Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Movies

The general consensus 'out there' is that 2010 was a bad year for movies. And that 'out there' generally comes from people who have seen a lot of movies. And among those who have seen a lot of movies, most have been to a number of festivals. And indeed, many of this year's festival titles are pretty stunning compared to this year's offerings, and, because they are on the US slow train of distribution, they will technically be 2011 films. But festival and arthouse titles aside, when I look at the landscape of film in 2010, there was certainly no slack. When I think of the thrill-filled last 40 minutes of Inception, or the honesty and bravery of The Kids Are All Right or mysterious-laden antiquity of Shutter Island or the hyperkenetic vernacular of The Social Network, they all give me goosebumps, despite the fact that most of those didn't even make my list. Even my cynicism about the end-of-the-year powerhouses was quashed under the ultra-engaging likes of I Love You Phillip Morris, Black Swan, True Grit and The Fighter.

And so I give you my list of 30. My list of 30 films I saw this year that I loved. My list of 30 that has admitted gaps. (I never saw Scott Pilgrim, Toy Story 3, Inside Job and gobs more that maybe I'll get to in this lifetime or another.) My list of 30 that hopefully everyone will find a film they recognize and one they don't recognize.

Year end lists are a treasure trove of discovery for me so hopefully there is some of that for others as well. I am all-inclusive in this list with one stellar film from 2009 that screened late in Minneapolis (Police Adjective), a handful of films from 2010, a handful of films that will come around in 2011, and unfortunately a few films that may not come around at all. I've tried to make notes on US release dates and/or the speculative possibility distribution. Enjoy.


1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thailand
Trailer

(Read my review of Uncle Boonmee in my VIFF dispatch over at In Review Online.) Frequent readers will be aware that I am a big fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and when his new film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival I was overjoyed, sight unseen. Although I was already toying with the idea of going to Vancouver, the announcement of Uncle Boonmee pretty much sealed the deal. Although Uncle Boonmee takes a more direct path in its narrative explorations compared to Weerasethakul's previous few films, it is equally as rich, mysterious and wonderful. A film about a man reconciling his own mortality, it becomes an incredible discovery of a textured existence and the beautiful mysteries of life. Uncle Boonmee requires a certain leap of faith from the viewer, but the rewards that are paid out are far beyond anything you are ever going to get out of any other movie. For real.
Uncle Boonmee was picked up by Strand and will be in limited release early this Spring. For those in the Twin Cities, the good people at the Walker have secured two screenings on February 18 and 19. (They will also be hosting a free screening of Weerasethakul's equally seductive Syndromes and a Century on February 24.)


2. Winter Vacation (2010)
Li Hongxi
China

(Read my short take on Winter Vacation in my VIFF dispatch at In Review Online.) Humor doesn't get much more wry than that in Li Hongxi's Winter Vacation. Aptly compared to Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Li takes the absurdity of life and gently turns it up to eleven. Although the sardonic humor feels completely new in a Mainland Chinese film, Li is following in the footsteps of the social comedies of Huang Jianxin and Feng Xiaogang only a little drier, a little more self-reflexive and a lot more hilarious. Simple settings and simple actions have the most satisfying results: a woman who buys a head of nappa cabbage, a battle of wills between a man and his grandson, the incredible inactivity of a group of teenagers. Li also has a keen sense for music with a brilliant but sparse score that includes Top Floor Circus and the experimental musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou. My only hope for Winter Vacation distribution is Europe. No one has picked this up for distribution anywhere, but it won top prize at Locarno Film Festival and there seems to be at least some minor buzz about this film there. I don't see this ever being distributed in its home country and unfortunately I don't see it happening here in the US either. Somebody prove me wrong.


3. White Material (2010)
Claire Denis
France
Trailer

I am firmly convinced that Claire Denis is one of the most talented and important directors in the world. A bold proclamation, but after last year's incredibly beautiful 35 Shots of Rum combined with this year's powerfully realized White Material (not to mention her amazing back catalog), it is hard to argue otherwise. It was someone else that connected White Material with the Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, but I can't stop thinking about it. It has taken fifty years for Achebe's story to find a companion piece from a colonial counterpart, and indeed, history and what colonialism has done to the African continent, with its false boundaries and corruption for commerce (see also Darwin's Nightmare), is at or beyond a tipping point. Denis version is the Western consciousness (not guilt) finally catching up with our collective actions. In an unnamed African country, things are indeed falling apart in the form of civil war. Maria is a French woman who runs a second generation coffee plantation started by her father-in-law. Instead of facing the chaos around her, Maria buries her head in her work until the chaos comes to her in the form of violent revelation. There are no heroes and no villains in White Material, just a catastrophic mess where no one and everyone is to blame. Isabele Huppert plays Maria with fragile ferocity, and with one final action comes a symbolic action of the impossibility of righting wrongs.
White Material got a theatrical release in the US here at the tail of 2010 and should be out on DVD early or mid-2011. Maybe it is even available on-demand if you are able to do such things.


4. Le Quattro Volte (2010)
Michelangelo Frammartino
Italy
Trailer (with Italian narration)

Images, in my book, are far more powerful than words, and it is one reason why I love movies. And, wow, if Le Quattro Volte didn't just knock me off my feet with its simple yet profound pictorial storytelling. Words are spoken in Le Quattro Volte (which literally translates the the clumsy title of The Four Times) but they are passive objects. The active objects in this story are an old man, a young goat, and a tall tree. Through earthbound spiritual transference, Frammartino shows us a cycle of life that is poetic, violent, industrious, and completely natural. It's hard not to think of Uncle Boonmee in connection with Le Quattro Volte mostly because they mine the more ethereal unknowns of the world. But I can't help of thinking of the smoking UFO in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and the smoking mound that opens and closes Le Quattro Volte. The mound is something of a mystery—not a mystery as to what it is, but a mystery of human ingenuity and a mystery of the natural elements that we live with in the world. Le Quattro Volte is a completely unique film, and needless to say, I was completely taken with it.
Le Quattro Volte opens in NYC at the end of March and hits the Lagoon locally on May 13. I also wouldn't be surprised to see this as a selection at MSPIFF in April. I'll see it when ever and where ever I can!


