Friday, September 28, 2007

Toronto: A Few Thoughts

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It’s TIFF hangover-slash-exhaustion, I suspect, but after a week of feeling out of sorts and insomnious, life is thankfully returning to normal. What follow are not ‘reviews’ but instead a few thoughts sparked by a few films…

* * *

I surprised myself in being bowled over by Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine. Not that there’s a rule about this or anything but the kind of festival film I’m attracted to generally tends to be short on narrative incident or character psychology and long on formal interest. Secret Sunshine isn’t indifferent to form (at all) but it doesn’t really foreground it either. Instead the film makes a sustained play for your complete, naked, gut-level emotional involvement. I ‘bought’ this film; to me, its relentless descent felt true, uncompromised and necessary. If you didn’t buy it (as was the case with a few friends I spoke to), I can see how the second half might perhaps have felt repetitive or redundant.

The film experiments fruitfully with genre and tone. Genre is used not as a grid which guides and directs movement within the film but instead as a catalyst inserted intermittently to set off events within the narrative. The results and consequences of those events, however, are non-generic. In other words, genre moves pop up, MacGuffin-like, simply to seed the narrative from time to time.

Secret Sunshine reminded me of Todd Haynes’s Safe in a couple of ways: (1) The satire of evangelical Christianity is complicated and nuanced and not at all full-blooded and unambivalent, just as it was with New Age-ism in the Haynes film; and (2) The ‘mirror reflection’ ending both films share. The two stunning performances I saw at the fest this year were by Jeon Do-yeon in this film and Asia Argento in Catherine Breillat's An Old Mistress.

Next: I need to see Lee's Oasis and Peppermint Candy.

* * *

So, here’s a question. The two Red Balloon movies: How do they speak to each other? Specifically, the balloon itself: What function does it perform? What does it activate within the narrative?

In Albert Lamorisse’s film (1956), the balloon is always present, visible to all. On the street, people brush past it in annoyance. To them, it’s a pesky outsider, a trespasser. The streetcar refuses to allow it to board; the schoolmaster turns a malign eye on it; it’s ejected from church; the street kids torture it. The balloon’s function in the film is as a public presence—to detail the consequences of its traversal of public spaces.

Hou inverts this function/purpose of the balloon, and renders it private. The balloon is pretty much invisible. Only the boy seems to notice it. The one scene in which it is visible to all is deliberately played in a comic key: its custodian is a man in a green body suit, green because the man can then be easily effaced by the filmmaker’s software.

Except in the first shot of the film, in which the boy climbs up to capture the balloon (a direct quotation of a shot from the original film), he doesn’t even reach out his hand for the balloon; he doesn’t seem to want to possess it. When he spies it through the window, we see little acknowledgment on his face save a mild enchantment (or perhaps I imagined that too). The balloon’s simply there as a private, personal companion for the boy, a hovering object of calm that watches over him from a distance and counterbalances the storm the boy’s mother (Juliette Binoche) weathers daily in numerous small ways.

* * *

One has certain private traditions with ritualistic events like film festivals. At my first TIFF in '99 I stumbled into an utterly winning teen movie (Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål, a.k.a. Show Me Love) and resolved to get a teen movie fix each year at TIFF. This year, I scheduled The Babysitters, with John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon, about a suburban prostitution ring of babysitters. But Gus Van Sant's flat-out gorgeous Paranoid Park gave me my fix and then some, and I passed on The Babysitters.

Three interesting things about Paranoid Park:

(1) The sense of dialectical play between the polarities of documentary authenticity (nonprofessional teens; video footage featuring skateboarders who had no ‘dramatic’ parts in the film’s narrative) and an intensely lyricized subjective treatment of everyday activity, often rendered in slow motion.

(2) The witty, complex and multipurpose music scoring, which used a broad range of sources (Nino Rota from Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord; Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”; Cool Nutz; hardcore; swing-era jazz) to express a variety of attitudes and moods at different points (like pathos, irony, playfulness, burlesque).

