Thursday, February 25, 2021

Film Subjects as Filmmakers

Un film dramatique (2019) - Baudelaire

Un Film Dramatique Éric Baudelaire, a French visual artist, filmmaker (Letters to MaxAnabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images), was commissioned to do a project with the newly constructed Dora Maar middle school in the suburb of Paris, spent 4 years working with middle school kids as they recorded themselves their daily lives. The result is not only a refreshing slices of life documentary on close to two dozen sixth grade students as they grow up in front of our eyes, but also a incisive contemplation on the nature of filmmaking itself.

Baudelaire, with Social Science academic background, previously made documentaries regarding a daughter of Japanese Red Army founder and also Adachi Masao, a radical militant leftist Japanese New Wave director, as they collaborated on turning the camera not on subject but toward landscapes in which the subject has lived, trying to put into practice Adachi’s Landscape Theory. With Un Film Dramatique, he puts the cameras in the hands of its subjects. And the result is surprisingly touching examination and revealing reflection of a multicultural society.

Dora Maar is a public school, situated in a not so affluent but a racially and culturally mixed neighborhood. It's a microcosm of modern multicultural, pluralist France represented in one classroom. Students are from diverse backgrounds and many of them are descendants of immigrant families and everyone has his/her own little story to tell. But it's those discussions in classroom are extremely revealing and insightful.

In diverse subject from religion, identity to politics, these little runts prove to be much more astute and knowledgeable about the world around them. The filming started amidst the series of terrorist attacks by Islamic terrorists that hit France. As Marine Le Pen, the head of the ultra nationalist, right wing party the National Rally, was running a presidential election, their discussion turns to racism and how the immigrants are being scapegoated and prejudiced against by Le Pen's rhetoric, that they see her as blatant racist. As these fascinating, no holds-barred in-class discussions show that they are like sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear and fully aware of their surroundings.

They learn about each other by seeing their home footage as they travel to their parents home country, be it Romania or French overseas region of Réunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Living in a media saturated age, these kids are much more savvy recording themselves but also extremely conscious about their screen presence. Baudelaire chooses to show not only their most revealing moments but also them being kids, as they fumble around and make mistakes.

The title Un Film Dramatique comes from the kids’ discussion about the film they are making. Is it a documentary? But the sound needs synchronization via slating and ambient sound also needs to be added. In their minds, a documentary is truth being recorded, so no manipulation. There are stories, in the film they are making, there's drama, hence dramatique. The film is refreshing documentation of the lives of middle school students reflecting on changing French society as well as a boundary breaking, playful cinematic experiment.

Un Film Dramatique opens 2/26 virtually. Please visit Cinema Guild for playdates in venues.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Immigrant Story at a Micro-level

Minari (2020) - Chung Minari

 Michael Gillespie, African American film scholar, says in his book, Film Blackness, "Black filmmakers are burdened with the rope chain of 'reality' in ways white people simply aren't." I think this can apply to any POC filmmakers in America making films about their stories. How do you go on about making a film about certain ethnic experience? Do you make it to appeal to the general public audience who are mostly white? And how do we perceive it as, from audience perspective? Speaking as an immigrant Korean-American male, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari touches upon a lot of issues that Korean-American males struggle with. But in the grand scheme of things, the film operates as a micro-level family drama in and of itself, which is as personal as it gets, largely devoid of the usual immigrant struggle against the odds in America. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing and am glad Minari is not a dignity porn that most films about non-white immigrants almost always turn out to be. But if you are expecting Steven Yeun’s character being a recipient of racial slurs and persecution in the rural Arkansas and overcoming odds to achieve that elusive American Dream, this film will surprise you in a good way.

Minari tells the story of the Yi family. Jacob (Steven Yeun) is seen excitedly introducing a large trailer house in the middle of an empty field. Monica (Han Yeri), tries to hide her disappointment in front of their children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim). It’s the 80s and the setting is rural Arkansas. Jacob moved his family from California in search of a fertile plot of land where he dreams of owning a vegetable farm. According to the locals, we later find out, the former owner of the land blew his brains out when his crops failed. But Jacob can’t be deterred. His stubbornness is the cause of the young couples countless argument. Monica, accustomed to living in the city, misses human interactions and community. Their job at the local chicken processing plant where they work as chicken sexers (they determine if the chicks are male or female and separate them), isn’t ideal and not that different from their life in California.

Jacob’s idea is to grow Korean vegetables and sell them to Korean restaurants to nearby Korean enclaves in Dallas and other big cities. But there are some problems he didn’t account for, such as the water shortage in his plot, and unpredictable weather, such as tornados. He’s also quick to dismiss any helps that come along the way, like water dowsing or friendly suggestions from a good-natured farmhand Paul (Will Patton), as hillbilly nonsense. Jacob’s desire to prove himself and his needs to provide for his family overshadow any of his shortcomings. Because of this mindset, he has no choice but trudge forward.

