Goodbye First Love – Mia Hansen-Love (2012)

If love is irrational and makes us stupid, then love’s most irrational, most stupid form is first love, before we know any better. In High Fidelity, Rob Gordon (John Cusak) concludes that every romantic episode in his life has been a scrambled version of his first unsatisfying tryst, and retraces his steps to find out what went wrong. Not that knowing better solves anything. Be it unrequited crush, whirlwind passion or longstanding relationship, first love – or maybe more to the  point, first obsession – destroys us as much as it builds it builds us up, leaving us to sift through the broken pieces, many of us for the rest of our lives.

For Camille (the lovely Lola Creton), those pieces – hammered off of her piece by piece at age fifteen – never leave her mind. All she wants in the world is to be ever at the side of her boyfriend, the slightly older, slightly aloof Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). All he wants in the world is his freedom. Camille’s clinginess, his parents’ expectations, school, work, responsibility – ahhh, ahhh, ahhh! – everything is a threat to him, to his freedom, even the things he loves.

Despite Camille’s emotional entreaties and outright threats to try and keep him from leaving, Sullivan finally runs from everything in Paris that he feels is choking his life away, taking an extended backpacking tour of South America with some friends. She eventually promises to wait for him, and he promises not to cheat, but as he travels from country to country his sense of the life he wants to live changes. Camille becomes collateral damage in his life epiphany as their contact gradually goes from constant letters to a cold shoulder, an empty mailbox mocking the essence of her being every day.

Though she takes the long way about it, through crying jags and a detour through the hospital (suicide attempt? The film doesn’t elaborate), she eventually gets over Sullivan and his epiphany and settles into her own life. Though she remains lonely and hurt from Sullivan’s selfishness, she goes to university to study architecture and falls in love again, this time with her professor, Lorenz (Magne Håvard Brekke), a brooding Norwegian who has also been dumped and is lonely and loves her work. But remember the stupidity of first love. When Sullivan suddenly finds his way back to Paris, he is a difficult temptation to resist.

First love is not an un-essayed topic in film. It may be the most over-essayed, in fact. But Hansen-Love, in her third feature, brings a delicate combination of immediacy and an arm’s length overview to the screen as she traces almost a decade’s worth of scar tissue building up on a young girl’s heart.

In spanning almost a decade, the film makes a few unmeasured leaps through time as it moves along. It’s slightly jarring at first because there is no true marker for it, leaving us to guess by the length of Camille’s hair. But this lack of timestamp is almost freeing within the form of the film. Time moves in very strange ways when you’re lovesick. Hours become minutes, minutes become days, seconds become weeks all depending on when you last made contact with the one you love.  It’s all the worse and make for more distortion when you are not loved back, or not loved back as much as you deserve to be, as is Camille’s problem, especially in her view.

But Hansen-Love doesn’t hold Camille up for ridicule for her adolescent silliness or the awkward way in which she gropes in the darkness to find her path through it all. Everyone’s been there and because everyone has been there, the picture painted can cause almost a collective sigh of relief at a shared, intimate moment of helpless awkwardness. That really is the best cinema anyway.

Does Film Need a New Hays Code?

It’s been almost a week since Lena Dunham’s Girls debuted on HBO. Girls, the story of a group of rich/upper middle class white girl post-grads living in Brooklyn who have yet to figure out their own lives, continues the deconstruction of the director’s own life that was started in her previous film, the polarizing digital indie Tiny Furniture.

The director, her films, her characters and her castmates have all been routinely pegged as insufferable and obnoxious. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we were all insufferable and obnoxious between the ages of 13 and 25. Some of us even earlier — and later — than that.

The somewhat troubling part of the whole thing is that her films inhabit a world without self-censorship or sense of self-preservation, where nothing is too embarrassing or private to show to the world. In fact, the more embarrassing, the more private, the more it seems to be embraced in her films, and she’s hardly alone in that fact. The cinemascape is heavily dotted these days with stories in the same vein, where sex means demeaning sex at worst, pathetic sex at best, and insecurity is the primary emotion for its still shivering youth who have only begun to wander from the nest. In other words, these films are directly true to life for many girls, and for just as many boys regardless of age, author included.

But is it too true to life? Is there any such thing as “too true to life”? Works like this lack a buffer, refusing to allow us to escape ourselves. They are a cinematic trap: no escapism allowed. There was, after all, a long, laborious battle fought over the last decade – longer even, all the way back to Equus in the 70s, I Am Curious or Les Amants in the 60s, or even Ecstasy in the 30s — to get rid of that buffer, which seemed like the worst kind of censorship imaginable. But did the buffer actually serve only to save directors and writers from themselves (on, conversely, save us from them)? Would another Hays Code usher in a new golden age of cinema, or would the pushback at the censorship render it useless?

