Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Amid the Very Important Films tackling Very Important Subjects in Very Important Styles at this year’s festival, there is, as there always is here in Vancouver, a place as well for more generically-oriented fare. I’m not speaking of the always-fecund indie-horror/thriller genre, which too is well-represented and well-attended, despite my almost total absence, but rather that most-reviled of all contemporary genres: the romantic comedy. Burdened by 15, 20, 40, 70? years of spunky professional heroines cursed with the twin scourges of awkwardness and beauty-concealing eyewear; bland, square-jawed leading men with suspiciously nice hair; meets cute, stirring declarations and string-swelling finales; the romantic comedy remains among the most formulaic, irritating, disreputable and wildly popular of all film genres. But as these things always go, along with the successful trash there are every year great gems to be found, too special for the mainstream, their denominators not low enough for wide release in America’s multiplexes. Films that persist despite all the odds in exploring the promise of this ancient and enduring form.
At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo, an annual denizen of the VIFF schedule (this is the 7th of his films I’ve seen here in Vancouver) and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters and questionable life choices. One of Hong’s funniest films, my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve. It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Moving from one of our most-established auteurs to one of our newest, the most-underrated film of the festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry). In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” pronouces the wife). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while remembering her previous relationship with the man, her boyfriends after the original break up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest boyfriend. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.

Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever (I’m still stunned she found a way to make the very familiar Hong Kong airport seem completely fresh in Ex), with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good TV, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.

French director Axelle Ropert’s second feature, the hideously named Miss and the Doctors (everyone agrees the original title, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (or, Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss) is vastly superior), tackles the equally complicated subject of the love lives of the middle-aged. The doctors are brothers, general practitioners in Paris. They each fall in love with a younger woman, the mother of one of their child patients. The woman, a beautiful bartendress (Louise Bourgoin), is estranged from the girl’s father, and at first resists the advances of both brothers. The older, taller brother, gruff and blunt, is played by Cédric Kahn, the younger, a blond recovering alcoholic who looks a bit like a Gallic Michael J. Fox, is played by Laurent Stocker (billed as being “from the Comédie-Française”). It’s a sweetly patient, funny and melancholy story. One of those movies where everyone has their reasons.

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is as self-lacerating a tale of artistic ego and male self-importance as I’ve seen in quite awhile. Trapped for the first third in the insufferable mind of young author Jason Schwartzman, the eponymous Philip, as his hilarious misanthropy turns increasingly cruel, we’re given a reprieve in the film’s middle section, as Philip’s now ex-girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) reconstructs her life in fits and starts after their breakup. The last section of the film finds us back with Philip and his mentor, legendary author Ike, played with gruff arrogance by Jonathan Pryce. Like his previous feature, The Color Wheel, Perry delights in the us-against-the-world egotism of his protagonists, drawing pleasure in the absurdity of the difference between how they see themselves and how the world sees them. It would be unbearable if he didn’t care just enough about these terrible people to laugh a little bit with them, and give them an ever-so-slight chance of happiness, however perverted the manifestation of that happiness might be. Unlike The Color Wheel‘s gorgeously grainy black and white, the new film is in color, vibrant and warm. However, also unlike the previous film, it’s shot in a nauseatingly close-up hand-held style. The choice makes more sense here than in something like, say, Humpday, thanks to a voice-over narration (delivered by no less than Eric Bogosian) that frames the film as a quasi-documentary. I’ll readily admit my distaste for this style has as much to do with my own middle-age and tendency toward motion sickness. Suffice it to say I’d prefer it if Perry and his accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams would take a step or two back from the characters. But whatever, there’s lots of ways to make movies.
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Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)

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I noticed yesterday that this was available as part of Amazon’s Prime Instant Streaming service (along with Hahaha, the other Hong Sangsoo film I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2010). I watched it the other night and was happy to see that it remains my favorite of Hong’s movies, all of which are marked by an unusual structure, in which elements, situations and/or characters from the first part recur later in the film, in ways that deepen, comment upon or subvert what has gone before. Oki’s Movie is the most structurally complex of the Hong movies I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the film that followed this, 2011’s The Day He Arrives), with a pretzel logic that twists the film back on its maker, questioning the motivation for making Hong Sangsoo films, or any films at all, in the first place.

