In today’s Cine-File, I review Koji Fukada’s Harmonium, the best Japanese film I’ve seen in years. In this week’s Time Out Chicago, I have capsule reviews of Daughters of the Dust and Moonlight. All three reviews can be read in their entirety below:
What to See During the Second Week of the Chicago International Film Festival
The Chicago International Film Festival continues this week with daily screenings through October 27. My best bets for the second week are a pair of features, one old and one new, from this year’s impressive Black Perspectives category.
Julie Dash, one of the key members of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers that includes Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, will attend this year’s CIFF to present a restored 25th anniversary version of her seminal feature, Daughters of the Dust. Unlike her male counterparts, who directed their first features in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed until 1991. It was worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. The focus is on one family in particular, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving their island home and immigrating to the mainland for good—but Daughters is primarily a non-narrative experience, one based more on African folklore traditions than traditional Western storytelling. Dash creates indelible images of the family’s female members frolicking on the beach in period costume, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography. These images are accompanied by the lyrical voice-over narration of Nana, the matriarch of the family, and her “unborn” great-great granddaughter, both of whom ruminate on the importance of tradition and memory.
Although Chicagoans will have plenty of chances to see it when it opens in wide release on Friday, October 28, the local premiere of Moonlight will occur two days earlier at CIFF. Writer and director Barry Jenkins’ second feature, a follow-up to his acclaimed micro-budget debut Medicine and Melancholy from 2008, is my favorite American film of the year. It uses a unique tripartite structure to tell the story of a young man’s search for his own identity across three different periods of his life (each of which corresponds to a different name or nickname: childhood/”Little,” adolescence/Chiron, and adulthood/”Black”). As in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, the fact that the three exceptional actors who portray the central character (including Chicago’s own Ashton Sanders) do not particularly look alike works to the film’s advantage; it forces viewers to reconcile the philosophical notion of an individual “containing multitudes.” This quiet, heartrending portrait of what it’s like to grow up gay, black and poor in America today is also made with an impressive command of film form (Jenkins has cited Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as influences on his lush and tactile images) that is all-too-rare among contemporary independent filmmakers.
Daughters of the Dust screens on October 23. Moonlight screens on October 26. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit www.chicagofilmfestival.com.
Cine-File “Crucial Viewing”
Koji Fukada’s HARMONIUM (New Japanese)
A deserving winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Koji Fukada’s meticulous slow-burn thriller is an impressive feat of screenwriting, directing, and acting. Toshio (Kanji Furatachi) is a seemingly contented small-business owner and family man with a loving wife and daughter. When his old friend Yasaka (a sinister Tadanobu Asano) is released from prison, Toshio extends a helping hand by hiring the deceptively polite young man to work in his factory and live in his home. Slowly and insidiously, Yasaka causes cracks to appear between members of the family as he brings a dark secret from Toshio’s past to light (in many ways, the film’s narrative trajectory is the opposite of Takashi Miike’s VISITOR Q, where a strange houseguest used murder to bring a dysfunctional family closer together). Not many filmmakers would be able to pull off Fukada’s bolder cinematic conceits (a symbolic use of the color red, an unexpected leap-forward in time, an abrupt and daringly ambiguous ending) but every such decision seems pressed to the service of illustrating a karmic cycle of crime, punishment, and redemption that feels firmly rooted in believable character psychology and a realistic social milieu. This haunting film is one of the great Japanese exports of recent years. (2016, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS