Category Archives: Chicago International Film Festival 2014

Chicago International Film Festival 2014

Recap of the Turner Time at the Chicago International Film Festival 2014

The Chicago International Film Festival quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, touting its role as the longest running competitive film festival in North America. CIFF even has a separate component of industrial, instructional and educational films and inspired the Children’s International Film Festival. As with many aspects of Chicago culture, CIFF gets far less fanfare than the much newer (and more exclusive) Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Still the festival’s selection of over 100 films in categories ranging from Reel Women to Cinema of the Americas delivering a first-rate cultural experience to America’s second city.

Director Taylor Hackford’s two films from that 80s, White Nights (1985) and Idolmaker (1980), set a distinctly low bar as my first introductions to the festival. Both films made their premieres at the festival and played a large part in launching Hackford’s career as a profitable, albeit artistically stagnant, director of music films. At over two hours long with rambling plots and misogyny abound, these two films are fairly representative of Hackford’s career of Hollywood success with his most famous hit being An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). There were strong points, as mentioned in my review of the films, but my interview with Hackford largely colored my negative opinion of him as representative of the recalcitrant Baby Boomer establishment who continue to ignore the impact of web-based cultures on filmmaking.

Luckily the subsequent contemporary films all came from different countries and employed vastly different visual styles, making for a great series of cinema. The Golden Hugo award-winner for Best Picture this year, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, gave a great post-Arab Spring look at a deposed dictator trying to engage with his people as one of them – with no idea what that even means. The Iranian director has had a long history of filmmaking with over twenty films under his belt, and incorporates his unique view as an Iranian expat in Europe with this dark satire on the real meaning of revolution.

Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night offers a counterpoint to the stark, and often disturbing, realism of Makhmalbaf’s film. This surrealist adaption of a 1981 young adult novel captures quite well the hormonal confusion of being a 14-year-old boy. The black and white coloring along with the soft visuals and sharp lighting moderate some of the film’s most challenging moments, adding a poetic touch to this coming-of-age film.

The final film I had the privilege to see was multimedia artist Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s documentary on South Korea’s Miracle on the Han River, a colloquial term for the country’s unprecedented economic growth after the Korean War. Park’s role as a multimedia artist skewed the film much more into art film territory than traditional documentary. Large expanses of time pass sometimes with only shots of beautifully framed factories set to ambient music. This first-time director really stands in contrast to the aforementioned films by exploring some interesting visual and storytelling techniques that make it one of the most intriguing films I have seen this year.

In addition to these films, I also attended the Awards Night with Kathleen Turner heading up the main competition jury. Martin Scorsese sent in a video honoring famed Chicagoan Roger Ebert whose inaugural award was introduced by his stepdaughter at the festival. Another high profile director Joe Swanberg, probably most well known from the Chicago-based Drinking Buddies, sent in a video congratulating the film festival on 50 years. Sadly very few award winners made the effort to come to Chicago so there were a lot of video acceptance speeches, but nonetheless the diverse group of winners, from animated shorts to documentary, seemed genuinely happy to have won.

In addition to the films I mentioned, there were panels, collections of shorts, master classes and more that I just didn’t have time to attend. CIFF’s International Connections Program, begun in 2003 to encourage awareness of diverse cultures, is starting to pay real dividends with a huge selection of minority-focused films. So if you’re ever in the Chicagoland area during October and want a huge selection of independent films at reasonable prices, I would recommend taking a trip to the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dream of Iron

A Dream of Iron Artfully Ponders South Korea’s Glimmering Future

For a country that is 15th in world GDP, South Korea does not get a lot of international fanfare. This intellectual blind spot makes A Dream of Iron’s meditation on Korean industrialism over the past 50 years a vital contemporary commentary. In astrology lore, a “dream of iron” is one where the dreamer fears sitting judgment of others and whoever controls the iron has control of the situation. If Park’s compelling art film/ documentary hybrid is to be believed, then South Korea’s breakneck industrialization after the unbelievable destruction of the Korea War could be seen as trying to take control of the iron.

