FNC 2017 Review: The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)

In a scene from Aki Kaurismaki’s film The Other Side of Hope, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji), far left, and Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), far right, wait for customers in Wikstrom’s restaurant.

Would it be possible to describe the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki without using the word deadpan? I guess so, but it’s very handy information for anyone not familiar with his work.

Another thing to know – there isn’t much talking. (We get looks, silences, and lotsa cool tunes, though!) New arrivals in Helsinki say more in their second or even third language than the native Finns do. There’s an amazing amount of smoking, considering how restricted it is Finland. Maybe it makes the chain-smoking Kaurismaki feel more comfortable when shooting.

The Other Side of Hope follows two men, before and after they meet. Khaled (Sherwan Haji), is a Syrian asylum-seeker who reaches Finland on a Polish coal boat, and Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) is a Finn making some big changes in his life. We see him (wordlessly) leave his alcoholic wife, wrap up his small clothing business, and win big at a poker game filled with menacing undertones. It feels appropriate to refer to Wikstrom by his last name because he initially seems stiff and cold, while Khaled is someone easier to relate to.

Khaled is a mechanic who left Syria after his house was bombed and most of his family members were killed. The fact that he doesn’t even know who blew up his house – the U.S., Russia, Syria, Hezbollah, or Daesh – shows just how chaotic situation is in Syria.

Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is threatened by vicious thugs in Aki Kaurismaki’s film The Other Side of Hope.

Khaled had jumped onto the boat in Gdansk, Poland while fleeing a gang of skinheads. Sadly, he runs into similar thugs in Helsinki. They keep turning up, like three very bad pennies. Luckily for Khaled and our faith in people, there are others who treat him well. These include Wikstrom and the quirky employees he inherits when he buys a small restaurant called the Golden Pint. Efforts to turn it into a fusion place or a Japanese one are quite funny, in a restrained kind of way. Watch for the scene involving wasabi! Speaking of Japanese, call me crazy, but Sherwan Haji reminds me of Japanese actor Takayuki Yamada. Look him up!

With The Other Side of Hope Kaurismaki is clearly asking his fellow Europeans, and the rest of us, to have a heart, just as he did the with his earlier film Le Havre (2011).

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu, Simon
Hussein Al-Bazoon, Niroz Haji, Kaija Pakarinen
Languages: Finnish, Arabic, English with English subtitles
Length: One hour, 40 minutes

FNC 2017 Review: Claire’s Camera, by Hong Sang-soo

Kim Min-hee, left and Isabelle Huppert on the beach in Cannes, France, in Hong San-soo’s film Claire’s Camera.

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire) is one of two Hong Sang-soo films being shown at the Festival du nouveau cinéma this year. (The other is The Day After. You can read my review here.)

Claire’s Camera feels like the thinner, lesser effort to me, even though stars Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee do seem to have a genuine rapport.

The film was shot at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and shown at the 2017 edition. So very meta!

Kim Min-hee plays Jeon Man-hee, a sales agent at a Korean film company. Man-hee is astounded when her boss, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) invites her out for coffee and then fires her in a puzzling, roundabout way. She mentions Min-hee’s good nature and big heart but also accuses her of being dishonest. We have no idea what she’s talking about and clearly Min-hee doesn’t, either. Does the boss think Min-hee has been dipping into the petty cash?

Actually, the problem is love, not money. Though other reviewers have gone into more detail about this, I’ll just say that it would have been more logical for Nam Yang-hye to be angry with Director So Wan-soo (played by Jung Jin-young). He is at the festival to show his film and she is there to promote it and sell its rights. Of course, humans are not always logical and Nam Yang-hye is not in a position to fire Director So, either.

Isabelle Huppert plays the Claire of the title. She is a school teacher on vacation who has come to Cannes for the first time. (Cue laughter from the film audience, since Huppert has been there many times before. More laughter when she tells Director So that French “is a very difficult language to learn.”) The camera of the title is a Polaroid, which makes it easy for Claire to show her photos to others, or to give them away, if she chooses to. She claims, in a New-Agey kind of way, that her subjects won’t be the same after she takes a photo of them. It’s like a cousin of the belief that a photo will steal your soul.

Jung Jin-young, left and Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sang-soo’s film Claires Camera.

