The Truth Beneath
South Korea, Lee Kyoung-mi
In the late 1990s the Korean New Wave of cinema exploded onto the international film landscape with fierce violence and psychological intensity. If that new wave has ended, it is only because the nation is now established as one the world’s most exciting film industries. The latest export to serve that excitement is the masterful mystery The Truth Beneath, from director Lee Kyoung-mi.
Lee’s film starts as a political thriller: fifteen days before a close election between two regional parties, one candidate’s teenage daughter suddenly disappears. In the first half of the film, Lee follows the mother of that girl, Yeon-Hang (Ye-jin Son), as she struggles to find her daughter. That’s made all the more difficult by her husband’s unwillingness to suspend his campaign.
As the the election nears, however, Lee masterfully reorganizes her film’s focus onto the desperation and fear of a mother in search of a lost child. The mystery of her disappearance and Yeon-Hang’s ache to find out what happened propels The Truth Beneath into a powerful tale of despair and determination. Lee’s visual acuity creates an overwhelming sense of dread, but the touch of her direction never makes this pathos into bathos.
It’s easy to paint international cinema with a broad brush, and that happens too frequently with South Korean cinema. Korean film is not all the same, but there is a distinct flavor that comes with one the nation’s most famous filmmakers, Park Chan-wook. Lee worked for Park for many years, and the tenor of The Truth Beneath’s conclusion, while in no way derivative of her mentor, lives firmly in the tradition of intense, cathartic and well-earned finales of Korean cinema. The despairing realities that lead to the startling results of The Truth Beneath make this one of MSPIFF’s best shows.
-Christopher Zumski Finke
I have a 1-year old daughter and like many parents, I find myself uttering not infrequently this classic phrase to my progeny: “Use your words.” I have thought a great deal about why that command is so common in the days since watching Catherine Eaton’s directing debut, The Sounding. The film is about a woman named Olivia (Eaton) who one day decides to stop speaking. Her father (Harris Yulen) is a psychologist, and after years of trying to decipher what ails his daughter, he decides that the answer is: nothing. Instead, he believes Oliva is experiencing the world in a way unique to herself.
But after her father’s death, new doctors arrive, and determine that Olivia’s condition must be indicative of illness, not choice. She is taken from her home where she is protected by a sister and family friend (Frankie Faison) institutionalized, and teams of doctors try to determine what “communication disorder” might account for her illness. When Olivia does finally begin to speak, she does so only by quoting Shakespeare. It never seems to occur to them that this woman is not sick, but choosing something that they don’t understand. What separates her from society is not the thing that makes Olivia special. It is the thing that makes her dangerous.
A subject of film that has long fascinated directors is the deteriorating mental state of women. This genre has produced great cinema from some of the best men working in movies; films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, Interiors, Queen of Earth all provide intense investigations of the perceived mental health of women.
The Sounding joins that genre while subverting its very purpose. The four films named above, and countless others with similar ambition, are created by men. Catherine Eaton, who directed, co-wrote, and plays Olivia, endeavors from the opposite ambition. When the men in this film ask Olivia, why aren’t you speaking?, when they demand that she use her own words, as though she were an infant child, they fundamentally fail to grasp the person before them.
Eaton’s film has some complicated notions; it flirts close to definitions of mental health and personal choice and what it means to be considered sick that could have been troubling for a less astute writer. But The Sounding creates in Oliva a fully believable expression of individuality and artistry and humanity, enabling something more profound than it might have been had it stuck to mental health parameters. Building a film around the language of Shakespeare, too, is a formidable and exacting task, providing a fanciful quality that aids the intensity of the film’s dark potentialities. That Ms. Eaton delivers such familiar phrases (to some, at least) as though Olivia spoke them for herself adds a surprising and pleasurable element to a lovely, moving film.
-Christopher Zumski Finke
While viewing Khyentse Norbu’s new film Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, I experienced the same feelings that I felt when I viewed Ron Fricke’s Baracka, Terrence Malick’s The New World, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon. I felt utterly transported by the gorgeous, lush imagery and by the haunting, ethereal movement and storytelling. The plot of Norbu’s film is not complicated and this serves the viewing experience well. The film opens with a young woman who is just wrapping up her shift as a member of the wait staff at a flashy, vibrant nightclub, which is fitting. Nightclubs embody both anonymity and intimacy, strangely enough.