5. Mundane History (2010)
Anocha Suwichakornpong
Thailand
Trailer (Wow. I love this movie.)

I'm only at number five, and I'm on my third spiritual film. Maybe this says more about me than trends in film, but I'm inclined to think it is a little of both. Mundane History is grounded in a story about a teenage boy who was recently paralyzed in a car accident who is assigned a new caretaker. The two young men are both struggling with there own unspoken demons, but find a way to live and heal through their forced companionship. The film slowly becomes deeply invested in spiritualism and very specifically the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The two young men, through a push and pull of cooperation, discover a modest path of awareness together. The grand aspirations of this film, whether they have to do with the Nobel Eightfold Path or the Golden Rule, are handled with care and tenderness and not the heavy hand one might expect. Anocha Suwichakornpong's first feature film is something pretty special. The finale is unbelievably riveting, frightening and beautiful.
Mundane History played at MoMA In December, and will probably be doing the festival/independent theater circuit. It won a Tiger Award in Rotterdam and will likely find a DVD release somewhere. I'm dying to see it again.


6. I Wish I Knew (2010)
Jia Zhangke
China
Trailer

(Read my review of I Wish I Knew in my VIFF dispatch over at In Review Online.) Commissioned by the Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew compiles interviews from Shanghai's past and present as an emotional exploration of the city's history. As beautiful and elegant as one familiar with Jia Zhangke's work might expect, his newest travels a straight and narrow path of documentary structure with clarity and beauty. Interviewing exiles and loyalists, Communists and Nationalist, famous and ordinary, Jia builds an archive through storytelling of Shanghai's modern past. Although I Wish I Knew focuses on the most tumultuous era for Shanghai's in 30s and 40s, the film builds to a crescendo of modernization and nostalgia.
I Wish I Knew has not been picked up for US distribution yet, but it probably will be. The important thing to realize is that there are two edits of this documentary: Jia's original running 138 minutes and an edited version that got played at the Expo running 125 minutes. Some of the interviews that portrayed the Communists in a poor light were cut. For some reason, the cut version is making its way into US festivals. If at all possible, see the 138 minute version.



7. Alamar (2010)
Pedro González-Rubio
Mexico

(Read my brief thoughts on Alamar in my MSPIFF coverage at In Review Online.) A beautiful film signed, sealed, and delivered by the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. I was so glad to have seen this first on the big screen with absolutely no pretense. The simple story of Alamar is adorned with the grace and perfection of a folklore or a myth. A young boy born to an Italian mother and Mexican father goes on a final farewell visit with his father and grandfather to the island of Quintana Roo, 30 miles off the coast, in the Caribbean Sea: a pictorial paradise where the way of life has not changed for hundreds of years. The father gives his son a memento of ancestry and history before sending him off to Italy with his mother. A mixture of documentary and fiction, Alamar is as close as most of us will ever get to the rough realism of the simple life.
Alamar played at MSPIFF locally and opened in limited release around the US. If you are a subscriber to Film Movement, you would have received this DVD 6 months ago; the DVD hits the streets January 11, 2011.


8. Police Adjective (2009)
Corneliu Porumboiu
Romania
Trailer

Police Adjective was definitely one of those films people were crowing about for 2009, but didn't his theaters in the Twin Cities until well into 2010. Those who saw Corneliu Porumboiu's new feature is not unlike his last, 12:08 East of Bucharest, full of incredibly dry wit and clever sense of detail. And yes, a slow and convoluted story, but not without effect! A young police officer painstakenly monitors the coming-and-goings of a group of kids in order to make a petty drug bust. Many films have attempted to underline the mundanity of police work, but Police Adjective earns some bragging rights in this corner. This detective is careful and slow and, as we eventually realize, doubtful that his investigation is heading down the right path. Nothing, however, prepared me for the quick-minded finale pulled from the pages of a dictionary. Absurd, hilarious and cunningly brilliant.
Police Adjective got a theatrical release late 2009 and early 2010. I just realized, however, that it has not been released on DVD or Blu-ray yet in the US. Criterion?


9. Aurora (2010)
Cristi Puiu
Romania
Trailer

It seems only fitting that I would follow up Police Adjective with Cristi Puiu's newest film, an equally challenging and rewarding film from Romania. First, I have to admit that I am in terrible need of a second viewing of Aurora: although I was completely captivated by it, I was fighting some serious fatigue in the final days of VIFF when I saw it. Puiu's follow up to The Death of Mr Lazarescu is drawn with the same kind of composure and slow dark observation. The thing that really sets Aurora apart is the fact that Puiu himself plays the lead and is in nearly every shot in this 3 hour movie. Aurora is one of those films that is a discovery from beginning to end. Completely unpredictable, this film strings you along with clues and nuances about this mysterious and serious man who is obviously on some sort of mission. Slow, methodical and strangely orchestrated, Aurora is completely unique.
Aurora made the festival rounds this year and has been picked up by Cinema Guild for theatrical release in the US in 2011.


10. Cold Weather (2010)
Aaron Katz
USA
Trailer

The Sound Unseen International Duluth Film Festival was a blessing in 2010. I wormed my way onto the jury, saw some of the best films of the year and met some of the most brilliant young filmmakers in the US. Included in the batch of films they showed was Cold Weather and included in the directors in attending was Aaron Katz. I may have been lukewarm to the mumblecore movement, but Aaron's films Dance Party USA and Quiet City were certainly standouts. His new film, Cold Weather, breaks him free of being pigeon-holed into anything but one of the best independent filmmakers is the US. It is a well-designed mystery build around the familiar relationship of a brother and a sister. These characters are familiar even if their actions are surprising or unusual or perfectly ordinary. Cold Weather is a genre film that seems to work by completely different rules. Top notch performances by Trieste Kelly Dunn and Cris Lankenau and a killer soundtrack by Keegan DeWitt.
Cold Weather ran the festival circuit in 2010 and is set for a theatrical release in early 2011. Here's hoping that 2011 is Cold Weather's year!


11. Putty Hill (2010) Matthew Porterfield / USA
Trailer and website
Yet another gift of Sound Unseen International Duluth, Putty Hill was picked up by Cinema Guild and will be released in 2011.

12. Certified Copy (2010) Abbas Kiarostami / France
Trailer
I can't believe that such a great film is all the way down here at number twelve. Read my assessment of Certified Copy in my VIFF dispatch at In Review Online. Certified Copy is set for US theatrical release in early 2011.

13. Another Year (2010) Mike Leigh / UK
Trailer
Mike Leigh's best film since Secrets and Lies with four incredible performances: Ruth Sheen, Leslie Manville, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton. Another Year is opening in limited release right now and hits Minneapolis on January 21 at the Uptown.

