I recently went to the 2013 Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. I saw several features and shorts, none of which I feel particularly compelled to write about at length. I will undoubtedly mention them in my next installment of “Last Few Movies.” More than the films, however, I was struck by the questions following a short film showcase of five international movies. These questions struck me as, well, rather stupid.
1. “There was an extra in the background in that one scene where the old men are talking. She had white hair and looked very old. Who was she?” (Question asked after the screening of the Chinese film, Three Light Bulbs.)
This was a pointless question [the identity of a single extra in a given scene], however, the filmmaker, Min Ding, did make good use of her time to answer extremely well and provide excellent information. That particular old woman, (in a scene full of old people) who had nothing to do with the story, was not special—nearly the entire cast was made up of non-actors such as herself. Good info. Dumb question.
2. “When the lady sends money to her daughter . . . is it really a front to pay the blackmail of a “coyote” who helped her across the border?” (Question asked for Filipino/American production Johnny Loves Dolores.)
I take this question to be a moment where a cinema novice attempted to use a newly learned term [“coyote”: apparently someone who helps people cross the border, usually from Mexico into the United States]. In any event, crossing the border, I think, is more of a Mexican thing. People moving from the Philippines generally have to arrive via airplane or boat. Either the question-asker was not aware of this or they thought the characters were all Mexican rather than Filipino. Another reason this question is stupid is because I doubt a “coyote” could blackmail anybody—much less a nice middle-aged cleaning lady with no money. And what exactly can a “coyote” blackmail with? “If you don’t pay me more money for helping you then I’ll tell the cops you’re here illegally.” “Okay, but when they ask who you are and how you know that, don’t you think your illegal activities of bringing illegal immigrants into the country and blackmailing them might come to light?” Ridiculous. This question is more absurd when you consider that this film is not about illegal immigrants at all and the fact that the woman sending money home to her daughter is so minor that it is an almost innocuous plot point. It reveals her character and situation, yes, but there are no clues given to assume that she is lying. Filmmaker, Clarissa de los Reyes, took the time to diffuse the question by saying that in all the times she’s screened the movie that this was the first time she ever heard such a peculiar interpretation.
“Look at me! Look at me! I know the term ‘coyote’!”
3. “Why were the characters old?” and “Why did they have to work in a factory?” (Questions asked of the Swedish film, Kilimanjaro.)
There were several random detail questions like this concerning many of the films. These were the ones I remembered the most. This movie was a playful comedy-drama about life and death and the main character happened to be an old man working in a factory. That is almost exactly what director, Nima Yousefi, said in response to these questions. It just happens to be about that. No secret meaning necessarily. “Why is Lassie a dog?” “Because that’s the story I wanted to tell.” I will admit the film would be tonally quite different if it was dealing with younger, healthier people and many of the jokes regarding the monotony of repetition might have been lost had the characters not been working on an assembly line. “Why is Gandalf a wizard and Frodo a hobbit?” “Because that’s the story I was telling and I felt that the themes I was trying to convey could be best served by these choices.” I found these questions weird because they kept cropping up and many times the audience would not accept the flippant answers. “No, no. There has to be some deep, specific reason why you made those choices.” “You’re right. There may be. But now that I’ve made it, it’s your job to figure out why.”
5. “Why was it a relationship between a daughter and father and not a son and father or a son and mother or a daughter and mother or perhaps a close uncle?” (Another question in response to Three Light Bulbs.)
This is an amalgam of several questions asked by different members of the audience. Again, it deals with specifics that the artist (in my opinion) has no business answering. Art is meant to be interactive. The artist creates and the audience interprets (and everyone interprets differently, making every piece of art as variable and personal as can be). The other presumption in these questions might hint that people felt the story might have been serviced better had the genders been different, when that really isn’t the point. This particular drama is about these particular people and they happen to be these genders. Granted, the relationship might look different if it was not a father and daughter, but this story happened to be about a father and daughter. Deal with it. Many people seemed to demand that every single decision made by the filmmakers be extremely intentional and have deep meaning that they could share directly (as if the movie itself was not explanatory enough). Perhaps, most baffling of all was that the director had explained early on that the story was somewhat autobiographical of her relationship with her own father, yet these questions persisted.
5. “I really liked all the symbolism and powerful imagery and I understood what you were getting at, but could you just explain what it all meant?” (Asked of many of the films. The South Korean Safe, the Filipino/French Prologue to the Great Desaparecido, as well as the others mentioned).
This is another question that was not precisely asked, however, it was expressed many times through various actual questions. Again, my objection comes from an audience demanding their personal experience be validated or corrected and explained by the artists. I wanted to tell them they were all watching movies wrong. I can understand asking some questions like this, but not down to every detail. If you have to probe as deeply as this then, odds are, you probably didn’t get what they were getting at. These questions might make more sense if we were watching the films of Bela Tarr, Alejandro Jodorowsky, or David Lynch…but even then, I don’t want them to spell it all out for me. Art is a co-production. The seer adds as much narrative and context as the sayer. Great films require some work. Great films require immense amounts of chewing. They are not pablum to be swallowed without thought or flavor. None of these five films were terribly obtuse or difficult to grasp and much of the symbolism was simple or open, but this audience was dissecting every nuance like the Holy Grail was hidden away in each second of film.
There were several intelligent questions, but I was far more struck by the abundance of bizarre ignorance. I must credit the filmmakers themselves for taking the time to answer the idiotic questions in such a way that they added information that was both interesting and not even exactly asked for. Kudos.
BONUS: Rocky Horror Picture Show live performance synopsis fail: For Halloween I attended a live show of the classic cult musical—film shown on a big screen, actors performing in front, and a rowdy decked-out crowd shouting things at the screen. There was a man behind me who knew nothing about the movie, the show, or the midnight performance tradition. I overheard a woman (we’ll call her “Dumb Lady”) delightedly explaining it like this:
Dumb Lady: [paraphrased from memory] “Well, this is one of the shittiest movies ever made and when it first came out people threw tomatoes at the screen it was so bad. Then it became a tradition to watch the movie and make fun of it. I’ve done this like ten times. It’s so much fun to put this old, shitty movie in its place. The acting and everything is just so old and bad. It really is just a bad movie.“
Hello, Face. Meet Palm. You know how I said that art is all subjective and the individual assigns the meaning? I almost take it back in light of this striking ignorance. Some people don’t understand comedy or camp.