REVIEW: The Mule

Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 7:01 am
This is the twenty-sixth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

It's based on a true story, though I haven't been able to find the Wikipedia article about said true story, which I really wanted to because parts of the story strained credibility. Which makes it really interesting!

The year is 1983. The film centres on Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson, who also wrote and co-directed), a really naïve man with an over-protective mother (obviously), who works at a dead-end job at an electronics store. So when his best mate Gavin (Leigh Whannell, whom you might know of as the writer of the Saw trilogy and other James Wan projects) offers him a slightly dangerous job of smuggling 1 kg of drugs through his stomach from Bangkok with the promise of 8,000 Aussie dollars in return, Ray takes it after some amount of hesitation.

Naturally, where the story gets really interesting is when Ray is detained at the Melbourne airport. The customs officers couldn't find anything, so the detectives who take charge of the case, the intentionally violent-prone Croft (the world's favourite Australian character actor, Hugo Weaving) and the default good cop Paris (Ewen Leslie) put Ray up at a hotel room and attempt to wait Ray out ... I mean, the bloke has gotta shit at some point, right? Ray is in on their plans and begins to ... constipate himself. This is as simple and effective as dramatic conflict gets in a movie. It's the opposite of a race against time.

Meanwhile, other things are building up around Ray's story. Gavin is pressured by the drug lord whose drugs are in Ray's stomach to get the drugs and kill his friend Ray, perhaps both at the same time. The lawyer assigned to Ray's case attempts drum up sensationalism about Ray's case to the media, but is entirely blockaded by the yacht race that has the nation gripped. Meanwhile, Ray's over-protective mother attempts to help her son by sending over laxative-laced steak ...

The ordeal Ray goes through in trying to avoid jail by holding his shit in literally (one doesn't often get to type 'holding his shit in literally' often, really) is both awesome and stomach-churning to watch. One could almost smell the fart in the room from the way the detectives cringe their noses, and the sound editors helpfully gave us an audible account of Ray's bowel grumblings.

Despite the waiting nature of the story, the film never sags through its middle act, which is kind of a feat, and as an audience member you get used to the incredulity as the X in 'Day X' goes into double figures. In the third act a number of subplots come together and get resolved in a satisfying if slightly incredible manner, but we come to like Ray (or rather, feel sorry for him) and wish to see him get through this alive.

I did ask the question in my head, given that the film stated that this was based on a true story, how much of what we see happening at the end of the film was true.

Overall, a pretty good story in a pretty good Australian production. Check out the excellently edited trailer below.

How Good I Think The Film Is: 7/10
Did I Fall Asleep: Nope.

REVIEW: 그들이 죽었다 | We Will Be OK

Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 6:30 pm
This is the twenty-fifth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

Gosh, I really regretted picking this film. I didn't remember why I picked it when the movie started as I had forgotten the synopsis, but soon I understood why: the film deals with a group of filmmakers who are finding the business rather difficult to get into.

Except that the whole thing is just rather aimless and boring. Our main character is Sang-seok, who is in ennui. His friend Jae-ho decides that he's not getting enough roles as an actor, so why not make their own films? So Jae-ho pulls together just a few friends who constitute his skeleton crew, but doesn't know a thing about directing, and annoys his DP by not getting location permits first, and perplexes his actress when she saw that they're filming with an iPhone. By the middle of the film the little filmmaking venture Jae-ho is attempting has clearly fallen apart.

Then the film changes direction with its story; it's not a subplot, but a new plot. Sang-seok meets a karaoke girl and kind of uses her as a rebound after finding out that a girl he slept with was totally not interested in him. He goes back home, tries to write a screenplay himself, then tries to kill himself, then coincidentally finds the karaoke girl living not far away from him. The karaoke girl firmly believes that the world really is ending on 12.21.2012, so Sang-seok invites her to spend the last day with him. Except that at the end of that half of that film, in what feels like a spontaneous move on the part of the film's writer-director, that sequence changes into "oh, Sang-seok was just imagining all of that for his screenplay". And then it pulls out a Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World ending, except that it's not at all emotionally satisfying, quite the opposite.

