Days in Berlin, Part 2

By Robert Koehler

As a member of the Berlinale FIPRESCI jury—concentrated on Forum–my first week in Berlinale is almost entirely devoted to Forum films. That was by choice: Forum is, in the roughest terms, Berlin’s Quinzaine, created 40 years ago out of the same impulse that created the Quinzaine, as a revolutionary-minded alternative to the stodgy establishment festival, a safe harbor for radical cinema. Each has softened its original militant stance, though Quinzaine remains as independent of Festival de Cannes as possible, while Forum is now thoroughly integrated with the Berlinale as a whole.

Every year, there are “Forum films,” or, at least, films that remind the viewer why Forum exists. Last year, those were Sweetgrass, Burrowing, Material, L’encirclement, Beeswax and The Exploding Girl (the ones that come to mind). This year? Among those seen previous to Berlin, they would be Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide, Oscar Ruiz Navia’s Crab Trap, Sabu’s Kanikosen, maybe Laura Poitras’ The Oath. All defiantly independent, nearly or totally beyond categories, impossible to summarize in a blurb. Because I’ve written elsewhere about most of these (as well as Laxmikant Shetgoankar’s The Man Beyond the Bridge and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), most of the posts will be trained on the Forum films seen for the first time, most of them world premieres.……


The first thing to know about the young Korean director So Sang-min is that he decided to make films after watching Hong Sang-soo’s The Power of Kangwong Province. The power of Hong exerts itself upon So in I’m in Trouble!, the best of the Forum films screened on the second day. So firmly establishes a tone at the start that he maintains throughout, and it might be described as rigorously bemused. His interest in the geometry of relationships, the alienation of the artist from society and the firmly de-romanticized view of such, the hopeless male Martian creature in exchange with the always wiser Venusian female–all of these longtime Hong obsessions are in So, to a degree that he’s open to the attack that he’s merely a Hong copy.

That could be, although I’m in Trouble! is so thoroughly enjoyable and intelligently conceived in its own right that the discussion about So as a future major voice in Korean cinema shouldn’t be attached to his Hong thing but his cinema thing. He knows how to shoot, how to cut, when to turn his attention, and has his own distinct ear for how young people talk. He stages with modest formalism: During many scenes between floundering poet Sun-woo and his sober-minded girlfriend Yuna, So steadfastly resists the temptation to go for the close-up; instead, he maintains a measured distance from them, allowing us to view their entire bodies and the various, anonymous urban and semi-urban spaces around them. It allows the comedy to breath, and for a subtle recognition that these are young people living amidst forces greater than themselves, even as they are narrow-casted on their own petty behavior and lives.

So goes in for iconic character dress as well, and his camera, placed several feet away in medium shot, lets the eye take in Sun-woo’s slovenly garb versus, for instance, a former college associate whose all-business, no-nonsense, superior attitude comes across in the crisp suit he wears. So has these two opposites come close to duking it out—but not quite. He recognizes that life is played out in between the extremes, so both the Corporate Man and the Communist youth group singing “The Internationale” during a Seoul street scene between Sun-woo and Yuna are somewhat comically absurd, though no less that Sun-woo himself, a poet who talks a lot more about poetry than actually writing it. (So never shows him actually writing.) And a plus for So: He doesn’t go in for those annoying zoom shots that Hong likes to do of late. So could be the real deal, or he could end up being a mere Hong acolyte with assured technical chops; as always with first and second time filmmakers at Forum, only time will tell….

* * * *

The rest of Forum on Friday was a string of disappointments: Sona, the Other Myself, Yang Yonghi’s badly titled (at least in English) and unimpressive companion film to her moving 2006 doc, Dear Pyongyang…. Omori Tatsushi’s A Crowd of Three, which demonstrated little idea what to do with the road movie genre except recycle clichés, including the automatic decision for random violence.

Speaking of automatic, the heavily mechanistic Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man, Constantin Popescu’s re-creation of the anti-Communist Partisan rebellion waged by a rag-tag group of underground warriors living off the land. Popescu has the good idea to stage his war movie–for that’s what it is—as if it were happening in the present, but he undoes it with the bad idea to structure every sequence in a back-and-forth between the rebels engaged in a skirmish, followed by a meeting of the Romanain Securitate, led by a forever barking Party chief, on how to rub out these Imperialist pests.

Given her previous Nachmittag from 2007, the day’s biggest bummer had to be Angela Schanelec’s Orly, a kind of cinema tapestry of characters waiting for their planes at Paris’ Orly airport (and one newbie check-in clerk), their paths momentarily crossing, their lives glimpsed in miniature. Life’s transitory, ephemeral reality. That’s the idea at least: Orly isn’t much more in the end than a chain of slight scenes between people who never grow more interesting as time goes on, just more banal (maybe like a lot of fellow airplane travelers). Even the interest in process—how, for example, Schanelec embedded her actors into Orly’s actual activity, experimenting with the accidental collisions of drama and documentary–becomes less than meets the eye, becomes, in fact, a mere device. Schanelec has a fine sense for de-dramatizing, which Nachmittag did beautifully; here, she violates in a third-act swing in which Orly is shut down by security police for unexplained reasons (a terror threat is there, between the lines), forcing the airport’s evacuation. The sudden drama amidst an atmosphere of anti-drama seems to violate the film’s purpose, or at least its grounding principle.

One thought on “Days in Berlin, Part 2

  1. I want to fiercely contradict your judgements on “Portrait…” and “Orly”. I think that you are strangely deaf to the interesting tension between very contradicting movements in these films. There certainly is this “mechanistic” aspect to “Portrait…” – but on the other hand it is all al fresco painting in nature. Both films, coming to think about it, are about an emptying out, an evacuation (literally and metaphorically, in both cases) that in very interesting ways plays against plot points, repetitions and dramatic moments that are just blips on the narrative radar.

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