars and… they made this music that is perfect embodiment of life in a big African city. It’s really connected to cosmogony and transcendental music, so it’s steeped in tradition but mixing with the urban way of life. So it was perfect for me to start the project with this music to portray the urban African life.

With your previous films, it was Dakar and now it's Kinshasa. These cities themselves become very important characters in your films.

It’s always interesting to see the effect of the city on its people, and conversely, how they change it. How we are played by the city and how we influence it. Africa has a very small cinema industry. And there is this need for the symbiotic relationship with cinema and the society itself to present the life on the street.

Most of the time the films are coming from the outside which is a big problem because you identify yourself with the culture that is not yours. Of course it’s cool to have relationship with the rest of the world but you also need to have access to yourself. So it’s also important to me to try to portray what it’s like there. It is part of my mission in a way.

I talked with Ousmane Cisse when he was here presenting Timbuktu. And he told me how hard it was for him to finance his films. Is it the same way with you? How did the funding for Félicité come about?

It is not easy, but it’s getting better. This film if very concretely funded by Senegalese Production Fund which was set up in 2013. We had a French production company and post-production is done in Belgium. We had some Lebanese co-production too, German, Gabonese…

Wow.


So yes, we try to get money from here and there and everywhere. But the good part of it is that I had total freedom. Because if you had one financial partner, they have much more influence on you and what you are doing. (laughs) Having little here and there, you have more freedom.

It was really interesting to see the film in distinctly two parts. The first part is like a social docu-drama in terms of pacing and everything. And the second half, the tempo slows down a lot and it’s a love story between Tabu and Félicité. I liked that a lot. Is the pacing of the film connected to the music?

Yes. First I wanted to have easy entrance to the movie. I wanted to have a simple drama structure for everybody to be able to get into it easily. And then coming in to the heart of the movie which is Félicité’s journey of falling flat on her face then coming back up. But that part of the film is not something to tell but something to live, something to experience.

So yes, its inspired by musical structure. I think that’s the relationship that I have with music and I assume everybody else too. You listen to music and you start to cry and you don’t know why. Just like a concert, like a space between the stage and the listeners, I wanted to build a relationship between the screen and the audience.

I really appreciate the handheld photography by the great Celine Bozon in the streets of Kinshasa. How was the working relationship with her?

It was a first time working with her for me. It was like love at first sight! It was an incredible relationship. She was so devoted to the film and the filmmaking. She has no fear. She is completely into creating sensations I was looking for.

It was also my first time having relationship through books. Just last week, she sent me this book and I was reading it on the plane on the way here. It’s a book about the art of archery. This relationship is like not to interfere with your sensation with your gesture in a way. We’d have incredible conversations – not about the frame or contrast, just trying to be more direct as possible. She suggested using the headphones, so she had a headphone set and I had a microphone. We had dialog during the takes, to find a good angle or sometime she would be just proposing something and I just try to say few words and she answers. sometimes it would be contrary…. The film was a true collaboration.

We have built a crew to shoot on the streets and interact with people. So we come several weeks before, talking to people. Some of them became part of the crew also while shooting. We had no boundaries. Someone was getting in the frame and it was possible. It wasn't like a traditional 'film set'.

Somewhere you mentioned that you were influenced by Yasujiro ozu. Can you elaborate on that?

I remember I was watching this film, it was a shock. I can't remember the English title of it.... It was... I Was Born But... Taking place in Tokyo about these two kids. The thing is, these kids were really me. They are trying to fit in their new surroundings, trying to fit in. I especially loved the relationship between them and their fathers. It was really shocking to me because it was an old film, black and white and a silent film at that. But it was me! That’s what cinema is for me. You can find that intimacy in a film that is made long ago on the otherside of the world. Cinema is creating that common space. The film really had a big influence on me.

I can see that in your films. Just watched Aujourd'hui. It’s very contemplative and very quiet, compared with other contemporary African cinema I’ve seen. You have a very distinctive style and approach. You possess this quiet sensitivity I admire.

Thank you.

How did you find the main actress, Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu?

She came in the audition. I’ve seen a lot of actors in theater and other auditions and so on. But this was an open casting- it was open to everybody. She came to it by chance because her friend told her to try it. She came in and I see her and I had the character in mind and she was quite different from Félicité I imagined. So OK, 'let’s try her in the part of the nurse', I thought. But she was so powerful in her performance and presence. So concrete, even when she remain silent, she had this energy that kept going through her. So I asked her to come back.

