Credit: Jeonwonsa Film Co.
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4: Introduction, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, The Scary of Sixty-First

March 4, 2021


It’s somewhat reductive to observe that Hong Sang-soo, so often noted for his diptych structures, seems to have moved into a new triptych phase with his two latest films: The Woman Who Ran and now Introduction. Still, it does seem rather significant that both films unfold across three clearly distinguishable episodes, each of which sees the film’s main character involved in a rendezvous of some sort. But while The Woman Who Ran establishes a strong narrative spine with Kim Min-hee’s perambulations, Introduction, as if building on its title, deliberately weakens the story links between its three sections, delaying or even withholding the expected markers of (diegetic) continuity. The film’s first section ostensibly concerns a meeting between an aimless young man, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), and his doctor father, but we never actually see it happen, and it becomes a void that structures the rest of the action, such as it is. When the second, Berlin-set episode follows Ju-won (Park Mi-so), who was only briefly introduced as Young-ho’s girlfriend in the first, and Young-ho only later (and very unexpectedly) shows up, the film’s narrative pattern of dislocation and reintroduction comes into focus. By the end of the third section, which opens with a minor character from the first and marvelously brings back a major character from the second, there’s no questioning the deliberateness of Hong’s intricate storytelling strategy.

The drive for this structure is harder to place. But given that Introduction ends up on a beach, and also noting that Hong twice presents us with two characters discussing something they’re seeing (a strange-looking tree, a woman on a balcony), while conspicuously delaying a shot of the thing itself, we might recall a lament of the director character in Woman on a Beach: “It’s too strong of an image to overcome.” This sense of being held captive by images is, after all, one that plagues all of Hong’s characters, and the director has repeatedly considered it in relation to his methods and medium, as though by examining his own filmic grammar, he might find some way of combating the incessant bewitchments of daily life. If the three-fold meetings of The Woman Who Ran and Introduction are to suggest anything, then, perhaps it’s that the diptych structure lends itself too easily to a point-counterpoint effect (as in Right Now, Wrong Then), and that to conceive of one image in opposition to another is merely to confirm a certain dependence. Introduction charts out a different path; it operates as a kind of exercise in displacement, deferral, and delay, and notably ends with a literal splash of cold water. For if we can’t quite overcome the images we are captive to, there’s still, at least, the potential shock of reintroduction, the possibility of seeing anew.

Writer: Lawrence Garcia

Credit: 2021 Neopa/Fictive

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

“Once Again”, the third and final chapter of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new omnibus film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, begins with a crawl of text that describes the destabilizing but not entirely devastating effects of a global computer virus on everyday existence. “The world went off-line and returned to postal mail and telegraphs,” Hamaguchi tells us, “nobody knows if the situation is temporary or permanent.” Ephemeral or enduring, it likely makes little difference: the two women who share a strange encounter in the aftermath are not the first Hamaguchi characters to be confronted with a sudden, supposedly transformative cataclysm only to find that life more or less proceeds apace. Daily chores, mail deliveries, and — much more distressingly — high school reunions appear immune to apocalypse, digital or otherwise. This is a fact with which we are all lately familiar, though it hardly qualifies as a recent revelation for Hamaguchi, who has, from the very beginning, taken up the essential adaptability of the human person as a key subject. Like Nothing Happened — his first short — inaugurated his career and neatly describes his thesis on human behavior. Perhaps too well. Hamaguchi’s last feature, Asako I & II, imposed a kind of artistic crisis on the director himself, disrupting his pre-existing procedures by way of pop-movie imperatives, catching the director as he attempted to balance his film on shifting ground. To watch Asako I & II is to watch Hamaguchi in the process of adapting to it. 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, on the other hand, finds him already well-adjusted to the world left behind in the wake of Asako I & II and its Cannes premiere: with an entrée to the major European festivals safely behind him, Hamaguchi can now string together three rather thinly sketched stories into a feature under the tenuous theme of “chance” and be assured an invitation to this year’s festivities. Which is to say that his newest film, rather than seeking new disruptions to which the aesthetic strategies must adapt, reestablishes the approach of his early shorts (intelligent but sometimes studied mise-en-scène; long sequences built around minute shifts in his actors’ performances; verbose recantations of offscreen action), albeit on a slightly larger canvas — though larger only to accommodate festival convention, which would not offer so prime a slot to something running less than 70 minutes. The world changes, but you manage to find your old routines once again. There is some comfort in that. But after Asako I & II, should we be satisfied with a Hamaguchi who is comfortable, who treads water rather than testing it? We accommodate the vicissitudes of chance by reminding ourselves that, soon enough, it will feel like nothing happened. But that’s probably no way to make movies.

