Monday, October 13, 2008

PIFF: Day Six

Souad El-Bouhati's debut feature Française is a about the conflict between a westernized Moroccan girl and her traditional parents. The film opens in France, where Sofia (played as a child by Alexandra Martinez) is a happy and bright girl who gets good grades in school. However, her father (Maher Kamoun) is out of work and homesick for Morocco. Late one night, Sofia's entire family gets in the car and drives off. Ten years later, Sofia (played as a teenager by Hafsia Herzi) is living in Morocco. During the week, she studies at a boarding school in the city, and on weekends, she helps her father on his farm in the countryside. All seems to be going well, but Sofia desperately wants to return to France. Her mother (Farida Khelfa) and father, on the other hand, think it's about time she got married. I found the ending, in which western and traditional attitudes are miraculously reconciled, unconvincing in its optimism.

The story plays like Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud's Persepolis (2007) in reverse. In both the film and the wonderful comic book that inspired it, Satrapi told the story of how she went to Vienna after the Iranian Revolution because her parents thought it would be safer for her. When she returned to Iran as an adult, she found that she no longer recognized her own country. If Française is never as compelling (or as funny, for that matter), it's in part because Morocco is not Iran. When Sofia and her friends have a party, it's the concierge who breaks it up, not the police. Without any institutional repression to speak of, the film requires Sofia's parents to be as belligerent as Satrapi's parents were understanding or else there wouldn't be any drama. El-Bouhati shows some talent behind the camera (particularly, an eye for the landscape), but the film is undone by the unoriginal, under-ambitious and under-cooked screenplay.

Hong Sang-soo has made eight films since 1996, but Night and Day is the first I've seen. A French-Korean co-production, it opens with its hero, Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), who paints clouds, arriving in Paris. An expository intertitle informs us that Sung-nam smoked pot with some American students in Soeul who were later picked up by the popo. In custody, the students revealed Sung-nam's name to the cops. Fearing arrest, he got on the next flight to Paris. This all sounds a great deal more exciting than what we actually witness in the film. At the airport, Sung-nam makes small talk in English with a weird Frenchman. On the street, he runs into an old girlfriend, Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin), now living in Paris. Through Min-sun, he meets Yoo-jung (Park Eun-hye), an art student, and spends much of the film trying to seduce her. At night he makes pathetic phone calls to his wife in Seoul. Without a work visa, he cleans houses to make money. There's an amusing subplot in which Sung-nam meets a North Korean man, Kyeong-su (Lee Seon-gyun), who some how got permission to study painting in Paris. I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with the film's meandering storyline, and at 145 minutes, it's scandalously long for such an unambitious film.

If the storytelling is low key and plodding, Hong's style is fittingly unremarkable. His mise en scène is boring, with the actors sitting or standing still as they deliver their lines. Hong sometimes punctuates his static camera set-ups with awkward zooms. Between the drab art direction and careless cinematography, this is one of the most unattractive looking films I can recall seeing. It's the first film in 113 years of cinema to make Paris look ugly.

What do the reviewers have to say? Mostly they take Hong shooting a film in Paris as an occassion to reference every French-language film in sight, from Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel to Jean Eustache and Agnès Varda but especially Eric Rohmer. (Given the film's liberal use of Beethoven's "Symphony no. 7," I'm surprised no one's mentioned Jacques Demy's Lola [1961].) They praise Hong for making yet another film that portrays men as selfish horn dogs, as if that were such a very hard thing to do. Nick Schager finds the story progresses with an "engrossing spontaneity," but it would be more accurate to say the film consists of disconnected scenes in search of a structure. He also writes that the direction is "magnificently understated" (read: uninflected) and the mood of the film is "relaxed and artless." Artless we agree on.