So we had these interactions for 6 months, I wanted her to come back and forth and we continued to build a character together during that time. At the end, I had to accept her as the character which meant I had to follow her. All these things- Vero, the language I didn’t speak, the fact that I didn’t know Kinshasa- what I had to do was to…just let the film happen. It was me just trying to hear, not dictate, not “this is the story I want to tell!” I had to accept the fact that it’s not about me.

It’s telling that the film has its own flow that I really like. It feels organic and natural to me.

Is it common to have kind of an open relationship between Tabu and Félicité in modern African city?

For sure. I mean, in this time of economic pressure, the traditional sense of family is blown. We have young girls with children and everything like that is absolutely new. The film was my interrogation on what it means to be a couple. It was about accepting the freedom of the other person and of yourself. 'What part of the freedom am I giving up to be a couple?' I wanted to show these kind of new situations in urban African life and ask the audiences what would they give up.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Memory Mystery

L'Immortelle (1963) - Robbe-Grillet
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More so than Robbe-Grillet scribed Last Year at Marienbad, L'Immortelle plays with the images and its hidden meanings. In Robbe-Grillet's world, every ordinary gesture, pose, object resonates to its nameless protagonist, and in time, to us. A pair of woman's sandals, a caress of a neck, a view from a window - every shot becomes iconic and powerful.

It tells a story of a French teacher in Istanbul, just arrived and don't know the language or custom of the locals. He meets a mysterious, beautiful woman (Françoise Brion), who wouldn't divulge anything about her - address, profession, not even a name. "It's the mosque of your dreams," she says as they pass by the famous New Mosque by the water on a boat, suggesting that what he sees and perceived as reality might be all but an illusion. She interacts with the locals in their native tongue in front of our frenchman. But when asked, she plays innocent, pretending she didn't understand a thing they said, keeping him in the dark. But we as an audience understand the exchanges via subtitle. After some intimate days, she disappears. Left only with the memories of her, he takes a detective role to find her or rather, to find about her. But since he doesn't know the language, the investigation turns futile. Even though she turns up later, he loses her again before he finds out about anything.

L'Immortelle is an intricate visual puzzle piece that's beautifully put together: repetition of images, still and panning shots and the accumulation of these give meanings in edits. Just like the palace in Marienbad (Schloss Schleissheim), Istanbul and its waterways serve as a magnificent backdrop. Brion, as the mystery personified. is magnetic. The elliptical narrative and the images give the feeling that time doesn't exist in the film. Your own memories are immortal for long as you live, the film tells us.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Circus is in Town

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) - Clayton
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Wow. This Ray Bradbury scripted 80s Disney movie is creepy as fuck. Jack Clayton, known for such classics as The Innocents and The Great Gatsby, puts a visual spell with the help of sophisticated special effects and matte paintings. Something Wicked is about an evil carny, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce in his career best performance) who prey on grown-ups' worst fears and desires and whose plan to take over an idyllic all American small town getting thwarted by a couple of 12 year old rascals. It's eerie and deals with completely inappropriate subject matters for children- a very old dad (Jason Robards) who could be twice as old as his wife, a local barber dreaming of having sex with exotic ladies, a kid finding total strangers visiting his single mom (played by Diane Ladd)'s bedroom, etc. So the kids witness Dark torturing a traveling lightening rods salesman (who else would know when the next storm will arrive?) and become the carny's next targets. The best scene is Mr. Dark (Pryce) tormenting librarian Hallowway (Robards) as he rips pages from a book, counting years of wasted life Halloway's been leading. Later, Halloway confronts his demons and spill out his guts to his 12 yr old boy. The scene is creepy and scary rather than cathartic. Pam Grier plays an exotic dark spider carny, displaying perfectly formed abs and great charm.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is an handsomely crafted children's movie that never gets made anymore. It's really great.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Clean Slate

Yourself and Yours (2016) - Hong
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Starting over afresh - I'm pretty sure all of us wished that one time or another. With Yourself and Yours, Hong exercises that fantasy in the form of Minjung (Lee Youyoung). She apparently has a drinking problem. Everybody in town knows about it. Couple of days ago, she was seen getting into a drunken fight with a stranger at the bar. And this distresses her possessive boyfriend Yongsoo (Kim Ju-hyuk) because she promised him to limit her drinking by 5 soju shots and 3 beers. Enraged, Yongsoo confronts her one night about it but she'd rather leave him if he doesn't trust her word over everyone else's.

