Chicago International Film Festival, Part III

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terribly-happy-danish-film.jpgOne of the things that differentiates going to the Film Festival from going to the multiplex on an ordinary day is the need to line up prior to getting into the screening. I’m probably crazy-weird (because there are many folks, whom one can easily tag as film festival newbies, who are infuriated about lining up to see a film when they already have their tickets with them), but I love the lines. It’s so fascinating to see what types of folks line up for the quirky American independent film versus the obscure Hungarian film about incestuous shepherds versus the short film collection of, ahem, “intimate”-themed short films. And I think it’s really cool to be asked by random strangers how many festival films have you already gone to, sort of like a shared badge of honor among battle-scarred warriors. Yes, the lines can be a madhouse (as it was for The Wrestler last week and Quiet Chaos this weekend), but it’s an essential film festival experience, sort of like getting jumbotroned is essential at a baseball game! Here are three more films I’ve seen this past week:

24 City (China) – Jia Zhangke, with the films Platform, The World, and Still Life, has sky-rocketed, over the past several years, to the current pantheon of critics and film-festival circuit darlings. His films, often maddeningly obtuse, inaccessible, and elusive, chronicle the impact of modernization, globalization, and changing, sometimes eroding cultural values on contemporary Chinese society. Unfortunately, I think he has reached the lower depths of head-scratching inaccessibility with his acclaimed film 24 City, which played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly, this is a docudrama about the workers in a military equipment factory in Chengdu province that is being torn down to make way for 24 City, a luxury condominium development. The film is told through nine interviews, half of them with real workers from the factory, and another half with actors (one of them is Joan Chen playing a factory worker nicknamed “Little Flower” in honor of Chen’s first film because she supposedly looked like Joan Chen when she was younger – gimmicky, but this episode is actually one of the more moving ones). Well, there are the interviews, but there’s also shots of the city, of various parts of the factory, of equipment being made, of random people incomprehensively posing for the camera, even of a sick woman lashing out from a hospital bed (which suspiciously looked like it belonged to another movie). The film is extremely snail-paced, snooze-inducing, tedious and dragging; I thought I blacked out and needed a defillibrator to revive me! (actually, I just dozed off and dreamt of Ryan Gosling and me, wearing sarongs, in a Bali treehouse, an image more vivid than any Jia Zhangke put onscreen!). I’ve seen more action-packed New Hire Orientation videos than this (and I could have had more fun at a colosnoscopy). Which is a shame, because ultimately, Jia makes provocative insights about the continuing loss of dignity of the Chinese worker due to the country’s rapid ascent to being a global economic power, ironic in a society built on tenets that glorify the worker above all.

Quiet Chaos (Italy) – After 24 City, I was relieved to see a film that had a story with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Although for the most part, this film about a successful executive coping with grief and the reality that he now has to raise his daughter as a single parent after the sudden death of his wife feels like a “Lifetime for middle-aged Italian men” television movie, I think it is well-written, exceptionally well-acted, and subtly and unobtrusively directed. Nanni Moretti, in the lead role, is particularly impressive, working through a whole range of emotions, in an always empathetic manner. I especially like his reactions in the scene when he goes to the mid-morning gossip-and-espresso session with all the other stay-at-home moms from his daughter’s school, a bewildering change from his high-powered corporate executive lifestyle. I also like the way the film treated death and coping with loss- very unsentimentally, clear-eyed, quiet and controlled. And that yummy Alessandro Gassman (famous Italian actor Vittorio Gassman’s son), playing Moretti’s charming playboy brother, should be bottled up and sent as an early Christmas gift to all women and gay men! Speaking of bottled up. there’s a sizzling sex scene between Moretti and his neighbor, a rich married woman, that received some pretty stern, condemning words from the Vatican, which gave the film a lot of notoriety during its Berlin Film Festival premiere. Really? I don’t know what the fuss is all about – obviously the Vatican watch dogs didn’t see Serbis (more on that film in another blog post!).

Terribly Happy (Denmark) – One of the pleasures of the Film Festival is coming across unheralded, little-known, but surprisingly good films from directors you have never heard of, and from countries that you won’t expect would produce such a vibrant, intriguing piece of work. Although it had already won the top prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, there’s been very little ink from film critics devoted to Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz’s Terribly Happy, so much so that it could be categorized as one of the sleepers of this year’s festival. A Copenhagen police officer, who seems to have just recovered from a nervous breakdown, is posted to a remote village, where the inhabitants all look like they arrived for a Twin Peaks-meets-Dogville casting call. Of course something sinister is up in the isolated village, and the barely-mentally-there policeman gets caught up in it. I love the evocative, suspenseful atmosphere, where the simmering, under-the-surface tension feels really palpable. That’s thanks to strong direction, judiciously tight editing, and performances from the supporting roles that are spot-on creations of malice and amorality. I’m not particularly fond of lead actor Jacob Cedergren’s police officer Robert, since most of the time he seems to be either inscrutable or just plain stupid, but as I think about it, his portrayal balances the overall menacing atmosphere and texture of the film, and prevents it from going over-the-top into Grand Guignol teritory. Given the way the suspense had been built up throughout the 110 minutes of the film, I expected more kick and sass in the final twist at the end, but overall, I still think this is one of the must-watch films I have seen in the festival this year.

The Chicago International Film Festival continues till this Wednesday, October 29.  Watch out for my upcoming blog entries on the much-buzzed about Filipino film, Serbis, and on the last three films in my viewing schedule.

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