AFI Fest 2016 A brief but rewarding reprieve from reality

Photo: AFI Fest

Like everything else in 2016, my experience at this year’s AFI Fest was a bit of a bummer. Although not the fault of the fest itself, which was as wonderfully programmed and organized as usual, it just happened to fall during my busiest week of the year, amid escrow hell, packing and moving prep. Fortunately, I was able to carve out enough time to see a handful of films, but sadly not enough to marvel at any unexpected gems or test the waters with films or filmmakers I wasn’t familiar with. I am particularly upset I missed one of TMT’s picks to see, The Lure, which was described to me as something like if Fassbinder directed Tommy as a psychedelic horror film with a body modification motif. So that’s one you may want to keep your eye out for.

Still, despite my paltry sampling of films at this year’s fest, I was able to see new films from Maren Ade, Jim Jarmusch, Hong Sang-soo, and Asghar Farhadi in a single weekend, and that alone is enough to earn AFI my continued admiration.

Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

Maren Ade’s brilliant Everyone Else was a minor revelation seven years ago in the myriad ways it expressed and examined the unspoken disconnection between a couple that was outwardly, if not objectively, happy together. Like many others, I have been waiting these past several years to see whether Ade would confirm her talent or lose her touch, but Toni Erdmann not only establishes her as one of the world’s most incisive purveyors of human behavior, but also one of the funniest and most humane. Describing Toni Erdmann — a film about a daughter caught up in her demanding career as corporate executive and her offbeat, creative and potentially insane father who after an unannounced visit, infiltrates her life under the guise of Toni Erdmann, life coach — doesn’t even begin to capture what it is truly about. It is as silly and entertaining as it is sad and profoundly moving, yet Ade traverses these emotions simultaneously, embedding them in all of her characters, particularly the two leads, whose lifelong bond is conveyed less with words than by glances, pauses, and body language that suggests a complex father-daughter bond that is weathered yet battle-tested and as genuine as it is odd. Ade almost always keeps the audience on its toes, heading in surprising and entirely unexpected directions, including a remarkably tender rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that finally gives us a potential peek back at Ines’ mysterious childhood relationship with her father and an unsettling, hysterical encounter with a Bavarian kukeri during what is surely one of the most unique party scenes in all of cinema. It is tender and melancholy, yet its absurdist twists, played with the straightest face, make it one of the most uniquely rewarding experiences I’ve had at the movies all year. This one is pretty special and is absolutely deserving of all the hype.

Yourself and Yours (dir. Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo switches gears from the bifurcated structure of much of his earlier work, including the wonderful Right Now, Wrong Then, also released this year, opting for a light surrealist touch that gives this film a sort of enigmatic mundanity that is magical and mysterious yet still deeply rooted in reality. Hong claims the film was inspired by Luis Bunuel’s final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, and while the lead female part is not played by two different women as it was in Bunuel’s, the fluid nature of femininity and the oppressive, objectifying weight of the male gaze and all the expectations that implies are subtly and thoughtfully explored through the conceit of a main character who may or may not have a twin. Hong’s heroine, Minjung, refuses to be defined or restricted by the social norms that surround her femininity, yet in coyly veiling her identity/identities, the audience becomes equally culpable in our own potential judgments and condemnations towards her possible infidelities. Yourself and Yours is another delightfully charming comedy from the Korean master whose lightness of touch never belies the emotional depth lurking beneath the surface.

The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Over the past decade, Asghar Farhadi has established himself as one of the strongest writers out there and a director with a remarkable empathy for all his characters and the unsettling situations they find themselves in. Returning to the theme of couples in crisis that he mastered so perfectly with A Separation and slightly less so with The Past, The Salesman once again looks at the dissolution of marriage amid a troubling event. Here, the event, a rape that is never called as much due to Iranian censorship, draws out the deep insecurities of Emad that lead him to seek out his wife’s attacker despite her repeatedly expressed wish that he let it go. Per usual with Farhadi, things are not quite what they seem, and Emad’s path to revenge is not the typical macho, rage-infused style we’ve become accustomed to, but one more subtle, with emotions percolating beneath the surface. Set against the backdrop of the couple’s performance in a stage production of Death of a Salesman, Farhadi’s telegraphing of Emad’s downfall by literally having him play Willie Loman is one of the more egregious and uncharacteristically blunt moves on the director’s part, yet the way he infuses Emad’s wounded masculinity with a performative element all its own lends value to the duality of his husband/actor nature. While The Salesman doesn’t quite hit the emotional highs or deft narrative moves of his earlier films, it’s certainly at least a worthy addition into his filmography.

Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Equally influenced by William Carlos Williams and “Deep Thoughts” by Jack Handey, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson almost purposely, and perhaps purposefully, opens itself to ridicule through its bold simplicity and emotional directness. An ascetic ode to poetry and the simple life, Paterson captures the unique perspective of a blue collar poet in rural New Jersey, and while it successfully taps into the beauty of the mundane (though not as effectively as many of his other films), there is a troubling quirkiness that seeps into the film far too often. Whether it’s the film’s constant doubling and tripling (Paterson being the town Paterson lives in as well as the title of William Carlos Williams’ epic poem, his always seeing twins and various repetitious behavior) or its overt fondness for retro-hipsterdom, Jarmusch’s Paterson feels more like a Sundance indie quirkfest than any of his work has before. Fortunately, Adam Driver’s wonderful performance and his sweet rapport with his on-screen wife, played with delicate compassion by Golshifteh Farahani, along with a hilariously expressive bulldog, are enough to save the film from its more obnoxious idiosyncrasies. Yet, uneven Jarmusch is Jarmusch nonetheless.

Mifune: The Last Samurai (dir. Steven Okazaki)

Toshiro Mifune is a towering figure in classic Japanese cinema, particularly in the West, where his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa overshadow the contributions of virtually all other Japanese directors and actors. Rather than contextualize Mifune and Kurosawa’s broad-reaching influence within Japanese cinema of the 40s, 50s and 60s, Steven Okazaki focuses almost solely on the duos samurai films, barely glossing over Stray Dog and the underrated The Bad Sleep Well while shockingly never even touching on brilliant High and Low. Obviously Okazaki announces the specificity of his interest in Mifune in the title and there is a nice, albeit very brief, primer on the rise of the samurai in cinema, but tackling the trajectory of samurai in cinema, the symbiotic relationship between westerns and samurai films, Kurosawa’s influence on the Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers and Mifune’s on and off-screen personae is far too lofty a task for a mere 80-minute film. If you’re a fan of the topic, it’s at least mildly entertaining, but it rarely feels like anything more than a glorified DVD extra feature.

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