As I mentioned, it's all rather aimless and boring, and it doesn't help that the characters aren't likable, except maybe the karaoke girl (not very, just a bit). For sure it's a low-budget film and its plot is partly dictated by the available resources (which is very little), but ultimately the filmmakers failed to give the film a purpose for the audience to watch it.

There's the fact that the actors all use their own names for their characters; Sang-seok is Kim Sang-seok, and Jae-ho is Baek Jae-ho, who also wrote and directed it. Baek's explanation as to why they did it made sense: if audiences remember the characters then they'll already remember the actors' names. After all, they really are a bunch of filmmakers who are trying to break into the Korean film industry (which is over time resembling more and more of the impenetrability of the Hollywood studio system, spurred on by Korean society's celebrity worship), so one could imagine there's a lot of autobiographical element in the film. ... But what happens if the film is annoying to the audience? Would we think of those names favourably?

There's a scene showing Sang-seok's ennui that led to his misguided suicide attempt. It lasts about 2-3 mins, and felt like forever without a point; could've been done in 20 seconds.

Another random comment: Sang-seok actually looks better in person than in the film. Odd.

Probably the least enjoyable film at the film festival for me.

How Good I Think It Is: 2/10
Did I Fall Asleep: 20 mins at some point in the beginning, and then here and there after that.

REVIEW: National Gallery

at 6:03 pm
This is the twenty-fourth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. This was the film I gave up Boyhood for. If only I had been able to get into an earlier screening, I wouldn't have to make such compromises, sigh …

It's nothing more than a documentary that shows us the going-ons of London's National Gallery. I have fond memories of the place, it's probably my favourite of London's museums or galleries. I was never good at art, nor did I have the aptitude for art appreciation, but I remember feeling happy walking past all those paintings and looking at them. 

One of the paintings, a portrait of a young man, had caused me to halt my steps and stare at it longer than usual. I was happy to see it again in the film, made me smile.

Well, having been there, what does this film offer that's special? Besides showing us the gallery space and the visitors who look at the paintings and the guides who explain to the members of the public the stories behind the paintings, it also takes us into the restoration rooms where deteriorating or vandalised paintings are meticulously retouched, the discussion meetings between administrative members of the gallery, a life drawing class with nude models, etc. The film is just that, and more of that, over and over again. It doesn't get more straightforward than that.

The parts I enjoyed the most are the tour narration bits: one female guide always invites her audience to stand in the shoes of one of the characters in the paintings, and then weaves the context and the story within the painting to get people to appreciate the painting in front of them more strongly; another male guide who takes younger children and tweens around naturally takes a more talking-down attitude, but also does it in a way that I personally found engaging.

Other than that, I struggled to stay awake in some parts of the film's nearly 3-hour running time. Director Frederick Wiseman does tend to allow his subjects to talk onscreen. I mean, sure, he shot the entire conversation in all cases, but was there a need to include almost all of it? It's hard to care when you keep having to discover the context and references of what these people are discussing regarding the gallery and the paintings and the people, especially after 2 hours of it and still more to come. 

Perhaps it's something that would be appreciated by people who like people-watching. But personally I would've shortened the film significantly, perhaps down to half, and it wouldn't have lessened the experience for me, possibly enhanced it because I would've kept awake for all of it, because it's not like I gained more from listening to ten minutes' worth of discussions about how, for example, how effective are the members of the public's experience of the gallery (it doesn't help that the woman who was arguing her case was so politely diplomatic that she took ten times longer than necessary to make her point), or five minutes' worth of the pity it is that the placement of a particular painting resulted in a shadow across the top 10% of it but well, there's no better place for it ... as opposed to just a minute or two of those conversations.

Based on one of the scenes in which the National Gallery's budget was being debated, it seems the film was shot in 2011. Did it take that long to edit ... and still be this long?

In a way the film reminded me of Into Great Silence, a German documentary film about French monks in a secluded monastery that is almost the same length as this film that is every bit as patience-demanding as it sounds.

How Good I Think The Film Is: 6.5/10
Did I Fall Asleep: Many times, but in a film like this it actually doesn't matter.

REVIEW: The President

at 5:43 pm
This is the twenty-third film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. It marks the first time I've seen a Mohsen Makhmalbaf film. It's not too bad.

