Friday, April 28, 2023


Return to Seoul (2022) - Chou Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 10.33.45 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 8.43.26 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.19.29 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 10.35.35 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.39.04 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.39.49 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.44.51 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.43.55 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 10.36.29 PMScreen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.50.02 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 9.53.38 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-27 at 10.37.15 PM Freddie (Park Ji-min) is a young Korean born French woman in Seoul. She is staying at a hostel for couple of weeks. She is outgoing, impulsive and makes mousy Tena (Guka Han), whom she just met at the hostel and has been acting as Freddie's interpreter, very uncomfortable. It is slowly revealed that Freddie lied to her French parents to come to Korea to find her biological parents. Through the adoption agency, she gets a prompt that her father is willing to meet her. But no words from her mother. He lives in Gunsan a port city in the South West Korea, with his new family. And their encounter is pretty typical and cringey - Father and his family are extremely apologetic and eager to reconnect. Father insists that she relocate to Korea permanently and live with him. He will even find her a good Korean man to marry! It's all guilty conscience, over compensation and pure sentimentality. Freddie, irked by the experience and regretting her impulsive decisions, cuts the trip short and comes back to Seoul. But her father won't stop drunk texting her, apologizing and demanding. She has to put a stop to it.

Two years later, and still living in Seoul, Freddie, now 27, is working for a French company while having amorous relationship with an underground tattoo artist and having wild parties. She meets an older French arms dealer too through a dating app. She has picked up some Korean as well. But there is always a sad side to her in quiet moments.

Another five years pass by. Freddie is a smartly dressed arms dealer now, selling missiles to the Korean National Defence Force. More confident now, she can bring her French boyfriend to meet with her father. She can even let her doe eyed father touch her scars on her collarbone who got in a trip to Thailand. Her mother finally contacts her through the agency. And we can guess that this has been the reason why she stayed in Seoul for the last 7 years, away from her French family and friends. The reunion is a tearful one.

Park's performance is a revelation. She makes Freddie a strong willed, fascinating young woman in search of herself. Her magnetic presence makes her always watchable. Seeing from the perspective of an adoptee and a modern woman in a still very patriarchal society, Return to Seoul is a visceral journey toward self-discovery and finding identity. The quiet ending reminds me a lot of Drive My Car. Return to Seoul has that novelistic quality about it that I liked a lot.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Of Mountains and Men

Le otto montagne (2022) - van Gronigen, Vandermeersch Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 12.16.23 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 12.15.11 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 12.24.09 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 1.24.59 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 3.34.47 PM Screen Shot 2023-04-21 at 3.35.16 PM Based on Paolo Gognetti's book of the same title, Belgian filmmakers duo Felix van Gronigen and Charlotte Vandermeersch (The Broken Circle Breakdown)'s The Eight Mountains is an affecting epic tale of male friendship that is quite rare to see in films these days.

Shot in fitting full frame by Titane and Raw DP Ruben Impens, highlighting the majestic alpine peaks of Northern Italy, van Gronigen and Vandermeersch go on unhurriedly, telling the life-long friendship of Pietro (Luca Marinelli, Martin Eden, The Old Guard) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi).

Narrated by an older Pietro, who would eventually become a writer, the film starts with him as an 11-year-old city boy from Turin spending his summer vacation with his parents up in the rural mountain regions. He befriends Bruno, who describes himself as the only child left in the region, because everyone has left to look for work in the city, including his father, as farming is a dying profession. Pietro's father, an engineer from the city, who secretly dreams about living the care-free life in nature, brings his family back to the mountains year after year. And the two boys' friendship grows.

The scenes where two boys forge their friendship -- swimming in the pristine alpine lake, playing in the field and hiking in the stunning mountain vistas -- are really something to behold. And these are innocent times, when children are less aware of their position in society and class differences.

Because of their budding friendship, Pietro's parents ask Bruno's guardians (uncle and his wife, who are cheesemakers) to take Bruno with them to Turin to get educated. In young Pietro's mind, it doesn't make sense: why do they want to take Bruno into the city life they always complain about? And why would Bruno even want to leave these heavenly, carefree surroundings? The move doesn't happen when Bruno's father, a brick layer who's rarely around, refuses the offer. And they stop going back to the mountain for vacation, partly because Pietro is now a teen and going through a rebellious stage, and resents his father, who is a salaryman, married to his work.

