CANNES 2012: Hong Sang-soo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

CANNES 2012: Hong Sangsoo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

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The screenwriting process produces a kind of sandbox cinema in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, the Korean director’s latest jazz riff on human interconnection. The film’s beach side location may be consistent with earlier films, but its unique characterizations traverse freely outside the logic of conventional storytelling. Made up of three separate pieces, each revolving around a different character played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, the film addresses the overlapping ripple effect of miscommunication, and how a world can be expanded or quantified by simply noticing (or remembering) the details of your surroundings.  

From its beginning, In Another Country somersaults forward, spinning and turning on a dime whenever it pleases. The opening scene finds a woman writing a script in her beachside villa, passing the time by flexing her creative muscles, to avoid dealing with the uncertainties of life. Hong then dives inside her imagination, showing us the film's succeeding stories in chronological order and connecting each divergent thread through recurring dialogue and characters. A product of the hazy desire to experiment with time and space, much of In Another Country feels lovingly improvised, light as the persistent whisper of raindrops in its background. There’s very little rush to the character’s actions, in keeping with the island feel of the mainland coastal setting.

Hong is fascinated with the way people interact during awkward situations, focusing organically on the random channels of human movement and speech in times of momentary duress. The first section of In Another Country, in which Huppert’s famous actress visits a Korean director at his vacation home by the sea, is hilarious because it frames controlled confusion in a loving manner. The climax of Huppert’s indoctrination into the natural rhythm of this particular Korean community occurs when she interacts with a local lifeguard (Yu Junsang) who seems hell bent on pleasing her, no matter the cost. Their respectful banter is something special, in which two people cross paths and can’t quite figure out how to connect.

Like virtually all of Hong’s films, In Another Country is made up of diverging narrative tracks unfolding inside the same universe. Props, lines of dialogue, and character expressions all show up multiple times, but always within a different context. As a result, similar situations and motivations that repeat under similar circumstances are given unique qualities specific to the moment they occur. Hong has played with temporal bridging so many times, most wonderfully in last year’s Un Certain Regard entry The Day He Arrives. But In Another Country feels wonderfully lost at times, almost lovingly so, as if to evade anyone attempting to put a label on its freeform verses. Time really doesn’t matter here.

By the end of In Another Country, Huppert’s performing triptych reveals a surprising balance of tones, whisking comedy and tragedy together to establish a level of nuance that connects the three women as unknown kindred spirits. Taken in context, this is exactly what makes Hong’s films so indelible: the spacious and formative revelations people experience during everyday conversations that sneak up suddenly, and then quietly change your life.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL

CANNES 2012: Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL

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Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg’s directorial debut, proves the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like his father David Cronenberg’s early features, Antiviral is more of a collection of inspired, perverse ideas than a cogent piece de provocation. To be fair, Antiviral’s vision of the soon-to-be corrupt future is derivative, which would be a moot point if it didn’t evoke David Cronenberg films like Crash and Videodrome. But at the same time, Antiviral is more than sufficiently novel to be entertaining, even if Brandon Cronenberg’s script and direction are not as sufficiently assured.

Brandon Cronenberg imagines a world where people’s celebumania has mutated into an obsession with contracting famous people’s exotic diseases, which will literally consume their flesh. His debut has promise, though it lacks the conviction that we’ve come to associate with his father’s movies, over time.

Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman at a clinic dedicated to infecting plebs who want to contract various diseases, including herpes, from their favorite celebrities. Syd is also a viral mule, inoculating himself and smuggling bugs out of the clinic to sell on the black market. Unfortunately for Syd, the latest bug he’s contracted, this time directly from “perfect” celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), is of unknown origin and probably lethal.

While Syd looks for a cure, both for himself and for Hannah, he navigates between two predictably similar different worlds. The clean world of radical new cosmetic technology and antiseptic clinics is necessarily similar to the black market world of stem cell muscle steaks grown from human tissue samples. The representatives of both sides are equally morally bankrupt and practically cutthroat, from Arvid (Joe Pingue), the butcher who buys viruses and sells human meat, to Syd’s boss, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith), the CEO who publicly denies the ethical dubiousness of his practice to a reporter. 

