Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cannes 2009 -- And The Winners Are:

Fresh off the press, here are the winners of this year's Cannes Film Festival:

Palme d'Or: The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke

Grand Prix: A Prophet by Jacques Audiard

Best Director: Brillante Mendoza, Kinatay

Jury Prize: Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold and Thirst by Park Chan-wook

Camera d'Or: Samson and Delilah by Warwick Thornton

Camera d'Or -- Special Distinction: Ajami by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

Lifetime Achievement Award: Alain Resnais

Best Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Actress: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist

Best Screenplay: Mei Feng, Spring Fever

Artist-Technician Prize: Aitor Berenguer, sound technician, Map the Sounds of Tokyo

Prix Un Certain Regard: Dogtooth by Yorgos Lanthimos

Un Certain Regard Jury Prize: Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu

Special Prize Un Certain Regard 2009: No One Knows About Persian Cats by Bahman Ghobadi and Father of My Children by Mia Hansen-Løve

Director's Fortnight Awards:

Prix SACD, Prix Regards Jeunes, Prix Art Cinema Award: I Killed My Mother by Xavier Dolan

Prix Europa Cinema: La Pivellina by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel

Prix SFR: Montparnasse by Mickael Hers

Mention Art Cinema Award: The Misfortunates by Felix van Groeningen

Coup de coeur d'Olivier Père: The Wolberg Family by Axelle Ropert and The King of Escape by Alain Guiraudie

Critic's Week Awards:

Critic's Week Grand Prix: Adieu Gary by Nassim Amaouche

SACD Award: Lost Persons Area by Caroline Strubbe

ACID/CCAS Support Award, OFAJ/TV5MONDE (Very) Young Critic Award, Prix Regards Jeunes: Whisper With the Wind by Shahram Alidi

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Virtual Director's Fortnight (Quinzaine Des Réalisateurs), Part 2

(All synopses from the official Director's Fortnight site.)

The King of Escape (Le Roi de l'évasion) (Alain Guiraudie)

Armand Lacourtade, a 43-year-old farm equipment salesman, can no longer bear his homosexual bachelorhood. When he meets Curly, a plucky teenage girl, he changes orientations. With everyone pursuing them, they defy dangers of all kinds to live their forbidden love. They make for a strange pair. But it this what Armand dreamed of?

Les beaux gosses (Riad Sattouf)

14-year-old Hervé is an average teenager who lives alone with his mother and struggles to cope with his urges, unprepossessing physique and mediocre intellect. He just gets by at school, surrounded as he is by his best buddies. Going out with girls is his major preoccupation. Sadly, in this field, he keeps striking out. But he never says die. One day, without really knowing how, he finds himself in the good books of Aurore, one of the prettiest girls in class. Surrounded by a gallery of saucy, wild characters, Hervé tries to grow up in this little world in perpetual movement, this world of adolescence in which emotions must be dominated.

Ne change rien (Pedro Costa)

Ne change rien began as part of a friendship between actress Jeanne Balibar, sound engineer Philippe Morel and Pedro Costa. Jeanne Balibar, singer, from rehearsals to recording sessions, from rock concerts to classical singing classes, from an attic in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines to the stage of a Tokyo café, from Johnny Guitar to Offenbach's La Périchole.

Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve)

Based on the true story events that occured on December 6, 1989, at the Montreal's Polytechnique School, the movie tells us about that specific day through the eyes of two students, Valérie and Jean-François. Their life has been changed forever, when a young man entered the school with one idea in mind: kill himself and take with him as many women as possible.

Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)

Fresh faced and naïve, 17-year-old Bennie arrives in Buenos Aires in search of his older brother who has been missing for more than a decade, and had sworn never to see any of his family again. The family of Italian immigrants settled in Argentina, but with the great musical success of their domineering father Carlo, an acclaimed symphony conductor, moved to New York. When Bennie finds his brother, the brilliant but melancholy writer 'Tetro,' he is not welcomed with open arms.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Virtual Director's Fortnight (Quinzaine Des Réalisateurs), Part 1

(All synopses from the official Director's Fortnight site.)

Carcasses (Denis Côté)

For more than 40 years now, Jean-Paul Colmor has collecting hundreds of automobile carcasses on his lot. More than just recycling and selling car parts, Colmor has created an unthinkable site, full of memories. Every day he visits his lot, carts scrap iron, inventories his parts and other rusting gems. His little house is no less strange: a kind of shelter where one can make out the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom in the jumble. One day, others arrive, eager to share some of Jean-Paul's solitude and eccentric fringe existence.

The Misfortunates (De helaasheid der dingen) (Félix van Groeningen)

Gunther Strobbe, 13, shares his grandmother's roof with his father and three uncles. Daily, Gunther is steeped in ambiance of frenzied binges, shameless womanizing and unending bumming around... Gunther looks likely to suffer the same fate. Unless he can find a way to get the hell out of there.

Humpday (Lynn Shelton)

It's been a decade since Ben and Andrew were the bad boys of their college campus. Ben has settled down and found a job, wife, and home. Andrew took the alternate route as a vagabond artist, skipping the globe. After a night of perfunctory carousing, the two find themselves locked in a mutual dare: to enter an amateur porn contest. But what kind of boundary-breaking porn can two dudes make? After the booze and "big talk" run out, only one idea remains - they will have sex together... on camera. It's not gay; it's beyond gay. It's not porn; it's an art project. But how will it work? And more importantly, who will tell Anna, Ben's wife?