As she wanders around the beach and smaller streets of Cannes (no red carpets!) Claire meets and spends time with Man-hee, Nam Yang-hye and Director So, which seems a bit contrived. Claire doesn’t speak Korean; the Koreans don’t speak French, so English will have to do. The results are mildly comical but also genuinely awkward. Ditto for Director So’s remark that “95 % of my mistakes in life were because of alcohol.”

A very large dog sprawls on the sidewalk in several scenes, which gives the characters a chance to make a fuss over him. What a lucky break for Hong Sang-soo! The poor creature seems exhausted and/or bored, though. Or maybe he was too hot? (You can see him in the trailer below, where he is identified as “BoB the café dog.”)

I did not hate Claire’s Camera by any means, I just found it to be a little thin. It’s only fair to say that there are many reviews on the Internet written by people who enjoyed it more than I did. Check them out, too!

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire)
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Isabelle Huppert, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young
Languages: In Korean, French and English with English subtitles
Length: 69 minutes

FNC 2017: Review of Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After (Geu-hu)

In this scene from Korean film The Day After, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) is ready to begin her first day working at a small publishing house. The Day After is directed by Hong Sang-soo.

On her first day at a new job, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee ) is insulted and slapped by the wife of her boss, Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo). Kim runs a small publishing house and Song is his only employee. Song had no way of knowing that Kim had been having an affair with her predecessor, Lee Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok). Now that she does know, is she seeing the “getting-acquainted” lunch she just had with him in a new light? Was he grooming her to be his next conquest?

Kim keeps saying “it’s not her!” but his wife, Song Haejoo (Jo Yoon-hee) does not believe him. Song Ah-reum’s forehead is wrinkled in thought as she watches the two of them bicker. Their marriage might be in trouble, but they still have a bond of sorts, after all, while she is the true outsider. As a woman, she might naturally sympathize with Song Haejoo, but not after being hit several times and being called a shameless hussy (or the equivalent.) Her boss HAD seemed like a nice guy (though maybe a bit condescending). Obviously, he isn’t so nice, after all.

“A man behaving badly” would describe most of the Hong Sang-soo films that I’ve seen, and it certainly fits The Day After. While Kim’s wife frequently calls him a liar, he usually just clams up and says nothing at all, or asks “Are you serious?” rather than answer her questions directly.

Confrontation! In this scene from HongSang-soo’s film The Day After, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) left, watches her boss, Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) argue with his rightfully suspicious wife, Song Haejoo (Jo Yoon-hee).

The film is shot in black and white, and moves around in time, as Hong’s films usually do, showing Kim Bong-wan at home (not very often!) in his office, and in restaurants eating and drinking (drinking a lot!) with Chang-sook or Ah-reum. We see Kim on the streets, too, walking with one of the women or by himself. He walks a lot, because he’s trying to figure things out, because he lives far from his office, because he has a guilty conscience? Could be any and all of those. Much of this walking takes place in darkness, at night, or in the very early morning hours; it’s not always clear which. At one point he tries to jog, seemingly confirming his wife’s suspicion that he is trying to improve his appearance for someone other than her.

Sometimes Kim Bong-wan even cries on his solitary walks, but I’m not at all convinced that this means he loved Lee Chang-sook, maybe he just misses having someone, other than his wife, to be with. And drink with.

Lee Chang-sook and Song Ah-reum are both young and pretty and Song Ah-reum seems quite brainy, too. While Song does tell Kim that he is one of the best critics in Korea, he doesn’t come across as exceptional in any way. That did lead me to wonder, why did Chang-sook fall for him? Does proximity breed affection? Was she bored? Very lonely, far from home, with no friends in Seoul? Can Kim be really charming when he puts his mind to it? (If Hong had chosen from among my fave actors for this part, I might not wonder as much. Probably that’s exactly why he did not choose them. Sorry, no offence is intended toward actor Kwon Hae-hyo.)

I wonder: Does Hong Sang-soo know about U.S. comedian Stan Freberg? At one point, the two lovers are locked in a passionate embrace while they exclaim “Bong-wan!” “Chang-sook!” over and over. Do a Google search on “John and Marsha,” you’ll see what I mean.

