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 Korean set family drama with all Korean cast. The director of films that prodded the traditional notion of family, such as Nobody Knows, Like Father Like Son, After the Storm and Shoplifters, continues with Broker, about a heartfelt 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 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 and also by Sanghyeon (Song Kangho) and Dongsoo (Gang Dongwon) who was 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, they make a makeshift family, traveling all over southern part of Korea to meet possible adopters.

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 abortion 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 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 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.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Family Road Trip

Hit the Road (2021) - Panahi Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road A family, mom (Pantea Panahiha), dad (Hasan Majuni), older son (Amin Simia), younger son (Rayan Sarlak) and sick dog are on the road in a borrowed SUV, in a picturesque Iranian countryside. Yet this is not a joyous family vacation. Something is up. Mom is overly paranoid thinking that they are being followed. Dad with one leg in a cast changes the phone's SIM card every so often. They do so while dealing with their hyperactive 8 year-old son who is just a bundle of energy and joy. The older son, whose been driving, rarely says a word. He is moody as he chastizes his doddering mom that he is not a child anymore.

It turns out that they are going to the border to see the older son off, as he is entangled in something the Iranian State deemed as unlawful. And the parents have been telling the younger son that his brother is going abroad to get married - a not-so-convincing lie that might be adding to his hyperactive state. On their journey, they meet people, talk to each other and share some magical moments together.

Panah Panahi, the son a famed Iranian filmmaker and democracy activist, Jafar Panahi, who was just sentensed 6 years in jail for criticizing the theocratic Iranian regime, makes a beautiful film here in the tradition of 'moving pictures', that usually take place in a car, of Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) and his dad (This is Not a Film, Taxi) that emphasizes time passing and fleeting human life on earth. Hit the Road boasts perhaps the most memorable child acting in recent memory- by Sarlak as an adorable rascal. His joyful presence peaks out over the overall somber tone of the film that hangs like low lying clouds. His joy is infectious. It also features gorgeous rural Iranian vistas, humor, magical realism (relating to 2001: Space Odyssey) and poetry. It's a short, life affirming film that lingers long after watching.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Representation and Survival

Nope (2022) - Peele Nope With his third feature, adroitly titled genre mashup, Nope, Jordan Peele is fast becoming the new original voice in American cinema dominated by sequels and franchises. And using the power of cinema - visual (under)represenation in more ways than one, he incapsulates historical, institutional injustices. It also counters the industry which preaches the most liberal tendencies, but seldom practices, especially in casting. With wit and humor, Peele is obliterating the notion that a message film, a Black message film to be precise, has to be always literal. The 90's Spike Lees of the world don't have the same appeal to the tik tok, BLM generation of now.

The Haywoods owns a California horse ranch, which has been supplying horses for Hollywood productions and commercial shoots for decades. After the old Otis Haywood (Keith David) dies in a freak accident (hit by random debris raining down from the sky - happens to be an old Indian Head penny), the less sociable Jr, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) reluctantly takes over the business with his small time LA schmoozer sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). It would be hard to give up and sell all the beautiful horses and move on. There is a pride involved as a black owned business which is woven into the birth of cinema - the unnamed black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge's short moving picture of Man Riding a Horse in the early days of cinema was a fictional Haywood, an ancestor to OJ and Emerald.

There is another thread that Peele starts the movie with: Gordy's Home, a cheesy 90s sitcom featuring a chimp named Gordy. Things went horribly wrong when Gordy went on a killing spree on set and young Asian American co-star Ricky 'Jupe' Park (Steven Yeun) was spared. It was the friendly gesture, a fist bump, that saved the young Ricky. Now Ricky runs a UFO themed Western show near the Haywood ranch which supplies it with horses.

After some weird happenings - electronics, phones and power cutting on and off randomly around their ranch, OJ and Emerald suspect that there is an alien entity hiding in the static cloud nearby mountain range. They enroll the help of a nerdy CCTV installer, Angel (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott) who's armed with a handcranked camera (to be immune to electrical storms), to record the Alien sighting and go 'Oprah' with it.