Syd’s character arc is thus defined by his struggle to neither identify with nor distance himself from either side. The result of this class-based tug-of-war is not hard to guess. (Spoilers ahead, though not really!) Since he’s caught between two stations and has an unidentified sickness gnawing at his guts, Syd inevitably grows to accept that he wants to buy what Arvid and Edward are both selling. In one scene, Syd looks on with awe at an interactive TV console in a seedy club that allows customers to dominate a helpless celebrity, virtually. After the celebrity mewls and begs him, still an anonymous, un-committed voyeur, to tell her how she should hurt herself, Syd starts to become convinced.

In the end, Syd doesn’t wind up anywhere unexpected. He’s not a obsessed cipher like Videodrome’s Max Renn, or a free-wheeling pervert like Crash’s James Ballard, but rather an embroiled collaborator. His fate is too neat to be really transgressive, an effect which is, ironically enough, one of the most salient ways Brandon Cronenberg’s first work differs from most of his father’s work. On some level, David always knew how to push buttons, even if he did get better at it as he went along. Brandon’s a better scenarist and idea man than he is as a button-pusher though. One can only hope his follow-up is a little more distinct, or, barring that, a lot more confident.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Glenn Heath Jr.’s Take)

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Glenn Heath Jr.’s Take)

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Sometimes the aged body revolts, leaving a once vibrant human life facing the inevitably slow process of physical decay. Old age can become a metaphorical tomb, welded shut by fading memories and unspoken emotions, a place where the outside world fades from consciousness and leaves only the opportunity for personal reflection behind. One lingering question persists: can lasting devotion and intimate love exist within such a suffocating process? Michael Haneke’s Amour dares to answer yes, addressing the possibility that nightmares and hopeful dreams can co-exist in the same closed-off cinematic space. By encasing the viewer in the expansive apartment of an elderly couple experiencing the grim reality of impending death, Haneke examines a nearly impossible scenario with brilliant restraint and complexity.

The opening moments of Amour find Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attending a piano concert held by one of Anne’s former students. In a great straight-on shot of the crowd that holds for over a minute, we can barely glimpse the elderly couple in the middle of the frame, staring at the stage, waiting calmly and quietly together for the music to start. They’ve probably attended hundreds of such events over the course of their relationship, but this will be their last. A few cuts later, the couple returns to their upper-class domicile, bantering about family matters over a quaint breakfast. When Anne suddenly stops speaking and looks stricken, failing to respond to one of Georges' questions, it’s clear some kind of terrible shift has occurred. Haneke spends the rest of the film documenting Anne’s brutally frank deterioration and Georges' fracturing mental state.

Despite the grave subject matter, Haneke avoids turning the couple’s suffering into a grotesque sideshow. We feel their pain in every striking composition, especially when Darius Khondji’s stunning medium shots hover above Anne lying in bed, her darkly tinted eyes in haunting contrast with her increasingly jaundiced skin. But the recurring presence of found memory provides a constant reminder that there’s still emotion to mine beneath this cold façade. When Georges loads Anne into her wheelchair, he tries to remember a story from his youth about a film-going experience that changed his life. He states, “I can’t remember the film’s title, but I remember the emotions.” In this instance and many more, we get the sense his sheer attempt at remembrance offers warm comfort despite the fact that he is mired in an ongoing personal hell.

Like most of Haneke’s oeuvre, Amour strips down set design and audio cues to suit the film's stark material. Darius Khondji’s precise camera is at its best when slowly moving through the apartment foyer, or momentarily out into the hallway for a brilliantly realized dream sequence involving wet feet and an errant hand. But Haneke only delves into the surreal a few times, instead letting the ambient noises of Anne’s cries echo like a requiem in the cramped space. In many ways, the sounds of Amour are most essential, markers of disappearing time and waves of emotion slowly fading to black.

Finally, Haneke’s layered mise-en-scene would be somewhat hollow without the two devastating performances at the film’s center.  Trintignant and Riva entrench themselves completely in the experience, their main form of communication often coming in the form of striking facial contortions and long distance eye contact. This instinctual sense of togetherness between two long-time companions gives Amour its heart and soul, permanently instilling in us the thought that love is never truly fulfilled until that final fade to black.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival 2012!

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival!