Things I found amusing: When Kwon Hae-hyo eats with his wife, he slurps his soup and munches his kimchi very noisily. He is much more restrained when eating with his assistants.

Meta or gossipy aspect: Director Hong Sang-soo left his wife of many years for actress Kim Min-hee, who has now appeared in four of his films. You might know her from Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden.

Montrealers can see The Day After at the Festival du nouveau cinéma on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at 5:30, in Salle 17 of Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, 360 rue Emery, métro Berri-UQAM.

 

The Day After (Geu-hu, 그 후)
92 minutes long
In Korean with English subtitles
Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Sae-byeok, Jo Yoon-hee

FNC 2017: Review of Thai film Samui Song

In the Thai film Samui Song, Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak) is a troubled sopa-opera star.

Samui Song is a Thai film noir from Pen-ek Ratanaruang, the director of Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, Ploy, and Headshot. At least one reviewer has compared it to The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it’s much twistier than that.

Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak) is a soap-opera actress married to French millionaire Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui, who is a director himself). Their marriage is in trouble because Jerome has fallen under the influence of a sinister cult leader he calls The Holy One. Jerome is outraged that Vi will not swear allegiance to The Holy One (Vithaya Pansringarm), or at least attend some of his events. Vi thinks the monk is a fraud and doesn’t hesitate to say so. This alleged holy man is usually seen in the company of guys who look even more sinister than he does. Assistants? Bodyguards? Thugs or henchmen would be a better description.

In a hospital parking lot, a mysterious man who calls himself Guy Spencer (David Asavanond) asks Vi for a cigarette. Ah, classic move! What will happen if the world ever gives up smoking altogether? Is Spencer just trying to pick her up, or does he have something else in mind? Does he sense that she might need help with something, from a man like himself? Spencer does not have a TV show, but he’s an actor of sorts, too. Soon enough, Vi will be sorry that she met him. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” might come to mind.

Things don’t always play out in chronological order in Samui Song. Sometimes we see an event more than once, with extra details added the second time. There are funny bits, too, as when Vi tells her agent she’d like to work with “that weird director” a nudge-nudge reference to Ratanaruang himself. When Vi goes out at a very late hour and tells her husband she’s “getting milk,” it seemed very unlikely, and therefore hilarious to me. And the details of a particular fight scene had me wondering if director Ratanaruang has watched A Clockwork Orange.

Samui Song (Mai Mee Samui Samrab Ter)
Thailand, Germany, Norway
108 minutes
Original version in Thai
Subtitled in English
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Chermarn Boonyasak, David Asavanond, Vithaya Pansringarm, Stéphane Sednaoui

Samui Song
Tuesday, Oct, 10, 2017
Program #176 4:00 p.m.
Cineplex Odeon Quartier SALLE 10

Samui Song is being shown at the 2017 Festival du nouveau cinéma. Visit the festival’s web site for more information about the films, events and ticket prices.

 

Review of The Midwife (Sage Femme): Two Catherines are better than one!

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot are the main stars of French film The Midwife (Sage Femme).

In The Midwife (Sage Femme) we get two Catherines for the price of one – Catherine Frot as Claire, the midwife of the title, and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice, a figure from Claire’s past. For many viewers, seeing these two together will be more than reason enough watch the film.

Claire works in a small hospital where all the midwives get along; her works exhausts her but she enjoys it. Her future is uncertain, because the hospital will soon be closed (hence the “Resist” sign hanging from it). She is the single mother of Simon, who is off at medical school.

Actress Catherine Frot received maternity training and delivered six babies in the course of filming The Midwife (Sage Femme).

We hear Béatrice before we see her, as Claire listens to her voice on her answering machine. We find out later that it’s a voice she has not heard for more than 30 years.

With great reluctance, Claire goes into Paris to meet Béatrice, who is dying of brain cancer and looking to reconnect with people from her past. She needs familiar faces and moral support. Fair enough. Far as we can tell, making amends, and seeking forgiveness are not part of her plan. She seems to be the guilt-free type.

Béatrice was mistress to Claire’s father, but she left him one day without a word of explanation. It’s not clear what she was to Claire  – something between a big sister, aunt or mother figure? (Some of the critics who don’t like this film are annoyed that such things are not spelled out.) What is clear that Claire has never forgiven Béatrice – not for the affair itself, but for her departure.

