Thursday, November 21, 2013


(which was September 28th)

And then, the day got better. Okay, the day was actually pretty good, but the *films* got better with a pair of films to top off day 4...

BLACK SQUARE (Japan): (odd/good). In a village in China, artist by night and bricklayer by day Zoping is walking down the road when he sees a strange object floating across the sky... a black square. He follows the black square as it floats across the sky and eventually lands in a big open field. Zoping cautiously approaches the giant black square (like the monolith from 2001) and examines it. Discovers that touching it is not recommended. Then, a naked Japanese man walks out of the black square. I say he’s Japanese, that is where the actor comes from... but he looks androgynous and alien to Zoping. Okay, not totally androgynous because he’s naked and his junk is on display to the world. And it’s freezing cold out. Zoping tries talking to him, but the Stranger doesn’t understand. He’s a blank slate. An alien, like E.T. Zoping takes of his warm winter jacket and gives it to the Stranger. Now the Stranger is covered and probably warm, but Zoping is freezing. The black square floats away... Zoping ends up taking the Stranger to the home he shares with his girlfriend, Hana, who is away for a few days.

Like E.T, the Strangers learns about Earth life from Zoping... and we learn about Zoping in the process. This is a great device for getting to know two characters... and eventually the girlfriend Hana and Zoping’s little sister Lihua who comes home from college. The Stranger is not a “traveling angel” or “traveling devil”, he’s a blank slate who absorbs the knowledge and feelings of others... and eventually learns to speak and becomes part of this family. Early on, the slacker rascal Zoping teaches him how to lay bricks and gives him a (no pay) job on one of his job sites. Zoping is obsessed with the black square, painting canvas after canvas of the object (reminded me of the mashed potatoes scene from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS). The Stranger has no bad habits, except for spending some of his days on the roof of a barn watching the field where the black square landed (E.T. phone home). Zoping’s sister Lihua develops a crush on the Stranger, and is often on the roof with him, talking about her life in college.

Though I keep comparing this to E.T. it is its own film and its own story. Zoping and Lihua have this feeling they have seen the Stranger before, that they *know him* from somewhere. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? The Stranger is now explained to others as a friend from the city, and becomes part of Zoping and Hana’s circle or artists and creative people. One member of the group has this great business idea and they go to the city with him to help him pitch his idea to investors... and the Stranger tags along. The idea, this supporting character’s dream, is crushed by the investors... but the group consoles him and they go to a comedy club to cheer him up. The Stranger wanders off, and they are afraid he may be lost in the city... so they search for him. Lihua finds him on a stoop, where he tells her that is time here is soon over... he’ll be going home.

The next day the black square floats over the countryside again, and the Stranger follows it. Zoping and the group say goodbye and he enters the black square and vanishes. Now, here’s where you think the film is over, and grab your coat... except this is just the end of act two. This film is 144 minutes long! (It should have ended here, but remember how Zoping and Lihua thought the Stranger looked familiar?)

We follow the Stranger *out* of the black square, in China during World War Two where the Japanese have invaded... and the Stranger is a private in the army whose job is to round up Chinese villagers and put them in prison camps. He comes to a house in the hills where Zoping and Lihua’s Great Grandfather and pregnant Great Grandmother (played by the same actors) are hiding. The Great Grandfather and the Japanese soldier call kind of a truce and help each other. The Japanese soldier protects the couple so that the Great Grandmother can give birth... but that means he must lie to his superiors in the military. He’s the man in the middle... and eventually the war catches up to all three. But by then, the Great Grandmother has given birth, which allows Zoping and Lihua to be alive decades later. Though I think this longish act 3 ending slows the momentum and removes some of the magic, it *does* create some wonderful post film conversation on whether the Stranger is a time traveler or a ghost or what. Now that we know his past relationship to this family, we see the first 3/4 of this film a little differently.

Hey, I should also note: like KU ON, it’s a a great high concept at a low cost. Except for a few shots of the black square floating in the sky or on that empty field (where it could be a painted piece of plywood for all we know), there are no special effects in this magical film. The *idea* of the Stranger from another world learning how our world works is amazing... and it’s just an actor! When people think that high concept means high cost, they *don’t* have a high concept. They have an idea that requires a bunch of special effects to prop it up. Find that great idea that stands on its own!

15 YEARS + 1 DAY (Spain): The winning streak continues with this family drama about a troubled 14 year old kid Jon who lives with his single mom Margo... and gets into big trouble for killing the neighbor’s dog as part of an escalating feud. We all know you can’t kill a dog in a movie, but this film shows the steps of the feud leading up to this shocking act... and there’s no way that we can forgive the act, but we understand it. Jon is trying to protect his mother, and does it in the wrong way. This leads his mother to ship Jon off to his *strict* ex military grandfather Max’s house for the summer. Job doesn’t want to go, but there is no choice.

Jon is a kid who has no structure in life, Max is all about structure and discipline. So there is no shortage of conflict here. The great thing about Max is that he’s a nice guy and really cares about his grandson, so even when things blow up... there’s still an undercurrent of love. Jon meets a girl at the internet cafĂ© that he has a crush on, and that relationship helps him find his way. But pulling at him from the other side is a group of kids he plays soccer with sometimes who are not about some petty theft and minor crimes. One of the kids this group often picks on is a piano prodigy they think is Gay. So Jon has to pick sides, and actually becomes friend with the piano prodigy. But one night there is a fight on the beach where a boy is *killed*, and Jon becomes number one suspect and ends up in big trouble with the police. Jon refuses to cooperate with the police, and now Max must decide who to side with. The cool part is there is a female detective involved, and Max develops a relationship with her, creating even more friction and conflict. All of the characters face really difficult choices, and where Jon learns from Max... Max also learns from Jon. Eventually the conflicts come to a head and we discover who the real killer is and why.

I think this is the second film from Spain that I liked, but also thought was too “small” for an American cinema. You can easily imagine this on television, and it would sweep the Emmy Awards. The characters and story and acting were all great, the beachside community was a great location (as was Max’s interesting house). This was a good solid drama about a kid dealing with all of the problems a 14 year old struggles with... but amplified for drama. Good acting all the way around, and a nice little twist at the end. A good film to close out the fourth day of the festival.

After the film I talked with some folks in the lobby, then raced to the Underground to catch my train back to my place, so I could catch a late night meal and hit the sheets. The next day was Sunday, and I would also have no class... so no need to cram for my exam.


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