Chicago International Film Festival Part IV, by Aaron Pinkston
The Missing Picture, dir. Rithy Panh, Cambodia and France
Between the years of 1975 and 1979 Cambodia was under governmental control by a group called the Khmer Rouge, an offshoot of the Communist party that had already taken control of neighbor Vietnam. Led by Pol Pot, the group committed a number of atrocities that affected the country for many years after the Khmer Rouge lost power. Estimates claim that about four million people (nearly half of the population) were killed from war, rebellion, mass murder and man-made famine. The Missing Picture is filmmaker Rithy Panh’s attempt to fully confront his personal trauma while telling the people’s collective story.
Panh uses three distinct techniques in telling his story: an ever-present narration, archival footage and scenes recreated with small clay figurines. Each of these techniques gives the film a complex presentation, standing for different purposes but never straight-forward. The most eye-catching are the scenes of animation, which creates a certain distance from the portrayed events, allowing the subject to compartmentalize and understand the worst of humanity. Its effect is also disarming because of the difference between the beautiful art and the horrific implications of what it depicts. Like Marwencol or Waltz with Bashir, the use of animation in this way is an extremely successful and challenging technique. The use of animation is also eye because of the lack of footage left by the Khmer Rouge, who did their best to destroy any documentation of their crimes.
The voice-over narration isn’t just a personal story, but works around the events with philosophical hypotheses and through riddles, only giving glimpses of the personal story throughout. It is a fractured story, reminiscent of explaining long-lost memories — a little disconnected and distant. Voice-over in this manner would typically drive the story to make it consumable, but like everything else in its presentation, it only adds to The Missing Picture’s complexity. It isn’t really understood whose story is being told. Is it the director or the narrator (they are not the same person)? Is it perhaps a collective memory, stories from many of this community? This design further complicates the film but that doesn’t make it any less authentic. In fact, it becomes ethereal in a way that is necessary when telling a story like this.
The third piece of the presentation, the newsreel and archival footage, doesn’t display any heavy moments of the torture or mass killings that occurred — as I mentioned above, there simply aren’t any. Instead, it mostly serves to fill in the gaps and provide a real historical context to go along with the personal elements. There is a very subtle effect that reminds us this is a true story that is being told — that is sort of a weird thing to consider, but because of its complicated nature and use of animated figures to tell most of its story, seeing real human beings during this time is absolutely necessary to make a connection. The film often blends the newsreels with the clay figures, superimposing the art into the real world. This has a strange effect that is difficult to pinpoint, but there is something there.
Far from a mainstream film, The Missing Picture is challenging and complex in fascinating ways. The film gives a good historical overview of this tumultuous time, but isn’t merely a historical record. Balancing the communal story with the personal story, it is a remarkable example of how storytelling helps us understand ourselves and our enemies.
Remaining show times: Tuesday October 22 at 6:15 pm, Wednesday October 23 at 8:30 pm
A Pact, dir. Denis Dercourt, Germany/France
On paper, there may not have been a more intriguing premise for a film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival than A Pact. When they are teenagers, best friends Paul and Georg make the title pact over Georg’s then girlfriend Anna. Paul, who is secretly in love with Anna, forges a note to make his friend think she loves him, as well. Instead of becoming upset, the scarily even-keeled Georg offers a deal: Paul can have Anna as long as Georg can have her back at any future moment. Time passes and the friends grow apart while Paul and Anna get married and have two children. Then, suddenly, over 30 years later, Georg reappears and a twisted plot is sprung.
A Pact stands at a brisk 82 minutes, which is atypical for this type of twisty thriller. The film is lean, doesn’t waste a lot of time before getting deep into the story, but it is also thinner than one might hope. Many thrillers like this wrap more into the intrigue while A Pact feels particularly straight-forward — besides one major twist that carries the film through the second half, there isn’t much of a mystery to hold onto. Often the joys of watching a character-based thriller is seeing just how far the film is willing to go, to see just how much everything can spiral out of control until the picture is finally clear. I think a part of A Pact wants to be that, but it doesn’t quite put in the effort. Though I wouldn’t often urge a film to be longer, A Pact may have gained a lot in entertainment value by beefing itself up a bit.
That said, the film is well enough tempered and acted to hold its suspense until the obligatory shocking conclusion. French writer/director Denis Dercourt brings out more suspense from the characters than the plot, giving the film a psychological element that forms in the eyes more than the page. Sylvester Groth (most known for his role as Goebbles in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) is fantastic and the brooding Georg, a character which absolutely needs his performance. In order for the film to fully work, Georg has to play the line of deliriously evil and stone cold, he can never be too obvious in his plans or intentions. Georg’s companion Yvonne (Sophie Rois) is equally creepy, together making a fantastically villainous couple. Yvonne especially is odd, because there isn’t much evidence on her that should make one uneasy, but through her association with Georg and a slightly off quality, she seems bound to explode at any moment.
