Bright Lights Film Journal

Chicago, je t’aime: The 42nd Chicago International Film Festival

“There are things you shouldn’t sell”

For the festival’s 42nd annual opening night, the 3,000-seat Chicago Theatre threw open its doors and watched the convergence on the red carpet as local TV and newspaper reporters crowded past international press and jury members (including actress Betsy Blair, filmmaker Joe Berlinger of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and film distributor Jean-Jacques Varret). Inside, amateur paparazzi set their flash cameras twinkling through the audience like fireflies, as fans memorialized with digital-photo proof that they had shared space with filmdom luminaries.

It was Mayor Daley, the city’s First Movie Buff, who officially opened the fest, then made room for this year’s honoree, Dustin Hoffman. Among his words of appreciation, the affable star took the trouble to remind listeners that cinema remains a war between commerce and art, with too many artists now forced to operate from an angry determination that “You cannot stop me from doing good work!” The opening cinematic salvo was Marc Forster’s diverting Stranger Than Fiction, greeted all the more cordially for being chock full of underused South Side Chicago locations (which meant jobs for equally underused local craftspeople, many of them cheering from the audience).

Reaction remained positive throughout the festival’s fifteen days to this year’s logo trailer that featured cheerful splotches and dancing squiggles (you can play with the technology here). Introducing over a hundred feature films and thirty shorts, this mini-film wore remarkably well as the festival juggernaut vaulted through its event calendar of educational outreach screenings, an anime panel, homegrown Illinois filmmaking confabs, and personal appearances by performers like Ruby Dee, Will Ferrell, Liza Minnelli and André Benjamin (Outkast), plus cast members from John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (which squeezed the heart, along with more external organs).

Among directors checking in were Stephen Frears, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Spike Lee, Darren Aronofsky, Pixar wizard Gary Rydstrom, and documentarian Barbara Kopple. Audiences could ponder the juxtaposed irony of actor-director D. B. Sweeney discussing how he outsourced the editing of his enthusiastically received road movie Dirt Nap all the way to Korea, while Korean Bong Joon-ho returned the favor by hiring San Francisco spfx houses to burnish his sensational monster spectacle The Host.

Plenty of sold-out showings bore witness to Chicagoans’ thirst for films that subvert pre-sold, pre-chewed, and pre-deceased cinema as encountered daily in the nation’s mechaplexes. Pessimists noted that much-awaited new works by illustrious names like Alain Resnais, Jia Zhang-ke, Werner Herzog, Jaafar Panahi, Tsai Ming-liang, Paul Verhoeven, Hirozaki Kore-eda, and Ken Loach, many of them regulars at the festival, had apparently treated Chicago as flyover country and winged straight to Vancouver. Eternal optimists, for their part, welcomed the chance for lower-profile movies to shine with undimmed splendor.

Inevitable bottlenecks at Homeland Security-plagued U.S. Customs necessitated some emergency projection of screeners rather than films. In fact, one of the festival’s indisputably best films, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s delicately dream-like Invisible Waves, was shown once in the inferior format and then officially cancelled from competition. Taking a regulation genre plot of adultery, murder and flight, the Thai director produces a reverie on film noir, one that asks “Who deserves to live more, a happy man or a lost ghost?” Following a deracinated Japanese chef as he makes a guilty escape to Thailand’s island resort of Phuket, the director unexpectedly puts sad sack Tadanobu Asano in comical predicaments on his rickety cruise ship, suggesting Buster Keaton in The Navigator. Everything in his cabin resists him: the bed won’t stay open, the door won’t budge, the lights flicker then short out, and the shower haphazardly spits water at him. At his destination, this laconic protagonist first gets attacked, suffering the same beatings as Mitchum or Bogart did decades ago. Then he’s rescued by a gangland agent and devotee of karaoke (“Japan’s great gift to the world”), assisted by two bikini-ed bimbos prancing in a hotel pool. Alongside the humor and the violence, the director develops a lyrical embrace of impermanence, fashioned through faint wisps of ghostly music, distant pedal touches of ambient sound, and compositions extending deep through planes of action, enfolded in ace cameraman Christopher Doyle’s flattened shadows. While never aping the style of Orson Welles, the film mysteriously achieves a distinctly Wellesian feel for the romance of corruption, and it doesn’t hurt that there’s an aquarium full of mini-sharks or that one jaded participant evaluates the hero thus: “The more stupid he gets, the more I like him.”