(3) Despite its scrambled, doubling-back-on-itself chronology, it never felt like a ‘puzzle film’ that needed to be taken apart and put back together in some linear, ‘natural’ order. Instead of feeling fragmented, it seemed to exist and unfold unhurriedly in a sort of long, continuous, ‘eternal present’.

(Sandrine Marques at Contrechamp posts an arresting pair of images, side by side, from Van Sant and the Renaissance painter Raphael.)

* * *

A few links:

-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art offers up a set of framegrabs of film projections within films. Perhaps you'll want to add your own suggestions to her list?

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera: "Here again is proof of what a fragile medium the movies are, and of how foolish it is for us to condescend to the perceived primitivism of a past that is largely a creation of our own neglect." Also, at his blog, Dave recommends a couple of DVD sources that offer rare films in the public domain.

-- Errol Morris has a blog post at the NYT that has elicited 700+ comments in the last couple of days. It begins: "“You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” My friend Ron Rosenbaum seemed incredulous. I told him, “No, it was actually two sentences.”"

-- Dan Sallitt: "In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name."

-- David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's invaluable blog celebrates its first anniversary.

-- Michael Z. Newman at Zigzigger on "White Elephant Television."


Blogger Brian said...

Well, you've just made my Friday evening start a little later with some of those links. The Morris piece is so fascinating! And I haven't even started in on the comments yet.

I'm glad you decided to write on Secret Sunshine. I've been trying not to let myself read about TIFF films, so as to minimize my feelings of envy for not being able to go. But with this one, I'm making an exception. I'm allowed to anticipate it all I want. I'm chomping at the bit to see it, as much as I loved Peppermint Candy and Oasis. I'll be interested to learn what you think of them once you get a chance to see them. I found quite a bit of "formal interest" in both films, but indeed the "narrative incident" and "character psychology" is what really makes them memorable.

September 28, 2007 9:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I've heard some admirers of Peppermint Candy and Oasis say that this might be Lee's best film. So, I'm very glad for your anticipation. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before it plays the Bay Area, esp. since it's also at NYFF.

September 28, 2007 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I haven't seen Peppermint Candy, but I did see Oasis. Moon So-ri is an incredible actress.

September 28, 2007 11:16 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I'm hoping to catch Secret Sunshine in Palm Springs. I picked up the lovely little press booklet for it in anticipation.

September 29, 2007 2:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Peter and Michael. I've only heard of Moon So-ri, and not seen her in anything. Secret Sunshine has got me enthused about doing a contemporary Korean cinema immersion one of these months. There was another Korean film at TIFF, called Happiness, that a lot of people (including Dan) liked quite a bit, but I didn't get to see it.

September 29, 2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good news. Adrian has a new & regular monthly column (in both Dutch and English) at the magazine Filmkrant. The column is called "World Wide Angle" and he'll be writing on film and the Web. In the inaugural entry, he discusses the Bergman/Antonioni debate. Here's an excerpt:

"What does it really mean for us, as critics or viewers, to demand of any filmmaker that he or she should 'invest in the modern world' - or else be declared outmoded, old-fashioned, a dinosaur? As cinema spectators, we can only judge whether a film is 'pertinent' from the often mysterious resonance that it sets off in us - far more than its surface content, topic or theme - that deep sense that it touches us, and thus touches upon something that, more generally, matters to the contemporary world. What if a filmmaker sticks to what he or she knows best or feels most deeply - if he or she decides to 'plough their field' deeper and deeper as the years go by, as Rohmer's producer once said, admiringly, of him? If he or she settles upon what Nietzsche called an 'untimely meditation', free from the ephemeral influence of cultural fashion or social topicality? Bergman, certainly, took this untimely, in fact obsessive option - and when his final film Saraband (2003) finally came along and shook so many of us to our core, did we feel like complaining that he was 'out of touch'? Maybe some of the greatest artists of cinema know what many critics don't: that history will keep rediscovering them, at those secret moments when their work, once more, begins to resonate."

To access the entire column online:
-- Go to the Filmkrant homepage.
-- Click on cover pic of the issue.
-- Scroll down the column at the right hand side of the page to "World Wide Angle". (That's the name of Adrian's column.)
-- Click on it. You'll be in the Dutch version. Scroll down to the very bottom.
-- Click where it says "De originele Engelstalige column, 'Untimely meditation', vindt u op hier." ("For the original English column...go here")

September 29, 2007 8:07 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Here is the direct link. I had dropped the ball, but I might need to finish my series of posts now...

