Coming into Christian Petzold’s rural neo-noir, it might be helpful to have an understanding of the films that he is aiming to re-create. Like his previous film, Yella, which played with the conventions of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in the context of modern Germany, Jerichow (presumably named after the town where the film is set) teases audience expectations with their own knowledge of the rich history of noir cinema. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice even The Last Seduction are bound to guide and confound where the plot is (or should) be going. That Petzold lingers, drops red herrings and shifts audience loyalty between the three characters is one of the joys of the piece. While in the end it comes across a bit more like precise clock work than a living, breathing simulacrum is a bit frustrating however.
Thomas, recently discharged (dishonorably) from the German army is relieved of his discharge funds from his alienated friends, to whom he owes a large sum of money. Broke, with the financial means of renovating the decrepit family home completely evaporated (along with his friends), he is only barely getting by with unemployment office posted jobs. Things take a decided turn when he encounters Ali, a well off owner of a series of falafel huts, with a penchant for drinking and driving. After finding Ali and his Range Rover in the Elbe River, he lies to the police about who was driving. This leads to Thomas getting gainful employment as a driver for Ali as he collects from all his shops. Ali, a wealthy self made Turkish immigrant, doesn’t trust anyone, and Thomas physical presence comes in handy for keeping his shifty franchisees in line. Thomas quickly becomes close to both Ali and his gorgeous German wife, played exquisitely by the über talented Nina Hoss (one of the best (and beautiful) actresses currently working in German cinema). See where the film is going? Perhaps you do. Maybe not.
The trio of performances are pitch perfect insofar as they are both skin deep and subtly vague. Thomas (played by the flexible Benno Fürmann) is a blank slate, smart enough, and watching, he still has some elements of the classic patsy, his posture hints at cockiness although it may just be aloofness or stoicism. Hoss is cool, sexy, desperate and perhaps not as bright as she lets on. Ali (Himli Sözer) is a fireball of suspicion, arrogance, calculation and yet somehow, his immigrant/outsider status offers an interesting form of sympathy. The film as the tiniest morsel to say about how easily money (or lust) compromises trust an where exactly the line between temptation and entrapment lies. But mainly the film lets the actors bump and grind along, against the varied backgrounds of the town shops, verdant countryside and empty beaches. The pacing and construction create comforting notion (perhaps a smugness) of where the film is headed before yielding a twist that is not a twist. In the end, it is a fun and interesting ride, but less revolutionary or re-inventing than it is simply a flippant riff on the genre.
[Regular reader Michael Sloan, known around these parts as simply ‘rot’ is also making the TIFF rounds and he has offered to share with the world his take on a few films.]
There is a certain kind of film that I seek out when going to the film festival; foregoing the list of talent that I feel compelled to see on name recognition alone, there ends up being three or four films which seduce me with their promise of real pathos. These films tend to be foreign, and tend to slip under most people’s radar due to their sheer lack of novelty. Call me old-fashioned but my favorite genre remains the straight up drama. My whole ambition is to empathize with the characters depicted and be transported on an emotional level to their faraway reality. This year I have earmarked a couple of films with the hopes that they will do just that; they include Sugar, Linha de Passe, Afterwards and Goodbye Solo.
Of the films I have thus far seen at the festival, Goodbye Solo has left the deepest impression. Granted that is not saying a lot considering the poor films I have seen, and Ramin Bahrani’s film is not a complete success, but it was the one that at least extinguished the festival pomp and circumstance and transported me to the disparate world of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to care about the modest ambitions of a Sengalese cab driver, Solo, and his fare, a deeply wounded Texan, William. Bahrani had the audience teary-eyed before the film even started with his touching dedication to a friend that had recently died of cancer and had helped him with finding the locations for the film. In the same introduction we learned that Goodbye Solo had won an award at the Venice film festival, and this only add to our interest in what was to come.
From my interpretation of the synopsis I had anticipated the story to be reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre, one uninterrupted conversation between cab driver and customer, touching upon important life altering and philosophic topics, but I soon discovered this not to be the case. Within the first minute of the film the premise is set: William asks Solo to take him to the top of Blowing Rock in a week, no questions asked, to which Solo suspects suicidal tendencies and spends the remainder of the film trying to inspire William to live on. Rather than being a contained one set narrative the story persists through the week as Solo comedically ingratiates himself into every aspect of William’s life with a buoyant attitude that contrasts sharply with William’s dour mood. Actor Souleymane Sy Savane steals the show as the ever persistent Solo, doing everything in his power to correct his new friend’s destructive path. What may seem as an unlikely premise is made plausible through his effortless sense of benevolence, and when the fateful day comes his character arc rings true in a way one least expects. The same goes for William, whose laconic existence becomes elevated by a few scratched lines in a journal, all minimal but nicely played.
