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Locarno 2015. Day 8

Hong Sang-soo's competition entry, the feature debut of Isiah Medina, and the end of the essential Marlen Khutsiev retrospective.
Can we savor, for a moment, Hong Sang-soo's often exquisite taste in English-language film titles? On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Woman Is the Future of Man, The Day He Arrives, Hill of Freedom, and now in Locarno, Right Now, Wrong Then. Between the fittingly tossed-off nature of most Hong titles (Tale of Cinema, Night and Day, Hahaha), he sometimes interjects something really beautiful, at once conceptual and mysterious. This, of course, is the nature of the films by this great South Korean director, whose always admirable modesty of form is used—radically, it must be said—to approach stories with intricate undercurrents.
Right Now, Wrong Then actually begins mistakenly: the title is given as "Right Then, Wrong Now," a reversal of time and ethics, Hong's two guiding motifs in filmmaking. It is the story of a famous art movie director accidentally arriving a day early to the town of Sowun to show a film and attend a Q&A, and with this leisure time pursuing a young woman he finds wandering around the same historic palace. His approach, like that of many of Hong's more needy, narcissistic male heroes, is a stratagem equal parts calculated flattery and generous platitudes, describing a beautiful moral world and then attributing those values to this beautiful girl, praising her looks, her painting (she's trying to become an artist), and her motives in life. To us, his technique is obvious and hilarious, coming on so strongly and positively; an incredible drinking session done in a single long take shows that even totally skunked this man is masterfully, obsequiously on the make. In a marvelous follow-up scene, he is taken by the girl to a small party and his flirtatious drunkenness has to deal with the nightmarish realization that the women at this party have heard all about his philandering, know that the compliments he has given the girl he regularly uses in interviews to describe his own work, and the final-nail revelation that he is, in fact, married. The young woman, appalled, abandons him, and what follows is one of the most tender scenes in all of this director's work: the cad is confronted by the girl's sorrow and apologizes sincerely. The next day, after his film's screening, during his pompous final answer at the post-screening discussion, the director rejects words as "impossible" things that "get in the way" and have no relation between who he is or the world outside himself. He leaves Sowun full of bitterness and disappointment.
And then "Right Now, Wrong Then" begins: the same characters, the same locations and nearly the same scenes, but with a different approach of being. The re-imagining that follows is two things: one, inside the story, a replay of what we just saw but with the director being honest about his feelings, and two, of the film itself, a replay of what we just saw as if it were no longer an awkward comedy but rather an amusing drama, Hong Sang-soo practically playing straight. In fact, this structure is a fascinating and immediate lesson in the subtleties of direction, how different scenes could go in terms of tone and cadence. The first half is very funny and while the second half also has its moments, the main idea seems to be that without the man's solipsistic subterfuge much of this other story moves in the same direction but refuses to be sidetracked by any revelations—and without the discrepancy between what is said and done and what is true, this drama becomes less comic. The director is allowed to be more touching because he's not longer trying to present himself in the best light, and indeed the couple garner several charming moments together that were missing when he was pursuing the woman so preposterously. Yet I found myself missing his drunken cad-ness, as its insincerity somehow felt more human than his directness. Both man and woman seem genuinely better after the director's attempt at honesty—forthrightness, it should be said, that despite his marriage and two kids, he loves and desires this new woman. The young woman's variations in being and response are more subtle, as she is not the film's subject, but her interaction with the director is the gauge from which we read his effect: the most important thing in the world is how men treat women.
After a late night walk home together that was impossible in the previous telling, we end again at the film screening, this time the young woman showing up after the Q&A to watch, for the first time, one of the director's films. The question arises, then, since Hong is a moral filmmaker in both senses of the word—he's interested in the morality of his characters in their world, but also in his films having coy, fable-like "morals"—how these two characters, man and woman, director and painter, behave and then exit each story.  After shooting the first part of the film, Hong apparently screened it for his actors before starting the second part, an unusual gesture that points at the meta-aspect of Right Now, Wrong Then, that it's not just one story told in two different narrative and emotional possibilities, but that each strand suggests a different cinematic possibility, a different way to direct, to act, to find these characters. Thus, most cleverly, the freedom Hong suggests we have in all interactions is mirrored by his and his cast's freedom to find and re-find their own creation. As with all Hong, the pieces will re-arrange themselves even better upon re-viewing, which I very much look forward to.
With L’Accademia delle Muse and Deux Rémi, deux, the Signs of Life section of Locarno has revealed itself to be the most fulfilling of those I've attended, and this evening confirmed this sense with the world premiere 88:88. The feature debut of Toronto-based experimental filmmaker Isiah Medina, most of whose short digital work you can find on his Vimeo channel, this radical feature length essay film is a kaleidoscopic combination of self-portrait, documentary of Medina's local subculture and friends, and a radical attempt to create an actively thinking film, a film forming thought through the evolution of its imagery and cutting.