Vinh Son Nguyen's The Moon at the Bottom of the Well is a beautifully made but ultimately forgettable melodrama set in contemporary Vietnam. The heroine, Hanh, is a high school teacher who lives in a traditional style home with her husband, Phoung, the school's principal. We learn through exposition that Hanh is incapable of having children and insisted Phoung take a second wife, something they've kept secret to avoid a scandal. When their secret is revealed, Hanh and Phoung divorce for reasons I can no longer recall in detail. Through a friend, Hanh meets a fortune teller who says her true love is actually a spirit, and gradually she goes bananas. The film is so gorgeous, it would be easy to say the story doesn't really matter, but I think the film wants us to care about Hanh, who is a bland victim of a patriarchal society.

The film is at its best when showing Hanh at her daily routines or the fortune teller performing a traditional dance, although I began to grow weary of the numerous scenes of Hanh closing all the windows in her house before going to bed every night. The constantly moving handheld and rich ambient soundtrack give these and other scenes in the film a physical impact, but in terms of advancing the plot, however, these scenes are entirely gratuitous. The film is so ephemeral, it seemed to vaporize the moment I left the theatre.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

PIFF: Day Five

Photographed in black-and-white by William Lubtchansky, Philippe Garrel's La Frontière de l'aube is a voluptuous ode to self-destruction. Its hero, François (Louis Garrel), is a sullen photographer who has an affair with Carole (Laura Smet), a moody actress. When Carole's husband returns from Hollywood, François pulls away. He learns later that Carole is in a mental institution after setting fire to her apartment. In the film's second half, François settles down with Ève (Clémentine Poidatz), a boringly pleasant girl from a bourgeois family. François feels guilty for abandoning Carole, who appears to him in his dreams and on the other side of the mirror, urging him to return to her. For Garrel's characters, to be happy is simply too bourgeois.

Garrel's previous film, Les Amants réguliers (2005), was a largely plotless, nearly three-hour movie about the events of May '68 and their aftermath. At just over half the length of that film, La Frontière de l'aube is relatively accessible with more of a plot and even exposition. What binds the films, beyond their having the same lead actor and cinematographer, is their defeatism and resignation. At times Carole mutters vaguely about the revolution, but there's no conviction in her voice. François' options are to resign himself to a comfortable existence with Ève or to follow Carole into oblivion. Garrel, who spent most of the 70s addicted to opium and married to Nico, no doubt understands the appeal of suicide inside-out, and his achievement here--aided immeasurably by the glamorous cast, lush cinematography and Jean-Claude Vannier's sorrowful score--is to make despair seem alluring.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking is a timid drama about the Changing Face of the Japanese Family in which nothing at all exciting happens. Apart from the epilogue, the film restricts its scope to a single, unremarkable family visit. Ryo (Hiroshi Abe, an actor who resembles a Japanese John C. McGinley), travels by train from Tokyo to his parents' house by the sea, bringing his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), a widow, and Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), her son from a previous marriage. Needless to say, Ryo's stern father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), doesn't approve of his son marrying a widow. In a very minor subplot, Ryo's wheezy-voiced sister, Chinami (You), tries to convince their mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), to let Chinami and her family to move back into the parents' house. Nothing much happens, but a lot gets chewed over.

The film has endlessly been compared by reviewers to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, but even lighter Ozu films, like Early Summer (1951) and The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), build to a crisis. This film is all pitched at the same level. Amazingly, it won the critics' prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. What does it say about reviewers that they slap down Atom Egoyan for his ambition while Hirokazu is lauded for his timidity?

Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, like his earlier Los Muertos (2004), is more travelogue than narrative. The minimal plot is merely a device for Alonso to tighten his canvas. Farrel (Juan Fernandez) is a sailor on a cargo ship who hasn't been home for twenty years. When the ship arrives at a small city on the southern tip of Argentina, Farrel asks the captain if he can go on land to see if his mother is still alive. The ship docks in the middle of the night, and Farrel spends the night in a derelict bus. To keep warm, he drinks vodka out of the bottle. In the morning, he hitches a ride on a truck transporting lumber to the small farming village where his parents live. There he makes a discovery about his family, which I won't reveal, but it would hardly be a spoiler if I did. And then he leaves again. There is a long shot of Farrel walking through the snow into the distance. I assumed the film would end here, but it continues for another few scenes, following a different character. By comparison, Alonso makes Garrel look like Steven Spielberg.