I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa)

The true story of an ex-cop, ex-husband, ex-insurance swindler, ex-model prisoner and eternal lover of cellmate Philip Morris. Steven Russell will do anything to avoid being separated from the man of his dreams. Which means not rotting away in prison. How far can one go for love? Quite far if you believe the incredible story of Steven Russell, an escape artist whose romanticism gets the better of him.

I Killed My Mother (J'ai tué ma mère) (Xavier Dolan)

Hubert Minel doesn't love his mother. The 16-year-old haughtily regards her with contempt, and only sees her tacky sweaters, kitsch decorations and the breadcrumbs that get stuck on the corner of her lips when she munches. In addition to these irritating surface details, there is also his parent's cherished mechanisms of manipulation and guilt. Confused by this love/hate relationship that obsesses him more and more each day, Hubert drifts through the mysteries of an adolescence both marginal and typical - artistic discoveries, illicit experiences, the opening-up to friendship, sex and ostracism.

Like You Know It All (Jal Aljido Motamyunseo) (Hong Sang-soo)

Not rich, nor famous, Ku Kyung-nam is stick with the label of an 'art-house film director'. When he attends the festival in a small town as a jury, he bumps into an old friend Bu, who has settled in the town. Over drinks Ku is dragged to Bu's house and meets his wife who claims to know all about his films. The next day after a long night of heavy drinking, Ku returns his hotel and find a message from Bu which says "never to come near us again". But he can't remember what happened last night...

Karaoke (Chris Chong Chan Fui)

Set in a village estate of a Malaysian palm oil plantation - Betik returns home. During the day, Betik helps shoot karaoke videos, while at night; he lends a hand to his reluctant mother at the family's karaoke joint. This is the place where he falls for Anisah. A job, a love and a family. His return home comes together quickly. But life isn't so innocent. Everybody wants something. Subtle manipulations driven by self interest and personal desires seep through yet the songs continue to be sung. Unwavering. The home has changed. The palm oil trees have grown in endless symmetry. The landscape rusts and the nostalgia turns.

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Special Screenings

(All synopses from the official Cannes site.)

Ashes and Blood (Cendres et sang) (Fanny Ardant)

Exiled of her country since the murder of her husband ten years ago, Judith lives in Marseille with her three children. After having refused during years to see her family again and despite her fears and her secrets, Judith lets herself bend by her children’s desire and accepts the invitation at her cousin’s wedding. She takes her children to spend a summer back in the country, to discover their roots and their history. But Judith’s return revives old hatreds between rival clans. Unrelentingly, the spiral of violence's started, blood calling blood.

Jaffa (Karen Yedaya)

In the heart of Jaffa, a city nicknamed "the Bride of the Sea" by the Israelis, Reuven's garage is a family business. His daughter Mali and his son Meir, as well as Toufik and Hassan, a young Palestinian and his father, work there for Reuven. No one suspects that Mali and Toufik have been in love for years. As the two lovers are secretly making their wedding arrangements, tension builds between Meir and Toufik…

Manila (Adolfo Alix, Jr. and Raya Martin)

William, a drug addict, tries to reconnect his ties with people close to him. Slowly, as night falls, he learns that there is no one left to trust, not even his own self. Philip, who works as a bodyguard for a mayor's son, thinks his boss considers him family. After a shooting incident, he discovers his real worth to his boss. As he struggles to hide, he is slowly being consumed by the claws of darkness lurking the city. In between, Lav Diaz is shooting a romantic film.

Eye of the Storm (No Meu Lugar) (Eduardo Valente)

A police officer has to make a difficult decision when he sees himself caught up in a hostage situation in a middle-class home. His actions will deeply influence the lives of three families involved in the hold-up - including his own.

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Out of Competition

(All synopses from the official Cannes site.)

Agora (Alejandro Amenabar)

IV century… Egypt under the Roman Empire… Violent religious upheaval in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city’s legendary Library. Trapped within its walls, the brilliant astronomer, Hypatia, fights, with the help of her disciples, to save the wisdom of the Ancient World… Among those disciples, the two men who are fighting for her heart: the witty, privileged Orestes and Davus, Hypatia’s young slave who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom he knows can be his if he chooses to join the unstoppable surge of the Christians.

Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi)

Director Sam Raimi returns to the horror genre with Drag Me To Hell, an original tale of a young woman’s desperate quest to escape an evil curse. Christine Brown is an ambitious L.A. loan officer with a charming boyfriend, professor Clay Dalton. Life is good until the mysterious Mrs. Ganush arrives at the bank to beg for an extension on her home loan. Should Christine follow her instincts and give the old woman a break? Or should she deny the extension to impress her boss, Mr. Jacks, and get a leg-up on a promotion? Christine chooses the later, dispossessing Mrs. Ganush of her home. In retaliation, the old woman places the curse of the Lamia upon Christine, transforming her life into a living nightmare. Haunted by an evil spirit and misunderstood by a skeptical boyfriend, she seeks the aid of seer Rham Jas to save her soul from eternal damnation. To help the shattered Christine, the psychic sets her on a frantic course to reverse the spell. As evil forces close in, Christine must face the unthinkable: how far will she go to break free of the curse?

The Army of Crime (L’Armée du crime) (Robert Guédiguian)

Paris, 1941. The poet Missak Manouchian leads a mixed bag of youngsters and émigrés in a clandestine battle against the Nazi occupation. Twenty-two men and one woman fighting for an ideal and for freedom. News of their daring attacks, including the assassination of an SS General, eventually reaches Berlin. Under the orders of the Gestapo, French police and collaborators hound Manouchian and his Résistants until, to escape torture, one of their associates denounces the whole group. After a show trial, the twenty-three heroes are brought to face a firing squad...

