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.

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