The film was not well received at the 9 PM screening I attended Tuesday evening. Towards the end, I could hear one man snoring a few rows ahead of me. When it was over, the woman sitting next to me breathed a sigh of relief. Three or four of us applauded in meek defiance. The woman who sighed asked me why I clapped. I babbled something about the film being very beautiful and very different from most films. She seemed to accept this. In any event, I was not bored. Is there an audience for a film like this? When a movie proves too rarefied even for most festival goers, where does it go from there? Like Farrel, the film seems destined to sail forever without a home to go back to.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

PIFF: Day Four

Set in a coal mining town in western China, Zhang Chi's debut feature The Shaft is divided into three segments, each following a different member of the same family. Jingshui (Zheng Loaqain), a young woman who works at the mines, wants to get away but her boyfriend, Daming (Li Chen), says with resignation that mining is all he knows how to do. When Jingshui is promoted to safety monitor, rumors begin to circulate that she's having an affair with the boss. Meanwhile, an aunt pressures her to marry a rich man who lives in a nearby city. The second and longest segment follows Jingshui's brother, Jingsheng (Huang Xuan), a high school drop-out who dreams of being a pop star. When he goes to a conservatory to enroll in singing lessons, he's told he needs to pay eight hundred yuan. "It costs that much?" asks Jingsheng. "Singing is an art." The last part expands the scope of the film to encompass, not only Jingshui and Jingshen, but their father, Baogen (Luo Deyuan), as well. In its setting, its focus on young lovers and Zhang's long take style, the film was visibly influenced by the work of Jia Zhang-ke.

Shot on video blown up to 35mm, sometimes the quality of the video is inadequate for what Zhang is trying to achieve stylistically. As a director, he has a strong sense of how to arrange figures in a landscape (the last sequence is a dead ringer for Abbas Kiarostami's Life, and Nothing More... [1991]), but the cinematography is at times distractingly pixelated. Luckily, Zhang's style isn't as severe as Jia's (nor is it as playful, for that matter), and in the second segment he introduces more medium shots and close-ups as well as more camera movement, most of it handheld. A highly promising first feature, The Shaft announces Zhang as a director to look for in the future.

In contrast with The Shaft, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River was also shot on video blown up to 35mm, but for what Hunt wants to achieve, the camera she uses is entirely adequate for--and perhaps, far above--what she actually does with it. The film would lose nothing if it were shot on analogue video, apart from a second unit shot of the titular river shot in extreme shallow focus with the focal point gradually moving out across the ice. This rare concession to cinema as a photographic medium notwithstanding, Hunt seems to regard video merely as a means of recording content rather than mediating it.

A grim thriller about human trafficking set in upstate New York, its heroine, Ray (Melissa Leo), is a mother of two who works at the Yankee One Dollar. As the film opens, her husband (never seen), a gambling addict, has taken off with the four thousand in cash she needed to make the bubble payment on a new double wide. (Her current trailer doesn't have proper insulation, so the pipes freeze in the winter.) Searching for her husband on a First Nations reserve, she meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who's stolen her husband's car, and gets involved in an illegal smuggling operation that transports Chinese across the Canada-US border. The film is an effective piece of storytelling, moving from one crisis to another.

After watching Wendy and Lucy, Heather and I wondered if it might be more interesting to Koreans who don't know know a lot about life in America. Frozen River received the most applause of any film I saw at PIFF this year, but that might simply be because it has a suspenseful storyline. Personally, I was a bit disappointed that it didn't show more of what life is like on a First Nations reserve, a subject that white North Americans don't know much about. Still, the film is never less than gripping and the performances by the two leads are superb, so for that it's worth seeing.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making films since the 1970s, mostly documentaries for Belgian TV, but they only became well known internationally with La Promesse (1996), their third feature after Falsch (1987) and Je pense à vous (1992). La Promesse was the first film of theirs I saw, and it took me completely by surprise. If their three subsequent films--Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002) and L'Enfant (2005)--lack the same thrill of discovery, all three are nonetheless gripping and visceral dramas at a uniformly high standard of quality.