We have no idea how Béatrice has been supporting herself all these years either, though a scene in a gambling den offers a partial answer. I read somewhere that those were real gamblers, not actors.

The two women have many disagreements and misunderstandings before they come to a sort of truce. (Minor spoiler, sorry, but you could figure that out from the trailer.) Though these women are straight, that’s the same pattern many romantic comedies follow, isn’t it?

Speaking of romance, Claire has a one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards one with long- distance truck driver Paul (played by Olivier Gourmet, who has worked so often with the Dardennes brothers.) Here his character is quite amiable, not glum, silent, tortured or creepy as he has often been in other roles. Paul and Claire share adjoining garden allotments. (Gardening, earthiness, sex – is it too obvious? I’m willing to let it go.)

Béatrice does not have a visible love interest, but even though she is seriously ill, she still has an appetite for alcohol (whisky and wine) and lots of red meat. Cigarettes, too! However unlikely that might be in real life, it’s a signal that she’s not yet ready to just lay down and die and that she’s still chasing pleasure, wisely or not.

Colours and clothes were among the pleasures of The Midwife for me. Though Béatrice dislikes Claire’s frumpy beige raincoat, Claire does wear a pretty blue scarf, which matches the blue couch in her otherwise boring apartment. Béatrice has an absolutely gorgeous coat in a rich, jewel-like purple. No matter how distraught she might be, she always looks good! (I also read that her film wardrobe is by Yves St. Laurent.) In a nod to Deneuve’s past ads for Chanel No. 5, you might notice a big bottle on her bathroom shelf, if you look carefully. (Nothing bad happens to it, but keeping glass bottles in rooms with hard floors seems very unwise. Don’t ask me how I know.)

In the French film The Midwife (Sage Femme) Claire (Catherine Frot) checks her image after trying on lipstick belonging to Béatrice. She takes a spritz of perfume, too. See the bottle of Chanel No. 5, almost hidden by her shoulder?

The Midwife is unusual in that Catherine Frot was not just acting in scenes set in Claire’s workplace. Frot received several days of training in a French maternity ward and delivered six babies in the course of filming. Those scenes were shot in Belgium, because babies younger than three months old cannot be filmed in France. (In the U.S., babies who “act”  must be at least 15 days old.)

Writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette) said he wrote the film with Frot and Gourmet in mind, and he was very happy that they agreed to appear in the film. In this interview, on a British site called The Upcoming, Provost talks about that and the birth scenes.

The Midwife (Sage Femme)
Written and directed by Martin Provost.
With: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourme, Mylène Demongeot, Quentin Dolmaire

In Montreal, The Midwife (Sage Femme) is playing in the original French-language version at Cinema Beaubien and Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, and with English subtitles at Cineplex Odeon Forum.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Estonian film November (Rehepapp)

In the Estonian film November (Rehepapp), Liina’s mother is waiting for her daughter in the graveyard.

November (Rehepapp) is a black-and-white film that draws upon Estonian history and folklore. It plays out like a timeless, definitely-not-Disney fairy tale – almost everybody is dressed in rags and has a very dirty face, even though they DO have saunas. As far as we can see, those saunas are used more by the dead than by the living. Every autumn, villagers await their deceased relatives in the local graveyard, then take them home for food, gossip and a sauna. Rumour has it that the dead are somehow transformed into giant chickens while using the sauna.

Even more fantastical than those ideas, for me, was the concept of the kratt – a sometimes cranky, sarcastic creature made from odds and ends (branches, pitchforks, hay) who serves his master by stealing things and doing chores around the farm. A kratt does not come cheaply, though – a person has to sell his soul to the devil to make his kratt come alive. Where does one meet the devil? At the crossroads, in the dead of night, of course.

There’s nothing bucolic about life in the countryside – the peasants face hunger, poverty and the plague. There is conflict between parent and child, Christianity and paganism. Co-operation seems like an unknown concept; greed and selfishness abound. People are willing to betray family, friends, and neighbours for any small advantage. Many hope to get their hands on a legendary cache of hidden silver.

In the Estonian film November (Rehepapp) Liina (Rea Lest) watches in dismay as Hans (Jöšrgen Liik) stares at the baron’s daughter.