We cut to a young adult man with long hair who is journeying through the mountains of Bhutan with nothing but a walking stick and a bag in the Year of the Water Monkey. Eventually, this man will disguise himself by putting on a gray mask and a long headdress. He is captured by other masked individuals who lead him to a secret forest community that assembles every twelve years to celebrate anonymity. Taught by the Old Man whose teaching resembles a fusion of Buddhist impermanence and Confucian principles, the man stays among the masked and learns that anonymity is power, for good or ill. The film operates as a vessel of achingly beautiful caution. Identity is everything, whether we embrace it or cover it up. In the Year of the Fire Monkey, Norbu brings our strange and beautiful journey to a close. Hope, we find, is still present even if we are completely unknown. One of the best films I have seen in 2017, Hema Hema is a haunting parable and a must see.
The eponymous hippopotamus of The Hippopotamus is a poet named Ted Wallace. Ted was a poetry sensation, once, but now he’s an old codger, working as a journalist. “Working,” though, is loosely applied here, since Ted spends much of his time chasing the bottom of a whiskey bottle through the theaters of London, and later, through the passages of Swafford Hall, his ex-girlfriend’s (Geraldine Somerville) brother’s (Matthew Modine) massive estate. Whatever poetry Ted might have produced has been replaced by a new fancy: using his erudite linguistic capacity to eviscerate his enemies in the most delightfully vulgar manner. Truly, if for no reason else, The Hippopotamus recommends itself for the inventive cursing alone. If you think you know the definition of CEO, well, you don’t until you’ve seen it spill from the foul-mouth of Ted Wallace (Roger Allam, who is, coincidentally, the narrator of the animated series Sarah & Duck, making his love of cursing extra pleasurable for parents).
As for the story of The Hippopotamus that revolves around Ted Wallace, that’s a bit tortuous. Based on the 1994 novel of the same name, written by Stephen Fry, it involves a leukemia patient (Emily Barrington) miraculously healed by the powers of a teenager named David (Tommy Knight). Ted arrives to investigate the miracles at Swafford Hall, bringing his wrecking ball of a life–alcoholism, misogyny and atheistic rationalism–into a place that believes itself the next waters at the Shrine of Lourdes.
Setting up the division of rationalism vs. belief works, given that even Ted realizes that being right, here, means people will die. Still,The Hippopotamus becomes unwieldy in its third act, never quite finding a way to make the film live up to the man at it’s heart. But even as the story beats become fairly predictable, director John Jencks manages a few surprising emotional depths from these broadly drawn characters, and Roger Allam’s performance is triumphant nevertheless.
USA, Lara Stolman
I am writing this review through tears of gratitude as I have just finished viewing Lara Stolman’s inspiring documentary feature Swim Team, which depicts three young men who join the New Jersey Hammerheads swim team. What makes this film not just special but important is that all three of these young men are living on the autism spectrum. Maria and Michael McQuay are the married cofounders of the swim team and the parents of Michael, Jr. who has found his life’s meaning through swimming. Michael, Sr., a tough Jersey dad and coach, wells up with tears as he talks about his son’s accomplishments. Every team member of the Hammerheads has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Michael, Jr., who did not speak for years and wanted only to be alone with his many stuffed animals, is now a senior in high school and an accomplished swimmer.
Michael, Sr. is a joy to watch. He’s tough when he needs to be, but he is tender hearted and encouraging. He welcomes young autistic men and women to his team with a smile and genuine interest in who they are as human beings. His patience with them in the water is unmatchable. Mike doesn’t only teach many of them how to swim, but he coaches them in the skills necessary for competition. My own father has been caring for youth living on the autism spectrum for many years and, I can say from experience, it is tough and necessary work. The real heroes, however, are the featured swimmers of the film: Mike, Jr., Robert, and Kelvin. Stolman’s film is truly a testament to their talents, resilience, and love. If you feel badly for these boys as you watch, Stolman has a loud and clear message for you: These kids don’t need your pity. They need your open heart.