The world is a complicated place in Asghar Farhadi’s sophisticated and arrestingly played Fireworks Wednesday (Chahar Shanbe Souri), which could justifiably be called the find of the festival (this Iranian entry won the Gold Hugo for Best Film). Its heroine, a naïve young freelance housemaid, is plagued with chador trouble: first the black robe tangles inside the wheel of her fiancé’s motorbike, sending them both merrily tumbling to the pavement. Then, when she wants to try on her ultra-frilly wedding gown, she pulls the virginal-white dress over her midnight-black chador, but soon loses the garment in the tumult of a day’s work at an apartment block. Though rock certain that “my fiancé is totally in love with me,” she has to steer her way through a network of relationship meltdowns and salutary examples of marital deceptions and betrayals, as the vivid flowing action turns increasingly complex what with spying and eavesdropping throughout an epic argument between a harried husband and his paranoid spouse. The pungent dialogue also involves an understanding divorcée, a little boy with nightmares about hell, and assorted big-city neighbors and relatives. Set during the frenzied New Year holiday, all the marital fireworks fittingly take place to the constant crack and pop of gunfire and firecrackers and explosions and flames and sizzling sparklers.

Madeinusa is the name of a Peruvian village girl (she pronounces it “mah-din-OO-sa”), the prettiest maiden in her remote mountain town, who wins the local competition to portray the Virgin Mary in the local religious festivities. Director Claudia Llosa employs the fairy tale structure of an outsider entering the Enchanted Forest, as a traveling gringo finds himself detained in this lice-ridden, rat-infested settlement populated by Indians. Who can blame the locals for releasing pressure in their annual carnival called the “Holy Time”? Pulling the nails out of Christ’s palms, lifting his figure down off the church crucifix and blindfolding the wooden lord, they free themselves to partake in all manner of debauchery with all rules and inhibitions suspended as they pour booze into open coffins, steal farm animals, and carouse amidst bonfires and blazing Catherine wheels. In this heart of wickedness, both the heroine’s carnal-minded father (who’s also the mayor) and the visiting wastrel respond to her virginal charms, and she determines to quit the oppressive small-town hypocrisy for the urban glamour of Lima. This elaborate production set in the pristine light of colorful coca-growing rural locations proceeds with a measured, often quiet style that very much concerns itself with the poisonous fate of young women in any remote inbred community, and provides a handsome showcase for actress Magaly Solier, whose sharp-angled Indio features effortlessly suit the camera. It also gives her the memorable line, “I saw my name on your shirt!”

Buzz tracks down feisty and alarmingly hirsute 98-year-old Albert Isaac Bezzerides, screenwriter of such significant noirs as On Dangerous Ground, Track of the Cat, and Kiss Me Deadly in his spiderweb-bedecked house in the California hills for a chronological stroll through his life and studio-era career. Born in Turkey to a Greek father and Armenian mother (“Mother did everything she could to abort me. But she didn’t succeed”), he and his family escaped the pogroms to settle in Fresno. A Berkeley-trained engineer, “Buzz” invented devices to improve the Mitchell camera, but was bitten by the writing bug while reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles and eventually published stories in such estimable outlets as Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s, “but they never paid anything.” Indeed, financial injustices become a running theme (his first Warner Brothers contract was apparently a ploy to prevent a lawsuit since the studio had a script already written called They Drive by Night before they had actually purchased the rights to his novel Long Haul). Though he finally admits that “money didn’t solve my emotional problems, writing did,” there’s plenty of grousing about his uncredited script-polishing on films like Action in the North Atlantic and Desert Fury, and sketchy anecdotes about long-gone friends like Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe and William Faulkner, though disappointingly little about his own most enduring films. With only skimpy film trailers for illustration, director Spiro N. Taraviras doggedly interviews other witnesses, including stars Gloria Stuart and Terry Moore, director Jules Dassin, critics Dan Georgakas and Philippe Garnier, as well as his subject’s daughter and son, but the questioning cries out for tighter focus.

