Tuesday, August 30, 2022

American Family Portrait, Textured

The Cathedral (2021) - D'Ambrose The Cathedral Ricky D'Ambrose, a micro-budget indie filmmaker whose initial series of shorts gained acclaim on the international festival circuit -- including Berlinale and New Directors/New Films -- made his feature-length film debut with Notes on an Appearance in 2017.

The Cathedral, his astute, semi-autobiographical follow up, premiered at Venice last year, then screened at Sundance earlier this year. The film paints a picture of an American family and its two decades of slow dissolution, with the culturally and politically volatile climate of the 80s and 90s in the U.S. as a backdrop, observed through the eyes of young Jesse Damrosch. It showcases the same minimalistic approach to filmmaking that D'Ambrose embraced while making shorts over the years: static shots, slow zoom-ins, and fragmented images, consisting of stills, old TV commercials, and archival news footage, with "narration" provided by voice-overs and diegetic sound.

Jesse Damrosch recounts how his parents, Richard (Brian d'Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), met, and then dramatizes how their uneasy union unraveled over time, partly due to Richard's volatile relationship with Lydia's family, the Orkin's. Their story is just like many other middle-class, suburban American families: money problems, death in the family, resentment and gossip, the divorce of one's parents and growing apart. We see birthday celebrations, the communion, funerals, family dynamics -- stepparents and extended families bickering over taking care of aging parents, and so forth -- all dryly narrated by an anonymous female voice.

The film also comments on changing times. Richard inherits a printing business from his dad, then struggling with the emergence of digital technology.

Time swiftly passes, jumping from the Reagan through the Clinton and Bush eras, covering the AIDS crisis, scandals, natural and man-made disasters, wars, and terrorism, all witnessed and heard by Jesse, a clear-eyed chap who's often seen staring yonder in various ages. D'Ambrose omits most of his own personal experiences. So there are no scenes of teenage rebellion, no mention of any friends, no love interests, no time of joy or disappointments.

In a way, the film is both autobiographical and not at the same time. It's like he is at the center of it all but also the fly on the wall. It acknowledges the political and cultural climate D'Ambrose (and by proxy, Jesse) and his generation are subjected to, without any prejudice or judgment.

What we are left with, are lingering small details, like the patterns on old furniture upholstery or how the light hit on the parts of his father's apartment or the metal ticking sound of an old radiator.

D'Ambrose's economical aesthetics and sensibilities have a lot in common with contemporary indie filmmakers across the globe. I see resemblance in the works of Dan Sallitt, Matìas Piñeiros, Bas Devos, and Ramon and Silvan Zürcher. His use of interior spaces in his chamber pieces is very much reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's.

Yet, with his even-keeled observations and dense layering of world events mixing with his own childhood memories, The Cathedral feels very much universal and personal at the same time, as it plays out like an emotionally unencumbered version of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, akin to Terence Davies' work.

The Cathedral establishes D'Ambrose as one of the major American voices in indie cinema, in tune with other contemporary filmmakers in the global indie scene embracing minimalist aesthetics with a keen observational eye on the world we live in. I welcome it.

The films opens on September 2, 2022 for one week engagement at Film at Lincoln Center in New York, then begins streaming exclusively via Mubi.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Baby Box

Broker (2022) - Kore-eda Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 10.54.41 AM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 1.15.43 PM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 12.08.47 PM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 11.42.31 AM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 12.15.51 PM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 12.40.56 PM Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 1.17.50 PM Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda's foray into working internationally continues with Broker, a Korea set family drama with all Korean cast.
As the director of many films that prodded the traditional notion of family, such as Nobody Knows, Like Father Like Son, After the Storm and Shoplifters, he continues with Broker, a heartfelt film about makeshift family, which feels like a grittier and edgier version of its predecessor, Shoplifters. It seems that the film is the culmination of Kore-eda's desire to work with Korean actors within the booming Korean film industry (produced by CJ Entertainment) despite not speaking the language. Broker is a beautifully written and acted film that has just as much emotional resonance as his many celebrated Japanese films.

It's a rainy night in Busan, where a young mother, Soyoung (Lee Jieun, aka IU, a K-pop superstar) abandoning her newborn baby in front of a church. There is a baby box at the entrance where a unwanted baby can be dropped annonymously. The hesitant mother drops the baby right in front of the box and runs away, not knowing she is watched by two law inforcement agents (Bae Doona and Lee Juyoung), who have been doing a sting operation on the suspected baby-selling, broker operation by the church workers. Also witnessing the drop off are Sanghyeon (Song Kangho) and Dongsoo (Gang Dongwon), looking at the monitor inside the Church. They find the note with the baby by Soonjin that she will come back to fetch him soon. No date or contact info. So starts Broker, an ensemble piece with superb acting from everybody involved. It becomes a road movie as Soojin comes back to claim the baby and gets involved in underground baby broker business with Sanghyeon and Dongsoo, as they try to find a suitable parents-to-be for the baby (at the highest price). Boys can pull in upwards of 10,000,000 won ($76,000) and girls only half that. With the baby and an orphan boy from the orphanage where Dongsoo grew up in-tow, they make a makeshift family, traveling all over southern part of Korea to meet possible adoptive parents.

These are all down and out characters whose lives have been nothing but rosy. Kore-eda draws sharply on their resentment and distrust in each other in the beginning, but slowly builds on their commonality and innate human decency. The biggest 'change of heart' moment belongs to Bae Doona's Soojin, a veteran police woman whose hatred of Soyoung, from "Why even have a baby, only to abandon it?" to understanding people's circumstances as to why the decision was made. It also turns out Soyoung is on the run because she accidentally killed the rich baby daddy who didn't want the baby.

In a polarized era where the issue of abortion rights is much politicized, Broker might be seen as naive by not putting emphasis on the issue. But it has some sharp criticism on our modern society putting blames soley on women and lack of men's involvement in raising one and our collective role in raising the neglected ones in general. In a very touching scene, the orphan boy who hid himself in Sanghyeon's old van to sneak out of the orphanage, asks Soyoung to give a prayer before they all go to sleep in a hotel room. So Soyoung thanks everyone for being born. We do not have a say in us being born. Our circumstances might be different. But we are all here so we might as well give thanks.

Song Kangho is wonderful as usual. He portrayal of Sanghyeon, a divorced man dreaming of his past, gives much humanity and subtle humor, very much resembling Lily Franky in Shoplifters. Bae Doona is also great as a cold hearted detective slowly realizing that criminals are not so different than the rest of us, that they are just trying to get by. We also get to see her eat a lot of junkfood in the car and being mean to her underling. The real acting revelation is Lee Jieun as a young mom. Her bitterness, her anxious stares tell thousands stories. Her looks convey both volatility and hidden tenderness.

I did not know that Baby Box was a thing. And that there is a black market for babies for chidless parents who don't want to go through legal huddles to adopt. And there are so many orphans who grow up dreaming of their mother returning to pick them up. All these nicely fit into Kore-eda universe of what consitutes a 'family'. Just like Shoplifters, everyone in Broker knows that they won't get a second chance at having a family. Everyone knows that good things will not last. What counts is the human connections made by this particular brokering and the extended parenting it created. That the kid will be all right.