Don't Look Back (Ne te retourne pas) (Marina de Van)

Jeanne (Sophie Marceau) - a writer, married, with two children - starts to see unsettling changes in her home. Her body is beginning to change. No one around her seems to notice. Her family dismisses these fears as the result of the stress of having to finish her next book, but Jeanne realizes that something far deeper, far more disturbing is taking place. A photograph at her mother’s house sends her in search of a woman in Italy. Here, transformed into another woman (Monica Belluci), Jeanne will discover the strange secret of her true identity.

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village) (Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier)

Animated plastic toys like Cowboy, Indian and Horse have problems, too. Cowboy and Indian's plan to surprise Horse with a homemade birthday giftbackfires when they destroy his house instead. Surreal adventures take over as the trio travel to the center of the earth, trek across frozen tundra and discover a parallel underwater universe where pointy-headed (and dishonest!) creatures live. Each speedy character is voiced -- and animated -- as if their very air contains both amphetamines and laughing gas. With panic a permanent feature of life in this papier mâché town, will Horse and his girlfriend ever be alone?

Up (Pete Docter)

From Disney•Pixar comes UP, a comedy adventure about 78-year-old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen, who finally fulfills his lifelong dream of a great adventure when he ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies away to the wilds of South America. But he discovers all too late that his biggest nightmare has stowed away on the trip: an overly optimistic 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell. From the Academy Award®-nominated director Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.”), Disney•Pixar’s UP invites you on a hilarious journey into a lost world, with the least likely duo on Earth.

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard, Part 2

(All synopses from the official Cannes site.)

The Wind Journeys (Los viajes del viento) (Ciro Guerra)

Ignacio Carrillo travelled all his life throughout the villages and regions of northern Colombia, carrying music and traditional songs on his accordion, a legendary instrument that is said to be cursed, because it once belonged to the devil. As he became older, he got married and settled with his wife in a small town, leaving his nomadic life behind. When she suddenly dies, he decides to make one last journey to the Northern edge of the country, to return the accordion to the man who gave it to him, his teacher and mentor, so he will never play it again. On the way, he is joined by Fermín, a teenager who dreams of becoming a “juglar” like Ignacio, and to travel all around playing the accordion like he did. Tired of his loneliness, Ignacio accepts to be accompanied, and together they start the journey from Majagual, Sucre, to Taroa, beyond the Guajira desert, finding on the way the enormous diversity of the Caribbean culture and surviving all kinds of adventures. Ignacio will try to convince Fermín to take a different path in his life, having learned that his only led to solitude and sadness, but he will have to face the fact that destiny has different plans for him and his pupil.

Mother (Bong Joon-ho)

Widowed for a long time, a mother lives alone with her only son, Do-joon. He is 28 years old, a shy and quiet young man. In the aftermath of a terrible murder, the woman’s hopeless, helpless son becomes the prime suspect. There is no real evidence against him, but the police throw groundless suspicion at him simply because there is no way he can prove his innocence. Eager to close the case, the police are happy with their cursory investigation and arrest the boy. His defense attorney turns out to be incompetent and unreliable, making a conviction seem inevitable. Faced with no other choice, his mother gets involved, determined to prove her son’s innocence.

Nymph (Nang Mai) (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)

A long time ago in an unnamed forest a beautiful young woman was wandering alone when she fell prey to two men. Shortly thereafter, the lifeless bodies of the two attackers were found floating down the nearby stream. No one knew what happened to the men or where the woman was, or who or what might have saved her life. Flash forward to today. May is a city woman who has everything she could ask for. Things are looking stellar: her career is on the rise, and her long-time husband, Nop, a professional photographer, showers her with love and attention. But fate or desire play tricks on the couple who watches as their lives drift by without much thought or reflection, and soon May starts an affair with Korn, another married man. One day Nop is assigned to take a trip into the forest to film the wildlife. He decides to bring May along. But the journey slowly reveals how the invisible weight of their urban lifestyle haunts them like a spectre, since May insists on behaving as if she were still in the city. Her sole concerns are her laptop and her phone, and instead of working from the office she now works from the tent in the middle of the jungle. Meanwhile, Nop treks into the forest to take pictures of wild deer and forgotten cobwebs, and along the way he stumbles onto a sad-looking tree – a lonely, mysterious specimen deep in the heart of the woods. The tree, it seems, is calling out to him, pulling him closer to it, and Nop finds himself spellbound and can’t resist its attraction. When her husband fails to return to the tent, May sets out to look for him but only finds his phone and a sandal. Only then does she realize how precious their marriage is, and how desperately she needs Nop’s warmth and companionship. Yet when May returns home believing she’s lost her husband, Nop returns. But the forest has changed him into someone else, perhaps forever…

Police, Adjective (Politist, Adjectiv) (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Cristi is a policeman who refuses to arrest a young man who offers hashish to two of his school mates. “Offering” is punished by the law. Cristi believes that the law will change, he does not want the life of a young man he considers irresponsible to be a burden on his conscience. For his superior the word conscience has a different meaning…

Interview with Corneliu Porumboiu:

Precious (Lee Daniels)

When Precious, who is sixteen, learns to read and write at an Alternative School, she discovers a new world. A world where she can at last express herself in a way she never could before. A world where each girl can become beautiful, strong, independent. Just like Precious…

Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton)

Samson, a cheeky 15-year-old boy, and Delilah live in an isolated Aboriginal community in the Central Australian desert. In amongst a tiny collection of houses, everything here happens in a cycle. Day in and day out – nothing changes, everything stays the same and no one seems to care. The two teenagers soon discover that life outside the community can be cruel. Though hungry and rejected Samson and Delilah fall in love. It is all they have. It is real. And when tragedy strikes they turn their backs on home and embark on a journey of survival. Lost, unwanted and alone they discover that life isn’t always fair, but love never judges.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard, Part 1

(All synopses from the official Cannes site.)

