AFI Fest Day 3: In Another Country and Shorts Program 3
Sunday evening was SUPPOSED to be Hong Sang-Soo’s In Another Country and the Shining conspiracy theory documentary Room 237, but again, timing didn’t work to our advantage (nor did the popularity of The Shining) and flexibility was the order of the day.
In Another Country
The last three AFI Fests have all included films from South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, and it’s a trend I certainly hope continues, because though he’s virtually unknown here aside from avid festivalgoers, his films are consistently delightful and refreshing. In Another Country has a framing device of a young Korean girl writing three versions of a story, each involving a Frenchwoman (Isabelle Huppert) visiting the same Korean seaside town; each time she’s a slightly different character in different circumstances, but with many similar experiences. Hong’s previous film The Day He Arrives was also interested in repetition with variation, but In Another Country feels more finished and polished than that film did. It’s also more broadly funny, with Hong exploiting the language barrier for all its worth (all the characters speak English with each other, as neither French nor Korean is a shared language), but never cheaply or meanly. It’s an utterly charming film that uses character interactions and conversations to drive its ever-so-slight plot (or plots), and Hong’s mastery of conversation-driven scripting is second-to-none.
Also, having Huppert on board is never a bad thing. She brings a slight melancholy to her three characters, each of whom is in Korea for a different but not necessarily happy reason, and inquiring curiosity about the folk around her (though some of that curiosity might be a front, trying to distract herself from her unhappiness). Even though we’re only with each one of her characters for about twenty minutes, it’s impossible not to be drawn right into her story each time. Meanwhile, the Korean actor who plays the lifeguard matches her in charisma, his upbeat cheerfulness and interest in her overcoming the linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Not a whole lot happens in the film beyond a lot of eating, drinking, and conversation, but it’s never less than enthralling.
Shorts Program 3
Didn’t know this going in, but this turned out to be a program of largely experimental shorts. Your mileage may vary when it comes to experimental films, but my tolerance is somewhere in the middle. I’m glad they get made, and most of the time I can fall into the right mood/rhythm to get something out of them, but I do tend to get impatient with them eventually. That’s the good thing about short experimental films; at least you’re likely to get a different variety of experimentation within the next five minutes or so.
A girl on a webcam sings along with an Adele song. On the one hand, there’s little to distinguish this from the hundreds of singing-along videos on YouTube that hardly count as short films, but the way the girl eventually finds herself unable to continue singing and then shuts off the webcam mid-lyric in frustration suggest there’s a little more to it – an emotional state that she thought would be expressed by the song but isn’t. Still, there’s so little here it’s difficult to really say much about it.
Now, this one I quite enjoyed. The filmmaker put together terrible home videos from the 1980s of a baby’s birthday party, a Halloween extravaganza, and a holiday party that quickly devolves into drunken stumbling about, and then adds disturbing music and a dialogue-providing voice-over, coming out with something right on the line between hilarious and horrifying.
An animated short about two brothers who have a strained relationship, the younger one preferring to stay with his monster friend. When the older boy is eaten by a whale, the younger must make a choice whether to save him, but the cost may be great. Something of a coming of age story, with some quite unusual animation (gorier than you’d expect for this kind of story, frankly, but it works) and a good sense of heart.
Dogs Are Said to See Things
A pool party than spans social spectrums, a ton of people focused on their own gratification, and some dogs who may be the only ones to notice a child in distress. I’m pretty sure that’s what was going on in here, anyway. It’s done in a super-saturated, languorous visual style that borders on hyperreal, so it’s got a kind of intriguing mood to it, but context is so nearly non-existent that it was difficult to care very much.
Another animated one, this one exceedingly more bizarre, about a father and son going to a Japanese steam bath, where all hell breaks loose when the temperature gets up to 38° Celsius. This was a lot of fun to watch, as it’s really visually flamboyant, but it’s a bit on the incoherent side.
A car in a junkyard is smashed by a crane – first by the crane hitting it directly, then picking it up and dropping it, then dropping a giant slab onto it over and over. This is surprisingly entertaining, as the crane almost seems to have a personality, approaching the car tentatively as if it’s playing with it to see what will happen (like a cat would play with a mouse). It gets a bit repetitive toward the end, but it still has a sense of whimsy in the timing that kept me engaged.
Not really an experimental piece, just a very slow burn narrative one (as you might expect from a Romanian film if you’ve seen Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) about a fisherman’s daily life – but with a twist at the end. I was frankly zoning out a bit during this one, but I did enjoy the ending.
Bradley Manning Had Secrets
Based on the transcripts of communication between WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo, this film uses an 8-bit computer terminal kind of style befitting the digital nature of the conversation, but interestingly deals only about half with Manning’s information leaking, and is more focused on his confessions of his struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity.
One of the more ambitious live-action shorts in the program, this one contrasts decaying derelict man-made structures in northern Canada with the ever-changing and renewed beauty of the Aurora Borealis in both image and narration. It’s probably my favorite of this program, thanks to how much it reminded me of something like My Winnipeg (the filmmaker, in fact, thanked Guy Maddin in the credits).
This filmmaker stated during the Q&A that he’s interested in exploring the visual cinematic moments that get kind of skimmed over in mainstream narrative films, and I can appreciate his film from that point of view, but it was pretty dull watching it. A brief voice-over conversation sets up the mere suggestion of a relationship story, then there are several minutes of just watching a plane soaring through the air from various angles. Gorgeous cinematography, but yeah. Dull after a while.
The Day at the Fest
Well, this day didn’t go quite as intended. At least two of the three years we’ve seen Hong Sang-soo films at AFI Fest, they’ve been scheduled right before something else we wanted to see. Two years ago, it was HaHaHa and Pulsar. This year, In Another Country was scheduled smack dab against Room 237, the documentary about The Shining conspiracy theory interpretations. The Shining is one of Jonathan’s favorite movies, and I always like hearing about wacky interpretations, so Room 237 was one of the very first films we put on our schedules, but we’ve also both loved the Hong films we’ve seen, too. In both these cases, we left the Hong film a little bit early to try to make it into the next film. It was a mistake both times. We made it to Pulsar, but it wasn’t very good. This time, we stood in line for Room 237 for ten minutes before a volunteer told everyone that the theatre was at capacity and none of us had a prayer of getting in. Not only did we miss Room 237, but we lost out on the ending of a film we were both really enjoying. So we have a new rule: no more leaving Hong Sang-soo films for any reason, no matter what they program up against or after it.
Thankfully, the rest of the evening wasn’t a total loss, because we were able to make it into the Shorts Program with no trouble. We both like to take advantage of all the shorts programs we can anyway, since there’s really no other way to see a lot of shorts, especially in theatres (which I think is a shame). I won’t deny we both inwardly groaned a little when the programmer revealed it was a program of experimental shorts – the 23-minute Bill Morrison film from the night before had already scratched the experimental itch – but like I said above, I’m still glad to check out experimental stuff, even if it kind of gets old for me after a while. I ended up enjoying most of the program, and glad to have been able to fill in the gap in the schedule.