Thursday, October 7, 2021

Body Memory

Memoria (2021) - Weerasethakul Memoria A long-awaited new feature film by Thai auteur Apichatpong Weersethakul, his first since Cemetery of Splendour in 2015, Memoria is a major departure from the rest of his filmography in many ways. It's the first feature shot outside his home country and not in his native language. The film takes place in Colombia and stars Tilda Swinton, along with Daniel Jimenéz Cacho (Zama), Jeanne Balibar and a large Colombian cast. The dialog is mostly in Spanish. And notably, not that sound wasn't important in his previous work, but the sonic-scape in this film takes the center stage and plays a pivotal role as a character of its own.

But as always with Weerastakul's other films, watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It's like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming. This film, for me, in a darkened theater, provides the best kind of film-watching experience. Let the film wash over you. It's a liberating feeling.

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is awakened in the middle of the night by a short, loud thud, a metallic bang that doesn't sound like anything she has ever heard before. Her friend Juan (Jimenéz Catcho), a professor of music at Bogota University, tells her that there has been no construction going on next door to the house where she is staying.

Deeply alarmed, she seeks out a doctor for an explanation. She tells her, 'Maybe it's the altitude of Bogota. Maybe it's stress. Sometimes it make your ear pop.' Jessica protests that it was not a mere 'pop.'

She meets with a sound engineer named Hérnan (Juan Pablo Urrego), a student of Juan, to replicate the sound that she heard. He offers examples of sound clips for her to hear. This amusing scene, where the sound engineer is trying to create what Jessica remembers in her head, is quite revealing and says much about the collaborative process that is filmmaking, and art in general.

All artists want to express themselves through their art, making the intangible tangible. And it is difficult to express things in your head to another person sometimes. Ironically for Jessica and Hérnan, they find something similar that already exists, in a movie sound-effects library, among many funny sound clip names like Short Punch to the Gut, etc. Hérnan can now just tweak that sound until it is closer to the sound Jessica heard that night.

Hérnan shows great interest in Jessica as she shops for a refrigerator unit for her orchids in the bustling Bogotá streets. Is he hitting on her? Or do they have some other connections? We don't exactly know why Jessica is there in Colombia or how long she has been there. We don't know her profession. There are skeletal threads about her life but nothing really pans out definitely. She is a mystery to us and to Colombians as the city of Bogota and the Colombian countryside are a mystery to her.

Weerasethakul toys with the idea of body memories, the trauma rippling through sound. A mechanical thud might sound like a mortar shell or bomb exploding or a gunshot to someone. It is illustrated in the middle of the busy Bogota street crosswalk - the same loud mechanical thud is heard and we see one man ducking and scampering away. Colombia has been experiencing relative peace and prosperity in recent years after decades of state- and narco-sponsored violence. But the trauma of the checkered national past is just underneath the surface and can be triggered easily. 

The remnants of the violent past have always been present in Weerasethakul's work, as the titular character in Uncle Boonmee talked about killing communists in his days in the army or soldiers waging war in their sleep in Cemetery of Splendour, to just name a few. With Memoria, he is mapping the ripples of violence more explicitly through sound and shows the universality of past trauma. In this way, the film is not all that different than what he always has shown in his films.

Things are getting jumbled up. In the beginning, it was Jessica's sister in the hospital, going in and out of consciousness, saying nonsensical things. Now, in normal conversations at a dinner party, it's Jessica who misremembers things. Who's dreaming who? And the metallic thud continues, disrupting the otherwise tranquil state of things.

Jessica travels to the jungle and encounters a man living alone in a remote area. He is scaling fish with an ancient tool. His name happens to be Hérnan (Elkin Díaz) and they spend long silences and long conversations together. Past is present and present is past; time is relative in their philosophical exchanges. Rain clouds pass by, bringing heavy rainfalls, drowning out all the other noises.

Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.

There’s been a lot of talk after Neon, the film’s distributor, with the blessings of the filmmaker and its executive producer (Swinton), announced that there will only be a theatrical distribution of Memoria and no streaming platform or DVD release. It will be a traveling roadshow from city to city, like the olden times,with one screening at a time for a week. I have very conflicting feelings about their strategy.

On the one hand, not offering streaming or home video seems extremely elitist and undemocratic for those who don’t live near the cities the film is going to travel. But, as one of the lucky few who has experienced the film in a theater, I have to concede that only way to experience this masterpiece is in a theater on a big screen with a good sound system.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Petite Maman (2021) - Sciamma Petite Maman You wouldn't have expected Céline Sciamma doing a miniscule scale project like Petite Maman after riding high on the international success of The Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But without big stars or a grand production, she is back to what she does best, directing an intimate story of growing up and getting unbelievable performances out of young actors. Clocking at astonishingly short 72 precise minutes, Petite Maman is a marvel of a movie in its storytelling, execution and acting. Sciamma is proving herself to be, once again, one of the best directors working today.

Gabrielle and Josephine Sanz, 8 year old twins who play Marion and Nelly give the most affecting performances by children, even by Sciamma standards, up there with Pauline Acquart in Water Lilies, Zoé Héran in Tomboy and Karidja Touré and entire cast of Girlhood, if you also count teenagers. 

The fairytale premise of Petite Maman is a very simple one: a young girl meets a child version of her mother and befriends her. In a very short period of time they get to understand each other and learn from one another. There is no Hollywood style hijinks or a slapstick comedy involved here. There are no special effects to speak of. With only a few characters, the time traveling film rolls with just a concise, plain old great storytelling from a child's point of view.

Petite Maman starts in a nursing home where Nelly is saying goodbye to its residents one by one. It is revealed that her grandmother has just passed away there. She regrets not saying goodbye to her. With her mom (Nina Mourisse) and her good-natured dad (Stéphane Varupenne), she goes to her grandma's house to clear out. It's an old house in the woods where mom grew up. Mom is sad, but she might have been that way for a while. And she disappears soon afterwards. 

While playing in the woods, Nelly sees a girl building a safe house made of tree branches alone in the middle of the woods. It's the safe house from mom's childhood that she told Nelly about. Also, the girl's name is Marion, same as her moms and they look strikingly similar. As the days progress and they get closer to each other, Nelly is convinced that Marion is her mom as a child. It becomes clear when Marion invites Nelly to her house. It is the same house but with all the stuff still in it. And Marion lives with her mother, who is Nelly's grandma who is young and very much alive. She accepts Nelly into her house as Marion's new friend.

Nelly finally reveals the big secret to young Marion. In a very poignant scene, they go back to the house in present time and Marion meets Nelly's dad, her future husband. With the days in the house coming to an end and the young Marion's surgery coming up (same genetic disorder as her mom), they decide to spend the last day together. 

Sciamma understands children's ability to absorb her surroundings and how much of those details affect them. She also knows the otherworldly wisdom they possess, sometimes seeing things much clearer and straightforward than most adults do. It is also reflected in the title of the film: a little mom. They might be mother and daughter, but they are also 8-year-old kids being kids. And Sciamma's there to capture that also.

As with always with her previous films, Sciamma has a gift working with child actors. Her ability to connect and getting affecting, naturalistic performances out of them have no parallels. I've never seen such affecting performances by a child/children since Jacques Doillon's Ponette. 

Guileless and astute in its observation of the childhood, Petite Maman is a fairytale without fringes and definitely one of the most touching films of the year.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Unanimous Goldmine

Neptune Frost (2021) - Uzeyman, Williams Neptune Frost The coltan mines on the hills of Burundi supply minerals that makes tantalum capacitors used in most of world's electronic devices. Multidisciplinary artist Saul Williams (Slam) along with Rwandan artist Anisa Uzeyman use the mines as a springboard to embark on an ambitious DIY Sci-fi musical, Neptune Frost. Expansive in theme - shedding light on the continuing exploitation of the raw materials and black bodies in the globalist economy, non-binary look at the current society in a continent riddled with anti-gay laws sowed by the American evangelical missionaries, the vast network of internet warriors against hostile authoritarian regimes, the film is an amalgamation of the Afrofuturists' utopian version of what's to come.

Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) works at a coltan mine, enduring harsh, inhumane treatment with fellow miners from armed military guards. When his brother Tekno is killed by the guards, the whole camp erupts in protests with the drumbeat and their chanting becomes songs: "Hack!" becomes their motto. Matalusa flees the camp and starts his journey into a commune, protected by an invisible barrier, called Digitalisa. It's a refuge for young hackers.

Intersex hacker Neptune, first played by Elvis Ngabo then Cheryl Isheja, is also on the run and finds her way through Digitalisa. She is greeted by the members of the community with names like Memory, Psychology and together start discussing the disruption in the system and help Neptune becoming Matyrloserking, a master hacker and disruptor of normative social code (the name came from Williams’s French friend pronouncing MLK badly).