Adrift (À Deriva) (Heitor Dhalia)

Spending summer vacation with her family in Buzios, Filipa, a fourteen-year old girl, suffers through the rite of passage into adulthood while discovering love for the first time. A rite filled with anguish when she learns that her father, a famous author, is betraying her mother with a foreign woman who lives in the small seaside town. But, this secret is to be only the first in a series of others, both enchanting and painful, which she discovers about her family and herself as well.

Independencia (Raya Martin)

Early 20th century Philippines. The sounds of war signal the arrival of the Americans. A mother and son flee to the mountains, hoping for a quiet life. One day, the son discovers a wounded woman in the middle of the forest, and decides to bring her home. Years pass. Man, woman and child live in isolation from the growing chaos all over the country. But a coming storm soon threatens their existence, and American troops draw nearer.

Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo) (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Hideo, who lives alone, owns a life-size “air doll”, which suddenly finds herself with a heart. Everything is new to her in the world outside Hideo's house. She meets all kinds of people. The world is filled with so many beautiful things, but everyone seems to have some kind of hollowness, just as she has. In the morning, she pumps herself up, and takes a walk. One afternoon, she meets Junichi who works at a rental video store, and instantly falls in love with him. A first date. New words she learns from him. She starts working with him at the store, enjoys talking and being with him. Everything seems to be going perfect, until something unexpected happens to the doll. A sad yet happy fantasy. This is a story about a new form of love.

Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants) (Mia Hansen-Løve)

Grégoire Canvel has everything a man could want. A wife he loves, three delightful children and a stimulating job. He's a film producer. Discovering talented filmmakers and developing films that fit his conception of the cinema—free and true to life—is precisely his reason for living. His vocation. It fulfills him and Grégoire devotes almost all his time and energy to his work. He's hyperactive, he never stops. Except on weekends, which he spends in the country with his family—gentle interludes, as precious as they are fragile. With his bearing and exceptional charisma, Grégoire commands admiration. He seems invincible. Yet his prestigious production company, Moon Films, is on its last legs. Too many productions, too many risks, too many debts. Storm clouds are gathering. But Grégoire plows on at all costs. Where will his blind obstinacy lead him? One day, he is obliged to face the facts. In one word: failure. He is overwhelmed by fatigue. Which soon, secretly, turns into despair.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Competition, Part 3

(All synopses taken from the official Cannes site.)

In the Beginning (A L’origine) (Xavier Giannoli)

Based on the true story of a smalltime crook who built a highway.

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) (Michael Haneke)

A village in Protestant northern Germany. 1913-1914. On the eve of World War I. The story of the children and teenagers of a choir run by the village schoolteacher, and their families: the baron, the steward, the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the tenant farmers. Strange accidents occur and gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual. Who is behind it all?

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)

Oscar and his sister Linda are recent arrivals in Tokyo. Oscar's a small time drug dealer, and Linda works as a nightclub stripper. One night, Oscar is caught up in a police bust and shot. As he lies dying, his spirit, faithful to the promise he made his sister ­that he would never abandon her - refuses to abandon the world of the living. It wanders through the city, his visions growing evermore distorted, evermore nightmarish. Past, present and future merge in a hallucinatory maelstrom.

Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza)

Peping, a criminology student, is recruited by his schoolmate, Abyong, to work as a part-time errand boy for a local syndicate that collects protection fees from various businesses in Manila. The easy money Peping earns is spent mostly on his girlfriend, Cecille, who’s also a student. Peping decides to marry her, but in order to do so he’ll need more money. Abyong contacts Peping to join a "special project" that pays more than normal...

View excerpts from the film here.

A Prophet (Un prophète) (Jacques Audiard)

Condemned to six years in prison, Malik El Djebena cannot read nor write. Arriving at the jail entirely alone, he appears younger and more fragile than the other convicts. He is 19 years old. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang who rules the prison, he is given a number of "missions" to carry out, toughening him up and gaining the gang leader’s confidence in the process. But Malik is brave and a fast learner, daring to secretly develop his own plans...

Vengeance (Johnnie To)

A father comes to Hong Kong to avenge his daughter, whose family was murdered. Officially, he’s a French chef. Twenty years ago, he was a killer.

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)

There is a secret in the life of Mussolini: a wife and a son, who was born, acknowledged and then denied. The secret bears a name: Ida Dalser. It is a dark page in history, one ignored in the official biography of the Duce. When Ida meets Mussolini in Milan, he is the editor of Avanti and an ardent Socialist who intends to guide the masses towards an anti-clerical, anti-monarchical, socially emancipated future. Ida already had a fleeting encounter with him in Trento and remained thunderstruck. Ida truly believes in him and his ideas: Mussolini is her hero. In order to finance Popolo d’Italia, a newspaper he has founded and the nucleus of the forthcoming Fascist Party, Ida sells everything she has: her apartment, her beauty salon, her furniture and jewelry.

