By Josh Parham
Film festivals are always an important time of the year for any dedicated lover of cinema. It’s a moment when a wide range of films finally get the chance to be seen by audiences and it’s a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Even though the pandemic has radically altered the presentation of these works, it’s incredibly heartening to see these programs adapt to the virtual space. The 56th Chicago International Film Festival was no different this year and these are my thoughts on some of the films I was lucky enough to see.
”Any Crybabies Around”
One of the earliest films I saw during the festival’s run was a quiet Japanese character study called “Any Crybabies Around.” It tells the story of a young man (Taiga Nakano) who shows no particular desire to take on the serious responsibilities in his life, particularly in providing for his wife and child. When a public scandal humiliates him, he flees to Tokyo for a new life and abandons his roots. However, the urge to reconnect with his past begins to grow and he sets his sights back on his small town in the hope he can find redemption for his past mistakes.
So much of the film’s success falls on the shoulders of Nakano’s performance and it’s a wonderfully endearing turn. His portrayal is quite internalized but manages to feel so layered and natural in its presence. He guides the moral questions laid out and conveys so much understated emotion through his acting. It’s an impressive turn that matches the quiet confidence of the storytelling.
The major faults come from Takuma Satô’s screenplay, which offers so much depth to its protagonist but does not extend the same courtesy to the surrounding characters. It makes one miss that complexity and the story often lacks momentum because of it. However, Satô’s filmmaking more than compensates as he is able to amplify such quiet moments of power. He manages to craft a story, through subtle yet strong cinematography, of the pain of youth morphing into adulthood. This is not looked at with any judgment but instead with a focus on the difficulties faced when the world forces that change. The film offers no clear resolutions, but that’s entirely appropriate for this commentary on the struggles of real life. In the end, this is a quiet yet affecting drama that creates an impressive character study around a, particularly engaging performance.
Final Score: 7/10
“Under The Open Sky”
Another Japanese character study that was featured at this year’s festival was “Under the Open Sky.” In fact, it also coincidentally features Taiga Nakano, the star of “Any Crybabies Around.” The film follows Mikami (Koji Yakusho), a middle-aged former yakuza gang member who has just been released from prison after serving a murder sentence. Nakano plays a television producer and aspiring writer who is assigned to document Mikami’s reform and help him reconnect with his estranged family. Along the way, Mikami hopes to find his own redemption amidst the struggles of returning to the outside world.
Like with any character study, the performance from the central actor is what’s mostly going to determine the film’s overall effectiveness. It is a great credit to Yakusho that he manages to have an authentic portrayal of a man wanting to put his life on track and while the faults of his past continue to haunt him. It’s a commanding turn that grounds the narrative in a genuine way. The same cannot be said for Nakano, though most of that is due to a poorly written character with a little personality. Sadly, that’s a description applicable to most of the supporting players, especially the female characters.
Miwa Nishikawa’s direction chooses to focus on intimate moments that highlight the emotional terrain one must travel through and those efforts to craft this story are appreciated. Unfortunately, his screenplay is one that’s dripping with pedestrian dialogue, a predictable plot and blunt sentimentality that is completely overwhelming. There is no nuance to the storytelling and that simplistic execution ends up making the ultimate catharsis feel cheap and hollow. It’s the type of story that plays itself very safe but with no imaginative choices made to highlight any simmering complexity. Despite its craft, it’s a mostly middling effort that offers nothing that cannot be expected. For many, that’s enough to enjoy this tender drama. For others, it may leave you feeling unfulfilled.
Final Score: 5/10
One of the best resources a film festival can provide is having the opportunity to see various submissions for the International Feature Oscar. One of them was “Charlatan,” the new film by acclaimed filmmaker Agnieska Holland that’s representing the Czech Republic. It tells the true-life story of Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), an herbal healer who gained a large following in the mid-20th century. However, the Communist leaders in the country are suspicious of his notoriety and begin an investigation into his practice. The explorations of his past show how he came to prominence, as well as the secrets that could lead to his undoing.
Holland’s accomplished skills as a director actually feel quite muted as the film begins. The direction comes across as mostly unassuming and struggles to make a real connection. However, that improves as the events continue and the filmmaking ends up becoming more dynamic and does an admirable job of compensating for the less-than-stellar screenplay. Marek Epstein’s script attempts to craft a more interesting structure than a traditional biopic, but so much context feels underutilized. Many characters are ill-defined and lack the depth to make them compelling. The investigation the plot revolves around is mostly uninteresting and never feels all that engaging to watch.
All the performances in the film are respectable if a tad unremarkable. Trojan has a nice presence that is able to inhabit both the stern professionalism that garners respect as well as the fragile insecurities that feed his rage and anxieties. It’s a good performance that serves the character well but does little else. The same goes for much of the supporting cast, including Juraj Loj, as Mikolášek’s assistant and lover, who tries to breathe life into a flat character. The only one who makes a real impact is a warm and soulful turn by Jaroslava Pokorná as the healer’s mentor is his youthful days. In the end, the film is well-intentioned to bring the story of an important man to life but doesn’t quite come together in the most satisfying way.
