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.


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