South Korea’s baldly ribald costumerKing and the Clown (Wang-Ui Namja) concerns an impudent troupe of acrobats and minstrels that tweak attention by rampantly satirizing the volatile tyrant (“The king’s bed is where the money is,” they sing), his jealous mistress (“A whore and her tongue’s work is never done”) and his equally corrupt court. Making fine use of its spectacularly agile performers, the raunchy and zany first hour raises a vigorous middle finger to power and privilege with earthy double-entendres and broad caricatures and shameless slapstick, not neglecting spit takes. Cloaked in splendiferously colorful costumes, these theatricals run the gamut of performance history from tightrope walking to hand puppets and shadow plays, and finally enact a Hamlet-like demonstration of hidden motivations and murders. The film equally functions as an unstressed gay love story of unshakable devotion between an aggressive acrobat, passionate for freedom and willing to risk a flogging, and a delicate drag performer who must resist overtures from various power-brokers (“There are things you shouldn’t sell”), though director Lee Jun-ik strains to negotiate the switch from comic to tragic thanks to wearyingly conventional filmmaking choices, not least the unaccountably sludgy musical score.

“Do you prefer squares, circles, or triangles?” That’s one inexplicable job interview question posed twice to a hematologist in Thailand’s sublimely lucid yet ineffably mysterious Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat). As he did in last year’s Tropical Malady, one time Chicagoan Apichatpong Weerasethakul rejects literary scaffolding and prosaic logic in favor of accessing the unseen forces at play beneath our mundane surface reality. Directing with unruffled confidence and almost classical balance, he proceeds with poetic freedom to posit slightly altered events in two parallel hospital settings, one looking out on green fields with feathery treetops swaying in the breeze, and the other humming in the clinically white urban landscape. In effect, it feels like two people’s memories of things that transpired long ago, but which two? There’s a wild-orchid horticulturist who asks “Have you ever been in love? It feels like my heart’s on fire.” There’s an aspiring deejay who claims “I’m in the grip of mysterious forces that want to keep me a dentist.” Various characters blithely reference their past lives, while one Buddhist Monk explains that as a child he used to break chickens’ legs “just for fun” but now has troubling dreams that he’s turning into a chicken. Mysterious tracking shots move back and forth from commemorative statues in a park to a white stone Buddha, and the film’s gently humorous atmosphere of supernal calm absorbs a solar eclipse as an entirely natural occurrence of life lived fully in the moment. Even when the hospital’s fluorescent lights short out and smoke snakes around the circuitry, the camera swivels into the moon-shaped mouth of an insulation duct that seems to suck in all the toxic smoke. Aided by unearthly ambient sound presence and languorous guitar music, this refined and original film seems to catch life just at the brink of fulfillment, with nothing lost or wasted yet, free from bitterness or resentment, and hopes still intact: just life lived as purely as a song.

“I like her but somehow I don’t like her either,” warns the tortured protagonist of Matthias Glasner’s grippingly intense The Free Will (Die Freie Wille), as he tentatively tries to relate to a woman when he’s released after nine years’ detention for rape. With no more sex-drive inhibitor drugs to protect him, he struggles to find a place for himself in eros-soaked modern society, where girls in thongs beckon from billboards (“It’s string time!”). Evoking the wind-whipped dunes of the sunless Baltic coast and the urban loneliness of closing time in neon-lit cafés and waiting for the last subway train at night, this elaborate production unsettlingly captures the enormity of being unable to connect to the everyday world of coupling and physical satisfaction. Actor Jürgen Vogel, his soulful eyes burning like hot coals, looks far too intense to interact on any casual level, scaring away women and upping the social tension that drives him to consider a voluntary return to the detention facility (Vogel’s anguished performance rightly won the festival’s Best Actor award). When he meets a disaffected woman who spurns men, their mutual attraction and matched internalized aggression emerge in a strikingly original self-defense scene where he trains her in martial arts, their repetitive strikes tensely visualizing the battle of the sexes and uneasily promising a personal breakthrough from damage to intimacy. With on-the-street locations and murky low-light video imaginatively deployed with spurts of intense color, this powerful film reflects the central attempt to emerge from the darkness while questioning the ambiguities of human choice.

