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FOG! attends AFI Fest with Lily & Generoso

Written by Lily and Generoso Fierro

In the middle of the night a few weeks back, we were searching for information about Korean director Hong Sang-soo.

Three years ago, on a quiet Friday evening during a summer in Boston, we saw his 2011 film, The Day He Arrives, and since then, we have been dedicated fans of anything by Sang-soo. After recalling our disappointment on missing 2012’s In Another Country, we saw a listing that indicated that his most recent film, Right Now, Wrong Then, was playing at AFI Fest 2015 here in Los Angeles.

We had seen the billboards and bench signs for the event, but in this city, there seems to be a festival of some kind every three days, so we did not investigate further than what a basic curiosity would inspire.

With the opportunity to see the newest Sang-soo, we immediately attempted to purchase tickets, but to our great surprise, all of the festival was free for the general public.

Beyond the enormous accessibility of the festival, what further impressed us was the sheer scale and caliber of talent, both on celluloid and in person, that the event offered.

After digging into the massive schedule, we realized that nearly all of the films that were high on our list throughout 2015 would be screening as part of the festival, and we were allowed to sign up for ten films each per day, confirming that we would be able to see these films we had been tracking before they reach local theater runs.

Given the free nature of AFI Fest, we were somewhat concerned about the potential chaos that could ensue at each screening.

Before we get into any critique of the films we saw, we must thank the organizers and volunteers of AFI Fest, who ran a beautifully organized 8 days at the TCL and Egyptian theaters in Los Angeles; they managed to keep the events on schedule and handled the crowds with a unique efficiency, thus quelling all of our anxiety around the disasters that massive crowds could cause.

How organized was this festival?

With a half an hour prior to each screening, people who queued up were given numerical queue cards (branded with a stunning image of Dolores del Río, the face of AFI 2015, for that extra special Hollywood touch) to establish their spots in line, avoiding potential brawls from the killer of all festivals, the habitual line cutters. This point cannot be underscored further as a significant part of the event’s logistics for crowd control, as AFI released more tickets than actual seats in theaters, so guaranteeing a spot in line meant more than just a good seat; it possibly meant no seat at all.

We would not risk missing Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then!

Making the festival an even greater experience were the interactions between the audience and the bevy of film professionals ranging from A-list actors to small, independent film directors, all in attendance to discuss their work. Veteran directors held multiple conversations over the course of the festival, some screening and supporting their new films such as Werner Herzog and Todd Haynes and others stopping by to talk about their previous work and creative process such as Ridley Scott. The list of stars went as high as Brad and Angelina, who presented By the Sea, Jolie’s third feature film as a director, to Will Smith, the star of Peter Landesman’s controversial film, Concussion. As seen below, Ewan McGregor also made an appearance to discuss his role as Jesus in Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert.

What was truly extraordinary about this festival was the overall quality of the selected films. Sure, there may have been a few of the Oscar pleasing variety such as The 33, an overacted film about the Chilean mining disaster of 2010, but overall, these composed a small minority of the 74 features presented, for the festival mostly concentrated on smaller foreign and domestic entries.

Between November 5-12, we saw a total of fifteen films. As to not make this article endless, we will concentrate on the strongest of the festival, the disappointments from directors who have been consistent over the years, and the excellent films from directors whose work has yet to be seen in the States.

As Generoso tends to look at the least positive aspects of any event as a major part of his total judgment, let’s first address our two biggest disappointments of the festival.

There has been some advanced press regarding the newest film by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) as somewhat of a disappointment, but disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe the painfully overstated and poorly acted 2015 film by the Italian director, Youth.

A clumsily executed allegory, Youth places veteran actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in a Swiss resort where the young and the old (both of whom are quite haggard looking through Sorrentino’s overly elegant lens) strive to preserve their glory days while suppressing their worst memories and past acquaintances.

With the success of The Great Beauty and the anticipated HBO series, The Young Pope, Sorrentino now has an American audience that he wants to continue to cultivate, and Youth is tailor-made to what he believes Americans want from an “Italian film.” As a result, it is a diluted, nearly insultingly dumbed down version of the style of his previous Italian films; Youth is a caricature of what Sorrentino believes the Oscar-following American audiences want, specifically those who herald films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which Sorrentino mentioned as an inspiration for commercial success during the Q&A). To add further injury, as made apparent in the post-film conversation between Caine and the director, Sorrentino does not have mastery of the English language, and this inability seems to have played a part in the facile dialog, especially between Michael Caine and his daughter in the film played by Rachel Weisz. Unlike his 2013’s The Great Beauty, Youth never fully grabs its central theme, leaving a morass of pandering images and dialog meant to impress rather than to complete a story.

Conversation after Youth

Second on our list of disappointments is The Club, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first feature film since completing his Pinochet trilogy with the highly acclaimed 2012 film, No. Having seen the predominance of Larraín’s work, it is clear that he is a bit of a hammer when it comes to making a political or social statement in his films. But whereas his earlier films, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, bring the level of symbolism to borderline surreal, The Club mires itself in a predictable story and thinly drawn up characters that cannot substantiate the severity of its best intentions to showcase the excesses and transgressions of the Roman Catholic Church.

