Film Reviews

Film Review: The Day After (Geu-hu)


South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then [2015]) lays out, in his latest work, an enjoyably jumbled art piece that blends recent past, uncertain present, and relative future free of any flashback or flash-forward devices.

Bongwan is a 50-something owner of a small publishing house. Of late, he has taken to rising before dawn, but the nature of his sudden-onset insomnia is unclear at first. His wife is perplexed, while he seems to be taking it in stride.

The Day After incisively, insightfully deconstructs the love relationship, the sexual relationship, and the relationship of mere romantic intrigue, and Hong places these puzzle pieces side by side and interlocking. However, the resulting picture is no static image with all its parts in predictably proper order.

It’s more like a Picasso sketch in motion. Emotions are (sometimes hilariously) exaggerated. Characterizations twist and flow to and fro. Dialogue repeats and scenes feel out of sequence. Thus does the director perform the important artistic task of disorientation. He wants to keep the viewer off balance and wondering when, relative to previous scenes, the action is taking place.

But, while the filmmaker has created a playfully, pleasantly disarranged artwok, that is not the end, but the means. His fractured mirror here draws us in for a closer look. What sense can we make of these proceedings? What sense do they make to these characters? Doesn’t this all sound very familiar? These questions constitute the sweetspot Hong hits in this quasi-surreal story of love and quasi-love. Why are the questions that he asks us to ask so spot-on? Because, who among us— while experiencing relationships comparable to those of these characters—hasn’t asked themselves the very same things?

Hong brings to mind Luis Buñuel’s vanguard, thoroughly thought-provoking works. Black & white photography, repetition, discontinuous editing, and (to a lesser degree) characters who “inexplicably” remain in uncomfortable situations are all hallmarks of Buñuel’s magnificent masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962).

Black & white, of course, gives a film a more iconic, universal feel, while suggesting a certain timelessness in the story’s themes. In a movie like The Day After, color would bring unnecessary distractions to the eye and thus the mind. Parallels to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) also exist here, including the bumbling of an older man who has gotten in over his head with a younger woman.

Which brings us back to Buñuel and elements of his 1977 classic That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). The director, of necessity, after an actress abandoned the project mid-production, cast a different actress in the same role and continued. The rare move turned out to be a brilliant one, as the “different person in the same role” effect substantially enhanced the film’s theme of repetitive, apparently masochistic behavior in a person’s romantic choices. Similarly, we see Bongwan having sometimes identical dialogues with his wife and with Changsook and Areum, two women who have worked for him. It’s the ages-old question: Do we keep dating (even marrying?) “the same person” over and over again?

In Bongwan’s behavior as a boss, there’s also more than a hint of the underhandedness which brought about the popular #MeToo movement. In such a context, Hong’s movie would have to be one of the most intriguing and wild commentaries on the topic.

This type of small-scale filmmaking fascinates as much as it satisfies, which is to say greatly. Credited cast and crew total only 11 people. So, The Day After is a shining example of quality over quantity, brains over brawn. It helps that the work is front-loaded with astounding talent in Hong and the lead actors Kim Min-hee (Areum) and Kwon Hae-hyo (Bongwan).

Kim’s range of emotions and the heights of intensity which she gamely scales provide not only ballast and momentum, but also many of the picture’s laughs and thrills. Kwon is similarly versatile, though his character is more staid, if confused and easily swayed. His performance is arguably as note-perfect as Kim’s, and I find myself champing at the bit to see them together again.

Fortunately, Hong has already directed the duo twice before (in Yourself & Yours [2016] and On The Beach At Night Alone [2017]). Having these two superb actors available to him must make the director’s life much easier. The trio’s collaborations in recent years—including The Day After which well rewards multiple viewings—offer plenty of plainly thrilling film art in small packages.

4 of 5 stars

Film Reviews

Film Review: En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day)

"Flowers are born in the desert today; Which is stained by our tears, by our blood; Our pain, our sweat; This cold that burns is freezing my cry." -Zenen Zeferino Huervo, from his song "Flores en el desierto."


Realist writer-director Jim McKay (Everyday People [2004]) delivers a delicious dish of a film in En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day). The U.S.-based filmmaker with deep roots in the American South brings his community sensibilities to a charming, penetrating, and simple story set in present-day Brooklyn, New York.

José (Fernando Cardona) is a Mexican-American man in his twenties who came to the United States, it appears, not more than a decade ago. A bicycle deliveryman for a popular restaurant, he lives in a small apartment with several compatriots from the Mexican mountain town of Puebla.

