Daily Film Thoughts: A Fine (Foreign) Frenzy

Over the past few days I’ve been watching plentiful foreign films – Chan-wook Park’s filmography for example. I found a delightful Asian film site, so what else is there to do other than stock up on rare Asian delights? I’m somewhat stuck on what I want to discuss here… Maybe it’ll just be the ones I’ve seen not directed by Chan-wook. Yeah, I’ll do a write-up on him later on. Anyways, I need to get going on this – tomorrow is a busy day; putting together my TIFF schedule and all. Well, enjoy!

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First up is The Boss of it All – a 2006 feature by Danish master Lars von Trier. Having wanted to watch something by him to prep me for Antichrist. Not wanting to revisit Dogville, Manderlay or Dancer in the Dark (no matter how good I find either of them to be) and not knowing how Breaking the Waves would hold up in comparison, I decided to stick with his latest feature.

Similar to many other von Trier films, The Boss of it All plays out like a two act play and like all of his cases in Shakespearean fashion. However in deviation to his previous tragedies from earlier this decade, von Trier composes a tragi-comedy – a story that relies heavily on laughs that bloom from a plot as idiosyncratic as its primary character, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) who happens to be an out of work actor devoted to his craft. It’s made apparent in the first few minutes that Kristoffer has been recruited by Ravn (Peter Gantzler), a businessman who plans on selling his company. Ravn’s issue is that he didn’t want to come off as the “bad guy” at the office – the bad boss, in this case – so he made up an imaginary person to fill the role of boss as he played ignorant to his own actual endeavors while in the company of ‘fellow’ employees. Since he wants to sell the company yet retain his good morale stature with his employees, he hires an out of work actor to fill the shoes of the boss and to sell the company over to a foul, angry Icelandic man (Friðrik Þór Friðriksson).

Of course things get complicated and the actor’s few minutes of work as the boss turn into a week. As he gets to know the six employees – all devoted to their work and all with troubling stories that stem from the austere treatment of the real boss – he feels indebted to them and does his best as a passive man in legally binding shoes.

Several things are revealed throughout the course of the movie – for example, Ravn is one of the most proficient businessmen in Denmark and his contracts are brilliant constructed – so when it comes to Kristoffer trying to strengthen his backbone and admiration for the company’s employees, he winds up in a strenuous position.

As terribly depressing as it sounds the film isn’t half as draining. Keeping an exceedingly healthy paced for its entire duration kept together by witty one-liners and on-going bits of dry humor, von Trier shows he can manipulate a story into any way he wishes. However, when act two nears its conclusions, you can truly sense the Shakespearean formula come into form.

The only aspect separating this film from von Trier’s most recent is the new film editing technique he used called Automavision. It’s a weird technological creation that comes off as a failed project of something meant to be interesting. Regardless, the advantage of this editing – that the programming is completely tactless and chooses angles based on randomization – is that it causes for a jarring experience. Now seeing as how we are meant to be a theatrical audience – the narration implies such several times – this rare post-production choice does mangle the purpose. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the jump-cuts or off-putting angles, but a more simplistic scope would’ve made the film more technically astute.

The conclusion is one of the most bewildering scenes I’ve had the honor of witnessing in a long while. Although I’m not quite sure about how I feel with it, I do appreciate the artistic intent of the decision. It drops the film on its head and will certainly keep you thinking about it for days on end. And in that sense, isn’t that what every film (or actor in this case) thrives to achieve? One of von Trier most witty pieces yet – unlike anything you’ve seen by him. [8/10]

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The second film I’m going to discuss is one many classic film lovers have seen. The Shop on Main Street is a Czechoslovakian feature from 1965 and considered to be one of the most depressing films written. Clocking in at just over two hours, I can tell you that while the experience was intellectually rewarding, I wouldn’t want to endure it again for those exact claims.

Set in a petite Nazi occupied town in the Czech Republic, the story follows the daily routine of Tony (Jozef Króner).an unappreciated, laborious man. He does wood work, keeps up with the times amongst town, looks for well paying work and puts up with an incessant, slave-driving on the daily. We witness his trials early on when the most minor mistakes he makes are sought after as end-of-the-world scenarios by his tireless wife. When his brother-in-law and wife of the brother-in-law come unexpectedly to dinner bringing an assortment of rich goods, Tony is clearly antagonized. Although we never truly get a direct impression of why Tony has had endless disputes with his next of kin, it’s made obvious that the two have discord for one and other because of their political stances. Tony is an earnest man who is against the mistreatment of anyone and his brother-in-law is working for the Nazi regime. After a brief complaint of not being given benefits after a certain event – I’m assuming a death in the family or some job opportunity – Tony’s brother-in-law tosses him a piece of paper that changes his life forever. The paper dictates that Tony will resume control of a small button shop on Main Street after the elder Jewish woman gets taken to a concentration camp.

