Posted: 09/21/2004


2004 Chicago International Film Festival

by Todd Lillethun

The Chicago International Film Festival runs October 7 through 21 this year. Click here for the official website.

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Chicagoans’ year-long hunt for the new and exotic comes to a head for two weeks in October, when the Chicago International Film Festival arrives with its juggernaut of 160-odd entries. Now in its fortieth year, the festival has a lot to celebrate: top notch theaters, streamlined ticketing, punctual starting times, and efficient ushering all contribute to make each screening a pleasure.

The solid program boasts a healthy dose of international films taking the short road from other big festivals, so we can expect a peek of what others are seeing elsewhere, instead of waiting on the normal distribution channels which often take months or years to bring us the same films. Past festivals have routinely brought titles that ended up on my annual top ten list, some of which have never been seen here since. Unexposed to ads, reviews, or previews that would pique curiosity or instill skepticism, I was able to see these films totally open and ready for anything.

Last year, I was wowed by documentary features Go Further (U.S.), Jesus You Know (Austria), Hush! (Russia), and narrative features Father and Son (Russia), Distant Lights (Germany), and Olga’s Chignon (France). Of these titles, only Go Further and Father and Son have been scheduled for limited stateside runs.

But ticket availability can be competitive. Chicago audiences here are loyal, savvy and enthusiastic enough to stake out their top picks well in advance, and many shows sell out. It’s also encouraging to see individuals or couples who can’t score their first choices scanning the remaining shows and casting their luck to chance. The spirit of adventure is so infectious, it seems that everyone feels on the verge of finding buried treasure.

Bitter Dream (Iran) The debut feature of Mohsen Amiryoussefi is an unlikely comedic success, mixing the austere ceremony of Islamic burial rites with irreverent cynicism and parody. Mr. Esfandiar, the elderly caretaker of an old rural cemetery, can tell by their weeping which mourners will pay for the funerals up front, and which ones will rip him off. His disgruntled staff is comprised of a gravedigger, a body-washer, and a clothes-burner, all of whom dislike him for his stinginess. When the angel of death visits through his television and shows him scenes from his own funeral, he decides to make amends with the staff in order to arrange for his own final exit, but his staff remain unmoved. Without music, lavish sets or professional actors (all cast members purportedly work at the cemetery depicted), the film is remarkably economic and imaginative, bringing a documentary flavor to personal and supernatural exchanges.

Brother to Brother (U.S.) ‘Recalling the poetry of Marlon Riggs short Tongues Untied (1990), this film fleshes out the ideas of its predecessor into a feature length drama, about gay African-Americans reckoning with homophobia in its own community. Perry Williams (played by Anthony Mackie) is a young, gay black artist in New York City looking for love and his place in the world. He meets Bruce Nugent, an older homeless man (played by Roger Robinson) who frequents the shelter where he works, and discovers that they have common bonds. Bruce regales his young protégé with stories about the Harlem Renaissance, his fraternizing with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and starting the famous literary journal “Fire!.” Cutting back and forth in time between the two stories creates an interesting intergenerational dialogue, while making correlations to today’s issues, particularly racism, tokenism, stereotypes, and selling out. But the film is ultimately too small for its ambitions. Attempts at period recreation are transparent both in style and substance, and the script is overly rhetorical and issue-laden to carry much emotion or character. Mackie and Robinson deliver sincere performances, but much of the other acting is uneven. The film’s winning the Sundance Special Jury Prize this year is no surprise since the story’s mechanics are shopworn Sundance traditions (such as the risible beach scene at the film’s end). Filmmakers would do well to steer clear of these tropes when trying to break new ground.

Boricua (U.S.) Three stories about love, ethnic identity, and betrayal overlap to form a lively slice of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Lola, a hip college student, has a torrid affair with Willy, a local dope dealer, despite his sexist posturing. Voluptuous, determined Tata tries to claim the Queen’s title of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, though her birth certificate lists her ethnicity as Caucasian. Charming German lands a plum job as a real estate broker, but his ruthless boss wants to use his community ties to buy out his old neighborhood. The film’s scrappy DIY aesthetic works wonderfully for its young cast and bawdy humor; there’s lots of dope and sex to go around, and each scene clicks with genuine personality. Fun, saucy, and at times menacing, the actors create distinctive characters that are new and realistic. Director Marisol Torres says the stories spring from her adolescence in Humboldt Park, where the film takes place, and local stomping grounds are included throughout (Clemente High School, Big Wig, various salons and taquerias).Though the ending is rushed, the duration earns a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The audience I saw it with laughed and applauded, and justifiably so.