Top of their agendas is keeping jobs to pay the bills, improve their lives, and perhaps bring a loved one or two up to the “promised land.” McKay makes it crystal clear that, to that end, they work their asses off six days a week. On the proverbial, titular seventh day, they don their Puebla jerseys and set off to Sunset Park for spirited contests in the world’s most popular sport: futból.

That En El Séptimo Día credits no production designer or art director hints at the type of film artist Jim McKay is. His narrative work is often described as having a “documentary feel,” and to a small degree that’s true here.

The director and his cinematographer Charles Libin (Remote Control [2013]) have made sure, though, that this film is a pleasure to look at. Beautifully composed shots of Brooklyn streets fade in often and provide contrast to the more purposeful angles in and around the restaurant kitchen and views of the city’s less picturesque locales. One gorgeous wide angle in particular—at dusk from the top of a hill, depicting a twinkling Manhattan skyline in the distance—will leave anyone with an appreciation for photography shaking their head in awe.

The writer-director began his career in the Athens, Georgia art and music scene that gave us visual artists including Jem Cohen (Museum Hours [2013]) and Jim Herbert, as well as The B-52’s and R.E.M.

Combined, Cohen and Herbert directed 15 videos for what would become the rock-n-roll cash cow R.E.M., led by Michael Stipe, their visual-arts-loving singer. For his part, McKay directed the concert documentary Tourfilm: R.E.M. (1990) and the music videos “Half A World Away” (1991) and “Every Day Is Yours To Win” (2011).

The band didn’t mind spreading its wealth and also made videos with future feature directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris and Spike Jonze, among others. Its emphasis on  preserving its small-town character, a tradition of strong community participation, and the incredible talent per capita continue to make Athens a fascinating and supportive breeding ground for the arts.

In keeping with McKay’s experience in, and vision of, integrated community, he respectfully subtitled both the Spanish and English dialogue here, thus creating something rare: a bilingual film that non-Spanish-speakers and non-English-speakers can experience together. The superior writing and natural dialogue are bolstered by faithful translations.

En El Séptimo Día doesn’t shy away from commenting on the plight of immigrants in the U.S. in the 21st Century. In fact, it does so in an unusually subdued way that’s thus more subversive. The movie makes you feel the verve with which these men have taken to their adopted country, rat-race and all. But it also bracingly burrows into the business machinations and personal workplace dynamics ever at play across our nation. The ones that, if we’re not careful, turn us into 60-hours-per-week, workaday zombies; the real “walking dead”!

But McKay accomplishes this, masterfully, in an observational style that evokes calm atmospheres and mellow moods. A soccer match at Sunset Park sounds and feels like a pleasant, leisurely Sunday evening. Cutaways to non-actors in the periphery, from a little boy enjoying his paper cup of ice cream to elderly men gesturing casual disapproval of their preferred team’s play, show simply lovely moments in time.

The director indicates no interest in intensity of characters, of conflicts, or of plot. Instead, he opens his lens to a flow of relaxed, placid realism that’s no less impressive. This, combined with the aesthetically pleasing photography, might give rise to the question of whether this work is more idealistic than realistic. It’s a fair question, though a fairly cynical one.

McKay’s Mexican-American perspective on a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood isn’t idyllic. Instead, he shows us a picture of supportive cooperation among Americans of a hundred demographic categories. What we see is entirely feasible, and therefore realistic. If En El Séptimo Día betrays optimism in its creator, we can hardly fault him for that.

5 of 5 stars

Film Reviews

Film Review: Ava

“I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding–not even that–no.  Just for some recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.” -Tennessee Williams, from Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks / USA / 1962)


The transcendent energy of Iranian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature derives from her adroit use of composition, symbolism, and timing. More than a “coming of age” story, it’s an unsentimental, urgent song of youth, and it movingly shows (rather than tells) its themes of time, power, and rebellion.

Ava is a Tehrani high-schooler who, like most teens, goes on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as she experiments with tender love, learns the limits of peer loyalty, and tests the bounds of home and school rules. Foroughi wisely observed that a “troubled teen” story set in Tehran could illuminate myriad aspects of Iranian life. Going further, she gives us vast, universal sociological areas to explore.

The girl and her best friend Melody go to the same school, and both are music students. Ava is a talented violinist and Melody a burgeoning pianist and her friend’s rehearsal partner. For the director, the competitive cloister of classical music provides rich and subtle symbolism.

Early on, Ava’s reflection is framed in an oval mirror in her room. The teen merely tidies up her bed, putting her violin in its case and placing the cover on her tick-tocking metronome. The brief scene is entirely symbolic of the overarching themes: the girl stowing away her violin; stopping the movement and sound of the metronome and putting the cover over it; and, most foretelling, the pyramidal metronome at rest atop her bed, reflected in the mirror.

