From now through October, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
Fireworks spark, eyes meet and two strangers kiss. That’s all it takes for Asako (Erika Karata) to fall into instinctive, rapturous romance with unpredictable Baku (Masahiro Higashide). She’s at that age where heartbreak & isolation haven’t yet informed how she approaches relationships. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi effortlessly conveys the intimate blush & sensual shorthand of first love. Emotions hit big and destructively, like a bike wreck where both are too giddy with adrenaline to fear for their futures. With Baku, there is no future; just the potent, delirious now. Despite its bisected title, though, there’s no clean two act structure delineating Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II (★★★★1/2). Baku lasts only long enough prove addictive and, like any addiction, when he’s gone, she starts seeing him everywhere.
Cinema’s littered with dual-identity character studies, enough that Asako I & II isn’t even the first this year. Francois Ozon’s Double Lover also focused on a woman romancing doppelgangers, one coolly caring, the other violently sexual. That film took a rigorously psycho-sexual approach. There’s a more blissful frankness to Asako. When Asako discovers Baku’s oblivious doppelganger, measured office worker Ryohei Maruto (also Higashide), it doesn’t ensue mindgames & manipulations. If anything, Ryohei is a compassionate, endlessly patient presence in Asako’s life, quietly determined, yet respectful. He’s an ideal partner, if Asako can differentiate her feelings towards him from her latent desire for Baku.
Hamaguchi’s brilliance isn’t in ratcheting tension for Asako’s two worlds colliding, but carefully defusing it. In moments when you feel a revelation will tear Asako & Ryohei’s delicate life apart, he counters with reconciliation and communication. When you worry Baku’s return will upend things, we seemingly close that chapter with a cheery wave. Yasuyuki Sasaki’s cinematography slowly builds grace in this beige domesticity. Happiness seems secure, and it’s a sweet atmosphere to sit in. Then, in a jarring third-act shift in tone, both Asako’s raw desire for Baku and mediated bliss with Ryohei are jeopardized. It’s a bold, wrenching moment that throws the film into more psychologically introspective territory.
That inexplicable self-destruction of happiness may challenge viewers’ positive affinities for what came before, not to mention for Asako. But just as Hamaguchi shows the heartbreaking power of a moment’s reckless decision, he still finds moments for solemn reflection. Asako becomes compellingly flawed protagonist, Erika Karata finding unexpected layers in moments of contemplation. Anxiously looking out to the ocean alone. Confronting her own selfishness in front of a friend in immense pain. Cold sunlight chasing after a lost paradise, knowing it will never be again. Hamaguchi never undercooks the disorientation of intimate betrayal, but finds a route to an unsteady, broken peace that’s more true of modern relationships than flawless harmony.
After you’ve fought so long for freedom and independence, what do you do when you’ve finally won it & must take responsibility for it? That’s fresh on Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s mind in Too Late to Die Young (★★★1/2), a secondhand title that nonetheless speaks to how bittersweet growing out of an age of defiance can be. It’s et in the last days of 1990, as Chile was newly rising to democracy. Her focus is a closed-off artist community preparing for a New Year’s party that holds potential for positive, devastating or difficult life change for all the members. The person most significantly longing for escape, though, is sexually curious teen and Sinead O’Connor fan Sofia (Demian Hernandez).
Stuck in a community that seems oddly averse to change – “Now that they want to give us electricity, he doesn’t want it,” she complains of her closed-off father – Sofia’s boredom sets off a desire for change that reality may not accommodate. Exhausted with her pining de facto beau Lucas (Antar Machado), she becomes enamored with older drifter Ignacio (Matias Oviedo). Her desires for a new life are so centered on him, that an impassioned performance of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” literally fades ethereally into him. It’s a blatant, on-the-nose gesture, but one with such emotional immediacy and dreamy yearning that it works.
Sotomayor’s portrait of Chilean’s burgeoning democracy is more textural and symbolic than anything. She opens the film with a dog bounding blindly, enthusiastically forward through obscuring dust, ignorant of what’s to come. For many of the adults, they’re too stuck in their bohemian lifestyle to change, but not enough to long for it. A random character’s curtailed confession of attraction to a married woman is shown only in a fragment, but it sticks. Meanwhile young Clara (Magdalena Totoro) spends much of the film fixated on that lost dog, Frida. When confronted with a harmful solution to her problem, though, she must face adult responsibilities her parents rebuke.
The future lies with a younger generation still emotionally unprepared for it, but most willing to rise to it. That hits in Sotomayor’s fiery denouement, a symbolic whirlwind destruction of old comforts. Much of Sotomayor’s film beforehand struggles with how to utilize & generously care for her large ensemble. The ending, though, wraps it so effectively together in a disorienting, hungover set-piece where each character is given a moment of tense reflection. It’s an extraordinary signal of the formal strength Sotomayor is carefully building. She’s still refining her storytelling skills, but Too Late to Die Young at least suggests her future is hopeful.
Quickly superseding Woody Allen for consistent, productive output, Hong Sang-soo has two films at this year’s festival. He feels destined to have at least one at next year’s fest. He’s a weirdly repetitive favorite around these parts. After all, here are three main tropes you can consistently rely on popping up in Hong’s films. Some old dude will give unsolicited, awkward compliments to younger women, usually including Kim Min-hee. Those women will later talk about how awful men are. Finally, a man will eventually fall into an embarrassing drunken stupor. It’s a repetitive enough cycle that you wonder if Hong Sang-soo is perhaps too insistently grabbing for unearned feminism points? After all, he hasn’t made all that many films where a woman isn’t attached to a boorish male.
If Hotel by the River (★★★1/2) isn’t exactly a change, though, it’s at least a more effective distillation of those most of his films. Shot in chilly black-and-white, there are two tangents intersecting in Hotel by the River. One is aging poet Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong), who sporadically calls his sons to his hotel. They’re all so unfocused, though, that they can hardly find or keep track of each other. While wandering aimlessly, the poet runs into best friends Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee) and Yeon-ju (Song Seon-mi), who are at the hotel to mend after Sang-hee’s emotionally & physically painful break-up. For him, they’re just beautiful women silhouetted, beautifully, by the beautiful snow. They’re beautiful. Truly. He means it.
The father finally wanders into his sons, though they’ll inevitably wander apart again and again. Young-hwan rambles about his mortality that his favored son Kyung-soo (Kwon Haeh-yo) brushes off as ramblings. Film director brother Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), like the audience, recognizes worryingly morbid behavior when he sees it. He’s dismissed, and their day of propulsive drinking and arguing about their failings with women. “A total monster without a single redeeming virtue,” Kyung-soo amusingly details of his mother’s lingering resentments towards the poet. It risks indulgent misanthropy, but Hong lightens it up adorable stuffed animals that lend this family argument a rejuvenating sense of the juvenile.
Meanwhile the girls just spend most of the film sleeping in the same bed, talking about their disappointments with men. Yeon-ju’s happily married, but throughout their intimacy with one another has a delightful, rejuvenating, if unacknowledged, queerness to it. For Hong, this is as much space as his women usually get, free from masculine expectation. When the men are left alone, though, it’s not bonding so much as mutual denial. The son’s inability to recognize the crisis in front of them feels like a pointed, effective condemnation of how men’s emotional distance conditions them not to care enough for those close to them. As somber a note as Hong leaves us with, though, there’s an affable, amusing candor to Hotel by the River that translates to perhaps his most affecting film to date.