14. I Am Love (2009) Luca Guadagnino / Italy
Trailer
Melodrama, beauty and awakened passion. Utterly gorgeous film that seduces on every level. I Am Love is out on DVD and Blu-ray.

15. Fortune Teller (2010) Xu Tong / China
This independent documentary delivers some of the most candid interviews I have ever seen. Fortune Teller is a snapshot of life on the fringes in Mainland China. Unbelievable and riveting. I wish I could tell you that this would be available sometime soon.

16. October Country (2010) Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher / USA
Trailer and website
Sound Unseen International Duluth delivered again with this personal and universal documentary about life on the fringes. October Country is available on DVD.

17. The Arbor (2010) Clio Barnard / UK
Trailer
An account of the life, trials and travails of late British playwright Andrea Dunbar told through the voices of her family and the voices of her plays. The Arbor is a pretty unique documentary in form and structure, but its formalism in no way dampens its emotional impact. Quite the contrary, the stories here are powerful and moving. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. Strand has picked up the rights to The Arbor, and will be released in 2011.

18. End of Animal (2010) Jo Sung-Hee / South Korea
Two of the most original sci-fi films I have ever seen have both emerged from South Korea. The first was Butterfly (2001) and the second is this low-key surreal nightmare. I don't know if End of Animal will ever surface on DVD, but I will be there when it does.

19. Shutter Island (2010) Martin Scorsese / US
Trailer
Scorsese back in fine form. The best film he's made is some time. Available on DVD and Blu-ray (which looks crazy good.)

20. Poetry (2010) Lee Chang-dong / South Korea
Trailer (sorry no subtitles)
Poetry is still doing theatrical engagements. It played as MFA's Asian Film Festival and is scheduled for the Lagoon on March 18.

21. Wild Grass (2010) Alain Resnais / France
Trailer
A total wing nut of a movie from the 78-year-old auteur about aging, vanity and pride. Available on DVD.

22. Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (2009) Manoel de Oliveira / Portugal
Trailer
A gorgeous film that works wonders in 78 minutes. Available on DVD.

23. Hahaha (2010) Hong Sang-soo / South Korea
Trailer (sorry no subtitles)
(Read my thoughts on this film over at In Review Online.) No one has picked this up for US distribution, but DVD and Blu-ray is available from South Korea.

24. Trash Humpers (2010) Harmony Korine / USA
Trailer and website
A dystopian dream where creatures display their very human impulses to create a sort of mundane mayhem. Available on DVD, VHS and 35mm!

25. The Social Network (2010) David Fincher / US
Trailer and website
You don't need me to tell you about this film. Everything they say about this film is true, but I just rank it a little lower.

26. Dogtooth (2009) Giorgos Lanthimos / Greece
Trailer
Ever think you would like to raise your kids in a vacuum? This film will change your mind. Disturbing and thought provoking. Dogtooth comes out on DVD January 25.

27. Mother (2009) Bong Joon-ho / South Korea
Trailer
Bong Joon-ho's new film has one of the best performances of the year from veteran South Korean actress Kim Hye-ja. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

28. Karamay (2010) Xu Xin / China
In 1994 a tragic fire killed 323 people, most of them kids. Thirteen years later this incredible six hour documentary give the parents a voice they have never had. With many of the facts covered up by politicians, Xu Xin risks everything in telling their story. Riveting and devastating. I hold out hope that someone like Mubi or dGenerate Films will make this available online.

29. Ne Change Rein (2009) Pedro Costa / France
Trailer
Pedro Costa's new film is a meandering documentary that focuses on singer Jeanne Balibar. Shrouded in black and white chiaroscuro, Ne Change Rein is completely mesmerizing. Ne Change Rein will very likely make an appearance in the Twin Cities in 2011.

30. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009) Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea / France
(Read my review here at In Review Online.) This played at MSPIFF and eventually will make its way to DVD in 2011.

In Review Online: Year in Review 2010

The full roundup of films and music is up over at In Review Online. It's an impressive mix with some thought provoking write-ups. I contributed to the 2010 highlights in Home Movies and also put in my two cent vote for the staff lists of film and music.

Only films that got a 2010 theatrical (not festival) release in the US were eligible (which is why it will differ from my forthcoming list that randomly includes everything I saw in 2010, festival or otherwise.) For the record, here's how my vote went:

Movies
1. White Material / Claire Denis
2. Secret Sunshine / Lee Chang-dong
3. Mundane History / Anocha Suwichakornpong
4. Alamar / Pedro González-Rubio
5. Another Year / Mike Leigh
6. I Am Love / Luca Guadagnino
7. October Country / Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
8. Shutter Island / Martin Scorsese
9. Poetry / Lee Chang-dong
10. Wild Grass / Alain Resnais
11. Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl / Manoel de Oliveira
12. Trash Humpers / Harmony Korine
13. The Social Network / David Fincher
14. Dogtooth / Giorgos Lanthimos
15. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench / Damien Chazelle
16. Mother / Bong Joon-ho
17. Winter’s Bone / Debra Granik
18. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno / Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea
19. Ne Change Rein / Pedro Costa
20. Everyone Else / Maren Ade

Performances:
1. Ruth Sheen/ Another Year
2. Kim Hye-ja/ Mother
3. Isabelle Huppert/ White Material
4. Jennifer Lawrence/ Winter’s Bone
5. Jeon Do-yeon/ Secret Sunshine

Music
1. Watain “Lawless Darkness”
2. Agalloch “Marrow of the Spirit”
3. Sailors With Wax Wings “Sailors With Wax Wings”
4. The Body “All the Waters of Earth Turn to Blood”
5. Janelle Monae “The ArchAndroid”
6. White Moth “White Moth”
7. Four Tet “There is Love in You”
8. Harmonious Thelonious “Talking”
9. Xasthur “Portal of Sarrow”
10. Witehred “Dualities”
11. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti “Before Today”
12. Jenks Miller and Nicholas Szczepanik “American Gothic”
13. Caribou “Swim”
14. Marnie Stern “Marnie Stern”
15. Horseback “The Invisible Mountain”

Special Edition Cinema Shanty: Best of 2010

Once again, Erik, Jim, Peter and I have convinced KFAI to give over one hour of airtime to talk movies. This morning from 9-10am we will be talking the best and not so best of 2010. I have personally created a top ten list of films directed by the hardest to pronounce names in filmmaking. Tune in to hear me screw it up!