It's a really nice idea for a film, and one that taps into the zeitgeist. A dictator rules his country with an iron fist. Unfortunately at this point I fell asleep for about fifteen minutes, but in between I was vaguely aware of two women in the dictator's limousine arguing bitchily, presumably the dictator's daughters. I read in a synopsis later on that later on the dictator would order the entire city's lights to be switched off as a prank, then finds to his surprise that it couldn't be switched back on. This was the straw that broke the oppressed citizens back, who finally revolt and launch a revolution to overthrew the dictator.

When I woke up, it was for the scene when the revolution begins. Travelling in the limo with his grandson, who at 5 years old has been trained to be respond to His Royal Highness and calls his grandfather Your Majesty, the people suddenly attack, and an exhilarating and extended sequence with the limo trying to escape the city ensues, a sequence that I found rather unexpected for a low-budget film and one produced in that part of the world. By the end of that chase, the president's bodyguard is dead, the driver has fled, and the president and his grandson are left alone in the middle of a desolate town. The president has effectively lost his country.

For the rest of the film, the president, who along with his grandson have always had everything done for him, is forced to learn how to disguise himself and blend in with the crowd. He traverses the country that formerly belonged to him, pretending to be a street musician (he does know how to play a guitar), and sees the consequences of his reign for the first time. Women are raped and nobody lifts a finger to help. People are so desperately poor, they couldn't possibly have anything to pay taxes with. Political prisoners are tortured, and some who started with a bright future but were unfairly imprisoned came back home and found only despair and heartbreak. The president just looks on, neutrally, and we're never entirely sure whether he is ever empathetic over his former subjects' plight, or just far too concerned with his own life and his grandson's to care.

Through the film we hear radio reports updating the status of the country, with the revolutionaries overrunning the country and the bounty on the president's head increasing at hyper inflationary rates. I often write such radio report updates into the film scripts I wrote, but friends insist that it doesn't work, "too much words"; well, it works here. 

The film is filmed in Georgia and uses Georgian actors, but the film invites us to think about this not as a story set in a specific place or time, but as a story that has been happening a lot lately in various parts of the world, and also since time immemorial. Makhmalbaf did mention that he was not able to make the film in many countries, because of the theme about fallen dictators and their comeuppance, and Georgia was one country where he could.

It's a fairly straightforward film really, but that's not to say that it's any less powerful. What happens in the film isn' anything surprising to us, and in fact some of what happens in the film might be inspired by real life examples; for example, where are dictators found by their angry citizens if not holed up somewhere? Look at Gaddafi.

Yet it's also a story that hasn't been done before for a film, at least not in this way. (I'm obviously not including Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator in the same category!) It can be a bit slow at parts, but it's an interesting film so it's worth catching if it appears anywhere near you.

How Good I Think The Film Is: 7/10
Did I Fall Asleep: 15 mins in the beginning, and probably a minute or two here and there.

REVIEW: The Drop

Friday, October 10, 2014 at 7:23 am

This is the twenty-second film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. When the 20th Century Fox trumpet music blared to the logo of Fox Searchlight after the lights went down, I almost wanted to cheer: it felt like a lifetime ago since I saw a Hollywood production.

Starring the ever watchable Tom Hardy, a surprising Noomi Rapace (her accent work has improved further), an even more surprising Matthias Schoenaerts (the Belgian actor who appeared in Jacques Audiard's Rust & Bone alongside Marion Cotillard … I didn't think he could do an American role so well), and James Gandolfini in his last film appearance. The cast was the reason I picked this film. I was surprised by what the film turned out to be.

Watching the trailer, one might expect to see a slow-burn suspense drama about Tom Hardy's character, Bob facing increasingly tense and threatening situations to his life and the people around him. In fact, that description is largely true, except the film is even slower-burn than that, if that's possible, to the point that really, not much is happening, or just barely.

The 'drop' refers to gangsters transferring money across town but using busy bars such as the one Bob works in as a drop and switch point for the cash that comes in in envelopes perfunctorily hidden by newspapers. Bob's partner in running the place is Marv (Gandolfini), though Bob seems to do all the work. One day they are robbed, and the Chechen gangsters who are doing all that money-transferring are not pleased. This is the first twenty minutes of the film, after that the whole idea of the 'drop' becomes somewhat secondary as a plot … I mean, it's still pivotal to the major turning points of the film that happens later, but we're barely at the bar for the middle hour of the film.