Face (Visage) (Tsai Ming-liang)

A Taiwanese filmmaker makes a film based on the myth of Salomé at the Louvre. Even though he speaks neither French nor English, he insists on giving the part of King Herod to the French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. To give the film a chance at the box-office, the production company gives the role of Salomé to a world famous model. But problems arise as soon as filming begins... Amidst all this confusion, the director suddenly learns of his mother’s death. The producer flies to Taipei, to attend the funeral. The director falls into a deep sleep where his mother’s spirit does not seem to want to leave her old apartment. The producer has no choice but to wait, alone and lost in a strange city. As after a very long voyage, filming will resume with all who were lost in the underground of the Louvre.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Competition, Part 2

(All synopses from the official Cannes site.)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

In the first year of the German occupation of France, Shosanna Dreyfus witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema. Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine organizes a group of Jewish American soldiers to perform swift, shocking acts of retribution. Later known to their enemy as "The Basterds", Raine’s squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich. Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own...

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach)

Eric the postman is slipping through his own fingers... His chaotic family, his wild stepsons and the cement mixer in the front garden don’t help, but it is Eric’s own secret that drives him to the brink. Can he face Lily, the woman he once loved 30 years ago? Despite outrageous efforts and misplaced goodwill from his football fan mates, Eric continues to sink. In desperate times it takes a spliff and a special friend from foreign parts to challenge a lost postman to make that journey into the most perilous territory of all - the past. As the Chinese, and one Frenchman, say: "He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six."

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar)

A man writes, lives and loves in darkness. Fourteen years before, he was in a brutal car crash on the island of Lanzarote. In the accident, he didn’t lose only his sight, he also lost Lena, the love of his life. This man uses two names: Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the film he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can’t direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena.

Map the Sounds of Tokyo (Isabel Coixet)

Ryu is a solitary girl whose fragile appearance is in stark contrast with the double life she leads, working nights at a Tokyo fishmarket and sporadically taking on jobs as a hit-woman. Mr Nagara is a powerful impresario mourning the loss of his daughter Midori, who has committed suicide. He blames David, a Spaniard who runs a wine business in Tokyo. Mr Nagara's employee, Ishida, was silently in love with Midori and hires Ryu to murder David. A sound engineer, obsessed with the sounds of the Japanese city and fascinated with Ryu, witnesses this love story which searches the shadows of the human soul, reaching deep into places where only silence has the power of eloquence.

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)

It’s 1969, and Elliot Tiber, a down-on-his-luck interior designer in Greenwich Village, New York, has to move back upstate to help his parents run their dilapidated Catskills motel, the El Monaco. The bank is about to foreclose; his father wants to burn the place down, but hasn’t paid theinsurance; and Elliot is still figuring how to come out to his parents. When Elliot hears that a neighbouring town has pulled the permit on a hippie music festival, he calls the producers, thinking he could drum up some much needed business for the motel. Three weeks later, half a million people are on their way to his neighbour's farm in White Lake, NY, and Elliot finds himself swept up in a generation-defining experience that would change his life, and popular culture, forever.

The Old Man and the Ox

Old Partner (Wonang sori). 2008. Written, directed and edited by Lee Chung-ryoul. Produced by Goh Young-jae. Cinematography by Ji Jae-woo. Music by Heo Hoon and Min So-yun. Lighting by Yang Jin-young.

Lee Chung-ryoul’s documentary Old Partner was a surprise hit in Korea this year, expanding through word of mouth from an initial release on seven screens to becoming number one at the box office, beating out both Hollywood blockbusters and high-profile local releases. The popularity of the film grew to such an extent that the director made appeals to the public to prevent them from overrunning Choi Won-gyoon and Lee Sam-soon, the bickering, cantankerous husband and wife farmers who are the film’s subjects. The producers of the film worked with police to launch a special campaign to prevent illegal downloading of the film. All of this seems a rather counterintuitive fate for such a quiet, observational film concerning an old couple and their work ox, all three of whom are in the very late stages of their lives. But when one actually sees the film, which recently had an extremely brief, almost completely unadvertised run in New York at the Imaginasian Theater (me, myself, and I was the entire audience at the screening I attended), it is easy to see why the film struck such a deep chord when it was released in Korea. Many people who saw this film almost certainly saw their own parents or grandparents in this couple, whether they were farmers or not.

The dying ox in Old Partner is a huge bone of contention between the couple. Choi dotes lovingly on the ox, and talks about how important this animal is, how it helped to feed his nine children and send them to college. The couple’s way of life seems virtually unchanged from that of similar people centuries ago. There is no internet, cell phones, or television; their only connection to the rest of the world is a beat-up old radio. Lee resents her husband for taking better care of the ox than his own wife; she constantly laments her rotten luck in life, saying over and over that she “picked the wrong man,” and complains that she has been worked so hard over the years that she now cannot stand upright. The couple suffers from as many ailments as their ox: Choi’s leg was ruined by a bad acupuncture job when he was a young boy, and now awkwardly gets around on a cane. The couple has many grown children, but Lee doesn’t want to live with them, even though presumably her life with them would be infinitely more comfortable than what we see on screen. “Better to die than to have to walk on eggshells all the time,” she says. This is a hard life, but obviously one lived by choice, by a couple who puts a premium on proud self-sufficiency.

