Film Comment Selects, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s self-described “essential and eclectic feast of cinephilia,” will run its 14th edition from February 17-27. Organized by the editors of Film Comment, the organization’s house magazine, this series once again offers filmgoers many different stripes, genres, and modes of expression, culled from festivals all over the world, TV series (the celebrated Top of the Lake, co-directed by Jane Campion), as well as films from the 1970s to the ’90’s, all screening in 35mm (increasingly a rarity these days). As editor-in-chief Gavin Smith likes to say, there is truly something for everyone here.
The opening night film is Our Sunhi, the latest by prolific Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, which premiered just a few months after his previous film, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. Our Sunhi, his 15th feature, earned Hong a richly deserved best director prize at Locarno last year. By now, he has honed his inimitable style—lightly comic yet penetrating in its insights into human behavior—to near perfection.
Hong this time offers us the tale of the titular protagonist Sunhi (beautifully played by Hong regular Jung Yu-mi), and the three men who orbit her. After having disappeared for a couple of years after graduation, Sunhi suddenly resurfaces at her old alma mater to ask her former professor for a recommendation letter so she can study film in the U.S.
This deceptively simple premise becomes the springboard for a typically Hongian comedy of manners, as all of the characters play out their anxieties, longings, and make impassioned love declarations, typically over soju and beer-laden lunches and dinners, and often ending in drunken, stumbling exits from the premises. Hong places strong thematic emphasis on the fictions we spin (or that others spin for us) about who we are, how we appear to others, and who we wish we are or could be. The gaps that exist between these categories, and the gulf between them and reality, are the source of Our Sunhi’s sparkling wit and humor.
Me and You, the closing night film, is Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film in a decade, and his first Italian-language feature in three, and it is a decidedly odd one. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a withdrawn 14 year-old boy, who’d rather blast music on his headphones than interact with his classmates, hides out in the basement of his building instead of going on a class skiing trip, though he pretends he is there in his phone calls to his mother. Then Olivia (Tea Falco), his drug-addicted older half-sister, invades his space, to his initial consternation.
The film is set mostly in the confined, claustrophobic confines of this basement, which is probably not only a stylistic choice but a physical necessity for Bertolucci, whose ill health in recent years has permanently confined him to a wheelchair. Me and You is ultimately a slight trifle that doesn’t begin to approach the greatness of Bertolucci’s classics, but it is still fascinating and intimately scaled, nevertheless. The film also features a great soundtrack featuring the Cure, Arcade Fire, and a great Italian cover of “Space Oddity” sung by David Bowie himself, which plays over the closing credits.
This series specializes in finding bizarre, unclassifiable films from around the world, and Mohammad Shirvani’s Fat Shaker is definitely one of the strangest. Consider it Iran’s answer to David Lynch. A definitely Lynchian reordering of narrative elements occurs in this story of three people who may or may not be related, shifting from “reality,” dreams, and fantasy, to the point where they’re well-nigh indistinguishable.
It begins with an arresting, indelible image: leeches sucking blood out of the back of a corpulent, middle-aged man (Levon Haftvan). His son (Hassan Rostami) is a deaf young man, with whom the father seems to be running some sort of scam where the younger man is used as bait to lure young women and con them out of money while the father plays a fake policeman. But even this thin sliver of plot is soon abandoned in favor of increasingly surreal grotesquerie, mostly centering on the physical presence of this large man, whose labored breathing dominates the soundtrack. Figuring into all of this is a woman (Maryam Palizban) who may or may not be the young man’s mother, who takes odd photos of the men.
There’s undeniably some allegorical content concerning the authoritarian nature of Iranian society, but attempting to figure this all out is a losing battle not worth waging; better to ride the wave of shaky, uncomfortably close-up shots uneasily framing these three. And though Fat Shaker may be more pleasurable thinking about afterward than actually experiencing, give Shirvani credit for going beyond the conventional or expected, especially in an Iranian context.
Matthew Saville’s Felony emerges from the same production company that made Animal Kingdom, the fine Australian crime drama of a few years back. Although Felony is not quite of that caliber, it is nevertheless a compelling film that transcends its rather familiar genre materials by wading into a deep thicket of moral ambiguity.
After a few too many at the pub, detective Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton, who wrote the screenplay) sideswipes a young boy on a bike, who eventually ends up in a coma. He agonizes over whether to come clean about it, but he is strongly persuaded not to do so by an upper-ranking officer (Tom Wilkinson) who fears this will tarnish the entire department’s reputation, but a rookie detective (Jai Courtney) arriving on the scene becomes suspicious and undertakes his own investigation. All three have self-serving agendas, and Felony soberly explores the ripple effects of cover-ups and crimes committed in the service of preventing what are perceived as even bigger crimes.
Film Comment Selects loves to excavate obscure, nearly forgotten films, and one of the unearthed treasures this year is the late Raul Ruiz’s 1983 City of Pirates, a film so strange, baffling, often near incomprehensible, but so weirdly compelling that “surreal” proves an inadequate word to describe it all. The plot (if you can call it that) concerns Isidore (Anne Alvaro), a woman prone to sleepwalking who lives with her parents by the sea, who soon meets a mysterious 10-year-old boy (Melvil Poupaud), who may or may not have murdered his entire family. They eventually make their way to an island castle, where the sole resident (Hughes Quester) has a split personality with an imaginary sister. Echoes of Hitchcock, the literary Surrealists, Hollywood horror movies, and many more elements are woven into this film’s rich fabric, making this a wildly random, yet often thrilling, experience.