REVIEW: German Film Series: “Transit”

As soon as the credits roll I hightailed it out of the viewing room. I can’t stand the cold so I ran all the way home, and the scene was so terrible. There’s the harsh yellow of the streetlights reflecting all along the ice on the road, which is shining wetly like a giant tongue. I look back to check for headlights before I dash across the street to my block, and the wind takes the liberty of yanking through my hair so it flies in my face and mixes with the sickly lights.

So this might be my new favorite movie.

Georg’s expression at the last few frames was terrible. Forget Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, this guy creates a symphony with his painfully hopeful eyes and the gentle set of his lips, scarred from a childhood cleft palate surgery, only adding to the confused ambiance he creates. Throughout the film he occupies a character with infinite, though guarded, softness, while maintaining a fairly traditional father-figure posture. He is not completely any one thing, but I recognized a fragility in him I hoped wouldn’t prove to be dangerous for him. 

Marie is by contrast mostly flat, though her wishy-washy approach to everything still makes her a wild card. She is a ghost, pale and able to see through people. She reacts to conversation quietly, choosing subtlety over big outward expression, and in this way, she haunts.

Director Christian Petzold has made me the exact right kind of unsettled with Transit. There is so much casualness in this: a complete disregard for metaphors in the weather, the sun out even in times of keen distress; traumatic events regarded with little ceremony. Strangely it’s the smallest things that are amplified. Right off the sound seems wrong: the tiny tapping of a glass on a table rings out, a door sliding shut is like a jail cell clanging. All throughout I don’t quite understand what I’m feeling, unable to cry though I can sense sadness here.

The way Petzold plays with time works so well with the confusion of identities throughout the movie–cars and clothing and language are modern, but there are typewriters present, and historical architecture. Members of the Navy in Crackerjack-esque uniforms dine with our Georg in the local pizza shop; air travel is not mentioned, only by ship. The sleepy brightness of the seaside seems infinitely ancient in its sun-bleached scenery. Nazis are occupying countries all throughout Europe, but The traveling itself is another element, coming upon a new place full of strangers, trying to reach another, more obscure land across the ocean. It all collects together to blur any useful divide between the real and imagined.

Going back and forth to the hotel room and port and consulate did seem repetitive, without any discernible reasoning. Already there is a considerable amount of confusion present, so the redundancy of the dashings does nothing for the film’s emotional success. It only creates repeating, nearly identical cycles that do not move the plot forward.

Cycles are, however, the most important part of the movie, and may say something about the message Petzold was trying to convey. After Marie disappears back into the city at the end (as she does so well), Georg is left eternally waiting for her in the pizza shop, mournfully gazing out to meet the eyes again of the woman he had immediately fallen in love with. It seems she is free now, like he used to be, and he is stuck wandering looking for his lost love, the very sickness that had plagued her.

It’s interesting to drag a historical event out of its place comfortably in the past and out into the open modern era. It makes us nervous to consider whether political and military atrocities will really stay away from the present, or if we’re still capable of unbelievable things even after we have advanced as a society. Maybe they take different forms, but it is foolish to think we are any less evil than before, and thus we cannot pretend we live safely apart from those terrors.

REVIEW: CSEAS Film Screening–Thai Movie Night. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) / ‘พี่ชาย My Hero’

I used to pride myself in my cold-heartedness while watching emotional movies. While others wept over Les Mis I did not shed a single tear, and in this astonished both my peers and myself. 

These days, this old pride is abandoned totally. Now I use how much I cry as a measure of how good the movie is. So, by the Sorrow Scale, How To Win At Checkers (Every Time) was fabulous. The purity of the brothers’ relationship is tragic in the face of government corruption and rapidly-moving sadnesses. Despite how inevitable the turning of events were, I’d still catch myself hoping along with the characters. 

The bond between Oat and Ek is realistic–not too sitcom-family well-behaved, but teasing and jeering and ultimately loving. It informs the questionable decisions Ek can make concerning his kid brother, like letting him come to the club with him. They both need another, less alien parental figure than their aunt, after the death of their parents, especially Oat. Ek is not a perfect father figure, which is quite the accurate representation, as he is so young himself, and could use someone guiding him as well.