Even though the couple seems to exist in complete isolation from the outside world, the film astutely shows us that their lives are very much affected by events in the larger society. In one scene, as Choi drives his ox on the street, he passes a demonstration against the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, which among other things is helping to drive down cattle prices. This fact becomes pertinent to a later scene in which the man attempts to sell an unruly calf and is told that it is too small, and that prices are going down because the Korean markets are now being opened to American beef. When Choi passes the street protestors, a man on a megaphone yells, “Here come one of the mad cows now!” This is a reference to the massive protests that occurred last year when President Lee Myung-bak announced he would relax the ban on American beef (a key component of the Korea-US FTA), raising concerns among many that tainted American beef would enter the Korean market.

The film ends with a dedication to the farmers who fed their children and sent them to school with the fruits of their hard labor, and who have now been nearly forgotten in the modern technological world. Old Partner beautifully and movingly honors a way of life that is rapidly disappearing, and although to all appearances this is a harsh and unforgiving existence, it is unfailingly respectful and sympathetic toward the old man at its center, while not shying away from the less appealing aspects of his personality, such as his neglect of his wife and his ornery stubbornness. However, one cannot help but have admiration for Choi’s reluctance to give up on his trusted animal companion, and his refusal to use machines or pesticides on his land, even though this would make his work much easier. He lives, and will die, by his unyielding insistence on doing everything by hand, and remaining connected body and soul to the soil that literally gave him life.

Old Partner won the Mecenat award for best documentary at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival and had its US premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Virtual Cannes Film Festival: Competition, Part 1

This year's Cannes Film Festival is heavy on familiar names (Quentin Tarantino, Park Chan-wook, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, Alain Resnais, Ang Lee, Ken Loach, etc.), so much so that there isn't a single first-timer in competition, and no less than four former Palme D'or winners (Tarantino, von Trier, Campion, Loach) are vying for this year's top prize. Still, it's shaping up to be a fairly strong line-up, at least as far as the critical dispatches from the festival indicate.

So for those of us (like me) unable to make the trip to the Croisette this year. I thought I'd offer a taste of what's being shown. So below are trailers and other video clips of some of this year's selections.

(Note: all synopses are taken from the official Cannes site.)

Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

A grieving couple retreat to ’Eden’, their isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse...

Interview with Lars von Trier:

Thirst (Bak-jwi) (Park Chan-wook)

Sang-hyun is a beloved and admired priest in a small town, who devotedly serves at a local hospital. He goes to Africa to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment to find a vaccine to the new deadly infectious disease caused by Emmanuel Virus (E.V.). During the experiment, he is infected by the E.V. and dies. But transfusion of some unidentified blood miraculously brings him back to life, and unbeknownst to him, it has also turned him into a vampire. After his return home, news of Sang-hyun's recovery from E.V. spreads and people start believing he has the gift of healing and flock to receive his prayers. From those who come to him, Sang-hyun meets a childhood friend named Kang-woo and his wife Tae-ju. Sang-hyun is immediately drawn to Tae-ju. Tae-ju gets attracted to Sang-hyun, who now realizes he has turned into a vampire, and they begin a secret love affair. Sang-hyun asks Tae-ju to run away with him but she turns him down. Instead, she tries to involve Sang-hyun in a plot to kill Kang-woo...

Bright Star (Jane Campion)

London 1818: a secret love affair begins between 23 year old English poet, John Keats, and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, an outspoken student of fashion. This unlikely pair started at odds; he thinking her a stylish minx, she unimpressed by literature in general. It was the illness of Keats’s younger brother that drew them together. Keats was touched by Fanny’s efforts to help and agreed to teach her poetry. By the time Fanny’s alarmed mother and Keats’s best friend Brown realised their attachment, the relationship had an unstoppable momentum. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, the young lovers were swept into powerful new sensations, "I have the feeling as if I were dissolving", Keats wrote to her. Together they rode a wave of romantic obsession that deepened as their troubles mounted. Only Keats’s illness proved insurmountable.

Spring Fever (Chun feng chen zui de ye wan) (Lou Ye)

Nanjing, 2009. Luo Haitao has been hired by Wang Ping’s wife to spy on the passionate relationship between her husband and another man, but slowly loses control of the situation. With his beautiful girlfriend, Li Jing, he is drawn in to the affair, overcome by the fever of drunken spring nights. All are possessed by an exhilarating madness of the senses, a dangerous malady that leads the heart and head astray...

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)

Fifteen year old Mia’s life is turned on its head when her Mum brings home a new boyfriend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Kim Ki-young's "The Housemaid" Now Playing at The Auteurs

The Housemaid (Hanyo). 1960. Written and directed by Kim Ki-young. Produced by Kim Young-chul. Cinematography by Kim Deok-jin. Edited by Oh Young-keun. Lighting by Ko Hae-jin. Sound recording by Sohn In-ho. Music by Han Sang-ki.

Cast: Kim Jin-kyu (Dong-sik), Joo Jeung-nyeo (Dong-sik's wife), Lee Eun-sim (Myeong-sook), Eom Aeng-ran (Kyeong-hee), Ahn Sung-ki (Chang-soon).

This is to call attention to a great viewing opportunity available online right now. The great folks at Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation have teamed up with the invaluable site The Auteurs to present the great Korean director Kim Ki-young's 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid in its entirety for free on The Auteurs website. This film underwent an extensive restoration, a collaborative project of the World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive, which screened as a work-in-progress last year at the Cannes Film Festival and the Pusan International Film Festival, where I viewed it. The completed restoration recently had its world premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea.