Nope is actually very much like a Spike Lee joint, packed to the brim with ideas and messages, but in a simple, breatheable, cinematic symbolist way. It has little to do with character development or backstory or the classic structure. Things go haywire with unexpected twists and turns. Its references range from Roy Rogers, Close Encounters, Phenomena, 90s TV sitcoms, reality TV, tabloids, even to Akira, not to mention all the other clever pop culture references. It speaks volumes about the notions of the untamed west, nostalgia, colonization, captivity and spectacle. And the gaze: one of the many brilliant moments comes in when OJ understands not to look at the predator in the eye, like many traffic stops POC faces everyday. Loved the unconventional design of the entity as well as hilarious use of the air balloon modeled on Steven Yeun as a weapon. There are many more details I am forgetting to mention here. Engaging, playful and original, Nope is one of the best films of 2022.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Old Love Never Goes Away

Both Sides of the Blade (2022) - Denis Both Sides of the Blade Shot during the pandemic, with her frequent collaborators, Claire Denis's moody chamber piece, Both Sides of the Blade, might be seen too wordy and conventional for the die-hard Denis acolytes who prefer her blissful visual filmmaking with colors and textures. But rest easy, because the film is nothing but. It contains enough visual/aural power and beauty, combined with blistering performances by Juliette Binoche and Vicent Lindon. It's a damn near masterpiece in my book.

Sara (Juliette Binoche) is a radio DJ, wading through the news the world in turmoil in between playing music. With people wearing masks in public places and on the streets places the film firmly in the now. She is with Jean (Vincent Lindon), a former rugby player and an ex-con, trying to rebuild his life. They are very much in love. They have a history together and that history involves François (Grégoire Colin), Sara's former lover, who resurfaces in their lives, shattering their relatively tranquil existence.

It is implied that something went down, Jean took the rap and went to jail and François disappeared. Sara chose Jean, stuck with him and supporting him financially while he is trying to get his life on track. He has a teenage son with his ex, whom he left for Sara and a doddering mom (played by Bulle Ogier) who has the custody of his son.

The mere mention of François brings back a tidal wave of emotions in Sara. Jean politely asks her if it's okay for her to see him and François work together again in a sport recruiting service venture. She, hoping to get a glimpse of her former lover and reignite their passion, says, "do what you think is best for you." It's the physical reaction of Sara that's telling. She trembles in private, thinking of her former love. Even mentioning his name takes her breath away.

While Jean constantly is absent to deal with his troubled son and with business, Sara and François slowly reconnect. She resists the temptation at first. Jean accuses of her cheating on him and they have emotionally charged arguments. This is not going to end well.

Colin, who has been playing objects of desires in Denis's films over the years, is appropriately charismatic. His sharp features may have dulled over the years, but his intense stares still holds enormous power and mystery. Does he really want Sara back? Or is he there to destroy Sara and Jean's happy lives as revenge?

Co-written by Christine Angot (Let the Sunshine In), Both Sides of the Blade treads somewhere Denis has not explored before, a domestic chamber piece mainly taking place indoors. It's a boiling teakettle that never spills over unlike the kitchen fire that is Bastards, nor nice cup of tea that is Friday Nights (both with Lindon, by the way). Angot seems to be the anchor for Denis to put her feet firmly on the ground, giving Claire Denis films more realistic depiction of life, before the esteemed director again goes off to do a bigger, higher concept, English language productions like High Life and Stars at Noon. But by no means Both Sides is lesser Denis. Both Binoche and Lindon are on top of their games. Strong, mature yet vulnerable - regular people buckling under the pressure of so called modern life, which seems to be going crazier by the minute. Stuart Staples (of the Tindersticks)'s moody score permeates every scene and keep the tensions high and Eric Gautier's tight lensing adds to the emotional state of these tragic characters embroiled in love triangle.

It's also great to see all the familiar Denis collaborators' faces in bit parts - Lola Creton (Bastards) turns up as a wordless girlfriend of François who shoots dirty looks at Binoche, Alice Houri (Nette and Boni) as a kindhearted bureaucrat and Mati Diop (35 Shots of Rum) as a family friend of Jean's mom.

