Friday, February 25, 2011

Home Movies lives at In Review Online!

Home Movies, on hiatus for much of 2010, lives again with a new installment for January 2011 on In Review Online. With the help of In Review Online music editor Jordan Cronk, I have picked myself up off the floor to relaunch the monthly feature once again. For January, Jordan tackles the two Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, from Criterion and the new Blu-ray of Sergio Leone's classic Once Upon a Time in America. Meanwhile, I profile the release of Oscar loser/critical winner Social Network, but then dive head first into full tilt genre releases from the month: Buried, The Last Exorcism, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Sante Sangre and a Blu-ray import of Deep Red from the UK. The Deep Red release from Arrow Video comes a few months ahead of the Blue Underground US release in April. Although it is kind of unclear what will be included on the Blue Underground Blu-ray, Arrow's 2-disc set would seem to be the definitive in options and supplements.

Home Movies is the first feature on a redesigned In Review Online. The new year has mostly been dedicated to fine tuning the site, but we will be back on our game soon with new music and movie reviews that you can agree and disagree with. Home Movies for February will be up sometime mid-March.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's UNCLE BOONMEE and SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY at Walker Art Center

It is not much of a stretch to call Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) companion pieces. But the same could be said for Syndromes and Tropical Malady (2004), Malady and Blissfully Yours (2002), or Yours and Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)—each one a stair step to unchallenged mythical eminence of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre; each one achieving new heights; each one challenging my own blissful hyperbolic state. (The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), which Weerasethakul’s co-directed, is also somewhere in the mix, but entertainingly less grounded to his other work.)

The Walker Art Center hosts the Twin Cities' premiere screenings of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this weekend and Syndromes and a Century next Thursday (which shamefully never got a theatrical screening here.) The Walker, way ahead of the curve on Weerasethakul’s work, screened his Mysterious Object at Noon in 2001 as a part of its Asian Currents program and later brought Weerasethakul to the Twin Cities for a Regis Dialog and retrospective in 2004. It is in keeping that the Walker would score an advanced screening of Weerasethakul’s Palme D’Or winner before it lands in New York City on March 2.

Uncle Boonmee earned top prize at Cannes less that a year ago and it wasn’t too long after that Stand picked up the U.S. rights to the film. Fans have certainly been waiting with baited breath, but even those unfamiliar with Weerasethakul's films would be hard pressed not to have noticed the rumblings of Uncle Boonmee’s mysterious ghosts. As one might guess by the title alone, Uncle Boonmee is not your average film—in the best possible way. Boonmee and his past lives are very much the subject of the film, but so are the grand enigmas of life, death and spirituality. With themes this big you might expect a certain amount of grandiose staging, but this is where Uncle Boonmee surpasses average and anything that you might expect.

Weerasethakul approaches the fate of Boonmee with gentle curiosity. Inspired by a book by the same name that Weerasethakul picked up from a monk, Uncle Boonmee is a relatively straightforward account of a man who is nearing death. It takes place, however, in a setting that evokes the supernatural. That setting not only incorporates the landscape and jungles of the Khon Kaen region of northern Thailand, but also Weerasethakul’s cinematic landscape where there is something very plainspoken about abstractions. Jen has traveled to the country to visit her brother-in-law, Boonmee, where he lives and tends to his tamarind grove and bee houses. She is accompanied by Tong, played by Weerasethakul favorite Sakda Kaewbuadee. Although Boonmee seems to be in good health, we learn of his kidney disease through an early scene depicting his dialysis.

Much of what happens in Uncle Boonmee is meant to float between the known and the unknown in the same way it floats between the past and the present, and a direct narrative and illusive diversions. There is an undeniable physicality to Boonmee’s peritoneal dialysis but it is gently rolled out right alongside mystical apparitions of reincarnation. Uncle Boonmee is a rare comment on death and spirituality that is completely original in film. With an ending that is best discovered, Uncle Boonmee lays a visual and symbolic path to the end—one of the most striking is the morning sun pouring into a cave revealing only part of Jen and Boonmee. Weersethakul’s poetic license is like an open door to interpretation that I have no intention on shutting. Peppered with magic and marvel, Uncle Boonmee goes out like a showboat ready to be painted with personal or political effects.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives plays twice: Friday at 7:30pm and Saturday again at 7:30pm. Although I have seen the film twice now (at the Vancouver International Film Festival) I wouldn't miss a chance to see it again on the big screen. At this time, it is unclear whether or not Uncle Boonmee will make another appearance in the Twin Cities. Despite the overwhelming critical praise it has received over the past ten months, it is far from a ‘marketable’ film that theaters are likely to jump on. I’m hoping to be proven wrong, but Weerasethakul’s previous film, Syndrome and a Century, is a case in point. Well received at festivals around the globe, Syndromes never received a theatrical screening in Minneapolis. Syndromes and a Century came out on DVD in the US a few years ago, but I have been living with the hope that someday it would get a belated theatrical screening. As soon as you see the beautiful digression that the film takes into a lush green field for the credits, you will see what I mean.

