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.
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Saturday at the Fest was supposed to include two shorts programs sandwiching Leos Carax’s highly-buzzed Holy Motors, but fate had slightly different plans, as it often does during festivals. More on that later on in the post. First off, I suspect a look at Holy Motors will be more interesting to most than a recap of a bunch of shorts, so let’s start with that.
I knew next to nothing about this film going in aside from some general buzz out of Cannes and TIFF regarding its strangeness and something about it being about cinema itself. Most of the time when a film gets labeled as being “about cinema,” it’s something like Hugo or The Artist or even Blancanieves – a film that either references specific films, is set in the world of film, or uses very specific techniques tied to certain eras or movements in film history. That’s generally not the case with Holy Motors (though there are a few specific references to be found), but I wouldn’t argue with the general classification. Holy Motors is about the art of the scene, the joy and sadness found in performance, and as the film itself puts it, “the beauty of the act.”
Frequent Carax actor Denis Lavant plays M. Oscar, who is driven around in a limo by Edith Scob (best known from her masked role in Eyes Without a Face), keeping various “appointments.” It’s unclear who set these appointments or precisely what their purpose is, but each one requires elaborate makeup and costuming which Oscar applies himself as they drive, and involves acting out a scene – anything from a beggar woman on a street to a mo-cap alien sex scene to an intimate deathbed conversation. He shuttles from one to another, fully immersed in each, but quickly moving to the next. What is going on? Are these film scenes? Are they being recorded? Who has written the scenes or hired him to do this, and why? Who is the audience? We aren’t told, which leads to a strange and intriguing combination of fascination and irritation with the film. Its mysteries are beguiling, but unyielding.
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After the premiere of Hitchcock kicked off this year’s AFI Fest on Thursday night, the festival started for real Friday afternoon with quite a spate of highly anticipated films, including many of the most buzzed about films from Cannes, TIFF, Sundance, and other major fests. Most of the films I’m catching are ones that have already been reviewed on Row Three from other fests, so rather than do full reviews, I’m just going to write day by day recaps with my take on each film and the festival experience in general.
All AFI Fest screenings are free and you can reserve tickets online at www.afi.com/afifest. Keep checking even if the screening you want is sold out, as they continue to release tickets as the show time nears, and every screening also has a rush line if you don’t get a ticket in advance.
Après mai (Something in the Air)
I put the original French title Après mai (After May) in the title of this post, even though the film is known here by its English title Something in the Air, because for one thing it’s shorter, but also because it’s much more fitting. The film begins near Paris in 1971, three years after the fateful demonstrations and riots of May 1968 that symbolized and foreshadowed political revolt throughout Europe in the late 1960s. The main characters are high school students in 1971, likely a few years too young to have taken part in the 1968 uprisings, but growing up in a very politically charged environment and desiring to take up the mantle of activism themselves. The first section of the film sees these youngsters fired up, printing inflammatory pamphlets, demonstrating in the streets (an action quickly squelched by baton-wielding police), graffiting their school and tossing Molotov cocktails at guards who threaten them with legal action.
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