Much was made prior to the screening about Larraín’s choice to film with 40 year old Russian lenses similar to those used by Andrei Tarkovsky in Stalker, but unlike his choice of using early 1980s camcorders for No, which places you into the time period of that film set during the famed Pinochet “Yes/No” vote, the over diffused lens of The Club fails to enhance the mood or setting of the film, rendering it down to a trivial visual style detail. Alejandro Goic, who portrays Padre Ortega in The Club, explained after our screening that the film was shot in twelve days, and we’re sad to say it looks and feels that way.

Alejandro Goic discussing The Club and his history with director Pablo Larraín

Besides the major disappointments, there were also films from directors who recently created films we loved but whose entries at AFI Fest 2015 were satisfying but did not surpass our expectations.

Such is the case with Arnaud Desplechin, whose previous film, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, made it to the top of our best of list for 2014. His new film, My Golden Days, is partially a prequel to his magnificent 1996 dysfunctional relationship study, My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument.

My Golden Days takes the character of Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) into the present day, where he is forced to recall his youth when he discovers that his identity has been used and extracted from an old passport he gave to someone when he was an adolescent. This trip down memory lane gets the meta-film treatment by Desplechin, using visual cues that were present in contemporary films during Desplechin’s own adolescence. Brian De Palma split screens and close up shots à la Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets are just a couple of the references that Desplechin utilizes in the triptych through Paul Dédalus’s and his own teen years along with the history of cinema during that time. This stylistic effort from Desplechin employs the same fragmented storytelling technique as My Sex Life…to only serve to further develop the heartbreaking character of the Esther (brilliantly portrayed by first time actress Lou Roy-Lecollinet).

It is clear that Desplechin’s intentions were to make Esther the central character and pervasive force of latter two thirds of the film, and Roy-Lecollient is up to the task, but this is at the cost of too many stories that meander through the narrative to contrast the importance of Esther in Paul’s life. Despite these issues with the film’s construction My Golden Days features a once in a lifetime performance by Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who is as confident in her fragility as she is in her intensity.

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s fourth feature, The Treasure, is a small, comedic delight that eschews the painstaking analysis of language and gesture that his last two films, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism and Police, Adjective, do in favor of a more universally comedic narrative similar to that of his debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest. When a father of an adolescent boy is asked to loan a sizeable amount of money to his next door neighbor in the promise of a percentage of the treasure the neighbor believes to be buried in his grandparents’ backyard, the pair loan out a metal detector and incompetent technician for a comedic hunt for something that nobody’s entirely sure even exists. Though the purpose of the film is not as elevated as those of his previous two works, The Treasure provides some good laughs and one commendable relationship between two people, which is a rarity in the Porumboiu world of cinema.

Based on the manga series Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Our Little Sister, the most recent tale of a non-traditional family by Hirokazu Koreeda, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of three sisters who, upon the death of their father, unofficially adopt their half-sister once they realize her stepmother cannot and should not take care of her. As Koreeda always does so well, there is minimal conflict within Our Little Sister as he allows the viewer to bask in the development of all four protagonists as they decide on the future of their relationship with each other and their family home that was bestowed upon them.

Every bit as observant as his previous films about family, such as Like Father, Like Son and I Wish, the only negative of Our Little Sister is the dialog, which sometimes feels forced, thus failing in creating a fully naturalistic environment, which is a staple of Koreeda’s work. Regardless, even a less than perfect Koreeda film is better than ninety-five percent of what you will see on the big screen, and consequently Our Little Sister is still well worth your time.

Koreeda and his translator discussing Our Little Sister after the screening

As The Treasure, My Golden Days, and Our Little Sister are from directors whose previous work we knew and greatly respected before going into their films, the next two efforts that we enjoyed are from directors whose films we have never seen prior to attending this year’s AFI Fest. Over the last fifteen years, Romania has produced some of the finest filmmakers to emerge from the international arena of cinema.

Radu Jude’s 2015 film, Aferim!, a stunning depiction of early 19th century class and moral struggles, is not an exception to that Romanian film talent surge. Aferim! follows Costandin, a policeman, and his son, who have been hired by a boyar to find Carfin, a gypsy slave who has run away after having an affair with the boyar’s wife, Sultana. Teodor Corban plays Constandin with a grotesque and comical swagger as he doles out unsavory tidbits of wisdom to his son while debating the ethics of potentially releasing his captured gypsy slave, who he knows will suffer an atrocious fate when returned to his owner.

Shot in gorgeous black-and-white but with an ugliness similar to a Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Western, Aferim!’s story plays out in an uncompromising and illuminating way, provoking questions about Romanian history and how moral dilemmas are handled across time. With Aferim!, Radu Jude establishes a distinct perspective on the concept of a period piece, which offers great promise for his work in the future (it is believed that Jude will next adapt Max Blecher’s 1937 book Scarred Hearts).

