World Film Festival: Part II

Well the World Film Festival was kind of a bust for me. I couldn’t come up with a good schedule and ended up with one very stacked on the last 4 days… which turned out to coincide with me getting sick. I’ve got a couple gripes with how things were run too, all confirming my initial suspicion that the WFFB is definitely playing second fiddle to the Bangkok International Film Festival. So in the end I only saw 5 films; reviews of the first three are here, and the latter two are below.

Letter to a Child / Otroci

Country: Slovenia
Director: Vlado Å kafar
Length: 100 mins.
Rating: C

Synopsis:
““Letter to a Child” combines intimate conversations with perfect strangers and personal letters contemplating bits and pieces of life, collected and addressed to a child. In a series of “guided monologues” people – from kindergarten children to the vintage ages – are contemplating and reliving their lives.”

I really like the simple premise of this documentary — just record people telling their stories — but I found the execution pretty ho-hum. The interviews span seven different age groups, from precocious children up to a dying old man, and vary greatly in quality. Director Å kafar probably should’ve spoken with more people and then extracted the best moments and most intriguing stories. We don’t need, for example, a half hour of banal observations from adolescents about how life is all about “having fun.” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone Å kafar spoke with was included in the film. The best moments, the parts that I suspect are driving the good reviews, don’t come until the 3rd act. There’s a heartbreaking interview with a middle-aged couple who lost both their children in separate car wrecks (even this could’ve been edited down), and a poignant bit with a senile geezer struggling to get through the poem “Memento Mori” by Slovenian poet France PreÅ¡eren. Otherwise… meh. One film critic noted Letter to a Child‘s “radical artlessness,” except he found this praiseworthy and I did not. Maybe that reviewer had just come from 2012 and found this refreshing. But for me, a complete lack of style and sometimes less-than-compelling interviews do this film in.

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World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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B.I.F.F. Day 5

Just got home from the last film of the Bangkok International Film Festival and still bummed I knocked out all the best films straight off, though Everyone Else was minor redemption in my otherwise consistent slide to the bottom. Tonight’s full house screening of Mammoth was no exception, sadly.

mammoth_detMammoth (trailer)

Country: Sweden
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Length: 124 mins
Grade: D-

Synopsis: “Leo and Ellen are a successful New York couple, totally immersed in their work. Leo is the creator of a profitable website [a Kongregate rip-off] and finds himself in the world of easy money and big decisions. Ellen is a dedicated ER surgeon who devotes her long shifts to saving lives. Their eight-year-old daughter Jackie spends most of her time with her Filipino nanny Gloria.When Leo travels to Bangkok, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have dramatic consequences on himself and his family.”

Don’t believe the synopsis. Leo (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) does nothing even vaguely similar to setting off a chain of events. In fact, the film is offensive simply for pretending there are “dramatic consequences” for this family. Because Leo & Ellen (Michelle Williams) aren’t just “successful,” they’re filthy rich to the order of tens of millions of dollars. The most dramatic thing to happen to them, and this is ridiculously underscored in the parting shot even, is that they no longer have a live-in nanny/maid and will have to find a new one. That’s it, and I’m not exaggerating. That’s the big conclusion. Yawn.

The fact is that Mammoth is a wholly pointless and utterly plotless movie that rightfully met with a vigorous chorus of boos at the Berlin International Film Festival. Blues Clues has more of a plot than this movie, at least for 80% of the film. In the last 20% director Moodysson attempts to salvage his movie by punishing all non-white, non-rich, non-Soho-dwelling characters in the film. And does this for no discernible reason. Mammoth is like a less-offensive Babel clone, except unfortunately it’s still a Babel clone, by which I mean to say it’s terrible. Beautifully shot, with excellent actors, on fantastic locations**… all in service of a banal script that’s knee-deep in elephant shit. I almost rated this better than Jamila and the President before realizing that Mammoth is equally pretentious, except here the whole brouhaha is simply to make this point: sometimes life is sad, I mean, like real sad, for us rich folks.

** A Swedish / German / Danish production with Mexican & caucasian leads playing a New York couple with a Filipino nanny, Singaporean business partners, African-American coworkers; shot on location in Soho, Olongapo, Bangkok, and some Phuket-esque beach… wowee, it’s all so multi-cultural, isn’t that cute? How precious, just precious.

