Tuesday, September 19, 2006

2006 TIFF—In Between Days

The last ticket I had for 2006 TIFF was Pen-ek Ratanaruang's much-anticipated Invisible Waves; a disappointing experiment in how an intriguing concept can have all the life sucked out of it despite a talented director, actor and cinematographer. Who should die? A good guy who is in essence a lonely wandering ghost on the face of the planet? Or a bad guy who is a happy man? Or the audience member who adored Ratanaruang's previous efforts and made the mistake of choosing Invisible Waves over Bruno Dumont's Flanders? I was crestfallen that my first experience of TIFF should end on such a dour dull note.

But Girish Shambu—who encouraged my attendance at this year's TIFF from the get-go—just wouldn't have it. Like a festival guardian angel, he swooped in with proffered vouchers and allowed me to accompany him to So Yong Kim's first feature In Between Days, which won a special jury prize earlier this year at Sundance and which has had a healthy festival run internationally. Darren Hughes and Lorraine Vendrely joined us at the film's Royal Ontario Museum screening.

In Between Days is "first love is beautiful hurt" Korean-style. As much as Alan Pakula adored the emotional mutability of Liza Minnelli's young face in The Sterile Cuckoo, so So Yong Kim capitalizes on the incredible expressiveness of Jiseon Kim's young face in In Between Days. Not to say that Pookie's quirky and exaggerated mannerisms in any way resemble Aimie's withdrawn depths, but when it comes to the complicated terrain of youthful heartbreak, affinities abound.

Commencing with the sound of boots crunching in icy snow, In Between Days guides the viewer into a wintry Toronto. Perhaps because I was experiencing Toronto for the first time, I found it sweet and familiar to have my first-time experience replicated on the screen with scenes that involved transit on TTC buses and Toronto's ubiquitous hotdog stands.

For her debut performance Jiseon Kim is simply lovely. I couldn't get enough of watching her face, which subtly expressed dislocation, infatuation, and the eventual "beautiful hurt" that will come on any given Saturday morning anywhere in the world. As Cameron Bailey writes in her festival capsule: "Jiseon Kim is a marvel as Aimie, her moon-shaped face reflecting the alienation and caution of a young immigrant, then transforming utterly when she breaks into a smile. Her letters to her father, narrated over interstitial winter tableaux, offer insights into her complex new emotions—but her face is even more telling." Aimie's reaction when her love interest Tran (Taegu Andy Kang) suggests sex for the first time is comic and priceless. Kang—also a first time actor—matches Kim scene for scene in understated authenticity. So Yong Kim has done an admirable job drawing out these natural performances from her "non-actors."

So Yong Kim responded informatively to IndieWIRE's rote Sundance questionnaire and expressed herself quite animatedly in her Sundance video interview with Flavorpill's Lisa Rosman. So Yong Kim, husband/producer Bradley Rust Grey, and (incredibly shy) actress Jiseon Kim were present for a Q&A after the screening.

So Yong Kim was asked to what extent her own background had anything to do with how she approached the material for the movie? She responded that when she first started to write this story, when she first wrote the draft, it covered about 30 years of Aimie's life and a lot of events from her life. That took about two months to write and then after that it took about a year and a half to cut it down and make Aimie an individual person away from her own self. It was a long journey from the beginning to what the film ended up being.

When you wrote the film, one audience member inquired, did you have Toronto in mind as the locale or is that something that just happened?

"I have to say," So Yong admitted, "it just happened because it was [originally] set in Los Angeles where I grew up. When we were in Los Angeles doing location scouting and also looking for cast and crew, I felt uneasy about it; it was too close to my own memories somehow. So we were looking for other places like New York or New Jersey; each have both huge Korean populations. But a friend of our's recommended Toronto because it has such a huge Korean population so they said we should check it out. We drove up from New York and somehow all the pieces fell in [place]. We found Jiseon in New Jersey and then right after that when we drove up [to Toronto] we met Taegu, the Tran character, in a nightclub. Then we met Jennifer Weiss, who's our co-producer and support group, and then we got in touch with a lot of Korean kids and Asian film communities and it all just came together at the right time that allowed us to make the film."

