Saturday, September 30, 2023

Out of Focus

In Water (2023) - Hong Screen Shot 2023-09-20 at 4.12.00 AM Hong Sang-soo, a Korean auteur who's singular minimalist filmmaking has comfortably found home in film festivals everywhere, again, presents two films at the NYFF this year unsurprisingly. In Our Day (had its premiere at Cannes) and In Water. Even clocking just over an hour, In Water will test audience's patience, and I expect there will be many walkouts. It's not because the film is inherently bad (I guess it depends on where you stand on Hong's often idiosyncratic films about not very much, but I digress), but because film is out of focus most of its running time. Expect frustrated audiences getting up and complaining to the ushers that there's something wrong with its projection throughout. But as the film plays out, there are spurts of scenes that are in focus, telling the audience that the rest of the film is intended to be out of focus. Now having made over thirty features, and no problem financing his microbudget films, Hong makes whatever he wants and however he wants. In Water, just like last year's The Novelist's Film, concerns artist's struggle to create and finding inspirations. It just happens to be all out of focus!

So, what does he try to convey in these fuzzy mostly static long shots? Does it reflect the young protagonist's creative block? Does it represent Hong's failing eyesight? We don't get to see three actors' faces most of the time. Does it symbolize the struggle to create is universal by making them sort of anonymous? It is a bold statement for sure.

Sung-mo (Shin Seok-ho, Introduction, Walk-up) is location scouting for his short film in an off-season southern seaside town with two friends, Sang-guk (Ha Seong-guk) and Namhee (Kim Seung-yun). It is revealed in their conversation that the former actor is trying out his directing and the two friends from college days are there to help out. The young filmmaker is putting his own money into this week-long excursion without a script. He is trying to find inspirations in the surroundings.

There had been some ideas that Sung-mo had for a project but he is less certain now if they will work. Sang-guk and Namhee are cordial enough to follow his leads, braving the cold, windy weather by the sea. While looking out over the cliff, while Namhee shows off her Taekwondo kicks to Sang-guk, Sung-mo notices a woman collecting trash on the rocky beach below. He goes down there to talk to her. She is volunteering to clean the beaches because she lives in the neighborhood.

Then there is a phone call Sung-mo makes to a friend (ex-girlfriend?) who is in Malaysia, voiced by Hong's partner/muse, Kim Min-hee. He asks her if he can use the song he composed for her birthday in the past to be featured in the film. He is trying to gather inspirations from everywhere.

Just like reflecting his own creative process, with In Water, Hong shows where he draws his inspirations from - the surroundings, past relationships, supportive friends, etc. But obviously, Sung-mo, a young man who is dabbling in directing for the first time, is not Hong, a seasoned filmmaker in his 60s. It ends with Sang-guk filming him walking into the sea and I burst out laughing, because that was how I ended my extremely pretentious student film that I made long ago. But at least mine was in focus!

Hong is being playful here within the margins of his minimalist aesthetics that he cultivated over the years. The film being out of focus might mean a lot of different things as I mentioned above, but knowing Hong through his films over the years, I don't think there's greater mystery, deep philosophical subtext, or puzzle box to solve in In Water. He is at a career stage where he can comfortably experiment with form, within the minimalistic confines of his filmic world. And I am loving it.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Unseen-World of Connections

Remembering Every Night (2022) - Kiyohara Remembering-03_s_N0A3551_GuamaUchida and Ai Mikami copy It's a warm spring day. A group of musicians are leisurely rehearsing while sitting in the park lawn in Tama-shi, a quiet suburb of Tokyo. A key is missing from a small Casio keyboard player, and they can't continue. They disband for the day, and this is how Yui kiyohara's quietly enchanting, Remembering Every Night starts. The main thread involves a day in the life of three different women as their lives intersect and don't. Unhurriedly, in series of long takes, Kiyohara's second feature floats in its own delicate rhythm with warmth and longing, very much like the frangrant early summer air and sound of outdoors it portrays.

