Back Row Thoughts – A Weekend Abroad

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog over the last several weeks, you’ll know that “keeping up” has been a bit of an issue for me. Between various factors in my personal life, working the election, and my simple desire to sleep, I’ve been getting out to movies, but I haven’t been nearly as timely in my reviews as I’d like. Since late October, I’ve basically been playing catch-up, with my review backlog getting as high as eight films at one point, and given that we’re in the final bombardment of the year that is the Awards Season rush, it’s been a touch rough trying to maintain a decent pace.

Well thankfully, as of this post, I’m finally current, because I have an excuse to group three reviews into one. As many of you know, I do my best to see as many International Feature submissions as possible, especially before the Academy releases its shortlist of 15 semifinalists. The powers at AMPAS even released the official list of candidates today, along with the approved entries for Animated Feature and Documentary Feature. You can read the press release here.

There are 92 eligible films vying for the biggest prize in foreign cinema. In a bit of clarification of the nomination process, insiders have learned that members of the Academy who wished to vote in the preliminary round this year were all assigned a small list of entries to watch and rate (via the internal AMPAS viewing portal), with some pre-approved scoring metric used to determine the final 15. I like this idea, as it ensures that no one can just vote for whatever country they like or whatever movies their friends and colleagues may have worked on. This method makes sure that all 92 are seen by someone, rather than everyone clamoring for, say, France. This was the one potentially skewing variable last year, where all we knew was that voters had to watch a certain number of the candidates, the rumors ranging from 12-15, but there were no restrictions on what those would be. By generating a subset that voters are required to see (presumably random and evenly allocated), it again works to mitigate biases towards certain countries and filmmakers. And from what I understand, once a voter completes their list, they’re free to request another to keep going, as they’re only rating films on an individual basis rather than casting a ballot. Sure, some cynical members could intentionally downgrade one country’s movie while artificially inflating the score for another, but this at least puts some guardrails in place to prevent tampering or bloc voting. Once the shortlist comes out on the 21st, the previous rule will once again apply, and anyone wanting to vote for the final five nominees will have to watch all 15 that made the cut.

Now obviously, there’s no way I’ll be able to see everything, as a good number don’t even have a North American distributor, but I’ll still do what I can. I’ve seen 10 so far, and have been able to track down nine more that will either screen or stream before Oscar Night in March. That number will likely go up in the days and weeks to come, especially since the shortlists will be announced in just two weeks’ time. This past weekend I knocked off three in a row, so it feels appropriate to finally bring myself back up to date by going through them all in one post. Normally I would prefer to give each one an individual review, but expedience is the name of the game here, and I still give each film equal weight in my mind, even if I don’t on the page. I can say with certainty that if I was in the Academy, I would judge everything as fairly as possible, regardless of how much I had (or wanted) to say about each one. I even keep a detailed notepad mapping out my access to everything, as well as my rankings within the field and relative to the rest of my movie-going habits during the year. So while these mini-reviews won’t be as verbose as the others (it appears I’ve saved that for this lengthy preamble), rest assured that I’ve done my due diligence.

Last Film Show

India’s entry has been a top priority for me ever since it was announced, mostly because it was a genuine shock to the film world that this was the official submission, and not RRR. I was certainly stunned, as that movie absolutely blew me away, so naturally I wanted to see what Last Film Show offered that would make the Indian committee put it forward instead. I’m not one to penalize a film because it’s not the one I wanted (some critics and voters were openly pissed about Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Life Ahead not getting the nod from their respective countries in recent years), but I will admit to raising an eyebrow when I first saw the news.

Known natively as Chhello Show, the movie follows in the footsteps of The Fabelmans and Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths as a semi-autobiographical slice of life from director Pan Nalin about the formation of his love of cinematic arts. Set in 2010 in the village of Chalala, the story focuses on young Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who gets the rare treat of seeing a movie with his family, an activity normally opposed by his proud Brahmin father (Dipen Raval), who believes the industry is decadent and beneath their caste status (even though he works selling tea at a rail station after being swindled by his brothers and lives a life of poverty). Falling in love with the clatter of the reels and the beams of lights flashing behind him, Samay (I giggled in my seat imagining a meeting between him and Spielberg’s Sammy Fabelman; Sammy, Samay. Samay, Sammy. Uma, Oprah.) decides he wants to be a filmmaker, ditching school every chance he gets to try and sneak back into the theatre and see what other classic Bollywood titles are on display.