Both Sides of the Blades might be the few happier results (at least for cinephiles) the Covid-19 pandemic has produced and I am glad for it.

Both Sides of the Blade opens in theaters on 7/8 via IFC Films.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Same Passion

Fire of Love (2022) - Dosa Fire of Love Facing volcanos and their sudden eruptions can cause anyone into a deep existential crisis – is anything in life ever stable? What is human existence compared to the awesome power and magnitude of these cataclysimic natural events?

The first time I’ve seen the footage of mesmeric volcanic eruptions with unnaturally glowing bright red lava, captured by The Kraffts, Katia and Maurice, the famed volcanologist couple, was in Werner Herzog’s Fireball. Using long lenses with a 16mm camera, the Kraffts captured some of the most awe-inspiring, iconic volcanic eruptions ever recorded on film. Through that Herzog’s film, I learned that they lost their lives in 1991 when they were on the path of a deadly pyroclastic flow after the eruption of Mt. Unzen near Nagasaki, Japan.

Filmmaker Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen), sifting through tons of film and TV footage, photos and books the volcanologist couple left behind, crafts a poignant narrative about two people who lived and died together doing what they loved. Fire of Love starts with the last known footage of Katia and Maurice together, at the foot of Mt. Unzen, the day before their death. Then it retraces back to how they met in Alsace region in Strasbourg, France.

Growing up in post-WWII with all the aftermath of destruction, both Katia and Maurice leaned toward nature early on, visiting volcanos of Italy –the Mts. Etna and Stromboli respectively. Both were drawn to volcanos and its awesome power. After their first meeting in 1966 and attending anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of 1968, they decided to dedicate their lives to studying volcanos, “because we were disappointed with humanity. And since a volcano is greater than man, we felt this is what we need. Something beyond human understanding.” Maurice was the wanderer with his film camera, trying to capture everything and Katia, sharing the same passion, trying not to lose sight of him. Not that they had a deathwish, both preferred intense and short life rather than long and monotonous one.

So, they married in 1970 and the Geologist/Geochemist volcanologist couple was formed. They traveled everywhere volcanic eruptions were about to happen through the network of fellow scientists and ran straight to the calderas to study and archive, with Maurice’s trusty Arri SR 16mm camera and Katia’s still cameras. For them, studying volcanos is the science of observation. The closer you get, the more you see. And the images they captured were out of this world. And we see plenty of jaw-dropping images in Fire of Love, all culled from the Krafft archive- hundreds of film rolls. Their ‘freelance’ profession took them to Italy, Congo, Iceland, Indonesia, Washington State, Colombia, Japan… to all continents except Antarctica.

Since most of the footage was shot on film without accompanying sound recorder, Dosa and her team do a fantastic job in sound design – explosions, bubbling lava, lava flows, rocks falling, gaseous rolling clouds. And lyrical stop-motion animation illustrates the couple’s early encounters as well as many cataclysmic eruptions throughout human history.

The film is narrated by filmmaker/artist Miranda July, who came onboard after seeing Dosa’s first cut and deeply moved by what she saw: their passion, curiosity, and sense of awe toward nature- all things she as an artist could relate to. Her voice quivers at times as she is choked with emotions. July’s vulnerable delivery adds greatly to the love story narrative.

Volcanic eruptions were everything for them: as Katia describes as ‘feeling of being nothing’ in front of them. To keep chasing volcanos to the far sides of the world, they had to keep making appearances on TV, write books and give interviews and lectures. They definitely took advantage of being the only volcanologist couple in the world in their matching Jacques Cousteau-style red beanies.

The relatively safe ‘red’ volcanos that gave them otherworldly images of lava spewing and flowing gave way to studying more dangerous and unpredictable ‘grey’ volcanos in their later years, which ultimately killed them.

They knew the danger of these unpredictable, deadly eruptions. It was Nevado del Ruiz eruptions in Colombia in 1985 that killed estimated 25,000 that the Kraffts questioned their purpose in life. And they worked hard to create a warning system for evacuations which they are in place across the world now.