Neptune Frost toys with heady ideas of colonialism, politics, history, tradition and gender fluidity in the era of Internet communication and global commerce. Instead of relying on techno-jargons to explain away the ills of the society, the film instead shoot for poetic dialog, singing and rapping infused with multiple languages, and soundscape steeped in African tradition. Always moving camera and vibrant colors, (by Uzeyman who serves as a DP of the project), and stunning set and costume design by Cedric Mizero, the film captures the energy and resourcefulness of the African art community.

The details and care that put into the project is astounding - clothing covered in various alphabet from the computer keyboards and other electronics parts, represent the scraps from the end of tech's cycle that began with the coltan mines in the same continent. Use of the blacklight paints and recycled bicycle wheels on mystics and artful copper wires extending from people's hair and make up are some examples of putting layers upon layers of texture and subtext. It would take multiple viewings to absorb the whole world created by Williams & Uzeyman and their team.

As the authorities' drones encroaching into the camp, the hope for the reclaiming technology grows, culminating to the rise of Matyrloserking from the ashes of Digitalisa.

Originally conceived as a graphic novel and a stage play, Neptune Frost has its faults: Its ethereal dialog and not well-defined narrative structure might throw people off the track. The film might lack the political urgency of Afrofuturist classics like Born in Flames, or Space is the Place but it's a grand experiment that requires attention and participation. Think of it as a spiritual, joyful lo-fi cousin of Matrix and Bacurau. The message might be the same here, but with more music and dancing. And it still manages looking like a badass cyberpunk film. Neptune Frost is a future cult classic in the making.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Lamentation on Young Love

Introduction (2021) - Hong Screen Shot 2021-10-02 at 9.20.25 AM Introduction, Hong Sang-soo's second film at the festival, is a timeline jumbled, melancholic piece about young love in the eyes of adults. Shot just before Covid pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in February-March of 2020, this slight film, clocking at mere 65 minutes, is an unusually serene drama for the director. Perhaps it was the result of our collective helplessness and fear for the future that Hong felt when he conceived the project, in regards to the younger generation.

It starts with a doctor practicing Chinese medicine at his office, praying to god that he would devote himself if god gives him a second chance. To do what? We never find out. Distraught, he forgets that he left patients with acupuncture needles still on them in the examining tables and even his son, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) who's been waiting to see him in the waiting room, and falls asleep at his desk.

We move to Berlin, where mom (Seo Young-hwa) is dropping off her daughter Ju-won (Park Mi-so) in the care of a painter friend (Kim Min-hee). Ju-won is there to study fashion design. She sneaks off to see Young-ho, who surprised her by flying over to see her. They talk about Young-ho coming to study in Germany too, that they want very much to be together. HIs parents should help him financially to study abroad, he wishes.

Next we see Young-ho summoned by his mom (Cho Yun-hee, also in In Front of Your Face), to consult his career with a famous stage actor (Ki Joo-bong) in Kangwon province. (Hong's favorite destination for his characters to 'run away'to) Young-ho brings his buddy with him to the meeting, just to be his buffer. The meeting gets heated after a copious amount of soju is consumed: the reason Young-ho gave up acting was he felt guilty kissing other women in student films because of his girlfriend. The old actor blows up on him. How naive. 'Hugging' a woman, in Korean alludes to 'making love'. He shouts to the young men in his drunken stupor. "So hugging in acting is also an act of love. Everything an actor does is an act of love! How can your girlfriend not understand that?!"

Young-ho excuses himself and runs out to the winter beach and finds Ju-won playing in the sand. She tells him that she left her German husband and came back to Korea. She is also going blind. He comforts her, saying everything will work out.

Then we do a double take on the beach, Young-ho is braving the water in his underwear, and his buddy warns him of catching a cold. In the distance, his mom is watching him from her hotel balcony.

Characters overlap in three chapters. Hong's cinematic playfulness is there. Loose structure and double takes are there too. But with black and white cinematography and blustery and cold winter landscape give way to the film's overall melancholic mood.

Introduction is a bittersweet love story of a young couple deeply lost, as they are swayed back and forth by the older generation. Even though they went through the same thing in their youth, the elders don't spare the youth in their criticism: they are too weak, too naive, and too idealistic. Kim Min-hee's painter, who is pragmatic and understanding, plays a bridge between two generations here.

The worldwide pandemic exposed many unnerving truth about our society, but how it affects the younger generation is seldom discussed and the future effect of this period remains to be seen. Perhaps Hong is asking us to be more introspective in the time of crisis and cut our young ones some slack.

Chances and Do-Overs

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) - Hamaguchi Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi Ryusuke's second film at the festival, is a breezy, entertaining contemplation on chance and desires and how they all play out differently for different people. Again, Hamaguchi proves himself to be one the most astute observers of human conditions in contemporary cinema.

The film is divided in three equal parts. Episode one is titled Magic (or Something Less Assuring), Ep.2, Door Wide Open and Ep.3, Once Again. Each episode examines different scenario of coincidences that affect its characters with a vastly different outcome. There are no tangible or overlapping connections among the three tales. But the third episode ties the theme of chance and road to redemption nicely, and takes a sweet, positive turn. The film also makes a broad swipe at our Internet, social media dependent society.

The first episode concerns a former flame and jealousy. Meiko (Furukawa Kotone), a fresh-faced model, shares a cap ride with Tsugumi (Lee Hyunri), who works for an agency, after a fashion photo shoot. Tsugumi is in the middle of telling Meiko about an amazing date she had with Kazu (Nakajima Ayumu), a young business executive and how they clicked right away. And Meiko seems to be really into the story, asking details of the date. They even discuss if it's ethical to sleep together on a first date. But it sounds like Kazu's still not out of the shadow of his previous relationship that ended two years ago. It turns out that Meiko is Kazu's ex. And without telling Tsugumi the truth, Meiko confronts Kazu at his office the same night. She psychologically tortures him, getting a confession that he still loves and wants her.

Meiko shows up at the cafe Kazu and Tsugumi's next date. Now Meiko has two choices: She can tell unsuspecting Tsugumi the truth and destroy the budding romance, or be nice and pretend she doesn't know Kazu when she gets introduced and wish the couple the best luck and excuse herself.

The second episode concerns a revenge plot that involves 'honey trap'. Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko) just humiliated Sasaki (Kai Shouma), a student in front of the entire class. And Sasaki seeks revenge by using his older lover and classmate, a single mom, Nao (Mori Katsuki). And she is up for the challenge. She's read Segawa's just published award winning book and loved it.

Nao visits the professor at his office and asks for a private talk. No can do, the professor informs. He's very careful in the #MeToo age and the door to his office remains open while they talk. Showering him with platitudes, she says she is very taken by his book. She then asks him if she can read an excerpt from the book. He gives an ok. It's a very erotic description of fellatio and he's visibly gripped by her reading. Nao asks if this is what he desires in real life. He says what he wants and what he writes are two different things. Nao then confesses that she has been recording their conversation the whole time, trying to implicate him for an inappropriate behavior and ruin his reputation, but she can't bring herself up to do it. But taken by her erotic rendition of his book, he states that he wants the recording for himself. Nao promises Segawa that she will send it to him via email. We've all clicked that 'Send' button by mistake to unintended receivers and realize it seconds later. That happens in this episode.

The third episode comes with a prologue: An Internet virus released everyone's secrets out in the open. This fact doesn't figure deeply into the story but contribute to the over all theme of human connections and false sense of security in the Internet age. Natsuko (Urabe Hisako), an introverted woman comes to town to attend a high school reunion. It's been twenty years. She is overjoyed when she finds her long lost love at the train station. But after talking for a while, they realize that they are not who they thought they were to each other, but complete strangers. But the strong bond has formed between two women and they take turns to take on the role of their long lost friends.

We all have regrets and wish for do-overs sometimes, Hamaguchi exercises these second chances and fantasies in intimate human stories in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It's funny and touching and very well acted. Maybe it's the Covid time thing, but there is a pleasure seeing characters just talking to each other at length in Hamaguchi's delicately written dialog. It's one of those films you want to see it again immediately after finishing it.

Drunken Promises

In Front of Your Face (2021) - Hong In Front of Your Face The voice-over that starts Hong Sang-soo's In Front of Your Face is more like a prayer. It belongs to Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), a serene faced, aging beauty crashing on the couch in her younger sister Jeong-ok (Cho Yun-hee)'s high-rise apartment in the sprawling suburb of Seoul. Living abroad, she is visiting her sister for the first time since their mom's funeral long ago. Again, her narration has a feel of detachment and a confessional. Something is up. So starts yet another wry snapshot of life by Hong, who remains prolific as ever, with presenting two films in this year's NYFF. But In Front of Your Face turns out to be much more emotionally invested affair, if less inventive structurally and narratively from a formalist standpoint.

