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.