It is hard to find someone to spend our lives with, let alone to find one who shares the same passion. Armed with explosive materials accompanied by lyrical collages, Dosa accentuates the story of two lovers who shared the same passion and lived and died together. Fire of Love is an ultimate love story for the ages, presented in a spectacular manner. See it on big screen. Fire of Love is distributed by NatGeo, opens in theaters in NY and LA and national rollout to follow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Non Communicative

Happy End (2017) - Haneke Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 7.03.50 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 7.03.01 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 7.02.26 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 7.01.17 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 6.59.06 AMScreen Shot 2022-06-22 at 6.56.41 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-22 at 7.05.07 AM Unlike its ironic title in Michael Haneke's searing portrayal of bourgeois French family, no one is quite happy with their lives. An aging patriarch of the house Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is quietly suicidal with his failing body and early Alzheimer’s. His daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), the head of the family construction business, is facing a lawsuit by a worker involved in an accident at one of the construction sites, which is shown in CCTV camera in the beginning of the film, and her grown up son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is not good at anything and not ambitious enough for her despite all the pestering. His son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a surgeon, is having an illicit sexual affair with a musician while neglecting his second wife and a newborn baby. Then there is Eve (Fantine Harduin), a thirteen-year-old girl from Thomas's first marriage. She comes to live with the Laurents after her mother is hospitalized for poisoning (Eve secretly poisoned her mother and recorded the process on her phone for amusement).

New technologies always figure into Haneke's films and this time around, it's smart phones and the internet. Eve's incessant YouTube watching of very mean boys doing evil things and Thomas's explicit sexting with his mistress which Eve has no problem excessing. The smartphone video footage bookends the film.

Even though everyone's living under the same roof, they are all living their separate, secretive lives and no one's talking to each other about anything, least of all, their feelings. When they try, like Anne confronts Pierre and Thomas does Eve, they miserably fail. The old Laurent drives out of the house in the middle of the night and crashes his car intentionally into a pole with the full intention of killing himself but ends up with a broken ankle and bruises and ends up in a wheelchair. Everyone automatically accepts that the old man is losing his marbles slowly. In this well-mannered 1st world society, everyone is too polite to air their grievances or their problems out loud. They'd rather suffer internally. No dramatics, no heart-to-heart, no sentimentality. It is funny then, that Laurent ends up confiding his dilemma to his old barber in an attempt to get him a gun so he can commit suicide. The horrified barber refuses. OK OK, see you next time. And it's the 1st world/third world, haves/and have-nots dichotomy Haneke utilizes so skillfully: Laurent's long-time caretakers are a Muslim couple. We don't know anything about them other than their very servile attitudes. We don't know if they had a young daughter until she gets mauled by the family German Shepherd.

Haneke also uses wordless scenes in wide shots to demonstrate what's lost in translation. Pierre goes to an apartment building where supposedly the victim of the construction accident lives. He is there probably to apologize. But he only gets shit kicked out of him. A group of African immigrants make appearances in two different scenes: one with the old Laurent confronting them in his wheelchair on the street, seemingly bargaining them with his wristwatch for killing him off while a white onlooker mistaking them for thugs harassing an old man. Later, the same group of people show up on Laurent's birthday brought on by Pierre, intentionally trying to make a scene, introducing them to the party guest, as he awkwardly attempts to humanize them. The Laurents are the definition of self-righteous white liberals.

It falls on the old Laurent and Eve to connect over their killing tendencies. He confesses that he suffocated his aging wife in a mercy killing and Eve semi-confesses that she once poisoned her classmate in the camp. In a way, Happy End is a sequel or extension to Haneke's extremely affecting Amour and an affirmation of his advocation for having a choice to end life. Acting is superb all around. Great to see Haneke utilizing the great Franz Rogowski and his physicality here. Rogowski's acrobatic karaoke scene is that of end dancing scene in Beau Travail with Denis Lavant. Good to see Toby Jones as Anne's British love interest as well. But it's the late Trintignant who steals the show. His scene with young Harduin is so good. Bleak in the assessment of our present society which is grooming a generation that lacks empathy, Happy End is in line with such great Haneke films as Code Unknown and Benny's Video and just as strong.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Critique of Critical Critique

