SIFF 2015 Report #2: The Coffin in the Mountain, Haemoo, The Color of Pomegranates, A Hard Day

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The Coffin in the Mountain – This first film from Chinese writer-director Xin Yukun presents an impressive and quite funny narrative tangle that builds slowly through three interconnected stories, sparked by a death in the woods. A young couple on the run, an older couple cheating on their spouses, and the village mayor all think the corpse is their responsibility and act accordingly to cover it up or avoid being discovered, with cosmically winky results.

Before settling down in the later sections, the opening third is shot in what has seemingly become the new international style. In recent years it seems we’ve moved away from the “Asian Minimalist” style of long shots and long takes to a more flowing style. Handheld cameras wandering freely around a space, usually too close to the actors. I’m hereby dubbing it “Dardennean Motion”. The first section effectively uses this style to emphasize the desperation and claustrophobia of the young lovers trapped together and on the run, only two open up as the film goes on as Xin’s whimsical blackness grows to encompass a whole universe.

Haemoo – Impressively bleak thriller construction in which everything that can go wrong with a fishing boat smuggling immigrants does. Like Titanic but the iceberg is the captain. Directed by another first-timer, Shim Sungbo, from a screenplay by Shim and superstar director Bong Joonho (Shim was a writer on Bong’s celebrated 2003 film Memories of Murder), the atmosphere is tense from the beginning, as Captain Kang (Kim Yunseok) finds himself with mounting marital and financial difficulties. He takes on the illegal immigration job, but when  both he, his crew and his boat prove disastrously inadequate to the task, the film’s vague sense of dread turns increasingly violent. What stands out most in its perspective is the matter of fact ruthlessness of the tragedy at the center of the film, and even more so, the ending, which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say it is one no Hollywood movie would have attempted.

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The Color of Pomegranates – I was a bit concerned as I sat down in the resurrected Harvard Exit for this showing of Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 experimental biopic. The auditorium was packed, essentially sold out, and given the audience reactions to the Bill Morrison and James Benning experiments earlier in the festival, I wondered how many in the audience knew what they were getting themselves into. A mass stampede to the exits would surely prove disruptive. Well, I don’t know if they were especially into it, I can usually tell how much an audience likes a film just by sitting in the auditorium with them, but this crowd was hard to read. There was some scattered laughter, but this is not an unfunny movie. But only a couple of people that I saw walked out, so I’ll take it as a victory.

The restoration, part of the series celebrating Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, is lovely, putting the old faded DVD to shame, as one would expect. The film is one of those rare great biopics, telling the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova through a series of iconographic images, oblique and weird but no less meaningful for it. After the disaster that was SIFF’s failed screening of The Red Shoes, I’m glad to see the archival program back on track.

A Hard Day – Somewhere the dominant strain of the crime movie genre morphed from Woovian tales of moral codes in unjust societies to Rube Goldberg narratives driven by slapstick escalations of violence. Suspense and drama comes not from characters or ideals, but from complications in plot, driving the protagonists into ever more desperate and implausible actions and unlikely camera angles. Laurel & Hardy and Infernal Affairs, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Big Clock are the reference points for Kim Seonghun’s thriller, about a cop who accidentally runs over a man on an empty street at night and goes to great lengths to cover it up. Things get even more audaciously complicated when it turns out, in shades of The Coffin in the Mountain, that he wasn’t alone and maybe the guy was already dead.

As an aside: star Lee Sunkyun is instantly recognizable from many Hong Sangsoo films. His Oki’s Movie co-star Moon Sunkeun is in Haemoo and Hong’s former assistant Lee Kwangkuk has a movie here at SIFF, A Matter of Interpretation. Even when he doesn’t have a movie playing, Hong Sangsoo dominates film festivals.

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