He eventually develops a friendship with the projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), who shows him how the beautiful but antiquated machines work, and allows him to watch the films from his booth in exchange for a share of the lunches Samay’s mother cooks. Inspired, Samay decides to share this magic with his friends, smuggling out disused reels and cut frames, and setting up shop in an abandoned building in a neighboring ghost town. With the help of his chums and some questionably legal ingenuity, he creates a makeshift projector of his own, holding “film shows” for everyone in the village.

Nalin opens the film with a mass dedication to his favorite film pioneers, including the Lumière brothers and Stanley Kubrick. One can certainly feel the latter’s influence in several scenes, particularly a poetic ending sequence that can serve as a much more down-to-earth take on the “Beyond the Infinite” montage from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But more than anything else, this movie owes an extreme debt to Giuseppe Tornatore, because this is very much an Indian version of Cinema Paradiso. It even follows a similar plot structure, with a child becoming enamored with movies, befriending the projectionist, obsessing over the art of film at the cost of all other priorities, and eventually leaving behind his provincial home life to pursue his dreams in a major city where there’s more opportunity. Samay’s story is far more condensed than Salvatore Di Vita’s, taking place over the course of one summer as opposed to several years, but the sentiment is the same, and it never feels like it’s anything but a respectful homage.

This is a fine, pleasant, and well acted film. In almost any other year, I’d say it was a perfectly cromulent entry for International Feature, and you can certainly argue that it is even now, as this looks to be an Awards Season filled to the brim with movies about movies. I really liked this, and hold it in the same regard as The Fabelmans, in that it’s a supremely well-made bit of personal nostalgia featuring some moments of brilliance (seriously, that ending is pure gold). It’s not anything truly groundbreaking, and compared to RRR it feels downright quaint, but sometimes that’s enough if the winds are blowing in the right direction. On the whole I think India made the wrong choice, but I wouldn’t be upset at all if this made the shortlist or got nominated.

Grade: B

Return to Seoul

You see a situation like Return to Seoul every so often in this competition, where a film has the potential to represent a number of different countries. Officially the submission for Cambodia, due to the partial nationality of director Davy Chou, the movie ostensibly could have been chosen by France, Belgium, South Korea, or Germany thanks to the myriad of international contributions. I’m pretty sure there’s a similar case this year with Venezuela’s entry, The Box, which I think was initially considered for Mexico’s bid before they settled on Bardo.

The story itself is fairly simple, about a French woman named Freddie (short for Frédérique), played by first time actress Park Ji-min, who was born in South Korea and given up in a foreign adoption. Due to a snafu in her travel plans (she was initially going to Japan for vacation), she ends up in Seoul with no idea what to do or who she can talk to. By coincidence, the receptionist at the hostel she stays at, Tena (Guka Han), happens to be fluent in French, so the two become friends. After hearing Freddie’s story, Tena recommends she go to the local adoption center to see if she can contact her biological parents. Initially hesitant, curiosity gets the better of the flighty youth, and she inquires about the possibility of meeting them. Freddie gets far more than she bargained for when her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok) enthusiastically agrees, prostrating himself before her and trying way too hard (usually in a drunken haze) to convince her to stay and become a full-fledged Korean.

The entire film lives and dies by Park’s performance, and given that this is her first role, she completely nailed it. She exhibits tremendous range depending on the needs of the scene. At one moment she’s an extroverted party girl (she starts the film in her 20s) who has no qualms about disobeying societal norms if it means having a good time, including heavy drinking and casual sex. In others, particularly those with her father and the overjoyed extended family, she conversely clams up, hardly willing to move or make eye contact, much less converse. An English-speaking aunt (Kim Sun-young) is able to translate roughly, as is Tena from French, but the contrast from bon vivant to taciturn is beyond palpable.

Part of it is culture shock, and part of it is the genuine surprise of how unprepared she is for the emotional ramifications of meeting the strangers who gave her up, especially when she has to do it on their terms. She practically has no say in the matter apart from basic consent to the procedures and protocols required by law. For everything else, she’s basically at the mercy of everyone around her, with all the stress and uncertainty that entails. It’s an achingly beautiful juxtaposition to watch, because she stands as a fundamental example of the difference between willingly giving up control and never having it in the first place.