Yourself and Yours turns out to be perhaps the most poignant and romantic film of all the Hong's I've seen so far. Inebriated Minjung (Lee You-young) flirts with a film director she just met, over beer. When they meet, the director is convinced that he knows her from somewhere but she vehemently denies it. Over a short period of time before the encounter, she leaves Yongsoo and breaks up with an older man who also first thought she was Minjung but she tells him that she is her twin sister.

Just to be in the clear, Yourself and Yours is nothing like Buñuel's or Kieslowski's. Hong's interest is not in identity crisis or duality of men. His double takes and alternate scenarios may seem manipulative (also delicious) but the movie is more to do with accepting a person for who that person is, with blemishes and all that. It's also got to do with men's folly. "Men are either wolves or babies," Minjung tells the director, "they either pounce or cry." Hong's message to all the fellow Korean men is clear: No one can possess another. You have to let go the notion that all women are some ideal naive angels.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Germination

By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) - Suwichakornpong
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In a disjointed, fragmented, abstract, but best possible way, Anocha Suwichakornpong makes a case for moving images as a germinating force when depicting a historical event with By the Time It Gets Dark. It's also a self-reflexive contemplation on the role of a filmmaker depicting such an event.

It starts with a reenactment photo shoot of a pro-government paramilitary raid- roomful of shirtless young people lying on the ground in a warehouse with their hands tied behind their backs. A woman on the megaphone directs the soldiers with machine guns, " Be more forceful," "Hit them if you want to, " and so on. Then it's a countryside. In a large, airy, modern stone and wood house, a film director (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) is prepping her film about a former activist/survivor of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre. She brought the older woman whose memoir she's adapting, down there so she can interview her and record it on camera. But she struggles at the mere mention of her intentions- "I guess I want to make it because my life is so mundane..." She soon has a full blown breakdown in the forest and stumbles upon a magic mushroom. Roll the old science class time-lapse images of fungi in the forest.

The film takes several detours. One involves a long documentary style segment on tobacco plant harvest where we see from the harvest of the tobacco leaves to the industrial drying process. Then there is a continuing narrative involving a popstar (first seen at the tobacco farm) and his opulent lifestyle and fandom which includes a musical number ('making of' music video) in the middle of the movie. Then there is a young woman character who appears here and there, doing menial jobs - waitress in the cafe near where the filmmaker and her subject were staying, working as a busboy in the city tour boat, toilet cleaner at the airport and so on. But she turns out to be the one who instigates the breakdown of the filmmaker in the first place.

The fateful massacre where many student protesters lost their lives by the right-wing military troops, hangs over the film like a dark cloud. But Suwichakornpong treats everything non-judgmentally. Later in the film, prettier, more mannered actors repeat the scene of the director and her subject again in the same location, highlighting that the futility of adapting historical events on the screen.

The film might sound too precious on paper - those too self-aware films in love with themselves. But the result of layers of these slightly connected vignettes and visual metaphors are anything but. Images are democratic- whether it's a trashy, seemingly inconsequential pop culture, the serious historical reenactments, Buddhist temple, disco tech and pixelated visual noise have the same value. It's a very Dostoevskian concept- like a tobacco leaves and fungi, to give them meaning and purpose, these layers Suwichakornpong presents will need to sit and rot. I am just amazed by her wisdom and skills to convey this kind of complicated thoughts through film medium. By the Time It Gets Dark is an incredible achievement and one of the very best film I've seen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Pretty Pictures, Less Angst

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - Villenueve
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So arrives the sequel nobody asked. Why touch the classic? Why Hollywood must ruin everything? Can one even truly duplicate that atmospheric Sci-Fi dystopia steeped in rain and existential dread? Blade Runner 2049 turns out to be whole lotta nothing. It provides nothing but eye candy for 3 hours running time. And it's not a bad thing per se. But it will never be a classic like the eponimous Sci-Fi noir that is feverishly worshipped since its 1982 debut.

The story here is thin. "Things were simpler back then," Officer K (Ryan Gosling) shoots back at Dekkard (Harrison Ford), who is now retired in the orange hued ruins of what once was Las Vegas in the 2/3rds of the way in. That remark rings extremely hollow considering the nothingness it provides beyond Roger Deakins's stunning duplication of the original look and some more.

