So this year's Chicago International Film Festival lived roughly sidelong to expectations, which is to say the films I saw were slightly above Good on average, and once more there was but one (1) South Korean film which had there been more obviously would have turbocharged that average Goodness a good bit.
Also this year, my boon companion his_regard
scaled back for job-interview sorts of reasons so despite much stepping up by young boon c.s Colin, Darcy, and Isaac I managed to only see seventeen films this round. (I strongly suspect that either the Chilean political thriller Spider or the Iranian policier Just 6.5 might have goosed that Goodness number a bit; I shall have to keep an eye out.) Speaking of the films I saw, then, I speak of them below. I could make a case for either Bring Me Home or Buoyancy as Pinnacles, but in the moment neither quite had the vertiginous seventh sense of perfection that I look for so avidly.
Bring Me Home (South Korea, Kim Seung-woo) Nurse and mother Jung Yae-on (Lee Young-ae) searches for her son, who went missing six years ago, following a lead to a fishing station and its corrupt cop enforcer Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung). Korean films do not generally soften their blows, and this genuinely harrowing psychological thriller is no exception. Even the inevitable violent climax avoids Western-style catharsis, becoming yet more chaotic horror leaving unease behind. Just another powerful triumph from by far the best national film culture on the planet.
Buoyancy (Australia, Rodd Rathjen) Impoverished teen Chakra (Sam Heng) leaves his Cambodian village for work in Thailand but gets enslaved on a fishing boat. Gripping drama of character and situation fully digs into both, becoming a modern-day Jack London story complete with the sea, exploitation, and brutal violence. Sam Petty’s sound design exacerbates and completes the experience.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (Spain/Estonia/Ethiopia/Latvia/Romania, Miguel Llanso) CIA agents DT Gargano (Daniel Tadesse) and Palmer Eldritch (Augustin Mateo) must enter the Psychobook cyberspace to defeat the Soviet virus “Stalin” (and the Beta-Ethiopian dictator Batfro, who yes dresses as Batman) in this gonzo mashup of spy-fi, martial arts, cyberpunk, lucha, and every other genre with “-sploitation” added to it. Shot in three different formats plus stop-motion, Llanso’s inspired PKD-WSB bricolage somehow hangs together around its many many curves and triumphs, backed by a killer free-jazz soundtrack by Bill Dixon.
Once Upon A River (US, Haroula Rose) In 1978 Michigan, teenage Annie Oakley-wannabe Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) heads up the Stark River to find her mother. Rose (and her cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby) pulls off a tour de force of tone, balancing and adjusting natural beauty with good and evil, growth and fear. DelaCerna commands the screen in every scene despite barely having any dialogue; John Aston makes a superb foil as a dying misanthrope.
Varda by Agnés (France, Agnés Varda) The beloved filmmaker assembled this documentary montage of her lectures on (and excerpts of) her own work just before her death this March, and the portion of it that unpacks her cinematic creation does so with the genius and generosity that became her trademarks. Most of the last half of the film deals with her post-2000 career as a digital installation artist, a less interesting and more remote body of work that leaves you wanting more of the first half.
Mr. Jones (Poland/UK/Ukraine, Agnieszka Holland) Curious about the Soviet economy, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) follows a lead to Ukraine where he witnesses Stalin’s terror-famine. After a long takeoff, the movie gets to the USSR and becomes a wild blend of Carol Reed and David Lean, going from the vile decadence surrounding the New York Times’ Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, beautifully odious) into the white nightmare around Stalino.
Vast of Night (US, Andrew Patterson) While everyone in Cayuga, New Mexico one night in 1959 attends the high school basketball game, late night DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and precocious switchboard girl Fay (Sierra McCormick) discover a strange -- dare I say suppressed -- transmission. The word “bravura” could have been coined to describe this film, and so much (including the small-town dynamic) works so well that I feel like a churl kvetching about a slight misstep in the ending.
Carmilla (UK, Emily Harris) Isolated in rural Sussex, young Lara (Hanna Rae) welcomes the presence of the mysterious Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) although her upright governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) has her doubts. Harris soft-pedals the supernatural elements of LeFanu’s source novel almost into invisibility, playing up Lara’s naive excitement and love for the new girl. Although the script wavers between murk and didacticism, the strong acting and Michael Wood’s eager camera work (much of it in candle-lit night interiors) keep it on the Recommended side of the bubble.