Over the morning coffee, the sisters commiserate about their lives. Jeong-ok is rightfully miffed that Sang-ok never contacted her for all these years and never visited. The older sister is quite cagey about her life story, but the her narrative is pretty typical immigrant story - financial hardships, peripheral jobs, no savings unlike native Koreans who seem to have a lot of money to buy real estates in a housing boom, Sang-ok observes.

It is springtime and everything is in bloom. The greenery surrounding mega vertical structures, in Hong's minimalist aesthetics, complete with auto zooms, looks oppressively sweltering, rather than calm and refreshing. It turns out Sang-ok was a famous actress as some fans recognizes her in the street, on the way to a meeting. It is revealed that she is in Korea partly to have a meeting with a film director later that afternoon. But again, she is tightlipped about it. Jeong-ok drags her around to show new real estate developments, in the hopes of having her estranged older sister coming back to Korea permanently and settle down near her.

After splashing some ddukbokki (spicy rice cake) juice on her blouse at her nephew's small snack shop, Sang-ok is off to see the film director. But on the way there, she stops by at an old house where she grew up, which now is a fancy gift shop. She immediately regrets her visit, beating herself up for being nostalgic and sentimental. Because her zen-like voiceover has been suggesting to live only in the present - to 'seize the day'.

The meeting with a film director (played by Hong regular Kwon Hae-Hyo) takes place in a bar in a trendy part of Seoul. He arranged a meeting so they can be alone together. He is a big fan ever since he saw her films in his youth in the 90s and wants to do a film with her. After Chinese food delivery with copious amount of liquor, the truth comes out. She only has 5-6 months to live. Heartbroken, they cry and laugh together. The director then suggests they take a trip together the next day to Kangwon province, he would like to make something very quick and capture her on film as much as he can. She asks him if he wants to sleep with her. They have a moment. It's raining outside and all so romantic. It's a scene right out of some fatalistic French romance movie. Would Hong really end a movie like this?

In Front of Your Face may lack Hong's narrative and structural inventiveness but it has a nasty hook that gets you at the end, defying the conventional romance narrative. It's wickedly funny too. Lee Hye-young, who started her career in Lee Jang-ho's salacious Korean classic Between the Knees (1984) and starred in countless TV dramas, is a revelation here. Her graceful features and beauty dominate the screen in a bittersweet performance. Her hysterical laugh at the end listening to a voicemail over and over, is the funniest/saddest film moment of the year. I really adored this film.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Red Saab Turbo 900

Drive My Car (2021) - Hamaguchi Drive My Car Hamaguchi Ryusuke's new film, Drive My Car, based on a short story by famed Japanese author Murakami Haruki, from the collections Men Without Women, is a skillfully adapted and directed tale of human connection and redemption. The film more than justifies its three-hour running time, by developing relationship among its characters and audiences in a natural, unhurried pace. I can't think of any contemporary directors who have this much care and patience in creating illuminating characters like Hamaguchi.

Hamaguchi's adaptation draws on only few things from its source material- main protagonists Kafuku Yusuke the theater director, Misaki the young driver, Yusuke's beloved Saab Turbo 900 (color of the car is changed from yellow to red) and Uncle Vanya the play, and that's about it. Most of the supporting characters and the road trip to Hokkaido are the filmmaker's own addition (co-written as usual by his writing partner Oe Takamasa). But what he captures so well is the essence of the Murakami's usual themes – mystery and melancholy of life. Hamaguchi expertly expands a slight character study of its source material into a deeply humanistic film full of beauty and grace.

Yusuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi) is a middle-aged theater director. His wife Oto (Kirishima Reika) is a TV scriptwriter and his long time writing partner. By chance, Yusuke finds out her infidelity but says nothing because he doesn't want to disturb the peaceful and tranquil existence they share together as a couple. But after she dies suddenly and takes all her secrets to the grave, he is left with many unanswered questions. And the credits roll and this is how Drive My Car starts, a good twenty minutes in.

Some years have passed. After a minor car accident, Yusuke is diagnosed with glaucoma in one of his eyes that may lead to blindness later in life. This fact doesn't sit well with the Hiroshima cultural institute, where he is invited to put up Uncle Vanya on stage with a pan-Asian cast. The institute insists hiring a driver to drive him around - it's a liability issue, they explain. Enter Misaki (Miura Toko), a tight-lipped, withdrawn young woman as a driver the organizers recommend. It takes some time for Yusuke to entrust his beloved 15-year old red Saab but Misaki exceptional driving skills convinces him to accept her as his personal driver during his artist residency in Hiroshima.

Yusuke, along with the organizers from the institute, holds a rigorous casting process. One of the actors, auditioning is Oto's former lover Koji (Okada Masaki), a young hotshot actor fallen from grace after a public scandal. He followed Yusuke down, with an intention of finding out more about Oto. Yusuke, equally curious to know his wife's secrets, surprises him by hiring him as Vanya, not the part he originally auditioned for. Later, for an inquiry as to why he himself is not playing the title role, Yusuke replies that he doesn't want that kind of emotional exposure, because Uncle Vanya "drags out the real you."

As the multinational cast start the table reading, we hear Japanese, Mandarin, Filipino and Korean spoken, plus the sign language, all mixing in to create Yusuke’s version- the pan-Asian version of Uncle Vanya, in a city where the atomic bomb fell that ended Japanese colonial past. The subtext is there for anyone who seeks it.

We get to know some of the supporting characters and their stories: there is a mute Korean actress Yoona (Park Yoorim) who turns out to be the wife of one of the event organizers. Park gives a striking performance as she emotes her lines with her expressive sign language and on stage as Sonya, the lovelorn daughter in Uncle Vanya.

A car to many is a very personal space. But the red Saab here doesn't merely serve as one of Murakami's fetishized brand objects. As Yusuke and Misaki spend a lot of time together in the car, it becomes a communal, hallow space for two, where they share intimate secrets of their lives. It's at once a confession booth and altar for the dead. Its red color also stands out from the neutral color palette of the film, not ostentatiously, but rather warm and familiar.

Drive My Car is about the survival guilt, loneliness and human connections. It's Oto's death that brings Yusuke and Koji together, mourning the death of a woman they both loved. It's Yusuke and Oto's daughter's death (she died young and would've been 23 if she was alive) and Misaki's mom's death in a landslide that ultimately brings Yusuke and Misaki together. And they decide to take a road trip to Hokkaido, Japan's snow swept northern island, where Misaki's from.

The most beautiful moment in the film is the shot of Misaki and Yusuke's stretched arm with cigarettes sticking out of the sunroof of the Saab, as they smoke together, instead of opening the windows to let the smoke out.

All the small human interactions and connections have cumulative effects as the film reaches its well-earned emotional catharsis. The epilogue suggests unending friendship forged and continuing fraternity of the ones left behind, if you will. Drive My Car is a beautifully written and thoughtfully directed film full of humanity and warmth.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Octane Baby

Titane (2021) - Ducournau Titane-750x422 How do you describe Titane, Julia Ducournau's Palme d'Or winner, a follow up to sensational debut, Raw? A Cronenberged feminist fever dream? A J.G. Ballardian vision of the future? A sexed up version of Electra Complex with Twelfth Night thrown in? Remove all the glitzy exterior and many cringe worthy moments from it, Titane is a sweet father-daughter story. But it is how it is told. And it is told with gusto.

Young Alexia is first seen in the car driven by her dad. Distracted by her behavior, dad loses the control of the car and crashes. Alexia ends up with a metal plate in her head. Now grown up Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is oiled up blonde working at a car show as an exotic dancer. Her overtly sexy dance routines earn many fans. But she also is subjected to daily harrassment and unwanted sexual advances along with her co-workers. It is clear that she has some deep seeded daddy issues as well as intimacy issues, as she kills off those who wants to be close to her with pluging her trusty metal chopstick that she uses to hold up her lanky hair, into the ear of her victims. She seems to have connections with those big muscle cars she represents at the shows and has loud orgasms in the cars masturbating.

The bodies pile up and now Alexia is on the run, disguising her appearances and taping her boobs to appear as a lanky boy. She also is pregnant and car engine oil like substance are coming out of her orifices. She finds a missing person's leaflet and decides to be an imposter as a long lost son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a macho captain of a firehouse in a small town. Vincent, who has been hoping to find his son Adrien for so long, when beaten and battered (self-inflicted) and mute Alexia shows up, pretending to be his son, he is overjoyed. It doesn't matter that Alexia doesn't resemble his son, or why his returned son is cagey about his appearances. He has his son back and he's gonna groom him as a macho firefighter like himself.

