Dispatches from the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival—Part One

4.7.14 & 4.8.14

This is the first year that I’ve decided to commit to attending the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). Usually, I’m too busy to see more than a handful of films, if that. The huge number of entrants—over 250 this year—is daunting, and until last year, I never made more than a faint-hearted attempt to make sense of the schedule. Last year, though, I was determined to see more than my usual one or two movies, so I pored over the schedule and blocked out lots of possible films to see. I somehow managed to squeeze in ten of them over three weeks.

Oddly, it was a somewhat unsatisfying experience. I could sense what was exciting about having a full-blown festival experience—seeing movies not calculated to be blockbusters with more than three other film nerds was a thrill in-and-of-itself—but I only found a few of the movies that I’d attended to be especially good. The problem, I decided, was the way I’d approached the festival, thinking one can somehow attend a film festival and like everything one sees. Next year, I told myself, I would do it right. I would try to see at least thirty films, some of which I would select in advance as being interesting, and others that I would see just because I was going to be at the theater anyhow.

So here I am. It’s actually the fifth day of the festival. Other commitments forced me to miss everything screened on the opening weekend, and I have a slew of other commitments over the next few weeks, so we’ll see if I can make my thirty film minimum. Here are my reviews of the films I saw during my first two days.

Of Horses and Men
*** (out of 4 stars)
Of_Horses_and_MenIceland’s ruggedly beautiful landscape is one of the stars of Of Horses and Men. Its rhythms and harsh necessities shape the lives of those who reside in the remote village where the movie is set. Make one mistake here, and the consequences are swift and brutal. Yet, in spite of some somber episodes, don’t mistake Of Horses and Men for the kinds of dour Nordic films in which tight-lipped men suffer the meaningless of life in a harsh, godless environment. In many ways, it more closely resembles those comedies set in villages in Ireland or Wales that used to dominate the art house cinemas a few years ago that were aggressively winsome, brimming with eccentric characters, and centered on romance. There is definitely a romantic couple at the heart of Of Horses and Men, whose waning and waxing relationship provides the film’s central conflict. And eccentrics abound. For example, one character rides a horse out to sea to rendezvous with a Russian freighter just so he can purchase some vodka. Yet where the UK films were often maniacally plotted farces, Of Horses and Men is held together by the cycles of life—birth, death, courtship, sex—in which the passing of a flask of alcohol carries as much significance as an entire subplot might in a busier film. Yet if the cycles of life intimate a tragic ending, Of Horses and Men reins itself in, bringing the film up a bit short, to keep things comic.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)
nobody's daughterWhat’s a girl to do? I’m sure that’s what Haewon, the beautiful, strong-willed young woman who is the protagonist of South Korean filmmaker Sang-Soo Hong’s fourteenth feature film, is asking herself at this crossroads in her life. First, she learns that her mother is going to move to Canada, where she intends finally to live her life just as she wants. Then, stung by nostalgia for a former boyfriend who also turns out to be a former professor and more than just a bit of a self-centered jerk, Haewon finds herself embroiled in a bit of chaos. Seon-gyun Lee makes a wonderful entrance as Professor Lee: scared that a group of students has seen him with Haewon, he scrambles to come up with a story to explain their being together, quickly revealing his character in what is a prolonged emotional pratfall. Haewon soon realizes, though, that Lee’s career and family—he is married and has a child—will prevent him from being a serious partner for her, if he was even in her league in the first place. Circumstances bring out more suitors who, smitten with Haewon’s beauty and confidence—several characters express doubt that she will thrive in South Korean society—mostly bumble their way through their encounters with her. The wryly funny movie presents a rush of characters, any one of whom I could have spent more time with, as I’m sure could have Haewon. But life keeps pressing on, so what’s a girl to do?

My Sweet Pepper Land
*** (out of 4 stars)
My Sweet Pepper Land 1The western is a great genre for staging conflict. Its action unfolds along the frontier, that border between civilization and the wilderness, allowing cultural differences of all kinds to come together, and for the hostility they evoke to flare up. Without the rule of law that civilization brings with it, violence often erupts. Since My Sweet Pepper Land is about Baran, a Kurdish war hero in 2003 who feels useless in peacetime—that “weak, piping time,” as Richard III called it—until he is sent to the border of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey to establish civil law, it is no surprise that director Hiner Saleem would frame the story as a western. Once in his new home, Baran encounters Aziz Aga, the local warlord who hasn’t taken kindly to any of the previous police commissioners sent by the new Kurdish government, all of whom met violent ends, and he feels no differently about Baran. Adding to the conflict is Govend—the young woman who wants to educate the children in the region, but who is not welcomed by Aga because she is a woman—and a group of militant Turkish-Kurdish women who fight for their rights in Turkey, and who are also loathed by Aga and his men because of their gender. Moral lines are clearly drawn and a bit simplistic leading to a conclusion that doesn’t seem sufficient for the complex struggles sketched out in the film. Still, it’s an entertaining movie that, in being a bit simplistic, makes clear the forces that are pushing and pulling against one another in a region of the world not often seen in American movie theaters.

Club Sandwich
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)
club sandwichClub Sandwich tells the story of an adolescent boy, Hector, and his doting mother, Paloma, who doesn’t want her son to grow up, as they embark on a vacation where Hector encounters Jazmin, a girl who has just turned sixteen and is as interested in Hector as he is in her. If the premise sounds familiar enough to be unpromising, writer and director Fernando Eimbcke keep things surprising and funny by upping the story’s discomfort level. First is the relationship between Hector and Paloma. She doesn’t just dote over him, she has a physical intimacy with him that may have been charming when he was a little boy but seems a bit creepy as he moves into adulthood. That she doesn’t want him to enter manhood is clear before Jazmin even enters the picture. At one point early in the film, she leaps out of her bed and into Hector’s, gazing at his upper lip, asking him with some surprise if he is developing a moustache, something obvious to filmgoers from our first sight of him. Clearly somebody is in denial. Then there are the scenes with Jazmin and Hector alone or with Paloma flagrantly interrupting whatever plans they may or may not have. Many are played out in a strained silence that is as comic as it is uncomfortable. It is in the deadpan, and thoroughly mundane, way that Hector is ushered into the world of sex that keeps the film off-kilter and makes it feel much more honest than coming-of-age films tend to feel.

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