K is a Blade Runner and Nexus 8 replicant, out to kill the remnants of Nexus 6 with open ended lifespan. He is supposedly hated because he is not human (never demonstrated other than a shoulder slam with a name calling- "skinjob!" by jocky cop at the station). His only companion is a hologram AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) who takes up inappropriate amount of running time. Replicant needs a hologram companion? Why? The bulk of the story surrounds the skeleton buried underneath a dead tree in the farmland outside Los Angeles. The remains belong to Rachel who apparently died while giving birth to a child. A miracle. Now LAPD and Wallace Corp lackey (relentless Sylvia Hoeks), are after the child who was born 6/10/2020, the date K remembers in his implant memory and the year when the worldwide blackout happened and erased most records apparently (to what purpose, or what extent? By whom? Never explained, just like the nuke attack on Las Vegas). Then there is another thin plot about replicant revolution. They want to kill Dekkard for some erroneous, fuzzy logic. All these ideas based on the original after a one or two brainstorming sessions doesn't hold up to much. In short, K is like Roy Batty, trying to do things right at the end and the ending becomes a tearful reunion story.

There are a lot of things lacking in 2049. Namely it's that existential angst. Gosling is right for the part with his blank look to play a replicant, but he doesn't quite nail the sympathy part or cool and sexiness of Rutger Hauer. For a human/non-human dichotomy theme, the movie is seriously lacking human characters to bounce off that angst. The action sequences lack the iconic, operatic dances of death of the original. Jared Leto as an enigmatic creator, destroyer Wallace lacks just that, enigma. Female characters, except Robin Wright (the police captain) and Mackenzie Davis (a callgirl/replicant), both of whom are unfortunately underused, are not quite "talk about beauty and the beast. She's both." Thank goodness that Hans Zimmer refrained himself. The only saving grace along with the somber mood, rather ineffective plot, minimal exposition, is not too noticeable soundtrack.

Maybe I am way more critical of half baked narratives since I watched Twin Peaks: The Return. If David Lynch's franchise makes more sense than your carefully crafted plotlines, you got a real problem. But all these criticism will be lost...in the rain. At the end of the day, the prettiness of the glorious images wins over. 2049 will run on my TV screen as I do chores around the house for the years to come.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Claire Denis Does Hong Sang-soo?

Un beau soleil intérieur (2017) - Denis
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I think Claire Denis has been hanging out with Hong Sang-soo a little too much because I never expected her to do a wordy romantic comedy! And the result is delightful! It boasts the best rolling end credit of any movie ever.

Let the Sun Shine In concerns middle aged divorcée painter Isabelle (radiant Juliette Binoche). The film starts with her having sex with her regular lover, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a portly, pompous banker with terrible bedside manner. Some off-handed comment he says makes her cry. In fact, our disheveled heroine cries a lot, out of loneliness, in bed at night alone. Vincent is a married man and constantly says he won't ever leave his wife and family. He just want to bang her regularly is all.

Then there is a brooding stage actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) Isabelle hits up on at the bar. They are about to work professionally together. But she is very anxious to know if he's interested in her as much as she is in him. But he rambles on about his acting, his identity whatev, finishing what seems to be his 15th beer. After hilarious and super awkward exchange in the car, Isabelle pretty much passive-aggressively makes him to 'come up for coffee' and stay the night. The next day, she is super happy about what happened but he's not. He's full of regret.

Then there is François (Laurent Grévill), Isabelle's ex, whom she has a 10 year old daughter with. She constantly regrets that she left him. He sometimes comes over and they screw. But they say some hurtful things to each other. They go their separate ways unhappy.

Always on the verge of tears, she confesses to her friend that she is deathly afraid that she'd pass the age to meet the love of her life, that she'd live the rest of her life alone and die alone. Easily swayed by other's opinions, whoever she meets, she asks for advice and second guess herself if she's doing the right thing.

Frustrated with her current relationship arrangement, Isabelle takes a trip to the countryside with her art circle acquaintances where they are invited to a little art festival. While taking a walk with the group, their pompousity and forced social niceties become too much for her and she blows up on everyone. Yet she finds herself in the arms of a soulful country bumpkin on the dance floor. Would that fling last?

We've all been there. The relationship is a fickle business and there are no easy answers. As you grow older, the need for companionship grows. Loneliness is a terrible thing. In a rom-com setting, Isabelle embodies a middle aged woman in the city dealing with these issues perfectly. With co-writer Christine Angot, Denis wrote a very funny script and created a very funny character that is unlike anything she created previously. The only comparable film she made would be Friday Night (2002). But that was a mood piece more than anything else with little dialog.