Love In Thoughts (Germany) Paul and Guenther are two young prep school classmates in Weimar, Germany who formalize their intellectual ambitions by signing a suicide pact. After promising to uphold their idealization of love, they vow to kill themselves and anyone else responsible should their hearts be broken. Paul then meets Hilde, Guenther’s enchanting sister, during a decadent weekend party in the country, and is instantly smitten. Between dances and bottles of absinthe, Hilde seduces Paul while reeling in a third, Hans, who is also Guenther’s old flame. The results are predictably tragic, but for the balance of an hour, the lavish party that precedes it, with its moonlit forests and warm, music-filled estates, makes for an engaging sequence. The beautiful young actors kiss and sulk and pine after each other with petulant longings, but for all their luster, their nihilism is too crushing, and ultimately not very memorable.

Nelly (France) Bereavement has become almost a subgenre over the last few years, and this film gives it an unusual turn. Nelly Lopez (played by Sophie Marceau) is made a widow when her husband, a highly regarded physician, dies suddenly in his sleep. Left to cope with their three cherubic children and the remnants of their bucolic life in southern France, she denies his passing at first, then decides to keep his body in the house for as long as possible. Her brother-in-law Jose (played by Antoine Chappy) quickly makes his long repressed affections known and is all too eager to help build the casket. Her grief mixes humor with pathos as she flirts with him, mulls over casket catalogues, takes a nearly fatal plunge in the river, and drives an ambulance into town while announcing the wake through a bullhorn. Director Laure Duthilleul indulges in a few stylistic flourishes (funky electronic music, a roaming camera from a dog’s point of view), and creates an offbeat dynamic between the children’s horseplay and the parade of emerging well-wishers. Gradually we learn that her twelve year marriage was already in decline, but little else is revealed, so the film remains alluring but uninvolving. For the record, this is the second film I’ve seen in the festival that ends with a beach scene; it’s fitting and nicely executed, but unfortunate when so much else is new and unorthodox. It also won a prize (the Camera d’Or at Cannes).

The Nomi Song (Germany) This documentary profiles Klaus Nomi, a gay German immigrant who rose to countercultural prominance in the early 1980s. Dressed as an androgynous space alien and singing opera and pop in perfect falsetto, he created an indelible, enigmatic persona that caught the attention of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and the avant-garde music scene in New York to which he belonged. Musicians and friends remember him fondly with stories that are at times more fun than the historical footage, and perhaps more revealing than had the reclusive performer been interviewed himself. Scenes from fifties sci-fi films infuse a kitschy vibe that keeps the tone from becoming too reverent, though the concert footage pulls its weight in demonstrating Nomi’s considerable talent.

Our Music (France) Jean Luc Godard’s latest picks up where he left off with In Praise of Love (2001), in which he argued for historical accuracy in the cinema, and against the perceived displacement of love in general. Here his theses are developed into a more global message that is both less confrontational and more piquant. In the first of three parts, “Hell” dives into the savagery of war using Hollywood and newsreel footage. “Purgatory,” which is the bulk of the film, finds a young Israeli journalist coming to postwar Sarajevo to see “if reconciliation is still possible” (referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Both old crumbling churches and the cozy confines of a Holiday Inn are sites of serious deliberation by American Indians, famous authors, and the director himself. They discuss Homer’s Trojan War, Columbus’ legacy, and the need to strengthen society’s collective memory in order to prevent further chaos. “Heaven,” the final part, is a modern walk through the Garden of Eden using fanciful layering of orchestral and ambient soundtracks. Like other Godard films, the characters are reduced to mouthpieces for various agendas and points of view, while his editing and shooting style coldly expose the mechanics of cinema. The result pushes the viewer out of the film and closer to Godard himself. This can be pretty esoteric stuff, though its formal complexity and vivid, kinetic surface detail make for a singularly rewarding experience.

South of the Clouds (China) Middle-aged Huang Xu becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life in a northern Chinese city, where his daughter badgers him for money and the industrial landscape saps the pleasure from his early morning jogs. Years earlier, he lost an opportunity to move to the scenic southern town of Yunnan, and he wonders how his life would have improved had he moved there. When he travels to Yunnan for a taste of what he missed, he is embroiled in misadventure when the police entrap him for soliciting a prostitute. The lead performance of Li Xuejian carries the film with his doleful-eyed sentimentality and stubborn propriety, and the cinematography captures his displacement in colorful, canted angles. Gradually this quiet comedy gains momentum with dream sequences and odd encounters with the town’s residents, each of whom dispel his fantasy while opening up new truths.

