2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Part One

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chi film fest midnight afterI just got through the first weekend of the 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m pleased to report that everything is running like a well-oiled, gently-humming machine. Volunteers are everywhere, lines are orderly, and everyone is just excited to see the films (and after talking to several folks in line, I was surprised at the number of people this year seeing two to four films a day). The most excitement I had was when I was small-talking with a cute volunteer and told him that I’ve been going to the film festival since 1999, to which he casually replied, oh yeah, I was four years old then. Oy! Actually, that deserved another  Oy! Here are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw.

The Owners (Kazakhstan) – I’ve seen many WTF films at the Film Fest over the years, but Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s eccentric critique of current Kazakh society which won raves at Cannes earlier this year safely ranks near the top of the list.  Three siblings return from the city to the countryside to claim their mother’s ancestral home but find out that the town tough guy has seized it for himself and will do anything to keep them away from it, including beating the brothers senseless, getting the elder brother imprisoned for trumped up charges, and unleashing a menagerie of random hoodlums, debt collectors, corrupt police officials, and men in pink, glitter-filled tank tops to terrorize them.  Yerzhanov sharply yet and at times humorously paints Kazakhstan in a harsh light: the police can be bought, the housing bureaucrat is unhelpful and tone-deaf, warlords and their thugs overrun the countryside with their own version of justice and law, bright young people have no aspirations other than to become a movie actor.  Yerzhavov and his cinematographer Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev come up with gorgeously stylized visuals full of killer color combinations which sometimes helpfully distracts us from the perplexing stuff that he throws into the film: a birthday party that is arranged in a Last Supper-like tableaux, a female roadside vendor who has no discernible purpose to the advancement of the plot, and numerous dance numbers awkwardly performed by burly, grimy, off-tempo men (oh where are Derek Hough and Mark Ballas when you need them?!). The extended and brutal final sequence is beautifully shot but ultimately head-scratching.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China) – I was very excited to see this film which had received widespread acclaim in the film festival circuit and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Two hours later as the house lights came on, I turned to my friend Henry and said “This won the top prize at Berlin?”  Director Diao Yinan supposedly spent eight years writing the script; I dread thinking how this movie would have come out if he spent just a year writing it.  I don’t think anyone needs to spend eight years coming up with this hackneyed plot:  detective fails to solve a brutal crime of dismembered body parts being spread around coal mines in a Northern China industrial town; detective hits the skids; five years later, detective re-opens the investigation after meeting the dead man’s mysterious wife at a laundrymat; detective suspects dead man’s wife has, cue ominous musical score, something to do with the death.  And the narrative devices and characterizations are as predictable and tiresome as a Comedy Central roast: of course the detective is seeking redemption; of course the woman is inscrutable yet sensual; of course dead people turn out to be alive and literally kicking (or in this case, skating).  Diao’s evocative depiction of industrial, small-town China is impressive (the brief dance-a-thon at the town hall full of disinterested, beaten-down faces is quite the memorable scene) but he doesn’t fully explore how that milieu plays into the characters’ states of mind.

The Midnight After (Hong Kong) – I’m sure if The Midnight After, Hong Kong cult director Fruit Chan’s audacious, unapologetically wacky take on contemporary Hong Kong culture, was in the Competition section of the Berlin fest instead of the Panorama section, it would have handily beat Black Coal, Thin Ice for the top prize. This film is based on the comic book novel by Pizza (yep, you read that right, a phrase I never thought I would write on this blog) and tells the story of 17 Hong Kong citizens who board a minibus for the outer suburb of Tai Po, and arrive at their destination as the only survivors of a seemingly apocalyptic event that has wiped out the entire country.  Chan uses this absurd premise to riff on the state of Hong Kong society today: from its fraught status as China’s special administrative region (a theme that has striking resonance to the current Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong) to its technology-mad but culture-ignorant youth to its anxiety about being the linchpin for global health crises (the SARS epidemic and the radiation effects of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown are both referenced). And riff is the word because Chan throws in everything but the kitchen sink in order to quickly move from one story thread (story wisp to be exact) to another – from a hilarious karaoke sequence of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to an unforgivingly black comedy take on mob murder to car crashes and mysterious people in hazmat suits and bloody rain and send-ups of Michelin-starred delis and zombie films. I think some people might find this zigzagging approach to filmmaking frustrating, but I think it’s an appropriate evocation of Hong Kong and its people’s deeply-rooted ADD.  Chan’s dazzling and exhilarating shots of Hong Kong, from the electrifying crowdedness of Mongkok’s streets to the wide empty expanse of Tai Po’s highways, are stunners.

Force Majeure (Sweden) – Ruben Ostlund’s contemporary take on the dynamics of family, marriage, and social conventions won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Fest’s Un Certain Regard sidebar competition and has been selected as Sweden’s entry to the Oscar Foreign-Language Film category. The premise is intriguing: a young family on vacation in the Alps encounter what they think is an avalanche hurtling towards then and the parents behave very differently; the mother Ebba throws her body over her two young kids to protect them, the father Tomas runs off with his gloves and I-phone.  The film has lots of interesting discourse on how men and women behave, how parents should behave, the pros and cons of marriage, the vagaries of middle-age, the politics of social roles. Interesting yes, but unfortunately I don’t think they merit a two hour film as Ostlund wrote them. Force Majeure has lots of attractive, smart, worldly people talking…and talking…and talking. At a certain point, you want to shout – enough already, just move on! The film at its core is a slight domestic dramedy, all glossied up with an upwardly-mobile 21st century sophisticated European veneer and breathtaking shots of snow-blanketed mountains.  Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas are both terrific and watchable, creating complex, empathetic characters  (the scene with Kuhnke’s breakdown and Kongsli’s reaction to it is devastating to watch) which seem to belong to a more darkly complicated world than Ostlund has painted.

The Chicago International Film Festival is at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., until October 23. I have more movies to see till then!

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