Daily Archives: October 16, 2020

Tsai Ming-liang’s DAYS and Hong Sang-soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN

I have two capsule reviews at Cinefile Chicago this week. I’m posting both reviews below. Enjoy!

Tsai Ming-liang’s DAYS (Taiwan)
Available for rent through October 25 here*
DAYS, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s latest ode to urban loneliness, begins with a middle-aged man, Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), simply sitting in a room and staring out the window on a rainy afternoon. Tsai’s patient camera eye observes the man’s expressionless face for a full five minutes before cutting. It’s an astonishing scene in which nothing seems to happen while also suggesting, on an interior level, that perhaps a lot is happening, thus setting the tone for the two hour audio-visual experience that follows. As viewers, we are invited to not only observe Kang as the shot’s subject but also allow our eyes to wander around the beautifully composed frame, noticing the details of what is reflected in the window out of which Kang stares (since the shot is framed from outside) as well as listen to the sound of the gently falling rain. From there, an almost entirely wordless narrative proceeds, in fits and starts, as the daily life of this man, who is suffering from and being treated for an unspecified illness, is juxtaposed with that of a younger man, a Laotian immigrant masseur named Non (Anong Houngheuangsya). Eventually, the lives of both protagonists come together in an erotic hotel-room encounter before breaking apart again, presumably for good. The way these two minimalist character arcs briefly intersect reveals a surprisingly elegant and classical structure lurking beneath the movie’s avant-garde surface and also serves to function as a potent metaphor for nothing less than life itself: We may be born alone and we may die alone but, if we’re lucky, we can make meaningful connections with other people along the way. DAYS is a formally extreme film, even for Tsai, and probably not the best place to start for those unfamiliar with the director’s previous work. But I emerged from it feeling as refreshed and energized as I would if I had visited a spa. (2020, 127 min) [Michael Glover Smith]

*
Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.

Hong Sang-soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN (South Korea)
Available for rent through October 25
here*
The films of prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo have become steadily more oriented around their female protagonists since he began working with Kim Min-hee in 2015’s RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN. This mighty director/actress combo has reached a kind of apotheosis in their seventh and latest collaboration, THE WOMAN WHO RAN, a charming dramedy about three days in the life of a woman, Gam-hee (Kim), who spends time apart from her spouse for the first time after five years of marriage. When her husband goes on a trip, Gam-hee uses the occasion to visit three of her female friends—one of whom is single, one of whom is married, and one of whom is recently divorced—and Hong subtly implies that Gam-hee’s extended dialogue with each causes her to take stock of her own marriage and life. Gam-hee also comes into contact with three annoying men—a nosy neighbor, a stalker, and a mansplainer—while visiting each friend, situations that allow Hong to create clever internal rhymes across his triptych narrative structure. Hong’s inimitable cinematographical style has long favored long takes punctuated by sudden zooms and pans, but rarely have the devices felt as purposeful as they do here. Notice how his camera zooms, with the precision of a microscope, into a close-up of a woman’s face immediately after she issues an apology to Gam-hee during the film’s final act, and how the tears in this woman’s eyes would not have been visible without the zoom. This is masterful stuff. (2020, 77 min) [Michael Glover Smith]

*
Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.


Steve James’ CITY SO REAL

In the future, when I come across someone who has never been to Chicago but wants to know what my hometown is like, I will tell them to watch Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. Produced by Kartemquin Films (HOOP DREAMS) and soon-to-be-aired on the National Geographic Channel, this brilliant five-part miniseries looks at Chicago in its full complexity — as a major metropolis that serves as a global tourist destination but also as a down-to-earth Midwestern “city of neighborhoods.” Most of the reviews of the series I’ve come across so far have focused on its depiction of the Windy City’s crazy mayoral race of 2019 — when an unprecedented 14 candidates vied for the spot after Rahm Emanuel, tainted by his role in the cover-up of the Laquan McDonald shooting, wisely decided not to run for re-election. To be sure, James’ access to behind-the-scenes machinations of local electoral politics offers some juicy moments (in one amusing scene, then-candidate Lori Lightfoot refers to those caught up in the Ed Burke extortion scandal as “dumb fucks”); but I think it’s truer to say that James uses the mayoral race as a narrative hook that allows him to draw viewers in while also allowing him to do something much more expansive, which is to paint an epic, impressionistic portrait of Chicago at a moment of societal tumult (complete with a digression on Bears fandom, cameos by Chance the Rapper and Kanye West and a song by the great Staples Singers on the soundtrack). A particularly nice touch: Every scene begins by including a graphic of the city showing where the scene takes place and identifying the neighborhood by name.

CITY SO REAL’s complex and provocative fifth episode, an epilogue that flashes forward to a year after Lightfoot’s election, when her “honeymoon phase” has long ended and the city is both ravaged by COVID and rocked by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, caused me to rethink the first four parts entirely. It is here where James’ and David Simpson’s masterful montage editing, while never being overtly showy or kinetic, becomes worthy of comparison to Eisenstein in its dialectical approach. In addition to showing copious footage of the protests from a wide variety of sources, James gives equal screen time to both Lightfoot’s defense of her aggressive handling of the protests and the criticism of eloquent activists like Miracle Boyd (a teenager whose teeth were knocked out by a cop for merely wielding a cell-phone camera in public). More subtly, James offers a pointed critique of Chicago as a city still largely segregated along racial lines by juxtaposing scenes in both white and black barbershops. My personal favorite moment involves Tim Tuten, owner of the legendary Hideout music venue, trashing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF as a supposedly “modern classic” in a direct-to-camera address after John Hughes’ movie is programmed at a drive-in theater at the controversial Lincoln Yards development site (where Tuten imagines a grown-up Bueller is now ready to move in). This angry and hilarious scene is my favorite work of film criticism in all of 2020. But James also rightly ends the series on a moment of poignancy and hope — by just hanging out in a residential south-side backyard with a pair of young girls who represent the city’s unwritten future, and a beautiful gospel song.

CITY SO REAL can be screened virtually via the Chicago International Film Festival. The National Geographic Channel will broadcast the television premiere on Thursday, October 29.


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