KFAI
90.3 and 106.5 FM in the Twin Cities

Friday, December 24, 2010

Year in Review 2010 - Home Movies

I have fallen down on the job of offering home movie recommendations. But that doesn't mean I have stopped buying or watching. At the prodding of fellow In Review Online music critic (and DVD hoarder) Jordan Cronk, I put my home movies sash back on and, like kids in our own candy store, he and I have come up with 15 of the best DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2010 the world over. Last minute Christmas shopping ideas for the cinephile on your list found here!

Year in Review 2010 - Home Movies

Here were some others on our list that didn't make the cut, but are certainly worth checking out:

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
The World [Blu-Ray] (Eureka – Masters of Cinema; Region Free)
The Vengeance Trilogy [Blu-Ray] (Tartan; Region A)
Memories of Murder [Blu-Ray] (CJ Entertainment; Region A & B)
Zed and Two Noughts [Blu-Ray] (BFI; Region Free)
The General [Blu-Ray] (Kino; Region Free)
The Thin Red Line [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
The Magician [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
The Burmese Harp (Eureka – Masters of Cinema; Region B)
Late Spring / The Only Son [Blu-Ray] (BFI; Region B)
Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? [Blu-Ray / DVD] (BFI; Region B)
Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family [Blu-Ray / DVD] (BFI;
Region B)
Night of the Hunter [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure Edition [Blu-Ray] (Lionsgate; Region Free)
Paths of Glory [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
Crumb [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
M [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
Vivre sa vie [Blu-Ray] (Criterion; Region A)
Contempt [Blu-Ray] (Lionsgate – Studio Canal Collection; Region A+B)
Fallen Angels [Blu-Ray] (Kino; Region Free)
Happy Together [Blu-Ray] (Kino; Region Free)
The Housemaid (1960) [DVD] (Korean Federation of Film Archives; Region Free)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Johnnie To's VENGEANCE

I wrote a review for Johnnie To's most recent film Vengeance for In Review Online that went up over the weekend. At first glancee, Vengeance seems like a departure for To. A French/Hong Kong co-production, Vengeance includes a couple key French actors to shake things up. Sylvie Testud has a small role in which she delivers a couple good lines in Cantonese, and French pop star Johnny Halladay is the film's irrefutable star and anchor (although no Cantonese spoken here.) Once the film smoothly slides into its modus operandi with Anthony Wong, Lam Suet Lam Ka-tung and Simon Yam in tow, it becomes a leisurely stroll of patented five-star Johnnie To action. Nothing too new here, but a lot to enjoy.

Vengeance has been available for some time on DVD from Hong Kong and on demand from IFC, but recently made a theatrical appearance in NY and LA.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Review Online: VIFF 2010 Coverage, Part 2

Part two of my coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival is now up on In Review Online which focuses exclusively on five of the Asian films at the Festival: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I Wish I Knew, Hahaha, Cold Fish and Winter Vacation.

In all the years that I have wanted to go to VIFF, it was because of their Dragons and Tigers series that year after year screened some of the most interesting titles from across the Pacific. Although some of these films get picked up for US release (Uncle Boonmee and Cold Fish are slated for 2011) others remain shrouded in the fog of distribution (including I Wish I Knew, Hahaha, and certainly the obscure and laconic Winter Vacation.) Five other films that I would highly recommend if they ever show their faces are Mundane History (Thailand), End of Animal (South Korea), Karamay (China), Fortune Teller (China) and Don't Be Afraid Bi! (Vietnam). Catch them if you can!

Festival Coverage - Vancouver 2010 - Dispatch 2

Monday, November 29, 2010

In Review Online: VIFF 2010 Coverage, Part 1

Finally, some of the fruits of some of my labors are up on In Review Online in the first of two dispatches from the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival. Included are five capsule reviews of Abbas Kiarostami's amazing return to narrative film with Certified Copy, Raúl Ruiz's luscious 4 1/2 hour epic Mysteries of Lisbon, Michael Rowe's daring first film Leap Year, Catharine Breillat's slightly disappointing The Sleeping Beauty and Xavier Dolan's meditation on superficiality in his sophomore film Heartbeats.

Four of these represent some of the high profile releases at VIFF, with Leap Year being a big surprise despite the fact that it won the Camera d'Or this past Spring at the Cannes Film Festival.

Festival Coverage - Vancouver 2010 - Dispatch 1

Coming soon: Dispatch 2 - Five amazing films from the Dragons and Tigers Program.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MSP Asian Film Festival: PRIVATE EYE

Private Eye (2009)
Park Dae-min
South Korea

Park Dae-min's debut film, Private Eye, carries on the recent tradition in South Korean film of liberally appropriating genre tactics and shaping them into unique versions of hackneyed themes. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is not meant to be. In a world were the economy of film is dominated by Hollywood, all but suffocating any notion of national cinema, I am thrilled that South Korea continues to take Hollywood to the mat year after year. However, most of the time this isn't happening with the titles and directors that may be most familiar to international audiences, but instead with films like the disaster movie Haeundae, the family comedy Scandal Makers, the God-awful monster movie D-War, and the entertaining Public Enemy franchise. Although Private Eye did not see the same success as some of these movies, it is a film cut from the same cloth with very populist intentions and domestic audiences in mind.

Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jeong-min) is and ex-military officer who now makes money exposing cheating wives and photographing the scandals along the way. Eventually his profession will be known as a private eye, but in the early 20th century, no such thing exists in Korea. Jin-ho is just a guy trying to earn enough money, by hook or by crook, to catch a boat to the US (where he hears there are more cheating wives.) Although he makes a rule not to investigate anything dangerous, Jin-ho agrees to look into a murder when a young medical student offers him a large reward. Jin-ho quickly gets pulled into the mystery that involves opium dens, underage girls, knife throwers and corrupt officials. One of those corrupt officials is Jin-ho's former colleague and less clever nemesis, Yeong-dal (played by Oh Dal-su, the pastry chef responsible for giving the 'Kind Hearted Guem-ja' a job in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, among other very memorable roles.) As the bodies start to pile up, the race is on for Yeong-dal to pacify politicians in the high profile murders and for Jin-ho to find the truth.