Le Jeune Karl Marx (2017) - Peck Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 12.55.41 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 12.57.04 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.01.06 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.02.35 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.28.49 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.05.44 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.07.04 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.08.40 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.08.08 PM Screen Shot 2022-06-21 at 1.06.03 PM It amazes me that people still use 'commie' as a slur. That after all these years, the idea of common ownership, brotherhood among all mankind and the utopia once touted by as far back as Greek philosophers are hijacked by the powers that be and still being used as a fearmongering, scare tactic. That they don't differentiate it with state capitalism of Russia and many other who followed suit after WWII. Director Raoul Peck with The Young Karl Marx, trying to show the noble intent of a young German thinker in the start of his career as a political thinker and activist, along with his friend Fredrich Engels. The result is a soul stirring work that is emblematic of all other Peck's films - direct, clear, devoid of cheap sentimentality and emotional crescendo often associated with historical biographies.

The film starts out with illustrating the serfdom and the idea of commodity and ownership - peasants gathering fallen tree branches in the woods for fire, while being careful not to break them off from the living tree, were mercilessly raided by weapons wielding raiders who treat them all equally as thieves. This is what Marx witnessed as a child. The background of the film is the 1840s, in the wake of Industrial Revolution in England. And the working class is realizing that they are living in two class system - Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, and that their living conditions are not so different from feudalist system.

Young Marx (August Diehl), persecuted by his activities and writing, flees Germany, first to Paris where Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet), a much-respected political theorist and other prominent thinkers were at the time. Paris is also where he met and married his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) who is from a noble family hailing from Trier, a city near Luxembourg. He also befriends with Engels (Stefan Konarske), a 26-year-old son of a rich German textile mills owner in London. Conflicted by how wealthy industrialists, including his father, treat their workers, Engels rebels against his father and marries an Irish textile worker, Mary (Hannah Steele). Marx finds in Engels his intellectual equal and rabble-rousing partner. The two join The League of the Just, an elder statemen group of communists, a predecessor to Marx and Engels' the Communist League.

Struggling with poverty and hounded by police, Marx leads a life of a constant state of exile (Germany, France, Belgium, and England), often supported and encouraged by Engels to keep going. Where everyone's rhetoric not being supported by meaningful action - that of Proudhon, Weitling and Ruge, faltered and fizzled out, the young Marx and Engels writing and theories, based on the lived experience of the proletariat paved the way for the violent struggle, 1848 Revolution, then Russian Revolution and the concept of the trade unions, workers solidarity and eventually permanent revolution.

Peck, as always, the case, brings much humanity out of the political history and figures with great compassion and urgency. The period details are impeccably replicated and acting, from Diehl, Konarske and Krieps and the supporting cast, solid. The Young Karl Marx is not sensationalized in any way. It's a total antidote to throw in someone's face who is accusing you of being a commie, just because you don't subscribe to the capitalist way of thinking. Maybe the film is too even tempered, and that might be the reason the film wasn't widely seen, but it deserves some serious attention while our world is burning more ways than one right now.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Censorship

Ahed's Knee (2021) - Lapid Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 10.08.09 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 10.07.05 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 10.04.25 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 10.01.06 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 9.37.21 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-17 at 9.45.15 AM Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid's previous film, Synonyms examined national identity abroad in the background of the country's overly nationalistic and militaristic tendencies in the eyes of a young man. It was a stinging rebuke of über militarism that he grew up with and rejected. Lapid told me that in order to get a funding from the Ministry of Culture, he had to pitch it like it's a patriotic film about PTSD. And just like Synonyms, Ahed's Knee is a blunt film that doesn't shy away from criticizing the ministry's propagandistic tendencies, but it goes further and makes it the subject and confronts it head on. The title refers to the 2017 incident which went viral on the web where Ahed Tamimi, a young Palestinian girl who is shown slapping Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against the expansion of Israeli settlement in her hometown of Nabi Salih in the West Bank. A high ranking Israeli government official had said that the soldiers should've shot her knee cap off to shut her up.