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Editor's Note: Press Play has two critics covering the Cannes Film Festival this year. Simon Abrams and Glenn Heath Jr. are tag-teaming their way through the most anticipated collection of screenings in the film industry. This is your ticket to Cannes. Enjoy!

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Glenn Heath Jr. and Simon Abrams pick the winners at Cannes 2012. 

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Simon Abrams’ Take)

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR

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Indifference kills quietly in Amour, the new psychodrama from Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Cache). In this devastating character study about the hell that is caring for an ailing loved one, writer and director Haneke explores grief as a slow, gnawing process. Coping with loss does not, however, begin with a catalyst as mundane as physical illness. Instead, it starts and ends with a debilitating kind of depression that’s facilitated by solitude. For Haneke, grief is just as frightening as death because it’s also a draining progression that we necessarily go through alone.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an elderly pensioner, cares for his dementia-afflicted wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) to the best of his abilities, but he is gradually consumed with depression, making the confines of his apartment eventually resemble a baroque prison to him. But Georges isn’t ostensibly alone. His daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) offers assistance, as do a couple of home healthcare aides. Still, Georges turns all of them away eventually, for unspecified reasons. Their concern, as Georges tells Eva at one point, is irrelevant, as it can only serve to separate him from his wife.

Georges' belief that Anne needs his care clouds his judgment. He feels that no one else can deal with this burden, as no one else sees her or can care for her in the same way. However, this is only partially true: something as simple as a touch on the hand is enough to quiet Anne down during some of her more hysterical moments, but only for a while. Haneke treats Anne's deterioration very matter-of-factly. Knowing that there is no hope for Anne's recovery, Georges' only recourse is to retreat further into his own tortured headspace and brood alone.

Amour is striking for its subdued and relatively un-provocative quality. Haneke has become known for poking a stick in viewers’ eyes and then asking them why they keep coming back for more. And yet Amour’s icy calm representation is of a piece with earlier films like The Seventh Continent and Lemmings, in that all three are characterized by existential despair. Nobody can intervene and save Georges from the nightmarish routine that Anne’s illness and his obsessive but un-sensationalized affection for her have forced upon him.

Moreover, Haneke even teasingly suggests that Anne’s illness is probably just an arbitrary event that pushed Georges over the edge. Georges has a nightmare about home invasion, but the concern about burglars is introduced early in the film, before he even knows Anne is sick. Anne’s illness only speeds up a process that began before Anne fell ill. Harrowing but also disturbing on a more subtle level, Amour addresses individual concerns even as it demonstrates Haneke’s cynical and highly seductive brand of agnosticism.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

CANNES 2012: John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS

CANNES 2012: John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS

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“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.” Old west pragmatism oozes through the gruff words of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the 1930s bootlegger and all around bear of a man at the center of John Hillcoat’s Depression-era gangster film, Lawless. One of three brothers profferring booze to Chicago gangsters from their country Virginia stills, Forrest is seemingly indestructible, a local legend for his endurance and survival. The same cannot be said of his younger sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the embodiment of American ambition, who becomes a human punching bag when faced with the slightest conflict. Surname aside, Forrest and Jack couldn’t be more different in size and nature, and they come to represent contrasting visions of Manifest Destiny crashing against each other through family.

Parallel to the battle between tradition and progress runs a sturdy Western theme, and Lawless imbeds the fear of economic expansion in the nuances of brotherly resolve. Ultimately, the two men must confront their ideological conflicts when urban corruption and violence invade the Bondurant’s small town of Franklin, in the form of a corrupt D.A. and his hired gun, a reptilian neat freak named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). This subtext makes Hillcoat’s brutal violence all the more potent. Forrest’s consistent use of brass knuckles on adversaries says a lot about his desire (and ability) to end fights quickly, protecting his family and profit margin with little fuss. In this sense, Lawless uses the gangster film genre to defend the virtues and returns of protecting a small business from corporate takeover.