Only slightly less mordant than last year’s Rumanian hit, The Death of Mr.Lazarescu, but every bit as funny, Corneliu Porumbolu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (A Fost Sau n-a Fost?) takes a reliably bleak central European approach to a Christmas snowfall (“Enjoy it now. Tomorrow it will be mud”). As dawn breaks in a provincial town and the street lights expire, the owner and honey-voiced anchorman of the local TV station is planning his traditional broadcast to commemorate the December 1989 revolution by asking whether their town took part in it or not. Pressing into service a devoutly alcoholic teacher (who berates his high school students that “you can’t even cheat properly”), and the town’s cranky aged Santa Claus, the host produces a comically disastrous hour of television that becomes obsessed with the titular minute. Apart from his own telebanalities and overreaching references to Greek mythology, the satire encompasses the hilariously misjudged angles and uncertain focus by his amateur cameraman, plus telephoned threats from a litigious caller plus the town’s lone Chinese shopkeeper and firecracker salesman.

Up against several walls, the young wage-slave hero of Brian Jun’s stylishly shot and surprisingly affecting Steel City has to confront some straight-talking advice: “Things are fucked up. Pick one to fix.” Not so simple to do amongst the complicated cross-purposes of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, cops and criminals, and certainly no easier in this blue-collar milieu of provincial Illinois factories and service jobs. When families are crowded into trailers, emotions stay close to the surface, even as pool halls and steeltown saloons provide only illusory escape. Old pro John Heard does subtle work in his meaty part as a deadbeat dad in jail awaiting sentencing for a crime he did not commit, and director Jun coaxes considerable star presence from blond newcomer Tom Guiry who effortlessly holds the center together.

South Korea’s bravura hit The Host (Gwoemul) could be the mutant monster movie that crosses the dreaded subtitle barrier to stateside success and a truce between commerce and art. Or will audiences reject its fact-based indictment of the U.S. Army for its careless pollution, including experimental spraying of South Korea with “Agent Yellow”? The frisky center of attention, in any case, is a lizard-like beast, spawned from mega-doses of toxic formaldehyde dumped from an American military base morgue, which then leaps out of the river to scale Seoul’s bridges, swinging and whipsawing unpredictably as crowds scatter across huge public spaces before the gobbling reptile. No cute anthropomorphic beastie, this creature represents nature at its most primal as it belches up a rain of bones and skulls out from its maw. When the monster abducts a schoolgirl in its slimy grip, her ragtag family springs into action, especially her untutored but instinctively crafty street vendor father, smartly underplayed by a newly blond Song Kang-ho (the cult star was indelible as the boorish detective in the same director’s raucous Memories of Murder). Here he’s a kind of slow-witted but determined peasant everyman (as his father explains, “He was really a smart kid, but he lacked protein when he needed it the most”) who models a populist distrust for authority. The director reserves ample scorn for the Korean government’s self-serving behavior and coercive “protective” measures: functionaries in hazmat suits isolate the populace behind sheets of plastic, propounding a dubious rumor of a lethal new virus that may require enforced lobotomies. Boldly turning a mass funeral for the monster’s first victims into an early serving of comic “splat-stick,” director Bong Joon-ho also flaunts a spectacular visual style that makes smart use of Seoul’s crisply angled buildings and bridges, while also deploying the best fast lateral tracking shots since Kurosawa. In its spectacular finale, where a molotov-cocktail-throwing political demonstration joins forces with the family to smoke the monster out from its lurking-place in the sewer system, The Host scales slithering heights and in the process shreds tedious J-horror remakes into mincemeat.

