At the Sydney Film Festival 2015: Hong Sang-soo’s latest, Hill of Freedom, plus documentaries Breaking a Monster, The Russian Woodpecker, and Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement.
All Hong Sang-soo films are equal, but some are more equal than others. The Korean director is renowned—within the context of his modest fame, anyway—both for his prolific output and his ability to recombine similar elements across his 16 films. Every film is likely to feature book-smart but feckless men (usually employed in some creative industry) who don’t understand women, characters getting drunk and making regrettable mistakes, some form of doubling, and a structural device that permits repetition, all communicated through long takes and simple framing. Connoisseurs discuss the merits of the different films the way scotch nerds enthuse about marginal variations in peat levels: a matter of extreme significance to those in the know, yet a distinction without a difference to outsiders. New elements do, on occasion, arise; the introduction of the use of the zoom lens and his subsequent development of its use could fuel a doctoral thesis. Recently, the dream has infiltrated his work as a recurring trope, usually only indicated retrospectively by a shot of somebody sleeping.
Yet, despite these similarities, some of his films are just much better than others, and the brief but potent Hill of Freedom is among his best. (On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate and Woman on the Beach would be above it, but all three are top-drawer Hong.) Richard Brody rightly suggests in his review that we’ve been underestimating Hong all along, as each of his films uses these similar elements as a framework for a deeper interrogation of a unique topic; here, it’s the relationship between Japan and Korea. Ryo Kase (the jilted young Japanese man in Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love) plays Mori, a former language teacher returning to Korea to reconnect with his one true love, only to find her absent. His subsequent story is told through a packet of his collected letters that said love, Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), collects from work, only to drop, thus confusing the chronology (and leaving a lacuna, with one letter left behind).
Mori’s journey finds him quickly intertwined with cafe proprietress Young-son (Korean superstar Moon So-ri), as Hong explores the cultural relationship between Korea and Japan, in ways both literal and oblique, while the viewer is unmoored in time from letter to (dramatised) letter. If it sounds complex in the telling, it’s deceptively simple in the viewing, even while resisting simple reduction. One standout scene finds Mori refusing to supplicate to his Korean hostess’s desire for pleasantries about how lovely the Korean people are. “I don’t want to talk about people in general,” says Mori. “It’s stupid.” Perhaps it’s a plea by Hong for viewers to stop considering his films as being all the same: they make look similar, but there’s a lot going on under the skin.
Breaking a Monster is the portrait of the seventh year of African-American metal band Unlocking the Truth. This may seem a particularly inside niche, especially for the all-too-frequently insular world of music documentaries, until you discover that the band formed when the guitarist and drummer met at a birthday party at age five and do the math. When we meet them in January 2014, the young trio have ‘gone viral’, a YouTube recording of them in Times Square breaking a million views, and with that the record industry comes calling. What could possibly go wrong?
Some with long memories might recall Darkon, Luke Meyer’s debut documentary in 2006 that documented the world of LARPers with a patient, observational eye, neither shying away from their foibles nor caricaturing its subjects for laughs. A similar tactic is employed here, as we are fully immersed into both the band’s home world and the music industry without on-screen text to identify people; just like the teens themselves, we struggle to keep up, and have to decide what’s invaluable industry expertise and what’s laugh-out-loud absurdity, whether the industry pros have their best interests at heart, and whether the teens might just be happier playing Angry Birds and skateboarding. Tastefully shot and expertly cut, it’s superlative not just as music documentary but as a documentary in general. If the film has a flaw, it’s that, by necessity, it ends before it feels over; the story is still to be written, but if Meyer can retain his access after this film goes wide, I’d happily take a sequel.
Coming a year after Sergei Loznitsa’s Maïdan, the opening of The Russian Woodpecker augurs another look at civil unrest in Ukraine, filming at the same Independence Square protests that Loznitsa documented. If it wasn’t for these scenes, I might have thought The Russian Woodpecker was a mockumentary; as it is, I can barely believe it. (I mean this in the best of ways.)
Fedor Alexandrovich is our unruly protagonist, a politically-charged performance artist raised in Chernobyl and poisoned by the 1986 nuclear catastrophe. Having discovered a mysterious secret about Chernobyl’s past, he sets forth to uncover the truth through trips into the still-radioactive heart of the abandoned town and a series of interviews with former employees—all the while making performance art. As an interviewer, Fedor’s manner and strange facial gestures make one wonder if this is a Borat-level mockery; as the conspiracies grow wilder, Craig Baldwin’s cracked, fabricated Tribulation 99 comes to mind.
But as clichéd as it is, the truth is stranger than fiction; the revelation of just what the titular woodpecker is, while crazy enough, is only the tip of a much larger story that leaves one legitimately wondering during its ending sequences if the filmmakers are risking their lives by sharing it. By competently interweaving background exposition on the history of Ukraine, Chad Gracia manages to keep the film moving at a pace both expert and novice viewers should appreciate. While it may not be the aesthetic achievement of Maïdan, in its own way it is just as astonishing; its ending opens a whole new set of questions, ones which may take another 30 years to find the answers.
Austrian documentarian turned dramatist turned documentarian Ulrich Seidl frames his subjects with lots of headroom while cutting off the bottom of their bodies, often at the knees. It’s a decision that implies superiority over the subject, and one that you might feel echoed often in the subject matter of his newest film, In the Basement. Puckishly riffing on the horrors of the Fritzl case, Seidl explores what else is lurking in the basements of Austria. (Though some of the structures seem more like office annexes or underground bunkers; as with many things in the film, it’s not often made clear what above-ground buildings these secret spaces are associated with.) It’s clear from the outset that Seidl wishes to explore the basement principally as receptacle for subterranean desire, and his subjects largely fit the mould: guns, Nazis, and wildly explicit BDSM sexual practices all appear in copious quantity, with trace lashings of laundry and a few other moments of surreality, largely blocked in stilted symmetrical frames.
Whether one finds this all in service of a larger social statement or merely provocateurism is, perhaps, more about the viewer than the text, as there’s ample ammunition to support both arguments. One shot near the end, however, of two youths in a dank underground hallway gazing at the camera for an uncomfortably long time, provides a skeleton key for reading In the Basement as a potent interrogation of the gaze which the film permits the viewer to indulge in for so long. What are we seeing when we look? And what aren’t we looking at that we should? Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there, and while to reduce Seidl’s film to a simple humanist reading is at odds with the coarseness of its imagery, there’s an undeniable cri du coeur in the final frames that elevates it from cheap shot to gut punch.