Young Liina (Rea Lest) lives with her father, who wants to marry her off to his gross old drinking buddy, Endel. Liina will have none of it; she wants to marry Hans (Jörgen Liik), her friend and contemporary. But Hans is smitten by the sleep-walking daughter of the German baron who rules the area from his imposing manor house. (Unlike the others, the baron and his daughter have clean faces and clean clothes. At home, the baron wears a fancy embroidered coat that makes him look the Liberace of his day. German actor Dieter Laser plays the baron; Imdb.com says he was also in the Human Centipede films.)

The baron (Dieter Laser) and his daughter (Katariina Unt) are among the few clean, well-fed people in November(Rehepapp). Just how tall is that hat, anyway?

Google tells me that Estonia was among the last European countries to be Christianized, and the last to abolish serfdom, as well. Though the characters in the film are nominally Christian, that doesn’t stop them from stealing things from the church, nor does it stop Liina from asking a witch to help her win Hans over. If they are still serfs, that would go far in explaining their miserable circumstances.

I saw November (Rehepapp) at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. Both screenings were sold out, so I was very lucky to see it at all. Unlike some of the other popular films at the festival, November is not full of laughs, or action, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Oscilloscope Films has the North American distribution rights and will give the film a theatrical release in the fall.  Watch out for it! An article on the Deadline.com web site has a very apt quote from Oscilloscope’s Dan Berger: “November is one of the most unique and stunning films to come along in some time. It’s equal measures beautiful love story and balls-to-wall bonkers-ass folk tale. It keeps you rapt, guessing and intrigued from its first frame to its last.” Yeah, what he said!

Some films are quite entertaining while we’re watching, but once they’re over we move on. After  watching November the first thing I looked up was the kratt – was it the author’s invention or was it part of folklore? Folklore it was! Then I wanted to know about Estonian history, its rulers, serfdom, paganism and Christianity, saunas for the dead, the ravages of the plague, etc., etc. I really like it when that happens, though such exploration delays my reviews a bit.

November’s cinematographer Mart Taniel won the Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. I can’t find photos of one of the more stunning images in the film – a lake surrounded by trees with white leaves.

November is based on the novel Rehepapp, by Andrus Kivirähk. There doesn’t seem to be an English translation yet, but it has been translated into French, as Les Groseilles de novembre: Chronique de quelques détraquements dans la contrée des kratts. Another book by Andrus Kivirähk has been translated into French as Homme qui savait la langue des serpents. In English it is called The Man Who Spoke Snakish. Kivirähk’s books are available at Amazon and Indigo; Indigo has German and Spanish translations of the “Snakish” book, as well.

The film November is based on Andrus KivirŠahk’s book Rehepapp. It has been translated into French as Les Groseilles de novembre: Chronique de quelques dŽétraquements dans la contrŽée des kratts. There is no English translation. Another one of his books is available in French and English translations as L’homme qui savait la langue des serpents and The Man Who Spoke Snakish.

November (Rehepapp) is an Estonia, Poland, Netherlands co-production, in Estonian and German, with English subtitles.
Written and directed by Rainer Sarnet
Cast: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Dieter Laser, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Arvo Kukumägi, Heino Kalm, Meelis Rämmeld
Cinematographer: Mart Taniel
Production company: Homeless Bob Production, PRPL, Opus Film
North American distribution by Oscilloscope.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Have A Nice Day

A stupid guy steals one million yuan from his boss in the Chinese animated neo-noir Have a Nice Day.

Have A Nice Day (Hao Ji Le) is a very clever, animated neo-noir film from China. I don’t remember seeing such a thing before. You?

The character Xiao Zhang, on the other hand, is not clever at all. In fact, he’s dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers. As a fan of movies like The Godfather, he ought to know that stealing from your sadistic, criminal boss, is a very bad idea. Mistake No. 2 was taking the bag full of money (100 million yuan = $187,090.52 Canadian) from a fellow employee at knifepoint, so there’s no mystery about who the culprit is.

Maybe he could have gotten away with this for a short time, but the idiot doesn’t even leave town! And he isn’t any good at covering his physical tracks, nor his digital ones.

