SBIFF 2015: Second Chance (2014) & Confession (2014)

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Taiwanese film number two of the festival was the frothy Second Chance, directed by Wen-yen Kung. Okay, maybe not frothy exactly, but definitely bubbly. Second Chance is (I assume) one of the only action movies about pool. Yes, that kind of pool, where you stand around a table and firmly poke a series of colored balls. Sure, there’s The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)—did you remember Tom Cruise is in that?—but those are hardly action films. Although, Poolhall Junkies (2002) does have Christopher Walken, which is reason enough to watch it. Obviously.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfHAiIq-Yeo&w=560&h=315]

Seriously, the man is a national treasure. But I digress. This is what I was talking about:

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Why are they standing in front of a rock slide? Don’t worry—it doesn’t matter.

Second Chance is a sweet and entertaining mishmash of redemptive sports story, redemptive family story, crime story, comedy, drama, and action. Within the first five minutes, it seemed like two different films, with two entirely different tones, had started. The film doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or invite deep contemplation. It’s easily the most fun I had at SBIFF this year—and that’s an oft-underrated virtue at film festivals.

A disgraced former pool champ, played by Jason Wang, is forced back to the table when his independent, spunky orphaned niece has to find a way to hang on to her family’s pool hall (and convince her social worker that she doesn’t need to go to a foster home). Formulaic? You bet. Does it matter? Not at all. Asian films often seem much better at taking formulas and recycling them without making the audience feel like it’s eating a 7-Eleven egg salad sandwich that probably wasn’t very good even before you accidentally left it roasting on the dashboard of your car. Maybe Asian filmmakers choose better formulas than Hollywood studios. (It certainly seems easier to get decent distribution in that part of the world for that sort of film, on which much less money is riding.)

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Peijiang Wang plays Shine, the budding billiards champion who finally gets her uncle Feng to stand up and fly right, i.e., quit drinking and find a way to pay off the gambling debts that have brought his old rival to the door of the family pool hall/home, the Outstanding Pool Hall. There are the requisite training montages, which are a lot more entertaining than what is, essentially, golf on a table has any right to be. It’s a tribute to good storytelling that the film doesn’t need a lot of locations, doesn’t need a lot of characters, and doesn’t need a complicated plot to be such a good time.

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Also on the agenda was the South Korean “neo-noir” Confession, directed by Do-yun Lee. If the characters from Partners in Crime grew up, they might have ended up like the three boyhood friends in Confession. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpRDHVlG2zk&w=560&h=315]

Confession is a solid, enjoyable crime thriller, the first feature by director Do-yun Lee. The three friends grow up to be very different from but still devoted to (or maybe just tied to) each other. Slick insurance agent In-chul (Ju Ji-Hoon) has more in common with the greedy mother (Lee Whee-Hyang) of his friend Hyun-Tae than with either Hyun-Tae (Ji Sung) or their friend, the slightly damaged Min-Soo (Lee Kwang-Soo). The center of the film’s plot is the robbery In-chul and Min-Soo stage at the gambling hall owned by Hyun-Tae’s parents. Playing to the surveillance camera, In-chul and his friend’s mother mime a violent robbery while offering directions to each other. (Which is absolutely as silly as it sounds.) The camera can’t hear them, of course, so why not?

What could go wrong with this plan? Nearly everything, as you might expect.

As with Second Chance, it doesn’t matter a whit that we can see what’s coming. Indeed, in a genre picture like this, being able to see what the characters can’t—the absolutely inevitable disaster they have stupidly, arrogantly set in motion—is essential. As Hitchcock pointed out, that dynamic is what creates suspense. It’s not not knowing what’s going to happen; it’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen when the characters don’t that makes us squirm in our seats and talk pointlessly at the screen.

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Min-Soo, In-chul, and Hyun-Tae

One of the things that makes both of these films better than their average American counterpart (assuming it ever got a distribution deal) is that they both spend quality time developing their characters, so that we care about them. Rather than being told the main character’s backstory in dialogue— “My parents were killed in front of me!”*—or having the plot laid out for us in dialogue— “I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”**—we watch characters do things and interact with each other. And so the characters seem like people rather than placeholders, and the plot appears to be generated by who the characters are rather than by the dictates of a marketing campaign aimed at 14-year-old boys.

I’m sorry. Did I say all that out loud?

Confession calls to mind another South Korean crime thriller traveling the festival circuit, A Hard Day. Seong-hoon Kim’s film about a corrupt cop having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is, I think, a better movie (though it’s hard to tell having only seen each once). Nevertheless, Second Chance and Confession are both a good time, and if you’re lucky enough that you can get to and afford a film festival, check these out. If not, don’t despair…they’ll be streaming soon.

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Up next from my SBIFF adventures… the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).