At its most basic level, Oki’s Movie is a love triangle told four ways, made up of four short films, each of which has its own credit sequence of videotaped white characters on a blue background (the title song is the same for each film: Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”, a tune whose relation to Graduation Day is perhaps a nod to the movies’ film school settings). The most mysterious segment is the first one, which doesn’t fit the later developed patterns or (possibly) characters at all. Its title (“A Day for Incantation”) suggests that it’s the film that calls the other movies into being. Each of the of the latter three films focus on a love triangle between three characters: the girl Oki (Jung Yoo-mi), the boy Jingu (Lee Seon-gyun) and their Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), each of whom are filmmakers. Each of the last three films correlates to one of their points of view. But the characters are mixed up in the first film: Jingu is a married film professor and filmmaker where later he will be a student, Song appears only as a fellow professor Jingu admires but begins to have doubts about when he hears he accepted a bribe to award another teacher tenure, and Oki doesn’t appear at all. Only at the end of the film, when an inebriated Jingu is doing an audience Q & A prior to presenting his latest film, does the question of a student’s relationship with her teacher come up. A girl in the audience claims to have had a friend Jingu dated when he was her professor, and that that relationship ruined the girl’s life by sabotaging her relationship with her boyfriend.

okismovieMy theory is that each of the subsequent films are movies Jingu later made inspired by the situation the questioner presented: a student having an affair with her professor while she was also dating another student. In each film, he casts himself as the boyfriend/hero and Song as the morally dubious professor. In the second film (“King of Kisses”) Jingu plays the typical Hongian hero: romantic, obsessive and often drunk. This film is the most similar to the first one in both story and style (even the locations are the same: Jingu’s home in the first film plays Oki’s home in the second). One example of the rhymes between them: in each film Jingu hangs out on a park bench and falls asleep. In the second one, he meets Oki and asks her out, while in the first, he has a flashback to when he met his wife, who he suspects might now be cheating on him. (Although: maybe this is not a flashback: wikipedia asserts that it is, but the woman he meets is played by a different actress than his wife. Regardless, the story of the first Jingu’s wife remains a tantalizingly unexplored tangent, suggesting that the rest of the film could have gone off in a myriad of other directions, not just the Song/Oki story. Such loose ends that tease endless narrative possibilities are one of the things that make Hong’s films seem so realistic, like they create entire universes.) While the third and fourth films keep strictly to a single point of view, “King of Kisses” is narrated more or less objectively: we also get scenes from Oki and Song’s perspectives, thus we know that they are having an affair of which Jingu is ignorant. We also know that Oki is a little freaked out by Jingu’s obsessive pursuit of her, but that she does genuinely like him. The film ends happily, with Oki and Jingu together in the beginning stage of their relationship, wishing each other a Merry Christmas and remarking on what a nice warm day it is.

6a00e5523026f58834013487e273f3970c-800wiThe third and shortest film (“After the Snowstorm”) is about Professor Song. After a blizzard, only Jingu and Oki show up for his class. The three engage in a Godardian Q & A session wherein the kids ask him about life and art he responds with gnomic aphorisms. It’s a kind of idealized version of the teaching experience, with two eager students lapping up Song’s wisdom (his best answer is when Oki asks why he loves his wife, he says “In life. . . of all the important things I do, there’s none I know the reason for. I don’t think there is.”). Later that night, after throwing up some bad octopus, Song decides to give up teaching and go back to filmmaking (“I was a bad teacher,” he cheerfully exclaims in voiceover). It’s unclear if this film takes place before during or after the love triangle situation, or if one ever even occurred in its world.

The fourth film (“Oki’s Movie”) would seem to be the most important, as it lends its title to Hong’s film as a whole. In voiceover narration, Oki tells us this is a film about two different walks she made along the same path in a park with two different men, one older (played by the actor who plays Song), one younger (played by the actor who plays Jingu), two years apart (the first, with the older man, on New Year’s Eve, the second on New Year’s Day). Intercutting between the stories, she points out the similarities and differences between the two men and her reactions to them. Pointedly, the men are never named, we assume they are the same characters as the Songs and Jingus we’ve seen before, because the same actors play them and they behave the same way. But that inference is undercut by Oki’s final line: “I wanted to see the two side by side. I chose these actors for their resemblance to the actual people. But the limits of the resemblance may reduce the effect of the two put together.” I think she’s saying that she made the film in an attempt to sort out an experience from her past, by writing a story in which she could see the two men she dated together and compare and contrast them, to better understand her own experiences with them. She had an ideal of art as catharsis, as a coming to terms with her own history. But the fact that these are only actors means that it doesn’t really help: even the greatest artist is still only working by approximation, and without the real thing, true understanding is impossible. Not only is the recreation never perfect, but her perspective is necessarily limited: the best she can create is her version of her memory of the story and the people in it.