Most Underpublicized Country in Asia

Maybe because Japan and China have been in more precarious positions the past few years, but I feel as though the average American would not finger South Korea as Asia’s highest income earner. Director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park brings out the backbone of South Korea’s success with a unique, local perspective in Ulsan, home of the world’s largest car manufacture plant. The tone of the film is slow and pensive, never moving too quickly from a grand shot of towering crane to aerial shots of the city’s huge, metal infrastructure.

The dots never get connected quickly, but the reverential cinematography towards Korean industry hints at its growing roles as a new Korean religion. A particularly strong moment comes about 20 minutes in when the blips of a whale slowly transition to the drums of a traditional Korean ceremony, which then return to swimming dolphins before a somewhat harsher cut to a Hyundai employee at the factory. Through visual style over concrete facts, Park suggests the movement from Korea’s ancient whale-based religion to traditional Confucianism and Buddhism occurred gradually, but Korea’s industrialism boom happened in a historical instant. Park periodically returns to a series of ancient religious petroglyphs that have since become submerged due to a nearby factory adding a heartfelt jab on the real implications on Korean history.

Manufacturing as South Korea’s Seoul

The origin for Park’s interest in this subject came from his grandfather who operated a scrap metal business in Seoul that became largely irrelevant as the years went on. Despite this being Park’s first feature film, he expertly juxtaposes archival footage of Koreans with eyes of full of hope awaiting Hyundai’s first manufacturing plant opening with an unsettling eulogy to a Hyundai executive given by a man who proudly describes ignoring his wife on her death bed so he could work more. Industrialism brought perhaps one of the world’s biggest national transitions in recent years catapulting South Korea into the worldwide economy, which according to Park seems to have come at the price of almost religious devotion.

Park took a greater amount of control than often seen in feature films by writing the script, shooting a large part of the film and directing it, perhaps because of his distinct connection to the subject matter. Sparse use of narrative elements prevent A Dream of Iron from erring farther into Park’s experience with video installation and performance art. The most conventional documentary-style profile follows a woman who stumbled into a job at Hyundai twenty years ago with the idea of it being temporary. The Hyundai factory has been a staple of this woman’s life, donning the layers of her safety mask reminiscent of the traditional talchum ceremony.

Narrative moments often devolve, or evolve in a certain sense, into contemplative industrial scenes scored to a lo-fi soundtrack that manages to echo both traditional music and the whirs and clangs of an industrial plant. The distant shots of beautifully lit industrial machinery say what the narration never explicitly delineates – these are the new iron idols. Towards the end there is a five-minute continuous take of one piece of machinery being placed down by a crane, interacting with the light forming new and interesting shapes and visual illusions before reaching the ground. Apart from simply making an unidentifiable metal structure become art (for a few minutes at least) Park addresses both the reality of modern South Korea and the potential that has for the country moving forward.

Concrete Night

Concrete Night’s Sweet Visuals Come With a Bitter Story at CIFF

The opening scene presents 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) watching a light rail train collapse into the Gulf of Finland. He finds his way inside and swims around, but soon thereafter he bangs on the window trying to fix this problem he made himself. Pirjo Honkasalo’s 2013 film Concrete Night sounds as though it could be an indulgent, indie flick with high production value and a lot of gimmicks. While the film has a high production value for sure, the off-beat and hard to define coming of age story proves just as compelling.

pirjo honkasola

Finnish fixture Honkasalo has filled every role from cinematographer to film editor in her more than 40 years of filmmaking, which puts her in a unique position to be an expert in most major areas of film production. As a result I’m sure she played a role in Peter Flickenberg’s captivating cinematography which sets this film apart in how far it is willing to push conventions, uncharacteristically combining stark, high key lighting with a soft focus. The black and white coloring further transforms the notion of film noir young Simo probably has in his mind, into a sort of surreal dreamworld.

Pirkko and Pirjo

Honkasola can’t take all the credit because the screenplay was adapted from author Pirkko Saisio’s 1981 book of the same name. This is the bildungsroman you don’t normally see in film where confusion is highlighted and extracted almost to the point discomfort. Simo lives with his alcoholic Mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his soon to be imprisoned brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) in a confining, postmodern apartment in an equally confining concrete neighborhood. Ilkka, an insufferable loser by all accounts except Simo, bosses Simo around and intimidates their mother into complacency.

