Sunday, September 26, 2010

Poetry, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Of Gods and Men (New York Film Festival)

Yesterday I shouldered one of my largest film loads ever on the second day of the 48th New York Film Festival. It was completely exhausting to say the least. It's not exactly the ideal way to analyze a film, as each film affects the perception of the film after it, and it can be hard to have an equal attention span and open mind for each film.

My first day here (I will return in a couple weeks) was distinctly a Cannes one. I saw three award winners and thus three films of the Official Competition.

The first film I saw was "Poetry," directed by Lee Chang-dong, winner of Best Screenplay at that festival. The best thing about this movie was definitely its lead performance by Jeong-hee Yoon, who I had doubts about in the beginning but who settled very well into the part. She is the nicely costumed Mija, an Alzheimer's patient who's taken on her grandson from his bizarrely absent mother and who has a job assisting a disabled man (who wants sex from her). She also makes time for a poetry class, where she is taught such rudimentary and naïve "wisdom" about the art that I wonder if Chang-dong is doing a slight satire.

While she is observing apples "for the first time," her grandson is feverishly meeting with his friends. She wonders what this is about, as she plays a very inactive role in his life. She soon is plunged straight in, when one of the kids' fathers brings her to a meeting where a bomb is dropped: her grandson was a participant in a gang rape, which lead to the victim committing suicide (which is shown at the beginning of the film). Mija is aghast, but, disturbingly enough, none of the fathers are, who just see it as something to take care of. Mija is the only person to even think about attending the services of the girl and is made by the group to go talk to the mother to reach a settlement ("woman to woman," they say).

The film has a score of problems with it, notably the fact that it's way too long. The film lingers on poetry readings that bring up an interesting thought but have only a minor significance in the plot and could have been slightly cut down. Also able to be cut would be the "Up in the Air"-style, "What is you happiest moment?" monologues, which again serve a very small purpose and one could give the important info in a much-less time-consuming way.

My other big complaint is a lack of resolution. I'm not referring to the ending, which is nicely symmetrical, if a little muddled. I'm talking about the way that the film barely penetrates the psyche of Mija's grandson. He's a disappointingly basic character, relegated to his vessels of television and computer, which may well be the point. But I'm pretty sure I would have liked a little more into him. However, I will give Chang-dong plaudits for leaving Mija (moderately) underexposed (other than as a karaoke singer and as one who apparently attracted the attention of men with her smile). C+

My next screening was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," which garnered the Palme d'Or and also much high praise. Based on a novel called "A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives," Weerasethakul dives into the story that he tipped off in "Tropical Malady." Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, well played) is losing his life to a kidney sickness, spending his last days at his farm with his nephew Tong (Sakda Kawebuadee, who's in other of Weerasethakul's films) and sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). His wife makes an appearance in regular ghost form, as does his son Boonsong, who tramples up the porch steps with his eyes red and in a bizarre costume. Why, you may ask? He's a monkey ghost, having sought them with his camera and then mated with one.

The film is soporific and impenetrable at times, though that's common for a Weerasethakul movie. They require for one to control their "monkey mind," and that can be hard. However, the films also click, and "Boonmee" does. I liked the scenes involving the catfish, the conversation Boonmee has with his wife, and the walk through the fields Boonmee and Jen take with a taste of honey. And even if the film can get a little insufferable, it is nicely shot, sound designed, and set-pieced.

I give Weersethakul the benefit of the doubt in most cases, but the ending, which can be understood on a certain level, and where Joe makes another of his scathing critiques of the profane eroding the sacred, found me very disappointed. I know Joe, and I know he can reach far. "Tropical Malady" and "Syndromes and a Century," however they were flawed, definitely did this (even if they ended similarly abruptly). Even the short that this film was sort of based off of, "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee," is more ambitious. I'm selling the film a little short, though. The ending has some validation to it, and the film that precedes it is good. But if it had taken 20 more minutes to explore something more, it would have been more of the home run that everyone had said it was (though maybe not). It definitely says something about my perception of the film that I was hesitant to buy a T-shirt after the screening. However, I will see this film again (as other critics have done), as that definitely helped with "Tropical Malady." B-

However, I was much more captivated by it than by Xavier Beauvois' Gran Prix winner "Of Gods and Men," which unfortunately came at the end of this long day, when I was not ready for it. I liked the first shots and the last shot, and the cinematography throughout. However, everything else I found extremely dull, perhaps due to the erratic editing. It's so much a "Sony Pictures Classic" that it seems like Michael Barker and Tom Bernard oversaw the production. One thing that must be said about the film is that it is very thought-provoking. However, the thoughts it provokes have nothing to do with the film.

It follows monks in Algeria as their religious routine is disrupted by terrorists. The monks are headed by Christian (Lambert Wilson), who takes long walks in plain clothes and who's actively against fleeing the monastery. We also have bearded Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who's the doctor of the monastery and whose amount of patients steadily increases as the film goes on and the attackers persist, and Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who just wants to leave. Also there's Amedee (Jaques Herlin), who looks like Mike Leigh and plays as the film's constant comic relief, much to my annoyance.

There's a lot of chanting, a lot of roundtable discussions, and a lot of nice camera spreads. That's what I picked up, as, like what happened with "Salt," I disconnected myself. The film probably deserves another look from me, but I'm not exactly looking forward to seeing it again, in its 120 minutes of repetitive boredom (save at the beginning). And with that line, I probably disqualify myself. C

Disclaimer: As Peter Sciretta of /film said, there will be people who like this film a lot.

I will be back for more festival coverage in two weeks, with reviews of "Film Socialisme," "Meek's Cutoff," and the world premiering "Old Cats." I hope a "festival discovery" will be made there, because there weren't really any yesterday.


S. M. Rana said...

I look forward to accompanying you through the NY Festival. So Boonmee was disappointing? Well, Joe is a hard watch and after your comments, I'm likely to let him slip.

Nick Duval said...

Boonmee has indelible bits, but it definitely is Joe's least narratively ambitious film (not counting "Blissfully Yours" or "Mysterious Object at Noon," which I haven't seen), something that really disappointed me. However, it's worth seeing just because it will provoke discussion and because it won the Palme d'Or.

Adelaide Dupont said...

So happy you did see Boonmee even though it might have been disappointing.

Sometimes narrative simplicity/lack of sophistication can make or break a film.

Nick Duval said...

It's not exactly narrative simplicity, but it is cinema you must view with focus.

I would have been fine with it if it hadn't ended way before the seeming arc of the narrative should've. This was a movie that either should have been 2 and half hours or 100 minutes. The fact that it went between those two and just stopped moved the film from a possible B or at the absolute highest B+ to a B-. A second viewing will probably elicit a better grade.