Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sundance Day 2: Last Flight Train To Vegetarianism

Time travel with me to yesterday
(and be back tonight for txtcritic's SAG liveblogging!)

So I did actually make it to Utah. Picked up press badge -- they apologized that my lanyard was pink. I promise you, festival volunteers, I'm not offended. Although I prefer the term 'lavender' -- and collapsed in hotel room for an hour. Went to first movie which, as it turned out, was a major slap-in-face perspective wise: it's tough to think about how much complaining I did about my 19 hour trip to get to a film festival in a resort town in the face of the world's largest hellish annual migration to places far less glamorous.

Last Train Home
Every year in China, millions upon millions of migrant workers travel out of the cities en masse for the Chinese New Year. It's the only time they see their families in the country all year. A more traditional documentary might have opened with a ton of onscreen text or talking head facts to tell you about this chaotic commuting phenomenon. Instead the film opens with evocative images of the migration, instantly engaging this Westerner's curiosity with only the slimmest factual details in text form, the rest you fill in from the drama you're watching. After the stunning opening, the film backtracks to watch a husband and wife working in the city and struggling to get tickets for this annual journey. Once we've settled in with the chatty worried mother and the quiet dad with unconcealed sadness all around his eyes, we travel with them to the bittersweet family reunion. It quickly sours. Their teenage daughter resents their annual lecture-heavy visits "stay in school, don't become like us" since she feels she barely knows them and they didn't raise her, their young son, who seems to have a bright sense of humor, might soon feel the same way since they harp on his grades continually. The family argues and everyone makes vague future promises everyone else knows they won't keep. And just when we're settling into the family drama, we're back in the city, the family separated again with the parents working their hands to the bone to provide cheap clothing to Westerners.

The subject is so rich that it could have easily prompted a multiple character examination or a lengthy complex fact-oriented talking head style docs. There's no 'talking heads' as it were, and even when the family members speak for the benefit of the camera, they'll rarely look at it... all of which makes this an intimate fly-on-the-wall experience. It's so hands off observational that it feels thisclose to being a dramatic narrative feature. For the most part this aesthetic is a strength but its not without its drawbacks. There's one breaking of the fourth wall moment that I'm not sure works -- despite taking place within the film's most gripping heartbreaking scene, since it makes you realize how much of the family story you might be missing since people know they're being filmed and all stories can be manipulated in the editing.

It's a heartbreaker but it's not without levity. We occasionally hear brief conversations among other migrant workers about their jobs, about the "fat" Westerners they know they're working for (the waist sizes on the jeans they make alarm them), about the Beijing Olympics (One man in a bar proclaims that the United States shouldn't win that many medals because they only have like 3 million citizens. Um...) and more of this would have been welcome since there's a lot of context and information that's only inferred but that we come closer to understanding in these tangential moments. This film was directed by a Canadian filmmaker and in addition to being quite a documentarian he also has one of the coolest names ever "Lixin Fan". A-

In other migration news... more important news apparently, he said sarcastically, considering the percentage of tweeting about it, Kristen Stewart arrived in Utah today. Didn't her mother tell her to dress warmly? This won't do.

I'm trying to find a way to love the Bella because I'm desperate to see The Runaways but the paparazzi (and Kristen) never help me in this goal. Does any super famous person today seem more bored by their fame? Note to Kristen: If you're bored with it, why shouldn't we be? The celebrity/civilian relationship is tricky and sacred and requires abstract reciprocation. When you enjoy it, we enjoy it. That's how it works, generally speaking. There are several ways to play the non-enjoyment of it and still delight fans but boredom is the trickiest one to get away with. That one usually only works if you're bored by it because of your principled devotion/obsession/commitment to something else.

But back to the movies.

Because I was exhausted after my 19 hour trip, I met Katey briefly for a cocktail party (turns out its hard to maneuver through crowded industry events when half the people are wearing huge winter coats. Who knew?), and then took in only one more film before sleep hit. Actually while sleep hit.

Vegetarian (Chaesikjuuija)
Lim Woo-seong's Korean debut feature was just weird enough to be thoroughly engaging despite the nodding off I was doing. [I can't say how well paced it was. It felt 7 hours long but I was struggling with heavy lids. not the movie's fault!] Vegetarians will definitely take issue with the movie for the simple reductive fact that the title character is gaunt and unhealthy and her diet is never separable from her mental illness: which, its immediately clear, is considerable.Why this isn't clear to her family members at the outset of the film is hard to gauge. Maybe they're all crazy, too?

