The Chicago International Film Festival ends another year tonight with its 7 pm screening of the The Debt, starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. I ended my Film Festival experience earlier this week with the last of my dozen films – below are my impressions on the last four films I saw. See you all next year for another remarkable film-viewing experience!
The Housemaid/Hanyo (South Korea) – A remake of a classic Korean film from the 1960s, Im Sang-soo’s Cannes stunner is the best film I saw at this year’s Festival. A young woman takes a job as a nanny to a wealthy family and strikes up an affair with the husband (the mega-hotness that is Lee Jung-jae), which of course pits her against the pregnant wife and her conniving mother. Standing over them all, playing all sides, observing every single betrayal, is the bitter, long-time housekeeper (Youn Yuh-Jung, magnificent in an emotionally complex performance, one of the best I’ve seen this year). Histrionic, outsized, dealing in gargantuan emotions, the film, though, makes shrewd and biting observations on Korean feminist politics, class warfare, and Western cultural adoption (I love the fact that the husband plays Beethoven every morning before breakfast). The female characters are always jockeying for and exercising control, subtly, determinedly, and at times menacingly, over this family (it’s interesting that Lee’s character is the sole male character in the film, and he is portrayed as primarily a sex hound and an above-average pianist). I particularly love Youn’s omnipresent housekeeper- angry at being subservient to her rich employers, she, nevertheless, uses them to elevate her status in a highly socially-stratified society (the mother-in-law pulled strings to have the housekeeper’s son appointed as a government prosecutor, an important, seemingly lucrative job that requires connections and patrons), and is both grateful and hateful at the same time. The settings are stunningly opulent, and wonderfully evoke the lifestyle of the Korean upper class, but Im’s masterful directorial technique, full of rigid, formalized images, indicative of the class strictures and protocol in such a status-conscious society, is just breathtaking. The wacky epilogue is perplexing but memorable.
Erratum (Poland) – Hands down, the worst film I saw in the year’s Festival, and come to think of it, in the past few Festivals. What I initially thought was going to be a Twin Peaks meets Bela Tarr artsy mystery in the Polish countryside (thanks to the Festival’s crackerjack festival catalog writing crew who seems to have a way of making films sound much better than they are) turns out to be as artsy, as mysterious, and as interesting as a Jiffy Lube oil change. A man, on an errand in his hometown for his boss, inadvertently runs down a homeless guy, and he decides to stay in town long enough to get his car repaired, the police investigation closed, and old, festering wounds with his father and his best friend re-opened. The screenplay is a headscratcher: why is the guy drawn to unearth the homeless victim’s past? Why does he have so much animosity towards his father? Why did he leave the town in the first place? What the heck is this movie doing other than serving as an alternative to Lunesta for its film-weary audience? Director Marek Lechki has a strong visual eye for composing beautiful, memorable, but ultimately empty images. Polish actor Tomasz Kot is hot in a young (before those cell-phone pics!) Brett Favre kind of way, but gives a performance so stoic and monotonous, the only thing I could think about while I was watching him, was, man, wearing that same undershirt for five days straight kinda really, literally, stinks!
R U There (Netherlands) – I’ve used the virtual technology, Second Life, in my day job to attend global conferences (in which I unsuccessfully tried to make my avatar into a strapping, 6’2, blonde hunk in a tight muscle tee), so I was curious to see David Verbeek’s film, shown at the Cannes sidebar, Un Certain Regard, earlier this year. The film is about a competitive gamer, in Taipei for a gaming convention, who meets a Taiwanese “hostess” (whatever that means the film doesn’t really make very clear), and emotionally connects with her in the Second Life virtual world, but is socially awkward and inarticulate with her in the real one. It’s an interesting concept, but very lightweight and not really that insightful. People’s online selves are different from their real ones (and as a jaded veteran of online dating sites, I’d say also their height, weight, age, hair color, ability to carry a conversation, and, ahem, select body part measurements), so tell me something I don’t know, right? After Avatar, any animated technology will look low-rent, so the Second Life scenes, for me, are less interesting than the real-world ones. Unfortunately, the real-world scenes are broad, shallow sketches rather than fully-fleshed out ones, so nothing really sticks after you see the film. The two leads are very attractive, but their characters aren’t multi-dimensional.
The Days of Desire/A Vagyakozas Napjai (Hungary) – This is another one of those moody, atmospheric Eastern European films with pretensions to saying something profound, which unfortunately is still stuck in the filmmaker’s head. Jozsef Pacskovszky’s drama about a dysfunctional married couple who hires a mute housekeeper and then starts treating her like their dead daughter is beautiful to look at, but again, is inarticulate and hollow. The maid falls in love with a grocery store clerk who immediately dumps her when he finds out she’s just the maid and not the daughter of the wealthy couple. I thought there was a missed opportunity in the film to reflect on contemporary Hungarian twentysomethings’ changing values (more materialistic, more status-conscious, less tied to the recent memories of Hungary’s past), and when I asked Pacskovszky about it in the Director’s Q and A right after the screening, he looked like I was giving him an enema instead of asking a pretty valid, thought-provoking question. Seriously.