Ahed's Knee concerns an aging filmmaker Y (Avshalom Pollak) casting for a project about Tamimi in Tel Aviv. He flies to a small desert town to show his previous film, arranged by a deputy director of the local library, Yahalom (Nur Fibak). She is young, well educated, ambitious liberal who seems to understand controversial artists like Y. But she is still an employee of the ministry which censors anything that is slightly critical of its government. There is a questionaire that Y has to fill out to get paid, Yahalom informs Y.

Lapid, again, draws it from his own experience. Ahed's Knee is just as autobiographical as Synonyms. Unsmiling, cynical Y who wants to expose the "ugliest, racist government" and its apatheid state is obviously drawn from himself. Y is also is a master storyteller. He breathlessly tells his experience as a young soldier stationed in Lebanon during the Israeli Occupation in the 80s to Yahalom in the desert against the setting sun, exposing lies their superiors tell to motivate young impressionable soldiers. With flashy visuals and constantly moving handheld cameras, Ahed's Knee has the same manic energy as Synonyms.

It culminates to Y making Yahalom admitting that there is strong censorship within the art community in Israel, and deep down she knows it is wrong. Ahed's Knee directly confronts the well-intentioned liberals and criticises for their sheepishness and passivity. It's an angry film and shows its director's resourcefulness in saying what he has to say in the strongest terms (in the guise of making a fiction) while getting away from the grips of the censors while making a film within the country.

Unflinching and direct in its message with kinetic visuals and breathless pacing, Ahed's Knee is another strong film from a talented filmmaker with strong point of view.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Compulsion/Stagnation

A Novelist's Film (2022) - Hong Screen Shot 2022-06-12 at 6.16.28 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-12 at 6.27.12 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-12 at 6.43.19 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-12 at 6.50.26 AM Screen Shot 2022-06-12 at 6.54.47 AM In Hong's latest, A Novelist's Film, the conversations revolve around a period of creative stagnation among artists. And it unfolds how chance meetings could break such a dry spell and give everyone involved a new direction. Junhee (Lee Hae-young of In Front of Your Face), a novelist in her slump, visits her old writer friend who fled Seoul and set up a bookshop in the suburb. She is salty about her friend's sudden disappearance and not contacting her. But they make up and Junhee is dropped off to a tall building nearby, which seems to be a local attraction, equiped with an observation deck where one can see the stretches of the Han River and nearby park. There she meets a film director Park (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his wife. Awkward pleasantries suggest that they have some histories together. Looking down at the river park, they decide to drive down to the park to have a walk. In the park, it is revealed that their project, an adaptation of Junhee's book, fell apart. Then they run into an actress Gilsoo (Kim Min-hee) who is contemplating quitting her profession. Park laments about the loss of a talent and wasted potential and Junhee behemently defends Gilsoo's decision about her career. After the director and his wife leave embarrassed, the novelist and the actress hit it off. With Gilsoo's film school student nephew joining in, they concoct a short film project that Junhee wants to make, if Gilsoo and her artist husband agree to be in it.

By another chance, Gilsoo takes Junhee to her friend who is in need of help. Her friend turns out to be the bookshop owner. There, in the small corner of the bookshop, 5 people are crammed in to talk and drink copious amount of makgeoli (Korean rice wine). Junhee stopped writing because she found her words felt like exaggerating, as if she had to find meaning in each word she writes.

So goes another meta autofiction of Hong as he reveals sliver of his filmmaking process - 'compulsion' to make films in the director's earlier days are gone, giving way to stagnation, brought on by success, relative comfort and getting old. Story isn't as important. It can be as simple as something from the real life. Inspirations and directions can't be forced and life provides them in unexpected ways. But as the director has always done by reflecting life with actors and script, he gives it a distance from himself, and by not putting any extra weight of what it all means. It doesn't have to be a documentary to be 'truthful', nor needs to be metaphoric and imbued with 'meaning'.