In fact, the movie spends time with Bob … learning how to take care of a pitbull puppy he found in a dumpster. And also the woman, Nadia, whose dumpster Bob pulled the puppy out of … Nadia is sweet but untrusting of men, and she has good reasons. Then there's the nosey detective (John Ortiz) whose MO in questioning witnesses consists of asking about everyday things before switching to crime-related question he wanted to ask suddenly so as to disorientate the witness. And then there's Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), who goes around making strange threats, like wanting the puppy back from Bob (in order to abuse it more), or else he'll get it back anyway and then he'll beat it to death. He's creepy, threatening, and generated a few 'wtf' moments.

If it's a character piece, it's just not very interesting to watch. I fell asleep a couple of times. Sure, Tom Hardy sunk into his character brilliantly here, and had already proved in Locke that even if he's the only person onscreen for 70 mins we'd still watch him. He plays Bob as a simple-natured, good-hearted man until mounting pressure from circumstances around him, which took the entire film to  build up to, finally cracks out a different side of him, one wholly unexpected to come from that character … and this will likely be true even if you've read this sentence.

As for the rest of the actors, all good ones, in a story where most scenes constitute dialogue discussing what has happened and speculating what might happen (with a cute pitbull puppy running around from time to time) and the occasional threatening scene by various characters, there's really not much for the actors to play with to stand out from.

It's really an odd one. I don't know whether to recommend it. Well, maybe watch it if you like all the actors.

How Good I Think It Is: 6.5/10
Did I Fall Asleep: Inevitably, yes, for a few minutes.

REVIEW: Paper Planes

at 7:15 am
This is the twenty-first film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

A children's movie with a simple story. Dylan lives with his father, who is depressed after his wife's recent death and just stays at home and watch TV all day long, even though his own son has moved on, creating a frustrating household for Dylan. By chance, Dylan is suddenly found to have a special talent for throwing paper planes, he is encouraged to try for the national championships in Sydney. The rest of the film is about how he prepares for the championships, his frustrating relationship with his father, how he deals with the arrogant bully (there's always one in such films), and how he courts the Japanese girl who happens to be the paper plane champion representing her country.

It's all fairly predictable stuff, but with young actor Ed Oxenbould virtually carrying the entire film on his shoulders (he's there in almost every scene of the film) but doing so capably, it's a nice enough encouraging film for kids that age. I do question the characters written for Sam Worthington, who plays Dylan's dad, and for David Wenham, who plays the bully's dad. Worthington's character is so inexplicably irresponsible here that I thought there might be further revelations later in the film for such a behaviour, but no, he's just being all depressed and shit coz his wife died, to the point that he would rather sit at home than attend his son's competitions, and then grounds his son when the son takes some money in order to pay for his bus fare to go for the competition himself, since he himself wasn't in the mood to take him to it. … What the hell? Under the circumstances I don't think Worthington could be blamed for what is clearly a terribly written role.

Even worse is Wenham, who, untypically for bully dads isn't an asshole, but is a popular golfer who dishes out good advice for his son, but his son doesn't listen to him, and he doesn't chastise his son about it, and seems almost indifferent to it all. Is he a good or bad dad? How about both? There seems to be almost no point for his character to be in the film; he has one job just before the climax, to dish out platitudes to help Dylan, technically his son's competitor, to figure some things out. In fact his platitudes weren't clear, but Dylan nods knowingly anyway as if he understood (I certainly didn't).

I also have a problem with how the bully (portrayed to the maximum level of arrogance by Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke) is dealt with by the plot. He spends the whole film so assured of his abilities to win that he rubs everybody the wrong way, and in the end loses (this despite pushing Dylan off the staircase and causing Dylan to sprain his wrist, an incident that also does not bear any consequences), and just because he lost he suddenly becomes reformed? Clearly there's a lesson to learn here about forgiveness and admitting your own mistakes, but it was not dealt with at all. He just meekly takes his third place; first act him would have thrown a massive tantrum.