Final Score: 6/10
As with any local festival, it becomes important to showcase a variety of films that give light to regional stories. One such offering this year was the documentary “Finding Yingying,” a harrowing look into the disappearance of Chinese student Yingying Zhang. Zhang came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2017 and went missing shortly after her arrival. One of her former classmates back in China, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, begins to document the process that began to organize her search and rescue. As the weeks pass and suspects are investigated, the emotional toll on the family starts to manifest as the gears of justice slowly turn.
Admittedly, there are times when Zhang’s sensibilities at crafting this story don’t capture a lot of momentum. The initial building blocks to set up this case are lethargic and take a while to become engaging. Even as events progress, there is a conflict between the conventional true-crime explorations and the domestic tragedy that unfolds, and this juxtaposition isn’t always cleanly fitted. It often leads the film cold in its procedural examination and comes across as slightly tedious.
At the same time, there is a revealing commentary that runs throughout this investigation which gives the film most of its power. Despite the trappings of traditional nonfiction work about real-world crimes, this is mostly an observation of the ways in which xenophobia seeps deep within culture. It’s obviously present in the United States, which casts a shadow on foreigners and takes advantage of their vulnerabilities. However, it shines this light on the Chinese lens as well, showing the insecurities felt toward the educational and justice systems that clash with a conflicting sensibility. Even when one’s connection to the material might be weak, there is still a fascinating look into the cultural divide that only seeks to amplify the difficulties we face.
Final Score: 7/10
Not only is seeking out local stories important in this film festival, but it’s also necessary to find films that lift up the voices in marginalized communities and give them a proper spotlight. That’s exactly what is fulfilled in “Mama Gloria,” a documentary whose subject is the enduring figure, Gloria Allen. Allen is a well-known transgender activist in the Chicago area who has been fighting for equal rights over many decades. Her life is traced from the early days of drag performances to her political participation within the community, all while connecting with old friends and new acquaintances that further foster her strong determination in life.
Allen is absolutely an endearing figure to watch and her presence is always a warm and welcoming one. Her stories are intriguing and the history she reveals finds ways that make one appreciate the vigorous work that has been made for LGBTQ rights. She manages to bridge the gap between generations that bring young crowds into the history lesson while also bringing the conversation to members of her own generation. It’s quite amazing to see the candid discussions she has with friends and family members her own age as they reflect on the past. It’s an inviting look into the life of a person who has accomplished much throughout the years.
Still, as interesting a figure as Allen is, she cannot compensate for the flat filmmaking on display. Luchina Fisher does not find an inventive method to showcase the life of such a rousing figure and the film’s progression is often scattered and full of tangents that do not build on themselves naturally. Nothing on display is incompetent, but there’s a plain delivery of the material that does not offer anything more than the facts they are presented as. One really is only sustained by the charms of its subject and as abundant as they are, simply cannot atone for the general lack of a compelling narrative. Despite Gloria Allen being an incredibly alluring person to witness, the film that’s dedicated to telling her story doesn’t quite live up to her own delivery.
Final Score: 6/10
There is, fortunately, a diverse landscape for stories that shine a light not only on the LGBTQ community but also on its older members as well. That’s the main focus of the Hong Kong film “Twilight’s Kiss.” The story centers on two men who are both married and secretly closeted. Taxi driver Pak (Tai Bo) meets retiree Hoi (Ben Yuen) by happenstance while cruising. What begins as a casual affair soon develops into a fiercely emotional bond that pulls them closer to each other and tests the limits of the lifelong boundaries they’ve placed on their lives throughout the many years.
The still and quiet intimacy that writer-director Ray Yeung is able to craft manages to feel engaging despite its deliberate pacing. A far cry away from the lighter romance of his previous film “Front Cover,” the directorial efforts this time are much more controlled and understated which gives the film a peaceful tone that one can easily be drawn into. It’s a more effective effort than the script, which often reduces scenes to simplistic dialogue and a supporting cast that lacks depth and complexity. The slow hurdle toward an anti-climax does no favors either, even though one is appreciative of the filmmaking choices made to create a profound emotional experience.
Both Bo and Yuen bring a stoicism to their performances that never indulge in histrionics, which is fitting for the overall tone. Their chemistry is fine, if not completely lighting the screen aflame, but both manage to convey a depth of sorrow and joy within their characters. The soulfulness they portray matches the material; a story that aims to explore the lives of gay seniors and the difficulties faced when trying to be their true selves when spending a lifetime of hiding. It’s a poignant message that runs throughout and despite a mediocre script, there is much to appreciate in this muted yet resonant love story.