The action moves at a steady clip, but it unfortunately never gives the characters much consideration beyond generic labels: clever and stupid, naive and worldly, evil and pure. And the crackpot team of brilliant sleuth and earnest doctor is as well-worn as the crime novels in a used bookstore. But where Private Eye really shines is in its beautifully constructed early 20th century Korean era. It's an idealized hybrid of contemporary cool and awkward modernization in a Japanese occupied Korean peninsula. Traditional dress mixes with modern, as does the rapidly changing cultural conventions. Uhm Ji-won plays a woman who is an inventor secretly working beyond society's view creating things that help Jin-ho in his profession. She is like a very interesting version of Bond's Q. At one point in the film she is asked to do some eavesdropping with a group of society ladies. Their outing? A sophisticated round at the archery range with the women all wearing their gorgeous hanboks and carrying their bows like a fashion accessory. It's moments like these that are surprising in their picture perfect specificity. The ending is a wee bit overwrought, as if there was some sort of need to make the mystery more mysterious and titillating, but thankfully it is peppered with some genuine suspense so it doesn't fall flat before tying up all the loose ends. With an epilogue almost literally leads into a sequel, we surely have not seen the end of Jin-ho and his his sidekick. With a little bit of care (and luck), Private Eye could turn into a very interesting franchise of historical thrillers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

MSP Asian Film Festival: THAT GIRL IN THE YELOW BOOTS and OPEN SEASON

That Girl in the Yellow Boots (2010)
Anurag Kashyap
India
Amid the modest fanfare and opening night regalia, That Girl in the Yellow Boots opened the AFF with its just below the radar buzz and resilient independent spirit. Ruth (played by Kalki Koechlin, who also co-wrote the script) is a British citizen who has come to India to find her Indian-born father who left when she was five. Already months into her mission to find a man she has no picture of and little memory, Ruth has submerged herself in the culture by learning Hindi and taking a job as a masseuse where, for extra money, she give handshakes or happy endings or whatever other euphemisms there are for a hand job. She takes her profession in stride with a savviness that is unexpected, but, in contrast, is far too gullible to the ways of her drug hound boyfriend. And perhaps this is the biggest flaw with That Girl in the Yellow Boots, Ruth is too much of an idealized emotive chameleon. Perfectly naive and perfectly confident, she is somewhat impenetrable as a character. On the other hand, as much as the film acquiesces to embracing independent film conventions with a very personalized story sans glamour, it also thankfully kicks expectations for warm fuzzy conclusions out the door. The finale for Yellow Boots is extremely bold if not a little over-the-top. Gritty and uncompromising, That Girl in the Yellow Boots gets slightly muddled in its subplots, but eventually settles into an engaging ride.

Open Season (2010)
Mark Tang and Lu Lippold
USA
In November 2004 a horrifying story emerge from the woods of northern Wisconsin: a hunter had shot eight people killing six of them. But the real horror had yet to sink in. This was no accident and it was no random act of violence. The shooter was Chai Vang, a Hmong man from St Paul, Minnesota who had been hunting in Wisconsin. When another hunter discovered him on his property in a tree stand, Vang was asked to leave. Meanwhile the hunter went back to his hunting camp, told his friends about the incident and eight of them on three ATVs headed back to the sight to confront Vang. These facts, once they settle in, produce a terrifying situation of conjecture both for Vang and events that led to six deaths. Mark Tang and Lu Lippold's incredibly brave documentary of this incident resurrected all the dread and sadness of the story that was so sharp six years ago: dread of society's ability for blind hatred and sadness for the seemingly irreconcilable divide of race. At the time, I was living in the Frogtown neighborhood of St Paul, with a large Hmong population, and the incident weighed heavy on everyone. You could feel it in the atmosphere. Open Season maintains an even hand with a very volatile subject, interviewing family and residents on both sides of the story. From the haunting testimony of Vang in what happened that day to the heartbreaking confessions from family members of the people who were killed, not to mention the disturbing images from when the hunters were first found, the footage powerfully resonates long after the lights go up. Chai Vang represents a tipping point for a much larger problem of institutional racism and extremely dangerous circumstances involving conflict within the hunting culture (read: people who carry guns.) Directors Tang and Lippold hope to get the funding necessary to submit the documentary on PBS. Open Season will screen again on Sunday, November 14. Keep your eye on the AFF site for times.

Friday, November 5, 2010

MFA's 2010 Asian Film Festival


Minnesota Film Arts (or maybe The Film Society of Minneapolis St Paul) christens its first annual Asian Film Festival with many films to covet, explore and discover. Offering a diverse mix of East and Southeast Asian films, the inaugural year is a sign of good things to come. The Fest started Wednesday, but there are plenty of films left to see.

Here my thought on the ones I've seen, listed in order of preference:

I Wish I Knew (2010)
Jia Zhangke
China
Sunday, November 7, 1:00pm
Saturday, November 13, 2:00pm
The Mainland auteur's newest film gracefully mines the recent history of Shanghai by interviewing residents and former residents of the Paris of the East. A sponge for the country's ills and advances, Shanghai was built by its trade prowess, but defined by wars that raged in the 30s and 40s. Although Shanghai was under constant threat from the Japanese for nearly 15 years, it was the brutal battles between the Communists and the Nationalist that held the population in a powder keg that eventually sent residents scattershot physically and emotionally. Jia's tribute to Shanghai is as beautiful as it is thoughtful. (For a longer review that I did from VIFF look here.)

Poetry (2010)
Lee Chang-dong
South Korea
Saturday, November 6, 4:10pm
Friday, November 12, 7:00pm
Although Lee Chang-dong has five films to his name (four of which, including this one, I would consider near masterpieces) he remains relatively unknown in the US. Hopefully Poetry will change that. Poetry is the story of Mija, who looks to the art of writing poems as a road self-discover and transcendence. Although Mija is struggling with very worldly issues beyond her control, such as Alzheimer's and an insolent grandson she is trying to raise, her transformation is found through the realm of high art. Poetry won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and should see a larger release next year.

Gallants (2010)
Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok
Hong Kong
Saturday, November 13, 7:15pm
A movie best seen with a crowd, Gallants is a loving homage to kung fu films from the 60s and 70s. Leung is an office wimp who dreams of being so much more. One day when he is save by selfless hero who turns out to be the legendary Tiger. Tiger and his fellow martial arts brother Dragon have been quietly holding vigil over their master, Law, who has been in a coma for 30 years. Old rivalries ignite as well as the fighting passion within Leung as master Law miraculously awakes to his biggest challenge yet! The brilliance of Gallants is not only in the overt style that Kwok and Cheng chooses to parody with great wit, but also in its cast. The trio of old-timers—Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai and Teddy Robin Kwan—deliver more charisma than seems fair for one movie.