The advice dished out by the Japanese girl to Dylan is pretty good though.

The music in the film is rousing and energetic almost all the time, almost too much. The use of Japanese drums did come in at a perfect time though, not used too early, and generated a strong feeling of 'yeah, let's do this!' in the audience. The visual effects work isn't too obvious.

How Good I Think It Is: 6.5/10
Did I Fall Asleep: Nope.

REVIEW: 카트 | Cart

at 7:10 am
This is the twentieth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

Inspired by true events, the story is about a group of female contractual employees of a supermarket named The Mart, cashiers and cleaners mostly, who were unfairly terminated before their expected termination date, in order to make way for cheaper and more efficient "outsourcing" (it's a term bandied about but I didn't fully understand how outsourcing would work for these jobs, not from the English subtitles anyway). 

Now, these are working class ladies, and there's something about middle-aged and older Korean women which inspires certain emotions: they generally work really hard without complaint, are very maternal figures, and depending on the scene are lightning rods for generating tearjerking moments or respect and admiration.

And what transpires is that a couple of mothers (one a single mother, the other has a husband so absent in their lives that she feels like one) bandied together to form a union with all the terminated female employees. The union is naturally ignored by the company (of whom we only see that particular supermarket's general managers and supervisors, and we get the sense that the larger corporation behind them is applying pressure on them to sort things out).

What to do? The ladies stage a strike, effectively shutting down The Mart. The managers (all men) are taken aback. Since when do women do things like that? They're not supposed to have the balls for it. No biggie, they'll just wait them out. And so the women find themselves living permanently in the supermarket; to entertain themselves they cook and sing and share sad stories about their lives. We get a sense that this isn't a high-paying job, but it's what little they have to support their families. These are familiar themes for movies, of course (shares themes with Norma Rae and Made In Dagenham), and one that isn't surprising for Korean society, but it is the first time for me watching it in a Korean film.
After many days, the police are sent in to forcibly pull the women out. I was waiting for a scene where an older lady collapses from the assault … and of course I wasn't disappointed. :p The movement seems doomed, except that an assistant supervisor, seeing his own days numbered, as are the other regular workers of the supermarket, combines forces with the women to continue the protest until they all get their jobs back.

From this point onwards, the film starts to meander. I assume the film is trying to stay true to true events, because what happens is nothing much. The employees continue their protest in the face of utter indifference not just from the company but also from the customers who come to buy their groceries everyday without acknowledging the workers in front of them. There were at least two heart-tugging riot scenes, but never mind that the customers just stepped back, they were never shown sympathising with the cause of the workers. The only time you hear the customers, they are complaining that this is inconveniencing their lives.

In fact, an early scene with a customer did make my blood boil. The single mother cashier is doing her job of checking the upper class woman customer's items, which offended the woman who says she felt like she is being accused of stealing. She complains so high up that she returns with her son to force the single mother cashier to kneel down and apologise to her. That scene made me so angry I wanted to see the woman hacked down to pieces.

There's also a subplot involving the mother with the absent husband and her mildly estranged son, which plays out conventionally: she's really nice and works hard for the family but is often oblivious to what her son is thinking about, so the son is a complete arse and not respecting her in the beginning but by the end he understands her and supports her. The actor who plays the son is some guy from some band called EXO, and when he appeared on stage with the other actors the thousands of girls in the auditorium were screaming out their lungs as if it's Robert Pattinson (people had to cover their ears). His acting was decent, but a couple of times when he was slapped onscreen the thousands of girls flinched, and you can imagine how audible that is. I don't get Korean celebrity worship. A film festival volunteer, Korean herself, rolled her eyes hard *urgh* when I mentioned it – "I don't understand that either," she says.

Ultimately, while the film is well-intentioned and the acting was good enough all across the board, I felt the film wasn't tight enough, the tension and conflict dissipated before the halfway point and never quite regained. Perhaps the film is accurate in how it portrays the way these movements fizzle out after enough weeks and months go by, when the oppressors are able to wait out the protestors, who feel that they are not achieving much and thus lose the momentum and the motivation to continue. The film does end with one last confrontation scene that ends not with a resolution, but a depressing note that in real life the employees only got half their demands.