Writer: Evan Morgan

The Scary of Sixty-First

Recently, while on my way to lunch with two of my close friends, I stumbled across a building I’d only seen before in pictures. Erected in Tribeca, a granite monolith as forbidding as the best of any work of Brutalism, it made me stop a moment and think how such a creation could have evaded my sight until now. There must be many buildings like it in this city; perhaps not so austere, but just as ominous and repellent — they just need some kind of event to bring them to one’s attention, where it feels as though the entire fabric of the city has been inverted. Nowadays this sensation doesn’t just belong to the psychotics of the world. In the internet age, rumors and speculation penetrate and permeate the cultural consciousness on a scale quite impossible in the past, generating a substratum of alternative knowledge for those skeptical enough of mainstream discourse to have their deepest fears about the wealthy and powerful affirmed. Like Descartes’ doubt concluded in his knowledge of a new subjectivity, so this new doubt uncovers a world where our political institutions have been corrupted and allowed those with the necessary wherewithal to pick apart their rotting carcasses, taking what’s left for themselves. 

Into that context enter The Scary of Sixty-First, the directorial debut of Dasha Nekrasova, actor and co-host of the podcast Red Scare, who first broke into the spotlight with a viral video in which she shrugs away the antagonisms of a “journalist” representing the quack paranoiacs at InfoWars. Red Scare has successfully staked its place in the world of podcasting since its inception a few years ago: a group of left-leaning women belonging to the so-called “dirtbag” aesthetic, their discussions and guests have enabled them to find a place within the genre of cultural commentary so popular at the moment. Often described as “nihilistic” and “irreverent,” it’s quite clear that the spirit of the podcast lives and breathes in this film focusing on the malevolent deeds and death of the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. The story begins with two female friends moving into a new apartment. “Can we afford this?” is one of the first questions out of their lips. It’s a strange space; one with a mirror on the ceiling of a bedroom, scratch-marks on the wall of a closet, and suspect stains splashed across a mattress. Soon enough, Dasha makes an entrance, nameless and defined by little more than her inquisitive interest in the case of Epstein. The apartment, as it turns out, used to belong to the man himself, and so begins their descent into the psychosexual madness of Epstein’s occultic conspiracies. 

What’s most surprising about Scary is its camp aesthetic, which deflates the seriousness and prestige of one of the clearest reference points at play here, Żuławski’s Possession. One of the defining qualities of camp is the irony with which it treats its subject matters, meaning that the girls can have their cake both ways — they can eat it and fuck it too — allowing for the horror of the Epstein case to become humor; not because the man’s actions were in any way funny, but because the only reaction left when one confronts the truth of their powerlessness is to simply laugh (or cry). Loaded up with enough Vyvanse to ensure that their brains can’t slow down, Dasha and one of the girls from the apartment begin trawling through the veritable wealth of conspiracy material on the internet, making themselves more and more paranoid until every journey out of the apartment is a frantic series of glances at anything and everything. What, ultimately, Dasha captures so well with this film is the kind of reasoning (or lack thereof) that individuals go through in order to progress down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy culture. (Indeed, the entire world looks different when one reaches the bottom of it.) Her engagement with the narrative form of classic paranoia-thrillers — through the shifting actantial functions of the film’s characters and sudden transformations of its quotidian spaces — asserts this debut as a slight yet incredibly engaging piece of camp. Its sense of humor knocked me off my feet, and it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to say that.

Writer: Sam Redfern

Credit: Electric Eel Films, Diversion

Come Here

Over the past twelve years, Anocha Suwichakornpong has developed one of the more elusive and protean bodies of work on the festival circuit. Seven years after her auspicious debut, Mundane History (2009), a destabilizing, achronological story of the burgeoning friendship between a sullen upper-class young man and the male nurse taking care of him, she made one of the most notable breakout features of the decade. 2016’s By the Time It Gets Dark begins as an examination of Thailand’s history of student resistance to dictatorship before pinwheeling off to form a dense network of embodied memories, parallel lives, and metafictions. Her next feature, Krabi, 2562, a 2019 collaboration with Ben Rivers, pared back some of these impulses in favor of a documentary hybrid dedicated to the exploration of the eponymous island.

With her new feature Come Here, Anocha has opted for what appears to be an even slighter approach, but one that in fact conceals a whole host of complexities. Running a slender 68 minutes (including five minutes of credits), the film principally follows a group of four theater actors from Bangkok, who embark on a getaway to a remote forest. Their stay is almost deliberately desultory and brief, mostly spent on what looks like a floating cabin docked on a river, as they drink, sunbathe, and engage in conversations that very slowly dole out previously withheld background information. Towards the end of the film, the actors restage this journey in a black-box setup, constructing a set of the cabin and recreating their conversations and activities almost word for word. Intertwined with this is a narrative as deliberately abstruse as the main plot is straightforward, focusing on a young researcher who appears to be undergoing a similar journey as the actors. However, this trip is much more eventful and marked with a mysterious tropical malady, complete with a startling morphing effect.