September 29, 2007 2:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, thanks for that direct link to Adrian's piece, Harry. I couldn't figure out how to extract it.

September 29, 2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I have a friend whose browser (IE) has been crashing when he tries to post a comment here the last couple of weeks. I'm curious to know: Has anybody else been having trouble with posting comments? If so, could you pl. drop me a little email? Thanks.

September 29, 2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

on a PC you can right click on the link and "save link" or "open in a new window" (the address bar will give you the direct link).
I don't know about Mac.

September 30, 2007 2:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Harry. That worked on my Mac.

September 30, 2007 6:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Some reading:
-- Zach on television.
-- Rob Davis on The Darjeeling Limited.
-- In the Guardian, Wim Wenders remembers Sam Fuller.
-- At Greencine: Michael Guillen interviews Bela Tarr.
-- Steve Shaviro on Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.

September 30, 2007 11:58 AM  
Blogger davis said...

I've been wanting to see Peppermint Candy ever since Oasis blew me away. I know it's on DVD, but I just haven't checked it out, yet. Moon So-ri is amazing, but I really think her co-star in Oasis, Sol Kyung-gu (also in Peppermint Candy, I believe), is even better, in a less showy role. I don't know anything about acting, but his was the character I wanted to keep following when the movie ended.

Has he done anything interesting since? He has a steady stream of credits in the IMDB but nothing I'm familiar with.

Girish, thanks for the link. I'm throwing in with the NYFF crowd for a few days this year, but I already have a regret: I'll miss Secret Sunshine.

September 30, 2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rob, I noticed that Netflix carries just Oasis. I think Peppermint Candy is available on non-R1 DVD at YesAsia.

Have a great time in New York, and I look forward to your takes on the films.

September 30, 2007 2:26 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I liked Secret Sushine very much too. The daring perspective it gives to a melo bordering a TV-grade kitsch. I hadn't thought of this astute parallel with [Safe]. That's very interesting. The main difference being that Jeon Do-yeon is rebellious and aggressive toward her friends. Personally I thought of Breaking the Waves, where Bess and Jan would merge into one person: Shin-ae, with the same inconditional, excessive embrace of religion and at the same time a violent perversion of it. Especially when she looks at the sky and says "look at me". But I'm sure there is another movie where a character defies God through sex and I can't remember... any idea? Pialat's Sous le Soleil de Satan maybe?
I thought the formalist reverse narration in Peppermint Candy didn't add much. But Oasis is my favorite.

Your analysis of the red balloon is interesting. HHH pays homage, but never copies. It would be illuminating to decypher what the balloon stands for in post-WW2 France (occupation, collaboration). The balloon seems excluded of society and the finale shows thousands of multicolored balloons escaping free in the sky... like dead souls? or angels?
The green-man carrying the balloon is very funny. I don't think that's the actual trick they used to animate the balloon in the film though. Nylon thread offscreen could do the trick. But it's a self-conscious revelation of the cinema backstage, à la Kiarostami. And it makes a nice connection between the balloon and the puppetmaster.
But honestly, what did you think of the dialogues? And the homogeneity of the heterogenous elements (balloon, puppet, chinese babysitter, miniDV movie, neighbor quarrel, hysterical Binoche, estranged step-sister...) There is truth to the parisian identity but I didn't find them coalesce into a coherent movie.

September 30, 2007 3:21 PM  
Blogger David said...

I took the balloon as a counterpart to Hou's wandering, but guardian-like camera, but more on that later. It's precisely the "incoherence" (I guess) of the plot that I like so much; all these disparate elements being captured in single takes (I know Dan Sallitt's written something similar about Preminger's camera), just beyond the child's focus, but always in view.

September 30, 2007 5:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Harry and David.

"But I'm sure there is another movie where a character defies God through sex and I can't remember... any idea? Pialat's Sous le Soleil de Satan maybe?"