When Chou keeps the camera focused on Park, the movie is magic, a wonderful character study with an incredibly compelling subject. When he moves away to stuff on the periphery, things start to fall apart. No better is this demonstrated than in the film’s multiple, out-of-nowhere time jumps. It happens about three or four times over the course of the action, and there’s little rhyme or reason to it, other than to jangle your nerves. The first one comes after a tense confrontation between Freddie and her father, which seems like it’s going to be a coarse, but necessary, bit of melodrama for the sake of both characters’ developments, before abruptly smash cutting to a completely different setting with “Five Years Later” flashed on the screen in giant letters. I think they’re meant to demonstrate Freddie’s maturation and the evolution of her position towards her parents, with an emphasis on narrative efficiency, but it comes off as rushed, because we don’t get to see how Freddie’s opinion progresses, only that it has. This leaves us with limited time to get to know her all over again via this new facet of her personality before the next sudden advancement, rendering everything that came before it largely moot. I get why the choice was made, and in different stories I’d probably even endorse it, but the execution here didn’t quite work.

Still, this is a stellar first outing for Park Ji-min, and a truly intriguing story about the randomness of life, regret, and those all too rare second chances we get to make our short time on this planet better for ourselves and those around us. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but so is Freddie as a character, so I’m more than happy that I took the time to see it.

Grade: B+

EO

Finally, we come to a literal donkey show, though luckily much more artistic and important than anything you might see in Tijuana. Directed by legendary filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (Walkover, Barrier, Le départ), who did a brief Q&A after the screening I attended (SQUEE!), EO has already picked up some significant hardware, including a tie for the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Best International Film from the New York Film Critics Circle. Now it will represent Skolimowski’s native Poland in this year’s Oscar competition.

The story is very straightforward, following the travels of the titular donkey as he wanders from owner to owner across Poland and northern Italy after he is “repossessed” from a failing circus. Over the course of the film’s 90-minute runtime, EO experiences love (chiefly from his performing trainer Kasandra, played by Sandra Drzymalska), cruelty (from angry soccer hooligans), indifference (from a countess played by Isabelle Huppert), and everything in between as he’s either handed off to different people or simply meanders through the countryside encountering people at random.

The film bears a striking similarity to Au Hasard Balthazar, an intentional choice on Skolimowski’s part. As he noted in the post-screening interview, Balthazar was voted as the #1 film by a prominent magazine back in 1966, while his first major film out of college ranked #2, and after seeing it, he knew he wanted to make a movie starring a donkey as tribute to its creator, Robert Bresson. Along those same lines, I got shades of other animal-led movies like Milo and Otis and Marona’s Fantastic Tale, with the major differences being some heavier themes and a lack of internal monologue for the four-legged lead.

Skolimowski’s approach is very technical and artistic here. First and foremost, he insisted on using Sardinian donkeys to play EO (there were six used throughout the production) because of the texture of their hair and fur, as well as their eyes, which are much larger relative to the rest of their heads than other breeds, and are even bigger than those of some horses, who often share scenes with EO for thematic contrast. Second, cinematographer Michał Dymek spends the majority of the time filming from EO’s eye level, making things as close to POV as possible in a number of scenes, and always keeping the action framed within the dimensions of the donkey’s diminutive stature. Third, Paweł Mykietyn’s score makes brilliant use of the surrounding environments of a particular scene, incorporating and imitating ambient sounds through instrumentation to reinforce the cues, which goes a long way towards conveying the intended mood of each moment (particularly when it comes to the ending).

Finally, like so many great auteurs, Skolimowski makes absolutely gorgeous use of red lighting. Depending on the scene, it can enhance basically any emotion we as an audience would want to project onto EO. In the circus, the red (with a strobe effect) creates the atmosphere of the performance, where he pretends to be dead, but it also doubles as nightmare imagery. In a stable, it floods an otherwise peaceful scene of a horse going through its paces to imply exploitation when it comes to thoroughbreds. In lighter moments, it’s used to portray the love Kasandra and others have for him. There’s an entire spectrum of emotion delivered to the audience through the strategic use of one simple color.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the main character Odysseus is often called a “man of many woes” as the epic poem describes his harrowing journey. The same can be said for EO here, as there are quite a few instances where the phrase “beast of burden” takes on a much more literary and damning connotation. A small, simple animal bears the brunt of the best and worst of humanity in a relatively short space of time, and yet Skolimowski deftly makes the most out of every second, giving the audience something alternately moving, disheartening, and outright shocking. Given that its star is often dismissed as a “dumb animal,” his story ends up being one of the most cerebral of the field so far.

Grade: A-

***

And with that, I’m finally caught up. Hopefully I won’t fall too far behind again. All of these films have something to offer, and I will be quite interested to see who makes the all-important first cut in two weeks.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you had a chance to see these films? Which stories sound the most intriguing to you? How far did you roll your eyes at my donkey show joke? Let me know!

5 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – A Weekend Abroad

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