Le Silence de Lorna isn't as harrowing as the Dardennes' previous films, and they seem to know this as the handheld camerawork is comparatively relaxed and steady. It's about an Albanian woman, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who marries a Belgian drug addict, Claudy (Jérémie Renier), to get citizenship. After she gets her citizenship card, she needs a divorce so she can marry a Russian who also wants Belgian citizenship. She asks Claudy to hit her in order to speed up the process, but he doesn't want to have battery on his record. A junkie and a thief is one thing, but a wife beater is something else entirely. Though compelling, the film lacks the urgency of L'Enfant in which Renier played a teenager who sells his newborn son on the black market. It's a good film by filmmakers from whom we've come to expect greatness.

Götz Spielmann's Revanche is a curiously laid back film about sex workers, bank robberies and revenge. Alex (Johannes Krisch) works in a Vienna brothel where his Ukrainian girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), is employed as a prostitute. Her pimp, Konecny (Hanno Pöschl), wants to move her into an apartment where she can service businessmen and politicians. To me this sounds like a promotion, but Tamara turns down the offer and Alex helps her escape from her hotel room. In a small town in the country, Alex robs a bank, leaving Tamara sitting in a parked car. Coincidentally, Robert (Andreas Lust), a police officer, happens to be walking by and notices the illegally parked car. After the robbery, Alex hides out at his father's farm not far from the town. Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), live nearby and Alex begins to think of revenge. What he doesn't know is that Robert is overcome with guilt. Like Atom Egoyan's Adoration, the film shows how anger can blind us to the pain of others.

The comparison with Frozen River is instructive. In that film, Ray and Lila commit a crime and have to face the consequences. Here, there's never any suspense about whether or not Alex will be caught for robbing the bank. (We never see the police following leads or doing much of anything.) The pace is leisurely and the ending deliberately anti-climatic. Its focus is on character more than plot, and the real meat of the film are the interactions between Alex and Susanne. As a result, the story is never as harrowing.

However, it's a much more attractive film than Frozen River, using high contrast, desaturated film stock that pushes the lights to pure white and the darks to pure black. This is a movie that could only have been shot on film.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

PIFF: Day Three

Routine Holiday, the second feature by mainland Chinese filmmaker Li Hongqi, wants to depict lives without interest or curiosity. That is its purpose. The story takes place on a national holiday, but the characters have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Occasionally, some one puts on a video. If the TV ever broke down, it would be a major catastrophe. Luckily for the characters, however, this is not a film of such dramatic heights. I will say this for the film: I'm not unhappy I saw it.

The film opens with a title informing us that, in 316 B.C., Aristotle discovered the world was round. Cut to a shot of flat, empty land as far as the eye can see. After some time, a boy and his father enter the frame. "This is a field," explains the father. "F-I-E-L-D, field." They pay a visit to Tuo Ga, a friend of the father, who lives in a drab apartment in a grey tenement building with bare walls and hideous furniture. Soon, another friend, Xiao He, joins the party. Since Tuo Ga only has one glass, he goes next door to borrow one from his neighbor, who's entertaining his brother. That's as much of the plot as I care to reveal.

The characters take no joy in each other's company. To pass the time, Tuo Ga poses riddles to the boy, who stares blankly into space. Talking about a fried chicken in a plastic bag, Xiao He says, "If the chicken knew he'd end up like this, his heart would've broken." Tuo Ga disagrees: "You don't know a chicken's thoughts." There are numerous shots of the characters sitting motionless, staring into space, with only the sound of a ticking clock on the soundtrack.

The film was not well received at the 10 AM screening Heather and I attended Sunday morning. There was a steady stream of walk-outs, and I'm sure there would've been more if half the audience weren't asleep. We didn't stay for the Q&A since it was in Korean and Chinese, but what was there to ask? Sometimes still waters are just still.