All of the characters make questionable choices, but especially her violent domineering father and her brother-in-law who takes over the latter half of the movie with a new art project involving nude floral body art. Naturally, he wants his sister-in-law for the job.

Indeed, there's enough disturbing behavior in Vegetarian to power three films. At times it feels like the premise has done just that, with a psychological thriller, erotic liaison drama and family portrait all vying for control of the film and none of them really winning the war. Chea Min-Seo's performance in the lead role is brave. For whole scenes this haunted woman will seem barely there (an audience unfriendly choice given that she has to carry the film) but then flickers of truly vivid emotion: pain, alarm, sadness, arousal will flash across her face. Which is basically how the movie plays too: haunted and remote, with suddenly intriguing moments to seize your interest. B-

Given that two of the last three films I've seen from Korea have given actresses incredible roles (and that doesn't even include this year's failed Oscar submission "Mother", pictured right, which I haven't yet seen), I'm wondering if Korea is an unexplored cinematic landscape for my actressexuality? Are any of you well versed in Korean cinema. Are there more actressy riches awaiting me? Or is this all coincidental?


Wayne B said...

Kristen Stewart should hire you as a career counselor. :) "Last Train Home" sounds interesting to say the least.

Calum Reed said...

Lixin Fan is the best name ever. Glad you finally got there!

Kristen Stewart looks like such a tramp in every paparazzi shot. Girl needs to make an effort.

Anonymous said...

please dont hate the girl, she is honest in her love for acting. She just have bad taste in clothes :(

Femme Fatale et Noire said...

"Lavender", huh? I remember that color at the LA Film Festival. It does sound more creative. But anyways, I hope Ms. Stewart doesn't freeze. I remember my trip up there in 2008. Even with a snow jacket and gloves, I was still freezing because I didn't have snow boots. I guess she'll figure it out after being outside long enough.

TheQuestionMark said...

Sun from "Lost" is Korean(the actress is also Korean and called Yunjin Kim) and she is terrific...
Does that count?

Liz said...

I think she looks badass! I love the too-cool-for-school charm that she and the sparkly dude exude. Nice change from all those disney amoebas. Yeah i know, mentally i've yet to graduate from high school and move away from my dislike of all things popular and plastic but I'm really drawn to her whole demeaner.

But anyhoot, I'm really looking forward to The Runaways and personally i think she'l have no problem doing Joan Jett justice.

Button Holed said...

MOTHER was absolutely the best film i saw last year...

joy said...

Korea is indeed an amazing cinematic landscape for actressexual!

I'll only name a few whose films are easier to get...

You already know Jeon Do-yeon, who has only made 11 films but has been nominated for everyone of her films in Korea. Highlights: The Contact, Happy End, Untold Scandal (she plays La Pfeiffer's part) You're My Sunshine, Secret Sunshine

2. Moon So-ri (Oasi, A Good Lawyer's Wife, Family Ties, Forever the Moment)

3. Kim Yoon-jin from Lost (Shiri, Ardor, Seven Days)

4. Lee Mi-suk (An Affair, Untold Scandal)

5. Bae Doo-na (Take Care of My Cat, The Host, Air Doll)

6. Lee Young-ae (One Fine Spring Day, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance)

7. Lee Mi-yeon (Pisces, Indian Summer, Addicted)

8. Shim Eun-ha (Christmas in August, Art Museum by the Zoo, Interview)

Carl Joseph Papa said...

You have got to see "Mother (madeo)". It is an odd family crime procedural drama that showcased a fine ensemble cast. Hye-ja Kim as the mother was all sorts of wonderful, truly one of the best acting performance of the year.

cal roth said...

Untold Scandal = Dangerous Liaisons, did you know that?

OtherRobert said...

I'm not particularly well-versed in Korean cinema, either, but the few I've seen have great roles for women. Shoot, even the K-Horrors I've seen, like The Red Shoes, give the female leads free reign to give unexpectedly great performances considering the sometimes eye-roll worthy subject matter (The Red Shoes concerns a pair of red heels that every woman immediately becomes obessed with, leading to their death once they get them; don't strain your eyeballs too hard).

Anonymous said...