After the death of Pietro's father, their friendship re-emerges, now they are both bearded 30-something men and supposedly all grown up. Pietro finds Bruno waiting in the mountain village and takes him straight to an abandoned ruin of a cabin that they once stayed as children, while they were hiking with Pietro's father. Pietro learns that his father and Bruno kept in touch all those years. It turns out that his father had been helping Bruno, and sharing their love of the mountains, hiking together. That it was his wish for them to rebuild the cabin. And it dawns on Pietro that Bruno became a surrogate son to his father.

He finds his father's journal on the top of 'Grana,' one of the mountain peaks they frequented, detailing his thoughts and wishes, and how he wanted to live more freely. Pietro, who has not found the path in life and struggling, accepts the challenge, and the two men work on building the cabin together that summer. It will be their summer house. It is one of Pietro's girlfriends, who hooks up with Bruno upon visiting there and eventually starts a family with him in the mountains. Pietro laments how Bruno has found his path in life and he himself has not. But now Bruno has to contend with a struggling cheese-making business & a family to care for. The mountain life is not as carefree as when they were children.

In the meantime, Pietro, searching for the meaning of life, finds it in writing and the Himalayan mountains in Nepal. But their friendship continues, as he comes back, time and time again to spend his summer days in the cabin. It is Bruno who calls Pietro for help when life gets to be too much. Pietro comes back to the cabin from Nepal without hesitation. They argue about how to live life and say hurtful things to each other. And Bruno decides to spend the winter in the cabin alone.

The strength of The Eight Mountains is its complex depiction of a male friendship. It speaks volumes in their knowing glances and silences as they spend time together up in the mountains. Our circumstances change but the mountains don't. It illustrates men's ultimate desire and to retreat from the human world and finding it futile.

As they grow older, Pietro and Bruno understand this connundrum, and take refuge in each other's company. This all sounds corny as hell in words, but van Gronigen and Vandermeersch's earnest approach works beautifully, with awe-inspiring views of nature and superb, stoic acting by the two leads. Swedish singer Daniel Norgren's soulful, melancholic soundtrack does here what Leonard Cohen did for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film is one of the year's best.

The Eight Mountains opens Friday, April 28 in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and Angelika Film Center, with a national rollout to follow. Visit the official site for more information.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Temple

Hilma (2022) - Hallström Hilma 1 Hilma af Klint, a pioneering Swedish abstract painter whose work predates Kandinsky and Mondrian but forgotten in history until recently, gets a biopic from a fellow Swede, Lasse Hallström with his wife (Lena Olin) and daughter (Tora), playing the titular heroine young and old. And the seasoned director zeros in on the injustices she had to face because of her sex in a male dominent, still very patriarchal society in late 19th century. It starts with the death of her younger sister, which haunts her for the rest of her life as she becomes involved in spritiualism and the life-long friendship with 4 other women (known as 'the Five'). Hallström rightly suggests the painter's lesbian tendencies as she was never married and had close correspondences with Anna (Catherine Chalk).

Hilma soon finds the writings of a popular new age German philosopher of the time, Rudolph Steiner (Tom Wlaschiha), and meeting with him and getting his validation of her work becomes her life-long obsession. In telling her story, Hallström makes Hilma a proto-feminist, trailblazing artist, but at the same time, a victim of patriarchal society. She was an artist who wanted to find a meaning of life through art. But with her stunning work, she didn't need a validation from any men.

I personally got to experience af Klint's work at Guggenheim, aptly titled Paintings for the Future in 2019. Seeing her largely abstract work, in person, was an overwhelming experience: their enormity, geometric shapes and colors make long lasting impression. Her work- I could describe them as somewhere between colorful scientific charts and abstract celestial maps. Hallström connects the dots with af Klint's spiritual journey through her background - a curious, rebelious young woman who was interested in math and science, moving into painting in the hopes of communicating with the spirits and mapping out the universe to make sense of the world. Looking at her gigantic painting in one place, you really get the feeling that you are in a temple of some sort. And this is the fact that the film drives in with older Hilma (played wonderfully by Olin) trying to get a funding for a temple that she herself designed (which happens to be the spiral shape, like Guggenheim!) to exhibit her work in her later life.