The crime boss, Uncle Liu, sends his henchman Skinny, who is also a butcher (gulp!) after Xiao Zhang. Of course, once other people hear about the stolen money, they go looking for him, too. He draws attention to himself by using a large bill to pay for a cheap meal. His rudeness towards a guy at an Internet cafe leads the man’s friends to beat up Xiao Zhang and take the bag.

That bag passes through many hands, rooms and vehicles in the course of Have A Nice Day.

This is Uncle Liu, the baddest bad guy in Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day. Would you mess with this man?

BTW: There’s no question that Uncle Liu is sadistic – early on we see that he’s holding a hostage – a half-naked, bruised and bloodied man who’s tied to a chair. When Uncle Liu tells an embarrassing anecdote about him we realize that they’ve known each other since childhood, though we never do find out exactly why the man is tied to a chair.

In old U.S. films, a guy might do a stupid or dangerous thing (robbery, kidnapping or a boxing match) because a sick mother, brother or sister needs surgery to prevent blindness, replace a failing kidney, etc. But Xiao Zhang has stolen the money because his his fiancée’s plastic surgery did not go well. He wants to take her to South Korea to get the job done right. He must make her happy, so they can marry, have children and make his mother happy. Filial piety is still a thing!

These are just two of the many people chasing after stolen money in the Chinese neo-noir animation Have a Nice Day.

Philosophical remarks about the different levels of freedom, and an animated music video that mocks the iconography of Chairman Mao’s era are among the many things that make Have A Nice Day entertaining. We are so very far from that era now. People dye their hair all sorts of colours, including blue; they wear U.S. T-shirts; they have U.S. film posters on their walls, they struggle to send their children to university in the U.S. or U.K., they talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Brexit. We even hear a few words from Donald Trump on the radio! Some practice Christianity, while others just wear crosses as a fashion statement. I didn’t see anyone riding a bicycle, either!

The Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day contains a music video mocking the iconography from the era of Chairman Mao.

Director Liu Jian also wrote the film and his name appears in several other places in the credits, too. Seems like a multi-talented guy! And I wonder if he jokingly named the villainous crime boss after himself?

Have A Nice Day was shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Variety says that Strand Releasing has bought the distribution rights for the U.S. and the company plans to show the film there in the fall.  Memento Films International has sold distribution rights for Have A Nice Day in the U.K., Spain, Benelux, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

If you get a chance to see Have A Nice Day you really, really should! (Did I mention that the music is great, too? It includes tunes from the Shanghai Restoration Project.)

Meanwhile, lucky Montrealers can see it on Wednesday, July 19, at 3:15 p.m., in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Have A Nice Day, China, 2017, 77 minutes long
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed by: Liu Jian
Written by: Liu Jian
Voice cast: Zhu Changlong, Yang Siming, Ma Xiaofeng, Zheng Yi, Cao Kai
Company: Memento Films International

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Free and Easy

The Chinese film Free and Easy has two screenings at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival.

Free and Easy is low-key, black comedy that takes place in an unnamed Chinese town in winter. Many of the town’s buildings have fallen down, while others are in an advanced state of disrepair.

There’s some symmetry in Free and Easy: two con men, two policemen, two guys pasting posters on walls. Eventually we see a con woman, too, and a third person pasting posters.

One con man asks people to smell the soap he’s selling. Something in it quickly renders them unconscious. He takes their money, phones and watches while they’re knocked out. Pretty easy as far as it goes, but the pickings can’t be great in such a rundown place. There aren’t many people out and about, either, though it’s not clear if they’re sticking close to home or if the town is more or less abandoned. If there were more people around, surely they’d warn each other about this guy.

The other con man is an alleged monk who offers “free” amulets, but then requests a “donation,” to rebuild his burnt-out temple. If they don’t want an amulet, people can touch him “for luck.” Of course, he wants money for that, too.

When the monk and the soap man walk along some railroad tracks, there are ugly grey hills in the distance, the kind of scenery we see in films by Jia Zhang-ke. Is this place a former mining town?

As for the poster-pasters, one is looking for his mother, who has been missing for years, while the other is looking for a very large tree, which vanished more recently.

