Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Three to remember. VIFF: Day 5

Yowzers day 5. I should just go home now. There is absolutely no way I can do any of the films below justice considering available time and brain, so please accept my apologies for the brief and muddled thoughts. All three of these films are highly recommended.

Hahaha (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
South Korea

I sat in Hahaha completely bewildered: Why had I never thought about Woody Allen in connection with Hong Sang-soo? I tried to run through Hong's films in my head. Was I distracted by other aspects? Or is Hahaha just that much different from the rest of his films? Either way, basking in the glow of Hahaha, it seemed to hit me over the head with a 2 x 4. (And for the record, we are talking about Allen's "funnier films.") Munkyung and Jungshik are friends who are revisiting recent events over a few drinks. They trade stories of their coincidental trips to Tongyung on the southern coast of Korea, and, as their stories play out on screen, we realize—but they don't—that their wanderings in the area overlap and include some of the same people. Munkyung is a recently fired professor who now calls himself a film director (even though he hasn't made a film) and is planning on immigrating to Canada to help his aunt run a photo franchise. Jungshik is a depressed married man who is having an affair with an airline stewardess and is tortured by the fact that he is being untrue to both of them. All events involve hilarious and farcical attempts to make connections with other people (generally of the opposite sex) and large amounts of soju. Munkyung is played to brilliant pathetic perfection by veteran Hong actor Kim Sangkyung. A mama's boy prone to weeping, Munkyung is a Hong Sangsoo styled everyman but is given the onscreen space to indulge in conventional character tropes including a dream sequence and a fist fight, both constructed with Hong's unique touch. Seongok (stunningly played by Moon Sori) is an odd and irreverent museum tour guide that Munkyung woefully chases. Munkyung and Jungshik's gathering from which the flashbacks unfold is only seen in brief black and white snap shots and voice over exchanges that would go something like this: "Wow. You were really great!" "Yeah." "Cheers!" "Cheers." "Hahaha." There is a certain formal and tonal restraint to Hong's films, and just a touch of that restraint falls away in Hahaha, easily making it one of the most enjoyable films he has made.

Don't Be Afraid, Bi! (2010)
Phan Dang Di

Toppling any and all expectation, Don't Be Afraid Bi! is one of the most remarkable debut films I have seen in a very long time. Directed by Phan Dang Di, the scribe of last year's subtle Adrift, Don't Be Afraid, Bi! displays a rare skill for storytelling, an uncanny eye for cinematic elegance and a fearless candor for difficult subjects. Bi is a 6-year-old boy who lives with his patient mother, alcoholic father, lonely aunt and bedridden grandfather who has recently returned to Vietnam. Each adult member of the family is dealing with their respective demons as Bi looks on. On the surface the narrative is neither new or innovative, but Phan is able to be delicately obvious and subtly overt, especially in sexual intonations. Don't Be Afraid, Bi! has one of the most surreal seductions sequences since Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth. (And I use the word "seduction" very loosely in both cases.) Meanwhile he weaves the familial riffs with Bi's innocent explorations of an ice factory and the grassy fields next to the river with visual innovation. His naive observations are a visual patchwork for the viewer that add a substance that few films even bother with. The final shot binds the characters and the film to the dirt they live upon while acknowledging the world as something much bigger and much more mysterious. Don't Be Afraid, Bi! is a revelation, and Vietnam is long overdue for such an incredible new voice in filmmaking.

Karamay (2009)
Xu Xin

Not only the longest film at VIFF, Karamay may also be the most important. On December 8, 1994 a fire broke in Friendship Hall in Karamay, a town in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Inside the large theater, the region's brightest and most talented young students were performing for local and regional officials. 325 people were killed in the fire, 288 of them were children. The chaos that ensued in the weeks that followed the fire was heightened because of the obvious and overwhelming grief of parents and relatives, but also by the shameless government cover up of the story. A media embargo on the tragedy, still in effect in China, meant to quash the story seems to have had the opposite effect and left many people burning with hatred and sorrow and allowed the incident to symbolize government corruption through underground channels. Xu Xin's six hour documentary, shot in 2007, attempts to make up for 13 years of forced silence through his own relentless investigation of staggering emotional resonance. The film opens on the 13th anniversary of the fire at the huge graveyard of the victims in the middle of a barren, rubble-filled field. Walking around to the gravestones, each with a small photo, we slowly start to meet some of the families who have come to burn offerings to their dead children. From here, Xu moves into the bulk of the film which is made up of candid interviews with the parents and archive news reports, home videos and long buried media footage. Slowly and patiently, Karamay allows people to fully express their feelings, suspicions and first hand accounts about the fire—an accommodation that these people are given probably for the first time from someone outside of their circle. Xu builds a devastating portrait of the events, the unbelievable negligence and the lost souls left behind. Thirteen years is still painfully recent for the interviewees but seems like enough distance from the incident for this documentary to exist with proper perspective. If my comments above haven't been clear, I was completely bowled over by Karamay and its a film I hope to return to in the future.

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