It's too soon to say whether or not Adoration is Atom Egoyan's best film (which by default would make it the greatest film ever made in Canada), but I can say with absolute certainty that it's far and away the most interesting and powerful film I saw at PIFF this year, in large part because it was practically the only film I saw that was ambitious enough to actually be about something. I'm looking at you, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The film is about a Toronto high school student, Simon (Devon Bostick), whose French teacher, Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), has the class translate a newspaper article about a pregnant woman who was stopped at airport security trying to board a plane to Israel. When Simon interprets the article from the perspective of the woman's unborn child (in English), Sabine, who also teaches drama, encourages him to develop it and present it to his classmates. When Sabine asks him if what he's writing is true, Simon says he's just making it up. However, he presents it to his classmates as fact, and on the internet the project takes on a life of its own. This description doesn't begin to do the film justice, but I don't want to reveal too much for those who haven't seen it yet.

As you'd expect from Egoyan, the film is never less than fascinating as a piece of storytelling. Cutting between multiple storylines and time frames, the film challenges us to keep up with it. And again Egoyan shows himself to be a master of exposition, dolling out information gradually throughout the film. But what makes this a great film (as opposed to merely a good one) is Egoyan's ambition to grapple with big subjects. A bold, provocative, deeply moving film, it puts to shame the other films I saw at PIFF for their timidity.

I haven't seen Terence Davies early features, The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), all of them set in his hometown of Liverpool, but on the strength of The Neon Bible (1995)--a dreamlike adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's first novel (which I haven't read) about the American South in 'Scope--it's easy to see why some reviewers consider him the greatest living British filmmaker. His subsequent The House of Mirth (2000) was therefore doubly disappointing, both as an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel and for Davies' inability to make the material his own stylistically.

His first film since then, Of Time and the City is a first-person documentary about Liverpool's recent history, and Davies' poetic narration is often scathing, taking aim at sacred cows like the Catholic church, the Queen and the Beatles. The image track, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of newsreel footage that illustrates the text in the most unimaginative fashion possible. A segment on Davies' love of Hollywood movies employs clips of Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck walking down the red carpet, scored to "Hooray for Hollywood." (Leos Carax made more original use of red carpet footage in his short Sans titre [1997], which you can watch on YouTube.) When Davies stops talking and lets the footage speak for itself (although it's always accompanied by music or, more rarely, archival audio that I found difficult to understand), I tended to tune out.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

PIFF: Day Two

Three Monkeys

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys is a Turkish film noir shot on HD in olive tones. The film's gloomy atmosphere is so pervasive that, even in the middle of the day, the cinematography bathes the characters in darkness. In some scenes, Ceylan frames his characters against a window overlooking the sea, and then stops down the aperture so that the background looks normal and the foreground is underexposed. Once again, Ceylan prooves himself a master of mood.

However, the story in the middle of all this moody brooding is a rather perfunctory crime plot with the usual Oedipal associations. On a dark and stormy night, Servet (Ercan Kesal), a political candidate, runs over a pedestrian and pays his driver, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol), to take the wrap. While Eyüp is in prison, his son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar) decides he wants a car, and his mother, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), pays a visit to Servet's office to ask for an advance on the money he promised Eyüp. Adultery, murder and bad vibes ensue. At times, Ceylan over-does it with the Freudian symbolism. When Ismail sees Hacer getting jiggy with Servet through a key hole, the first thing he sees when he turns away is a butcher knife. Similarly, Hacer's ring tone--a Turkish pop song about a bitter, spurned lover--is a bit on the nose for my liking. The film is well executed, but Ceylan has shown in the past that he's capable of much more.