Tora Hallström gives a great performance as a strong willed, spiritual woman who thought her abstract art was the result of the spirits working through her. Chalk's also great as Anna, who becomes a benefector/lover who finds Hilma's belief and spirit irresistable. Hilma the film is not revolutionary or anything. With its typical linear plot and timeline, it is rather an old fashioned, standard biopic. It does have some visual flaires with flashbacks and underwater scenes. But the most intriguing part of the film is definitely af Klint herself.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Grey Zone

Twilight/Szürkület (1990) - Fehér Screen Shot 2023-04-15 at 11.39.28 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-14 at 9.54.29 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-14 at 9.57.34 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-15 at 11.41.57 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-14 at 11.06.39 AM Hungarian filmmaker György Fehér's seldom seen 1990 masterpiece, Twilight, gets a 4K restoration treatment by Hungarian Film Institute and distributed by Arbelos, the LA based distribution and restoration company, known for their 4K rerelease of such classics as Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, Matsumoto Toshio's Funeral Parade of Roses, Wendel Harris's Chameleon Street as well as fellow Hungarian master Béla Tarr's Satantango and Damnation. Fehér who only directed two feature films during his lifetime, but was a close collaborator on number of Tarr's films and shared similar aesthetics. Shot by Miklós Gurban (Werckmeister Harmonies), the film is composed only of some fifty long tracking shots. And it is stunning.

A retiring police inspector (Péter Haumann) is called in to investigate a murder of a little girl in rural town deep in the forest. The local police suspect a traveling salesman who found the body. But our inspector thinks otherwise. From the descriptions of the girl's classmates, the killer is a 'giant' in a black coat who lured her with hedgehogs- chocolate balls that resemble the spikey creature. But even before the investigation concludes, a professor ominously warns our inspector that the murderer won't get caught. He even questions the existence of the murderer.

After the suicide death of their only suspect, the inspector sets up a trap, using a little girl and her mother in a remote cottage in the forest as a bait to lure the killer in. But it only exposes the crippling inability to protect the innocents and a man's violent nature.

Based on an existential crime novella, It Happened in Broad Daylight (also a basis for Sean Penn's The Pledge) by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Twilight paints a morally and physically murky netherworld where innocents gets punished and criminals never get caught. You can't pinpoint the time frame in Twilight: The description of the suspect's 'old styled automobile' turns out to be a Volkswagen Beetle. The apprehending police officers wear long decorative swords on their waists while the inspector is in his fedora and long raincoat. In its stunning black and white tracking shots in constant rain and fog, the film creates a gray inter-zone, where bad things happen repeatedly as if time stands still.

There are some show-stopping, memorable long sequences in the film, including one taking place in a classroom full of children looking at the camera as it dolly past them back and forth, foreground/background use of a suspecting luring in the girl playing with a ball, and the inspector confronting a suspect as the camera wraps around them 360 degrees. You can instantly recognize that Fehér was in the same school of filmmaking as Tarr. With sparse soundtrack by Popol Vuh, it's arresting and hypnotic.

Werckmeister Harmonies, released in 2000, was a cornerstone for many cinephiles to experience the art of slow, contemplative cinema. Sure there were other films with long creeping dolly shots in the past. But Werckmeister was the first one that we really could clearly tell that the director's intent on holding each shots, forever. The masterful compositions, oblique dialog, political subtexts all had hypnotic power. It was an amazing cinematic experience and great introduction to Hungarian cinema. So the question is, some 30 years later, how does Twilight hold up in the world where people watch films on their phones and streaming platforms where you could pause and/or fast-forward at any time? I believe Twilight makes a great case for seeing films in theaters again. With 4K restoration, the black and white film is gorgeous to look at. Its pacing is so refreshingly different than Adderall induced modern cinema. Let Twilight wash over you. It's blissful.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Legionnaire's Disease

The Human Flowers of Flesh (2022) - Wittmann Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 8.45.07 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 8.37.35 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 8.40.50 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.05.46 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.22.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.25.17 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.27.12 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.28.25 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.30.28 AM Screen Shot 2023-04-07 at 9.44.14 AM "When you have no home, a round world is the best you could have," is one of many poignant phrases uttered in Helena Wittmann's sopomore film The Human Flowers of Flesh. Just like her debut film Drift, Wittmann's preoccupation with being at sea continues. "A woman from Marselle who lives on her sailing ship with her crew," turns out to be Ida (Angeliki Papoulia of Dog Tooth). Most of the film we see Ida and her crew doing chores and living on the ship - cleaning, cooking, reading, exchanging annecdotes and stories and swimming.