City of Life and Death (2009)
Lu Chuan
China
Saturday, November 6, 1:30pm
Tuesday, November 9, 6:45pm
A gritty and brutal portrayal of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, City of Life and Death has been embroiled in controversy that has stalled its release by almost a year. City of Life and Death was caught in a diplomatic push-pull almost a year ago with the Mainland pulling it from the Palm Springs Film Festival because they insisted on playing a Tibetan documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds (which screened at MSPIFF.) I'm glad to see it resurface because I was feeling bitter about not being able to see this very cinematic film on the big screen. Part war action film part historical melodrama, City of Life and Death is a harrowing account of war in 1937 Nanjing. (These events came to international light with Iris Chang's book "The Rape of Nanjing.") After the release of the film across the Pacific, the Japanese claimed that they were represented too harshly and the Chinese contended that the Japanese were depicted too fairly. For his money and yours, Lu Chuan maintains a pretty even hand in portraying each side as fallible rough cut pawns in a dismal war.

Crazy Racer (2010)
Ning Hao
China
Friday, November 5, 9:30pm
Thurday, November 11, 9:40
Crazy indeed. Ning Hao's followup to his other crazy film Crazy Stone (2006) is a hilarious keystone cop comedy. Huang Bo plays a disgraced cyclist who finally sees an opportunity for revenge and maybe even redemption. Crazy Racer comes from one of the freshest comedic voices in Mainland China and stars one of the most charismatic actors in the business. (Huang Bo also starred in Cow, which played at MSPIFF this past Spring.) Serious freaking fun.

Summer Wars (2009)
Mamoru Hosoda
Japan
Saturday, November 13, 4:30pm
Any animation fan would be crazy crazy crazy to miss Summer Wars on the big screen. Although I can't attest to what kind of format the film will be on, this is one spectacular looking animation on Blu-ray. The influence of Miyazaki in Hosoda's films is obvious, but Summer Wars propels Hosoda into a realm all by himself. This sci-fi family drama is incredibly refreshing, entertaining and beautiful. Do. Not. Miss.

The Red Chapel (2010)
Mads Brügger
Denmark/North Korea
Friday, November 5, 5:00pm
Wednesday, November 10, 5:15pm
Any glimpse into the mysterious North Korea is completely fascinating, and The Red Chapel certainly fits that bill. The Red Chapel is a documentary about a Danish comedy duo who is allowed to perform in North Korea due to their Korean heritage. It goes with out saying that their Western styled humor is 99.9% lost on the isolated North Koreans. But they soldier on with their mission knowing that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and an experience that they can share with the world. Both funny and moving, The Red Chapel trumps any and all stunt documentaries in existence.


Ip Man 2 (2010)
Wilson Yip
Hong Kong
Friday, November 12, 9:45pm
The recent resurgence in filmic interest in the story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's mentor, has grown to a three part series (part one and two directed by Wilson Yip, and a prequel directed titled The Legend is Born by Herman Yau) and is also the subject of Wong Kar Wai's newest film The Grand Master, due out...sometime. And I have to admit that three I have seen have resonated historically (even if it is revisionist) and entertained kinetically (even if it is more movie magic than 'master' magic.) The hand to hand fighting handled in these films, including Ip Man 2, is entrancing. Watching Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, both masters in their own right, do their thing is more than enough for me. The movie falls off near the end with its showdown of showdowns, but I have forgiven that minor flaw.

Sawako Decides (2010)
Ishii Yuya
Japan
Saturday, November 6, 4:00pm
A charming, if somewhat slight, blend of comic melodrama works most of the time in Sawako Decides. There's a social commentary in this film somewhere, but it is mostly a character piece prompt up by the irreverent and lovable Sawako, played to punchy perfection by Mitsushima Hikari.

Pinoy Sunday (2010)
Wi Ding Ho
Taiwan
Friday, November 5, 5:15
Saturday, November 6, 9:45
Monday, November 8, 5:00pm
Pinoy Sunday is a Filipino buddy movie set in Taiwan. Dado and Manuel are contract workers for a bike factory. One is earning money for his family back home and the other is earning money to squander, mostly on women who are uninterested in him. One day when they are both down on their luck, they find a sofa that represents a sort of new found happiness. But first they have to figure out a way to get it across town and back to their dorm by curfew. By the end of this movie I was annoyed at the character almost as much as they were with each other. It's an interesting ride with limited payout.


There are a dozen other films that I hope to catch at the Fest as I'm racing between Sembene at the Walker and Chaplin at the Trylon. No complaints here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zhang Yimou's A WOMAN A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP

My review for A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is now up on In Review Online.

Although I really hate to say it, this film is a mess. I saw A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop before I headed off to Vancouver, and the more I think about it (and compare it to some of the amazing films I've seen in the past couple of weeks) the more I'm convinced that this crazy idea to remake Blood Simple into a Chinese period piece is just that: crazy. The unfortunate component to slamming this film is that Zhang is no slouch and has brought a well crafted film to the table.

(This poster speaks louder than words. Even when I look at it, I wonder "What is going on!?" If it seems like it has a Stephen Chow/Chinese Odyssey element to it, that is not far off the mark.) Read here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Yael Hersonski's A FILM UNFINISHED (2010)

My review of A Film Unfinished is up at In Review Online.

It's strange how a reiteration of things you already know can be so powerful. A Film Unfinished is just such a documentary. It doesn't reveal anything new or anything we didn't already know about the Nazis. However, this close inspection of a propaganda film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in those tenuous months in mid-1942, sits in the chest like a rock. As quoted on the film's website by director Yael Hersonski: "A Film Unfinished first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the 'archive', and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears." This documentary starts with theory and curiosity but is finished with a great deal of compassion. A fascinating and heartbreaking film.

I think this may have played in the Twin Cities while I was out of town. It will likely come out on DVD early next year.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Casey Affleck's I'M STILL HERE (2010)

My review for Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here is up on In Review Online. If you could award prizes for an enduring performance, Joaquin Phoenix would surely win. However, my disappointment in Affleck's admission of the hoax continues to grow. I saw the film before he let the cat out the bag, and most of my enjoyment and observations are reliant on the absurd is-it-real-or-not debate. Reports continue to flood in: Letterman knew about it, Paltrow knew about it and on and on, like they all want a pat on the back. I'm Still Here is an incredibly funny film, and I could care less if Phoenix's sincerity is any more or less than his sincerity for Leonard Kraditor or Johnny Cash.