One brief emotional conflict later amidst the drunken union, an overwhelmed Tony accepts the gift and his ecstatic wife literally jumps for joy. The next day Tony goes to the shop and meets the woman he’s taking the business from, a deaf 78 year old in Mrs. Lautmann (in an Oscar nominated turn by Ida Kaminska). Just as he’s about to lose his cool with the exhausted, misinterpreting senior, an old acquaintance of Tony’s enters the establishment and coaxes him into making a deal with the Jewish community – he earns more money this way, the old woman doesn’t realize her business is no longer hers and the two start a sweet friendship despite the age discrepancy.

For the first two acts, the story gives off a foreboding sense of death in the air. White birds fly away from the town (a symbol of innocence fleeting), the construction of an antisemitic pyramid and a shrill score that consists entirely of violins hinder the feature from ever feeling truly compassionate towards the characters and the lingering detriment.

My only main objection to the film’s acclaim is the glued reputation that this is one of the most saddening features in cinema. Although the content is murky and quite sad, the cool atmosphere that seems to follow our diligent protagonist didn’t impress upon me enough to cry. As stark and intelligently concocted the feature was, there was an unquenchable set-up surrounding the entire Nazi regime and more specifically Tony’s brother-in-law that left me pondering the intentions. Of course the conclusion is left up to interpretation, but for something that felt so adamant in its Nazi prosecution, more could have been developed to make the focus as clear as possible.

A wonderful feature that I’d call first grade without hesitation. A disheartening film that is relentless on its audience’s emotions – depleting them along with the characters you grow to connect with. [9/10]

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The final film of this post is a sadly under-viewed (due to distribution, I’m sure) independent Japanese film called Ramblers. Having forgotten the reason why I had downloaded the film, I decided that it being only 80 minutes long that watching this would be a breeze. However, I didn’t expect it to be so paradisiac.

The concept isn’t extremely noteworthy – two indie filmmakers are abandoned by their producer on their alleged vacation for having successful screenings of their individual features. When their producer announces that he doesn’t know when he’ll arrive to the desolate town, the two strangers set off and try to enjoy their long weekend together. Their conversations are brief and rarely philosophical, but always hilarious. Both of them are sarcastic passives that only share shell-like similarities. Both are in their late 20’s, both love filmmaking, both share a producer and both have no idea what to do in this town.

With a bit of money that is nowhere near as substantial as it would have been if the producer showed, Tsuboi (Keishi Nagatsuka) and Kinoshita (Hiroshi Yamamoto) venture into the chilly unknown. They look for cheap places to shack up, simple events to participate in and decent meals to consume to fill in the gaps between their barren conversations. Though I do use barren with the utmost appreciation as it is the uniqueness and apprehension of getting to know a stranger and starting a friendship that is far from dissipated that is what makes this feature so fruitful. There are at least a dozen scenes where I couldn’t control my laughter thanks to the odd predicaments these two men found themselves in. For instance, the unavailing dialogue they used to try to appease their momentary neighbours are some of the most well scripted pieces of conversation this decade has produced.

The duo’s viable chumminess is disrupted when they encounter a running nude female on the frozen beach one afternoon. They invite her to be apart of their learning process and because it’s assumed that she has no one in the world, she accepts decisively. They buddy around, discuss sexual relationships (she is an attractive young woman after all), eat fine meals and learn to cope with losses. The next day she ups and leaves them on a passing by bus.

There is no doubt that this is an unconventional story. From the emotionally sparse opening to the compellingly symbolic conclusion, Ramblers is a cultivated locomotive that is only harmed by its devout amateur upbringing in few scenes. There is plenty to admire about the story and it engages the viewer until its end, so it’s divinely made in that aspect.

In the end, I found out what was my initial driving force to watch this film… it was directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita – a director/writer I immediately fell in love with a few days ago after watching Linda Linda Linda. It was much to my delight to see that the genius behind one of my recently seen favourites also directed another one of my soon to be favourites. I tip my hat to Yamashita and blithely proclaim him as the best independent filmmaker of the decade with just these two films under his belt. [9/10]

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