13 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Saturday

While I really enjoyed Thursday and Friday and thought the movies were great, it wasn't an experience that immediately cried out, "This is a film festival!" Yes, it's true that I saw two very interesting and unique films that you would rarely get a chance to see in the theatre, but to an extent, it just felt like attending UW's weekly Cinematheque showings or the screenings by Gonzo Media at NMU. But then, I imagine this is how a lot of people experience the festival. Not everyone has the time to go out and see multiple films in one day, and instead it's just like your usual night out at the local cinema, only with a decidedly more "arthouse" slant than you'd normally get.

Saturday was different, though. I saw three films starting at 11:30 in the morning and continuing until about 8:00 at night. Of course, I had some down time in there, but in essence, my entire day was primarily concerned with watching films. This had a newer feel to it—a feel that I think is undeniably different from seeing just one film. No longer is it a piece of entertainment at the end of your day, but an integral part of the day itself. I have to say, as a film buff, that it felt good.

At any rate, I attended three films that Saturday: The Piano in a Factory, Medal of Honor, and A Somewhat Gentle Man. Interestingly, despite being from completely different countries and all having very different styles, all three shared a common interest in fathers and their attempts to connect with their children. Weird how it worked out that way, I suppose.

As a note, all of the following sections contain some spoilers about the films.

Director:Zhang Meng
Country: China
Languages: Mandarin

After years apart, accordion-player Chen Guilin's wife returns to request a divorce, as she wants to marry her new boyfriend, a man who became rich selling phony medicine as a homoeopathic cure. All she asks for in the divorce is custody of their daughter, Yuan, who is currently living with Guilin. Soon after, Guilin is caught sneaking his daughter into the local school at night so she can practice the piano and they are kicked out. Guilin paints piano keys on a piece of wood so that Yuan can still practice, but she complains that it doesn't make any sound. Guilin explains to her that if she is very quiet and listens very closely, she can hear the notes in her heart. He demonstrates by playing a melody on the fake keyboard, with the film's soundtrack gradually filling in the silence with a song played beautiful on a grand piano.

However, this gesture ultimately fails when Yuan decides that she will go with whichever parent can buy her a piano, a task far harder to accomplish for Guilin than his now wealthy wife. Still, he persists, trying first to borrow money from everyone he knows. However, when they fail to raise enough money, they decide in a night of drunkenness to steal the school's piano. The caper is likewise a failure, and Guilin seems to be all out of options. Unwilling to give up, he finally arrives at one finally possibility: to use the town's recently abandoned factory to build the piano from scratch. Though reluctant at first, all of Guilin's friends sign on board to the hair-brained idea which becomes the focal point of the rest of the film.

Hearing with your heart
Although The Piano in a Factory is invariably described as a drama, I have at times seen people also describe it as a comedy. The film is certainly a bit absurdist at times and certainly keeps a more light-hearted tone for the most part, but I'm not sure how much I would really call it a comedy. I guess I am not terribly familiar with Chinese comedies, so I could be wrong. However, I felt the dramatic elements had, at the very least, a stronger presence.

Ultimately, I think The Piano in a Factory is a very genuine and touching story about a poor father's desire to be able to provide for his child. In the end, his attempts are futile, as the piano is not completed before the divorce is finalized, and he loses custody of his daughter. Still, the attempt seems to have helped him come to terms with his lose, just as the town comes to terms with the loss of the factory and its prominent smoke stacks, considered by many to be a beloved landmark. Although there is no point in completing the piano, the friends do so anyway, and Guilin requests that his ex-wife bring Yuan to the factory so she can play it once. The piano, made almost entirely of recycled steel, is a clumsy thing with terribly crude sound quality. And yet, as she plays it, the soundtrack supplants its clumsiness with another beautifully performed piece on an expertly-crafted grand piano. It is impossible not to recall Guilin's previous words about hearing the music in your heart. The implication seems to be that, while on the surface the piano purchased by Yuan's mother may seem better, Guilin's piano has something more important—something that you can only hear with the heart.

Director: Călin Peter Netzer
Country: Germany, Romania
Languages: Romanian

The film begins with examples of the mundane existence of the elderly Ion I. Ion and his emotionally distant wife. They get their social security checks in the mail, complain about their apartment's heating, and try to avoid their landlord who is pestering them to pay their maintenance bill. And every time their son in Canada calls, his wife talks to him but never lets Ion listen in or talk to their son himself. However, their monotonous routine is suddenly broken when Ion receives a letter from the Romanian government stating that he is receiving a medal of honor for his heroic actions during WWII. Unable to recall any such actions, Ion originally raises objects with the government office and, upon receiving the medal, tries to sell it to a pawn shop, though the shop owner refuses to buy it.

Ion's own curiosity about the medal grows, and he begins pouring over all the old letters he sent to his wife during the course of the war. The only instance of any possible interest is one rather unassuming story: His troop came across a group of retreating Germans. One of the abandoned canons was still loaded, and Ion fired it at them, but didn't see what he hit, if anything. This must be it, he decides, but why? Did he hit something important? He begins to tell the story to everyone he encounters, and every time it grows larger and larger, until finally, he is linking his deed to the fall of Nazism itself.