Humor, heart and beauty are at the center of every one of Weerasethakul’s films, but it reaches a swoony tipping point with Syndromes. The elliptical story revolves around two young doctors who exist in two realms of what seems to be a time-space continuum. The first half is set in a rural hospital where Dr. Toey is interviewing a new collegue, Dr. Nohng. The film breaks off to follow Dr. Toey as she visits patients, deals with a lovesick friend, and tells a story shown in flashback of her first love. The second half opens with the same interview between Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng but it is set in the austere modern environs of a Bangkok hospital. After the interview the camera follows Dr. Nohng as he makes his rounds, visits with his girlfriend and shares some time with his co-workers taking nips out of a bottle of alcohol stashed in a prosthetic leg. Both stories are a sweet and unaffected exploration of the pains and journeys of love and companionship, both personal and professional.

Weerasethakul, the son of two doctors, has mentioned that the film was inspired by his own experiences, and is largely based on his parents’ lives before they married. Syndromes and a Century is a layered love story—perhaps with the true romance falling just slightly outside of the frame—but it effortlessly straddles motifs of ethics, science, Buddhism and compassion with an open heart and an open mind. In both Uncle Boonmee and Syndromes, Weerasethakul takes simple situations and cloaks them in a shroud of mystery. Is there something in the air? Maybe. At least that is the allusion that Syndromes makes near the end of the film as vapors are pulled into a ventilation system. Needless to say, we get pulled in with it.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Friday, February 18, 7:30
Saturday, February 19, 7:30

Syndromes and a Century
Thursday, February 24, 7:30 Free!

Friday, February 11, 2011

A poster too cool not to post.

Jimmy Corrigan might be the smarted kid on earth, but Chris Ware's Uncle Boonmee is the coolest poster on the earth.

The Twin Cities will get a sneak preview of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives next weekend at the Walker Art Center. Friday, February 18 at 7:30pm and Saturday, February 19 at 7:30pm.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lee Chang-dong's SECRET SUNSHINE

Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine opened Friday at St Anthony Main and is absolutely one of those films that should not be missed. Secret Sunshine lit up Cannes nearly four years ago earning Jeon Do-yeon Best Actress and earning the film mounds of critical praise. Six months later, as the film languished without US distribution, I opted to import the South Korean DVD as my only option to see the film and was stunned by the film's audacious delicacy. Although late in the game, IFC picked up the film (along with Lee's equally impressive new film Poetry) for 2010 release. At 142 minutes, Secret Sunshine is a seriously in depth inquiry on human emotions. Below is a review I wrote for In Review Online to be posted there soon.

Prior to the release of Secret Sunshine in South Korea, director Lee Chang-dong insisted that his highly anticipated new film was just “normal.” In an interview with Kim Young-jin, Lee said, “Things couldn’t have been more normal.” Anyone who knows Lee’s work had good reason to be suspicious of this statement. ‘Normal’ is not a word you would use to describe this meticulous director and it is certainly not a word you would use to describe the circumstances surrounding the arrival of Secret Sunshine. Shortly after he completed his third feature, Oasis, to great critical acclaim, Lee was appointed the Minister of Culture by newly elected president Roh Moo-hyun. His filmmaking career went on hold indefinitely when it seemed to be at a peak. After spending one year embroiled in politics, including the bitter fight to maintain film quotas in South Korea, Lee stepped down and disappeared. A few years later this revered novelist and filmmaker emerged with a new script and a new film to make. And everyone knew that it would be anything but normal.

But there is a bit of truth to Lee’s proclamation. Secret Sunshine lacks a certain amount of overt style in favor of unpredictable emotions and a chaos driven narrative. But this is not the chaos of, say, extracting a memory from a dream within a dream within a dream, but a smaller, more personal and inconsequential chaos. Lee’s schisms in time and flights of fantasy found in Peppermint Candy and Oasis are not on the agenda for Secret Sunshine. Lee instead uses his ‘normal’ approach to observe a painful pattern of tragedies and failed self-discoveries in the life of Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a woman struggling for stability in a very unstable set of circumstances.