The policemen don’t seem to have much to do; they smoke and eat in the station house, even sharing their medications in a weird, comradely way. One of them has plenty of time to make unwelcome visits to a woman who runs a boarding house. Coincidentally, the soap man rents a room from her, and her husband, who’s in charge of a reforestation project, is the man looking for the missing tree. This tree man is a very quiet sort. Slow moving, too. He might be bored out of his. . .tree, exhausted, or suffering from narcolepsy, who knows?

The jokes in Free and Easy are subtle; there aren’t any martial-arts battles, or car chases (hardly any cars at all, actually). There is a troublesome dead body that has to be dealt with, though. Free and Easy won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. Music in the film is from Chinese band Second Hand Rose. Second Hand Rose has a web site, and a Facebook page. The New Yorker wrote a profile on the group back in 2014.

Free and Easy
China (2016) 99 minutes long, in Mandarin with English (subtitles)
Directed by: Geng Jun
Written by: Liu Bing, Geng Jun, Feng Yuhua
Cast: Xue Baohe, Gu Benbin, Xu Gang, Yuan Liguo, Zhang Xun, Wang Xuxu, Zhang Zhiyong
Company: FilmRise

Free and Easy will be shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: The Senior Class

Jung-woo and Ju-hee are art students in the animated Korean film The Senior Class. (Lee Joo-seung provides the voice of Jung-wwo and Kang Jin-ah plays Ju-hee.)

When I’m watching a horror movie, I often want to yell: “Don’t go in the basement!” While watching The Senior Class I was pulled into the story enough that I wanted to shout: “Don’t do that; don’t say that; don’t go there!”

The Senior Class is not a horror movie, strictly speaking, though many people behave horribly. It was written by Yeon Sang-ho, who wrote The King of Pigs, The Fake, Seoul Station and Train to Busan, evidence enough that Yeon knows plenty about bad behaviour. (Hong Deok-pyo directed the film, and he came to Fantasia to present it to us and to take questions after the screening.)

The story is set in a class of art students in their final year of university. The students all have anxiety over final projects, the evaluation of their year’s work and a coming exhibition of that work.

The main characters are the quiet, slightly nerdy Jung-woo, his loudmouth, jerky friend Dong-hwa and pretty Ju-hee, who concentrates on her work and is rather quiet herself. Some classmates assume she’s a snob because of that. The female students talk about her behind her back, but they put on friendly faces  when they want to know where she bought her handbag.

Jung-woo has had a crush on Ju-hee for a long time. Maybe it’s more like an obsession. She appears as a delicate, ethereal angel in an online cartoon he works on regularly, while he portrays himself as a scrawny, caring, sensitive merman. (Really!) In many belief systems, angels protect us, but this angel seemingly needs the protection of Jung-woo’s alter-ego. In real life, Jung-woo can barely say hello to Ju-hee.

Jung-woo and Ju-hee get to know each other better when he discovers something about her and she begs him to keep it to himself. He agrees to do that, but can he keep his mouth shut? And since he made this discovery while doing an errand for Dong-hwa, it’s quite possible that Dong-hwa will find out, too. We’ve got some tension, now!

In the animated Korean film The Senior Class, Jung-woo, centre, is quite literally stuck in the middle of a dispute between his jerky friend Dong-hwa, left, and the young woman on the right, who was seduced and then rejected by Dong-hwa.

The Senior Class is distressing to watch, because there is so much meanness and betrayal in it. There’s also some “cutting off your nose to spite your face” behaviour, that makes no sense, logically, but people do act illogically all the time.

Though The Senior Class lacks the physical violence seen in the other films written by Yeon Sang-ho, it is like them in that it exposes a rampant hypocrisy that is hardly unique to Korean society. Gossip is harmful, but hypocrisy is so much worse.

I haven’t included a link to the trailer because I think it gives away too much of the story, but you can find it on the Fantasia web site, if you want to. (Link is below.)

Director Hong Deok-pyo will attend the screening and answer questions after. I’m sorry that I did not ask one myself. A certain character reminded me of Marilyn Monroe. I wonder if that was an intentional thing, or just my imagination? I’ll try to find out before he leaves! (The last time I thought I saw something in a Korean film, it WAS all in my head!

At the Q&A for The Senior Class: Fantasia International Film Festival programmer Rupert Bottenberg, translator Noeul Kang, and director Hong Deok-pyo.