The Whistlers (Romania/France/Germany, Corneliu Porumboiu) Femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) inveigles corrupt Bucharest cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) into learning the whistling language of the Canary Islanders to break her partner out of jail, and no it doesn’t make a lot more sense than that after you’ve watched it either. Porumboiu’s deadpan style blends unevenly with the crime thriller genre, and Cristi (and the viewer) only learn he’s not the protagonist far too late in the proceedings. But it still racks up plenty of great sequences on the way to not at all being Charley Varrick
Knives and Skin (US, Jennifer Reeder) After teenage Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) disappears in Big River, Illinois, her mother and schoolmates remain haunted. Very ambitious blend of David Lynch and Richard Linklater ultimately drowns in a too-large cast of characters, most written in the same voice; intriguing story notes appear only to vanish like Carolyn. But the luminous color-high cinematography by Christopher Rejano, Badalamenti-esque score by Nick Zinner, and compellingly sharp edits by Mike Olenik enhance your experience throughout.
Miyamoto (Japan, Tetsuya Mariko) Young schlemiel with anger issues Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) hits the rapids in his relationship with Yasuko (Yu Aoi) as we follow two halves of their story to inevitable confrontation. Ambitious plotting and roller-coaster emotion (and a viscerally unsettling fight scene) almost distract from what a drip the main character is throughout, but help drive the endings to almost inevitable anticlimax.
Paradise Next (Japan, Yoshihiro Hanno) Two gangsters -- taciturn, cool Shima (Etsushi Toyokawa) and smirking punk Makino (Satoshi Tsumabuki) -- hide out in rural Taiwan with bartender Xiao En (Nikki Hsieh), who eerily resembles a dead girl linked to both. Look, I’m as fond of beautiful yet oblique emotional collage as the next Taiwanese director, but you’ve got to give me something we can agree is a plot before you’re getting out of Okay.
La Llorona (Guatemala/France, Jayro Bustamante) Mobs of protesters besiege the house of elderly, genocidal general Enrique (Julio Diaz), while the vengeful spirit La Llorona (Maria Mercedes Coroy) infiltrates it. Regardless of its virtues as indictment of Guatemala’s actual past genocidaires, it fails as a horror film because the contemptible General never has the remotest audience sympathy and La Llorona (a beautifully creepy portrayal by director and actor wasted) never really threatens anyone else. Promising threads about the General’s Alzheimer’s and elderly weakness drop unused.
The Great Green Wall (UK, Jared P. Scott) Documentary follows Malian singer-songwriter Inna Modja across the Sahel collaborating with local musicians on an album to raise awareness and funds for the titular wall, a planned reforestation belt from Senegal to Djibouti. It provides a 101-level overview of the area's various interlocked crises from an unabashedly activist point of view; those seeking a close or hard look at the challenges and promises of reforestation (or full versions of the songs) should look elsewhere.
8: A South African Horror Story (South Africa, Harold Hölscher) When Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) shows up at the farm inherited by hapless white folks, he fixes their generator and befriends their daughter Mary (Keita Luna) so of course he’s got a demon in a bag. “Single Black Handyman” doesn’t deliver much but rote plot ratchets and gratuitous misogyny on the way to a wildly colorful but nugatory ending. Bump it up to Good if the African lore and setting really move you.
The Moneychanger (Uruguay/Argentina, Federico Vieroj) Somewhat ambitious and totally venal, Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) oozes to the top of 1970s Uruguay’s money laundering and offshoring business. Somewhat ambition isn’t enough to drive this lackluster film, though, despite a game cast and a suitably grainy color palette. Like its main character it gets partway somewhere but doesn’t have nearly enough fun along the way.
The Hypnotist (Finland, Arthur Franck) Olavi Hakasalo reinvents himself as Olliver Hawk, Finland’s missionary hypnotist -- but what of his relationship with longtime Finnish President Kekkonen? What of it indeed? In this mix of recreation and archive, of self-aggrandizement and shrugging guesswork, somewhere there could be a gripping documentary about the relationship between politics and hypnosis and showmanship. Not here, though, in what my friend Emily describes as “the world’s most conspiratorial ASMR video.”