Since it's shot by the great Agnes Godard, Let the Sun Shine In is filled with gorgeous close-ups. As the arresting images unfold with jazzy soundtrack (by Stuart Staples of Tindersticks), you are safely in Denis territory. And the familiar faces show up - Alex Descas plays one of Isabelle's lover to be (there is a lot of potential), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi briefly shows up too.

The biggest suprise, figuratively and literally, is the appearance of Gerard Depardieu as a fortune teller who's motives are suspect. His long, meandering exchange with Isabelle got hearty laugh from me.

After a couple of very dark films (White Material and Bastards), Denis is trying something different. Let the Sun Shine In feels much looser and lighter than her other films but it still retains all of her visual language and style. With her announced English Sci-fi project with Robert Pattison, I welcome this change. Someone please give this woman a best director prize already!

Let the Sun Shine In plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 10/7 and 10/8. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more information.

Agnès Varda's Faces Places is a Perfect Antidote for This Ugly, Ugly World

Faces Places (2017) - Varda
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You really gotta give it to Agnes Varda: at 89, our pint sized grand dame of French New Wave is still incredibly open, generous and always searching (into both past and present). In doing so she inadvertently raises some interesting questions when it comes to what constitutes public art and what's personal without bombarding us with schoolmaster rhetoric. There are also a lot of reflections in Faces Places on impermanence of human existence, art and mortality.

Varda, always keen on meeting new people and discover new things, pairs up with a 33 year old wheat pasting street artist known as JR. Together, they take a road trip to the northern French coastal towns. There they meet various working class people and their families - a postman, cafe owners, butchers, factory workers,miners, longshoremen, goat farmers and they take their pictures, print them out from the side of JR's portable printer/van and wheat paste them on the large public spaces, relate to the subject's environment.

The conversation is not always one sided- Varda doesn't have to exert herself into every story. She's fucking Agnes Varda. Things naturally come out. She's visited many many places and full of memories and mementos. In turn, JR is a jovial and energetic, and very good with dealing with elderly people (he lives with his grandma). Lanky with sunglasses glued to his face, JR reminds her of Godard and this train of thoughts plays out near the end, for better or worse.

It's not a typical light and fluffy travelogue of the rich and famous that would end up in travel channel. It's more about ordinary people. In this day and age, Varda believes in face to face human contact and genuine friendship. Except for some corny intros, Faces and Places feels very improvised and light and ultimately very touching and beautiful without trying so hard.

So they arranged the meeting with Godard. When they get there, the reclusive director and long time friend is not home. He scribbled a cryptic message with a marker on the window that upset's Varda almost to her tears. "If he tried to hurt me, he succeeded. That rat bastard!" One sentence is about the death of Jacques Demy, her husband, the other is a jab at the very same film she is making now, suggesting Faces Places is a fluffy travelogue of the bourgeoisie.

So there you have it. Godard has always been an innovative, genius filmmaker, brilliant researcher and historian, but an extremely cynical one who has long lost the ability to see the brighter side of humanity. Varda is totally opposite - completely open, transparent in what she sees and does and incredibly giving and sharing with her being. Which do we need more in this ugly world right now?

Faces and Places is a perfect antidote for the grim reports on the news these days. Please go see it.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Don't Deserve Love

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) - Hong
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The first part of the film, simply titled 1, starts with Young hee (Kim Min hee), a pretty Korean actress, in care of an older female friend in Hamburg in winter, pining for a married director she's been having an affair with. She keeps saying he might or might not come for her but she won't wait for him forever because being in love with him hurts so much. It seems she tried to get away from the publicized affair and is very much enjoying her anonymity and tranquil surroundings in another country.

In part 2, Young hee is back in Korea, in the coastal town of Kangrung, the same one seen in Hong's Power of Kangwon Province, in winter. It's a favorite spot a Seoulite can think of when they run away- the farthest, the most distant, remote place one can think of, near the sea. She is seeing some friends. The affair is over and the true colors come out over couple of drinks at the restaurant.

On the Beach reflects Hong's own much publicized affair with Kim in real life. We get to see from Kim Min hee's side mostly through Young hee- after couple of drinks, as she lashes out to others at the table how undeserving everybody is of love, that how her affair is anybody's business. A moments later she declares she'd rather do without men and go lesbo, starts kissing her kind, older confidant. Her heart's not in it, because she still misses him terribly.

In a later part of the film, the director in question, played by Hong regular Mun Seung gun, recite the passage from a book he tries to give her that describes the agony and ecstasy of their final embrace. He breaks down and cries, as she steely stares at him.