As his story continues to grow, his problems seem to vanish. The landlord tries to get on Ion's good side by erasing his debt, hoping to take advantage of Ion's "prestige" for his own political reasons. Likewise, Ion's honor gives his family a reason to look up to him again. In fact, their son plans on returning to Romanian with his wife and child to see them again for the first time since he left many, many years ago. However, it comes to light that he received the medal due to a clerical error, and when he goes to protest, they forcefully grapples him and rip the medal from his chest. Distraught, he goes to find a similar medal at a pawn shop instead of going to the airport with his wife to pick up their son. When he finally gets back that night with the medal, everyone congratulates him on it at first, but then quickly forget all about it.

The final scene
This was my favourite film at the festival. It was a bit slowly paced, but I think the characters and emotions were very real and powerful. The pace gives you time to really get to know Ion as a person, and the entirety of the movie culminates in that final shot of Ion and his family. The camera is static, focusing on Ion and a bit of the family around him. They all compliment his medal at first and have the grandson look at it. The kid steals it from Ion and runs off with it, and although he does so as a playful act, it closely resembles the way that the government officials forcefully ripped his original medal from his shirt. You can see the moment of fear and panic in Ion's face, but then it softens. When his grandson gives it back, Ion tries to get the kid to hold on to it longer, but he's already distracted with something else. In fact, no one is paying attention to the medal any more. It's this moment when, wordlessly, Ion's face tells the full story. On his face I saw a final moment of realization. The medal is meaningless, and it always was. It doesn't matter. It wasn't the medal that he really wanted.

Director: Hans Petter Moland
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

Ulric is fresh out of jail after a 12 year sentence for murder, and although his warden warns him to constantly look forward once he's out and not back to his time in jail, Ulric ends up right back where he left off. His old boss meets up with him and gets him a place to stay and a job as a mechanic, but also begins to pressure him into "closing his account" with the man who testified against him in court.

However, it becomes clear that Ulric is, actually, more interested in redemption. He does his best at his job and begins to win the trust of the body shop's owner. Likewise, instead of tailing the man who betrayed him, he goes to try to reconnect with his son, who is currently living with his girlfriend. They are expecting a child, and Ulric's son does his best to distance himself from his father. He reveals that he told his girlfriend that his father died, but when he finally tells her the truth, she refuses to allow Ulric to visit them ever again.

Despite finally rejecting his old mob boss's attempts to get him to murder again, Ulric's life begins to crumble. His new landlady has a habit of cooking him free meals, a benefit Ulric greatly appreciates. However, she misinterprets his table manners for flirtation, and begins to push herself on him. Now, every time she brings him dinner, she expects sex, which is begin to strain his newly blossoming relationship with the secretary at the body shop, who he seems to genuinely like.

As pressures mount, more and more of those around him give up on giving him another chance to prove himself. Feeling abandoned by everyone in his life, Ulric finally agrees to his old boss's demand that he must kill the man who testified against him. However, when he goes to commit the dreadful deed, he finds himself still unable to kill again. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Ulric's old boss has been lying to him and taking advantage of him.

Without any options left, Ulric goes to tell his son that his father is dead, most likely contemplating suicide, but only the wife is at home, as the son is off on a fishing trip. As she is angrily turning Ulric away, her water breaks. Ulric offers to drive her to the hospital in the car he borrowed from his boss. She gives birth in the back of the car, with Ulric helping her through the pain, and she ultimately comes around. "Daddy was gone, but your grandpa was here," she tells her newborn, and then thanks Ulric for helping her when she needed it most. Ulric's only response is, "No, thank you."

Ulric goes back to his boss to tell him that he failed to kill the snitch. His boss notices the stain on the backseat and goes off on Ulric from ruining his car. Finally fed up with all his shit, Ulric shoots his boss in the head, stuffs him in the trunk, and has the car crushed as a garbage dump.

Nordic humour
If you read that and though that this story seems rather dark, you might be right, but you also have to realize that this movie was a comedy. I've spoken of this before, but the Nordic sense of humour is particularly dark and cynical. Of course, you also have to understand that in Nordic countries, comedy is a fairly regular part of most films, as comedy tends to sell well there.

Anyway, the characters here all had very distinct personalities with their own quirks. For example, the owner of the body shop has a tendency to suddenly go off on long, rambling tirades about things he strongly believes in but which are, of course, fairly basic, normal things not requiring nearly as in depth of a monologue. And of course, the landlady's advances are anything but coy. Quite bluntly, she drops trough and ironically states something along the lines of, "If you're want it so badly, fine, but just get it over with, okay?"

Overall, I liked it, though I felt like it could've been done a little better. The more dramatic moments felt genuine within the context of the movie, but could've been handled with a little more finesse. I guess when it comes down to it, the film was a lot like Ulric himself: a bit crude with a slightly skewed sense of justice, but deep down, it's heart is in the right place.

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