An elegant bagatelle, hardly more than an anecdote, Belle Toujours evokes a vanishing world where elegance cohabits with perversity, fittingly so considering its homage to both Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, director and co-scenarist respectively of 1966’s Belle de Jour. Adapting Joseph Kessel’s sequel to his original novel, nonagenarian Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira rehires Michel Piccoli from the original film and stretches the narrative across the aging libertine’s several encounters with a brace of prostitutes offering their wares and a young bartender (who tells him, “You can’t imagine the things I hear. People want to confess to someone neutral as if talking to a wall”) until he can lure the elusive title blonde (Bulle Ogier tolerably standing in for Catherine Deneuve) to an intimate dinner. Reflecting that “Hiding her perversion from her husband was her perversion,” he tries to give her the Chinese man’s infamously mysterious box as a present, but she refuses it, insisting that “I’m a different woman now. I’m not the same woman who needed to be in love with one man to make love with another.” All she cares about is whether he revealed her secret life to her husband. Alongside ravishing orchestral excerpts from Dvorak’s 8th Symphony and god’s-eye shots of Paris by day and night, Oliveira applies his mannered deadpan style, including sound design so scrupulous that we savor the delicate crack of a spoon breaking the surface of the heroine’s crème brulée. Beyond autumnal, this tantalizing cinematic grace note makes room for an eleventh-hour eruption of surrealism in a hotel corridor, but closes as the servants clear away the candles and leave the dining room in darkness as if no one had ever been there.

Opening with brilliant millennial fireworks bursting forth from the Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime sputters ahead with contributions from eighteen international directors, to make a “collective film” composed of undemanding trifles, none allotted more time than it takes to boil an average oeuf. The City of Light and its various quartiers supply the unifying element, not least its rainbow population of Arabs, Africans, Asians and even Americans in Paris, involving the likes of Nick Nolte, Juliette Binoche, Elijah Wood, Gena Rowlands, and Natalie Portman in everything from vampire stories to an appearance by Oscar Wilde’s ghost. Sylvain Chomet (Triplets of Belleville) delivers a sweetly droll live-action romance between two mimes; the Coen brothers plunge nebbishy innocent Steve Buscemi into Métro hell; Gus Van Sant (Elephant) charts a problematic pickup in an art gallery; Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) uses camera trickery and dubious poetic rhetoric — “Our love fell asleep and the snow took it by surprise” — for a blind man’s love story. Mileage differs among spectators, but two standout segments come from Olivier Assayas (Demonlover) directing Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hashish purchases from an Arab street thug, and Alexander Payne (Sideways) presenting the poignant reactions of a visiting letter-carrier from Denver, narrated completely in excruciatingly American-accented French.

Everyone in the talented cast of Barrio Cuba gets a breakdown scene, energizing this sensationally melodramatic national epic of underclass passions (these hot-blooded Cubans make Neapolitans look like Norwegians). Revealing a considerably grittier Havana than the tourist environs seen in Buena Vista Social Club, this film does feature several songs familiar from Wim Wenders’ hit, plus a contribution by ubiquitous musician Elias Ochoa. With telenovela sweep, soaring crane shots and big emotional close-ups, director Humberto Solás sustains deep chords of drama through birth and death, baseball and alcoholism, nude scenes and racial barriers (“You’re ashamed of your color, always after white girls!”). A gay character first gets rejected but later embraced by his macho father, and there’s even an appeal to religious forces (though undercut with humor). No idealistic talk is heard, just everyday struggles with food shortages, train breakdowns, standing in queues to buy a newspaper, overcrowded ramshackle housing with people sleeping on the floor, and professionals working in service jobs just for the tips. Though streaked with darkness and frustration, it’s also frank about families with little or nothing to sell emigrating to Miami “for the money.” As one character remarks, “No wonder they call us ‘Palestinians’!”

Retrospectives were even rarer this year than at past festivals, but who could complain when the sole revival was a rare chance to see the delicious and long-unseen silent Chicago? Given the location, it couldn’t be more appropriate, of course, but Frank Urson’s bawdy film remains witty in ways that its remakes — William Wellman’s noisy Roxie Hart and Rob Marshall’s hokey musical Chicago — could only wish to achieve.

When all was said and done, some twenty films received awards, including the Best Documentary to James Longley’s popular Iraq in Fragments and the FIPRESCI New Directors Prize to Julia Loktev’s Times Square terrorist study Day Night, Day Night. The Audience Choice awards went to Fredi M. Murer’s family comedy Vitus (Switerland), Rachid Bouchareb’s earnest race-conscious war drama Days of Glory(France/Algeria), and Stephen Frears’ already released The Queen. Read the complete award list here.