“Best” Questions from 2013 BIFF Q/A

safe

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.

johnny loves dolores

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’!”

kilimanjaro

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.”

three light bulbs

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.

desperation

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.

rocky horror picture show2

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.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 21st 2013.

The 2012 Busan International Film Festival

We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.

The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time  the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.

After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.

Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma)  is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.

Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.

Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.

And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.

So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.

The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.

All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.

The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?