Showing posts with label FIFF. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FIFF. Show all posts

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.

 and features on Korean film appear regularly 
on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fribourg International Film Festival - Day II Report

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

Sita Sings the Blues
(USA, 2008)

Dir:  Nina Paley

My first film of the day after a late start was this delightful and frenetic animated retelling of the famous Indian tale of Ramayana.  Sita Sings the Blues throws itself at you from the beginning and it takes a little while to untangle the seemingly random mix of tricks, styles and storylines.  Sita is the long-suffering and loving wife of Rama and her as well as the other characters in the myth appear as different animated versions of themselves depending on the style and purpose of the scene.  For instance much of the story is played out as a musical as Sita literally sings the blues as she takes on the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a jazz vocalist from the 1920s.

The main narrative thrust of the legend is aided by a trio of unidentified Indians who trample over each other's words as they try to remember the details of the famous story, at the same time pointing out its holes and their misgivings with some of the protagonist's motivations.  The three erstwhile storytellers are hilarious and their comical banter is often aided by clever visual cues.  Complementing the various parts of the Ramayana tale are various interstices which range from almost psychedelic music videos set to modern Indian dance music and crudely but warmly drawn sequences of the filmmaker's parallel life which led her to make the film.

Nina Paley is an American animator who vividly brings to life her own interpretation of the classic tale which mingles together numerous Indian influences as well as her own personal touch, notably the classic Jazz tracks that form the heart of the film.  Sita Sings the Blues is a unique and immensely enjoyable experience.  A great synthesis of cultures and an infectious paean to the joy of discovery and the cleansing power of artistic expression.

(Bangladesh, 2010)

Dir:  Tareque Masud

The Fribourg International Film Festival is presenting the largest dedicated section to Bangladesh's cinema that has ever occurred in the west and Runway was my first of the section and also my first foray into Bangladeshi cinema.

A poor family lives right beside a runway of the Dhaka airport.  The father is away in Kuwait to earn money to send home but has not been heard from in some time.  The matriarch has bought a cow on microcredit in an effort to help support her family but it is not producing much milk.  The daughter works at a textile factory and is providing the majority of the household's income.  Ruhul is the aimless son whose has not been able to find work.  He trains about his uncle's cybercafe during the day and meets Arif who quickly befriends him and affords him a path to a new life through fundamental islam.

Runway is a film that takes place in the modern world and engages with ideas of Islam and how they fit into it.  Ruhul exists in a liminal environment, he lives in a hut with his poor family yet they are beside an international airport.  They are both connected to the whole world and entirely cut off from it.  The late Masud's film (he died shortly before completing the film in a car crash) traces Ruhul's engagement with fundamentalism, as it provides an escape to his cloitered existence.  As viewers we understand his search for some form of identity and purpose but we can not condone his brush with terrorism.  However he is never demonized and as such his representation is a successful one as we come to understand how easily such a lost youth could be brought into the fold by friendly religious fanatics.

Technically speaking the film is competently made but missing some finer touches.  Many of the scenes occur at dawn or dusk but these are murky and a little hard to make out because of the techniques and equipment used during the production.  The ending of the film had a relatively neat resolution and yet I felt that it was largely inconclusive and this very well may have been the point but it still left me unsatisfied.

Runway is a worthwhile effort from a little seen national industry.  It cleverly meshes motifs that incorporate new and old world ideas and technologies.  With Ruhul we live in this same liminal space and we are afforded a vantage point on some of the paradoxes of our modern society.

At Home Among Strangers, Strangers at Home
(USSR, 1974)

Dir:  Nikita Mikhalkov

Another film from the 'Once Upon a Time in the South' section, At Home Among Strangers is a fascinating work that combines Western tropes with Soviet images of masculinity and employs an altogether loud style that you will either love or not know what to make of.