Darren Hughes commented that he loved the rhythm of the film and asked So Yong if she could talk a bit about her editing process; maybe where she found inspiration or how she found the rhythm of the film?

So Yong replied: "I didn't go to film school so I have to say I learned how to make films from my husband because I worked on his crew when we were making his film in Iceland. We had a crew of four people as well so I just learned by doing. But editing was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process for me because I was making very short experimental films before I tackled this project. We shot about 66 hours of footage and that was overwhelming. I had so much footage and there were so many possibilities because we shot a lot of little moments and we lived with Jiseon in the apartment that we shot in so it was 24/7. We would shoot constantly. When people ask us how many days did we shoot, I say 23 days, but we shot 24 hours a day so it was a lot longer than that. I had a lot of footage so it was a matter of just narrowing it down and slimming it down. What really helped was also having Brad as the supervisor so first couple of scenes that I cut I would bring him in and say, 'Hey, does this make sense?' and he'd go, 'Whoooaaaaa, people don't edit like that.' So it was completely experimental in the beginning and then I had to learn how to put the pieces together."

I thanked her for bringing the film to Toronto and mentioned that I found it sweet in its irresolution. I complimented Jiseon for her natural, lovely acting, which engendered a round of applause. I was curious about distribution; if she had found a distributor for the States?

She said they were looking for distribution but that it was very difficult "because—even though it's an American or North American film—it has so much Korean language in it and Korean culture." [Variety's Justin Chang has commented in his review that the film's minimalism might be a tough sell and that "despite its perceptive insights into the difficulties of adolescence and assimilation and Jiseon Kim's subtly expressive performance as a girl who's blocked off her emotions, So Yong Kim's glacially paced first feature won't command much of an audience beyond the festival circuit."]

So Yong was asked about the actors' backgrounds. She offered to let Jiseon speak for herself but Jiseon declined. So Yong then offered that Jiseon is currently attending school studying design. She's never acted before. Neither has Taegu. Actually all the cast were non-actors.

So Yong was asked to speak a little more about the locations in Toronto where she shot and she quipped that her producer was "kind of cheap" so that they basically found locations that were free. Jennifer Weiss helped them secure permits from the city to film on the TTC. Aimie's apartment belonged to their "production manager/boom operator/everything-else-only-crew-we-had." It was also his grandmother's, so they relocated her to his mom's house for a month while they lived there. Then they slept around in different places that were free and available.

Having mentioned that the story was initially set in California, though it was obviously filmed all in Toronto during winter, one fellow wondered if those changes came about by virtue of when the crew was in Toronto or was that purposeful on So Yong's part? "I hate to sound like hippie-dippy," she answered, "but, it seemed like all the stars came together for us to shoot it in January, which is the coldest time of the year in Toronto. Also, it added texture to it. Originally the film was set in the summer so the characters are hot and irritated but it happened that Jiseon had four weeks off for Christmas break and that's when we had the car. The day after Christmas, we drove [Jiseon] up to Toronto, introduced her to Taegu/Tran, then we started shooting the next day. I think that added to the urgency of the film. I have to say we used everything we [could] to our advantage. Everyone who was involved—there were only four people: Brad, Sarah [Levy] who was the DP, and Andy [Choi] and myself—we worked together to make everything useable."

[In his Variety review Chang further compliments DP Sarah Levy, stating her "handheld camerawork captures the awkward emotional tango of insecure teens in a way that feels painfully authentic."]

Cross-posted on Twitch.


Brian Darr said...

Reports on Invisible Waves are starting to seem so consistently negative that I'm starting to wonder if there's much chance of a print coming to the Bay Area. But this is one I really have to see for myself no matter how many warnings I get from trusted cinephiles. I usually import about one Thai DVD a year, and this may have to be the one this year.

Brian Darr said...

I'll definitely keep my eyes out for In Between Days too!

Michael Guillen said...

Taro Goto has mentioned the Asian-American will be inviting "In Between Days" to San Francisco so, dependent upon whether So Yong Kim accepts, you might have the chance to see it sooner than you think.