While I enjoyed this story and could appreciate the reluctance Bahrani took from being overly expositional in his story, in the end I longed for something more, and maybe that is a defect in me, speaking more of where I am in my life than about the characters, wanting to be shaken into something more violent then which is ultimately presented. That said, Goodbye Solo is a fine film and has inspired me to look into the director’s back catalogue, the lauded Chop Shop and Man Push Cart.
For lovers of both the whimsical free form and bittersweet intimate films of Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Tortoro and Grave of the Fireflies for instance), there will be a lot to love in So Yong Kim’s semi-autobiographical childhood film Treeless Mountain. It makes a finely articulated plea for the rejuvenating aspects of simple living over urban malaise; but more importantly, it is a showcase for the fragile dignity of children.
The film opens with bright young girl, Bin, who is about 6 years old. She excels in her studies, cleans up against her friends playing Pogs in the schoolyard, and picks up her younger sister, Jin, from the babysitter on the way home. Yet her mom has some serious financial and marital problems (hubby is gone, and probably beat her on the way out there door). It has come to the point where she resents her children for simply being a burden. An eviction from their soulless tenement building seals the deal and the two young girls are sent across town (an even poorer neighborhood) to live with their absentee fathers’ older sister until mom can patch up her affairs. Dubbed Big Auntie, perhaps not for her size, but rather her gargantuan drinking habit, the new ‘caregiver’ is more interested in buying sujo than feeding her charges. Their mom has given the girls a piggy bank with the promise that if they are good, Auntie will give them coins, when the little plastic bank is full, mom will return. Anyone familiar with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (a film this one will inevitably be compared to, however in tone and intent is quite different) has a good sense of picking up the probability of this coming to fruition by simply watching how mom boards the bus out of town, unawares of her own children’s goodbye calls. The girls discover and explore the sounding shanty town where Big Auntie lives, make a few friends, stack a lot of soju bottles in the back yard, and learn how to grill and eat grasshoppers (on a stick) when it becomes obvious that Big Auntie isn’t going to feed them or give them coins.
Shot in extreme close-up to emphasize the perspective (or lack thereof) of the young girls, the film is very slow moving in its story telling. The director eschews any musical soundtrack whatsoever to emphasize the quiet desperation of the adults and to emphasize the feeling of ‘unwanted’ that the two girls experience. Yet they make due in the manner of having one of those endless summers. Yet the film is quite optimistic (in that magical realist way) that children have the capacity for bottomless love simply from not knowing any better. As child perspective stories go, things are far more in the territory of Jim Sheridan’s wistfully melancholic In America (echoed with the Cinderella dress-up costume that Jin wears, even as it gets more tattered along the films trajectory) than Terry Gilliam’s vile Tideland. When the children are offloaded (again) onto their grandparents farm, there is a sense that they have both grown up a fair bit, but also are allowed (despite given a harvesting workload) to be children again. Treeless Mountain flirts with falling into the trap of presenting the children (both child actors are note perfect) precocious or sappy, but never does. It simply observes without judging or forcing a reaction. If Terrence Malick were to ever make a film about children, it might look a little like this.
There is some subtle subtext on the encroachment of urbanization and the ills that come along (note the films title even), but mainly it is a tale of the growth and rhythms of the human spirit. When parents and their children have watched My Neighbor Tortoro for the hundredth time, this Korean-American co-production may be the obvious next step.
Director: Carlos Sorin
Synopsis: Antonio, an ill 80-year-old man, wakes up at his house in the country on what will become the last day of his life. As the day goes by slowly, Antonio carefully contemplates each moment, each light variation while waiting for his son’s visit. Stunningly shot and wonderfully acted, The Window is a profound meditation on solitude epitomized by Antonio’s last day of life.
IMDB Page (Carlos Sorin)
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Synopsis: Coming Soon
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Synopsis: Coming Soon
Director: Garin Nugroho
Synopsis: Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho (Opera Jawa, TIFF 2006) tells a story of three women coming to terms with issues of paternity: Maharani, an adopted child, who seeks the true meaning of motherhood; Nian, who is in search of a new father figure; and expectantmother Dewi, who faces a tough choice regarding her unborn baby. Set entirely on the mystical island of Bali, the film is intercut with mesmerizing Balinese dances from five powerful choreographers.
IMDB Page (Garin Nugroho)
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Synopsis: Coming Soon
Director: So Yong Kim
Country: South Korea
Synopsis: Inspired by her own life, writer and director So Yong Kim follows up her directorial debut, In Between Days (TIFF 2006), with the story of Jin, a feisty six-year-old who lives with her mother and little sister in a cramped apartment in Pusan, South Korea. When their mother decides to leave in search of her estranged father, Jin and her sister are forced to spend the summer living with their alcoholic aunt in the rural countryside.
Director: Sook-Yin Lee, Sudz Sutherland, David Weaver and Aaron Woodley
Synopsis: Coming Soon