Lost Song

Rodrigue Jean's Lost Song is similarly strong on style (though not that strong) and weak in its content. As the film opens, Elisabeth (Suzie LeBlanc), an Acadian opera singer, and her husband, Pierre (Patrick Goyette), move into a cabin in rural New Brunswick with their infant son. As a result of the move, the baby refuses to be breastfed, leading Elisabeth to bottle feed over Pierre's objections. Soon after, Elisabeth begins to display signs of postpartum despression. But since Pierre--a letcherous momma's boy who has some unspecificed job in a nearby town that requires him to wear a suit everyday--doesn't even try to get her help, the film quickly devolves into a monotonous series of scenes in which Elisabeth does increasingly crazy things. She hears animals moving around in the attic. At the baby's Christening, she starts laughing uncontrollably. In one scene, Naomi (Marilou Longpré Pilon), a university student spending her summer on the lake, knocks on Elisabeth's door to borrow some milk. Elisabeth obliges, but when Naomi drops the carton accidentally, Elisabeth suddenly slaps her. Since Elisabeth's actions are dictated by a condition rather than her personality, the story has nowhere to go.

Still, it should be acknowledged that Jean displays some talent behind the camera. The confidently austere style progresses from static long shots to more frantic handheld medium shots and close-ups as the sequence builds dramatically. (Conversely, what's most radical about the work of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu is the way each shot is weighted equally.) I hope that for their next features, Ceylan and Jean get better scripts to work with.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

PIFF: Day One

Madness--sheer madness!

The 13th Pusan International Film Festival started Thursday with the world premiere of Rustem Abdrashev's The Gift to Stalin, a Kazakh-Russian-Israeli-Polish co-production. Set in 1949, it's about a Jewish boy and his grandfather who are deported to Central Asia by the Soviet government. I had to work but I doubt I'd have gotten in anyway. Advance tickets sold out in less than two minutes after going on sale. Tickets for the closing film, Yoon Jong-Chan's I Am Happy from South Korea, sold out in seven minutes.

When tickets for regular screenings went on sale September 24th, I went to my local Busan Bank branch at nine in the morning to be one of the first in line. In the time it took the teller to put my order in, a number of films--Atom Egoyan's Adoration from Canada, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Le Silence de Lorna from Belgium, and Claire Denis' 35 rhums from France, to name a few--had already sold out. Still, I managed to secure tickets for most of the films I wanted to see.

Thirty percent of tickets are reserved for walk in purchases on the day of the screening, but friends of Heather and I who arrived at the theatre in Jangsan at six in the morning on Friday told us there were people who had camped in the theatre over night in order to get seats. Tickets for morning, afternoon and evening screenings all went on sale at the same time, resulting in needlessly long lines. Although they were told all the morning screenings were sold out, the first show Heather and I went to was nearly empty. And there have been vacant seats at every screening we've attended. People are buying tickets and not showing up, and others who want to see the films are being turned away when there are still empty seats.

At the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, if you don't show up twenty minutes before the scheduled starting time, they sell your seat to some one else. The downside to this is that every screening starts at least twenty minutes late. Nothing's perfect, but I think I'd rather the show start a little late than not see it at all.

Treeless Mountain

Born in Busan but raised in Los Angeles, So Yong Kim made her debut with In Between Days (2006), about a Korean-Canadian teenager and her idiot boyfriend, which I praised in an earlier entry. Structured around the heroine's unanswered letters to her father, the film consisted mainly of small moments photographed in medium shot and close-up. Thematically and stylistically similar almost to the point of outright repetition, Kim's second feature, Treeless Mountain, differs from its predecessor mainly in having a more linear narrative, which it turns out isn't the director's strong suit.

If father figures are conspicuously absent from both of Kim's films, they're overflowing with mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Treeless Mountain is about two sisters: Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), who is about seven and projects an air of thoughtfulness, and Bin (Song Hee Kim), who is slightly younger and often wears blue pajamas with a fluffy white collar during the day. Early in the film, Mom (Soo Ah Lee) leaves them with Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim), who lives in a small town, while Mom searches for the girls' father. Big Aunt is, to put it mildly, a total psycho. When a local boy throws a rock at Bin, Big Aunt demands the boy's mother give her money for medical bills. Needless to say, Bin never sees a doctor and Big Aunt pockets the cash. If this sounds in outline like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale with ambivalent and wicked mother-figures, Kim's style is resolutely realistic and there are times when the non-professional actors (especially the children) scarcely seem to be acting.