We see forever undulating sea on the deck and through the round windows from inside the ship, the horizontal sea level bobbing up and down as the ship sails through the waves. Just like Drift, the long stretches of these scenes has its own hypnotic rhythm. The crew converse in many different languages - English, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Greek and so on, yet nothing is explained about their background. Instead, Wittmann concentrates on the film's visually blissful moments - the shimmering sunlight reflected on the waves just below the deck, a piece of reef Ida brought from Antigua being passed around the crew, a dance party on the deck at night with colorful flags and lights gleaming and the blue sea as Ida swims back and forth. There are some show stoppers like the camera plunging into the blue depth to find a wreckage of a downed WWII plane at the bottom of the ocean floor. The film's full of sensual images that recalls Claire Denis films. But I think the aime here is different. In Wittmann's hands, the gleaming water and the sun are the subjects. They are vital to human life and we see that in Ida and her crew's uneroticised browned skin.

Speaking of Denis, Wittmann touches upon the legacy of colonialism and French Legionnaires in Mediterranean world and North Africa. As the ship lands on the shores of these parts, we see Ida walking past the military ports. At times we hear the military choir singing a legionnaire's hyper militaristic song of sacrifice. Then we see paratroopers jumping out of the planes, dotting the frame against the blue sky in Corsica. It's Denis Lavant's presence that accentuates this historical context cinematically. As we cinephiles are aware, Lavant played a lovelorn dancing French Legionnaire in Claire Denis's masterpiece, Beau Travail, in 1999. Lavant, almost a quarter decade older but still very much a physical presence, shows up at the end of the film in the streets of North Africa, and invites Ida, who's been following him, for some scrambled eggs in his flat. Is this Wittmann's way of commenting on the colonialism or what's left of it? I'd like to think that it's more of a kinship between two people who understand not having a home and its loneliness.

Poupolina, also starring in any less enigmatic A Little Love Package (by Argentine Gaston Solnicki), rises as a big supporter/collaborator of new talents who are pushing the cinematic boundaries into uncharted territories. And I very much welcome it.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Gazes, Mischief & Defiance

L'opera Mouffe (1958) - Varda Screen Shot 2023-04-03 at 12.09.10 AM L’opera Mouffe is a 16 minute short film Agnès Varda directed in 1958 after her feature debut Le Pointe Courte. Pregnant with her first child, Varda made the film in her immediate neighborhood on rue Mouffetard, in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris. It is a mix of observational documentary and avant-garde style, filmic diary of a pregnant woman. It is done in her irreverent, self-reflexive, hybrid filmmaking that she was known for all of her career. The tagline of the film is carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard à Paris par une femme enciente en 1958. It has a catalog-like structure with the title cards - The Lovers, Feelings of Nature, Pregnancy, Dearly Departed, Joyous Festival, Drunks, Anxiety, Cravings and so on. With the narration/singing, the film depicts the mind of a pregnant woman as she observes both lively and harsh daily lives of the inhabitants of rue Mouffetard.

The film jumps around from one imagery to another. With loosely associated images and themes, L’opera Mouffe is a typical, Joyous and life affirming Varda film in a little package that showcases all of her usual themes and preoccupations in her later works - gazes, object/subject relationship, human bodies - especially female bodies, frank depiction of sex, aging and destitution. Screen Shot 2023-03-28 at 3.03.04 PM Varda starts the film with her own naked, pregnant body. Her naked torso, seated against the black backdrop which accentuates her very large pregnant belly. There are many scenes in the beginning of the film with young lovers’ mingling bodies in various close ups- the contours, the crevasses, dimples & goosebumps. It is not the question of whether she was comfortable with showing nudes, as much as seeing the world through her perspective - “the world is defined by how I look and not how I’m looked at.” (Ince, 613)

The haptic visuality, which the eyes function as organs of touch, whereas optic visuality sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space, haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. (Ince, 603) Indeed, considering the next shot after Varda’s big pregnant belly are closeups of a giant pumpkin sliced up and its innards scraped out by an unseen farmer at the market. Through the deployment of a haptic gaze, Varda’s body - the filming and the filmed body - becomes here the feeling thing and subject-object Merleau-Ponty describes. It’s a self-portrait in haptic, rather than optical space. (Ince, 605)

Post-feminism constitutes a standpoint from which Western European female filmmakers disentangle their agency from unresolved issues in feminist praxis and theory: how to identify and develop feminine identity and expression within a society and a film system founded on male-dominant models of subjectivity. (Maule, 193) Throwing in her own naked, pregnant body first and foremost at the start of a film, Varda puts detractors questioning her as a feminist filmmaker to rest. And she did this in 1958. Screen Shot 2023-03-28 at 3.05.07 PM A simple narrative in L’opera Mouffe is a tale of young love. We see a young beautiful couple in the beginning: naked, embracing, smiling and making love in bed in their tiny habitat: A snapshot of a paradise in the biblical sense. The sequence is full of joy and happiness, directly contrasting the old and destitute habitants Varda films on rue Mouffetard.

