Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

Big Saturday program, so let's get straight to the movies:

First up, a Hong Kong romantic comedy about smokers, LOVE IN A PUFF. This isn't actually in the movie, but it brought to mind a statement by Nobel Prize winning physicist (and one of my personal heroes) Richard Feynman, who said that if he could save one sentence about physics to pass down to a civilization that lost all of our scientific knowledge, it would be this: The world is made up of particles that attract each other from a distance but when they get very close they change to repelling each other. LOVE IN A PUFF makes the same statement about humans. It's well made and very funny. It shows how strict laws about no-smoking zones actually bring smokers together when their backgrounds and professions usually wouldn't. However, when everyone has a lit fire a few inches from your mouth, there's only so close you can get without getting burned. Smokers are by nature friendly (at least with each other) but always playing it cool. A parallel is shown with texting--a technology that brings people somewhat together while keeping them at a distance just short of intimacy.

It's in this environment that we meet Johnny and Cheri. There's a pretty immediate attraction, but they're both holding back. Johnny just broke up (his girlfriend was cheating with a French diplomat) and Cheri is in a stale relationship. At one point, she describes how an ex once gave up smoking because he left her for a non-smoker. She explains that she hasn't found a reason to quit, and when you know she's asthmatic you realize that line really means she hasn't found a reason to live. As her and Johnny's friendship grows to the verge of something more, it's clear that he will eventually provide her with a reason. While their ultimate pairing is predictable, the story of how they got there, complete with all the foibles of casual relationships, is a joy to watch unfold.

The next show started with the short PROTOPARTICLES. Our hero is a walking spacesuit. While he goes through the most mundane daily tasks, he explains how he he got that way. An experiment with tachyons turned him into "protomatter" retaining his consciousness but not his physical form. The protomatter was contained I his spacesuit, however. The experiment also sent him 96 years in the past and made him immortal, so he's just biding his time until he can share the greatest secret in the universe with the scientists who did this to him. Regular readers know what a time-travel geek I am, so it's no surprise I loved this smartly simple short.

That short was the lead-in for A USEFUL LIFE, the story of the struggling Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo. Shot in beautiful black and white, reminiscent of the classic old films that play there, it tells the fictional story of Jorge, who has worked there for decades. He programs series, does a radio show, repairs equipment, and chats with the small but loyal group of patrons.But the Cinemateca is a relic--outdated, falling apart, and simply not economically viable. So it's losing its support, and he's losing the thing that brought meaning to his life. It's full of wonderful deadpan humor (the classroom scene alone is brilliant). And despite what the rest of the world might think, it definitely shows a life of viewing, exhibiting, and studying films is useful (so of course it goes over well at a film fest).

Next up was ASLEEP IN THE SUN, which I instantly tweeted might be my favorite of the festival. That's always a very dynamic distinction, and can easily change (I don't really know what sticks with me until a few weeks later), but I will say it impressed me enough that I bought the book it's based on right away.

The story is about Lucio and Diana. He's an unemployed watchmaker, she's his mildly crazy wife. She's had treatments before, but still has episodes, particularly dealing with talking dogs. More or less their life is nice, though, living in a pleasant part of 1950's Buenos Aires. But a family friend recommends a doctor who can really cure her, they go to him and then things get weird. She's taken away for treatment where he can't visit her, and when she returns she's beyond "cured," she's a completely different person. Lucio investigates and his life turns into a surreal nightmare. The hospital and the actor playing the doctor are wonderfully comically creepy (oh yeah, important thing about the movie--it's subtly funny), and the atmosphere builds and builds. Although there are plenty of hints as to what's going on, the mystery is so delicious that it's kind of a letdown when it's explained at the end. Great movie.

Oh yeah, and it barely kept the festival pregnancy theme alive as there's a quick reference to a neighbor who is pregnant. However, the next film, END OF ANIMAL, definitely keeps the theme alive. In fact, the main character is a pregnant teenager, Soon-young. She's taking a taxi to her mother's house, when a strange young man flags down the taxi and hops on board, sharing the ride. He starts talking to her and to the driver, and it becomes clear that he knows everything about them. Not just that he's been stalking them, like he has supernatural knowledge, both of their past and future. A future that will very quickly contain a blinding white flash, followed by darkness and nothing that depends on electricity will work (most importantly cars and cell phones). He predicts it, counts down, and it happens. It's hard to tell if this supernatural man is benevolent, malevolent, or just chaotic. He reappears at convenient times, and at one time he refers to himself as God before saying he's just kidding. What is clear is that Soon-young is in for a torturous night. She eschews advice (both from the taxi driver and the supernatural man) to stay in the car, and things go from bad to worse. First time feature director Jo Sung-hee made this film with a graduate grant from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, and he throws so much in the movie that just when you think you have a handle on what it's about, it slips through your fingers again. I can't tell you what it all amounts to, but I loved it, I'd welcome an opportunity to re-watch it, and I want to see what he makes next.

And then I had to run to the next theater for the late show screening of Takeshi Kitano's highly anticipated return to the gangster genre, OUTRAGE. I couldn't begin to describe the twists and turns in yakuza politics, but it's a brilliantly psychotic story of escalating violence. It all starts when one low-level yakuza family boss becomes friends--in fact, brothers--with a rival while in prison. The chairman doesn't like this, so despite their friendship they have to make a show of hostilities--really just a formality. But the underling sent to do the job, Otomo (Kitano), sends a bit too harsh of a message. He's an effective enforcer, but subtlety is not his style (nor is dentistry, but you have to see the movie to get that). And as the old adage goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, for the yakuza everyone has their own angles and their only tool is violence. Fingers are cut off as apologetic tributes, and rivals (who are more often then not former friends) are executed in increasingly creative ways, leaving very few people standing at the end. Pretty awesome.

Total Running Time: 483 minutes
My Total Minutes: 234,248

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