Tag Archives: subtitled

24 Snow

We encountered all kinds of interesting documentaries at the Planet in Focus film festival, but I’m admitting a soft spot for 24 Snow.

I have a passion for documentaries anyway. A camera can actually be a transportation device, carrying us away to a world that looks and feels entirely different from our own. Sometimes the lens looks upon a piece of fiction that’s been created to jar your senses (like Blade Runner 2049), other times it encourages you to take a second look at something that’s quite familiar (like The Florida Project), but documentaries can do both while actually reflecting real life back at you.

24 Snow isn’t fiction but it definitely felt foreign to me, and its foreignness informed me on a world I knew little about. With this documentary, we travel to the Siberian Russian territory of Yakutia. I didn’t know there were Russian Inuits, yet there they MV5BOGRkMDk5NjctMmMwZC00YjUxLWExM2QtZDdlY2Y5MzcyZjIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA3MzMxMTg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_were, surviving in that beautiful but frigid (-70C) land. We are introduced to one main in particular: Sergei is a horse breeder, and even his horses will look strange to you. The Yakutian horse has of course evolved to weather the icy temperatures. They are small but sturdy animals, with shaggy coats that hopefully keep them warm. Their thick hair and manes are not unlike those of Shetland ponies but when you see one completely coated in ice, you know you’re in unfamiliar territory. The breeders de-ice the horses the way I de-ice my windshield. It’s a way of life I can’t really comprehend: solitary, isolated. No telephone, no electricity. No cash. No cars (none that can run you through ice and snow anyway – sleds get the job done).

These harsh conditions are a real test of one’s limits and it’s interesting to get to know the kind of person this job attracts. I live in Canada and am not unfamiliar with snowy, even permafrosted terrain, but the Yakutia is something else entirely. It’s stunning if you can separate it from its harshness, and the lush cinematography here certainly helps. The people and beasts of 24 Snow completely captivated me; it’s a fascinating documentary by Mikhail Barynin that’s as informative as it is beautiful.

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My Dogs, JinJin and Akida

Jaeyoung is a kid struggling at home to find some space between his abusive father and his religious mother. His dad, remote at best, has little time for any of his kids, but he does seem to have lots of attention for his precious dogs, JinJin and Akida. It’s not all that surprising that Jaeyoung is actually jealous of the dogs, but it is very, very sad to behold, and so kind of understandable when one day Jaeyoung gets it into his head that releasing one of the beloved dogs will, if not actually solve the problem, at least gain his father’s attention.

My_Dogs_JinJinAkida520.jpgDirector Cho Jong-Duck sets his adventure story amid the backdrop of the rapidly changing South Korea of 1983. It’s developing economically but Jaeyoung’s father still works in the fishing industry of a small village. There are lots of such conflicts crossing Jaeyoung’s path. Western influences are crowding in but the traditional Confucian Korean culture still has a stronghold on its people. All of these things put strains on a family already in transition.

The animation style is quite simple but the story is richly observed. There were so many scenes that were really moving in their ordinariness: Jaeyoung’s mother’s use of holy water as a deterrent to her husband’s abuse; the neighbours overhearing but not interfering with the fights going on in Jaeyoung’s house. Make no mistake: this may be an animated film, but it’s no happy-go-lucky Pixar offering. The kid deals with serious, heart breaking issues and there’s no easy out to the problems that plague his family.

TIFF: First They Killed My Father

Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.

She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.

Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the MV5BYmI4YzY3MTAtZjk1My00NmYwLTg4MTgtMDdlZjFhZjQzM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself in a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.

Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.

Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of sevel whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to MV5BZDcyYmUyZjItYmUyNS00OWIyLWIwZTQtOTllYWE2MDEyY2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,937_AL_adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.

For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.

 

Lu Over the Wall

Greetings from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which we’re always proud to cover because not only is it our hometown festival, it’s also a really great one – terrific movies, great venues, well-organized by staff and volunteers. It makes an Asshole proud!

Our first stop at the festival was to the good old Bytowne, where all the best indie films get shows year-round. Lu Over the Wall is a Japanese film by director Masaaki Yuasa, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by it.