B.I.F.F Day 4

I had a pretty mixed experience yesterday at the Bangkok International Film Festival. I only saw two movies, one shitty and one great, but mostly kept wishing I could re-watch I Killed My Mother. Tonight is my final film, Mammoth, which will probably play to a very packed house. It’s been really fun to attend a major film festival, and a cheap one at that (ended up being ~$2.60 per film).

Jamila and thre President - Poster4Jamila and the President / Jamila dan Sang Presiden

Country: Indonesia
Director: Ratna Sarumpaet
Length: 97 mins
Grade: D

Synopsis: “Jamila is a prostitute serving a life sentence behind bars. She surrenders herself to the authorities after admitting she killed a high-ranking minister, and refuses to be represented by any lawyer or request a plea to ease her sentence. The controversy spreads all over the nation, followed by a reaction from a militant group forcing the government to give the death penalty to Jamila. The prison slowly reveals Jamila’s story: she is a victim of child trafficking, a crime that has become a custom in many places. Jamila represents millions of children who has been sold in the name of poverty and the lack of education.”

Weighty, important subject matter does not necessarily mean a weighty, important film. Jamila and the President is overwrought, daytime soap opera material. Good production values can’t hide the fact that there’s nothing at its core except a poor script overacted by melodramatic people. Sarumpaet adapted the screenplay from her own theater play and this is very obvious in a few key scenes that don’t translate well to film at all. Most characters act illogically and unrealistically, and by the end I cared little about or for any of them. My bad experience with this movie was not helped by subtitles that were poorly translated and written in large, Comic Sans font.

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B.I.F.F. Day 3

Last night’s films were quite a change from the bing-blang-blaow extravaganza that was Dogtooth, A Prophet, and I Killed My Mother. These two were also different in that both had Q&A sessions afterward with the film’s director. I’ve also used some forward-thinking and bought tonight & tomorrow’s tickets ahead of time so I can stop showing up 75 minutes early and still only get mediocre seats.

Petition - Poster2Petition

Country: China / France
Director: Zhao Liang
Length: 123 mins
Grade: B

Synopsis: “Since 1996 Zhao Liang has filmed the “petitioners,” who come from all over China to make complaints in Beijing about abuses and injustices committed by the local authorities. Gathered near the complaints offices, around the southern railway station of Beijing, the complainants wait for months or years to obtain justice. Peasants thrown off their land, workers from factories which have gone into liquidation, small homeowners who have seen their houses demolished but received no compensation, all types of cases are represented. The film was shot right up to the start of the Olympic Games, showing the persistent contradictions of China in the midst of powerful economic expansion.”

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BFF With BFF

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.

kynodontas-2009Dogtooth / Kynodontas (trailer)

Country: Greece
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Length: 96 mins
Acclaim: Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes
Grade: A-

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.

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Home Stretch Drag

Sorry for the lack of updates — I was in bed all weekend, knocked out by flu-like symptoms that appear to be a mild version of Swine ’09. Things were looking up a little yesterday, but today I’m feeling awful again. Unfortunately I have to keep lesson planning and keep on teaching. Tonight I’m working with “high intermediate” students, so it’ll be very different than what I’ve had so far. We’re discussing prostitution and various attitudes about the profession and the legalization of brothels. I’ve heard this class loves to talk since they’re basically fluent, so hopefully they’ll carry the hour and I can give my vocal chords a rest.

I should also mention that there’s been a major change in plans. My goal coming to Argentina was to get my TEFL Certificate and then teach ESL in South America. I was shooting for a $12k+ salary to cover living, food, and student debt repayment. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that teaching here is basically break-even, with a good salary being $700/mo… which is just not workable for me because of my loans.

So now I’m moving to Asia. The plan is to leave BsAs on Wednesday the 16th and arrive in Bangkok on Friday where I’ll stay with my parents until I can find my feet. Hopefully from that base in Thailand I can devote my efforts to finding a job in South Korea, where they’ll pay $2k/mo + benefits (like free housing). I’m disappointed that my grand South American adventure has to halt prematurely, but doing my teacher training here in Argentina has been a very valuable experience. Now that I have a plane ticket, however, it’s hard to focus on my remaining work here. I think really everyone in my class is dragging however. We’ve got three more classes to teach and one more lesson plan to do, and I think we’re all really looking forward to being done with this.