Shin-ae is an irreverent single mother with the aura of a woman taking control of her life. Recently widowed, she is moving to her late husband’s hometown of Milyang, which, using Chinese characters, translates to ‘secret sunshine.’ Starting over, however, is far more involved than reconciling the death of her husband. As facts percolate to the surface, we realize that she is not only escaping the accidental death of a philandering and most likely abusive husband, but also a family that blames her for her own misfortune. Finding solace in a strange place is part of the plan, but so is reinventing herself into something other than a victim, not only for herself but also for her solemn young son. Her face of confidence and urban sophistication is a thinly veiled farce, but one that Lee allows us to slowly discover.

Her first encounter is with Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho), an earnest local mechanic who helps Shin-ae when her car breaks down. Just as Shin-ae is looking to start anew, Jong Chan also sees an opportunity for himself by forging a friendship with this newcomer. When Shin-ae boasts that she might be looking for land to invest in, Jong Chan finds a real estate agent to help out. When Shin-ae tells Jong Chan that she will be teaching piano in town, he aggressively solicits students. Their push-pull relationship defines their surface characteristics as well as their more concealed idiosyncrasies. At one point, Jong Chan marches into Shin-ae’s teaching room to hang a bogus award on the wall. It is an odd moment: for Jong Chan, it is an innocent gesture that he thinks will help Shin-ae’s business, but written on Shin-ae’s face and in her reaction is a pathetic admission that ‘awards’ have never been a part of her history. The subtle yet so specific interaction is there for the taking, but it is far from pushed in your face. Its delicacy exists because of a careful lack of emphasis that permeates even the most dramatic moments.

When tragedy strikes nearly a third of the way into the film, the event, although gratuitous, neither looks nor feels that way. Instead, Lee’s “tragedy” is used as device no different from Hitchcock’s MacGuffin—to propel Secret Sunshine down its eventual wandering road. But more importantly, it allows Lee to fully explore the tumultuous emotions of the enigmatic Shin-ae and her intrepid tag along, Jong Chan. In many ways, the major earthquake in Shin-ae’s life causes Lee to steady his camera even more and keep a lock on his unobtrusive observational tone. As his lead character rides an emotional rollercoaster—distilling grief with shock, revelation, grace, depression, anger and eventual resignation—the film never pushes the story or the audience with manipulation. In one of the most harrowing scenes, Shin-ae, overcome with sorrow, aimlessly walks into a religious revival and proceeds to emote with unabashed tears and wailing. Jong Chan, who has followed her in, is our companion in trying to process what is going on. Ultimately, it seems that Shin-ae is most comfortable among complete strangers, but the questions of a character’s actions (both Shin-ae’s and Jong Chan’s) are the elegant mysteries of Secret Sunshine.

One of the most refreshing things about Secret Sunshine is how hands-off Lee Chang-dong is with Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae. Tags of artifice, be it music or close-ups, are cast aside to allow Jeon to give a performance that won Best Actress at Cannes in 2007. Shin-ae’s breakdown does not solicit false sympathies and it certainly isn’t a setup for a narrative trap (or the nominal cue that breakdown will eventually equal recovery.) Jeon embodies the innocence and grace of someone born again, but also the erratic emotions that go along with trauma and grief. The same could be said about Song Kang-ho as Jong Chan, but his character keeps the (mostly) even-keel of a misguided playboy. Nonetheless, Song performance is a tempered counterpoint to Jeon.

Secret Sunshine is receiving a belated U.S. release—nearly four years after it drew attention at Cannes—just ahead of Lee’s new film Poetry, another film that Lee would no doubt call normal. Extraordinary is what I would call both of these films: testaments to exquisite filmmaking and audacious acting. Secret Sunshine takes the makings of a melodrama and pulls the spotlight off the drama and onto the characters with such elegant ease, you hardly notice. Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho turn the film into a rich discovery in which no one succumbs to the heavy-handed design. The result exposes our human frailties and innate paradoxes. The final shot of the film has the last word. With a note of irrelevance, the camera slowly moves away from Shin-ae and Jong Chan to follow a lock of her cut hair. It lands on the peripheral, a spot of otherwise unnoticed secret sunshine, ending with a beautifully understated and unresolved dot-dot-dot.