As for "Invisible Waves", without question you should judge for yourself and never trust what us critics and commentarians say. Heh.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Invisible Waves, the second Thai film at TIFF this year to show heavy influence from Stanley Kubrick. But then again I had mixed feelings about Last Life in the Universe. Lorraine loved In Between Days, so I'm watching for it to show up here in SF. I missed it (again) in Toronto.

By the way, Lorraine's last name is Vendrely.

Brian Darr said...

Michael, at this point I would want to see a new Pen-ek film even if I excepted it to be pure crap. Though Rob's impression gives me hope that it's far from it.

Of course, if I buy it and like it enough, I'll still see it on the big screen should it appear on one near me. That's what I did with Last Life in the Universe, actually. I had mixed feelings about that one as well, but I have mixed feelings about most of my favorite films (if that makes any sense), and put it in my top ten for 2004.

Interesting to think of an Apichatpong film with discernable Kubrick influence though (I assume that's the other Thai film you're talking about, Rob).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your wonderful review. I am anxious to see if In Between Days makes it to the Hawaii Intl. FF this year. I sure hope so!

Michael Guillen said...

Rob, thanks for the name correction. So much for presumption. I've taken care of it. I would be fascinated to read what you consider the Kubrick influence on "Invisible Waves" should you either care to post about it here or point to it when you post on Paste.

Brian, I'm really glad Rob rallied to defense of the film because I'm not sure my perception wasn't clouded by comparison. Everything else I'd seen had been so unquestionably engaging or noteworthy and I had genuninely agonized about whether to see "Invisible Waves" or "Flanders" since they were both screening at the same time and I would only have the one opportunity to watch either/or. I may have been unfair to the movie for watching it with a disgruntled eye. I didn't have the same ambivalency to "Last Life In the Universe" that you and Rob appear to have had; I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Kealli, thanks for stopping in to comment. I hope you get a chance to see it too.

Anonymous said...

I think the traces of Kubrick are more superficial in Invisible Waves than Syndromes and a Century, but they're there. I think of The Shining when Kyoji roams the nearly empty cruise ship. He even talks to a ghostly bartender, impeccable and prompt, and when he reaches dry land, his hotel is nearly as empty. The "Redrum" scrawled on the wall of his room seals the deal.

Syndromes and a Century blew me away. I'm probably wrong to use the word "influence," since the film is clearly unique and personal, but Apichatpong's stunning use of movement and space, so steady and assured, is right up there with Kubrick's and Antonioni's -- his cool, pristine interiors, precision dolly, meditative/brooding rumble, and trips through portals of time... it gives me chills. Even his now-trademark bifurcation recalls Kubrick, who chopped 2001, Full Metal Jacket, and even arguably Eyes Wide Shut into segments that compound poetically.

I'm not in the crowd of people who consider Kubrick and Antonioni to be cold and impersonal -- far from it -- but I will acknowledge that Syndromes has a human scale, a gentleness, that their films don't. And it has such an odd sense of humor. It's very funny!

Anonymous said...

By the way, Flandres is very interesting, too. I haven't fully warmed up to it, but that's my usual reaction to Dumont. I usually do, after some time. It's similar in style to L'Humanité and Life of Jesus, not shockingly brutal like Twentynine Palms, but he may be continuing some of the themes from that last film.

Brian Darr said...

I'm soooo jealous of people who've been able to see Syndromes and a Century already. I just try not to let myself think about it too much. Your comments are the most I've allowed myself to read about the film since its premiere, Rob. If it were playing over the Columbus Day weekend like Woman on the Beach and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone are, I think I would be forced to book a flight to Vancouver for their festival. Luckily for my pocketbook, it's not. The question is, how long will I have to wait for it to come to me? I was spoiled by the YBCA's effort to bring Joe here so soon after Tropical Malady's North American premiere, but it seems pretty certain that Syndromes... won't arrive until the spring, if then.

I'm not surprised to hear that it's got a sense of humor. All five of his films and videos I've seen so far do, except maybe for the second half of Malady (perhaps its comparative seriousness is why I'm not as sold on its superiority over the first half as so many others are).

