Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The 40th Chicago International Film Festival 2004 - Part 1

Film Fests are exciting and yet strange. They change the context of viewing a film. You feel a pull to start judging a film by different standards, because many of the films haven't been picked up for commercial release. You start to focus on the art more than on the entertainment, and film can start to feel more like, say, poetry does, or painting. Here are some initial thoughts on the first two films I've seen at the Chicago International Film Festival:

Right Now (A Tout de Suite) by Jacquot Benoit - From time to time I've thought about an ideal of "pure story," a kind of storytelling that strives for no special meaning and uses no special rhetorical devices. For me Right Now is a pretty good example of "pure" storytelling, for better and for worse. The only agenda of the filmmaker seems to be surprise the viewer, and, indeed, the plot took several turns I didn't expect. The first major turn is that a high school girl falls in love with a young man at first site, and after sleeping with him discovers that he's robbed a bank. Inspired by true events, the film feels realistic to an extreme, with only the smallest touches of style (for example, for exterior shots, the film switches to grainy footage with a stock feel, and these shots often feel like chapter breaks). As a result, the film's fairly surprising plot feels believable. On the other hand, the film feels rather empty, and the characters lack depth. A happens, then B happens. Purity can be quite dull. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Nobody Knows - Japanese director Kore-eda's previous features (including Maborosi and Afterlife) have been acclaimed, but I hadn't seen them, but this film, also inspired by real events, justifies the reputation. It's a long film, but to be specific about its quality of time let me say that it's never boring, but sometimes it's tedious, just a bit. It's meant to be. The story concerns children who have been left alone by their mother in an apartment in Tokyo, having been trained to hide their existence from the neighbors and the landlords. They expect their mother back any day, but the days pass. I could have just said "abandoned," but that shorthand term fails to evoke the experience which this director has so brilliantly taken pains to convey in all its particulars, so grounded in details that it felt like a documentary at times (but never looked bad, the way documentaries do on the big screen). So if the film makes you feel impatience, it's because it's important to feel a bit of what the characters are suffering. The emotional experience of the film is also complex. While it's intensely sad, it's never cathartic. The director chooses not to resolve the film in a way that lets us feel secure about the kids. The saddest thought for me was that children might be suffering this kind of fate nearby (in Chicago, it's well-known, they often do) yet I would probably never know and probably couldn't help them. In refusing us a catharsis, the director is clearly urging us to take the story with us out of the theaters. That's when I started fighting back tears--not during the film. There's no tear-triggering moment in the film. Having said that, in order to be honest I should admit that a large part of the director's focus throughout the film is on the individual joys that the children find in their lives--the standard joys of consumption common in a modern economy (a specific brand of chocolate treats that the youngest sister loves), as well as joy in nature and joy in friendship. They suffer patiently, not like saints, but simply because no one has told them their rights, and they have no idea how angry they have a right to be. And our rage does them no good. I was tempted to fault the film for seizing on this story because of its hopelessness, but then I realized that it's not quite true that nobody knows. Quite a few adults in the film know what's going on. At least one of them has even seen it. The shame is that nobody does. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

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