The story Ducournau presents is totally bonkers. And it features some of the funniest scenes including a crazy firehouse party, which is very much like a college frathouse party with lots of shirtless, ripped firefighters dancing and binge drinking and it being sabotaged by Alexia/Adrien's sexy girl showroom dancing is perhaps the most cringe inducing scene, since Sacha Baron Cohen's cage fight/makeout scene in Bruno.

Ducournau has an agenda to fulfill, to bring down the patriachy to its knee in the most shocking way while rubbing male gazing sexism in its face. And it is glorious.

Vincent Lindon, the reigning symbol of French masculinity, gives an uninhibited performance as a bullheaded macho man succumbing to his desire to take care of his offspring even if it turns out to be a daughter instead of a son. Agathe Rousselle, seesawing between menace and volnerability in a very tricky and physically demanding role, is a real treasure. Ducournau is a new breed of filmmaker who isn't afraid of breaking conventions. With Larrain's Ema early this year, Titane is one of the most exhilarating films I've seen this year.

After New York Premier at NYFF, Titane opens theatrically on 10/1. Please visit Neon website.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman

The Souvenir: Part 2 (2021) - Joanna Hogg Souvenir pt 2 At the end of The Souvenir, our protagonist Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student, was grappling with the death of her charistmatic, destructive and predatory boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) and her next chapter in life just beginning. In The Souvenir: Part 2, we pick up right where we left off. The second part of this autobiographical story by director Joanna Hogg, has an air of built in familiarity, like a warm stove in a cold night. Here the mood is uplifted, more celebratory. And it has lots of humor as well which was lacking in the first film. All the peripheral characters in the first one gets more screen time also. And its metatextual movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie gives more depths and reflects on how we remember/misremember the past with blesmishes and all. Like her other films, Part 2 reflects on the life lessons, and the fact that only way to learn them is to live through it. It's a beautifully realized and impeccably acted film. Oh, it also has the best soundtrack of the season.

With Anthony's shadow still largely looming in Julie's life, she is still grieving and suffering greatly with the guilty conscience that she could've somehow saved him. Deep down she knows she couldn't have, but she very much wants someone else to tell her it wasn't her fault.

In order to graduate from school, with her circle of mates, she decides to embark on making a film about her experience with Anthony. When she presents her script to get the funding from school, the faculty committee is less than impressed with her presentation: first of all, her script is held together with red ribbons and doesn't even have scene headings. She also decided to use her fellow student Garance (Adriane Labed), instead of a professional actor to play the lead. Even though it's based on her life experience - which is a dramatic concession because she originally wanted to make a movie about working class people in Sunderland, the commitee feels it's out of her character and doesn't seem there's enough connections between main characters. The irony is, it was the same committee who wanted to stir her away from making a film on the subject that she doesn't know much about. So essentially, Julie is (re)making The Souvenir as her graduate film. With school funding for her movie in jeopardy, Julie asks her supportive mom (Tilda Swinton, Byrne's real-life mother) again for the fiancial help.

It's not only school committee's approval that Julie has to deal with, after a grueling pre-production process in choosing actors - too good looking, need more authenticity, etc, she runs into squables and has to deal with clash of egos everywhere she turns and its mostly due to her inexperience and incompetence. Just like every young filmmakers, she doesn't know what she is doing most of the time!

Hogg, a veteran TV director with decades of experiences, who started her feature film career in 2007, has no qualms about showing her young self's incongruity, and bullshit persona of twenty something project on themselves. The hubris of youth is universal and there is no need to be apologetic or embarrassed about.

Swinton Byrne is great as a naive young woman collecting all the souvenir in her life in shaping herself as an artist. Tilda Swinton gracefully recedes and disappears into her greying mom role perfectly, playing a woman of privilege tickled by her artistic daughter's endeavor, taking up pottery classes to a varying success. Richard Aoyade steals the show as Patrick, a pompous older student whose career is just taking off. We needed to see more of him in the first film and now we are richly rewarded here. Patrick is first seen directing a huge musical film production on stage. His ego-maniacal behavior on and off the set, shouting at onlookers and reporters, defending his decision to do a musical by pointing his finger at the gloomy London sky. As a gifted comedian, Aoyade's delivery is pitch perfect as Patrick, an extremely arrogant, yet superbly talented individual who lacks social niceties. Hence it is he who can blurt out the painful truth as he sees it for Julie to move on after her 'memorial' is done.

A long, fantastical sequence of Julie's thesis film hilariously highlights how an artist sees her creations and how she remembers her experiences versus reality of what happened. The Fellini-esque sequence and out of body experience portrayed in Julie's film has nothing in common with how we perceived her relationship with Anthony in somber The Souvenir, at least in its visual presentation. But it strikes the cord on an emotional level- his death and her heart being shattered to millions of pieces remain true.

All the people we encounter, those little memorable moments we pick up throughout life shape us who we are. The Souvenir: Part 2 is a celebration of that achievement. It's a marvelously inventive, self-effacing film that is also immensely affecting and moving. Definitely one of the year's best.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Perfect Antidote to Covid Lockdown Blues

The Tsugua Diaries (2021) - Fazendeiro, Gomes tsugua diaries Miguel Gomes, no stranger to mixing real life and fiction in such films as Our Beloved Month of August and Arabian Nights: Volume1-3, with co-director Maureen Fazendeiro, whips up a delightful antidote to Covid lockdown blues with a slight romp The Tsugua Diaries. Taking place in a small remote farm in Sintra, near Lisbon, this sun-drenched little cinematic exercise has more ingenuity and charm that's probably made with an equivalent of 1/100th of a Marvel movie-catering budget I am sure.

We start with the day 22 of the diary. There is a rotting quince someone placed on the table. Christa (Christa Alfaitate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta, of Diamantino), and João (João Nunes Monteiro) are first seen at a makeshift party dancing and drinking the night away in the infectious tune of The Night by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. To hunky Carloto's dismay, he witnesses the beguiling Christa making out with nerdy João. And it turns out, that that was the end of the movie. Don't worry I didn't blow the ending. Even though The Tsugua Diaries is told in reverse, it's not like an intricate puzzle piece or anything. Fazendeiro and Gomes are simply showing the variations and possibilities of day-to-day existence on an isolated movie set in the Covid era.

As the days progress backwards, we get to see the three of them doing house shores, working on butterfly enclosures together and enjoy their time in the pool. It's Joao's diary we are following. But is it João the actor's diary or is it the character João's? We slowly realize that they are actors in a film. It's the trio's affair for a while, being in the film we are watching, Jules et Jim style love triangle maybe? There is an air of aimlessness of an improvisational project where anything and everything is permitted, and nothing is normal because of the pandemic. 

The Covid element doesn't kick in until the talk of Carloto the actor sneaking out of the compound to surf, breaking the Covid protocols Portuguese Government Health Ministry put out. Now they can't have kissing scenes with Carloto anymore because everyone's rightfully afraid and angry. This explains why Carloto is sleeping separately, alone in a van in the beginning of the film.

Fazendeiro is seen looking at the director's monitor in a separate room laid out in a couch. Later we learn that it's because of she is an ego maniac or lazy, because she is pregnant and told to lie on her back by her doctor. 

The crew and cast meeting gets heated up with the actors not knowing the direction of the film and not well-defined guideline for anything and everything. As the diary goes back, counting down to Day 1, the unused dirty pool is drained and scrubbed by the crew and cast to be used. The rotting quince slowly turns into a fresh one, getting fresher by the day.

Wryly reflecting the nature of 'expect the unexpected' in both life and filmmaking, Fazendeiro and Gomes create a delightful little summer movie that is cinematically inventive while reflecting the state of the worldwide pandemic and its effect on filmmaking. The Tsugua Diaries is a perfect antidote of a movie in our trying times.

Sound and Fury

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Coen the-tragedy-of-macbeth-film With The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the solo outing of Joel Coen as a director, one half of the brothers team behind such classics as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. It stars indomitable Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Scotsman and the great Frances McDormand (also the director's wife) as the Lady M. With a great ensemble of the British, Scottish, Irish and American actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel and Kathryn Hunter, I have to say, acting in this is fantastic.

But there have been many famous screen adaptations of the Shakespeare’s play before this reiteration. So the first question anyone would naturally ask is, is another adaptation of the famous Scottish play really necessary? Most recently we had a sexy, action packed version directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cortillard that no one saw.

Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return after victorious battle over invading Norwegian forces, then encounters witches (?) in the forms of crows. They instill the ideas in the returning warriors that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's offspring will take over down the line. The rest of the film is predicated on that foretelling and Macbeth acting upon it. From the get-go, Lady Macbeth is all over the idea of killing off King Duncan (Gleeson). But after the deed is done and Macbeth assumes the throne, they get increasingly paranoid with guilt, with imaginary approaching heavy steps and bloodstains that never washes away. Sleep no more. Macbeth can never rest easily.