The presentation of Simo’s journey luckily allows us to see essentially the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Certainly there are scenes that can’t be taken literally, but his relationships although eccentric feel as grounded as a teen’s relationship with his family is expected to be. His mother prepares herself for a solid eight hours for a date just to get drunk and bring the man back to their apartment. Simo seems to take pleasure in deriding his mother in the same way Ilkka does, but we clearly see she is the ambitionless alcoholic Simo characterizes her as.

Brother Hero Worship at Its Most Honest

Conversely the audience has a stark view of how awful Ilkka is but here Simo can’t quite see past the alluring veneer of beer drinking, criminal older brother. When Illka takes Simo to a bar and he gets turned away for being underage Ilkka glares at the waitress, but Simo flips the whole table over.

In capturing the slice of puberty few acknowledge, i.e. the cruel and misguided decisions meant to impress, Concrete Night delivers above and beyond. While the attractive cinematography smoothes out some of the film’s darker edges, it is very much up to the viewer to negotiate the characters’ behavior. It can be challenging at points, but the seamless combination of disparate genres both tonally and visually makes this movie a must see.

White Nights versus Idolmaker

‘The Idolmaker’ and ‘White Nights’ Low Points of CIFF

These two movies from director Taylor Hackford premiered at the festival during the eighties and mark those oldest films I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Idolmaker (1980) and White Nights (1985) were both rescreened as part of the CFF’s 50th Anniversary festivities and I had the opportunity to do a roundtable interview with Mr. Hackford. He was being shuttled off to another engagement so I didn’t get to ask him too many questions, but some of what he said has informed my reviews.

Only White Nights Really Capitalizes on All the Perks of Being a Music Movie

Both White Nights and The Idolmaker are music movies, but only the former seems to be aware of this. Hackford got his start in the entertainment industry covering concerts for a public TV station in LA, which has led to long career directing a variety of musician biopics and movies with a lot of music in them. The Idolmaker was his first fictional, music movie and although well regarded at the time of release, Hackford’s film based on the life of manager and promoter Bob Maracucci has not stood the test of time.

The Idolmaker chronicles working class Vincent “Vinnie” Vacari’s (Ray Sharkey) rise to the top of the music industry representing a local Brookyln singer Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land). Tommie’s almost unimpeded rise to the top drains the film’s first half of much conflict and the introduction of a new singer named Guido (Peter Gallagher) in the second half takes plot on a left turn that leaves the viewer feeling cheated. All three men are quite unlikable with the alarming near-rape of a teenaged girl at the beginning stopping cold any sympathy I had for those involved. Further the primarily Italian New Yorker main characters are offensive personifications of almost every Italian stereotype from the overbearing patriarch to a lot of “youse guys”.

All things being equal White Nights is not great either, but at least it is a somewhat unprecedented film about world-class ballet dancer Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) getting stuck in the Soviet Union with an American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines). The government traps Rodchenko in the USSR because they want him to perform at the Kirov, pushing through a series of rather sinister Russian portrayals in line with American opinion during the Cold War.

Despite the film’s 136 minutes, plans don’t get fully explained and time is spent on unimportant information that doesn’t contribute to the main story. The plot is left hazy in large part because Rodchenko and Greenwood’s dance sequences cause a complete halt in plot development so the audience can marvel at their footwork. What Hackford failed to match in The Idolmaker was a clear cinematographic focus on the film’s biggest draw – the dancing setpieces. These scenes combine two rather different dancing styles, full-bodied ballet and fervid tap, with stunning choreography by famed dancer Twyla Tharp.

Lackluster Singing Not Enough to Save The Idolmaker’s Lagging Plot

White Nights at least if lacking in plot delivers on the dancing front, but The Idolmaker flounders in its singing scenes. The rambling plot is more noticeable because less time is spent on musical numbers and worse yet the musical numbers are mostly terrible. In the beginning Vinnie brings Tommie in for a one on one recording session, which is supposed to be impressive but the result is at best average. It’s as if the scene in the beginning of Space Jam where young Michael Jordan does the awesome slam dunk was just MJ doing a layup that almost misses the hoop.

Both films do have strong actors behind them, though White Nights wins out here as well. That film introduced Isabella Rosselini to American audiences as the wide-eyed wife of Raymond Greenwood and Helen Mirren delivers a strong performance as Galina Ivanova, a former dancer trapped in Russia, not to mention Gregory Hines as a disillusioned Vietnam defector. The Idolmaker is far more melodramatic overall which makes the acting harder to appreciate, but Ray Sharkey won a Golden Globe for his role as Vinnie.

