2016 SFCA Capsules

Manchester by the Sea
Grief – all-consuming, life-altering grief – is a rarity in the American cinema.
More often than not, it is dealt with and then pushed aside, and to be fair Manchester by the Sea does not fixate solely on one man’s overpowering grief. But it is woven into the structure and the backbone of the film, shadowing and enriching every interaction, every pause, every Atlantean movement.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an oddity from a cultural point of view. Ostensibly a straightforward drama in the standard independent vein, it expands outwards, not necessarily in scope (as in his landmark 2011 film Margaret) but in depth, unspooling out its insight over 137 minutes in great detail. Its focus is Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor in Massachusetts who returns to his eponymous hometown to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies. It is clear, even in the wake of this traumatic incident, that Lee has been carrying a deep sadness for some time, a revelation only clarified midway through the film. With this grief comes a sense of purpose and relentless drive; he is almost exclusively seen stone-faced, thinking rationally when others are overwhelmed, though his sarcastic and impulsive nature – something shared with many residents of the town – shine through on multiple occasions.

And it is this sense of the town, of the various people that surround Lee in an orbit, some supportive and others dismissive, that lend Manchester by the Sea its ultimate power. Lonergan renders this drama with an intense vitality that feels almost too close to real life, with equal parts poignancy and levelheadedness.

Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart reconciles those two most opposing of artistic tendencies: the intimate drama and the epic. Provocatively, the simple tale of a mother trying to connect with her son is both situated in and symbolically made into the story of an entire nation’s history over the course of three decades. It is entirely to Jia Zhangke’s credit that the film emerges not as a political treatise or heavy-handed metaphor, but as melodrama of the highest order, that moves with inexorable energy through the passing of time, technology, cities, and love.

Much of what makes Mountains May Depart so ineffably radical lies in its simple but oddly confounding structure. Separated into three parts of roughly equal length, each section, set at the turn of the millennium, 2014, and 2025 respectively, has its own plot, tone, and accompanying aspect ratio. Though they all are connected by a well-established narrative core, each part feels as if it could stand alone – though, of course, the emotional heft is only magnified as the film moves along. It feels audacious in some unquantifiable way, succumbing to emotion yet never losing control of the larger narrative of the Westernization of China, and though its sincerity seems to have invited laughter, its power and prowess shines through, as Jia always finds the exact right tenor to devastate and move the viewer. Mountains May Depart demands openness and reconciliation between both the characters and the viewers, a concrete sense of understanding that reaches the sublime.

The Handmaiden
Erotic romance, especially of the queer variety, has become a hot topic among filmmakers in recent times; one need only look to films like Blue is the Warmest Color and Weekend to see explicit sex treated with genuine love and care. But what separates The Handmaiden from those (excellent) films is that said romance is gleefully wrapped within a dense and thrilling web of cons. The ultimate goal that each participant tries to achieve, which is only fully uncovered just before the final act, seems entirely beside the point; what matters much more is the swooning romance and charged close-ups with which each woman views the other, the gonzo sensibility of Park Chan-wook that bursts forth in virtually every scene.

What makes The Handmaiden so delightful is that sense of exhilarating disorientation, of allegiances being formed and broken before the viewer’s very eyes, as Kim Tae-ri’s and Kim Min-hee’s characters engage in lithe pas de deux, all too frequently intruded upon by lecherous and self-serving men. True, their entire romance may be something straight out of the erotic novels that the count of the estate obsesses over, but it is between them (and the viewer). And when the viewer looks back at all of the twists and turns, the miracle is that they all remain true to these characters; love does not conquer all, per se, but it feels like enough. Indeed, it almost feels like a fairy tale or a story, something literalized by that last, glorious dissolve.

Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong Sang-soo’s films have always had an incredible, intuitive understandings of the immensely flawed characters at their center, but Right Now, Wrong Then may represent one of the first times that he has pulled off this trick twice (or, if you like, four times) in his remarkable oeuvre. Roughly speaking,
the film follows a well-known director (Jung Jae-young) visiting a small town for the first time when he meets a shy artist (Kim Min-hee). They talk and drink together, the director leaves, and, quite unexpectedly, the sequence of events repeats with many small but important differences.

Hong’s films have almost always had various structural conceits – something similar appeared in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate – but there is a special symmetry in this case, a near 1:1 reproduction that nevertheless feels radically different in approach. The complicating factor, of course, is Kim’s character, who is cast as an equal to the almost archetypal director in Hong’s filmography. She has many of the most affecting moments, and her vulnerability gives even more heft to Right Now, Wrong Then‘s emotional pull.

But what makes Right Now, Wrong Then so gratifying is its sense of warmth and control, to an even greater extent than most of Hong’s other films. Perhaps it is because the film is so much of a two-hander, but he plumbs the depths of his characters to a profound degree, teasing out more flaws, inadequacies, and personal failings while never doling out an ounce of judgement.

Kate Plays Christine
I will readily profess to having nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the contemporary documentary landscape, but I cannot recall ever seeing a film like Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene’s radical study of both ethics and performance. Not coincidentally, those two ideas dovetail nicely with the ostensible subject: Christine Chubbuck, a newswoman known solely for her on-air suicide. Greene’s film, almost akin to docufiction, is less an investigation than an interrogation, using the figure of actress Kate Lyn Sheil as both avatar and experiment subject.

Lest the wrong impression be given, it must be emphasized that Lyn Sheil is effectively the co-auteur of the film, giving perhaps the performance of the year with an endlessly layered, immensely subtle performance that shifts in and out of character. Even the way she acts as an interviewer is utterly fascinating, infusing her questions with both care and a hard-edged professionalism, giving off the sense that she wants to get the role right.

But the whole point of Kate Plays Christine is that one deeply troubled woman’s life cannot be distilled without distorting the facts (as in Antonio Campos’s immensely flawed and questionable Christine), and Greene reaches that conclusion without ever showing his hand, save for the bracingly high-wire finale. The whole journey is expertly, mesmerizingly rendered from beginning to end, and along the way so many different facets of one person few truly knew are brought up, only to be washed away by real footage in living color.

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