There is nothing wrong with Washington and McDomand's acting, eschewing the bard's juicy monologues with gusto and ease. His greying hair and beard and her wrinkles give their performances more edge, accentuating the aging couple's desperate last shot at glory. But it's Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. She portrays the manifestation of three witches. Her contortionist body movement and cadence of her gravelly voice in the beginning sets the uneasy tone of the whole film.

Shot in black and white in academy ratio, it is closer to filmed stage play than a cinematic adaptation. Its German expressionism inspired, minimalist set design and CGI fog and a murder of crows come across as cheap. And digital cinematography (nonetheless shot by usually great DP Bruno Delbonnel) looks extremely flat and surprisingly uninspired.

Unfortunately, there is nothing special about Coen's directing: there are no battle scenes, the weird vibe has been done much better both in Polanski's and Welles's version as well as in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. It's as if Coen couldn't decide what direction he wanted to go and took the most boring, lazy route. The result is boring, flat adaptation with hodge-podge styles from other classic period pieces, as if Macbeth the film is wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Even any semblance of Coen-ness is only briefly found in the appearance of Stephen Root, a character actor and frequent collaborator of the brothers as Porter, a comic relief.

At best, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a vanity project where a director trying to please his wife a role she always wanted to play (for 15 years apparently). It also gives a clue to which Coen might be a Garfunkel of the duo.

Friday, September 24, 2021

A Meta-Contemplation on an Artist's Creative Process

Bergman Island (2021) - Hansen-Løve Bergman Island For the last decade, Mia Hansen-Løve, with a string of beautifully written and acted, melancholic films about life and passing of time, has emerged as one of the most highly-regarded directors working today.

Her delicate and subtle films, be it a coming of age tale in Goodbye First Love, about pursuing one's dreams and succumbing in Eden, or about taking life's curve balls in stride in Things to Come, there has always been plenty of evidences of a great writer/director cementing her own unique voice in film world, which is a still very much male-dominanted industry.

It is interesting then, that we see Hansen-Løve digging deeply into the subject that concerns a woman's artistic struggles in finding her own voice while being a longtime partner of someone who's more established and better known, taking a not so guised reference from her real life, for she was a long time partner of director and mentor, Olivier Assayas.

Even though Bergman Island is her first English language film with an international cast -- Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie -- the theme doesn't quite give enough distance from her real life. Sure, an older man who has a big influence on how a young woman develops and finds her own self has always been there in her films, most recently in Maya.

But her self-reflexiveness was not as out in the open as in Bergman Island. I'm not faulting this move and don't want to call it regressive, but a female director finding her own voice and out of her male partner's shadow in a place called Bergman Island seems quite an unusual choice for already established and well-regarded director. Perhaps that was her intention, though, to differentiate herself and reiterate that her working method is different, that her creative process is not like that of Assayas nor Bergman.

Bergman Island concerns a film director couple Tony (Roth) and Chris (Krieps) coming to Faros Island, where the famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made a bulk of his films and had a house there, to work on their new projects. Many writers, filmmakers and architects have been flocking around there to get inspirations from where the maestro lived and worked.

Tony is a world-renowned filmmaker and is always surrounded by adoring fans. It's no different, even on the remote island. He gets invited to the soirées thrown by the Bergman Society, film screenings, and frequently ta;ls on the phone with his producers about his latest project. While Tony works on his new script with ease in the main house, Chris sets up shop in the mill across the yard from him to work on her own script.

She's a little taken aback by the fact that Bergman was not a nice man to be around and had 11 children from nine wives. She also doesn't like the idea that him being a bad father was somehow a prerequisite for him to be a prolific genius. "You think he was changing diapers while being a genius?," a Bergman fan quips. It also bothers her that the beauty of the island -- the sun-kissed coastline, deep blue sea, idealic pastures -- produced a dark, disturbing and pessimistic view of life in many of his films.

After frolicking around the island, she concocts a script about a young woman named Amy, coming to the island for her friend's wedding and confronts her first love, Joseph, again. They have only three days together on the island.

Chris starts telling the story in the hopes of getting some guidance from Tony. Tony attentively listens. And now we are thrown into a unrequited love story of two lovers (Wasikowska and Lie) who were too young to realize what they had and now it's too late to reconnect, in film-within-a-film. Amy, a filmmaker from New York, can't forget Joseph, her first love, even though they both grew up and have moved on with their lives.

The story is slight and without an end. But their love and attraction are palpable. For a long period of time, we only see the couple's story unfolding, as they rekindle their love, then realize they can't be together. From time to time, that story is interrupted by Chris checking on Tony, to see if he is paying attention to her story/film.

There are many funny bits referring to Bergman: like Scenes from a Marriage causing millions of divorces, a Bergman Safari tour, a deadpan projectionist at the Bergman's private theater calling out that he doesn't have a print of Saraband, so Tony and Chris was subjected to watching Cries and Whispers.

The film's meta-ness, the story of Amy and Joseph slowly melding into Chris's own life, suggests that the film Bergman Island is itself is a way of showcasing a filmmaker (Hansen-Løve)'s creative process. And it can come across a little too precious at times. The film is certainly not the usual Hansen-Løve's ultra-wise life observations.

All the ingredients to make a great Hansen-Løve film are here: great assemblage of talented, intriguing actors, great location, self-reflexive storytelling, young love. But it doesn't quite gel together.

We all process our surroundings differently and express ourselves in unique ways. Contrasting oneself to others might be one way. Perhaps Bergman Island is Hansen-Løve's most personal film to date, showing her incongruities and subtle ways towards filmmaking.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A Film Culled from the Sea

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021) - Morrison THE VILLAGE DETECTIVE still Avant-garde filmmaker and artist Bill Morrison, known for his use of decaying, found films and collaborating with innovative contemporary musicians, produced some of the most unique movie/live theater going experiences (Decasia, Miner's Hymns, Dawson City: Frozen Time) over the last few decades. Using plenty of archival materials and found footage, just like with Dawson City, he concocts an intriguing film history lesson while showcasing the hypnotic, decaying celluloid images with The Village Detective: A Song Cycle. The difference here is that the old Soviet film, The Village Detective, was not dug up from the frozen tundra in Yukon Territory but netted from depth of the icy North Sea.

In 2016, an Icelandic lobster trawler hauled in a film canister along with various crustaceans at the bottom of the North Sea. It ended up in the hands of the archivists and film scholars at the Finnish Film Institute. It was the late visionary Icelandic musician and friend of Morrison, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who worked with the director in Miner's Hymns, mentioned the news to him, who took an immediate interest. It contained 4 rolls of seawater brined, muddy, degrading film prints. Many assumed that they contain a very old film. But it turns out to be a 1969 Russian film, The Village Detective, starring Mikhail Zharov as Columbo like detective, in a provincial Russian town, on the case of a missing accordion.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle submerges itself into an intriguing film history and does its own diligent history detective work. Morrison, along with producer/film scholar Maria Vinogradova, set out their own investigation, giving context to the movie reels found at the bottom of the sea. Like good detectives, they peel away layers of mud and dirt and debris the time has accumulated and connect the dots- the images on the film, its actors, the political climate, film archiving practices (or lack there of), while highlighting the beauty of the physicality of film print as an art object.

Taking advantage of Gosfilmofond, the state run Russian film archive and with the help of their archivists, the film devotes itself going through Russian film history by way of Mikhail Zharov's six-decades spanning career. Zharov, whose immense popularity in Russia was equal to that of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at his prime, played many boisterous roles and often sang with an accordion in his hands in many of his films. He was a renowned stage actor and starred in many state propaganda films. But with the country’s antisemitism in the 40s and 50s took a toll on the actor who was married to a Jewish woman from a prominent Jewish family. Even though any charges were dissolved after Stalin’s death, he would get type-casted in the 50s and 60s as he aged.

Going back and forth with old Russian archival footage, many of Zharov's film clips, interviews and the actual footage of The Village Detective found in the sea, set in original accordion soundtrack by David Lang (Requiem for a Dream, The Great Beauty, Wildlife, Youth), Morrison creates a cohesive, entertaining yarn.

Still, all the beauty is in the footage culled from the sea. Damaged and decayed in multitudes of ways, intentionally slowed down and without a dialog track, the audience can savor each passing frames- obscured by scratches, blotches, indecipherable patterns and ghost images that natural elements and time inflicted on the celluloid. With the historical and philosophical context provided by Morrison and co., the film's haunting beauty is amplified greatly.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is a celebration of cinema that reflects life and art and its resilience to the test of time both metaphorically and physically.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle opens in theaters on 9/22 at IFC Center in NYC. Please visit Kino Lorber website for details.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Sobering Reflection on Being American

Blue Bayou (2021) - Chon BLUE BAYOU (2021) Justin Chon writes, directs and stars in a timely, humanistic drama, set in the backwaters of Louisiana, Blue Bayou. It highlights many adoptees facing deportation due to the lack of a strong infrastructure in the nation's adoption system and the recent anti-Asian fervor.