A modern thriller, A Pact explores a theme I don’t think I’ve seen before: the lasting impact of the fall of East Germany. Much of the suspense surrounding Georg is built through whispers on the film’s edges that his father is a high ranking member of the East German police — Georg even admits that he worked in the police himself until the wall came down. When Paul’s life starts crumbling, he questions whether Gerog has the power to pull off the crazy things that begin happening to him. A Pact gets dangerously close to a conspiracy “nobody believes me he is evil” thriller, but it takes from a fascinating history that still must affect people in Germany today.
Purgatorio, dir. Rodrigo Reyes, Mexico/USA
In the opening moments of Purgatorio, the film’s major thesis is established by asking the viewers to close their eyes and think back to the world when borders didn’t exist. As the film states, if you draw a line on paper it’s just a line, but when you draw a line in the sand it is only there to divide us. The tensions between the United States and Mexico over illegal immigration have become so emotionally charged that any proper debate has spun out of control. Purgatorio does its best to bring the issue back down to the ground level, exploring the people and places in play from all angles. Despite the exhaustive amount of political speechifying that has been going on the past decade, the film is able to clear out the noise and offer a few new perspectives, as well.
Purgatorio is quite similar in construction and narrative to a film that I reviewed earlier in the festival, the middle east conflict film Infiltrators. These films both work as a broad exploration of their topics while offering a series of brief profiles which catch small moments and stories. Purgatorio has a really well-rounded cast of characters — Mexicans looking to cross the border, Americans who are looking to help or hunt the crossers, and everything in between. The film talks to professionals affected by the issue who are outside of the debate, like a doctor who works to identify the anonymous men and women who don’t successfully make the journey and even a dog catcher who patrols the Mexican side of the border. These specific profiles don’t add much to the surface, but they give a wider view to the overall tapestry that Reyes builds. Perhaps the two most intriguing profiles of the film are American men at completely opposite ends of the issue’s spectrum. One see these crossers as heroes, liking them to a history of Americans who lose their jobs and travel far distances to provide for their families. The other’s job is to literally hunt crossers in order to deter them from entering the United States. Reyes walks along with the hunter, who shows his process and the clues for when potential illegal immigrants are in the area.
The stories shown in Purgatorio alone would be enough to make a compelling film, but Reyes also builds through images. The shooting style has the eye of a photojournalist more than a filmmaker, able to tell entire portions of this complex story through only one still frame. This is vital in presenting the fully realized picture that Reyes brings us because so little of the film directly points to the politicized debate. With these snapshots the film is much more humanist than political, but it offers enough philosophy through its distanced voice-over. By not naming the people and places we encounter, the border takes on the near mystical quality it is often prescribed in popular culture, but is able to be countered by the film’s naturalistic and realist point-of-view.
A normal middle-of-the-road documentary about the Mexican-American border issue who have lots of charts and graphs and statistics, with talking-head scholars and experts talking at the great debate. Maybe a few subjects with first-hand experience of the border would be sprinkled in to add some credibility. This approach could make a fine (though probably not interesting) film, but would most likely miss the complexity of Purgatorio. Purgatorio is able to have all the science and emotion while being in the muck of the real problems. Through its profiles and its pictures, it is constantly able to explore the grand political environment while rarely doing so explicitly. It is both a beautiful, at times ethereal, film and one with incredible meaning. It may be the ultimate film in fully exploring this complicated issue.
Remaining show times: Tuesday October 22 at 8:30 pm, Wednesday October 23 at 6:30 pm
Soul, dir. Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan
Soul is an odd little film. A pseudo-possession pseudo-thriller with naturalistic tones, the film is another entry in the weird genre movement coming out of Asia. The film opens with a young cook named A-Chuan who inexplicably collapses while at work. Once he comes to, he finds himself at his father’s home in the mountains with his body possibly inhabited by someone else. We don’t know much about A-Chuan before this event, but his new form is a cold and calculated personality, often quite dangerous. After a horrific event is perpetrated by A-Chuan, his quiet and stoic father must put the pieces back together, figure out what is going on with his son, and protect him from the local authorities.
The specific details of A-Chuan’s state are kept mysterious, with a heavy sense of spirituality that works throughout the film. As indicated by the title, elements of Eastern religions are at play — though the film isn’t outwardly philosophical about the soul as a separate being from the body, I get strong vibes of reincarnation and spirit transference. It’s a fantastical device, but Soul stays mostly grounded by also offering up real-world explanations for such a strange occurrence. A-Chaun’s father visits a doctor on multiple occasions in hopes to make sense of his son, with the doctor touching on both mental illness and metaphysical possibilities. It’s true, some instances of schizophrenia are latent until a particular traumatic event takes place — perhaps this is the case of A-Chuan’s collapse or other potential unseen factors that led to it. Either way, Soul doesn’t really answer this question, but that’s not necessarily a problem. The film isn’t set as a mystery, so solving the mystery isn’t all that important, no matter how much you might want to know the cause.