I for one loved the style, from its opening montage that showcases the unbridled joy of the happiest Russian men I've ever seen on screen, to its robustly elegiac denouement.  There was one glaring problem though,  I had a very hard time following the story.  Everything hurtles along at a magnificent pace but the elements of the film are often extremely disparate and story elements are not well linked together.  This may have been a product of the nature of the film's production, which had a very restrictive budget.  The filmmakers were only given a certain amount of colour stock and thus many scenes are in a cheaper and grainier black and white, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Despite this setback, I still had a great time with this picture.  It was frustrating to have to try and follow along but mainly I enjoyed spending time with these Russian characters, each with expressive faces and providing unique takes on masculinity so common to the western genre.  Like the previous night's Salt, the filmmakers tackled the project with considerable enthusiasm but whereas that was too straight a picture to really succeed, here the problem is the lack of focus.

At the end of the screening there were some vocal detractors in the audience but I was very glad to have made the time for this distinctive feature and I think I will seek out some of director Mikhalkov's other works, which I hope he hope he was able to film the way he wanted!

 and features on Korean film appear regularly 
on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fribourg International Film Festival - Day I Report

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

11 Flowers
(China; 2011)

Dir:  Wang Xiaoshuai

My first film of the festival was one of the twelve contenders for the main prize, known as 'Le Regard d’Or', which has previously been awarded to films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Eric Khoo’s My Magic (2008) and most recently Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010).  11 Flowers is the latest film from Wang Xiaoshuai, a successful Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker who is well know for Beijing Bicycle (2001).

A coming of age tale set at the end of the cultural revolution, Xiaoshuai’s latest work is the product of a fertile mind and an experienced director’s touch.  The film follows the 11-year-old Wang Han who is asked to lead his school in the morning gymnastics' class.  He needs a new shirt for the position and his mother, who works at the local factory eventually capitulates to his sulking, using a year’s worth of fabric rations in the process.  He eventually loses the prized shirt when a killer swipes it from him as he tries to evade the police.

The film is exquisite in its design and though the premise starts off slight, the local society is soon vividly brought to life.  Wang Han’s shirt and the despair of a neighbouring family are set against the backdrop of the impending revolts in contemporaneous China.  Wang Han is forced to grow up very quickly in the climate of tumult and change and the driving force of his loss of innocence is his gaze, steadily corrupted by each new event he witnesses.

The stunning and evocative cinematography is all the more potent as it succeeds in drawing attention away from itself.  At times I was reminded of Emmanuelle Lubezki’s work on recent Terence Malick films, though the lensing here is nowhere near as ostentatious.  A great start to the festival and already a strong contender for the FIFF’s top prize.

Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas
(France, Brazil, Argentina; 2011)

Dir:  Júlia Murat

I had heard great things about Historias prior to this screening and I was excited as I sat down.  It must be said however, that at first it was a frustrating experience.  The quality of the print might have been to blame as the picture quality was often blurry and jarring, especially during long shots and my eyes had trouble focussing. 

The film follows an elderly woman as she goes about her daily routine in an extremely remote part of Argentina.  She is part of a minuscule community, similarly composed of seniors.  The early stages of the film are built around very long takes and languid repetition as we are introduced to the invariance of her daily life.  There was a slight vein of droll humour but I was having trouble settling into the experience.

A young female backpacker and amateur photographer arrives and asks for a place to stay for a few days.  The woman gives her a room but she and the rest of the insular community treat her with mistrust.  At this stage this is how I felt as I viewer, as though the filmmaker wasn’t letting me into his quaint and carefully structured world.

When the inhabitants of the village finally warm to the girl the film magnificently opened itself up to me.   Actions that had been repeated throughout the film became intimate as the camera gradually came closer to its subjects.  What at first were formal tableaus seen from a distance became warm pictures of humanity.  The camera beckoned us to breathe in this community that time had forgotten.