Things get better when Monica’s mom (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to live with them and take care of children. Her presence gives a much needed moral boost and emotional support Monica needed but to the kids, she is nothing like what a grandma is supposed to be. She is loud, vulgar and generally a bad influence. She also smells funny and force-feeds smelly medicine she brought from Korea (David has a heart condition).

It’s grandma and David’s tit-a-tat that gives Minari most of its laughs. David’s experiences seem very authentic if not a little extreme – like peeing in grandma’s drinks. Even though David sees her as an adversary at first, they bond as time goes along.

Steven Yeun, an unlikely Korean-American movie star who started his career not playing a typical Asian character is almost on the backward career trajectory here, playing perhaps his meatiest role to date. Yeun, whose angular face and light complexion suits a cosmopolitan city dweller rather than a rural, working-class everyman profile, goes against typecasting and does a great job playing Ajussi (a middle-aged Korean man). He got the mannerisms, boorish stubbornness, stern disciplinarian and dismissing of others in a typical Korean father figure down pat (except for drinking, perhaps).

Veteran Korean TV and film actress, Youn Yuh-jung shines as eccentric grandma who says the most inappropriate things in front of people just to embarrass her grandchildren. She also provides the pivotal moment of catharsis for the Yi family.

Will Patton, a veteran character actor who worked with Chung in his film Abigail Harm, lends his support, playing a hick farmhand and a Jesus freak, giving perhaps the most touching, humanistic performance of the year.

Drawing from his childhood memories, writer director Lee Isaac Chung's Minari is not so much as an heart-warming, uplifting immigrant story that A24 is aggressively trying to sell it as, in this award season - the press screener comes with a lengthy introductions by a CA congresswoman and a newly elected CA senator, both second generation immigrants no less, but a personal story about a family and their struggles within themselves, not as much with the outside force.

Minari is a small, very personal film that is not made to appeal to general (white) audiences. Having the film mostly in Korean and American cast only in the periphery are some of the bold choices director Chung makes. He understands that more personal storytelling from life experience comes across as the most universal, even it risks alienating general audiences which might come across as impersonal and distant.

Then again, it’s a typical American story, reminding us that this country is a land of immigrants. The second generation immigrant director also understands that memories are selective and unique to each individual. Playing with the idea of typical and atypical immigrant family and roles, he defies that ‘burdened with rope chain of reality’ with the film. After the success of Parasite, and the popularity of Korean culture and Steven Yeun, Minari has a lot going for it. The success of Minari will define how far we came as a society that a POC filmmaker doesn’t necessarily need to adhere to appeal to general white audiences anymore.

Minari opens 2/12 in select theaters and available on VOD.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


Deep Cover (1992) - Duke Screen Shot 2021-02-10 at 11.04.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-10 at 11.12.09 AM As far as the 90s hood films go, Bill Duke's Deep Cover cuts pretty deep. Maybe I shouldn't group the film with hood films, which in turn are message films, usually dealing with in and out of 'community'. But that's for another review. Deep Cover is a cold hard noir. I guess we can group it with Rage in Harlem (also directed by Duke, based on Harlem noir writer Chester Himes), One False Move and Glass Shield, all release around the same time.

Deep Cover poses itself as an interesting case study in black film noir. African American film scholar Michael Gillespie makes an interesting observation about noir, a genre film that grew out of post-war white angst as it rose from surrealism and existentialism coupled with hard-boiled literature. This world, filled with vice, moral ambiguity and misogyny. What takes place in there is the criminal undertaking of abject whites with the racial undertones of invisible black bodies. What black film noir does is casting a light on black people.

Stevens/Hull (Lawrence Fishburne) a Cincinnati cop with daddy issues, is recruited to go undercover to bring down a drug kingpin in LA, when he coolly gave the just right answer when a white federal agent Carver (Charles Martin Smith)'s asks a loaded question, "How can you tell between a black man and a nigger?" "Only a nigger would even consider answering that question." From the get-go, Deep Cover delves into Fishburne's conflicted character as a cop with 'all the personality traits of a criminal'. Once on the streets of LA, he quickly establishes himself in the drug dealing business. He befriends with a drug dealing defense attorney Jason (Jeff Goldblum) who has a fetishistic attachment for African American and indulges himself in the seedy world of Latino run drug-dealing business. An LA cop Taft (Clarence Williams III) is on their trail. Taft is a bible thumping father figure.

Even though there is a rapport between Hull and Jason, the tight script doesn't allow their bromance to the level of interracial duo in buddy cop movies. It's strictly business for Jason and for Hull, it's sheer necessity. In order to stop the flow of drugs coming in to the black neighborhood, Hull will need to not only deal, but also kill (with Carver's blessings) not to blow his cover. After taking down the expected targets of the police investigation, Hull goes for the top man of the drug organization, Guzman, a Latin American diplomat with ties to the high level US politicians - after all, this is the man is responsible for funneling drugs into the neighborhood of LA. But Carver pulls the plug on the operation. It's done. The State Department is taking over. Guzman can't be touched. The Man used Hull and screwed him.