Small things held significance in this film, working with subtlety that enhanced its themes of injustice, which is similarly slyly hidden to all those not looking for it. Take the draft lottery scene; while the crowd was singing the national anthem, Jai and Junior are one of the few pointedly not participating. It’s unclear whether they do so as they contemplate their part in the bribing, or the fact that the government accepts bribes to escape the draft at all. Perhaps they feel less connected to their country as a result. But hasn’t Ek earned the right to antipatriotism? He is stuck in the nerve-frying situation of facing possible death and leaving his young brother behind. Still he sings the song of the country that has none of his interests in mind. 

 

The color palettes are similarly subtle, simple combinations of muted earth and jewel tones that drag at the feeling of bleakness the later parts of the movie hold. Even the Cafe Lovely has a limited scheme, a little monochromatic neon against dark grays and browns in its rooms. Upstairs, that sinister place, is even flatter, an apartment building hallway of beige. In such environments I can feel the barrenness of the situation, in contrast with the joyous times of childhood. We see here that evil works in a lurking way, striking without ceremony. 

And although I have mostly positive views on Checkers, there were several instances of triteness that shocked me. Worst of all was the very ending, where an adult Oat rides out into the sunset, which turns to white as he gets to the horizon. I wanted to gag at this foolishly, blindly at-peace, going into the light ending. To me, it ruined much of the unique qualities the movie did contain. Instead of Ek’s painfully unceremonious killing, I was thinking about how much this reminded me of The Ghost Whisperer. At that point, I seriously considered labeling this a feel-good movie instead of the deeper drama it tries to be. I wondered how it could be nominated for an Oscar when they couldn’t think of a less superficial way of ending it.

But what matters most is one’s overall feeling walking out of the movie. At that time I was still crying, so by my measure of choice, it was still a powerful film.

This is director Josh Kim’s first full length film. He has also made several other short films to check out: Draft Day, The Postcard, and The Police Box. This was the last Thai Movie Night of the semester, but they will be starting up again at the beginning of the year.

PREVIEW: CSEAS Film Screening–Thai Movie Night. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) / ‘พี่ชาย My Hero’

As we come up on our long-yearned for Thanksgiving break, it can be hard to stay focused without occasionally giving our minds some time to rest. People are simply not meant to exist as machines that continuously churn.

Grease your gears with another great selection of film in CSEAS’s Thai Movie Night series. This time it is the intriguingly-titled How To Win At Checkers (Every Time). It tells the story of a recently orphaned young boy as his older brother and new caretaker must submit to the country’s draft lottery. The troubling  uncertainty and personal growth of the brothers raises questions about the justice of the structure of society.

The movie will be presented at 7pm on Thursday, November 21 in 1500 North Quad (the Video Viewing Room in the Language Resource Center). There is no charge for admission.

REVIEW: International Studies Horror Film Fest

Another year of the annual International Studies Horror Film Fest has come and gone, and with it went my hope that they would show actual horror movies.

Don’t get me wrong; the selections were wonderfully artistic and variable in tone and theme and texture. All three featured original plots and unsettling undertones. They each force a bit of creepiness into one’s idea of the world, while remaining quite beautiful. However, I would have appreciated at least one fully, overtly gruesome movie in the program. The gore was almost nonexistent in all of the films, limited to a few scenes of graphicness apiece. I found myself groaning over the romantic subplots and long periods of calm while trying to focus on the main stories and character dynamics. On Halloween, I need fear to rule. This can be done in complex, story-rich, writerly ways; the artistry of a film need not be sacrificed. Thus, even if the fest’s planners intended to get together a group of intellectually stimulating movies, they could have done so while giving the audience a little more of a scare.

Face was basically CSI or Criminal Minds in all it accomplished horror-wise. The whole movie seems cast in shadows, plagued by an uninspired soundtrack and TV-drama style acting. But the pace of the film was perfect, a slow reveal of a shocking truth whose slime does something venomous to the psyche of the audience.

The Lure was an entire musical, and certainly the only movie of its kind, however impossible to define that may be. The heavy glamour of the strip club pairs so well with the mythology surrounding mermaids, and the girls’ dead stares were a perfect balance for all the life in their musical numbers. The unwholesomeness of the young girls participating in this business combines with the sexual power of mermaids in lore to create an uneasy feeling for the audience, similar to the trickery sailors face in all the stories. But even with the violence and the complex uneasiness, this movie is far closer to a comedy than a horror film.