The young girl acts as a surrogate for the viewer but is also a fascinating character in her own right.  She revels in old techniques of photography, listens to music from a bygone era and professes that she was born at the wrong time.  But it is also clear that this statement is a little naïve as she is the image of a contemporary cosmopolitan girl, complete with the trappings of modern day such as her iPod.  While she quickly feels at home in the village when its residents accept her she is also a strong female character with a progressive view on gender roles, which puts her at odds with the close-knit patriarchal society.

Her voyage of self-discovery becomes our own as the filmmaker dares us to question our role in today’s world and how we relate to it.  Historias is not a film that will get wide exposure but if you do happen across it, it is not to be missed!

(Switzerland, France, Germany, Burkina Faso, United Kingdom; 1990)

Dir:  Idrissa Ouedraogo

A film made in Burkina Faso and funded by a cotery of European cultural institutions, Tilai is an odd beast.  It is set in tribal communities and stars actors who seem to have been pulled straight out of that world.  While the production values are not very high there is a surprising amount of craft invested in the effort and everything flows along remarkably well.  The strange thing is just how focussed and straight-forward it is.  I don’t known if I’ve ever come across a film that was so matter-of-fact in relation to its plot, characters and dialogue, which is so blunt that it is often quite comical.  My question is whether the deliberate style and brevity of the production was meant to be ironic or if it was an attempt to incorporate very clear storytelling.

The virile protagonist has just returned to his tribe after a two-year absence, announcing his arrival with a horn on top of a hill.  He expects his woman to be waiting for him and for them to get married.  She had been promised to him and as luck would have they are in love.  But his brother, upon greeting him, informs him that she is now wed to their father, making her their mother.  He is furious and immediately chooses exile over confronting his father.  The lovers story doesn’t end here as they henceforth employ subterfuge to steal precious moments together but it is not long before they are found out.

The story bristles along at a steady clip and the benefit of the film’s clarity is just how easy it is to follow along but the downside is that beyond the simple narrative and the obvious reference to some ridiculously outdated patriarchal tribal codes, the film has little else to offer.  At 84 minutes, Tilai does go by in a flash and though the story is familiar (almost streamlined Shakespearean) and not particularly original, the unfamiliar setting that is richly brought to life make this a worthwhile venture.  However, as it is a Central African film from 22 years ago, I daresay it may be hard to get you hands on it.

(Argentina, Chile; 2011)

Dir:  Diego Rougier

The official opening film of the festival, Salt was preceded by an almost interminable series of windy speeches from local politicians praising the festival’s focus on diversity and its continued success in the region.  It must be said that is wasn’t all bad but since most of it had to be translated into two (French, German) and sometimes three languages (with English thrown into the mix), it did drag on a bit.  This says nothing of the frankly bizarre musical act that linked each podium grandstand.

The programmer of the festival, Thierry Jobin, an affable and enthusiastic cinephile explained how Salt came to the festival’s office in a DVD slipcase which references Sergio Leone’s seminal western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  There is a whole section at the festival titled 'Once Upon a Time In the South' that will present how the genre has stretched far beyond its habitual North American stomping ground.  Salt, set in the deserts of Northern Chile, is the progeny of a self-ascribed obsessive of westerns and it shows.

A Spanish filmmaker named Sergio is trying to get his western made but everyone is turning him down, pointing out that he hasn’t had the experience to write such a project and that he clearly doesn’t know the area where he wants to film it, the North Chilean desert, said to be the driest in the world.  He then goes on location to acquire inspiration and said experience.  He is immediately mistaken for a man called Diego and he finds himself sucked into a narrative that provides him with much more experience than he bargained for.

Homage is key to the film and the names of characters and many of the actions and scenes are borrowed from famed western works and filmmakers.  It is all very enjoyable and it builds to a crescendo as our central protagonist gets sucked into this world but it’s also a little thin as it can come off as pastiche rather than successfully integrated elements that add to an original work.  At the end of the day, despite its ingenious appropriation of genre tropes and blistering enthusiasm, Salt is still an homage from a filmlover to his favorite genre rather than an addition to it that stands on its own.  Worth a watch but there isn’t much to walk away with.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.