Loyalty and revenge dominate the film’s mostly messy narrative arc. But convention is only a means to an end for Hillcoat, whose contained vision of Prohibition-era America lingers on intimate details of human suffering; dirt hitting a coffin face, the fluttering of scorched leaves propelled into the air by a dynamite blast, and the gurgling blood from a slit throat are all reminders that Hillcoat’s cinema is equally brutal and poetic. Also, the Great Depression may not be the film’s central focus, but the disparate souls littering the roadsides further remind us that life outside the gangster universe is equally gritty, if not more dispiriting. These images are often juxtaposed with Nick Cave’s brooding score.

Both Hardy and Pearce’s superb method performances deserve the attention they will inevitably receive, and LaBeouf nicely realizes a balance of tenderness and sleaze. But ultimately, Hillcoat sees performance as a way to induce mood, a way to explore landscapes and interiors through an actor’s physical stature. One of the more wonderfully blunt examples of this approach comes early in the film when infamous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) stops his speeding car on Franklin’s main drag, walks calmly up the boulevard, and shreds his pursuer’s vehicle with Tommy gun fire. Jack witnesses the shootout from close range, and the slight grin Banner gives him while calmly walking away speaks volumes about the near-mystical divide between gangsterdom and reality.

While Lawless goes astray during an odd prologue mired in voice-over, it’s a genre film with many bold ideas and characterizations. Hillcoat’s ongoing deconstruction of backwoods legends, something he and Cave began to address in the grimy, sweat-soaked The Proposition (2005), takes a more sobering and human turn in Lawless. This is the American outback in all its bloody glory.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (RESTORED)

CANNES 2012: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (RESTORED)

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If nothing else, the new 4K restoration of the late Once Upon a Time in America proves the necessity of film preservation. This essential new cut of Sergio Leone’s last film was re-assembled from newly rediscovered footage long thought lost. At last night’s packed screening, actor James Woods insisted that Leone “died of a broken heart” because he could never release the cut of the film he really wanted to. So the mandate to restore the film was clear, once the footage was recovered and cleaned up by a number of people, including Gucci, the Leone estate, and the Film Foundation. And while though Leone couldn’t supervise the restoration of his last masterpiece, the new footage that debuted yesterday is every bit as essential as one could hope.

Rest assured, the new scenes, including a new final confrontation between Max (Woods) and the head of the union, are definitely not extraneous. Some new scenes serve as crucial juxtapositions against relatively canonical ones, like a previously missing sequence after Noodles (Robert De Niro, also in attendance last night) drives his gang’s car off of a short pier and (more on this in a moment).  Others remind us of characters’ limited agency and inability to totally remake/self-fashion themselves, as when Noodles talks to a chauffeur who disapproves of the fact that he’s both Jewish and a gangster (“Everyone knows what you are.”). When viewed holistically, the new cut is revelatory. Its restoration has only served to make this masterpiece that much more fulfilling.

I've singled out the new brief scene after Noodles drives the car into the water because, while it seems fairly negligible, it's surprisingly rich when placed alongside other scenes. In this new sequence, all the gang members resurface except Noodles. This understandably makes Max nervous. He panics and thrashes around trying to find his friend but is overshadowed by a nearby crane that’s busily and indiscriminately picking up garbage from the bottom of the sea floor.

This short sequence creates a parallel with Max's garbage compactor suicide as well as mirroring an earlier scene where the group, as adolescents, scheme to recover submerged contraband with sacks of salt. So in an instant's time, this newly restored scene further establishes Noodles' fatalistic identification with Maxie as his twin. The post-crash footage also sets up a troubling intermediary image to connect the relatively innocent past with a forbidding future. And this is probably the least impressive of the recovered scenes!

Sequences like the one where Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, who was also at last night’s screening) performs Cleopatra's death scene in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Noodles talks to the caretaker of the gangsters' tomb confirm Leone’s status as a master choreographer. The film’s vision of life is all the more complex for these bridging scenes, because they call attention to Noodles’s inability to reconcile his past with his oppressive present. It’s as if key missing pieces of a never-completed jigsaw puzzle have finally been put into place. Every piece is important, even the smaller ones.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

CANNES 2012: Matteo Garrone’s REALITY

CANNES 2012: Matteo Garrone’s REALITY

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The classic fairy tale is an artificial creation in Matteo Garrone’s Reality, something wedding planners and television producers manipulate to create the best possible pomp and circumstance product for their Pavlovian audiences. It’s especially dangerous when gullible, wish-fulfilling viewers buy into their own faux happily-ever-after, truly believing they have a God-given right to popularity. Andy Warhol famously stated as much years before the dawn of our current technological age, but Garrone (director of 2008's much-lauded Gomorrah) manages to visualize the tragic consequences of one man’s delusionary digital dreams with an endlessly nimble cinematic approach. Movement and sound become the necessary tools artists and businesspeople use to warp personal perspective.