Jason, blinded by his ambition as a big time drug kingpin, suggests pitching his synthetic drug idea to Guzman for the funding. So the trap is set at a harbor at night. With Taft on his trail and Jason not suspecting Hull to be a cop, and Hull still doing what's right even though his job is over converge.

Deep Cover is an interesting, above average noir with a black protagonist. Duke and co uses a genre to shed a light on the complex African American experiences.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Normalizing Hope

Le milieu du monde (1974) - Tanner Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 1.58.31 PM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 5.44.16 PM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 2.33.07 PM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 5.34.07 PM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 6.08.24 PM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 6.25.51 PM
In the beginning, we are introduced to a winter landscape of rural Switzerland, cold and dreary and desolate. There is a film crew setting up a dolly tracking shot from a distance. A female voice preludes the theme of the film - how giving context to a film is important - the time, 1974, the place Switzerland, etc and the film's got to do with normalizing hope. What unfolds for the next hour and a half is a working class romance between an out of towner waitress and a local engineer turned politician. The center of the world is wherever you are - each of us as a center.

Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) is a tall Italian from Venezia region arriving to a small rural town in Switzerland. She takes a job as a waitress at a local cafe where regulars hang out. Paul (Philippe Léotard), an engineer with a boxer's face, is being recruited and groomed by a local party officials to be a candidate for an upcoming elections for a seat in a local council or something. They are pushing him because he is young, married, a working class technician, someone who is obviously not a politician. Mrs. Schmidt, who owns the cafe, warns Adriana not to get into political conversations with the patrons. 'Business and politics don't mix'.

Adriana gets few sexist jokes and butt grabs from the locals at the cafe but she is a toughie and can handle them. She is an all around gal who's not born yesterday. She gets Paul's attention as he is in town for the election campaign and asks her out. It's a working class romance. But we know where it's going and it's not going to go well. People gossip and Paul's naive insistence that what's private affair is private while running for a political office is not going well. Adriana is just along for the ride. She keeps saying Paul doesn't really know her.

Alain Tanner's observation on a working class micro-affairs takes a cynical tone on Paul's false sense of hope - that he will leave his wife and move in with Adriana in to some fancy apartment. His hubris of showing off his 'Italian girlfriend' without thinking twice about what it means to his election, that it's all in context of the system- liberal democracy, class, sex in the 70s Switzerland. Election is just red herring because his loss is only mentioned in passing and everyone goes on the way it was before. It's no biggie: Politics is not a big deal either with the elites - they always can find another bloke or stay with the establishment, or working class - they can stop pretending to understand what those political slogans mean and go back to their lives. Adriana decides to leave town because she doesn't really know what she wants. It's her own volition. She will go and get a job at some factory. Everyone is in the middle of his/her world.

I understand what Tanner is trying to do in Le milieu du monde, but it's not all that successful. Carlisi and Léotard are affable enough. Juliette Berto shows up as a sexy peer waitress. But the matter-of-fact presentation and dreary winter setting are dry as hell. I'd try other Tanner's films some time soon.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Letting Go

Moving (1993) - Sômai Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 6.22.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.03.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.03.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.27.29 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.28.56 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.36.57 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 7.59.56 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.27.10 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.33.11 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.34.07 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.36.12 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.37.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.12.21 AM Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 8.14.09 AM A wide-eyed, bouncy 6th grader Ren (Tomoko Tabata) is not taking her parents’ separation well. At first, she doesn't quite get her father moving out of the house, which 3 of them shared. It slowly dawns on her that it will never be the same way again. Shinji Sômai's separation drama from a child's point of view takes place around Daimonji fire festival in Kyoto in the height of Summer. And it's a beauty.

Ren's displeasure with her situation manifests in classroom disturbances as she picks fights and starts a fire in a science lab. Her mother, enjoying her freedom for the first time, makes unilateral decisions and breaks her own written up house rules (constitutions they call it). Ren frequently runs away from home and spies on her dad outside his glass office building. Her plans to bring her parents together doesn't quite work, since they are quite selfish and have grown apart over the years.

After some violent incidents, Ren devises another plan, giving it a last shot at reuniting her estranged parents. She would arrange a trip to the Lake Biwa, just like they used to during Daimonji and her mom reluctantly agrees. After they get there, seeing it's impossible to reconcile their former happy family, Ren runs away and it turns into a journey of self-discovery and growth.

Moving works largely because of Tabata, a cat eyed child actor not afraid of delving deep into physical and emotional journey of acceptance and letting go. Sômai's always moving camera, doesn't lose focus on the young heroine and never gets bogged down in cheap sentimentality. The almost silent long sequence two-third of the way where Ren gets herself lost in the forest at night, is breathtaking.

Parents, however selfish, are not monsters and do care about you and love you. Sometimes it doesn't work out. It might be hard to grasp for a 6th grader. Children still can count more good memories with their hands and run out of fingers than old people do. Accepting that they can keep only a handful of those memories is tough. Using the backdrop of fire festival and the power of burning and renewal, Moving is an infinitely wise and beautiful film about growing up.