I was looking at Hong's films all wrong. As I see more of his, I realize that I don't need to compare him to anyone who might or might not have influenced him. His is very much his own and original. He has a sense of humor about portraying human vagaries. He's playful in his own small way and puts much trusts in his actors. He might be lazy about 'presentation' - unlike the title, Young hee doesn't end up on the beach at night. It's daytime, dusk at best. For a night time shoot, it would cost too much and too much of a hassle to arrange. But it doesn't matter to tell his story which is still simple and direct and real.

Love and break up is a painful business. Hong shows how it is under the scrutinizing eyes of the public, physically manifested here as a stranger in jarring surrealist moments - first in Hamburg, asking Young hee what time it is, then as a window washer in the second one. They are minor characters, but they are widely visible, but soundly being avoided and ignored yet their presence felt. For a Hong film, even though it has many funny moments, the over all mood of On the Beach is bitter and sad.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Syrian Refugee Crisis Aki Kaurismaki Style

The Other Side of Hope (2017) - Aki Kaurismaki
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I find it odd that no major filmmakers are tacking the Syrian refugee crisis. Estimated 5 million people fled the war torn country since 2012 and the number easily doubles when you add up internally displaced refugees. I find it doubly odd that it is Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish master of deadpan comedy taking on the topical subject. First it was his French language film Le Havre, which dealt with immigration. With The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki lends a hand, with his light touch, on Aleppo, without sacrificing the seriousness of the situation. Surprisingly, the result is an affecting, optimistic look at human kindness and decency. It also turns out to be one of his finest films.

There are two strands of narrative at the start of the film. One about a Syrian refugee and the other, an aging, troubled traveling salesman figuring out his life. Somewhere their paths cross. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is first seen emerging from the mountain of coal in a cargo ship docked at a Helsinki harbor. As he seeks an asylum as a Syrian refugee from Aleppo at a police station, the unsympathetic police puts him in a waiting facility to be processed. There he meets an Iraqi refugee who's been in Finland for a while and seems to know the way around. Khaled is desperately looking for his sister who was separated on their way out of Syria. He likes Finland and wants to get a job and settle down. But first, he needs to not get deported. His Iraqi friend gives him some pointers, "Don't look so glum. Be cheerful. They deport sad looking ones."

Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged traveling man's shirt salesman, walks out on his wife, and embarks on a restaurant business with the money he won at a gambling table. It's a little dumpy restaurant/bar called Golden Pint. The owner seems very eager to get out the dodge, and leaves three disgruntled employees behind- a doorman, a waitress and a cook for Wikstrom to deal with.

In the mean time, Khaled flees from the refugee facility after judge deems that his situation is not dire enough and decides to deport him back to Aleppo. Khaled gets into a fistfight with Wikstrom at a parking lot where he was sleeping. And Wikstrom decides to hire him for his restaurant.

There are many Kaurismaki comedic moments and sight gags throughout the film. His brand of minimalist comedy is truly unique.His cultural references are all mixed up and wrong- Kati Outinen, one of Kaurismaki's regular, plays Wikstrom's client who says "I'm going to Mexico and dance Hula Hula." and Golden Pint crudely changes to Sushi restaurants to attract more customers, serving a spoonful of wasabi on each sushi. When they run out of fish, they use salted herring. It is priceless to see the defeat on the crew's faces as the customers leave in droves.

Khaled is pursued by Finnish nazis with nationalist slogans on their jacket. Kaurismaki encapsulates them in one utterance near the end of the film, showing that nazis, in any country, are ignorant assholes and absolutely need to be eradicated.

Extremely silly and endlessly charming, The Other Side of Hope reminds us that the complicated world we are living in doesn't need to be complicated. Through the Kaurismakian glass, the world is filled with decent people and it remains a hopeful place as long as people help each other out.

The Other Side of Hope plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 10/5 and 10/10. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more information.

Repressed No More

Thelma (2017) - Trier
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Joachim Trier's new offering starts out rather ominously - Norwegian Liam Neeson named Trond (Henrik Rafaelson) goes out hunting with his young daughter Thelma in the snowy woods. But when they spot a deer, unbeknownst to the little girl, Liam Neeson dad aims his rifle at her. The tension builds up, but at the end, he can't do it. So we know, there must be something terribly wrong with our Thelma.