(I'm also having the worst brain fart on the title, writing I'm Not Here almost every time without fail - also an apropos title!)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Special Film Festival Edition of Cinema Shanty Tomorrow on KFAI

KFAI Weekly News turns the airwaves over to the Cinema Shanty crew for a special film festival edition tomorrow 10/22 from 9-10am! Hosts Peter Schilling, Jim Brunzell, Erik McClanahan and I will dish about recent film festival viewings and more!

Erik and I were recently at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and Jim just returned from the Chicago International Film Festival. We are also pleased to have Twin Cities film icon and recent news-maker Al Milgrom on to talk about the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tune in live or online to hear about our raves and faves, and what might and might not make it to Twin Cities theaters!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Olivier Assayas at the Walker Art Center

Wednesday night the Walker Art Center hosts Olivier Assayas, one of the most interesting auteurs in contemporary film. But not the kind of stodgy auteur used to prop up theories and didactic criticism—Assayas is a new breed of auteur dedicated to global citizenship and shapeshifting genres. The dialogue, Wednesday night at 8pm with Kent Jones, comes right in the middle of an eleven film retrospective that wraps up with Assayas' new five-hour film Carlos at the end of the month. Assayas is a film critic in his own right and should offer a lively discussion. I'll be front and center.

Monday, October 18, 2010

VIFF 2010: From top to bottom.

This has been a long time coming, but here is a list of all the films I saw in Vancouver very loosely ranked from best to worst. Of course on any given day, the films could shift around a little, but not by much. (This is especially true for the top 14 films that I admire and adore equally.) On the other hand, it is only the last two films on the list that I found completely awful with the rest having at least one or two redeeming factors.

  1. Winter Vacation d. Li Hongqi (China)
  2. Mundane History d. Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thai)
  3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thai)
  4. Certified Copy d. Abbas Kiarostami (France)
  5. Another Year d. Mike Leigh (UK)
  6. Karamay d. Xu Xin (China)
  7. I Wish I Knew d. Jia Zhangke (China)
  8. Aurora d. Cristi Puiu (Romania)
  9. Hahaha d. Hong Sangsoo (S Korea)
  10. End of Animal d. Jo Sung-hee (S Korea)
  11. Fortune Teller d. Xu Tong (China)
  12. Cold Fish d. Shion Sono (Jpn)
  13. Poetry d. Lee Changdong (S Korea)
  14. Don't Be Afraid Bi! d. Phan Dang Di (Vietnam)
  15. Mysteries of Lisbon d. Raúl Ruiz (Spain)
  16. Leap Year d. Michael Rowe (Mexico)
  17. Red Dragonflies d. Liao Jiekai (Singapore)
  18. Rumination d. Xu Ruotao (China)
  19. Chassis d. Adolfo Alix Jr. (Philippines)
  20. The Fourth Portrait d. Chung Mong-hong (Taiwan)
  21. Good Morning to the World d. Saturo Hirohara (Jpn)
  22. The High Life d. Zhao Dayong (China)
  23. Gallants d. Derek Kwok, Clement Cheng (HK)
  24. The Tiger Factory d. Woo Ming Jin (Malaysia)
  25. Thomas Mao d. Zhu Wen (China)
  26. R d. Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm (Denmark)
  27. The Robber d. Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria)
  28. Sampaguita, National Flower d. Francis X Pasion (Philippines)
  29. Armadillo d. Janus Metz (Denmark)
  30. Oki's Movie d. Hong Sangsoo (S Korea)
  31. The Sleeping Beauty d. Catherine Breillat (France)
  32. The Drunkard d. Freddie Wong (HK)
  33. The Man from Nowhere d. Lee Jeong-beom (S Korea)
  34. 108 d. Renate Costa (Spain)
  35. Rubber d. Quentin Dupieux (France/USA)
  36. Peace d. Soda Kazuhiro (Jpn)
  37. Get Out of the Car d. Thom Andersen (US)
  38. Sawako Decides d. Ishii Yuya (Jpn)
  39. Echoes of the Rainbow d. Alex Law (HK)
  40. Insects in the Backyard d. Tanwarin Sukkhapisit (Thai)
  41. Heartbeats d. Xavier Dolan (Canada)
  42. Incendies d. Denis Villeneuve (Canada)
  43. Aftershock d. Feng Xiaogang(China)
  44. Seven Days in Heaven d. Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu (Taiwan)
  45. The Strange Case of Angelica d. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
  46. The Red Chapel d. Mads Brugger (Denmark)
  47. Pinoy Sunday d. Ho Wi Ding (Taiwan)
  48. Surviving Life d. Jan Svankmajer (Czech)
  49. Merry-Go-Round d. Yan Yan Mak, Clement Cheng (HK)
  50. Of Love and Other Demons d. Hilda Hildalgo (Costa Rica/Columbia)
  51. Ugly Duckling d. Garri Bardin (France/Russia)
  52. Repeaters d. Carl Bessai (Canada)
  53. Metamorphosis d. Lee Samchil (S Korea)
  54. LA Zombie d. Bruce LaBruce (US)
That's a lot of frackin' movies. Can't wait to do it again!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

VIFF: Day 12

Catching up is so hard to do...

The Robber (2010)
Benjamin Heisenberg
Austria

Marathon runners take note: if you want to give your heart rate monitor a run for its money and put a little spark in your training regiment, try robbing banks. Benjamin Heisenberg new film is a tense thriller that rides a wave perpetuated by a true story. Based on an Austrian man who had a taste for robbing banks and a talent for running marathons, The Robber capitalizes on this unique character study with a little dramatic magic. We first meet Johann as he is finishing up his prison sentence. Running circles around a small prison yard, he is ordered inside along with the rest of the inmates only to continue running on a treadmill he has in his cell. From this scene and the rows of running shoes he has, we realize that he is serious about running. He is released from prison, continues to train and wins the Vienna Marathon. It seems he has turned his back on his criminal ways. But what we eventually find out is that Johann is something of an adrenaline junkie, and an extremely fit one at that. Working a bank robbery (or two) into his schedule gives him a physical and emotional test that satiates his compulsion. As one might expect, The Robber has a couple fantastic chase scenes: one a heart-pounding escape in the heart of Vienna and another a more measure hunt in the woods. Johann is played with palpable tautness by Andreas Lust (who played the policeman in Revanche.) But Johann's pathological path is treated as a sort of fate that he can't break free from which I had a hard time chewing on. Needless to say, it is a fate he can't run from or run with for long. The Robber is extremely poised and efficient in making an argument on Johann's behalf, but it's only half effective if your not buying the sympathy that he's trying to sell.


sampaguita, National Flower (2010)
Francis X Pasion
Philippines

Another film that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, sampaguita, National Flower does so with a documentarians lens. Sampaguita turns a tender eye on the stories of Manila street children who scrape by selling garlands of the sweetly scented sampaguitas. Francis X Pasion (can that be his real name?) started by interviewing a half dozen kids and then used the kids to act out their own situations and scenarios. The result is an amalgamation: the bold interviews are woven between the heartbreaking street-wandering milieu. The film doesn't offer answers or resolutions, but instead presents an honest and fortuitous portrayal of the resilience of these young kids.