The film is about Kai, a surly middle schooler who seems isolated from his peers until it 48a6ae418cf7ea14caa9daee89cfc4381491527985_largeis discovered that he makes really interesting beats with his computer, and he gets recruited into a band by Yuuho and Kuniko. The band practices on a deserted island away from the mainland so that Kuniko’s family won’t discover his dirty little secret (he’s destined to be a temple keeper, not a rock star). But out there they stir up the myth that has shrouded their town for decades: that of merpeople.

Turns out, merpeople are attracted to music, and that’s exactly what prompts Lu, a very cute little mermaid, to leave the water to sing and dance with them. Everyone else is terrified of merpeople, who, legend has it, eat people, among other atrocities, but Kai can relate to Lu and so they become friends. It’s a tricky relationship to navigate when half the townspeople want the merfolk dead and gone, and the other half hope to exploit them for money.

No, this isn’t an animated take on The Shape of Water, though it’s beginning to sound like it. But it is a story about looking beyond our preconceptions, a story made all the more palatable by its incredibly sweet animation. When its meant to, the joy practically leaps right off the screen. You’ll feel your heart tug upward. Lu’s happiness is infectious. I mean, what kind of a person isn’t completely bowled over by mermaids? Like, how black is your soul? And Lu is so bright and bubbly she makes Ariel seem like a puddle of puke. Lu Over the Wall is giddy, upbeat, and as you might have guessed, has a soundtrack bursting with J-pop. I love how the movie evokes emotion by changing up its animation style and if for some reason your inner darkness has been able to resist up until now, I’ll leave you with just one word, the only word this review really needs: mer-doggies.

TIFF: Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari

Ferentari is an impoverished ghetto of Bucharest. Adi, an anthropology student, moves there to work on his thesis on manele pop music. He soaks up the local culture at a seedy bar where he meets a guide, Alberto. Alberto is a colourful character, to put it politely, a gregarious man with a gambling addiction and 14 years of prison under his belt. Alberto knows how to work Adi, scheming for drinks and smokes on top of cash payment. He’s got the whole neighbourhood figured out.
The relationship between the two blossoms curiously; Soldiers is an exploration of the soldiers_story_from_ferentari_02tough and the tender, the blurring of the line between the two. Adi (Adrian Schiop) is a fish out of water, and Alberto (Vasile Pavel), rough as heck around the edges, provides interesting if skewed insight. Soon their companionable partnership turns into something sexual, quasi-romantic. It’s a quite modern gay love story from behind the poverty line and director Ivana Mladenovic’s lens is intimate and gritty.
Soldiers is Mladenovic’s feature length debut but her work is already assured and distinguished. Based on the fictionalized biography of screenwriter (and actor) Adrian Schiop, the story follows the two lovers as they move from friendship to lust to love, but it’s when things start to turn sour that the movie really has something to say. The cultural, ethnic, and economic power dynamics become unmistakable as we glimpse a side of Romania we don’t often consider.

 

TIFF: Black Kite

blackkite_tiff2017.pngAfghanistan is the last place I’d expect to find a kid flying a kite. After watching Black Kite and seeing kites be such a prominent part of life, bringing a tiny bit of joy to those who are trapped in this war-torn land, it seems strange that I ever had a presumption on kites one way or the other.  The smallest of assumptions, something taken for granted without basis, led me to think I knew more about another’s circumstances than I do.  Being wrong about kites reminded me that actually, I know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to live in Afghanistan!  I have Black Kite’s writer/director Tarique Qayumi, a Canadian who came from Afghanistan as an eight-year old refugee, for brilliantly and effortlessly challenging my preconceptions.

Black Kite follows Arian, an Afghan man who has been captured by the Taliban and convicted of the highest crime.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Arian came to be imprisoned and sentenced to death.  Kites feature prominently in his story, from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood.  There’s a remarkable contrast between the bright coloured kites and Arian’s drab, washed out existence, not only in the prison but throughout most of his life as Afghanistan is oppressed by one ruling body after another.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots of the desert and sky, and some very poignant animation that conveys a lot about what these kites represent: freedom, a means of expression and communication, and a marker of milestones in a man’s life, both good and bad.