The Senior Class, in Korean with English subtitles, 82 minutes long.
Directed by: Hong Deok-pyo
Written by: Yeon Sang-ho
(Voice) cast: Lee Ju-seung, Kang Jin-ah, Jeong Yeong-gi
Company: Contents Panda

The Senior Class will be shown Monday, July 17, 5:10 pm, Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs until Aug. 2, 2017.

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Tilt

Joseph Cross plays a filmmaker named Joseph Burns in the film Tilt, directed by Kasra Farahani and shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

In the U.S. film Tilt we watch a man slowly coming unhinged. Joseph Burns (played by Joseph Cross) is a documentary filmmaker, though he has only completed one film so far. His second film will be about the the Golden Age of America, or rather, the myth of it. It was never really more than fairy tale, or propaganda in the first place, right?

His film is a very low-budget, independent project that he’s making in a shed in his backyard, using clips from newsreels and educational shorts from an earlier era, when average citizens were more innocent, or gullible. Among those films is the (in)famous Duck and Cover. Imagine telling school children to hide under their desks if an atomic bomb is dropped on their school. Joe has been watching that stuff for awhile and maybe it’s taking a toll. He empties many cans and bottles while working, too. I don’t think they are soft drinks.

He’s also been watching TV, where the 2016 presidential campaign is underway, so we can cringe along with Joe (well, I cringed) when Donald Trump, still just an inexplicable candidate, talks about losers, etc. Joe’s wife, Joanne, asks why watch if Trump annoys him so much? (A person could write an essay, or entire book about that, I think!)

Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) is a nurse who will soon be applying to medical school. She is the voice of sanity and reason in their home. Possibly also the voice of conformity, convention and authority. When she semi-sarcastically says “Not everyone is as smart as you,” he gives her a look cold enough to stop your heart. Then he hits her in the face with the cork while opening a wine bottle. He apologizes profusely for this “accident,” but it’s a disturbing moment.

Alexia Rasmussen as Joanne Burns and Joseph Cross, as Joseph Burns, in the film Tilt. This might be the only time that both characters manage to share a smile.

Joanne is pregnant and Joe does not seem ready for fatherhood at all, though he never says it in so many words. Joanne berates him because he’s not super enthusiastic about the baby’s sonogram photo, the way that her friends are.

Joe can’t sleep at night so he takes long walks around his dark, largely empty Los Angeles neighbourhood. (In a city where they say “no one walks” Joe has given up the expense of a car and a smartphone for the sake of his film.)  There’s a definite feeling of danger, tension and unease during these scenes. Each time he went out, I was expecting something bad to happen to Joe. On the other hand, he looks kinda scary himself, with his face half hidden under a dark hoodie. He looks scarier still when paints his face with black stripes before heading out to observe Halloween/ Dia de Los Muertos festivities.

Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities in Los Angeles, seen in the film Tilt, shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

About those names, Joseph and Joanne, both abbreviated to have the same sound: Jo(e). In real life that could be an amusing coincidence. But in a script? The same name might imply too much togetherness or a loss of identity, I don’t know. But when he tells his wife things like “I don’t know if I’m safe, Jo,” he could just as well be talking out loud to himself. And that sentence could be taken two ways. While the more obvious interpretation is that Joe might be in danger, it could mean that Joe himself is dangerous.

Tilt prompts one to wonder, could trying circumstances totally change a person, or do they allow parts that were hidden and controlled to finally break free?

I give Tilt full marks for mood and cinematography. I will gladly watch another film from Kasra Farahani. My only small complaint is, it seemed a bit long. Perhaps it would be stronger still if trimmed by a few minutes.

No wonder it looks good!: The Internet reveals that director and co-writer Kasra Farahani was an art director or concept artist for many Hollywood films. Check out his imdb page, or his resume.

Tilt

Directed by: Kasra Farahani
Written by: Kasra Farahani, Jason O’Leary
Cast: Joseph Cross, Alexia Rasmussen, Jessy Hodges, Kelvin Yu, Jade Sealey, C.S. Lee, Billy Khoury
Company: Bad Guy Good Guy
100 minutes long, in English

Seen at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada, July 14, 2017