Aurora (2010)
Cristi Puiu
Romania

You know those tile games where one space is open and you have to slide the tiles around in the frame to get all the tiles in place to make a picture? This is how Cristi Puiu's plot is constructed in Aurora: each sequence is slightly out of place, but not so much that you can't see the entire picture. The catch is that Puiu's tile game is 3 hours long and the images he uses to build a story are incredibly ambiguous. It's only in the last 20 minutes that you start understanding how you should shuffle the pieces, and when the film ends you are still shuffling. Aurora is a knock out followup to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu that contains the same uncanny sense of detail but is infused with a huge dose of abstraction. The film follows the very peculiar coming-and-goings of Viorel (astonishingly played by Puiu himself) as he obviously prepares for something. But the timeline is askew and the character and his intentions are a mystery. Eventually these things come together, but despite the explanatory finale (a procedural that would have made Mr. Lazarescu either tired or agitated), much is left in a fog of obscurity. Gritty and complex, Aurora is a film that I can't wait to revisit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

VIFF: Day 11

Winter Vacation (2010)
Li Hongqi
China

Li Hongqi, be still my heart! Winter Vacation is something of a perfect mixture of Chinese specificity and avant-garde bravado. An incredibly austere set piece, Winter Vacation doesn't concern itself too much about drama or reality but instead builds a laconic daydream filled with irony and surrealism. Both adolescents and adults seem to be stuck in aimless stagnancy in a small town in northern China over winter break. Normally this vacation, which coincides with the Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year), is depicted as an extremely lively time with family, food and firecrackers. Li Hongqi has painted the antithesis of this conception with the youth standing around looking at each other (and occasionally throwing slurs at one another) and their guardians doing much of the same. Winter Vacation is anchored by two sets of characters: five teenage boys who continually ask each other what they are going to do and an antagonistic grandfather and grandson sitting at opposite ends of a couch trading jabs. The film cycles through the non-events of the town—a thug extorting money from a kid, a woman buying nappa cabbage, a couple getting a divorce—but always returns to our two groups of heroes. At first these individuals seem oblivious to the absurdity of their stage set life until it is slowly revealed that they are more than aware of their sardonic situation. Kids and adults alike are calm but pensive. Li punctuates the beautifully barren images with a subtle soundtrack by experimental composer Zuoxiao Zuzhou (who has also contributed to soundtracks for Jia Zhangke, Zhu Wen, Yang Fudong and Ai Weiwei.) I, being a person who generally likes watching paint dry, adored Winter Vacation and it may just be my biggest discovery and favorite film of VIFF.


Chassis (2010)
Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Philippines

The VIFF program bills Chassis as "sub-proletarian Filipina Jeanne Dielmann," a trick that seemed to have me in mind. There is an air of truth in this statement (especially in their respective final sequences) but the two are literally and metaphysically worlds apart. Nora's husband drives a truck and they live with their young daughter in makeshift homes underneath idle trucks in the truck yard alongside many other families. Her husband is often absent, even when he is not driving, and seems completely uninvolved with helping raise their daughter. Under the most extreme circumstances, Nora does her best to provide for her daughter and occasionally turns to prostitution to make ends meet. At one point in the film a man on the bus is asking for donations for people with disabilities. Although it is unimaginable, Nora sees that her situation could be worse and gives the man some money. Far be it from me to tell you that her situation does get worse, but Nora's perfunctory attitude is eventually pushed to the limit. Shot in black and white, Chassis makes the most of emotion in this even keel portrayal of life on the fringes.


Mundane History (2010)
Anocha Suwichakompong
Thailand

It's hard to see a mystical film from Thailand and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But this would be ignoring that Thailand is a country deeply rooted in Buddhism, a religion that is far more open to broader definitions of life and the universe and Mundane History is magically able to work this into a simple but corporeal story. Ake is a young man who has been recently confined to a wheelchair from an accident that is never fully defined. Understandably bitter, Ake is hard on his new and easygoing nurse Pun, a man who is not much older than Ake. Early in the film, Pun laments to someone on the phone that he's not sure if he likes his job: "Everyone here is soulless." Mundane History patiently spends time proving this statement wrong. Ake slowly opens up to Pun and director Anocha Suwichakompong slowly introduces us to much larger themes that connect us all. The timeline is patterned, working back and forth within the period of time that Ake and Pun get to know each other peppered with burst of abstractions. The film derides conventional notions of time (presenting the title credit 20 minutes into the film) and the narrative is unconcerned with conclusion. As a matter of fact, the film ends with a bold statement on beginnings with an unblinking and visceral birth. The uncanny combination of macro and micro themes in Mundane History works seamlessly under Suwichakompong's gentle direction. If Pun releases animals in order to build his karma, Suwichakompong has made a film in order to build ours. It is also worth noting that Mundane History makes good use of pop songs in its soundtrack from the bands Furniture anItalicd The Photo Sticker Machine.


Oki's Movie (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
South Korea

Hong Sang-soo films should be more spread apart, because having just seen the vibrant Hahaha, Oki's Movie seems like a pale exercise. Split into four short films, Oki's Movie puts two men from different generations and their respective affair with Oki under the Hong microscope. The respective films show four different perspectives from four different times. Jingu is a film student whose affair with Oki raises the jealous ire of his professor, Song who also has a history with the young woman. Jingu is the hapless hero who we embarrassingly see flinging his ego in places it doesn't belong. In one of my favorite scene's from the film, Hong sets up a hilarious post-screening discussion where Jingu is answering questions about his film. Jingu is drunk and is being overly essoteric about his film when a young woman stands up and asks him why he dumped her friend he was seeing a couple years ago. The uncomfortable but compulsory Q & A that we all know so well is kicked up a notch as the young woman presses Jingu and no one, including Jingu, can put a stop to it. Oki's Movie certainly has its moments, but the four chapter portraiture—notated by separate credits and Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance"—seems like an unnecessary distraction.