What seems more important to Chung Mong-Hung’s story is what happens at the secluded mountain ranch slash orchid farm. Chung brings a bit of the slick vibe to this violent thriller that we’ve seen particularly coming out of South Korea, though overall the film’s style feels a bit half-baked. A few dramatic scenes employ a series of flash cuts, where shots cut entirely to black for a second or two and then back to the action. This technique particularly emphasizes the violence as snapshots — we aren’t missing any action with the cuts to black, instead letting us really consider what we are seeing. The technique is also used at the point after A-Chuan’s collapse, as he is regaining consciousness, with cuts of his surroundings from his perspective. This is a more obvious use of editing, but effective.
Other aspects to Chung’s editing and shooting style don’t work quite as well, especially an overuse of digital zooms — a technique I rarely find appealing. More importantly, the film is incredibly inconsistent, with a tone that could really be fine-tuned. I could never tell if the film was trying to be comic or serious or ultra-serious-turned-comedic. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the new breed of Asian genre filmmakers whose films effortlessly bleed coolness with vibrant and slick designs, but Soul was missing something. It’s not the story or the fantastic set-up, but perhaps it all could have been pushed a bit further. It’s not fair, I know, but I wonder what someone like Kim Jee-woon or Sion Sono could have done with this material. When Soul reaches a small theatrically release or DVD, I think it’s worth seeing, but it doesn’t hold with many of the similarly odd genre films coming from Asia.
Remaining show times: Tuesday October 22 at 8:45 pm, Wednesday October 23 at 1 pm
Stop-Over, dir. Kaveh Bakhtiari, France/Switzerland
The third film I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival directly dealing with illegal immigration, Stop-Over makes me think that there must be something in the air. Set at a safe house in Athens, Greece, inhabited by a group of Iranian immigrants desperately seeking illegal documents that could get them further into Europe or the United States, Stop-Over is certainly a powerful tale on paper. Because of their legal status and Greece’s political view of immigrants, they are under constant threat of arrest or deportation, literally in danger every time they leave their shelter. Filmed by the cousin of one of the boarded men, it is a deeply personal account about what it is like to be a man without freedom or home. This story is enough to carry the film, but it doesn’t exhibit the beauty or brutality of Infiltrators or Purgatorio.
There are certainly moments and scenes that are able to display a palpable amount of tension, but overall the film is pretty static. This is bound to happen in a film about a group of men holed up in a house. At times there is a bit of a Big Brother quality captured in their stir-crazy situation. But as the group dynamic begins to break down, with the pressure mounting as days and weeks go by with little hope of escape, Stop-Over does well to avoid being overly sensationalistic.
There are extraordinary lengths these men have to go through to make their way out of Greece. Unfortunately, Stop-Over doesn’t have access to much of it, for obvious reasons. We aren’t able to see the meetings with smugglers and when the lucky few who leave the safe house, their story ends when they walk out the door. The part Stop-Over is able to capture is the long waiting game that becomes absolutely necessary for this act. It’s integral and psychologically daunting, but not as cinematic as what would come next. We settle for scenes like one man putting in blue contact lenses to match the fake passport he just received. The scene works as an interesting part of the process, but it’s not exactly dynamic.
The film’s most compelling character is the youngest member of the house, who is only 16, but has a mature sense of his predicament. Like all of the men, he is separated from his family — his mother has already emigrated to Norway, where she awaits her son. Because she didn’t have any particular trouble making the journey, she doesn’t understand the constant danger of his situation. This leads to extra pressure and frustration which continuously breaks him down. Once it is his time to go, he is almost too scared to risk it.
During the film’s third act, there is a major shift away from the house to a protest outside of a government building. One of the film’s subjects goes on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of immigrants in Greece, going so far as to sew his mouth shut. A few of the moments in this act are the most stirring in the film, but I still feel like Stop-Over can’t truly depict it to its fullest effect. There is practically no explanation of important details, so there is little sense as to how long this protest lasted or the specifics of the purpose.
Ultimately, Stop-Over has an important and worthy concept. But with a shaggy feel, the film becomes slow and too reliant on the surface-level tension of the situation. Seeing the group of men live and act on a day-to-day basis should be enough to build a wholly satisfying film, but the results are surprisingly uncinematic. Stop-Over also was sadly paired with films that are able to tackle a similar subject with so much grace — perhaps it’s not fair to put too much stock in this comparison, but it highlights the film’s weaknesses.
Remaining show times: Wednesday October 23 at 6:30 pm