How Good I Think It Is: 6.5/10

Did I Fall Asleep: One of the advantages of watching a film at the Open Cinema – it's pretty hard to fall asleep, with the cold and the din from the street.

REVIEW: Kill Me Three Times

Thursday, October 09, 2014 at 12:27 pm
This is the nineteenth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

I really wanted to catch this Australian film because of the cast; I think I didn't even read the synopsis before getting a ticket. Starring Simon Pegg, Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies), Alice Braga (I Am Legend), Sullivan Stapleton (looking a lot less fit for this movie after his 300: Rise Of An Empire days), Bryan Brown (so many 80s American films), and Luke Hemsworth (there's another one?).

No one gets killed three times. The title refers to the film's structure, the same tale told first from the middle, then from the beginning, and finally the end. So as an audience member, you spend the first third of the film interested to see what's going on but never knowing exactly why the characters are doing what they do, then the middle act starts parcelling out information that makes you go "oh, so that's why s/he did what s/he did in the first act!", and finally the ending is a showdown between all the characters. A gleefully bloody one.

As such I won't go into the plot and leave you to enjoy it. Suffice to say it's well-casted. It's impossible not to enjoy Simon Pegg in whatever he does, and his contract killer character perfectly utilises the alternately grinningly confident and expressively annoyed persona that Pegg excels in. Braga comes across as both beautiful and strong; Palmer is deliciously malicious, like a 21st century Sharon Stone; Brown is chillingly menacing as a corrupt cop; and Stapleton plays a character so utterly different from Themistocles it's jarring.

The music has one of those jaded jazzy tones and is quite repetitive, but delivers the right tone of black humour for the film. One of the best things about the film were the mouth-wateringly attractive shots of the landscapes of Western Australia, especially its beautiful beaches. Overall I was thoroughly entertained, and the film ties up all the loose ends nicely in the end. It's a fairly conventional film, but it's no less enjoyable for that. Catch it if you can.

How Good I Think It Is: 7.5/10

Did I Fall Asleep: Nope!

REVIEW: You (Us) Me

at 8:17 am
This is the eighteenth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

As soon as the first image popped up on screen, completely doing away with any opening credits, I was in dread – oh no, what had I gotten myself into? What stared back at me was a grainy night scene and the sort of sound editing that immediately screamed "British student horror film" at me. And for most of the film, that's what it is … well, not so much the horror bit.

The story is about two very disturbed people; there's Edward, a creepy serial killer of women who does what he does at night because he has mommy issues (the director mentioned that he intended this Psycho reference to be a marker for the audience and an homage, an archetype if you will … I would argue it is too obvious and not at all a strong choice, and comes across as amateurish unfortunately); then there's Vivian, who is a bitch to people around her and generally unhappy with her life and has suicidal impulses.

So it happens that they meet just as he's about to kill her and she's about to kill herself. Match made in heaven, right? (You betcha that line appeared in the film.) Except that Edward's not used to women wanting to kill themselves, hesitated, and decides to save her from herself instead. He takes her home, whereupon Vivian accidentally stumbles on Edward's secret room of horrors and, terrified for her life suddenly, makes excuses to leave. But as soon as she steps out of Edward's house, she suddenly stops, and smiles. She has changed her mind, just like that. We get it, she realises she could get him to kill her, but that's a logical conjecture, and not very motivated by anything we see in the film at that point. This is a problem that pops up from time to time through the rest of the film, characters making decisions or reacting to situations in a way which left me, the audience, with either a 'huh?' or 'o-kay …' feeling.

The rest of the film plays out as you would expect, but not very interestingly: the conflict in the film is engendered by this symmetrical irony, with Edward falling in love with Vivian and thus not wanting to kill her anymore, but Vivian wanting him to end her life (because she finds it hard to do it herself) and needing him to do it for her but she can only do so by being near him which makes him love her more. Or, in the way the director puts it, "2 characters whose needs happen to define each other's obstacles", which makes it a good dramatic conflict … in theory. Perhaps, but it's not enough.