Dogtooth seemed like something I should have enjoyed, given that its creator is the same man behind The Lobster (a movie which, after watching, made me feel so unmoored that I literally held onto street signs as I walked to the bus stop, certain I’d blow away with the wind). It bears obvious similarities in how the cast is directed to act (basically emotionless, flat) and the minimalism of the indoor environments. But it falls short of creating the same level of effect for me that Lanthimos had in his later film. I think he realizes later in his career that there is a limit to the lack of expression he can write into his actors and the barrenness of the landscape before it becomes too offputting for the audience to focus on the story. In short, I got bored, and the beauty of the expertly done lighting and the carefully constructed garden space did little to change that. Some emotional music would have gone a long way.

Truly, these movies have tons of artistic value to consider and appreciate. In another sort of film festival, they would be great additions (and indeed, they have been inputs of such festivals as Cannes and Sundance), but I still hold that they are unwise selections for a true horror fest. I hope that next year, they have more time in the gallery to show an extra movie that a Halloween lover would appreciate.

PREVIEW: International Studies Horror Film Fest

 

Halloween, though it has already been upon us for months, is now extremely upon us. Somehow the most important holiday in the universe does not warrant a day off of school (meanwhile, some still legitimately celebrate Columbus Day), so we must do all we can to work around our schedules to properly honor this spiritual time.

Thank the Unholy Lord of the Dead that the International Studies program is continuing horror film fest. In its seventh year, the free program will include three foreign films (subtitled in English) for all to be terrified by. Come by the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery (first floor) between classes, or if you’re especially dedicated, skip them all and stay for the whole time. And I better see you all in costume, or else.

The movie schedule is as follows:

10:00–11:30 a.m. — Face (2004, Korean)
11:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m. — The Lure (2005, Polish)
1:15–3:00 p.m. — Dogtooth (2000, Greek)

https://events.umich.edu/event/68410

REVIEW: Tigers Are Not Afraid

It’s hard to describe this movie. It feels like it was made a while before its 2017 release, reminiscent of ancient fairy tales and old westerns. Fantasy blends with the supernatural with cowboy kids and unspecific wars that rage eternally.

The whole film had a strange feeling to it, a dark beauty made all the more sinister by the twisting of youth into a violent survival. Sandwiched between scenes of children killing to live–pistol large and awkward held in their small hands–we witness a lavish mansion, a beautiful koi pond, the sun laying warm orange hands upon the earth.

In various scenes I drew a similarity to the 2010 adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, whose creators favored the duller, harsher, rotting side of marvelousness. The blueprint to this wonderland is reflective of that, its color scheme made up of romantically bleak sandy expanses and pastel paints faded by time under the watchful eye of the sun. Dust covers all in a show of a strangling embrace, clouding the landscape in an attempt to dilute its horrors.

 

What was unclear was the lack of explanation of the adverse effects of making wishes. This seemed an uneven piece of the plot, as Estrella’s mother and the other victims of the gang are seeking justice for the violence through which they’ve suffered. Perhaps they recognize some need for balance, granting wishes being too disruptive an act unless it was accounted for by some random tragedy. But this concept is not corroborated by any other behavior by the dead; they seem motivated only by the rage from the injustices committed against them, and in this basically solely self-interested. Adhering to a lawful cosmic order does would not seem to be an overly pressing concern for them.

 

But beyond this confusion, there is at least some dark beautiful justice to mingle with tragedy. All the conflicting directions involved in the film makes it difficult to process, but truly this is what film should do: confuse, make us process at once all it’s trying to communicate. There is no movie of any quality that does not frustrate.

I don’t know exactly that any romance should be juxtaposed with real, current violence. I have some creeping sensation that its beauty, however clearly dark it may be, is dangerously placed. Perhaps this movie is only this way as it’s shown through the eyes of children. Though hardened by their circumstances, they still possess the imagination of the young, and need to cope somehow with their orphaning. They seek shelter in each other, yes, but must see something else in the world that can distract them from what they’ve lost.