Final Score: 7/10
It’s always fascinating to dive into a particular country’s history and discover how certain events had a significant influence on the culture. Such is the case with “Carless Crime,” an Iranian film that revolves around a notorious event in the nation’s past. During the revolution to overthrow the Shah in the late 1970s, a group of men burned down a movie theater as a strike against Western influence. Their actions led to the deaths of hundreds, as well as their own trial and execution. The film shows the lead-up to these events juxtaposed against a modern-day Iran, where individuals are planning similar events. What’s presented is a layered narrative in which time and correlating themes collide with each other.
The ambitions are on display in every frame and there is actually an appreciation for the vision that Shahram Mokri attempts to craft. There’s an experimental method to the storytelling that jumps between time periods and eventually intermingles the storylines to blur together, further emphasizing the link between a nation that has both been transformed, yet still treats its wounds. However, that intriguing premise is lost in the execution that is disorienting and sporadic. The emotional connections are shallow, leaving characters unmotivated and momentum stalled. An interesting idea is not conveyed in the most compelling method.
The performances in the film seem secondary to the artistic sensibilities of the filmmaking and as such, there aren’t many members that make a significant impact. Most do their duties to fill out these spaces and create a setting that feels genuine and authentic, and for that they are successful. Still, the only one in this ensemble who elevates themselves is Abolfazl Kahani. He portrays one of the four men who plan to burn down the theater and he is the only one given any sort of depth or complexity that resembles a full character. He manages to provide one of the few instances that creates an emotional investment within this story, which ends up getting far too lost in its metaphorical structure to be that engaging.
Final Score: 4/10
Even though film festivals are a great breeding ground for sophisticated dramas and the emerging players of awards season, they can also be a place to discover a good amount of genre fare that indulge in horror sensibilities. That’s exactly the foundation the German film “Sleep” builds on. The story centers on a young woman named Mona (Gro Swantje) who is concerned about her mother and the series of strange dreams that are plaguing her. When her mother ends up catatonic in a neighboring village after trying to find her own answers, Mona checks into a nearby hotel to mind her health. That is when strange dreams start to haunt Mona as well.
Atmosphere and suspense are vital elements to create an effective horror narrative and director Michael Venus manages to craft some impressive visuals that help establish the creepy imagery that is often effective. Unfortunately, none of that compensates for a laborious script that finds its characters uncompelling, its plot meandering and indulges in a general dull demeanor. For all the notable filmmaking on display, it all adds up to very little from the perspective of a satisfying thematic exploration. Its horror is all shallow and ends up rather cheap and disposable by the end.
Films like these can often be the source of thrilling performances but that, too, is lacking overall. Though it should be said that there’s much to appreciate in Swantje’s portrayal, mostly because of how the physicality showcases her range of talent. The way she stiffens and contorts her body during some daring sequences is quite powerful to watch and the impact she makes on the film is significant. She is the only person who leaves such an impression, as the rest of the cast comes nowhere near being as memorable. Like many modern horror films, there’s an attempt to use conventional genre tropes to tell a more layered story, but there isn’t enough beneath the surface to make it worthy to explore.
Final Score: 4/10
“40 Years A Prisoner”
Given the current political climate revolving around social justice, it would be fitting that many documentaries would populate the landscape that emphasizes these struggles. “40 Years a Prisoner” frames its story around that theme, with a focus on a raid of the Black liberation group MOVE in 1970s Philadelphia. The confrontation led to the death of a police officer and the arrest of several members of the group. One of the members’ sons, now an adult, is seeking their parole as the story of those fateful events is retold.
At the heart of this piece are two major storylines unfolding. One meticulously picks at the details of the past to give context to the eventual raid, and the other outlines the advocacy efforts of Michael Africa Jr. and his quest to free his parents from prison. The latter is a compelling narrative, yet it doesn’t carry quite the same sense of momentum as the former. There is still a powerful commentary on how imprisonment affects not only the individual but the entire familial network that surrounds them. However, the exploration into this plight is not quite as inviting as the other section.
The examination of the culture that surrounded this group and their confrontation with the community and the police is quite a fascinating examination. Great care is paid to showing the complex attitudes toward MOVE as a place that served to support Black identity as well as how easily it could be viewed as a cult. However, what it highlights most is the clash between minority citizens and an antagonistic police force. Obvious echoes to the Black Lives Matter movement are intentional, and the assembly of old newsreel interviews from the period give a revealing look at how many conflicts have been present for so long with little resolution. Its story does not always feel captivating, but its core commentary still makes it worthy to be sought out.
Final Score: 7/10
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time in which technology allows us to enjoy all these films in some capacity while the world forces us to live under different circumstances. The communal aspect of actually being in a theater during a film festival will never be replicated, but it’s encouraging to see how so many of these festivals are committed to providing an avenue for films to still be seen by the public. It may be still unclear as to what the immediate future will hold, but it is wonderful to see such dedication for a public showcase. It has driven so much of the passion behind the Chicago International Film Festival in the past and it will certainly continue in its future.