Here is what I wrote about this film when it screened in Pusan:

The Housemaid arrived at a pivotal moment in Korean history: in 1960, the corrupt regime of then-President Syngman Rhee was overthrown, creating a brief window during which democracy flourished. However, this also created a power vacuum that was filled in 1961 by dictatorial President Park Chung-hee, who tenaciously clung to power until his assassination in 1979. This brief period of democracy created the conditions for a renaissance of Korean cinema, during which filmmakers enjoying relaxed censorship were free to explore the problems of their society, many of which were caused by the devastation wrought by the Korean War and the subsequent separation of the country into north and south. Two major examples, both released in 1961, were Kang Dae-jin’s Mabu (The Coachman) and Yu Hyun-mok’s Obaltan (A Stray Bullet), the latter film often cited as the greatest Korean film ever made. These films unflinchingly expressed the poverty and desperation that afflicted much of the populace at this time, taking many cues from post-World War II Italian neo-realism.

The Housemaid, however, was strikingly different from these other films in many ways. Although this film, too, had at least a tenuous basis in reality (it was inspired by a newspaper article), Kim spun it into a twisted tale of male anxiety, materialism, sexual competition, and a heightened expressionism bordering on surrealism. Kim’s merciless skewering of the burgeoning Korean bourgeoisie proved him to be a potent Eastern counterpart to Luis Buñuel. Structured with a framing device featuring a husband reading this newspaper account to his wife, the story of The Housemaid concerns Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu), a music teacher whose students are the female workers at a factory. Dong-sik and his wife (Joo Jeung-nyeo) have just bought a two-story house, part of their quest to raise their class status in society. Dong-sik has also just bought a piano, and offers private lessons in order to pay for the piano. Dong-sik prides himself on being a morally upright person, so much so that when it is called to his attention that one of his students has written a passionate love note to him, he reports the woman to her superiors, causing her to quit the job in mortification.

Meanwhile, at home, Dong-sik’s wife is overwhelmed with housework and her side job as a seamstress. One day, when she is startled by a rat jumping out at her in the kitchen, she asks Dong-sik to hire a housemaid to help out in their new house. Dong-sik asks Kyeong-hee (Eom Aeng-ran), one of his music students, to find someone he can hire, and she enlists her friend Myeong-sook (Lee Eun-sim) to take the job, promising to augment her wages with money of her own. Kyeong-hee is also in love with Dong-sik, and takes private piano lessons at his house in an attempt to get closer to him. Myeong-sook is an odd creature; when we first meet her, she is furtively smoking in a closet, and when she arrives at Dong-sik’s house, she heads straight for the kitchen and kills the rat she finds there with her bare hands. This action serves to contrast Myeong-sook’s uncouth country ways with the supposedly more refined manners of the city folk. As the film progresses, of course, these distinctions prove to be illusory. Dong-sik admonishes the house maid to use the rat poison kept in the cabinet in the future. The rats, and more importantly the rat poison, are elements that become pivotal to the plot.

The family’s new two-story house (a recurring motif of Kim’s subsequent films) is a cavernous space, still under construction, a site of both affluence and danger. Dong-sik forces his crippled daughter to climb the steep stairs, in order to build up both her muscles and her character. Her bratty brother Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki) uses these stairs to play a cruel trick on her, luring her with a bag of sweets and causing her to fall down the stairs. This act of falling down the stairs is reprised later in the film, with much more tragic results.

Kim Ki-young, reportedly heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, broke with the social-realist mode favored by his contemporaries, and prevalent in most of his previous films. Kim achieved this with near-total control of his mise-en-scène, carefully calibrating every element – lighting, sound, staging – for maximum tension. For this reason, Kim preferred to shoot on soundstages rather than on location. In The Housemaid, the camera prowls every inch of the house, stalking the characters like a voyeur. The visuals finally come through in this new restoration, a joint project of the Korean Film Archive and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, both organizations dedicated to film preservation. The great work of Kim’s cinematographer Kim Deok-jin can finally be fully appreciated, the rich black-and-white photography heightening the outrageousness of the scenario.

Gender roles and class structures become a deadly mix in this film, as the housemaid seduces Dong-sik and unleashes all sorts of havoc leading to the family’s destruction. At this time, many young women traveled from the countryside to Seoul and other large cities to work as domestic servants, as well as less reputable professions as barmaids and prostitutes. The film’s portrayal of this social phenomenon helped it to connect with large audiences, making The Housemaid one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. Audiences identified very strongly with the family’s situation in the film, and very much against the character of Myeong-sook in the film, to the detriment of the career of actress Lee Eun-sim, who apparently never appeared in another film. Reports at the time indicate that female audiences especially hated her character; in movie theaters her appearances were greeted with howls of “Kill the bitch!” The Housemaid functioned as a cautionary tale, especially in the final, audacious twist of the film’s ending. Kim would continue to explore these themes for the rest of his career, even going so far as to remake The Housemaid twice, as Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (1982).