According to advocates of the immigration rights groups' statistics, estimated 25,000 to 45,000 legal adoptees between 1945-1998 may lack US Citizenship. Worse, during recent past few years, many number of these legally adopted Americans were either deported or facing deportation when they had a brush with the law, to countries where their biological parents gave them up when they were babies.

Blue Bayou starts with Antonio (Chon), with a new baby on the way with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), trying to get a second job. His felony record and heavily tattooed exterior don't help the matter too much. It is revealing that he is repeatedly asked where he's from, even though his Baton Rouge dialect is impeccable. Unfortunately, it is an everyday occurrence that we Asian Americans face everyday, even from well-meaning, supposedly educated, liberal people. Antonio politely deflects, “I see why you’d ask that question…”

Antonio, working at a tattoo parlor, is trying to do right by Kathy and his stepdaughter, Jesse (Sydney Kowalske), a button-nosed smarty-pants whom he shares great bonds with. Antonio's circle of friends include his former motorcycle gang buddies, an ICE agent who frequents the tattoo parlor and Parker (Linh Dan Pham, Indochine), a Vietnamese American woman he just met at the hospital.

Things escalate when Jesse's father, Ace (Mark O'Brien), a cop and his racist partner instigate Antonio into returning jabs and arrest him. Antonio is soon handed over to the ICE custody. Even with the help of sympathetic immigration lawyer (Vondie Curtis Hall), with his criminal record, Antonio's chance at the set court 'merit' hearing is diminishing. Even though he was adopted at age 3 and lived his whole life in Louisiana, because of the loopholes in adoption system and anti Asian fervor of late, he is facing deportation to a country where he has absolutely no connections.

In order to come up with the lawyer's fee, Antonio falls into his old habits with his gang, stealing motorcycles. He also struggles with abandonment issues, both his biological Korean mother who still haunts his dreams and his adaptive parents who abused him.

Chon, best known for his role as Eric in Twilight Saga, has a simmering charisma and authenticity, playing a simple man trying to go straight while down on his luck. His uncluttered, energetic directing style and great handling emotional complexities and nuances are also commendable. Also notable is the conscious casting of non-American actors for the roles: Vikander, a Swedish actress who lends her talents playing a down and out Southern girl who would fight till the end for her man, O'Brien, a Canadian actor, is also excellent playing a Louisiana cop who later realizes that what constitutes a family is nothing but biological and Pham, a French actress whose tender portrayal of a woman dying of cancer, who shares affinity with Antonio as a person of color living in the US. This casting is emblematic in showing what a great patchwork America really is.

Shot in 16mm, verité style, lush Louisiana setting and numerous magic hours scenes, Chon and his frequent collaborator DP Ante Cheng (shot two previous Chon's films: Gook and Ms. Purple), along with Matthew Chuang, create intimate portrayal in the American South in Blue Bayou.

As the tearful third act plays out Chon succeeds in shedding light on the inhumane practices of American immigration system and giving audiences plenty to mull over what it means to be an American.

Blue Bayou opens in theaters on 9/17. For more info, please visit Focus Features website.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

War Trauma in a Box

Reflection (2021) - vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-09-13 at 10.36.22 AM Call it a silver lining in the midst of unrelenting global pandemic, that we are blessed with not one but two Valentyn Vasyanovych's films this year. Atlantis, after winning Orizzonti (Best Film) at Berlinale 2019 and being included in the late edition of New Directors/New Films in 2020, the film saw a brief streaming release through New York's Metrograph early this year. With his new film Reflection, having a world Premiere at Venice just now, we get to witness the major new voice in the world cinema emerging. Mark my word: Vasyanovych is a real deal. He will be regarded as a new master with the release of his each new film in the future. His almost surrealist formalist approach to filmmaking is akin to the works of Swedish master Roy Andersson sans humor combined with the gravitas and emotional punch of Andrey Zvyagintsev. Reflection, a sort of companion piece to Atlantis, is a truly impactful and impressive filmmaking.

Just like Atlantis, Reflection is only composed of wide, static long takes - the camera only moves when necessary with no cutaways or coverage. There are about 27 shots all together in its two-hour running time. We do not see close ups of actors faces, unless they come closer to the camera. The depth and isolation of its characters, without many words uttered, are all told visually.

The film starts with an absurd scene: Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), a surgeon, is meeting up with his ex-wife Olha (Nadiya Levchenko) and their teenage daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska) and Olha's new beau, Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk of Atlantis), a soldier, in what seems to be a large industrial indoor playpen. But Polina is suiting up in white HAZMAT suit before disappearing behind the giant glass window. It turns out that playpen is a large indoor paintball court. The teenagers in groups are shooting paintballs at each other while parents outside watch them while talking about the war in Donbas, the south-eastern Ukraine, as the glass window is slowly but surely adorned with bubblegum colored paintball shots. The year is 2014, at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The next scene is Serhiy in the hospital operating table tending to the badly wounded soldier coming from the front line. But it is too late. He bled out.

The film is divided in two: the war and its aftermath. Serhiy voluntarily joins the war effort, then being captured and tortured by Russian troops. Since he is a surgeon, deemed by Russians to be useful, he is spared and given an assisting role in checking and determining if the tortured Ukraine captives are dying or not. There he encounters Andriy, who is almost dead after a power drill torture session.

The power lies in its long takes and imposing compositions. Vasyanovych possesses an impressive eye for architecture and symmetry, In Atlantis, it was industrial wasteland and outdoor scenes that were the main draw. In Reflection, its oppressive, bunker like industrial indoor spaces the director/cinematographer utilizes for creating dread - whether it's the hospital operating table, torture chamber, portable furnace Russians use to cremate their victims and a pigeon crashing into a high-rise apartment window.

The first half, showing horror of war is relentlessly bleak and dark. The second half concerns Serhiy, thoroughly traumatized by the war experience, trying to get a grip on life where everything is pretty normal. Andriy is regarded as missing in action where no one can find his body; guilt stricken Serhiy has to deal with Olha and Polina. Polina, being a teenager and affected by Andriy's absence, become distant and withdrawn while Serhiy tries to overcompensate it with gifts and horseback riding lessons.

If Atlantis was dealing with fictional scenario of the future ecological devastation and human toll from the prolonged war, Reflection using gray landscapes and claustrophobic interiors, delves into the psychological damage of on-going conflict and threat from the neighboring ominous superpower. Sly metaphors, like dead pigeon, makeshift pyre, ravenous stray dogs are all present. But as with Atlantis, there is a glimmer of hope in Reflection. This time, it's not the love between a man and a woman, but that of father and daughter. Known to use non-actors in his films, Vasyanovych uses his own daughter to play Polina. She in turn, gives a great performance in long takes, engaging in religious and spiritual discussion with Lutskyi who plays her father. Her innocence shines through in a dreadful industrial, monochrome winter Ukraine landscape. Daring in its cinematic language, and unflinching in its presentation of the present, Reflection makes you impossible to ignore the state of the on-going conflict in that part of the world.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Artful, Spiritual Anthropological Survey from Ethiopia

Faya Dayi (2021) - Beshir

Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.42.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.54.16 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.57.57 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.01.51 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.04.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.06.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.22.25 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.48.38 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.04.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.17.00 AM Could an anthropological study of the effects of khat, a flowering plant that has euphoric property when chewed, in Hararar, the walled city in Ethiopia, also be a stunning art film? Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir proves that it can, with Faya Dayi, her mesmeric, immersive patchwork, shot mostly in silvery black & white. In here, every one of its hazy frame is a work of art. The film is visualized version of the phrase of a mystical sage or a lofty philosopher - Life is nothing but a waking dream. 

Along with dreamy images and scattered narrations, Beshir languidly builds upon the creation myth of khat, which involves the quest for Maoul Hayat, the water of eternal life. It seems every adult chews khat in Ethiopia, to get away, to escape harsh reality. For the younger generations though, for their future, they dream of fleeing to Europe, to Middle East, to other countries, even if it means risking their lives in an often perilous and costly journey and enduring lifetime of solitude and homesickness in a foreign land. 

There is a loose narrative, which concerns a young boy named Mohammad. He is a thin thread connecting the filmmaker's intergenerational observations. Mohammad is first seen with an older boy who fled the dreadful khat dominated life (to Egypt) only to come back to take care of his mother. For Mohammad, living with an abusive khat addicted father and missing his mother who fled to Saudi Arabia for better life, Hararar doesn't hold a future for him.