Wonderfully staged crane shots rise, fall, and then ascend again in this agile film, maximizing the importance of angle, height, and duration in relation to the fragile point-of-view of lead character, Luciano (Aniello Arena). The broken heart and oblivious soul of Reality, Luciano is a cocky family man who owns and operates a failing fish shop. Conducting shady deals on the side to keep his causal family lifestyle afloat, Luciano rarely shows a hint of stress, even dabbling in cross-dressing as a kind of public performance piece. The character’s reassuring demeanor in the face of economic distress and potentially life-altering situations proves him to be a natural ham, constantly wishing to be the center of attention. After Luciano’s family begs him to audition for Italian Big Brother, he barely bats an eye before diving head first at the chance to gain national notoriety and wealth.

Reality’s stunning opening helicopter shot, which tracks over Naples’s skyline before centering on a classic Victorian horse-drawn carriage speeding down the street, nicely juxtaposes fantasy and reality in the same landscape. This motif continues as Luciano goes through the Big Brother auditioning process, adopting the go-getter attitude most ambitious amateur performers need in order to succeed. Alexandre Desplat’s swooning score further suggests Luciano is creating his own fairy-tale façade out of the bits and pieces of an unlikely future scenario.  Family and friends give Luciano false hope at the most inopportune times, while cagey executives mislead him during a lengthy interview simply to mine personal information for future use. His is a truly modern tableau, marked by hollow surfaces posing as bags of money.

Luciano’s brazen dedication to living vicariously through pop culture symbols, lingo, and products eventually drives him toward madness, and in turn the ultimate realization of his own momentary fantasyland. Surveillance cameras and split screens define his dreams, while all sense of his former self evaporates without much resistance.. The cost of living this existence trickles down to affect Luciano’s children and his wife, who leaves Luciano after he becomes increasingly paranoid, thinking mysterious figures are silently “judging” him from afar.  

This small temporal gap in a crumbling marriage crystallizes the importance of togetherness in Reality. Garrone feels deeply for Luciano’s taxing plight, but never lets him escape the mire of his actions. His self-imposed encasement inside the container of “reality television” is a reflection of personal retreat, not an assessment of society’s many contradictions and failures. In Reality, giving up on ourselves (and each other) is the real tragedy, the true epidemic of character, devoid of a happy ending, real or imagined.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Michel Gondry’s THE WE AND THE I

CANNES 2012: Michel Gondry’s THE WE AND THE I

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Michel Gondry brazenly announces the difference between The We and the I and most other contemporary coming of age movies and/or teen sex comedies with a strategically planted poster for an imaginary film called Megalomania (which happens to be a project Gondry is developing with his son Paul). Contemporary filmmakers like Todd Phillips (Project X) and Josh Trank (Chronicle) ostensibly examine their young protagonists' narcissism, but in The We and the I, Gondry is more ostentatious than they are, and also more genuinely concerned with indulging and then deflating his teens' egos. 

 
Gondry's film follows a group of high schoolers on the last day of school. The long ride home on the fictional Bx66 bus gives the film's protagonists' ample time to goof off, hurt each others' feelings, and realize that they're all on the verge of drifting apart from each other and becoming new people. So The We and the I starts with a lot of crude jokes/dises about fat girls, gawky guys, and tiny penises, and it ends with John-Hughes-by-way-of-Spike Lee-style declamatory speeches. Gondry and his two co-writers don't quite tack on The We and the I's ending; they prove, rather than just claim, that they're down with this unruly Breakfast Club 2.0. 