The three loosely interwoven stories meet and go separate ways naturally, complimenting each other and adding layer and texture of lived human experiences. The first thread of the story features an unnamed middle-aged, unemployed woman's (mis)adventure, getting lost. We observe the woman as she does her daily shores - getting groceries, visiting an unemployment office, looking through mails and other items. Through the conversations she engages in with others, we get her background a little and the modern Japanese society in a nutshell: she used to be a kimono dresser who was let go because of economic downturn and the loss of people's interest in traditions. This quiet, unassuming woman is quite lost (figuratively and literally) in what she wants to do - jobs that the unemployment office suggests - a salesclerk, a receptionist at a company, et cetera, don't appeal to her. While sorting through her mail, one of her neighbor's postcards announcing their move to their new home, becomes her destination for the day. But she becomes helplessly lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood soon enough.

While on her way to an wild goose chase, our middle-aged heroine encounters a couple of kids trying to get their unseen shuttlecock stuck in the tree in front of a housing complex for the elderly. She tries to get it down using the badminton racket to no avail, then she starts to climb uo the tree. The kids lose their interests and leave her on the tree. This tiny, almost insignificant scene is observed by a local gas meter reader, doing her rounds in the neighborhood. These transitions - the shift of focus, occur naturally and seamlessly in Remembering Every Night. Then, this young municipal worker is called upon by one of the elder residents of the building, being chatty while putting her laundry to dry on her balcony. An elderly resident has gone missing. Would the municipal worker be on the lookout for him? The elderly woman requests while handing her a bag full of mandarin oranges. The municipal worker soon finds the said elderly man lost in the neighborhood, mistaking other people's houses for his own. Here, Kiyohara gently addresses the nation's aging population and loneliness.

Then we go back to the lost woman in her adventure story. She sees a young woman practicing dance moves in the park in the distance. She unconsciously mimics the dance moves of the young woman - one of the many slight comic moments of the film, as she passes through the park field. Then the film's focus shifts again to the young woman, a university student in her final year, on her way to visit her dead boyfriend's parents, to hand them the receipt for a film roll that was never picked up from the film developing lab. The mother of the dead boyfriend suggests for her to pick up and keep the photos herself.

Remembering Every Night captures the unseen-world of delicate web that connects us all together. The film's very much in the same vein as Hamaguchi Ryusuke's 2021 crowd pleaser, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy but from a different, quieter, less punctuated angle. The film's nostalgic tone, imbued with contemplation of time, memories, loss of memories and longing, lingers long after its credits roll.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Cinematic Vs Literal

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2022) - Földes Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 10.28.08 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 10.28.51 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 10.52.26 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 11.15.47 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 11.19.54 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 11.23.05 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 11.45.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 11.47.40 AM Based on several stories written by famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami from 3 different short story volumes, the animated feature Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman has the same qualities of Murakami's droning writing style. It has some fantastical, lyrical moments, like a giant talking frog, flies from a willow tree burrowing into a woman's ear or giant fish swimming in the ceiling of a love hotel, but it doesn't really justify why full on animation project is called for, for the Murakami style of writing and its wordiness. It's especially challenging considering the stories, however carefully selected to be interweaved, are very much literal adaptations, unlike the recent masterpieces by international auteurs who more freely, adventurously adapted the essence of Murakami far better - Burning by Lee Chang-dong and Drive My Car by Rusuke Hamaguchi, respectively.

Because of their literalness, the animated stories in Blind Willow accentuates the somnambulistic nature of Murakami's prose. The wife of one of the main characters who one day just packs up and leaves, leaving a note saying, "Living with you was like living with a chunk of air," encapsulates my feeling of watching the film and perhaps how I become regarding Murakami's writing over all in general.

It's not only Murakami's forever oblique prose that gets to me, but his women characters, over the years, bug me as well. They are there to be served only as objects of male desires and only to have casually sex with them or talk about sex in very frank manners. I mean, come on man, who asks, how sex with your wife was or why would they divulge intimate information about having sex while sounding alarm of a bear attack in the woods, to a total stranger? Women, in his writings, seems incapable of communicating with his male protagonists other than through sex.