To begin with there's little to like about the two broken characters. The actors do try, but ultimately there's not much charm to Edward and Vivian, and for characters like this it really comes down to the actors' charms to make us, the audience, root for them and care for what they do. So, with no characters to root for, no stakes. (Having a great plot could then compensate but … nope, doesn't have that either.) 

Also, the two no-nonsense detectives were annoyingly unconvincing; why postpone a questioning just because the subject's girlfriend is walking around the house in a bathrobe? (I mean, I know, it's for plot reasons.)

Then there's the filmmaking itself. The HDV-like footage is one thing, but the shots are often uninteresting and the edits not very graceful. In some of the scenes they seem to be filled with insert shots (CU of a hand on a coffee mug, CU of eyes, CU of woman's face, CU boob shot ...), accompanied by horror suspense music, but the reaction it inspired from me was 'okay, so what? … move along will ya?' There also seems to be a lot of thinking montage scenes … I can't remember how many but enough for me to jot down on my notes. The dialogue was mostly uninspired.

Oddly enough I found the graphics they put up for the end credits quite interesting. Though of course it's a bit of a back-handed brickbat when I imply that the end credits of the film was more interesting than anything in the film itself.

Ultimately it's a film that's defined by the resources available to the filmmaker, which is virtually nothing at all. It's young British writer-director Max Sobol's first feature, and directors should always be encouraged to try things. On the other hand, I don't see any potential spark of talent in this work. To be fair, it may just be my own prejudiced preferences; during the Q&A, one Korean audience member was half-sobbing and barely able to ask her question to the director because she found it "extremely moving". Well, what do I know.

How Good I Think It Is: 3.5/10
Did I Fall Asleep: It's amazing I didn't. Or I forgot.

REVIEW: Rocks In My Pockets

Wednesday, October 08, 2014 at 8:54 am
This is the seventeenth film I saw at the 19th Busan International Film Festival.

A highly entertaining animated documentary film, kind of reminds me of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, although they deal with completely different subject matters. 

Here, Latvian-origin artist Signe Baumane narrates her extended family's history with chronic depression and suicide, starting from her grandmother Arne and tracing it down to her many cousins. The animation work (a combination of hand-drawn animation and papier mache props) that she created to accompany her narration is expressionistic, showing us representations of ideas and thoughts and feelings as opposed to realism, and they are often very humorous, even when dealing with subject matter as grim as this. The characters are all drawn with big bulging eyes, with a perpetually and uniformly bemused expression to all of them.

In fact, Baumane's narration is light-hearted throughout, often ironic, always funny, even when talking about her own kin killing themselves and the methods they use, that audiences might even be fooled to thinking that suicide is such a fun, normal thing. And maybe that's the point: for a family line where every other family member is depressed and potentially suicidal, it's a normal thing that one just has to deal with, including when loved ones kill themselves.

Of all the stories that Baumane tells, the most interesting one (and the one that Baumane spends the longest time on) is that of her grandmother Arne. Baumane describes how her grandparents met, but very soon after her grandfather's fortune swayed back and forth according to such international events as the occupation of Latvia by the Soviets and World War II, which turned him into a more insecure, resulting in Arne being practically locked up in a small village somewhere, bearing son after daughter (eight of them in all), and having to work the farm cows and horses herself. This she does under the crushing weight of depression, nearly succumbing except for the thought of her children. (Although, at one point a terrible thought surfaced: "You can be free if you let your children die.") 

The happy ending is that she managed to get the kids reading and studying and all eight children were sent out into the world to become successful. We don't even mind that Arne, after having done her duty for her children and after her husband's death, might have taken her own life. 'Might', because Baumane's dad and uncles and aunts don't really know or just assumed she died of exhaustion ("how many women could carry 40 buckets of water a day and still live till 50?"), nor seem to care very much.

I also liked that we get a sense of life in Latvia in the early 20th century.

The rest of the film continues in this vein, cycling through Baumane's cousin sisters who either went mad from depression or succeeded in taking their own lives.

Not much else to be said, except that if you come across it, you should definitely check it out. The images are fun to watch and the narration fun to listen to. Who knew depression could be so entertaining?

How Good I Think It Is: 7.5/10

Did I Fall Asleep: For 10 mins unfortunately. I really didn't want to. Was tired.

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