 
The We and the I's plot largely concerns the roundabout way various disparate high school cliques interact with each other. For example, Michael and Theresa (Michael Brodie and Theresa L. Rivera, two stand-out amateur performers), a pair of estranged ex-lovers, serve as the film's emotional anchors. But Michael's group of bullies also teases the hot girl and her dorky best friend, who in turn razz the arty nerd, whose nose is buried in his sketchpad, who also was picked on earlier by Michael and his friends. The film's plot is an amorphous series of testosterone and estrogen-fueled encounters spurred on by maniacally catty urges that are, thankfully, not all redeemed at the film's eleventh hour.

Gondry makes a point of showing that some truths about the unwitting cruelty resulting from being young and horny are universal. While YouTube and texting has changed the way The We and the I's teens tease each other, these kids also still play Truth-or-Dare and agonize over who to invite to their Sweet Sixteen parties. When Gondry and co. launch their characters into "The Chaos," the film's second of three narrative chapters, which is best characterized as a haze of undiluted teen Drama, Gondry's kids are irredeemably mean to each other—sometimes to great comic affect, as when a curvy girl is called "two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag." 
 
But these characters' more bratty, sadistic actions also often have immediate consequences. The broad beats of The We and the I's narrative may be arranged on a series of criss-crossing schematic laundry lines, but the film is at its best when characters' actions create a chain reaction. Once Gondry's characters bluntly tell us what the stakes of the film's drama are, the movie loses potency. But at the height of its frenzy, Gondry's latest movie buzzes with hormones and posturing and All That Angst.
 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

CANNES 2012: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s MEKONG HOTEL

CANNES 2012

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Mekong Hotel is another quiet but deeply impressive drama set in Weerasethakul-Land, an increasingly strange landscape created by celebrated Thai avant garde filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Worldly Desires). For those who don't know Weerasethakul’s considerable body of work, Weerasethakul-Land is typically over-run with serene echoes of a troubled, carnal past that may or may not ever have existed.

Clocking in at 61 minutes, Mekong Hotel is Weerasethakul’s triumphal return to Cannes, just two years after his 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme D’Or. As with Moonrise Kingdom and Wes Anderson, Mekong Hotel is nothing new from Weerasethakul. In his Thailand, hungry ghosts, reincarnated animals and frank but casual discussions of sex and violence just . . . happen, unobtrusively.

And that’s perfectly all right. Even when charting deceptively familiar territory, Weerasethakul keeps finding startling new dark corners of his characters’ collective unconsciousness to explore. Weerasethakul’s characters all dream of an eeriely mundane existence where the supernatural and the super-sexual collide. Weerasethakul-land itself is, after all, also a dream world, an imaginary place which is intensely familiar but also paradoxically soothing and jarring at once, making it all the more alien.

Like many of Weerasethakul’s other films, Mekong Hotel doesn’t have a linear narrative. Phon and Masato, two young lovers, meet and bond after Masato’s dog is devoured by a entrails-gobbling Pob ghost. That ghost happens to be Phon’s mother, who lives with her in a hotel room near the Mekong River. Over time, a series of elliptically represented events show us that the barrier separating the living from the dead doesn't exist (or at least, it's not located near the Mekong River).

The film’s acoustic guitar-centric score particularly accentuates Mekong Hotel’s otherworldly tranquility. Weerasethakul’s films aren’t really nightmares, though strange and gross things sometimes happen in them. Theoretically, watching a dowdy-looking woman munch on a pile of large intestines while another character prays in a separate corner of the room would be traumatic. But thanks to the film’s score, the scene is neither frightening nor gruesomemore a product of the pure dream logic governing Weerasethakul-Land.

Weerasethakul doesn’t judge Mekong Hotel’s characters, as events in his films always have a matter-of-fact mood to them. Things happen for reasons we don't understand, simply because this is the pace of life in his films. Thailand is Weerasethakul’s foremost concern, being the locus for Mekong Hotel’s impressionistic portrait of longing, both fulfilled and unrequited, and its most refreshingly beguiling protagonist.

Mekong Hotel is simultaneously breezy and dense, giving it an incantatory strength. Annotations certainly wouldn’t hurt any interpretation of the film’s series of anecdotal vignettes, like discussions of a Laotian refugee camp or another character’s third boyfriend (“It hurt my ass rather pleasurably.”). But they’re also not really necessary either. This is Weerasethakul-Land: happily, time and narrative logic as we know them don’t apply here.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.