 

Colombiana (2011)

** Taken (2008) Really? You didn’t recognize that?

AFI Fest 2014: November 9

AFIFEST2014logoMy two Sunday movies at the Fest were Run, written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, and then A Hard Day, written and directed by Kim Seong-hun, both from this year.

I was excited to see Run not only because it sounded great, but because it’s a movie from Côte d’Ivoire and there just aren’t very many of those yet. One of the things I love about films is the opportunity to see places that I’ll never go from the perspective of someone who lives there. Run was filmed in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring Burkina Faso, and it is beautiful country. The film was beautiful—the colors and the shot constructions. The director was at the screening and took some questions afterwards. He explained the film is meant to operate on three levels of reality: personal, social, and mystical, and that each of the three “acts” of the film represents part of the country’s history.

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The film stars Abdoul Karim Konaté as Run, whose coming of age story in some ways mirrors his country’s history. The film is largely a series of flashbacks after Run murders the Ivorian Prime Minister (formerly a paid thug) at the beginning. As a child, Run wants to become a rainmaker. The local rainmaker takes him as an apprentice, and this section of the film offers some of its most breathtaking landscapes. When that doesn’t work out, he goes to work for Gladys the Greedy, a beautiful and enormous professional eater, played by Reine Sali Coulibaly in a funny and touching performance. (Lacôte explained that Gladys, who was originally going to be played by Gabourey Sidibe, is based on a real [male] professional eater who came from Mali.) In the third section of the film, one of my absolute favorite contemporary actors, the incomparable Isaach de Bankolé (a regular in Jim Jarmusch’s films), plays the last of Run’s mentors, Assa. De Bankolé was born in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, and where much of the film’s action takes place.

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Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly) and a young Run (Abdoul Bah)

With any luck, the film will get picked up at the festival and lots more folks will be able to see it. Here’s a clip:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SDrpfbnKUk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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A Hard Day was my second film—another midnight screening. The director was also in attendance at this one. Unfortunately, given that the screening ended just before 2am, no one had the stamina for a Q & A. The audience loved the movie, and it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had so far. I’m a big fan of South Korean crime thrillers, starting with The President’s Last Bang in 2005, which I saw at the always-excellent Wisconsin Film Festival. A Hard Day is a really good film. The first twenty minutes or so are especially impressive and the rest of the film does justice to its great opening. This is going to sound like I’m ruining the plot for you, but what I’m about to describe is really only the beginning of what is a very long bad day for the main character, so trust me and read on.

A corrupt cop (Lee Sun Gyun) has left his siblings to finish preparations for their mother’s funeral in order to drive back to his precinct to hide some incriminating evidence from the Internal Affairs officers who are about to show up. His sister calls and gives him a (justifiably) hard time about how soon he’ll be back. He also gets a call from his young daughter, Mina, to remind him to bring her a chocolate cake. And his fellow corrupt cops back at the precinct are calling about the evidence that will incriminate all of them and is not being hidden. Unfortunately, our hero, Detective Ko, is the only one with a key to the drawer containing said evidence, so all the other cops can do is stare despondently at the drawer. In the middle of all this, his car slams into something, cracking the windshield and denting the front end. It turns out that Detective Ko’s day has gone from bad to much, much worse. He has accidentally killed a man. When Ko sees a police car heading towards him, he hides the body…by putting it in his trunk.

Shortly thereafter, Ko is back at the morgue with his family and an extra corpse. His colleagues show up to discuss the impending catastrophe and alert Ko that the Internal Affairs guys are on their way to him, now, at the morgue. In a panic, Ko makes another really bad decision—to hide the corpse in the only place no one will look: his mother’s coffin. He is wracked with guilt—and in a particularly hilarious moment, he promises his mother’s corpse that he will make it up to her. What ensues is a genius combination of genuine suspense and something close to slapstick, involving yellow balloons, a noisy toy soldier, and the cross from his mother’s coffin.

2014+-+A+Hard+Day+(still+2)Like a number of fine South Korean crime thrillers, A Hard Day masterfully blends the thrills of a crime story with some very dark humor (my favorite kind). But the drama wouldn’t work if we didn’t actually care about Ko—and we absolutely sympathize with him. We want him to escape the Internal Affairs cops, get the dead guy out of his mother’s coffin, and make it home to his daughter with her chocolate cake.

For whatever combination of reasons, American action films don’t seem interested in offering their audiences real characters anymore, and so the movies are hollow and unsatisfying, however good they may look. The last action heroes (sorry) I can remember caring about from an American movie are Nic Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, which was almost 20 years ago now. (Oy vey, I’m old.) Hollywood, take a lesson—this is how you make a real action movie.

 

Coming up next: The weirdest Iranian film you’ll probably never get to see.

 

Trailer for A Hard Day

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33xuvdscFqQ?rel=0&w=420&h=315]