Continue reading…

Punch – Han Lee (2012)

As one of the biggest South Korean films of the year, trailing in box office behind only The War of the Arrows and Sunny, the anticipation for the DVD release for Han Lee’s Punch was substantial. But it seems that more often than not, just like the American box office, that’s a dangerous thing to base any kind of hope on.

Like Sunny, Punch is another coming of age film, this time from a boy’s perspective. But instead of the bright, cutting sentimental edge that Sunny came out and won hearts with, Punch is little more than an amiable but misfiring attempt to take a bite out of the hardships of life for the poor in Korea. The bite barely makes it past the skin, foregoing the larger questions for easy answers, when there are answers at all.

Operating on the basis that hard luck stories will pull on everyone’s heartstrings with little coaxing, the film sscillates back and forth through a series of challenges and life obstacles for its teenage protagonist, Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), that never go anywhere or mean anything. Punch even fails at the basic task to at least put something interesting on the screen to mask the film’s puddle deep thought process.

So what are Won-deuk’s problems? The film starts out as the 18 year old’s father (Park Soo-young), a hunchback single dad just scraping by as part of a comedy dance act, loses his job when the cabaret he works at goes under. Because it’s the only thing he knows how to do, he tries to keep his act going by hitting the road, dancing at big flea markets, but ends up running afoul of the gangsters who run the place.

But that’s not really his problem. Because his father forbids him to quit school to start earning a living early, Won-deuk is left home under the not-so-watchful eye of their neighbor, Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). That’s his problem.

Dong-joo, aside from being a bad neighbor is also Won-deuk’s homeroom teacher, an emotional bully who torments him there even more than at home, where Won-duk can at least evade the man if he steps quietly enough up the stairs, even if he has to share his food aid packages with the demented mentor.

At church, Won-deuk pleads with God, begging him to strike Dong-joo dead. Of course, God doesn’t work like that, and even if he did, movies don’t work like that, and besides, Dong-joo is a wide-reaching problem, as he is an elder at the same church, and seems to never be without his bible. He even seems to be trying to help Won-deuk out, taking him to learn kickboxing and reuniting him with his estranged mother, who Dong-joo knows through church.

Our problem is that film never really delves deeply into any of Won-deuk’s problems, it just sort of states them matter-of-factly and either solves them without a whole lot of soul searching or definition, or just lets them pass quietly in the night. Punch is the definition of the neat little bundle. Won-deuk didn’t necessarily have abandonment issues, so when his mother comes into the picture and they start to creep up on him, they are underdeveloped and almost entirely contained by the fact that she is now around, making him dinner while is father is out trying to earn them some money. His biggest pang of doubt seems to be that it was the evil Dong-joo who reunited them. So Won-deuk’s new problem becomes that fact that his nemesis might not be such a bad guy afterall.

Kim Yoon-seok and his yelling matches with an irritable neighbor (Kim Sang-ho) are the lone bright spots in the film. I used to consider Kim something of a poor man’s Song Kang-ho, but he might have a little more width to him than that. He’s funny in an understated way that, like Song Kang-ho, sometimes spills over into short bursts of violence to shake away the boredom of an otherwise unimpressive film.

I Wish – Hirokazu Koreeda (2011)

Train A leaves the station traveling south at 220km/s. Train B leaves the station traveling north, also at 220km/s. When they meet in the middle, a miracle will happen. Only in a Japanese film could a math problem loathed around the world become the plot to hang a children’s adventure film on, but that’s exactly what Hirokazu Koreeda does here with his knee-high attempt at magical realism. Koichi and Ryu (Ohshiro and Koki Maeda) are brothers who are separated by hundreds of miles after their parents divorce. Although they talk on the phone often, it’s been too long since they’ve seen each other, and neither of them understand why their parents split anyway. With the completion of a bullet train comes the promise of a miracle that may very well, if Koichi and Ryu have anything to say about it, bring their parents back together. With a group of friends — each with their own miracles in mind — they set out on the long, frustrating journey to right the wrongs in their lives.

Although I Wish starts out a little too slow with its intricate set up, it quickly gathers enough pace to see the journey through to the finish line. There is something utterly endearing about the blissful stupidity of youth on display here. These kids don’t know what they don’t know, and their wishes show that, but each of them will come out spiritually richer from their adventure, if only for having braved it and having believed in miracles with all their might. You lose the ability to believe in things with all of your might as an adult, and that’s by far the worst thing we lose as we age. Koreeda’s touching story leaves a satisfying wake in its path for that reason: there are still stupid adventures in Koichi’s and Ryu’s future, and in all of these kids’ futures probably. They’ll eventually learn what they don’t know, but not just yet. I Wish may not reach the heights Koreeda has reached in the past, with Still Walking or Nobody Knows, but there may not be a better director of children alive today.