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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fribourg International Film Festival - Day III Report

Ongoing reports on the 26th Fribourg International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering all week.

(Philippines, 2011)

Dir:  Joseph Israel Laban

This was the midnight screening during the opening day but I opted to miss it in favour of attending the opening party, a decision that led to my missing the first film of the next day but I’m all caught up now!  Cuchera is only the second Filipino film I’ve seen, after the impressive The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros (2005) which I caught some years ago at the Dublin International Film Festival.

There’s no doubting why this was part of the midnight film section:  Laban’s depiction of drug muling in the Philippines is gruesome, all the more so considering its intimate focus.  The film’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman who is making a transition from being a prostitute and drug mule to setting up her own drug muling enterprise.

Laban’s film casts a cold and disquieting eye over the secret world of vice of the daily struggle of those engaged in its operation, often against their will or at least forced by circumstance.  The film takes a interesting look at a character who was no doubt part of the oppressed but after years of being a victim and a certain hardening in her character is now quite ready to make the leap to being the oppressor.  Her scruples are still visible, if only slightly, but it is clear that they are a nuisance that are easily cast aside as she is trying to become an underworld businesswoman.

Cuchera will likely put any viewer in a state of extreme discomfort and while its attempt to be a scorching commentary on the world it depicts is admirable it also comes off as exploitative.  I believe that the events as they happen on screen have some basis in reality but Laban tends to opt for the worst case scenario at every turn.  Subtlety certainly has no place in such a work but in order to have been properly elucidated, the themes might have played better in the hands of a more accomplished director.

The film is a debut effort but it has to be said that it is an ugly film.  This could be excusable, given the morbid and gritty subject matter, but the poor film technique is off-putting because of its quality, not just its content, and this becomes the undoing of the film.

The Last Christeros
(Mexico, 2011)

Dir:  Matias Meier

Another entry in the international competition, The Last Christeros is a languid look at a small group of Christian rebels in the mid-1930s.  Rather than focus on battles and the action of the confrontations that surround them, Meier chooses instead to delve into the small and quiet moments of introspection that exists between them.  While in theory an interesting idea for me this was a missed opportunity and its philosophical temperament resulted in a drab film that did not present enough interesting ideas to keep me interested.

There were a handful of wonderful scenes, including a great sing-a-long near the end but the long takes were borderline excruciating and went well past any acceptable boundary of artistic expression or some cinematic form of philosophical rumination.  I also quickly grew bored of the Christ imagery, which of course fit the proceedings but were somewhat akin to flogging a dead fish.

In some ways the imagery turned this into a dull counterpart to another film playing at the festival, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s seminal and surrealist midnight pic El Topo (1970).  Though whenever I was reminded of that film I grew frustrated as I wished I could have been watching it instead!

However the film certainly wasn’t awful and though I wasn’t on board with some its major artistic choices, it did demonstrate a commanding and poetic style that made it cohesive, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.  But at the end of the day I felt I wasn’t rewarded for my patience, perhaps I missed something.

Late Autumn
(South Korea, USA; 2010)

Dir:  Kim Tae-yong

Now here’s a film I’ve been dying to see for a while.  It won the public prize at last year’s FIFF edition and so wasn’t a part of this year’s but as I noticed it in the press video library, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see a film from one of South Korea’s best directors that still isn’t available even though it was released two years ago.

Kim Tae-yong’s first film was Memento Mori which he co-directed in 1999 and it is still one of my favorite K-horrors.  Seven years later he came back with Family Ties, easily one of the best Korean films of 2006 and one that deserve wider recognition.  Late Autumn is a co-production with the United States and stars Tang Wei, a big Chinese star.  She shares the screen with Hyun Bin, one of the poster boys of contemporary Korean entertainment who stole a lot of hearts alongside Ha Ji-won in the phenomenally successful K-drama Secret Garden (2010).

Tang plays a woman who murdered her husband and currently resides in jail but she is given a 72 hours furlough when her mother dies in order to attend her funeral.  On her way to Seattle she meets a suave Korean man, a gigolo who is on the run from the husband of one of his clients.

Kim's film explores people who are caught in situations that they do not have the power to control and our two immigrant protagonists kill time by sharing the road together on the classic American vehicle of escape, the Greyhound bus.  There is an element of fantasy in how they conduct themselves as they lie about their current situations to other people and play out the imaginary conversation of a man and woman who are talking in the distance.  This reluctance to be truthful could be a coping mechanism for two individuals who are not only immigrants but live on the fringe of their own minority communities.  Tang's character confesses her story and crime to her temporary road partner but does so in Mandarin while Hyun answers after each sentence with the only two words he knows; good and bad.

Late Autumn, originally a Korean film from 1966 has been remade many times and I am not familiar with its previous renditions but Kim's version transfixed me.  It was lyrical and full longing while at the same time filled with an easy going charm.  I really hope that Kim gets to make another film soon, all his works up until this point have been exceptional.

(South Africa, 2011)

Dir:  Avie Luthra

My fourth international competition film was a full-length version of a short that was previously made by the same director in 2005.  It is a coming of age story about a young boy in a village whose mother dies.  He makes his way to the city to stay with his uncle but this does not work out as planned and soon he comes to befriend an elderly Indian woman who lives across the atrium of the apartment complex.

Luthra's film deals with quite a lot of themes but they are nestled together well within a tale that is often heart-warming.  Never have I seen a boy so hellbent on going to school and it is devastating to see him turned away or learning that his uncle has swilled away all the money left by his mother for that purpose.  The boy, Lucky, has no obvious place in society, he is an orphan with no trustworthy family to rely on and the state offers him no safety net.

Racism is also keenly dealt with as at first the Indian woman is mistrustful of Lucky and she soon makes it clear that she does not trust blacks full stop.  The boy only speaks Zulu while the senior knows Hindi and English, this further complicates their relationship but also gives them an opportunity to build a bond on the strength of their actions rather words and perception.

I really enjoyed Lucky but I felt at times that it was a little too self-assured.  It's a real crowd-pleaser though and may well walk away with the top prize.

(Bangladesh, 2009)

Dir:  Selim Gias Uddin

My second Bangladeshi film after the previous night's Runway has the distinction of being the most popular indigenous film in decades.  However, this also means that it is a very different kind of film.  Monpura is populist fluff and yet it very good populist fluff that nonetheless engages with some interesting questions as characters are placed in tricky liminal environments.

The film announces itself very quickly as a genre film.  An opulent home at night is the scene of a murder, a servant informs the master.  It is his mentally handicapped son who has committed the deed as he was released from his shackles.  Now the servant, Shonai, is to take the blame for the murder and is sent off to Monpura, a remote island on the Ganges, to hide away from the authorities.  It is here that he meets Pori, the beautiful daughter of a nearby fisherman.  They fall in love but fate has other plans for them.

Monpura was quite well made and though it was 140 minutes long I was engaged throughout.  I'm a sucker for a good genre film and as Hollywood has consistently disappointed me with its romance films I seek them out elsewhere, notable South Korea.  Uddin's film is an epic tale of love that takes a relatively simple story and imbues it with notions of duty, social class, sacrifice, family and love.

It is not an extraordinary film and certainly lacks some substance though I shouldn't think it matters too much as its charming elements add up to a very pleasant viewing experience.  It is easy to see why this became such a hit in its native Bangladesh.

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