Tarnation (U.S.) Jonathan Caouette’s bracing self portrait depicts his tumultuous relationship with his mentally ill mother and his own search for sanity. Cutting together hundreds of home movies shot during his adolescence and young adulthood, he exposes his raw nerves in a loud, angry purge that is both frightening and breathtaking. Third person intertitles narrate his turbulent past between the quickly edited footage, creating a sort of thorny photo album that straddles his revulsion and affection for his family in equal measure. With music wallpapering most sequences with happy-sad indie rock by acts like Low and Magnetic Fields, the harshest events are buffered somewhat and the moments of relief are sweetened, but during the unsettling confessionals directed straight at the camera, such filters disappear and the film attains incredible intimacy and power.

Tomorrow We Move (France) Director Chantal Ackerman returns to the blistering critique of domesticity that made her name in Jean Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976), but this time to comic effect. Charlotte (played by Sylvie Testud) and her mother Catherine (played by Aurore Clement) move into a new flat in downtown Paris shortly after the death of Catherine’s husband. Before unpacking, they hastily decide to move elsewhere, and promptly put their flat up for sale. Charlotte is a deadpan thirty-something freelance writer who obsessively jots down random details for her fumbling attempt at pornography. Catherine is a passionate piano teacher who gives lessons to the real estate agent and instructs her daughter on dirty talk. It quickly becomes apparent that substitution and transience rule their lives. Charlotte guides prospective buyers through their jumbled apartment and points out that there are “no load-bearing walls.” Ruminations about double curtains, pregnancy, old age, and mementos from past relationships all suggest their inability to ascribe meaning to life, ie. “you can’t take it with you.” Or something like that. The film’s emphatic theatricality relies on closed spaces, a bevy of histrionic characters, and dry, perfunctory wit which brings the charade politely to the surface. Towards the end, though, the farce turns unnecessarily sour and derisive, much like a party guest that wears out his welcome, but there is much beforehand to recommend.

Tropical Malady (Thailand) beats a path through the jungle from modern Thailand to an eerie mythical world of ghosts, monsters, and animal spirits. The latest feature from Art Institute grad Apichatpong Weerasethakul retains the “exquisite corpse” style that guided his Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), favoring intuition and playfulness to traditional storytelling. Keng, a young forest ranger, meets Tong, a young ice cutter, and develops an affectionate friendship that gradually teeters toward love. They cruise around the jungle on Keng’s motorbike and lounge with Tong’s family, discuss their feelings for each other and drink beer during the monsoons. The final third abruptly jumps into a fable, casting Keng as a soldier creeping through a dark rainforest and Tong as the henna’d animal spirit who stalks him. Once our expectations are relinquished, the results are pleasantly confusing. The relationship remains undeveloped, and the film drifts into a dream state — it lingers over the green landscape, listens to strange conversations over short wave radios, and peers into the dark jungle for signs of life.

The Woodsman (U.S.) Though it takes its title from Little Red Riding Hood, this film is not a walk in the park. Kevin Bacon portrays paroled pedophile Walter Rossworth, a grim forty-five year-old man who tries to restart his life after serving a twelve year sentence for molesting ten-to-twelve year-old girls. He finds a job at a lumberyard in Philadelphia and keeps a reclusive profile until Vickie, a salty coworker (played by Kyra Sedgwick), seduces him. For a film about the treacheries of sex, their intimacy is surprisingly carnal, but then the film doesn’t shy away from many things. From his apartment window, Walter watches the gradual advances of another pedophile, and feels powerless to stop it. Therapy promises long years of anguish without much chance for a cure, and random visits by a pitiless parole officer only remind him of what a monster he is. The film’s palate of rainy blues and grays completes the bleak tone, and its uncompromising script grapples with some very dark issues, chiefly, what do we do with monsters among us? The film argues that there are no monsters, only monstrous impulses, and manages to address pedophilia as a disease. Walter is a tormented soul, but not unredeemable. As Vickie states, “I see something good [in you]. Most people don’t see it but I do.” Still, this doesn’t keep the issue from showing its ugly head. The climax brings us perilously close to the abyss. It’s a terrible moment to endure, but not without transcendence. Director Nicole Kassell and Bacon (who also executive produced) have hopefully made the best film about pedophilia, if only so we won’t have to see another one.

Todd Lillethun writes for Film Monthly but does not yet own any bamboo, though it is currently in vogue.

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