Another assumption that Black Kite dispels is that freedom is free.  Freedom is a foreign concept for Arian, not the inherent right that I treat it as.  Arian and his family constantly live in fear, under the boot of one regime or another, with seemingly arbitrary rules that have the sole purpose of keeping them down. The rulers may change but the rules remain more or less the same, so Arian and his compatriots are denied even the simplest pleasures.  It hurts to experience these denials second hand, making the first hand experience all the more difficult for my privileged mind to imagine.

Black Kite is a wonderful film and a timely one.  It showed me how much can be stripped away from individuals, and reminded me that the little freedoms are as important as the big ones.  If those little freedoms were preserved for all, this small world would be a much better place.  There is no easy solution but we should spend our energy searching for ways to help people less fortunate than us.  Instead, we spend our time arguing over how many refugees we should accept from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, places where every day could be your last and little freedoms, like flying a kite, cannot ever be taken for granted.

By the way, the answer to how many refugees we should accept is: as many as we can fit.  And we’ve got plenty of room.

Invisible

Director Pablo Giorgelli has it in for us. His protagonist, Ely, is a marginalized teenaged girl who finds herself pregnant by  the adult, married son of her after-school employer. She’s brilliantly played  by Mora Arenillas, no small accomplishment because much of what is conveyed is done in total silence. Arenillas must constantly reach into her bag of tricks in order to portray the insight and the mental toughness, and the resilence shown by her character.

For his part, Giorgelli sets his gaze upon the social margins of Argentina with a sparse aesthetic that will test your limits. He likes agonizingly long, silent shots in which we contemplate our heroine as she stares out the window of a moving bus [which, by the 35482-invisible__2_way, why do movies always make this seem so peaceful? If you’ve ever rested your forehead on a bus window in real life, you’ll know it feels more like going through the wash with a bunch of rocks, but whatever, don’t mind my grumbling, that’s neither here nor there]. The point is: looooooooong shots with little to no action, little to no dialogue, little to no plot. The whole movie can be summed up as: She’s pregnant. Oh jeez. How to get an abortion in a country where abortion is illegal? It’s only 87 minutes long but it feels more like 87 hours. Case in point: Sean fell dead asleep.

Invisible is a love letter to spartan film making. Although Ely dominates the screen in almost every shot, the things that remain unseen are as significant. We don’t know much about her home life, and glimpses are enigmatic. Her living situation and long commute suggest poverty but Giorgelli doesn’t rub our noses in it. His lens is sympathetic but we get a sense of her loneliness as she faces the biggest decision of her life.

 There’s no pointed political criticism to the film but Ely’s exploration of the underground abortion scene is chilling. She is so matter of fact, so responsible, it’s easy to forget that Ely is still a young student. The actress is formidable as she bravely, stoically faces down an impossible situation. But as interesting as I found the topic, I couldn’t forgive the long, boring stretches of just watching her mute in her daily routine. It felt stagnant, bled of life, like a carnival ride that pelts you with boredom.

 

 

 

 

Free and Easy

To be honest, it took me a while to adapt to the pace of this movie. It is slow, deliberate, and very measured. There’s no getting ahead of yourself. But the unusual story and glimmers of humour hooked me and I was glad I stuck it out. Free and Easy is genuinely something that feels new and unique.

It’s about a “soap salesman” who never sells a single bar but does encourage people to sniff his product (“a different scent on all 4 sides!”) because doing so induces loss of consciousness. Once his would-be customers are asleep on the ground, he frisks them for money and valuables. So he’s really a thief, posing as a salesman.

1_22_free-and-easy1-676x450Director Geng Jun shows us a side of China rarely seen: crumbling, bleak, all but abandoned. This cold, deserted, post-industrial town in northeastern China is dotted with rural characters, and they’re all as shady as the salesman.

It almost watches like loosely connected vignettes, a series of petty crimes where corruption and lawlessness is the new normal. But whenever these criminals encounter each other, you can’t help but laugh. The humour is deadpan but it landed surprisingly well for a movie that runs the risk of being lost in translation. There’s some slap stick, which I suppose is universal, but really it’s just the contrast between this totally depressing setting and the buffoons that populate it that just works.