Ah, good question. Guilty admission: I've never seen Breaking the Waves. But I purchased the Pialat last week on videotape, and intend to watch it soon.

"the same inconditional, excessive embrace of religion and at the same time a violent perversion of it. Especially when she looks at the sky and says "look at me"."

Yes, I loved this. So much of this film is about her struggle with 'overhead' forces (and her being 'pushed' toward them) and yet we the audience and her male friend (Song Kang-ho, from The Host and Memories of Murder, who is wonderful in this film too) are rooting for her to bring her eyes down from overhead down to this world, our world, the earth...(which is of course what the camera pans over to in the final shot of the film, as it follows the shorn hair, cast off like deadweight...). An obvious symbol, wanting to be read but no less the moving for it.

Harry, nice idea re: "dead souls" in the original Ballon Rouge...

"The green-man carrying the balloon is very funny. I don't think that's the actual trick they used to animate the balloon in the film though."

I agree. It's actually a witty little touch. I can't see Hou using erasable-green CGI (although one never knows--Jia used it to great effect in Still Life!) but Song does in the film, and she is obviously a stand-in for Hou (Chinese-language filmmaker making a film in Paris about a boy and a red balloon).

Like David, I didn't find the heterogeneity bothersome or incoherent; it felt quite naturalistic.

The camerawork was sensational in this film. The camera was fluid and not deliberately, self-consciously static but also played with variable focus (different planes in focus at different times), and layered images (reflections, shadows, etc).

Two images among many:

-- Hou lingering for a long time on a poster of Children of Men (with Clive Owen's face) on the side of a bus, which contained a series of large, identical-sized, multicolored ellipses (just like the multicolored balloons at the end of the original 1956 Ballon Rouge).

-- On the train to see the day-long puppet show event: a casually knockout shot of landscape whizzing (blurring) by, overlaid with lumnious clouds in the top half of the frame plus a reflection of the sun from behind the camera on the glass. Just breathtaking. The film is full of such retina-popping touches that show up absolutely casually but miraculously.

September 30, 2007 8:34 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish: maybe it's me but I'm not a big fan of Von Trier or Breaking the Waves--think he gallops a bit too eagerly to his heroine's Golgotha to bother with niceties such as storytelling.

That said, I thought his The Idiots is terrific.

October 01, 2007 2:20 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I wonder if Sol Kyung-gu gets less attention for his performance in Oasis in part because Peppermint Candy was such a great showcase for him? Moon So-ri, by contrast, has a much smaller role in the latter/earlier film so to see her do so much in Oasis felt more revelatory.

As for Sol's other films, I've heard positive chatter about Silmido and Voice of a Murderer, but I haven't retained knowledge of anything else from his filmography.

October 01, 2007 2:23 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

That's a good theory, Brian. You're probably right.

October 01, 2007 5:35 PM  
Blogger davis said...

Hmm, Blogger decided to use my first name. Weird. I guess it could have been user error -- maybe I used the wrong account -- but I prefer to blame the software. :-)

Anyway, that comment from "Robert" was actually from me.

October 01, 2007 5:37 PM  
Anonymous girish said...

I think Blogger's been hiccuping a bit this evening...

October 01, 2007 7:20 PM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 02, 2007 2:51 AM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Hey Girish,

I saw Secret Sunshine at VIFF yesterday and admired it -- the raw emotions on display were fascinating to watch. But there were quite a few people who detested it and walked out. One girl actually cursed at the screen a few times before finally leaving -- never seen anything like her reactions. And I think the comparison you make with Safe is appropriate.

So far at VIFF, I have been blown away by the two Brillante Mendoza films Slingshot and Foster Child. Mendoza was here as well and I got a chance to chat with him about his amazing films.

Looking forward to the Guerin film tomorrow. He might be in attendance.

October 02, 2007 2:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sachin -- Mid-fest, James Quandt said he liked Slingshot, so I got a ticket. But the screening was super-late the very last night of the fest and I ended up going out for drinks with friends instead. How lucky that VIFF-goers will be able to see the FOTOS companion piece Guerin made to precede SYLVIA.