Producer Ada Solomon discussing Aferim! after the screening

Equally impressive is the debut of Colombian director César Augusto Acevedo, Land and Shade. Alfonso (Haimer Leal), an elderly farmer, returns to his home after many years to care for his son, who is dying from a respiratory illness caused by the clouds of ash in the slash-and-burn fields that he once worked. To earn money for the family, Alfonso’s estranged, aged wife and daughter-in-law take the son’s place on the sugarcane fields while Alfonso’s son lays ill in bed, thus requiring Alfonso to take care of the home, his son, and his young grandson.

As Land and Shade proceeds, Alfonso’s son’s reluctance to leave the family home and his mother becomes symbolic of the small farm life in the face of corporate slash-and-burn agricultural practices. For a first time director, Acevedo conveys amazing restraint and keeps the narrative from ever falling into melodrama while maintaining a consistently dire tone throughout the film that amplifies its central message about the disappearance of land and subsistence agriculture in Colombia.

Upon reviewing the AFI schedule, there was no film that was higher on our list of things to see than the newest work by French director Jacques Audiard, Dheepan, the Palme d’Or winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

More than any accolade that Audiard’s film has already received, our eagerness to see Dheepan primarily stems from the director’s consistent innate ability to create naturalist characters facing the day-to-day dilemmas of victims of contemporary political turmoil. Such is the case of Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a Tamil Tiger soldier who seeks asylum after his side loses the Sri Lankan Civil War. To create a cover story for himself, he is given the passport of a dead man named Dheepan and given a woman and a female child to create a more empathetic family so that he can gain entry into France. This situation-constructed “family” must keep up appearances in the French housing complex that they are assigned to in order to maintain resident status, but conflict follows Dheepan there, as rival drug dealing gangs engage in a hot war that potentially will take Sivadhasan out of his peaceful role and back into a different kind of combat.

Unlike his main characters in The Prophet and Rust and Bone, Audiard creates a main character who struggles to a maintain a family even if the family is not of his own creation. Not as epic in scale as his 2009 film The Prophet, Dheepan perhaps could have benefitted from a more thought out development of the relationship between Dheepan’s wife, Yalini, and the project’s drug lord, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), whose father Yalini serves as a caretaker for.

Despite this flaw in the middle of the film, Dheepan is masterfully acted by not only Antonythasan Jesuthasan (who in real life was a disillusioned Tamil Tiger who eventually sought asylum in Paris) but also Kalieaswari Srinivasan, the actress who plays Yalini, and reaffirms Audiard as the contemporary master of the crime drama who continues to show foreign audiences a different side of France.

2015 marks the 51st year of Philippe Garrel’s magnificent career as a director. Garrel has always prided himself on making deeply personal and economically budgeted films, and In the Shadow of Women follows his signature style. His best work since 2008’s Frontier of the Dawn, In the Shadow of Women is a story of Pierre and Manon, two down and out documentary filmmakers who are barely getting by but on the surface seem to care for each other greatly. Things begin to change when Pierre meets Elisabeth at the film conservatory and begins to have an affair with her. As Elisabeth’s love for Pierre grows stronger, a conflict arises as Pierre chooses to maintain his relationship with Manon, even though Manon may have eyes for another.

This simple and comedic film is a bit of a departure from the usually intense Garrel relationship examination, but Clotilde Courau and Stanislas Merhar are wonderful as the emotionally confused leads, making this small, new film by Garrel a triumphant one.

We adored Hong Sang-soo’s 2011 film The Day He Arrives about a beleaguered director who returns to Seoul and plays out the same day in three ways. Utilizing the same technique as The Day He Arrives, Sang-soo takes a comedic approach in contrasting the possible course of a day with two different methods of emotional manipulation in the early stages of establishing a romantic relationship.

Jae-yeong Jeong plays Cheon-soo, an arthouse film director who journeys to Suwon, a small mountain town, for a museum screening of one of his films. There, he meets Yoon (Min-hee Kim), a young artist whom our director takes a romantic liking to. Sang-soo cleverly teases the audience with the two versions of Cheon-soo, leaving us to decide which of the directors’ personas is the more sincere in pursuing Yoon. Uncomfortable at times but flawlessly executed, Sang-soo has assembled a neurotic comedy that rivals Woody Allen’s finest. Right Now, Wrong Then is one of the most intriguing films we’ve seen this year.

Given that some of the lines and waits were long, we had the opportunity to engage in fantastic conversations about cinema that made the whole experience even greater, since, after all, festivals are the best settings to discover films you may have missed otherwise. As is the case with most festivals, unfortunately, you only have so much time, and conflict between films you want to see do always arise.

We were fortunate to have seen the New Auteurs Grand Jury Award Winner Land and Shade, thanks to our dear friend Olivia, who was able to grab us a pair of tickets for the special awards screening, but sadly, we missed two audience award winners, the Turkish film Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which, besides winning the award, was consistently mentioned to us by other festival attendees as the film that they loved, and James White, Josh Mond’s character study of a 21 year-old New Yorker dealing with a dysfunctional family. Both films, which were not on our radars prior to AFI Fest 2015, will certainly be on our list to see and review in the near future.

Needless to say, the AFI Fest will remain a permanent part of our film-going agenda for years to come.

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