The image follows the young couple’s happy thrist. Beautifully composed in the backyard of Varda’s dwelling on rue Mouffetard, with bare trees in the background, the nude female actor lies in a makeshift bed, looking at her reflections and smiling.

In Lacanian sense, the moment in which the infant looks at his reflection in the mirror is when the child develops a sense of self. Before this, the child doesn’t think of himself as an individual at all, but simply exists as a unified subject, as one with his surroundings. Therefore, the development of a sense of identity leads to a distorted image of true self. This reminds me of many of the mirror scenes in Varda’s filmography, most notably Cleo from 5 to 7 and Beaches of Agnès. In Cleo, when the protagonist first sees herself in the mirror, after being told her fate by a fortune teller, it is to reassure herself the sense of self. That she is still beautiful and that gives her the feeling that she is more alive than others. It’s that youthful beauty that says all is well. As the film progresses, with fractured mirrors, Cleo learns to leave her distorted version of self in the mirror and become free from how the society expects to see her as. In Beaches, Varda sets up multiple mirrors on the beach, as she walks on by and sees reflections of herself in multitudes of angle, suggesting a kaleidoscopic view of her 70 year career and life. The young couple disappears in the middle of the film, then reappears at the end to embrace, not only by themselves this time, but surrounded by the inhabitants of rue Mouffetard, in the middle of crowded street, suggesting that they go out of their own little world to face the real world while still keeping their love and harmonious relationship within the community. Screen Shot 2023-03-28 at 3.08.12 PM There are many instances when Varda’s unsuspecting subjects on the street realizing they are being filmed and looking straight into her camera in L’opera Mouffe. This shot is not the first instance that happens in the film. They are both men and women. But more often than not, it’s the male subjects who wears intense displeasure on their faces.

It is interesting to think about Laura Mulvey’s notion of male gaze in cinema when viewing the film. In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active male and passive female. (Mulvey, 837) The images of woman as passive raw material for the active gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form - illusionistic narrative film. (Mulvey, 843)

Again, considering Mulvey’s book was first published in 1975, Varda seems to be a way ahead of the curb in terms of her feminist filmmaking practice, defying patriarchal order of the world early on. Screen Shot 2023-03-28 at 3.38.59 PM The ending sequence features a tracking shot of a visibly pregnant woman carrying a heavy load of groceries on the street. The title card reads “des envies” (cravings), followed by the shots of fishes in the outdoor fish stalls and various meat displays in butcher shop windows. The same woman stops by at the florist and starts voraciously devouring flowers. Perhaps Varda was commenting on weird cravings of a pregnant woman. But when we think of flower eating metaphors in art and literature, we think of lotus eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, an island tribe who are in a state of blissful forgetfulness. The term is often associated with people who indulges in pleasure and luxury rather than dealing with practical concerns. Many of Varda’s films, there are both sad and good moments, but all of her woman characters, there’s joy in being a woman and whether there’s a happy ending or tragedy with the choices they make for themselves. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir, “You are not born a woman, you become a woman.” (Kline, ed. 96) She explains woman’s prerogatives very nicely in an interview:

“If I enjoy pregnancy as a sexual event, it’s my life, my body! Many anti-feminist women don’t. If you choose to have children, pregnancy is a natural event, you should enjoy it. I’m not recommending the way the Church tells me to enjoy it, as a duty, or strengthen the state or the family. It’s never talked about, but most women actually enjoy sexy more when they’re pregnant, for reasons we don’t really understand. I supposed that has to do with many things. But should I deny it? World that make me a better feminist? A woman should let herself feel good being fat and full of baby, that’s her privilege. A model figure isn’t everything, and if that’s what you want, you can go back to it later.” (Kline, ed. 96)


Ince, Kate. “Feminist Phenomenology and the Film World of Agnès Varda.” Hypatia 28, no. 3 (2013): 602–17.

Kline, T. Jefferson, ed. “Agnès Varda: Interviews.” University Press of Mississippi, 2014: 92-101.

Maule, Rosanna. “Beyond Auteurism : New Directions in Authorial Film Practices in France Italy and Spain Since the 1980s.” Bristol UK: 2008 :Intellect: 1-296.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism :Introductory Readings.” Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP,1999: 833-44.