The film is minimalist but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of attention to detail poured into each shot. Out-of-focus details often sharpen into the butt of the joke. You have to stay alert to small gifts planted by the director along the way. Sure the subtext of the film is a little depressing, but it’s delivered in such an obliquely funny way, the message presented by sliding it in sideways, that you’ll laugh appreciatively at things that aren’t even overtly funny. In a film full of grifters, it’s the cops who are the dirtiest  of them all. That’s the lens through which contemporary, provincial China is explored in (ironically titled) Free and Easy, and the film stays remarkably on-brand.

A Man Called Ove

There is indeed a man called Ove. He is a crotchety old man who rules his condo tenement with fierce rigidity. He’s aged out of his job and his wife has left him (well, died, but he’s such a grump I can only assume it was purposely, to escape him). I shouldn’t joke; his wife’s grave is the only time and place where he’s a little tender. Does he list her a litany of complaints? Of course he does. But only because the world’s gone to MV5BNTgzNDcxYzEtZDljOC00NDZmLTk2ZTAtOTVhM2Y1MWI1YzUyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDc2NTEzMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1581,1000_AL_shit without her. The only reason he hasn’t committed suicide yet is the damn neighbours, who need constant monitoring and discipline, and who else would take it upon themselves to mete it out?

It turns out that Ove has had a pretty interesting life. It’s just that no one knows it because he isolates himself, sequestered in a condo that’s still a shrine to his dead wife. It’s only because some boisterous, needy new neighbors draw him out against his will that we learn the ups and downs that have contributed to his current thorny state. If you’re feeling like this sounds a little sentimental, well, it is. But it stays just shy of saccharine thanks to a nuanced performance by Rolf Lassgård in the title role. He never lets Ove go full-martyr, he keeps the role alive and flawed and beautiful. Ove’s may not exactly be a unique character arc, but it’s charmingly irresistible in Lassgård’s hands.

The film is a little predictable but so sweetly executed that I’m finding it hard to fault it. It’s surprisingly funny at times, mixing genres fairly deftly, making for a lovely, bittersweet, and humane character study that’s a pleasure to watch.

 

Tunnel

On his way to his young daughter’s birthday party, a man becomes trapped in his car as a tunnel collapses around him. There’s no telling when or if help with arrive, and all he’s got are 2 bottles of water and a birthday cake to see him through. His wife finds out in the worst way imaginable and the Korean news is pretty ruthless in reporting the failure of a newly-built piece of infrastructure. The damage is so encompassing that the rescue will be a long-term affair and there’s no guarantee that a little water and cake will be enough to keep him alive until help arrives. Of course, that’s not even considering whether the panic and isolation might get him first – or if the poorly and hastily constructed tunnel might further deteriorate.

Jung-soo (Jung-woo Ha) is the man in the tunnel so of course this movie is his. As blunders delay the rescue and the national media loses interest, this poor guy is as alone fullsizephoto731941on this earth as anyone will ever be. He isn’t just going through a physical hardship, but a psychological one as well. Occasional glimpses of the rescue effort reminds us just how bleak his situation really is. Dae-kyoung (Dal-su Oh) is the only member of the rescue team truly dedicated to Jung-soo’s survival. Politicans are turning their backs and resources are drying up – are being redirected, in fact, to the construction of yet another tunnel. Meanwhile, Jung-soo’s wife, Se-hyun (Doona Bae) treads the fine line between hope and realism. This trio of actors give very fine performances. Tunnel ends up being more character-driven than action movie, and that’s a good thing. When the script demands it, the visual effects are there, but it’s Jung-woo Ha and co-stars who drive the story forward. It’s a story we’ve seen and heard before but writer-director Kim Seong-hun injects this with satirical elements that bring renewed interest to the genre.

Tunnel is perhaps overlong and could have benefited from some fat-trimming but I still really enjoyed it. It’s got some juicily angry scenes (Kim Seong-hun obviously has something to say about bureaucracy in general and his nation’s government in particular) and some surprisingly dark humour. You might not expect to chuckle through a disaster flick, but this one’s got a little bit of everything.