Such a summary doesn’t quite convey the strangeness of Come Here, and of Anocha’s approach to the material. She largely avoids intercutting these storylines, letting them play out in discrete chunks, so threads and even characters float in and out of their own narratives; at one point, one of the actors even pops up in the same scene as the young researcher without explanation. Shooting in 1.33:1 and muted black-and-white, Anocha generally favors long shots, but her technique varies; she goes so far as to include a few split screens along the middle of the y-axis of the frame, which let vast swaths of trees bleed into a city landscape, or to enable a vision of one of the actors in the forest to hover over an image of her sleeping in bed. That visualization of realities blending into each other helps illuminate the concealed thrust of Come Here, as does a protracted centerpiece scene where the actors imitate animals to the point of exhaustion. Both narratives, by clashing fluid identities — both performed and genuine — with quotidian realities, propose the forest as a realm of possibility and mystery, where performance can allow a person to move into a more primitive form of existence, which the actors try to recapture in some form back in the city.

Of course, this is not a novel framework, but what distinguishes Anocha’s approach is the deliberate de-emphasis of her film’s central concern, almost to the point of imperceptibility. This can result in a somewhat hazy, unsatisfying viewing experience; the characters in particular feel loosely defined. But in the way that it resists being pinned down and seems to transform in the mind, Come Here certainly feels of a piece with Anocha’s previous work. The surface pleasures are certainly there, but, whether in the wild disjunctions of narrative or the unexpected aesthetic ruptures, there is always the suggestion of something lurking just beneath the surface.

Writer: Ryan Swen

Mr. Bachmann and His Class

Although Maria Speth is often associated with the so-called group of “Berlin School” cineastes, she might be the least internationally-recognized filmmaker of the bunch. Her latest effort, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, sees the Bavarian director back to filmmaking seven years after 2014’s Daughters, and the film is her sophomore documentary feature after 2011’s 9 Lives. If there’s a thematic thread to be found in Speth’s work, it ‘s perhaps best expressed as an interest in outsider characters; usually, youngsters in search of identity and belonging, frequently in context to their relationship with older generations. In this way, her new, 217-minute documentary is no exception: here, as the title suggests, Speth focuses on the quotidian experiences of her longtime schoolteacher friend, Dieter Bachmann, and his class at a local school in Georg-Büchner-Gesamtschule in Stadtallendorf, North Hesse. Mr. Bachmann’s class, which consists of 12-to-14-year-olds of various ethnicities and with different cultural and religious backgrounds, shapes a microcosm of this provincial German industrial town. His personal and emotional rapport with the pupils and his unconventional and nonconformist teaching methods hugely contrast with the rigid educational system, as he enables and encourages the kids to freely express themselves in an accepting, open environment. Bachmann — who often wears AC/DC t-shirts, plays Deep Purple guitar riffs, and croons Bob Dylan tunes to his class — is truly of a different era, and Speth, intentionally and without over-relying on his background, meaningfully delineates a portrait of the man as an ex-revolutionary hippie and free spirit. “These grades don’t reflect who you are at all […] What’s much more important is that you’re all terrific kids and youngsters. You’re all really honest. Remain true to yourselves,” are the final words he communicates to his young adherents.

Speth’s purely observational style is most reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s work — a comparison further reinforced given the film’s unusually lengthy runtime — but there are some notable differences: her aesthetic, unlike that of Wiseman, can at times take on a deeply intimate feel toward her human subjects, with her camera often closing distances, emphasizing facial and gestural expressions more than the encompassing spaces. Keeping her concentration on the single-classroom scenes, with occasional jaunts into the corridors, the gymnasium, and the school playground (as well as a few places around the town), Speth reveals her concerns for the necessity of human connection and communication in today’s increasingly disconnected society and cultural institutions. Remaining faithful to this spirit, her style also reflects a certain delicacy of dramatic storytelling, unusual within the familiar boundaries of documentary. In this way, as odd as the comparison seems on the surface, it’s not hard to come to consider Mr. Bachmann’s kind-hearted, alienated father figure as a fusion of Toni Erdmann’s eccentric galoot and Jack Black’s character in School of Rock…and all within the shape of an epic Wiseman’s doc. And yet, as understandable as Speth’s insistence on the extended length and the “real-time” process can be, it’s a strategy that isn’t always effective or of benefit to the film, and results in some excessive repetition and tonal flatness in parts — particularly around the halfway point. It’s an experience we all know, the exhaustion of classroom time, as edifying and educational and revelatory as it can often be. And so, there will likely be a point in Speth’s film that viewers will have to trust in Mr. Bachmann’s lively, charismatic presence to re-engage, another hour or two to go, an opportunity to feel and explore more if one can settle back into the film’s casual lessons and mostly rewarding rhythm..

Writer: Ayeen Forootan