Back to Last Life in the Universe, I think I was being a little too tricky there. I loved the film and consider it the pinnacle of Pen-ek's achievements so far. What I meant with my "mixed feelings" comment was that these days I practically require any of my favorite films to spur strong conflicting reactions. In this case I'm still to this day reconciling the film's formal and thematic beauty with its representation as a step away from some of the uniquely Thai aspects of Pen-ek's previous work.

HarryTuttle said...

I much prefered Last Life in The Universe to Invisible Waves which is a little untight. It was more of an exercice of style than a truly engaging story. The Kubrick reference is interesting (the "Redrum" mirror shot wasn't really subtle I thought). I don't know why, I would compare Invisible Waves to The Long Goodbye for its similar reversal of characters who have multiple (secret) ties with ecahothers and its labyrintine narration.
I missed In Between Days earlier this summer...

Michael Guillen said...

Oh, that's right, I forgot about the "Redrum" reference, reflected back and forth a couple of times so you GOT IT.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I almost mentioned The Long Goodbye, too. It takes a similar sleepy approach to a genre that usually has more action.

I'm not sure that I prefer Invisible Waves to Last Life ... they're pretty hard to compare.

HarryTuttle said...

The Long Goodbye is more of a talky narrative though.

Some critics said Invisible Waves could be the prequel (or sequel) of Last Life in the Universe. I think they are quite made from the same mould... it's the variation of the same narrative structure: meeting point of Japanese, Thai and Hong Kong cultures, foreigners who use a third approximate language (English) to communicate, murder/death linking protagonists, latent oppression of mafia mobsters.

Anonymous said...

They do have some similarities, especially language (which may be born of using a Japanese actor). But the bookish neatnik in Last Life, caught up in trouble by association, isn't very similar at all to the low-rent hood in Invisible Waves, over his head but cooking in a stew of his own making.

Also I think the parts of Last Life that appealed to me weren't the suicide jokes or the gangster bookends but the slow middle, the awkward romance, and the fun idea of dropping this guy into an extremely messy house for a while and letting him rummage quietly through the cassette tapes and details. None of which is in Invisible Waves.

I think Invisible Waves is more like Kaurismaki's latest, an experiment with noir, pure but empty (?), melancholy but absurdly funny. Also, I loved that it seemed actively to be trying to put me to sleep. Granted, I was tired, but listen to the music on the web site. That electric piano -- or whatever -- plays throughout, and half the time waves are lapping at the sides of the boat.

Michael Guillen said...

What an interesting perception, Rob. A noir lullaby? Perhaps. You've certainly made me consider that perhaps the film deserves one more viewing before final judgment, hopefully when I'm not as burnt out as I was at TIFF.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hijack your site for this tangent, Michael. :-)

Thanks for the chat, Harry. I always enjoy it. BTW, I've been appreciating your survey of critical fallacies on your site. I'm just glad Paste isn't on newsstands in Paris (as far as I know) or I'd be shaking in my boots.

HarryTuttle said...

I know what you mean Davis, the general mood is partiular to each movie. Maybe I'm influenced by the fact I saw the 2 movies for teh first time the same week, and I was threading logical hints between the characters' potential consistency.

I saw Fun Bar Karaoke at the Cinemathèque this week. Although this one doesn't give the male hitman the lead, one could make a case by connecting the dots of recurring details again.

Thank you so much for the kind word on the fallacy series, I thougth I was repeating boring truisms nobody cared about so far... Hopefully it will reach less obvious ground once the basics are covered.
You don't have anything to worry about, Errata is part of the elite of online film criticism ;)

I wish Paste was available online. I was looking for your TIFF reports on Paste podcast and couldn't find it.

Vis said...

Thanks for your wonderful review. I am anxious to see if In Between Days makes it to the Hawaii Intl. FF this year. I sure hope so!

Michael Guillen said...

Vis, thanks for stopping by to comment. I hope In Between Days comes to a festival near you as well; though, in all likelihood, at this stage it would probably be Treeless Mountain which will show up (and which should be seen).