AFI Fest 2010
No such thing as a free lunch, but how about a free festival?

For the second year running, The American Film Institute has provided Los Angeles with the world’s largest free film festival. In a city rich in cinema history and packed with venues screening cinematic delights from every country on the globe daily, Los Angeles is one of the last cities to deserve such a rare treat, yet once again, you’ll find no one complaining. With a lineup that ranged from the obscure to the hotly anticipated, the low-budget domestics to enigmatic global fare, and with enough variety to please both the art house and mainstream crowds, this year’s AFI Fest almost singlehandedly makes it worth trudging through the shitty traffic; it’s even made this East Coast transplant proud to be an Angelino, if only for a week.

While I was unfortunately unable to dig into the festival’s delights as deeply as I would have liked, I managed to make efficient use of the time taking in a Palme D’Or winner, two Hong Sang-soo films (topped off with an hilariously deadpan and endearingly unrevealing Q&A), the new Godard, and a special screening of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. AFI really outdid themselves this year.

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Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

Most often compared to French New Wave pioneer Eric Rohmer, Hong Sang-soo has spent his career mining the minutiae of human relationships, specifically their entanglement with memory and perception. Hahaha continues down this path with, as the title clearly suggests, an extremely funny, yet still sobering bend. As two men trade stories with one another, the past comes alive through their overlapping memories (often containing the same characters at around the same time as each other), while the present unfolds in black-and-white stills. As we have come to expect from Hong, there are insecure males, indecisive women, and a whole lot of alcohol consumed, but Hahaha finds the master refining his humor and irony, showing himself equally adept at lighthearted comedy and dark emotional currents. Juxtaposed against one another, Hahaha is an unsettling, uncomfortable, yet delightfully warm-hearted examination of the never-ending struggle to relate to the opposite sex as well as ourselves.

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Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

Divided into four equal yet distinct segments that examine the relationships between Oki and her two lovers — one a bumbling young student, the other a successful film director and professor — Oki’s Movie continues Hong’s obsession of individual representation and perception that he so perfectly captured in Hahaha. While lacking the subtlety of his prior film, Oki’s Movie is not without its charm and all three characters themselves being film directors explicitly aids its thematic concern with the struggle between the ways we represent ourselves and the ways we truly behave. Unfortunately, the disjointed final segment, a stylistic departure from the previous three, hits the thematic nail a bit too directly on the head, damaging what is otherwise another solid entry in the director’s canon. Still, even Hong’s minor films demand a viewing and this is no different.

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Boy (Taika Waititi, 2010)

It wouldn’t be a film festival without a dose of family-friendly indie quirk and, in that department, Boy delivers in spades. Making Napoleon Dynamite appear restrained by comparison, Boy mindlessly trots out all of the firmly established clichés of the little sub-genre that could — 80s setting (replete with retro outfits and non-stop Michael Jackson references); overly cute, yet oh-so-hip soundtrack; friendly farm animals; and a weightless plot given unearned weight in the final act. The end result comes across as little more than an expansion of a half-page treatment — father gets out of jail, comes home to his admiring son, and hijinks ensue as the father searches for his long-buried treasure and the son learns his dad’s not all he thought he was. It’s surprisingly off-putting, coming dangerously close to romanticizing poverty by transforming the family’s rundown home into a junkyard Neverland of self-sufficient kids with no need of negligent or absent parents. This immature simple-mindedness renders all of the film’s dark undertones null and void, and as such, there is rarely a moment that doesn’t come off as exceedingly phony or forced. In an attempt to be democratic, I should note that this won the World Cinema Audience Award, so take that for what you will.

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The Housemaid (Ki-young Kim, 1960) / The Housemaid (Im Sang-Soo, 2010)

For its 50th anniversary, AFI gave The Housemaid, widely considered one of the greatest Korean films ever made, a nice treatment, screening it as the first of a double feature that also included Im Sang-Soo’s modernized remake. The original is remarkably strange, both gothic in nature yet surprisingly intimate, the family and the housemaid stuck in cramped confines that make her increasing desperation all the more terrifying and palpable. The film focuses on a working-class Korean family that, because of their additional living space, must hire a housemaid, despite barely having the money to afford her. The housemaid herself is something of an enigma, at least slightly mentally disturbed and naïve to a fault, so her enticing the husband to sleep with her and her subsequent attempts to steal him away from his wife are always somewhat shrouded in mystery. Kim manages the remarkable task of making every character, even the children, both an undeserving victim and a conniving bastard. It is an unsettling examination of Korean family dynamics that, despite its uniqueness, still retains a universal appeal.

Im Sang-soo’s remake makes a number of interesting changes — it adds a mother-in-law character and makes the family rich, thus shifting the commentary from familial to class — but loses much of the original’s moral ambiguity by presenting the housemaid as the clear victim of a cruel, manipulative rich family. Im tries to temper this by making the daughter (there was no son and here she was an adorable little doll rather than the crippled girl in the original) sympathetic towards the housemaid, but the deck is clearly stacked on the side of the housemaid. It’s beautifully shot, but not as strangely disturbing as the original, and while it effectively sticks the knife into upper-class mores, it certainly has a been-there, done-that feel to it that the former does not.