We see the full picture of the local economy based on khat, from its harvest to processing to distribution to consumption. And it's a long grueling process all done manually. It’s the industry’s berth, employing vast section of the country’s labor market that is truly astounding.

We are introduced to many of Hararar's inhabitants - there are women pining for lost love, a young man thrown into the khat industry because of the family tragedy that has befallen, the local sheiks with their prayer beads and scriptures, young naked children playing in ever receding ankle deep river. There's also a talk of street demonstrations and political prisoners among Oromo people, an oppressed ethnic minority trying to get by under the hostile Ethiopian regime. 

Beauty is in the shadows and silhouettes. It's in billowing curtains and in smoke of the ceremonial incense, in a group of black birds perched precariously on the tree branches on a windy night, in the water ripples, in the blackness of a woman's hijab against the white wall, in sleeping stray dogs, in cheap strobing lights on Mohammed's face, even in newly harvested shiny khat leaves. 

Khat as the myth goes, was a compensatory prize from god, for the journeyman who missed out on Maoul Hayat, to forget his sorrows. 

Dry anthropological documentaries are dime a dozen. Bashir in her debut film, with immersive and stunning visuals, achieves something extraordinary here. Faya Dayi transcends its filmic categories and achieves a deeply spiritual and contemplative viewing experience.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Man in the Mirror

Candyman (2021) - DaCosta Candyman Nia DaCosta's Candyman pays a great deal of tribute to Bernard Rose's 1992 cult classic and builds upon it for the BLM era with much more agency. She and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele acknowledge the progresses the African Americans have made in the US over decades but also remind us that we still live in a white society and it is important not to forget the past.

The original Candyman was based on a short story by Clive Barker, taking place in East London housing projects. It was brilliantly transposed to Cabrini Green, a real urban housing project in Chicago and based on real-life urban legend mixed with America's racial history. As a horror film, Candyman’s violence and carnage were brutal and gruesome that only Barker could dream of. Some of the film's detractors pointed out that its gothic interracial love story only amplified the stereotypical black male and blond white female trope. But it was the 90s and the class/racial inequalities were addressed only in a skindeep level.

The new Candyman starts with an affluent couple Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Marteen II) in Chicago. They just moved in to a luxury glass skyscraper apartment in downtown. Brianna is an ambitious social climber in the art scene and Anthony, a promising artist. But Anthony is in a rut, unable to get an inspiration for a new piece and the deadline for upcoming group exhibition is approaching. By chance, he hears about Cabrini Green, a projects complex that his luxury building and many others around it have gentrified out of its existence. Then he hears about the legend of Candyman. He is also stung by a bee on his hand while taking pictures in the remnants of Cabrini Green. And the wound is not healing but spreading throughout the half of his body.

Anthony's new art - a bathroom mirror and gruesome paintings inside it with the instructions to summon Candyman, doesn't make a splash at first. But curiosity of white audience in a dare keeps body count rise and so does his viability in the art market.

Writing is sharp and current. One can detect Peele's clever Gen X cultural references throughout. Dacosta and Peele do things right in first introducing Candyman as a creepy man in a yellow jacket with a hook as a hand who gave away candies with razorblades inside them in the 70s, not the original Candyman played by charismatic Tony Todd, suggesting that Candyman is actually Candymen throughout America's ugly racial history, going back before the emancipation. And the film suggests the brutalization and demonization of Black males, from Emmett Till to George Floyd and beyond continues to this day. It was also very telling that the film starts with the logos of the company reversed, like in the mirror. What Anthony is seeing in the mirror is not an affluent and successful African American male today, but a man with his hands cut off with a hook shoved in its place, stung and burned alive centuries ago.

Candyman is a great film and emblemizes the saying that there is no black horror because black history is already a horror.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Japan Cuts 2021 Hybrid Edition Preview

After last year's all online edition, Japan Cuts, North America's largest showcase for new Japanese films, has chosen to go for a combination of online and in-person screenings (at Japan Society, NYC) for their 15th edition, taking place 8/20 - 9/2. The festival is divided in Feature Slate, Next Generation, Classics, Documentary Focus, Experimental Spotlight, Shorts Showcase, Narrative Shorts and Experimental Shorts, totaling 38 films.

The 15th Edition of Japan Cuts kicks off with the U.S. Premiere of Matsumoto Soushi's charming Sci-fi and samurai tinged celebration of cinema, It's a Summer Film! For centerpiece presentation, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Venice Film Festival winner, Wife of a Spy. Other highlights are an in-person screening of the late Obayashi Nobuhiko's 3 hour swan song Labyrinth of Cinema, 2K restored version of the cult classic, Hiruko the Goblin and Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War: Guardians.

Without further a do, here are 5 films I was able to sample:

It's a Summer Film! It's a Summer Film It's a bubbly love letter to cinema with gaggle of high school girls. It stars Japanese idol singer Ito Marika (former Nogizaka 46 member) as a high schooler, Barefoot, who is obsessed with chanbara films and a Katsu Shintaro (Zatoichi) enthusiast. She is in a school film club but disillusioned by the films they produce - directed by and starring her rival popular girl Karin and her entourage. Barefoot decides to make her own samurai film to counter Karin's saccharine rom-com at the year end screening. With her best friends - Kendo champ Blue Hawaii and sci-fi nerd Kickboard and a rag-tag film crew, Barefoot embarks on a harrowing journey of indie filmmaking.

Even though she prefers brusk hero than a pretty boy type, Barefoot can't stop falling for her main actor Rintaro, a handsome time-traveling stranger she chose as her main actor in her film titled, "Samurai Spring." You see, in the future, there is no such thing as movie theaters, movies are only 5 seconds long and the traditional notion of cinema is non-existing. She needs to save the future of cinema! It's a Summer Film! is a cute, airy comedy geared towards Stranger Things crowd.

Wife of a Spy *Centerpiece Film Wife of a Spy Satoko (Aoi Yu), an unassuming young housewife of a wealthy merchant suspects that her husband is involved in something dangerous. The year is 1940. The place is Kobe. And Japan is slowly hurtling toward authoritarian nightmare before the World War II. Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs this period thriller off the script written by Yamaguchi Ryusuke and his writing partner Nohara Tadashi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II) .

Wife of a Spy involves atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese army in Manchuria, experimenting biological weapons on civilian population. It's a very straight forward wartime intrigue with a stellar performance by Aoi as an innocent woman who has her blind devotion to her husband tested and gets embroiled in an international espionage. The film might not feel like a usual KK film, but a solid one nonetheless.

Wonderful Paradise Wonderful Paradise Moving is never easy and letting go even more difficult. It's a moving day for the Sasayas from their large opulent house, because dad had some gambling debts and bad investments. While packing and being nostalgic about mementos strewn about the house, disaffected Akane, the daughter of the family, unwittingly tweets that there will be a party in the empty house with their address. So starts Yamamoto Masaki's madcap comedy Wonderful Paradise. There will be several dead bodies, a gay wedding, a funeral, The Thing inspired coffee bean monster, moving statues with laser beam shooting eyes, strippers, a choreographed dance number, traditional singing, ghosts, synchronized sex scenes, rebirths, a kid turning into a tree branch, a makeshift drug lab, a yakuza gambling den.... By the end of it, Sasayas learned something about life and themselves and finally let things go. Life is one big party.

Mari and Mari Mari and Mari Mari and Mari plays out like a Murakami Haruki novel. Norio (Maehara Kou) is a mild mannered 30-something working at a small casting agency. He is very much in love with Mari (Nao), his long time live-in girlfriend. Their almost nauseating lovey-dovey behavior is an easy target for both ridicule and envy of his co-workers. They even have a corny song of their own that they hum to each other. Then one day, Mari disappears and replaced by childlike girl (Amano Hana), also named Mari. This new Mari doesn't remember where she came from. She is just materialized in his apartment. Norio looks for his old Mari everywhere to no avail. He demands the new Mari to leave but she always returns.

In a very subtle manner, when it comes down to it, director Yamanishi Tatsuya seems to suggest that it's not a particular person but rather the idea of a person in a certain mould that you fall in love with.

As the new Mari sticks around, Norio begins to accept her as his girlfriend. They sing the same song, make fun of each other's silly habits. It's an intriguing film by first time director writer Yamanishi.

The Blue Danube The Blue Danube Ikeda Akira's droll anti-war film The Blue Danube starts with Tsuyuki (Maehara Kou) waking up at the sound of a marching band. As he reports to the army barracks for 9 to 5 shifts, wasting his life away shooting at invisible enemies across the river without a question like a clockwork. "Do as you are told without question" rules this town and everyone follows its rigid army style way of living. No one remembers how long the town has been at war with its neighboring town and the reason for the conflict. They just assume that the town across the river is horrible and its people are savages.