Though individual scenes have an offhand, spontaneous quality, the overall story has a grinding inevitability to it. It's obvious from the get-go that Mom isn't coming back, and as things get progressively worse for the sisters, they have no way of fighting back or changing their situation. After the screening, Heather reminded me that Confucianism teaches respect for authority and accepting your lot in life rather than trying to change it. Perhaps this also accounts for Kim's reluctance to take any risks and try something new.

Il Divo

What a baffling ordeal this movie is! Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, a razzle-dazzle bio-pic of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), opens with a glossary of terms explaining the Red Brigades, the Christian Democratic Party and a secret Masonic sect that wants to establish a fascist state in Italy, and it ends with scrolling text explaining the outcome of Andreotti's trial and appeal for his alleged mafia connections (scored to "Da Da Da"), but in between, Sorrentino doesn't stop moving his camera long enough to explain even what, exactly, Andreotti's position in the government is. At one point, I was surprised to hear another character casually mention that he'd left politics since there'd been no previous mention of this. In an early sequence, members of Andreotti's entourage are introduced getting out of their cars and walking through a courtyard in slow motion with their name and nicknames ("The Shark") printed on intertitles. As some one who knows little about Italian politics during the period covered in the film, I found myself wondering: Who are these people and why is it important that I know? What is Fanny Ardant doing in this movie and why is her make-up so unflattering? Heather informed me later that her character was the wife of an ambassador, but what that has to do with any thing eluded her as well. The first time Ardant meets Andreotti, his secretary tells her that if he does this with his ring or that with his fingers, it means this and that, but by the time the film gets around to those meaningful inserts where he does this, that and the other thing with his ring and his fingers, I'd completely forgotten what these gestures were supposed to mean. Da da da.

To be fair, I was never bored. The film opens with an inexplicable montage of incomprehensible political assassinations modeled after the massacre at the end of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972). Sorrentino scores it to a catchy pop tune, revealing the delight he takes in watching reporters and bankers getting blown away. One man is hanged from a bridge and the intertitle with his name and position appears upside-down until the camera tilts down 180 degrees so that the hanged man appears to be floating in mid-air like the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (2008). Later, when a number of businessmen kill themselves over alleged mafia connections, the camera rotates around one man as he puts a shotgun in his mouth so we can get a good view of the blood splattering out the back of his head. That the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes is astonishing because it suggests (a) members of the jury knew what was going on, or (b) they were so wowed by the cool factor that they didn't care.

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a social realist drama about a young woman who's beaten down by capitalism. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is trying to get to Alaska because, without an address or phone number, she can't find work anywhere else in the United States. As the film opens, she's sleeping in her car and doesn't even have enough money to buy food for her dog, Lucy. Before going into a grocery store to shoplift a can of Alpo, she ties Lucy to the bike rack out front. But when Wendy returns to the grocery store after she's released from jail, Lucy is gone. Also, her car won't start and the garage down the street never seems to be open. I can't help but think of Yasuzo Masumura's critique of social realism in 1958 that it put too much emphasis on societal pressures, making the defeat of the individual all but inevitable and promoting an overall sense of resignation. After the screening, Heather compared the story to a sad country song.

Still, the film represents a vast improvement on Reichardt's previous feature, Old Joy (2006), which was subtle to the point of insignificance (more simply, nothing major happened). Using available light in the lowest of low light conditions, the cinematography by Sam Levy is beautiful, and the film has an effectively minimal score credited to Will Oldham that consists entirely of a woman (possibly Wendy) humming the same theme periodically throughout the film. On a scene by scene basis, the narrative is never less than compelling even if it's clear from the outset where this is headed, and the performances never strike a false note. Two days into the festival, it's still the best thing I've seen.