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Leaving his traditionally bifurcated structures behind, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul plunges even further into the realm of tropical surrealism, tapping into parallel realities and past lives with a delicate restraint that is all his own. Sure, there’s a talking catfish and laser-eyed monkey ghosts (seriously, there are), but these are fantastical only in theory. Onscreen, these abstractions are merely an extension of the mundane reality of Uncle Boonmee slowly fading from existence. The tropical setting once again provides a perfect location for Weerasethakul’s melding of animism and the mystical, the material and the spiritual, and the ordinary with the otherworldly. Boonmee operates on its own internal logic, modestly inviting the viewer to enter into its world on its own terms, never guiding with any sign of traditional narrative structure. Instead, Weerasethakul blurs the line between the past and present, living and dead, and man and nature to achieve a remarkably spirituality that retains its quixotic, enigmatic form while quite touchingly dealing with the universal themes of death and lost love.

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Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

If you’ve been waiting for Abbas Kiarostami to make a European art film, the wait is over. Stylistically, Certified Copy sticks out in the Kiarostami canon like a sore thumb, yet it continues the directors fascination with the truth/fiction dichotomy, here containing a remarkably bold shift in character relationship halfway through the film. Juliette Binoche is her typically stunning self and she plays perfectly into Kiarostami’s hands, never missing a beat as the film transitions from discussing notions of the original and the copy to an outright narrative experiment of those very ideas. Leaving behind the static and locked-on-vehicle shots that define many of his works, Kiarostami adopts a lush visual scheme and almost lighthearted tone that provides levity to a remarkably demanding work, one that’s as playfully deceptive and cunning as anything the director has made before.

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Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010)

Outrage, Takeshi Kitano’s return to the yakuza film, fails to disappoint, offering the director’s trademark explosive violence and deadpan humor in a taut, thrilling, and comic tale about the hopelessly insular and absurd traditions of the gangster world. The first act is absolute dynamite, with its increasingly hysterical injuries, both delivered and self-afflicted, downward spiral of revenge and senseless adherence to a moral code that even the yakuza bosses can’t agree on. It is a remarkable 30 minutes that simultaneously mocks and deconstructs the yakuza — so good, in fact, that the rest of the film simply cannot match up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still wonderfully entertaining, and it takes the first act’s thematic thread line to its logical conclusion, but it lacks the efficiency and momentum that comes before it. An unfortunately awkward subplot with an African diplomat drags the film down nearly every time it comes up, but Kitano’s deft handling of violence, both in its effect on the viewer and as a commentary on the twisted code of the yakuza, is more than enough to keep Outrage fascinating to the very end.

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Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

Jacques Tati, perhaps the greatest of comic directors, made films that demand to be seen on the big screen — his use of space, framing, and perspective require such a scope to truly appreciate the near-obsessive attention to the smallest of details. So, of course, I made Mon Oncle a priority as soon as it was announced, having loved it on DVD, though not to the level of Trafic, Parade or Playtime (whose 70mm experience is as mind-blowing as 2001: A Space Odyssey). Capturing sides of Paris long extinct, Mon Oncle remains an interesting transition between Tati’s lighter, free-flowing earlier films and his later, more harshly satirical ones. The Paris of the film is itself in transition, still retaining the countless charming cafés and communal spirit, while the inevitable encroachment of Westernization and mechanization slowly threaten to wipe all that charm away. Yet, even amidst the absurdity of Monsieur Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law’s techno-crazy house, Tati, as always, exhibits warmth and compassion, locating comedy in relatively banal situations. And as technology wins this decidedly one-sided battle, Mon Oncle proudly celebrates the follies and absurdities that make us human.

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Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010)

As a longtime defender of the post-Weekend Godard filmography, it pains me to have to publicly express my dislike of his most recent work. Although, as with most of his recent output, Film Socialism requires at least a second viewing to attempt to take on the mass of political and historical references that JLG rapidly tosses out in a mere 95 minutes. So perhaps I should simply say that where his previous two films — In Praise of Love, an astounding and criminally underrated masterpiece, and Notre Musique, which at the very least had one of the best extended montages of the past decade — inspired the desire to investigate further, Film Socialism was a source of pure frustration. I have often found myself flustered by those who dismiss much of his output since the late 60s because of its impenetrability, but here I feel their pain. Unsurprisingly, the film features some wonderful digital cinematography, but I have to swallow my pride here and say that JLG lost me with Film Socialism.

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Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

With Poetry, Lee Chang-dong once again gets a brilliant performance out of his female lead, this time from Jeong-hee Yoon as a grandmother who must come to terms with both her grandson’s heinous act (he took part in the continual raping of a classmate who later committed suicide) and the callousness of the world. Lee’s subdued approach gives ample time for Yoon’s graceful transition, as she takes on the seemingly simple task of writing a single poem — a task that parallels her expanding perspective and absorption in both the beauty and ugliness around her. The setup seems almost too simple, but its acute portrayal of human behavior and grounded representation of reality and the evil lurking within it make Poetry a slow-burning film that accumulates emotional power as it goes along, packing a mighty punch with a finale that, on the surface, seems like a minor act, but is actually a sign of how far Yoon’s character has come.

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