Thursday, April 19, 2018

Mpls. St. Paul Film Fest One

A scene from Bottomless Bag (see below)
While Minneapolis was being blanketed with seventeen inches of snow, Hilary and I made a well-timed India, Israel, Pakistan, Hungary, and the nation of Georgia. I'm referring, of course, to the opening weekend of the Mpls. St. Paul International Film Festival.

On Friday night we saw The Confession and Village Rock Stars (described below).  I had volunteered to be a greeter, and I stood in the hall in front of the information office all Saturday morning in my office pink volunteer T-shirt, watching people try to find the ticket booth, which has been set up around a corner and entirely out of sight of passing film-goers. I recommended to several members of the theater staff who passed by that a sign with an arrow saying


would be very useful, posted on the pillar, and even volunteered to bring one from home, but two days later, nothing had been done to solve this problem.

My job, meanwhile, was to scrutinize the faces of the people who came around the corner from the front door. If they looked puzzled, I would say, "Are you looking for the ticket booth?" Usually, the answer was yes. "Right around this pillar," I would reply, gesturing nonchalantly with my thumb. 

Strange but true, there is a huge sign that says RUSH LINE in plain sight, but during the blizzard the audiences have been meager and it has served no useful purpose.

My four hours of volunteer work were occasionally enlivened by conversation with a film fan. One tall, red-haired woman with a passing resemblance to Julianne Moore had been to 45 films last year. "But that was down from 60 the year before," she told me.

So we discussed last year's films—the ones we could remember. And also The Confession. "Not as good as the director's previous film, Tangerines," she said, "but still pretty good." I agreed.

An hour later Hilary and I were watching Wajib, a slow-burn of a film set in Nazareth.

Here are some brief descriptions.

Confession (Georgia) A priest is assigned to a remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, along with his hair-brained assistant. They try to win over the local inhabitants to Sunday services by showing American films in an abandoned barn on Saturday night, and that's how they learn about the local piano teacher, who keeps mostly to herself but bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. The priest makes the woman's acquaintance, she eventually agrees to come to confession, and problems ensue, though they're not the ones you might imagine. A solid tale, expansive scenery, rich choral singing, and beautiful  church interiors.

Wajib (Israel)Father and son, Abu Shadi and Shadi, spend the day delivering wedding invitations up and down the hilly streets of modern Nazareth. Shadi has returned home from Italy only because of his sister's wedding; he fled years ago to escape the incessant government persecution of Palestinians. 

The two men carry on a gently antagonistic conversation throughout the day: Abu Shadi, a respected local teacher, is doing Wajib, the honorable thing, in delivering invitations by hand, even to Jewish officials whom he takes to be friends or colleagues, though his son considers them spies and enemies. Beneath the generational discord common to many families lie two different visions of the Palestinian future. The acrimony is compounded by the fact that the father's wife ran off years ago with another man, who is now dying. Perhaps she'll make it back for the wedding, perhaps not.

Much of the film is devoted to the pleasantries, evasions, and half-truths exchanged between old friends and relatives as each invitation is delivered.  In the course of a single day a stirring portrait of a neighborhood, a fractured nation, and a single family springs to life before our eyes. This is art.

Village Rock Stars (India) Young  Dhunu wants a guitar. Her family has no money. They live in a mud compound and work a rice field that floods every year, obliterating the crop. Dhunu spends a good deal of time playing games in the fields and climbing trees with the neighborhood boys. The story is thin, but the landscapes and the incidental details of daily life in Assam are rich. Scenes seem to begin and end at random...yet the film won Best Picture at India's National Film Awards, and its quiet beauties have considerable appeal, with or without the Styrofoam guitars.

Armed with Faith (Pakistan) This straightforward documentary follows the activities of an underfunded bomb squad who defuses IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan at the risk of life and limb. We get to know their motivations, fears, rewards, and frustrations while following them on their daily routine...which is never routine. Simple but moving.

Aurora Borealis (Hungary) In old age, Mom has moved from Austria back across the border to Hungary, though her high-powered daughter wonders why. When the old woman falls into a coma, her daughter pays her an extended visit, and begins to unearth a post-war family history that's a lot more complicated than she thought. Fitted with several extended flashbacks, the film is dramatic, complex, and convincing.  

Bottomless Bag (Russia) The director, Rustam Kamdamov, is also a jewelry designer, which may explain why this slightly surreal film has elaborate costumes and jewelry but very little coherent  action. It tells the same story that Akira Kurasawa drew upon for his classic Rashamon, and the black-and-white cinematography is, if anything, more compelling. But the narrative is largely submerged under the weight of medieval Russian robes and necklaces and the Wagnerian sensibilities. Where is Toshiro Mifune when you need him?

So Help Me God (Belgium) This documentary gives us a peek into the life of a Belgian examining magistrate named Anne Gruwez, who passes judgment on criminals and suspects daily in her cluttered office in Brussels. Unfortunately for the viewer, most of the cases are grisly, and involve prostitutes and small-time grifters. Gruwez seems to relish the sleeze, and she obviously takes pride in the fact that she's "seen it all." There are touches of humanity and even humor in the proceedings, but it's a slice of life most of us don't care to know that much about.  

On the Beach at Night Alone (South Korea) A fading actress named Young-hee retreats to Hamburg following an affair with the director of her last film. She and a friend discuss relationships and take long walks in the parks while she waits for the director to join her. He doesn't show, and soon enough she's back in Korea, meeting up with old friends, all of whom have heard of her affair. Various discussions take place in bars and coffee shops, and everyone's views about relationships and love get thoroughly exposed, and often trashed: Young-hee tends to get belligerent and insult her friends after a few drinks. 

Actress Kim Min-hee has been widely praised for her portrayal of Young-hee, though I found it difficult determining when she was being serious and when not. A New York Times critic wrote of the film:  " For all its intimacy, the drama has a vast scope, a fierce intensity, and an element of metaphysical whimsy (including one of the great recent dream sequences), which all come to life in the indelibly expressive spontaneity of Kim’s performance."

That seems like an exaggeration to me, though I like the phrase "metaphysical whimsy." I found the music of the language and the unhurried pace of conversations sort of mesmerizing. 

A young Korean-American woman was ushering. She'd already seen it. "I love this film, "she told me. "I hope you like it." I heard another woman say as she came out of the theater: "I slept through that one. I'd give it a 1."

You never know about these things going in. I guess that's half the fun.

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