Things change after the new young recruit soldier starts questioning the ongoing conflict. Meantime, Tsuyuki is transferred to join the marching band after its trumpeter suddenly dies.

With intentionally stilted acting and droll delivery of the actors, repetitions and absurd deadpan humor, Ikeda pokes fun of Kafkaesque bureaucracy combined with blind trust in inept authorities and fear tactics instilled in people's mind in the war time. The Blue Danube highlights the meaninglessness of war.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Inability to Change Minds

The Viewing Booth (2020) - Alexandrowicz Screen Shot 2021-08-10 at 8.25.09 AM 
Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's documentary Viewing Booth tells the harsh reality and ultimate failure of so-called activist filmmaking in the belief that images can change minds of those who matter the most. And it's sobering realization.

Alexandrowicz invited 7 American University students for his 'viewing booth' sessions: a studio room with monitors showing 40 published online video clips of the Occupied Territories in Palestine - a half of them from B'Tzelem - a Human Rights organization based in Israel and the other half from pro/conservative Isreali groups (such as videos put out by IDF). The subjects are asked to freely play any clips they choose to watch- they can pause at any moment and rewatch them and provide live commentaries while watching them. He films these sessions and the subjects' reactions and their comments. Enter Maia Levy, a pro-Israeli student from American Jewish household. The film turns out Alexandrowicz focusing on her because it's people like her that the filmmaker wants to reach with his films, not anti-occupation crowd or activist types (not preaching to the choir, so to speak). It's her predisposition of seeing the images - the real footages shot by Palestinian citizens in the Occupied Territories which can be seen by anyone online, that interests him.

Maia is an inquisitive young woman who thinks of herself as objective observer of the conflict, a Jew living in America. But watching those short clips of unedited footage of everyday horrors in the Occupied Territories - an announced nightly raid of masked, heavily armed Israeli soldiers going into Palestinian household, waking up sleeping children and photographing them and its aftermath - children breaking down in fear, or a settler harassing Palestine women and children in cages, calling them unspeakable names, or Israeli teens throwing rocks at a Palestinian woman videotaping them and soldiers just standing by in the background, not responding to the cries for help, etc, although she sympathizes with the oppressed, she is quick to find many faults in what she is presented with: without proper contexts, these clips are manipulative or worse yet, staged to make Israel look bad. Because of her upbringing or background of whatever, she is predisposed to question what she sees and distrust whatever is deemed by anti-Israel.

It is also telling that Maia says that she is influenced by TV shows like Netflix's Fauda and reality shows that everything is already fabricated and you can't always trust these 'real' footage's authenticity. Is she telling the truth or is it a justification for her predisposed condition? but in equal footing, she also doesn't like what IDF puts out - Palestinian kids coming up to Israeli soldiers and hugging them and the soldiers giving them food. She thinks that's corny and detrimental to portraying Israel as being good.

The filmmaker asks her again to come in after 6 months of their first session. Because obviously she is the emblem of the target audience and why he is in the profession in the first place - to change their belief system with his films. She is educated, smart, curious enough to seek out those clips by B'Tzelem even though many of them will be uncomfortable and depressing to watch. It's very much like some of my so-called liberal minded friends watching Fox News to see 'what the other side is like, so I will know how to defend myself'.

Alexandrowicz thinks these things aloud to understand clearly where the divide lies - particularly for me as an outside observer, seeing these clips immediately makes me think, "wow, this is their everyday reality," rather than "this looks staged." Obviously, those activists films, documentaries like 5 Broken Cameras by Guy Davidi & Emad Burnat isn't going to change my mind because I'm already with the anti-occupation crowd. But The Viewing Booth concludes with the sobering realization that there is a limit to what images, let alone films, can change someone's engrained belief system, even if it's not fictional film but filmed reality. The intermediary of the mere 'lens' between Maia and the reality already puts a divide that she will not cross. The Viewing Booth is a sobering film that bruises the ego of any self-congratulatory, circle jerky liberal documentarians who genuinely think they can change the world. Sorry, you can't reach the ones who matter the most.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Master Puppet and Barnacles

Annette (2021) - Carax annette It is hard for me to write this review of Annette, a new film from Leos Carax, because he is the director of my favorite film of all time - Les amants du Pont-Neuf. I've been following Carax's tumultuous filmmaking career and was very glad that he came roaring back with much praised Holy Motors, a vibrant vignettes he made over a long period of time (because of lack of financing) with his muse Denis Lavant (as his alter ego Alex). The expectations were high after the success of Holy Motors. The boy genius seemed to be back. Annette, a big budgeted musical, co-written and arranged by musical group Sparks, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, is quite possibly the worst thing I've seen this year, if not in any years. It's not because of its ludicrous premise - a singing baby of the title namesake is played by a CG puppet or Driver's overacting, it's because doesn't contain an ounce of Carax's often bold and brilliant signature cinematic moments that take your breath away.

Carax begin Annette with self-reference, just like in Holy Motors. He is the creator, starting his project in the beginning either on stage or in a control booth of an audio studio. His daughter, Nastya, a doppelganger for her mom, Katherina Golubeva, stands by his side, looking on in the cast, singing. The first song "So May We Start," spills out of the studio as the actors continue to sing on what seems to be the Santa Monica Blvd. Annette tells a relationship between a cynical standup comic Henry McHenry (Driver) and an opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). They soon have a daughter Annette, played mostly by what seems to be baby made out of wood with wooden joint and disproportionately large head, like in Manga drawings. While Ann's career is going well, Henry's dark humor and aggressive antics are getting no fans anymore. He is getting jealous of his famous wife and neglecting his daddy duties. All the while, the tabloid press is hounding the family's every move.

In order to save their marriage, the couple takes a boat trip in the sea with baby Annette in tow. During a storm, in a fit of rage, Henry throws Ann overboard. Alone and washed out, Henry has to make an income for baby Annette. He notices that Annette sings to a certain tune. Now he has an idea for touring with a singing baby with the help of the orchestra conductor (Simon Helberg), who was secretly in love with Ann. Ludicrous. I know.

It was fun to do a guesswork in Holy Motors as how much of it is self referential - Carax's tumultous relationship with Juliette Binoche and monumental failure of Pont-Neuf, because his life was so grand, and operatic and most of all, so romantic. The fundamental flaw of Annette, in my opinion, is it's not based on a lovestory but everything else - career, professional jealousy, parenthood, tabloids and financial security which by comparison, seem ugly and opposite of fantasy and in turn, cinema. No matter how much or loud they sing "We Love Each Other So Much," in Annette, all we see is them falling out of love, not in love.

Love is gone. Cynicism has taken over, therefore, nothing is believable and nothing matters. Everything else is a joke. Once that rare filmmaker who could capture being in love like no other became a cynic and the magic is gone. Driver is no Lavant. He is an ogre of a cynical kind. He belongs in a comedy. Cotillard with her barnacle shoulders, belongs to "Something to Tide You Over" episode in Creepshow.

I did like the on deck of the boat during sea storm scene where buckets of waters are thrown over the actors in rear projection storm. But that can't save Annette from its turgid, uninspiring premise. The spark is gone.

Monday, July 26, 2021

High Life

High Sierra (1941) - Walsh *35mm at Film ForumHigh Sierra

Infamous bank robber Roy Earl (Humphrey Bogart) just got pardoned by the Governor. It was Big Mac, a crime boss in the West Coast who pulled some strings for his release to do another big stake heist in a fancy hotel up in the Sierra mountains. On his way up to a mountain lodge to meet the heist team, Earl helps out a farmer family who has a car trouble. There he is smittened by the farmer's granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). When he gets to the lodge, he is embroiled in a lovers spat already in progress among two hot blooded young men- Red and Doc, and sassy Marie (Ida Lupino). Brats! Earl doesn't want to have any of it, tries to keep his distance and be professional. But Marie, seeing this tough wise guy smacking people around, develops feelings for him.

There are a couple of elements in High Sierra that are cringey - Earl hitting on 20 year old crippled Velma. And Algernon, a black caretaker of the lodge the heist team stays at, is a lazy, cross eyed Stepin Fetchit style racial stereotype.

What distinguishes High Sierra among other hard boiled noir is its spectacular setting. As Earl gets caught in the ever increasing trap that he dug himself in, High Sierra reaches its frenzy with high speed car chase up the rugged, picturesque Sierra mountains. It's raw and unsettling. He runs into the mountain, in his gangster suit with a rifle in his hand and we expect some Rambo: First Blood shit. But it's noir, not some white men action fantasy. Things will end very bad.

Bogey is Bogey, making a cold blooded killer seem cool and ordinary and making us root for him. Lupino is also great as sympathetic mole who doesn't have anyone in the world and clinging to Earl even though she knows the future is doomed.