Now Thelma is a mousy, good Christian girl attending college in the city. Except for unusually nosy parents, seen calling everyday to check on her, She leads a very normal life as a Freshman at college. There are little vices around at every corner - the boys, alcohol and weed, the usual stuff. She has to fend off these temptations with daily prayers and atone her sinful thoughts. Thelma has an episode of a violent seizure at the school library. She doesn't remember having one when she was growing up and fear of being called back home, she hides the fact from her parents. This episode introduces her to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a dark beauty who came first to her aid. They fast become friends.

Weird things are happening around Thelma. Her dreams have become more vivid and she can't distinguish if they are hallucinations or her will to make happen. As she falls deeply in love with Anja, her seizure episodes also increases. Through the remnants of her medical history, she finds out that her conditions might be hereditary and her parents have been hiding things from her.

Trier and his writing partner Eskil Vogt wrote a beautiful script once again, this time applying their skill and grace to their first genre film - a Sci-fi thriller. But Thelma is much more than that. Instead of going the route of a typical teen superhero flick, Trier and Vogt portray being an adolescent in its truest form - frightening sexuality: massive confusion where you can't trust your feelings nor your body and the terror of being in love for the first time. Added here is a big middle finger to organized religion, combined with some show-stopping imagery that trier has ever created in his short but fruitful filmography- especially the snake scene and the underwater pool/lake scenes.

Eili Harboe does a phenomenal job as a supremely confused young woman whose power has been repressed for so long. She gives achingly vulnerable performance as Thelma.

Thelma is first and foremost, a love story. It will make a handsome double feature with The Witch as a kind of female empowerment anthem. But instead of being cynical, something to fear and gaze at, girrrl power in Thelma is a sweet, positive and dare I say, life affirming affair.

Quiet Catharsis

Zama (2017) - Martel
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Lucrecia Martel suggested in her introduction to her sold-out screening of the much anticipated follow-up to Headless Woman that we audience might want to take in Zama like a whiskey. Indeed, it's a heady, at times bitter, at times sweet hallucinatory trip to the heart of darkness, showing the white man's identity crisis and misguided manifest destiny in the colonial era Latin America.

The film is a historical period piece, based on the much praised Latin American classic literature by Antonio di Benedeto. It's a hugely ambitious undertaking for Martel with just 3 films under her belt. But if anything, Zama confirms Martel one of the greatest directors of our time. Her mastery over the medium both in complex narrative storytelling and technical ingenuity has grown to exceptional height with Zama.

Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho with an impressive Romanesque nose), a magistrate stuck in some unnamed South American colonial town deep inland in the 18th century, is anxiously awaiting to hear from the Crown (of Spain), his new assignment to the city. Even though he is a man of certain position and been stationed there for a while, he can't ever seem to get ahead or get what he wants - the letter of transfer never materializes, his rival Ventura (Juan Minujín) is much better at kissing asses and the local society lady de Luenga (Lola Dueñas) flirts with him but wouldn't give in.

Zama doesn't fair well with the natives either- seen in the beginning peeping at nude women taking mud bath and getting caught. He also has a nagging native woman he had an invalid child with. And the thought of the existence of this child weighs in his conscience like a brick. His misplaced valor to protect three virginal sisters is always overshadowed by the overhanging threat of a mythical bandit named Vicuña Porto who is notorious for raping and pillaging.

After physically threatening Ventura over de Luenga, Zama is demoted and moved out of his semi-opulent living quarters to a squalor with rotting walls, just outskirts of a city. At the governor's insistence and a promise of recommendation letter to the Crown, he delivers a scathing review of a book written by a well-meaning, trusting young civil servant (the governor can't stand the thought of the young man wrote the book while on the job). But no matter how many favors, how many people he fucks over, Zama realizes that he won't be leaving the backwater town any time soon.

Fallen out of favor and aging, Zama reinvents himself as a guide to the band of soldiers in the late stages of colonization. As they advance inland, they are terrorized by the red body paint natives who populate the land. Fighting with the elements and among themselves (one of the soldiers claims to be the elusive Vicuña- is he really? Does it even matter?), Zama and the men get completely lost in the strange land.

There have been countless other films about the white men's delusion of grandeur- Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now! easily come to mind. With Zama, along with lyrical Jauja few years back, directed by fellow Argentine Lisandro Alonso, Martel captures the existentialist angst in the age of colonialism/ad infinitum in Latin America with astonishing efficiency and grace. Shooting digital for the first time, Martel and her Portuguese DP Rui Poças (Tabu, The Ornithologist, To Die Like a Man), create lush, bright palates that are intoxicating and hallucinatory.

