I’ve been serendipitously dropped in Thailand just in time for the Bangkok Farang Festival Film Festival. Kick off was last Thursday with an invitation-only screening of Bad Lieutenant and runs until this coming Wednesday. I’ve still been fighting the same cold from Argentina, only this past week it ramped up to bona fide H1N1 proportions and wiped me out. All that to say, I didn’t get to see anything until Saturday evening. My three reviews from my first 2 days are below. Each cheesy synopsis is copied verbatim from the Bangkok Film Festival guide.
Dogtooth / Kynodontas (trailer)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Length: 96 mins
Acclaim: Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes
Synopsis: “A father, a mother and their three kids live in a house in the outskirts of a city. There is a tall fence surrounding the house. The kids have never left the house. They are being educated, entertained, bored and exercised in the manner that their parents deem appropriate, without any influence from the outside world. They believe that the airplanes flying through the sky are toys and that zombies are small yellow flowers. The only person allowed to enter the house is Christina.”
Christina is introduced by Father (all characters are nameless) to perfunctorily satisfy the sexual drives of Son, and of course with the introduction of sex things start to fall apart pretty quickly. In the world of Dogtooth, that old Baptist joke proves true: avoid sex, because it leads to movie-watching, which leads to dancing. Christina triggers a cataclysmic unraveling of the carefully manufactured world the children live in, all leading to an agonizing climax that could’ve been written by Flannery O’Connor herself.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a refreshingly bizarre piece of filmmaking. Everything about this movie is askew: its morals, its personalities, its reality, even its camerawork — though the cinematography (with tons of fixed camera shots) makes for a really beautiful-looking film. Very little is explained by Lanthimos, forcing viewers to piece things together on their own and provide their own interpretations (Why, for example, are the parents doing this? What’s up with the oft-discussed, never-seen, possibly-nonexistent 2nd Son? etc). Dogtooth is a masterful work of dark, black comedy with enough tragedy to make it stick. It’s hard to even pinpoint why such an crazy, off-center film is so damn riveting — right down to the killer last shot, a testament to the power of subtle horror.
A Prophet / Un Prophete (trailer)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Length: 150 mins
Acclaim: Grand Prix at Cannes; official French submission to Oscars
Synopsis: “Condemned to six years in prison, illiterate Arab-French Malik El Djebena, 19, lands in jail with no friends but with a sharp instinct for survival. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang who rules the prison through fear, violence and bribery, Malik is forced to perform a series of “missions,” which include murders and inciting chaos. The boy quickly gains the trust of the prison kingpin, but Malik, a fast learner, secretly develops his own plans.”
A Prophet has been garnering some major buzz and it’s not difficult to see why. I almost avoided this one because of its length (yes, I got antsy sometimes) and an expectation of serious violence (no, it wasn’t that bad). In fact, I found the matter-of-fact, unstylized violence in Dogtooth was much more jarring, even though A Prophet has a significantly higher body count. The rise of Malik is obviously accomplished through no small amount of bloodshed. He’s eventually got his nose in everyone’s business — the gypsies, the Italians, the Corsicans, the Arabs, etc — and watching Malik juggle all these groups is a tense cinematic delight. Not to mention his own personal transformation from dumb juvenile delinquent to powerful criminal mastermind in just 6 years. Unlike Dogtooth, A Prophet has a relatively simple narrative arc and mostly uncomplicated plotlines — which is what perhaps makes it a “genre piece” — but its razor-sharp eye on the protagonist is what elevates the film. Accumulated detail over 2.5 hours makes the powerful last 3 minutes unsurprising in content, but surprising in effect. The crowd tonight loudly applauded as credits rolled; had the director been present, there would’ve been a standing ovation for sure.
I Killed My Mother / J’ai tue ma mere (trailer)
Director: Xavier Dolan
Length: 100 mins
Acclaim: 3 award from Cannes; official Canadian submission to Oscars
Synopsis: “Hubert Minel, a brash  year old, dislikes his mother intensely. He gauges her with contempt, only seeing her out-of-date sweaters, her kitschy decor and the vile bread crumbs that lodge in the corners of her noisy mouth. Hubert, confused and torn by a love-hate relationship that obsesses him more and more each day, wanders in and out of an adolescence that is both marginal and typical, combining artistic discovery, openness to friendship, ostracism, and sex. All the while, he is consumed by his all encompassing contempt for this woman he somehow once loved.”
First off, this film deserves major props for winning me over despite some technical obstacles. I Killed My Mother takes place in Quebec, so it’s in French — but the B.F.F. also had on French subtitles. Below the screen was a PowerPoint giving both English & Thai subtitles, so it was all very distracting, especially for such a dialogue-heavy movie. Not to mention that it was sometimes out-of-focus and our reels appeared to be a little worn. So it took me a little while to warm up to I Killed My Mother — the painfully-real arguments yelled back-and-forth between mother and son are not immediately endearing, either. Yet you quickly discover that Hubert and his mother genuinely love each other, but have no idea how to live together anymore. The film’s 20-year-old (!) director drew from his own experiences growing up (he supposedly wrote the screenplay when he was 17) and the emotional authenticity is what drives this movie. I Killed My Mother goes nowhere really (there’s no actual matricide), which might be maddening for some but was revelatory for me. Among many profoundly beautiful scenes, I found a dream/fantasy sequence particularly inspired — even as I mused about what a field-day Freud would have with this material. I’m quite willing to overlook the film’s flaws because of Dolan’s overall ability to make the viewer ache for mother & son. Though not a documentary, it reminded me of Dear Zachary since both are, in their own ways, desperate attempts to domesticate wild, complicated feelings. For its crazed blitz through teenage rage and the angry side of love, I Killed My Mother received two rounds of applause from the crowd tonight (one during the movie after a particularly excellent monologue, and one as the credits rolled).
I was extremely pleased with all three choices, especially since they each had very satisfying endings. All three have been garnering critical hype so I wasn’t that surprised — from here on out I think I’ve signed myself for slightly more untested films (still not wholly sure which films I’m headed to this week). Stay tuned for even more pretentious blogging in the days to come.