While most of my review is critical of both films, I am sure during the period in which these films premiered they were par for the course. In fact, Lionel Richie won the Academy Award for his song “Say You, Say Me” in White Nights that was a hit in 1985, but has thankfully faded from public memory. Our standards of misogyny and even plot development have built upon the generation before us, and in Hackford’s case the generation before that, so it might be unfair to criticize these films from a current perspective. Still in comparison to other contemporary films, they both offer shaky plots with little of technical distinction, resulting in a tough sell on two long movies for ten minutes total of singing and dancing sequences.

The President and Dachi in Hiding

The President Wins Gold Hugo at Chicago International Film Festival with Powerful Political Satire

The President has a lot going for it both as a topical dramatic satire on revolutions in the wake of the Arab Spring and as a personal closer look at the people at the center – the President and his family. Early on in the film, Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s brings together the first of many striking juxtapositions during a scene where the President (Misha Gomiashvili) and his grandson, Dachi (Dachi Orvelashvili) look out from their lofty palace turning the city’s lights off and on per the 5-year-old’s request. That kind of mercurial behavior is characteristic of a dictator not a president, as the title indicates. When the city lights get turned off a second time and city erupts in an uprising, it’s clear the President hasn’t had to consider the distinction between President and Dictator – until now.

Makhmalbaf set his dwelling on what it takes to recover from such a large-scale breach of trust between the government and its people in an unnamed country. Lacking specificity allows the film to more broadly apply to the diverse countries still living under authoritarian rule. While on the run from militants, the two make a pit stop to go to the bathroom and Dachi protests afterwards that he has never had to wipe himself before. The President says he hasn’t either. Apart from learning basic life skills, this movie isn’t about the President learning the faults of actions, but rather about them being outsiders in a country that is only ostensibly theirs.

Iranian Director Makhmalbaf Plays With New Wave Genre

The film’s wandering protagonists harken back to Iranian New Wave predecessors German New Cinema and the French New Wave. Films like Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond feature protagonists getting beaten down wherever they go by the monotony of society in the United States and France, respectively. The difference here is that unlike their unlucky Western counterparts, here the President directly caused his oppression, i.e. civil unrest.

Perhaps the Grandson is innocent, but the beginning of the film indicates that he was well on his way to becoming his grandfather. As Makhmalbaf’s 28th film, he has mastered capturing several disparate story essentials with sophistication in both style and production. We watch as the President is driven down the street, passing his presidential banners burning, each one more alight than the last. The weight of the scene is conveyed only by the muted sound of smoldering fire.

The President and Dachi are the only characters seen consistently throughout the movie, but Gomiashvili’s stoic portrayal of the President wisely makes it difficult to understand his mental processes. His strong, but subdued, performance fortunately allows young Dachi to come out in full force. The inclusion of the grandson often draws out the truth of the situation by continually forcing the President to translate the extremely complex situation into something simple enough for Dachi to understand.

Moments of tenderness frequently follow moments of harshness, serving as striking juxtapositions that hit home the man the President represents to his family is world’s away from how the people he’s now surrounded with see him. On the lam, the President forces an impoverished barber to cut his hair and hand over what little clothes he has as disguises. That night, however, the President holds Dachi’s hand through their beds made of cardboard boxes to provide some semblance of comfort.

Satire of Revolution Highlights the Disjunction

The film won the Gold Hugo for Best Film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival and for good reason. As a satire on both dictators and violence of the common person during revolution, this film gives shape to a film that could seem aimless and hard to comprehend. Similarly the disjuncture between palace life and life in the countryside adds some levity to a film that has the potential to be devastating.

At certain points in the film, however, the notion of satire inserts itself too prominently with lines clearly added to serve as social commentary that detract from the movie’s subtle power. Scenes occasionally border on melodrama at these points, but as part of a cohesive whole they still work. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-exile from Iran has likely colored the writing of this film, but hope of a peaceful resolution in this unnamed country still comes across as possible though definitely not easy. To the film’s credit nothing is deemed certain except that people are always in war for power.