I'm a Korean. You should see these

Jeon Do-yeon's performances in Secret Sunshine(Cannes winning performance), My Mother The Mermaid, Happy End, The Harmonium in My Memory, and You're My Sunshine. She's a young Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchette here. Now she's filming The Housemaid, a remake of Kim Ki-young's legendary film. It's directed by Im Sang-soo, the director of A Good Lawyer's Wife and The President's Last Bang.

Moon So-ri's performances in A Good Lawyer's Wife, Oasis(Venice winning performance), Sa-kwa, and Family Ties. Now she's working with Hong Sang-soo.

Kim Hye-ja's performance in Mother. * She's a great actress but she usually works in TV.

Yum Jung-ah's performances in The Old Garden, The Big Swindle, and A Tale of Two Sisters.

Im Su-jeong's performances in I'm a Cyborg But That's Okay, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Haeng-bok a.k.a. Happiness.

Kim Ok-vin's performance in Thirst.

Kang Hye-jung's performances in Rules of Dating, Welcome to Dongmakgol, Three Extremes, The Butterfly, and Oldboy.

Lee Young-ae's performance in Lady Vengeance.

Bae Du-na's performances in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Air Doll which is Japanese film btw. She's also in The Host but she does nothing in this film. The film itself is fun though.

Kim Hye-su's performances in The War of Flower, Hypnotized, and The Red Shoes which I didn't like but many did.

You should see Secret Sunshine, My Mother The Mermaid, A Good Lawyer's Wife, Oasis, Mother, Rules of Dating and especially Family Ties. These are Korea's Sophie's Choice for actressexual audiences.

- Adam Kim

Anonymous said...

Also, Kim Jeong-eun and Jeong Yu-mi are very sublime in Blossom Again. Ms. Jeong is also in Family Ties.

- Adam Kim

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Pa-ju. It's a 2009 film and that young actress is genius.

- Adam

Glenn said...

You should check out Up the Yangtze, Nathaniel! Nick Rogers and I can vouch for its incredibleness (?) and it seems to share many of the traits you liked about Last Train Home.

Marshall1 said...

My top 5 performances include Sidibe, Mulligan, and the actresses from "Mother" (I can't understand the film properly because the subtitles were atrocious from a friend's copy), "Thirst", and The Maid.
Haven't seen Julia yet, and Meryl Streep's probably number 6 right now.

melusine said...

I knew it was only a matter of time that you discovered the actressexual feast that is Korean cinema. :)

My favorites:

Jeon Do-Yeon - Secret Sunshine, You Are My Sunshine, Happy End, My Dear Enemy, My Mother the Mermaid, The Harmonium in My Memory, I Wish I Had a Wife

Moon So-Ri - Oasis, A Good Lawyer's Wife, Family Ties, Sakwa

Kim Hye-Ja - Mother

Lee Mi-Sook - An Affair, Untold Scandal (in the latter, she made a deliciously wicked Marquise de Merteuil to Jeon Do-Yeon's Madame Tourvel)

Shim Eun-Ha - Christmas in August, Art Museum by the Zoo

Lee Young-Ae - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, One Fine Spring Day

Jang Jin-Young - Sorum, Blue Swallow, Singles

Uhm Jung-Hwa - Marriage is a Crazy Thing, Princess Aurora

Kang Hye-Jung - Rules of Dating, Welcome to Dongmakgol, Oldboy, Nabi

Bae Doo-Na - Take Care of My Cat, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Air Doll

Im Soo-Jung - A Tale of Two Sisters,, Happiness, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK

Gong Hyo-Jin - Family Ties, Crush and Blush

Kim Hye-Soo - Tazza, Hypnotized, The Red Shoes

Yeom Jung-Ah - The Old Garden, The Big Swindle, A Tale of Two Sisters

Kim Ok-Bin - Thirst

Kim Yun-Jin - Seven Days

Kim Ji-Soo - This Charming Girl

Seo Woo - Paju

Kim Jung-Eun - Blossom Again

Lee Na-Young - Someone Special

...So um, basically what Adam and joy said.^^

whitney said...

I wanted to see Vegetarian because I was interested in the body art. Have you seen The Pillow Book? But after reading your review I realize I have so many other movies to make it to this week...I'll probably skip it.

Burning Reels said...

Watched Last Train Home last night - wow, brilliantly gripping documentary. I agree, it was close to feeling like a feature film - makes you wonder if any of it was 'set-up' (and how much).

I didn't mind the fourth wall broken in the heartbreaking scene you mention. My only gripe was the ending didn't cover each part of the family as much I would have liked it to.