88:88 bears some surface similarity to the most saturated, montage-heavy flights of collage in the recent video work by Jean-Luc Godard, but to my eyes Medina is after a far less intellectual, far more intuitively immersive viewing experience. Laden with hyper-dense readings of philosophy and mathematical theory, much of which I was hardly able to fully hear let alone understand, the soundtrack is a bristlingly lofi combination of hip hop, raw start-and-stop conversational excerpts, monologues by friends, poetry and journal reading, and more. Likewise, the images feels the result of a panoply of mixed-format recordings cross-pollinating and bleeding into one another, some documentary snatches of homes and surroundings, some staged sequences among friends or even featuring Medina himself. One of his friends says in the film's incredibly moving, centerpiece soliloquy that he only feels happy skating or at the library: a just characterization of this highly original film whose reference points span Tupac to Alain Badiou. Problematically, 88:88 offers no difficulties if you don't know Tupac, but its elaborate but opaque methodology is no doubt clearer with considerable familiarity with Badiou and the other ephemerally quoted philosophical and mathematical theory, which I must admit I am not.
As such, I found much of the thought of this film impenetrable on first viewing, and 88:88 certainly does the audience no favors with hand-holding or providing initial tools to understand the dense hyperspace that is created by so much layering of image and sound on the screen. But the film is nevertheless an incredible breath of fresh air for North American cinema; along with Khalik Allah's Field Niggas, it is a raw work that seems to be disregarding the vast majority of the norms of conventional and experimental cinema in America and Canada, and embracing radical aesthetics more common to the edgiest of European art cinema, re-forming them to fit both the idiom that best appeals to each director, but also finding a form that responds to the social group and class that are the two films' focus.  88:88 thus appears as a bleeding edge kind of documentary, snatches of faces and stories (several very rough and moving), re-cut and re-conceptualized to think through Medina's set of disconsolate, probably lower-middle-class young men and women with all the tools of laptop cinema at his disposal, achieving a suspended, darting sense of time and a digitally collapsed, infinitely versatile exploration of space. The film will travel from Locarno to the vaunted Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where I hope more audiences can interact with this stunning work equal parts beguiling and frustrating, and tease out its many dancing flights of thought, feeling, and beauty.
Today ended on a note that was moving for the small, huddled, late night audience that gathered for the conclusion of the short but deeply resonant retrospective dedicated to Soviet director Marlen Khutsiev. The series started at the beginning of the festival with his last film, Infinitas (1992), and concluded tonight with his first feature directed solo, Two Fyodors (1958), drawing us back to the beginning with Khutsiev's beautiful debut, so full of sensitivity and promise. It begins with one of the great openings in cinema, a train of veterans from the Great Patriotic War rocketing home to their motherland, beaming and full of music, covered in garlands, waving at all they pass just as those whom they pass cheer and embrace them ecstatically. A soldier named Fyodor returning to a home and ruins and dead family adopts an orphan boy also named Fyodor along the way, and in Odessa the two orphans work together as father and son, brother and brother, friend and friend, to rebuild their home, their family, and, implicitly, Russia.
As Boris Nelepo mentioned in his introduction to this film, while Khutsiev can usually be considered a great modernist, Two Fyodors appears quite classical in form and sentimental in drama. Yet it still contains so much of what we all found to love about this director: his ambling stories which barely seem to have a plot, preferring instead to rove around a (real) location to make observations about daily living through quotidian drama (here, mostly, how the two boys eat and sleep, and later how one falls in love and upsets their dynamic duo); his documentary impulse to root his stories in the Russia of that very moment; and the search by his heroes and heroines, unconscious at first but then gradually more aware, of trying to figure out their place in this world. The film's beautiful style, full of fresh visions of contemporary Odessa mixed with grander stylizations of chiaroscuro, mist-clad nights, while definitely coming from a more classical place than the director's following work, all point to Two Fyodors being on the cusp of a modern Soviet art cinema, much in the way Rossellini and Bergman films of the early 50s heralded the entrance of a gauntlet from which would emerge, in the 1960s, what we now think of as international art cinema.
And so, for now, I'm done with this director, at least here in Locarno. I already look forward to revisiting his last film Infinitas, as it gives the impression, now, of a director working through his old movies, or as Nelepo put it, the film is perhaps a retrospective of Khutsiev's own films. Many things here in Locarno have given me great joy, but none more so than this unknown and unexpected series of films, and I wish upon others who have not yet had the pleasure the chance for them too to discover Marlen Khutsiev.
Right Now, Wrong Then sounds a lot of fun, like the effective trailer. Can’t wait to watch it.
A pleasure to read this, Danny. I always look forward to the new Hong(s) each year, but you’ve got me super-excited about 88:88, which I’m eager to see in Toronto. Looking forward to seeing you in TO as well!
Thanks William and Girish for the comments. Girish, can’t wait to discuss these at TIFF this year with you.

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