fullsizephoto135101Thus, Hong has made a film about a director who made a series of films adopting the perspectives of each of three people involved in a love triangle, based on a love triangle the director himself was once involved in. And in the end, Hong, through his character the director, through his character Oki, calls into question exactly how helpful filmmaking is as an attempt to resolve personal issues. The motive, then, for making movies has to be about something more than personal revelation. Art has to go beyond mere autobiography. The conclusion is the opposite of Alvy Singer’s in Annie Hall, where he gives the story of his relationship with Annie the happy ending it didn’t have in “reality” because “you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” For Alvy, the happy ending reassures him, brings him some kind of closure and perspective on his relationship. Closure that eludes Oki and the first Jingu. As for Hong himself, the answer appears to be a rejoinder to critics who presume his films, about movie directors who drink a lot and have complicated and clumsy romantic lives, are autobiographical. Movies aren’t real, they can’t be.⁠1

mov_B2E795_20110114175433_6This leads us back to the first film. Jingu the filmmaker/professor is meeting with one of his students, giving her advice on how to improve her film. “If you don’t fix it, the narrative won’t support itself. Your sincerity needs its own form. The form will take you to the truth. Telling it as it is won’t get you there. That’s a big mistake.” She accuses him of trying to impose a formal structure on her film out of greed, to make her personal statement more palatable to a mass audience. He gets angry, the form (“two turning points!”) is how the filmmaker can “take away what’s fake” in her. It’s not by being true to life that the filmmaker expresses the truth, but in submitting truth to formal constraints truth can be uncovered. Oki will realize that she made a mistake in trying to tell it like it was.

Director Jingu, at the Q & A at the end of the first film, expresses the hope that his film “can be similar in complexity to a living thing.” Answering a question about what the themes of his film are, he continues, “Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point. We don’t appreciate films for their themes. We’ve just been taught that way. Teachers always ask, “What’s the theme?” But before asking, aren’t we already reacting to the film? It’s no fun pouring all things into a funnel. That’s too simple.” (“But people might like simple things better,” the questioner responds.) Near the end of her film, Oki tells us that “Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand,” which is a fitting a summation of the vision of the world expressed in Hong’s filmography. A world of circular narratives that bend and repeat themselves with variations major and minor, tied to the rhythms of everyday life in all its awkward fumbles, missed opportunities and mysteries.

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This opposition to autobiography, or rather willingness to question the value and subvert the expectations of autobiographical filmmaking will be put to the test in Hong’s 2017 film On the Beach at Night Alone, which takes for its text the real-life scandal surrounding Hong and actress Kim Min-hee and constructs a hall of mirrors of self-deprecation, self-justification and self-criticism around it. An infinite regress of solipsism.

VIFF 2010: Day Four


607 – Before getting to Day Four’s films, I wanted to mention this short by Liu Jiayin that played before Day Three’s showing of Thomas Mao. Liu made my favorite film from last year’s festival, Oxhide II, which also happens to be the highest rated film directed by a woman on my recent Top 600 Films of All-Time list. This 17 minute short consists mostly of one shot of a bathtub in a hotel room (the hotel apparently commissioned the film). A plastic fish, manipulated by Liu’s father, with only his hands visible, swims in the water and encounters some mushrooms, a cloudy sky and a fish hook. The mushrooms are played by Liu’s mother and Liu herself is the sky and hook. It’s a marvelous bit of silliness that conveys all the warmth of a family at play.

Hahaha – The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.

The Fourth Portrait – This Taiwanese film is about a precocious young boy named Xiang whose father dies, sending him first into the helpful hands of the school janitor, and then back to his mom, a prostitute (naturally) and step-father (who’s pretty much pure evil). Director Chung Mong-hong keeps this dire material much lighter than one would expect.  Though the kid’s situation is rough and potentially terrifying, there’s enough humor and visual style (there are traces of both the Taiwanese New Wave and Wong Kar-wai, the latter especially in the scenes at the mom’s “lounge”) that things never get as horribly depressing as they might in a lesser film. There’s even a musical bit that sounds like a Chinese version of the Carl Orff song used in Badlands and True Romance). Xiang is surrounded by helpful adults, from the elderly janitor to a small time hustler to a concerned teacher. Even his mom is a decent sort. We never get the sense that Xiang’s situation is hopeless, instead, we can be sure that he’ll survive and thrive. The title comes from a series of drawings Xiang makes throughout the film: the first is his father, the second his friend the hustler, the third his older brother who may be haunting him and the fourth, more than a little cheesily, is the film itself.

I Wish I Knew – After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chaing Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. Wei Wei appears, which marks two days in a row that we saw a film featuring this 88 year old actress, after The Drunkard. Also interviewed are Hou Hsiao-hsein (who’s actually the only person who doesn’t share a personal anecdote, he just talks about his film Flowers of Shanghai, though like many people in the film, his parents came to Taiwan from Shanghai ahead of the Communist victory). The film is very loosely structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where frequent Jia star Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a straight documentary can be.

Short Celebrity Addendum: Jia was there last night for a Q & A (he’s serving on the jury at the festival this year for the award for new Asian filmmakers that they’ve given out for 17 years or so, having previously won the award for his own first film Xiao Wu). I don’t know that I’ve ever been so giddy in a movie theatre. And then this morning, waiting in line for Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, I’m pretty sure we were standing behind a very confused Wallace Shawn (the screening was delayed for projection reasons and the staff were giving confusing directions to the old people). I attempted to help the maybe-Shawn through the line, but he either couldn’t hear me or was too confused to pay attention to a much taller man.