I’ll have to cheat to answer your question, because the one major discovery I made at Sundance didn’t actually play the festival proper. There are a couple titles with a lot of buzz that I won’t be able to catch before taking off tomorrow, like Gillian Robespierre’s Landline and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, but it’s hard to imagine that either of those would be as daring or inventive as Joji Koyama and Tojiko Noriko’s Kuro, an experimental narrative film that premiered at Slamdance—the Sundance equivalent of something like the Directors’ Fortnight or Critics' Week.
While so much of the dreck here expects nothing of its viewer, Kuro’s DIY varnish and idiosyncratic storytelling is further proof that not every story needs to look, sound or be the same. Kuro treats its viewer as active participants, refusing to conform complacent modes of storytelling created by continuity editing. Inspired by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, the film impinges a series of confrontational dialectics and asks you to weed through them: image and sound, past and present, Japan and France. The synthesis emerges from displacement of these oppositions: narration that doesn’t correspond to the image, past that doesn’t align with the present, two cultural identities that don’t consolidate. Kuro’s story is divided by the two senses of cinema; one story is shown, the other is told. Expressed through narration that never directly corresponds to an image we see on screen, a 20-something Japanese woman reminisces about her time back home caring for an elderly man, Mr. Ono. Meanwhile, the image presents a different reality; isolated in her Paris apartment, the narrator cares for her paraplegic lover who was presumably healthy back when they lived in Japan, assuming the role of Mr. Ono in the other story. Experimentation is inextricable from evocation, displacing conventional narrative to reflect a displaced character. The narrative is obscured by our own imagination: the image in our head constantly confronted by the one on the screen, a Kuleshov effect of mental picturing and projected image.
Kogonada’s Columbus may not be the best debut at Sundance, but it’s certainly one of the most distinct. The director, also an insightful video essayist, has a knack for majestic compositions that is rarely matched by his narrative sense; form and content mostly remain detached entities here, rarely marrying into something sublime. A native of the titular town, Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) is in the chasm between high school and college and caught between her responsibility to care for her once-meth addicted mother and her own wants and dreams. When Jin (John Cho), the son of an architectural scholar, moves temporarily to Columbus, the pair form a platonic friendship as they tour the city’s modern architectural landmarks. Columbus is its most effective when its languid story and ponderous visual styling align into a poignant evocation: the character’s desires sublimated onto the various architectural structures and the images of them.
While Columbus is quaint and innocuous, Patti Cake$, the film you gave up your spot in line for me to see, is contemptible and grisly in nearly every way imaginable. A degrading fantasy masquerading as a narrative of quasi-empowerment, we follow Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) as she provides for her alcoholic mother and terminally ill grandmother, all the while aspiring to a career as a hip hop artist. Of course this is the kind of film where everything leads to a final performance, where relationships are unsophisticatedly mended, and any revisions of fame-seeking narratives is ultimately pushed to the curb in order to uphold its all-encompassing wish fulfillment. The film is hyper-engineered to be endearing: character quirks are cranked up to a deafening decuple, amateur hip hop that is neither cute nor gritty blares on the soundtrack, and the derivative screenplay undermines its own attempts at subversion. Patti Cake$ sold to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million and is being hailed as one of the festival’s breakouts.
I’m ready to go home.