2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Final Entry

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chi film fest dust on the tongueThe 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival ended last night with the screening of Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar hopeful, Wild. With the marked improvement in both audience experience and programming over the years since I first started attending in 1999, I think we can happily expect another 50 years of this essential Chicago cultural event. Here are my thoughts on the final set of films I saw this year.

Camera (Hong Kong/Singapore) – Acclaimed Singaporean documentary filmmaker James Leong makes his narrative film debut with Camera, set in a futuristic Hong Kong in which surveillance cameras are everywhere.  A taciturn young man gets his eye replaced with a digital one that acts as a video camera and recorder, which turns out to be pretty helpful in his profession as a low-level blackmailer. Stylishly, sleekly, sharply photographed and edited, the film is a train wreck because of an incoherent script that can’t be glossed over by all the fancy-schmancy jump cuts, mood filters, and angled shots.  How did this guy, Ming, end up as a blackmailer and what motivates him other than earn enough money to get his bad eye replaced with a technologically-advanced one?  Can a retired eye doctor living in an aging, crumbling house perform such a sophisticated, life-threatening eye operation? What is driving the movie’s bad guy, the millionaire owner of a surveillance firm? And given the scenes preceding it, can you actually believe the plot twist that the bad guy has a connection to Ming’s past? Does anyone care what happens in this movie?  The script provides no context to characters’ actions and decisions, so the story just strains credulity in some parts and creates confusion in others.  I haven’t seen any of Leong’s well-received documentaries, but Camera feels like it could have been directed by the in-house director of an advertising agency, not necessarily by an award-winning film director. And the film isn’t helped by the listless acting in which the entire cast comes across as if they’re just mouthing the words from a script they received the day of shooting, lacking any emotional honesty or insight.

Titli (India) – This is a tough one. For most of Titli’s two hours and seven minutes running time, I was gripped by director Kanu Behl’s masterful storytelling: Titli is a young man in New Delhi constantly plotting to escape the violent, criminal lifestyle of his family of small-potatoes thieves.  The movie is fast-paced and unflinching, packed with tightly-shot scenes of New Delhi’s urban setting and vivid portrayals of the rapacious, desperate, sometimes morally-frigid lives it creates. Thinking that their crime business will prosper more with a female as part of their band of robbers, Titli’s brothers arrange a wedding with a young woman who happens to be the mistress of one of the city’s top real-estate businessmen. Things become very complicated after that.  Behl impressively evokes a corrupt, pessimistic world throughout and makes you believe in it, so much so that when the last half hour of the movie comes along and it turns from dark to hopeful, you can’t stop yourself from thinking you’ve been suckered.  I get it – he wants the film to end with redemption and hope, but it feels so tacked on and inconsistent with the morally bankrupt, hopeless milieu he created previously (even Titli, although his wife calls him “a good guy” doesn’t hesitate to beat her up when she refuses to participate in a crime and break her wrist in order to get her to sign over her savings to him instead of his brothers).  The actors are all excellent and believable, so the final sequence feels all that more awkward.

Dust on the Tongue (Colombia) – Along with Next to Her, which I wrote about in my previous film fest post, Dust on the Tongue was one of the two best films I saw in this year’s festival. And just like Next to Her, this film was an unexpected surprise. A cruel, brutal old man, Don Silvio, travels to the remote provinces of Colombia with his two twenty-something grandchildren whom he constantly insults, ostensibly to scatter his dead wife’s ashes on their farm. Along the way, Don Silvio offers to give the two all the land that he owns if they would kill him and let his body float down the river.  It’s an interesting premise that leads to richly-evoked meditations on aging, forgiveness among families wracked by parent-children conflicts, the generational differences between Colombians (Unlike Don Silvio who has been kidnapped three times by the Colombian rebels and outwitted them every time, the grandchildren are portrayed as “starving artists” with no survival skills, putting the citizenship of the country’s future into subtle doubt), and the nature of Colombia’s patriarchal society, where men can be violent, vicious, and misogynistic and yet be given a pass because they’re just being men. Director Ruben Mendoza, who also wrote the impressively layered screenplay, displays a really confident, strong hand, with each scene essential in moving the themes along (even the jarring, stomach-churning scenes of animals being shot or slaughtered, establishing the cruelty of life in that part of Colombia, and the hard-heartedness of its inhabitants).  But Mendoza is greatly assisted by his cast, some of them non-professionals from the region who give such natural, inhabited performances.  Especially towering is Jairo Salcedo making his film debut as Don Julio (according to Mendoza during the Q and A that followed the screening, Salcedo is a neighbor of his mother’s) who is monstrous yet sympathetic, infuriating yet haunting. It’s a performance that you keep thinking about for several days after seeing the film.

Futuro Beach (Brazil/Germany) –  Karim Ainouz’s beautifully photographed film about the trajectory of a gay love affair between a Brazilian life guard and a German military veteran/motocross rider occupies the festival spot of “broodingly, self-consciously arty film festival entry”.  Seems like Ainouz was following a checklist of things that are traditionally found in a film festival type piece (Futuro Beach played in competition at Berlin). Is there a clearly-defined and differentiated narrative structure? Check.  The film is divided into three parts with each even introduced by a title card: the first part is set in Fortaleza, Brazil when Donato, the lifeguard, fails to save the drowning friend of Konrad.  Drowning and grieving aside, Donato and Konrad immediately get down to some dirty business in the lifeguard’s car. The second part is set in Berlin, where Donato visits Konrad and then decides to stay in Germany instead of returning to Brazil. The third part occurs several years later still in Berlin – Donato and Konrad have consciously uncoupled, the lifeguard is now a maintenance man in the city aquarium (get it? He can’t leave the memory of Fortaleza’s Futuro Beach behind) and has a new, immigrant life, and his brother Ayrton, who we see as a precocious 10 year old in the first chapter, is now an angry young man who has tracked down the brother who abandoned him and their mother years before.  Are glorious shots of warm, vivid Fortaleza contrasted with moody shots of chilly, greyish Berlin, all carefully composed and stylishly photographed? Yep. Are there titillating love scenes between the two lead actors with just enough artistically shot male full-frontal nudity? Hmmm…a resounding yes from this gay boy.  Is everything oh so predictable (you know Donato and Ayrton will ultimately bond and reconcile on a, yep, beach) and intellectually honorable without any fiery engagement with the audience? Unfortunately yes.  The film though is saved by the thoughtful performances of the two sexy, attractive leads. Clemens Schick impressively taps Konrad’s anger and emotional distance, but also demonstrates the vulnerability he is capable of when he’s around someone he is in love with. The dreamy Wagner Maura is especially effective as Donato – warm and optimistic in the first chapter, he develops into a melancholy yet still emotionally-generous man in the final chapter.

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