From what I understand, Blind Willow, Sleeping Women was first wholey filmed in live action, capturing the movement of actors in 'play acting', then animated and heads are added and character expressions, animated. I can't quite decide if they are racist caricatures of Asian faces or just plain weird with their features exaggerated. While I appreciate that they are not illustrated in cute anime style, I can't help wondering over the filmmakers' decision-making in depicting what they see as authentic 'Japanese' faces.

I think the film being done in animation to display the surrealistic qualities of the author's writing robs of our imagination in this case. If the unreachable distances between man and woman, emptiness of modern world, 'searching one's self' in droning prose on paper that goes on for hundreds of pages sounds shallow and boring, they are boring in animation as well, unfortunately.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Out of Time

Wanda (1970) - Loden 965_image_01 Wanda, a waifish blonde woman, played by Barbara Loden who also wrote and directed, became the subject of discussion, with its fairly recent revival, on its nascent feminism. Can this passive woman, pushed about to and fro, who shows no urgency in her actions, be seen as a proto-feminist?

Wanda is first seen crashing on her sister's couch and getting kicked out by her unsympathetic brother-in-law. Then she is walking across the Pennsylvania coal field in her white dress. She shows up at a divorce court late and relinquishes her rights to her children and grants her husband the divorce. Then she gets fired from her job at the sewing factory. Her boss tells her that she works too slow. After one night stand with an older man, she is soon ditched at the road stop ice cream stand. After falling asleep in the movie theater and losing all of her belongings, she runs into Mr. Dennis, whom she first mistakes for a bartender, when in fact he was in the process of robbing the place. She clings to Mr. Dennis who is physically and verbally abusive to her, as they hit the road together. He has an elaborate bank robbing scheme that involves kidnapping that he needs Wanda's help with. She gets lost on her way to the bank and arrives too late and have Mr. Dennis killed in the process. Oops.

Wanda seems to be always late to the party: the divorce court, the sewing factory, at the bank robbery. It's as if she is consciously late (slow quitting). With her options in life being very limited, she seems to be holding on to her time as if it is her only resistance against the world that's expectant of her blonde female self. It's not an easy movie to like. After fighting off a rapist, she ends up in a pub where other females show her some solidarity and kindness, she still seems very lost and frightened in an unforgiving world at the end. Wanda is certainly an interesting one.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Life is a Party

Tótem (2023) - Avilés Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.09.29 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.12.52 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.15.38 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.15.53 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.16.11 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 5.18.52 PM Screen Shot 2023-09-01 at 11.01.23 AM Takes place in a day, Lila Avilés's Tótem tells a family gathering for the birthday of Tona, a young man dying of cancer, seen through the eyes of his 9 year old daughter, Sol (Naíma Sentíes). With her mom who is a theater actor, she is on her way to her grandfather's house. At the house, it's total chaos as Tona's two older sisters who are trying to prepare for the party. With more and more guests arriving - cousins and friends, sisters get on each others nerves - they argue about the responsibilites and about money, while Sol roams the house, eavesdropping, discovering various animals, playing with her cousins. Most of all, she wants to see her father, who is incapacitated most of the time in a room with the help of a personal nurse, Cruz (played by a great actress, Teresa Sánchez- Summer of Goliath, Fauna, Dos Estaciones). Tona, in great pain, is unsure if he can make it to the party.

We often try our best to shield children from the ugly life of grownups: responsibilites, money, parenthood, guilt.... Young Sentís, like Anna Torres before her in Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, shines as a young, innocent child full of life, but who is old enough to realize that there's something awry about adulthood. Death is something we experience more and more as we grow older. It changes you and perhaps makes you grow up faster. The ending shot of young Sol looking straigth through the birthday cake candles, conveys that understanding without saying any words. Delicate and infinitely patient in her storytelling, Avilés let the film play out as it is supposed to. A beautiful film.