With his consistent output, Hong's metaverse has become as comfortable as home for his fans. Watching his films is like meeting and conversing with an old friend now - they know you, you know them. But also, you start noticing small things, a delicate story within a story and small nuances in characters that you find pleasurable. I find the bookshop owner's cutting all her ties in Seoul and 'start over' in anonimity in some other town story an added bonus. The beginning of the film where we hear off screen her berating her younger employee contrasts with Gilsoo's description of her as a good natured woman, gives more complex pictures of the character. The younger employee, played by Introduction's Park Mi-so, who played a young student lover, reveals that she is (despite her looks) 33, indicating that all these characters are grownups and no one can be told about what they need to be doing with their lives (and by extention Hong's both artistical and his private life). There is a little girl staring through the restaurant's window while Gilsoo and Junhee eat lunch. Maybe she is staring at Gilsoo because she is a famous actress. Gilsoo excuses herself and goes out to talk to the little girl. We don't hear it, but she talks to the girl a long while, all captured in one take. Loved the poet (Ki Joo-bong) not remembering an unwelcomed story he wanted to tell while drunk. These are all delicious.

A Novelist's film ends with Gilsoo watching the novelist's film. The film within a film, just like the rest of the film shot in high contrast black and white, most of the time Gilsoo looking directly at the camera, thus breaking the forth wall. The last spurts of color at the end gives a jolt, as if it is revealed that we are watching something real, private, truth.

Prolific as ever, Hong's not stagnating for sure. But I guess with the pandemic it crossed his mind. I hope his compulsion never stops.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Altitude Sickness

El Gran Movimiento (2021) - Russo Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled La Paz, Bolivia's capital, sitting on the high plains of the Andés is a bustling city and home of close to 1 million souls. With electric wires and cable cars criss-crossing the ultra-modern glass skyscrapers against rugged natural vistas, the city spells out the rapid progress of the global economy in the ancient colonial capital where agriculture, mining, human labor are still dominant force. Director Kiro Russo conveys this imbalance in strong visual terms without employing too many words in the beginning of his 16mm shot beautiful film, El Gran Movimiento.

The film starts with a miner's street demonstration in the city center. They lost their jobs and came to voice their opinion in the capital. Elder (Julio César Ticona) and two other miners walked 7 days to get to La Paz. Elder seems to be suffering from some mysterious illness. Others chime in about his conditions, that he might be suffering from altitude sickness or might have miner's lungs. Doctors say it's more psychological.

In the parallel storyline, there is Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a hooded vagrant who lives in the wilderness on the rim of city. He occasionally comes down to the city and serves as a mystic healer and converses with the locals. Elder and Max's storyline converge, thanks to Mama Pancha (Francisa Arce de Aro), an old street bendor who knows everyone and seems to be everyone's godmother.

The narrative here is decidedly loose. Russo's almost documentary style suits the film as he comments on the modern society's illness, tying it with La Paz's stunning geography - the fact the city is sitting on the Amazon basin (the highest elevation by the largest human settlement at 12000 feet) surrounded by towering natural peaks, affording its otherworldly atmosphere and contrast.

El Gran Movimiento culminates to Max giving Elder some sort of an elaborate, spiritual exorcism and we witness Elder’s pale body slowly gaining its color back and its modern illness leaving his body.

It might be too inelegant and inadequate assessment to see Pancha and Max as stand-ins for the universal guardian and healer, as film doesn't really come across as a typical, steeped in traditional, psychedelic, old versus new, didactic lesson. Russo lets his visuals to do the talking - the white dog running down the hills at night, Elder having a panic episode in the street among crowds, mangled electric/telephone wires, meat grinder image preceded by mining operation... culminating to rapid-cut images all jumbled together climax serving as a mirror to complex global society we live in.

But not everything is doom and gloom. There's a memorable, non-sequitur choreographed dance sequence at night by the locals. It comes completely out of nowhere and breaks the film’s otherwise immersive documentary feel. Emma Goldman once famously said, “If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution”. And it adds to the message of the collective power of everyday people. Russo seems to know all the tricks of narrative filmmaking and goes against it intentionally and having fun with it while doing it. El Gran Movimiento is a topical film with strong visuals as well as boundary pushing cinematic exercise that is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.