Martel's mastery of the cinema medium as sensory medium first and foremost is nothing short of brilliant. She subjects us to painterly framing and exceptional sound design in every scene. Those of you who followed her trajectory closely through La Cienaga, Holy Girl and Headless Woman and have been admiring her artistry will be richly rewarded here - a carefully measured framing where people's faces are just off the frame, shallow depth of field, soft focus, the full use of background/foreground and the use of dialog fading in and out with internal monologue thrown in, just to name a few.

She also uses the Shepard Tone whenever there is a dramatic moment for Zama. The tone is an illusory aural phenomenon that creates continuously swelling sound which builds tension and suspense. All these are very simple methods and not radical experiments at all, but it's Martel's simple approach that makes everything so fresh and radical. As you watch Zama, you can't help but feeling that you are watching a true cinematic masterpiece.

Finding the Latin American identity, as European settlers and their offspring, has been the continuous source for great literature over 300 years. Throw in the idea of class, masculinity, racism, sense of belonging, you get a very complex picture of what makes up the theme of Zama.

As usual, in Martel's hands, what seems to be an extremely messy affair at first, the sense of cohesiveness emerges from the chaos, then the sense of warm comfort wraps around the whole experience. Even though Zama is a lost character who goes through traumatic experiences, there is sense of catharsis that is reached in the last moments of the film. That he finally found home, that he reached his el dorado, imagined or otherwise. Zama is a utterly brilliant film. See it on the big screen if you can.

After two soldout screenings, NYFF decided to add the third screening of Zama on the last day of the festival, 10/15. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Glimpse of the Life of a Modern Woman in Kinshasa

Félicité (2017) - Gomis
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Senegalese-French director Alain Gomis's Félicité is a great patchwork of elements that are full of contradictions and contrasts. And it's beautiful, energetic and refreshing. It's about a singer in an outdoor bar, also a single mom, played by enigmatic Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, trying to survive day-to-day life in Kinsasha, Democratic Republic of Congo. Strong willed and free spirited, she is a modern woman who doesn't need a man by her side. But life throws curve balls her when least expected and keeps her on her toes.

As with his previous films that took place in Dakar, Senegal, the sight and sound of bustling streets of Kinsasha becomes as much a character in the film.

First half of the film plays out like a docu-drama of the Dardenne Brothers- Samo, unresponsive teenage son of Félicité ends up in a hospital with a broken leg, after a motorcycle accident. Running against time, Félicité frantically runs across town to gather money for her son's operation by any means necessary. It means involving police to people who owe her money, swallowing her pride and asking her ex and family members for help and going door-to-door in super rich neighborhood and begging for money and make a scene.

The latter part of the film, the tempo changes dramatically and things slow down significantly. And it concerns Félicité's on/off romance with Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a local drunkard and blowhard with a great heart. It's the budding formation of modern family in Kinshasa. Contrasting the frenetic first half, the second half is full of laughter, hope and optimism.

Félicité is a melding of many conflicting elements. There are documentary like naturalism (thanks to handheld cinematography of a veteran DP, Celine Bozon, sister of director Serge Bozon) mixed in with recurring beautiful dream sequence in the woods in near darkness. There is local music (featuring the Kasai Allstars) rubbing shoulders with Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra playing classical pieces by Arvo Pärt. Félicité's strong willed, modern woman meets Tabu's womanizer and drunkard, accept each other and continue their amicable relationship.

It's the music that is at the heart of the film. Sang by earthy, smoky voiced Muambuyi, the lead singer of the Kasai Allstars, Mputu's Félicité comes to life whenever she's on stage. The "Congotronics" is an infectious, eclectic music that represents many different ethnic groups that consist the region. Arvo Pärt's somber music fills in for somber moments but it fits surprisingly well in the film.

The running joke that takes up much of the screen time is Tabu's epic struggle with Félicité's dying fridge. It's an impetus for their budding romance and also provides glimpse of the earthly concerns of Kinsasha's everyday life, as Tabu scans the bustling outdoor market for spare parts - the dirt road, pan handlers, dancing traffic signal cop, pick pockets, etc. It's a dizzing display of what it's like living in such a place and also a testament of human resilience.

Mputu ‘s broad, beautiful face with her steely gaze is the bedrock of the film. Even when things get dire, the film never succumbs to cheap sentimentalism. Papi Mpaka’s naturalistic performance also helps the cause.

Félicité is not another downbeat film about Africa steeped in miserablist tendencies. Gomis and company don't lose the sight of happiness in the daily lives of its ordinary citizens. There is much humanism and culture and joy to be had in Félicité and I am grateful for it.