The symbolism continues throughout the titular character’s struggles, and one feels her soul is drawn taut like a violin string, longing for stimulation so it can sing. The youngster yearns to shear away the direct and indirect burdens of Sharia strapped to her back like her blood-colored book bag.

Production design here is lovely, and Foroughi’s color palette—scarlet Sharia contrasting with pastel mints and deep blues—works to emphasize atmosphere, moods, and story throughout. The oval mirrors in the mise-en-scène, like egg-shaped time portals, reflect both Ava’s future and her parents’ past, while highlighting the characters’ introspective challenges.

Foroughi places the camera purposefully and thoughtfully. When the girl’s mother scolds her loudly on the landing of Melody’s apartment building, you experience it from an elevated camera across the street. In order to diminish the impact of this particular conflict, the director keeps the audience at a distance, but that’s not always the case. When Melody applies mascara to Ava’s lashes, Foroughi takes you in for extreme close-ups on the teen’s eyes. So her priority in the first and second acts seems to be preservation of a gentle approach to her characters and a subdued tone.

To that end, she often uses unconventional compositions. She frames the characters, in a few two- and three-shots, from the shoulder down to about their knees. Especially when all the actors in a shot are women or girls—and with the aid of the hijabs and other loose-fitting clothing—the technique puts the characters on a more even playing field. By not showing their faces and by diminishing the perception of height, Foroughi de-emphasizes differences in age and attitude. There’s dialogue, but who’s talking? The subtly purposeful confusion is highly effective within each scene and reserves the more direct, conventional compositions for greater impact elsewhere in the film.

Ava only falls short in one area, and that’s the writer-director’s decision to make the movie almost entirely humorless. As usual, this leads to a self-serious note that plays once or twice over its otherwise impeccable tone. But Foroughi deftly does include lighthearted, upbeat stanzas, mostly via Ava’s father. He’s a pleasant man, reasonable, even sweet, and a foil to the harsh bitterness and deep-seated sternness of the mother.

As an outsider, I felt that the behaviors of several characters seemed motivated by sheer sadism. It’s unlikely that Foroughi herself would object to the question of to what degree Persian and other Iranian cultures value sadism, though it would certainly constitute a taboo topic. For that matter, what role does it play in society at large? To what degree does sadism anywhere breed masochism?

The people depicted here also appear highly susceptible to power trips. Even people with relatively little actual power. It’s yet another area where the voices of sociologists are needed. Stateside, of course, we’re experiencing the consequences of power trips at the highest levels. We might be beginning even to gauge the breadth and depth of the damage that can be done when malignant narcissism and pathological avarice are given the reins of government. Like the proverbial poem that’s about a snake and hence must avoid only one word (“snake”), Foroughi shows maturity and clever insight by not once mentioning Sharia or Islam by name.

In so many ways, Ava is profound and refreshing. For those of us who have never had the pleasure of visiting Tehran, witnessing the civility and functionality of the city (outside of the institutions of family and school) runs counter to every notion put forth by cynical American propaganda. It affords us an orrery with which to explore power dynamics and the ways in which they affect the human being who is sensitive, spirited, and vulnerable—personified by Ava herself—the way peaceful, social human beings probably should be.

Foroughi asks that we consider whether the teen’s crises arose from inner or outer causes. The facile answer is: “She’s disturbed or neurotic,” implying that the pathology comes from within. But this sharp story plainly shows how a society’s tendencies toward institutionalized sadism and personal power trips work against souls like Ava and, ultimately, against peace (of mind, of the household, of the nation, of the world). That this holds true in Iran, the U.S., and every other place on Earth is proven through the universality of this film.

The depth and urgency of this film might catch you (happily) off guard. Unlike the whip-crackers she depicts, Foroughi’s is a quiet power of the type that’s most effective across the ages. Her hand is delicate as she guides us through struggles of fierce teenagedom, hypocritical parenting, and plaguing authoritarianism.

4 of 5 stars


Miami Film Festival

Jason Reitman’s Tully to open 35th Miami Film Festival on March 9th

The filmmakers of the critical darling Juno (2007), which effectively launched the successful careers of Ellen Page and Michael Cera, follow up the 2018 Sundance world premiere of their film, Tully, as the opening night feature of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

Tully, about a mother of three young children who is surprise-gifted a night nanny by her brother, stars Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron. Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the film appears to offer twists and offbeat relationship dynamics similar to its beloved cousin Juno, if the trailer is any indication.

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival