Two days, 10 films, one post, so I’m inclined to cut to the chase and write about the movies, though it should be noted that I’m consuming milliliters of beverages and quick-bite plates of noodles and pizza slices at a rate roughly equal to Noel’s.
As promised, Day 2 was Asian Auteur Day for me, which any other year would mean the best day of the festival, but this year started out a little rough. First up was Hong Sang-soo’s Woman On The Beach. I didn’t get a chance to see Hong’s last two movies, Tale Of Cinema and Woman Is The Future Of Man, but the ones I had seen previously, A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors and Turning Gate, were both fascinating relationship studies, complicated by some odd structural choices. (Virgin, for example, basically retold the same story twice, with the second half resolving itself differently based on a slight shift in timing.) The new film is far more straightforward, though presumably more personal, following a director who drags his production designer and the designer’s girlfriend to the coast in order to help complete an overdue script. The director and the girlfriend are attracted to each other, awkwardness ensues, etc. But stripped of those interesting structural hiccups this time around, Hong’s film struck me as disappointingly flat and banal, just another in long line of ménage a trois gone south. Still, the director character’s diagram of the woman’s past dalliances with German men gave me one of the biggest laughs of the festival. (Update: I just got a report that virtually all of my critic and cineaste friends like or love this movie, so don’t listen to me.)
Of course, a sizable chunk of laughs are owed to Borat, which somehow works despite the fact that it’s loosest imaginable assemblage of guerrilla-style documentary pranks and scripted scenes. I regret missing the film’s opening night premiere in the Midnight Madness section. Sasha Baron Cohen’s arrival in character was apparently an event in itself, but it got a whole lot crazier from there: The digital projector broke down, Michael Moore appeared on stage with Cohen and Larry Charles for some improvisational comedy, and the entire screening had to be rescheduled for the next night, which…um… didn’t make the rabid MM crowd too happy. (A full account can be found here.) Some of the laughs in Borat are just puerile fun—without spoiling anything, there’s a scuffled between Borat and his rotund Kazakh producer that may be the funniest extended fight scene since “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live!—and others that draw out the rather unprogressive attitudes of ordinary Americans. Remember that scene in Da Ali G Show when Borat leads a country-western bar in a rousing chorus of “Throw the Jew down the well!”? Wait until you see him at the rodeo; it’s a wonder the guy’s still alive.
And now back to your regularly scheduled Asian Auteur program: Hirokazu Kore-eda has yet to make a film I haven’t liked—though I missed the largely disliked (and undistributed) Distance—and displayed quite a lot of range with films like Maborosi (an austere and beautiful film about a widow coping with grief), the sweet fantasy After-Life, and his last effort Nobody Knows, an affecting true story about resilient children coping with abandonment. Kore-eda’s new film HANA is an admirable change-of-pace, set in a small village in 1702, a period when peace reigned and samurais floundered. Kore-eda follows a weak samurai on a futile revenge quest and takes the tone of a slice-of-life comedy, not unlike those relaxed, late-period Shohei Imamura films Dr. Akagi or The Eel. Only HANA is waaaaayyyyyy too relaxed; Kore-eda’s episodic style, held over from Nobody Knows, does this far less compelling effort no favors.
Fortunately, that was the end of the disappointments, because the other two auteurs delivered in a big way: Syndromes And A Century, the latest enchanting bafflement by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who continues the duel, echoing structures of his previous features Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. Weerasethakul has a foot each in the generally incompatible worlds of avant-garde and conventional narrative, and he seems to be making up his own rules as he goes along. A memoir based on his parents’ lives before he was born, Syndromes splits neatly into two halves: The first follows a female doctor in a rural hospital; the latter follows her male counterpart in an ultra-modern urban hospital. As in the previous Weerasethakul films, the two halves enter into a sort of dialogue with repeated phrases and subtle variations. I’d be hard-pressed to decipher a good 2/3 of his symbolic and thematic concerns—his belief in reincarnation is central, but there are references to art and architecture and shakra and aerobic exercise that flew over my head. And yet the film is totally mesmerizing and beautiful, provided that you just surrender to his peculiar style and allow him to work his magic.
Last but not least from the Far East comes Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, a genuine monster movie with political undertones that’s currently breaking box-office records in Korea. And for good reason, too: The effects are first-rate, the level of visual storytelling craft is right up there with Spielberg, and Bong has a way of eking humor out of human misery. That’s the one connection between this and Bong’s previous film Memories Of Murder, which was about the country’s first serial killer, yet included tonally bold moments of slapstick comedy. Memories was high on my 2005 Top 10 list; The Host more than justifies my love.
Between the Asian films, I slipped in Stranger Than Fiction, which is a little like Hollywood co-opting a Charlie Kaufman script, only better than that sounds. Will Ferrell plays a tax collector who comes to realize that he’s a character in an author’s novel-in-progress and that author (played by Emma Thompson) intends to kill him. Though the conceit does yield some clever stuff—mainly thanks to Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor who tries to help Ferrell find his way through the narrative—the movie works best as a romantic comedy in the Joe Vs. The Volcano vein. Ferrell is restrained and touching as a straight-laced bureaucrat who slowly comes out of his shell, and Maggie Gyllenhaal exudes relaxed charm and sexiness as the woman who inspires him. Oddly enough, the whole movie could be interpreted as a defense of sell-out Hollywood endings, but again, better than that sounds.
I’d hoped to catch up completely, but Day Three (World Cup fever! Unsimulated fucking! The most stupefying prestige project in years!) will have to wait. Nighty-night.