October 02, 2007 6:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- In the NYT: Dave Kehr on Kenneth Anger, Funny Face, etc.
-- From NYFF: Acquarello; Filmbrain; and Daniel Kasman.
-- Brian Darr on Wuthering Heights.
-- Alex at Motion Picture, It's Called, on Horror lit & cinema.
-- Aaron Graham on Charles B. Griffith.
-- David Edelstein has a filmblog; it's called The Projectionist.

October 02, 2007 9:27 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It's odd because the heterogeneity is what I found enriching Secret Sunshine (borrowing from 3 genres without fulfilling any, while meaning something with these 3 subparts matching the character arc). But I can't see the up side of this incoherence in HHH's film, because there is nothing else in the film than these shallow mundane behaviors, and I don't know what it tells us beyond face value...
Though I agree, the photography is marvellous.

I like your phrase "overhead forces". The comparison of superstition, pantheist traditions and protestant ceremonial is quite challenging.
It will be interesting to see how the american public receives this film. In France, majoritarily catholic, we see the religious scenes like the one in Borat. And Lee Chang-dong insisted on a Q&A we shouldn't take them as overacting that it was normal practice. In the USA, majoritarily protestant, the audience would probably empathizes more with the "born-again" message of the film. The film ends however on the shot of a buddhist temple, which is the traditional belief in Korea, while Christianity is imported by missionaries.

The treatment of Song Kang-ho's character is unexpected within the genre. We could hope the nice guy (and true love) gets rewarded in the end, but it's not, and it makes a much deeper ending, more existentialist.
The opening shot on the sky (heaven), and the closing shot on the earth (burial) could be analyzed through this challenge of faith indeed.

I wasn't putting a blame on green-screen as a realism blasphemy. Do you think this scene was part of Song's film making of? I don't remember. I think I read somehwere that Hou said Song didn't stand for him, but should we believe him?
Btw, I don't think it's a green screen in Still Life either, probably just a cut-out compositing. The monument (turned space shuttle) seems to be existing with real people inside, not a model.

October 03, 2007 3:13 AM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Girish, the Guerin film was amazing :) -- so simple yet captivating. Before the movie, Guerin mentioned that he doesn't want audiences to think his movie is meaningless just because there isn't much dialogue. He also said something along the lines of that he found movies nowadays are too complicated.

Regarding fotos, I had no idea it was a world premier at VIFF. Guerin said he was nervous about showing it to the public because it was such an intimate work. And only when some critics told him it was better than his film, did he agree to show it. Fotos is a collection of black and white pictures with some text giving out the director's thoughts and feelings. We saw how the project developed and some other background information for the film. It does feel like a personal work but he is a good photographer and his pictures speak for themselves.

But it was a very good day for films. I liked the Chabrol film and enjoyed parts of Lee Kang-sheng's erotic trip Help me Eros. Lee Kang-sheng (who normally plays the lead in Tsai Ming-lang films) stars and directs Eros while Tsai Ming-liang has produced the film. You can clearly see the presence of Tsai's films here.

October 03, 2007 3:52 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Sachin G.: glad to hear that you liked Brillante Mendoza's films. They do seem to be gaining a rep in the film festival circuit.

October 04, 2007 4:30 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for the shout-out, girish!

By the way, I really liked Tomu Uchida's Fugitive From the Past last weekend. At least, the first two hours of it, and the final scene, were tremendously cinematic and a fascinating wallow in the underbelly of post-war Japanese society. Most of the final hour, when the film turned into a police procedural, was less interesting to me. But it did set up an ending that will be burned into my memory for quite some time, I suspect.

October 04, 2007 2:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks so much, Harry, Sachin, Noel, and Brian.
I'm in the process of dragging myself out from underneath a little hill of midterm exam grading.

October 05, 2007 9:27 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Thanks for the plug girish, and thanks most especially for encouraging me and others to seek out Guerin's sublime IN THE CITY WITH SYVLIA, a lovely discovery!

October 05, 2007 8:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh you're most welcome, Daniel. Great to see all that NYFF coverage you've been putting up.

October 06, 2007 9:18 PM  

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