So, I reiterate: right now, you can view The Housemaid, one of the great masterworks of world cinema, an eccentric film by an equally eccentric filmmaker, in its entirety, for free. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. And all you have to do is click here. Enjoy.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Yim Soon-rye, "Keeping the Vision Alive" -- Q&A at the Korea Society, 4/22/09

Over her 15-year career as a director, writer and producer, Yim Soon-rye has emerged as one of Korea’s best filmmakers. Her sensitively written, solidly character-driven features – Three Friends (1996), Waikiki Brothers (2001), and Forever the Moment (2008) – impressed critics and viewers with their emphasis on those at the margins of society struggling for dignity, respect and recognition. Yim was much more a critical favorite than a popular success for most of her career, but all that changed last year with Forever the Moment, which told the true story of the Korean women’s handball team that competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics. I reviewed this film when it played at last year’s New York Korean Film Festival; you can read what I wrote here. Forever the Moment won best picture at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and was a major hit last summer, surprising many observers who felt that a sports film, and a women’s sports film at that, had little chance at box office success. Such a turn of events may have seemed unimaginable back in the 1980’s, when Yim was an aspiring filmmaker, studying English literature in college instead of film both because of being discouraged from this pursuit as a woman and also because the field of film studies was at that time very new and undeveloped. Also, apart from such directors as Im Kwon-taek and Lee Chang-ho, the quality of much of the commercial cinema was quite wanting. Women directors and other film workers were an extreme rarity, and the circumstances for those few in the business were less than favorable. Still, Yim persevered, eventually going to Paris for the formal film studies unavailable to her in Korea. Her first major credit was as a producer on Yeo Kyun-dong’s 1994 film Out to the World, a major film of the 1990’s that anticipated the renaissance of Korean cinema later in the decade. That same year, she gained attention for her short film “Promenade in the Rain.” Yim’s first two features Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers went against the grain of what would be expected from a female filmmaker, since both of these films featured male protagonists, demonstrating that at least in the early stages of her career that she was less interested in exploring gender issues than in more universal human experiences.

However, Yim’s more recent features have tackled women’s experiences head on. Yim made a recent appearance at the Korea Society on April 22, 2009 to screen two films in which she does this. One was her short film “The ‘Weight’ of Her,” her contribution to the omnibus film If You Were Me, the first in a series of anthologies commissioned by the Human Rights Commission of Korea. Here is what I wrote on this short film when it was first shown at the 2004 New York Korean Film Festival:

In keeping with the project's aim, it is significant to note that the contributors include two of the very few working female directors in Korea. One of them, Yim Soon-rye, in the film's opener, “The 'Weight' of Her”, takes on the issue of female body image and the premium society places on a particular standard of female beauty. Yim's film is a satirical portrait of a girls' school, where the teacher's lessons reinforce the importance of maintaining a slim figure and keeping up their grooming. The teachers conduct frequent weigh-ins, resulting in a funny exchange in which a male teacher with a prominent potbelly, when confronted with his own weight problem, answers, “It doesn't matter how men look.” The punchline is that the school is actually a finishing school for room salon hostesses. The director herself appears in the film's coda, where she is subjected to a male passerby's comment about the “fat lady” directing the film.

The other film was an hour-long documentary released in 2001, Keeping the Vision Alive, a lively and informative history of women directors in Korea and their struggles to carve out a place in both a male-dominated film industry and general society. Yim’s documentary contains many valuable anecdotes from the many interviewees on screen. Most fascinating is the story of Park Nam-ok, the very first Korean female director (Widow, 1955), whose story of the making of her film sounds very much like the experiences of present-day indie filmmakers; she borrowed from relatives, and along with her crew performed multiple duties on set, from catering to cleaning, all the while carrying her baby around with her. Not only directors, but producers, cinematographers, lighting designers, editors, gaffers, and other crew members are given equal time here. The film touches on all periods of Korean cinema up to and including more recent filmmakers such as Byun Young-joo, who created one of the greatest documentary works ever made, her trilogy on the “comfort women” who were forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II: The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own Breathing (1999). Byun remarks in the film that today’s lighter and more user-friendly film equipment is especially a boon to women filmmakers, making it much easier for them to be technically self-sufficient. Technical barriers to women in the film industry are remarked on by several filmmakers; many men would not allow women to learn about how cameras worked or even to touch them, treating such knowledge as closely guarded secrets.

The circumstances for women in the Korean film industry were rapidly changing even in 2001, as Yim documents, and today it’s almost a different world, since in recent years female film directors have very much increased in number, to the point that now Korea has more working women directors than any other country in Asia. These directors have contributed some very impressive films in recent years. A partial list: Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat, The Aggressives); Byun Young-joo (Ardor, Flying Boys), Lee Jeong-hyang (Art Museum by the Zoo, The Way Home); Park Chan-ok (Jealousy is My Middle Name); Gina Kim (Gina Kim’s Video Diary, Invisible Light, Never Forever); Lee Su-yeon (The Uninvited); Pang Eun-jin (Princess Aurora); Kim Hee-jung (The Wonder Years); Kim Mee-jung (Shadows in the Palace); Kim So-young (Women’s History Trilogy); Lee Kyeong-mi (Crush and Blush) – when I met Ms. Yim after the screening and discussion, we bonded over our mutual admiration of this last film, which I hope to review here soon.

Yim’s latest film Fly, Penguin recently had its world premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival, which ends today. Below are clips from the discussion and Q&A session following the screening at the Korea Society.

Introduction/on making "The 'Weight' of Her":

In the next two clips, Yim discusses the first Korean women filmmakers, her own experiences in the industry, the circumstances for women filmmakers today, and her reasons for making the documentary:

Yim's response to my question about her focus on male characters in Waikiki Brothers, and the genesis of the film Forever the Moment:

And in this last clip, Yim expresses her admiration for director Kim Ki-young's portrayal of female characters, and praises Lee Kyeong-mi's film Crush and Blush: