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

Berlin Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3: The Novelist’s Film, A Little Love Package, Terminal Norte

February 24, 2022

The Novelist’s Film

One of the most pleasurable ways to engage with a Hong Sang-soo film is to consider the similarities and differences between each new movie and his previous works. He makes it easy: Hong’s oeuvre is a constantly expanding, self-referential examination of artistry, relationships, and life itself, and such themes are carried through within formal constraints that have largely remained the same across his decades-long career. Any slight variation ends up feeling crucial, and the major distinguishing feature of The Novelist’s Film is an insistence on artistic freedom; characters are constantly craving it, and it’s obvious that Hong still is too.

The film opens with the accomplished writer Junhee (Lee Hye-young) entering a bookstore, and Hong lines up her scarf with the similarly patterned curtain behind her. It’s the only moment when she seems to blend into the background — the film uses black-and-white photography and high contrast to otherwise constantly highlight its characters. As she talks with the bookstore’s owner, an old colleague named Sewon (Seo Young-hwa), personal desires start to unravel. Sewon has stopped writing and can’t imagine doing so ever again. Hong couples this characterization with a comment from Junhee that Sewon has gained weight. “I’ve lost all discipline,” the latter laughs.

The messaging here is that an abandonment of artistic pursuits is tantamount to personal failure, but this notion ends up proving false. We learn that Sewon is actually happier than ever: She’s begun caring less about what others think, and finds joy in only reading what interests her — the critical commentariat is of little importance now. Junhee wants to shake things up too, and strives to create a movie. With each conversation she has, we begin to learn more about Hong’s current thoughts. At times, insight comes courtesy of his signature zooms. The first one arrives when Junhee finds delight in someone teaching her sign language; this wordless communication showcases how something so simple can unlock a new longing for expression. A more dramatic zoom appears when Junhee looks from inside a building to the landscape outside; one senses a deep yearning for acting on one’s ambitions, and that doing so will lead to something both introspective and boundless.

Vague feelings about Hong’s intentions become concretized through dialogue. Junhee is going through a writer’s block, and it’s partly a result of her works’ reception. “I have to keep inflating small things into something meaningful,” she says. “I have to pretend I’m the kind of person who always felt those things.” She feels far removed from the sort of evaluations that Hong’s own films receive. When she meets director Hyojin (Kwon Hae-hyo), he describes how his drive toward filmmaking has changed, that he doesn’t worry about feeling lax or no longer having specific compulsions to create. Hearing these comments from these two actors is significant: Kwon has been a Hong mainstay for the last decade, a period in which his films have become increasingly loose and light. Lee has acted in films by influential Korean directors like Im Kwon-taek and Jang Sun-woo, the latter of whom is a forebear to Hong’s stark depictions of Korean society through interpersonal relationships. Notably, her first film since 2008 was Hong’s In Front of Your Face (2021), and her acting is subtle, matter-of-fact, and expressive in a way that suits Hong’s needs. As Junhee becomes more confident in her artistic pursuits through everyone she meets, so too has Hong become more certain of his stylistic choices with each new actor defining his works.

Junhee is most inspired to follow through with her film when meeting Kilsoo, an actress who is played by Hong’s muse Kim Min-hee. Things are an even more obvious reflection of Hong’s life when Junhee and Kilsoo talk about their movie — one where the “story’s not important” but is exciting because it’s true to life. They discuss with others over drinks, though it’s with makgeolli instead of Hong’s characteristic soju. It’s a sly move that has one cycling through a bunch of thoughts. Is this a marker for a new era? Is the rice wine’s white color meant to complement the grayscale images? Are these bottles just here because it’s what Hong was drinking when having similar conversations? But such questioning feels unimportant as the scene continues. After hearing Junhee’s suggested plot, one person complains, “Don’t you need something to pull people in?” Kilsoo’s response, as before, is that it doesn’t matter. Their film is meaningful because the story “really happened.”

In a delightful finale, Hong commits to his most openly emotive and personal filmmaking to date. It’s meant to feel like the film we’ve been hearing about, but it’s clearly Hong just wanting to shoot Kim with endearing affection. She holds up flowers, sings the melody of the “Bridal Chorus,” and the two say “I love you.” At her suggestion, these black-and-white images turn into color. Here, in a moment that feels more like a diary film than anything Hong’s ever made, he’s acted on all the thoughts we’ve heard from The Novelist’s Film’s characters. Earlier, when Hyojin is reflecting on his life of directing, he notes his secret was to “fix life first” instead of using films as a way to avoid doing so. The Novelist’s Film is a testament to exactly that. In loving Kim, in following his own path, and in finding confidence to simply document life, Hong has found a rejuvenating joy that’s extended his creative appetite and is palpably life-affirming.

Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim

Credit: Little Magnet Films / Filmy Wiktora

A Little Love Package

From its title alone, Gastón Solnicki’s latest film suggests that it avoids grand statements, instead choosing to offer an assemblage of conceptual lagniappes, ideational odds and ends. As opposed to his previous feature Kékszakállú, which was rather airtight on a formal and conceptual level, A Little Love Package is a loose-limbed, meandering film. Inasmuch as Solnicki provides a narrative, it centers on two women at crossroads in their lives. Angeliki (Angeliki Papoulia) has come into some wealth, and wants to buy a home in Vienna. Her friend Carmen (Carmen Chaplin), an interior decorator, is assisting Angeliki with her property search. But Angeliki finds fault with every place they find — bad heating, creaky floorboards, a disagreeable landlord — an attitude that eventually tries Carmen’s patience.

It’s suggested that Angeliki wants to live in a classic Old World house, but is unwilling to accept that such a choice brings certain compromises along with it. This frustrating sense of wanting it both ways kind of characterizes A Little Love Package as a film. It is somewhat character-driven, but at the same time it is content to simply look at and listen to its environment. Recalling neoclassical works like Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach and Otar Iosseliani’s Farewell Home Sweet Home, A Little Love Package asks us to consider the fate of traditional practices in the modern world. Whether it’s the discipline of the concert pianist (Lee Han-Gyeol) or the waxing of giant wheels of artisanal cheese, Solnicki is content to simply articulate the coexistence of different generations and their conflicting cultural imperatives.

In a way, A Little Love Package is a logical offshoot of his little-seen 2018 documentary Introduzione all’oscuro, his goodbye letter to his friend Hans Hurch, the late director of the Viennale. Both films share a preoccupation with café culture, and A Little Love Package opens with a mournful consideration of Austria’s smoking ban. Change entails immediate loss, usually in order to secure an as-yet-uncertain future. This problem becomes unexpectedly explicit in the film’s final act, when we follow Carmen back to her parents’ home in Andalusia. She is visiting primarily because her elderly father (Michael Chaplin) is in poor health. Carmen’s sister (Dolores Chaplin) upbraids her for having left home in the first place, and while Carmen is considering moving back, her young daughter (Alma Sutterlüty) aggressively rejects that idea. She considers the Spanish countryside to be a “dump.”

This sudden turn toward familiar family dynamics is rather strange, since it leads Solnicki into the kind of dramatic territory A Little Love Package had so assiduously avoided up to that point. But perhaps this is the filmmaker’s way of turning his themes on himself. That is, the choice to abjure time-honored narrative structures brings both liberation and complication, allowing certain effects to emerge at the expense of others. It seems churlish to note that A Little Love Package doesn’t hang together, since it is quite evident that Solnicki doesn’t want it to. The film suggests that seismic cultural and historical changes are experienced as undefined glimmers and small-scale resistances. But in taking this position, A Little Love Package is profoundly unwilling to clarify the ramifications of these shifts for the people involved. It’s a passive-aggressive film, in good ways and bad.

Writer: Michael Sicinski

Terminal Norte

Lucrecia Martel is one of our great contemporary filmmakers, so much so that even a modestly scaled, short work like Terminal Norte demands some attention. It is, like many recent festival films, a product of the early stages of Covid shutdowns; here, Martel chronicles singer Julieta Laso (who happens to also be Martel’s partner) as she travels to Salta, in Northern Argentina, to rehearse a concert. As the film’s opening narration informs us, she “sought refuge in the north,” where, due to lockdowns “it was hard to know the time.” But the concert is soon canceled, leaving Martel to film Laso and the various artists once scheduled to perform instead lounging around campfires and traipsing through forests. It’s a fascinating group of women; there are several “copleras,” traditional singers, along with classically trained pianist Noelia Sinkunas, trap rapper BYami, a feminist noise duo called Las Whiskey, and a trans woman named Lorena Carpanchay, amongst others (there are also several men around, including renowned guitarist Bubu Rios). Martel gives each performer a kind of introductory portrait, filmed in medium closeup as they state their name, along with snippets of biographical detail, with each given voice via the film’s ongoing voiceover narration. It’s an odd mesh of musical styles, for sure, but what emerges is a sort of counter-history of marginalized and oppressed musicians.

Terminal Norte doesn’t look much like any of Martel’s other films, besides setting key moments amidst the lush greenery of wooded areas. It feels like a sketch, an assemblage of sequences that function like footnotes to a larger, more thorough work. This isn’t a criticism, exactly; what the film loses in scope it makes up for with a sense of immediacy, a special kind of energy that comes from a lack of polish. It’s very reminiscent of the old Jeonju Digital Projects series, in which the annual Jeonju Film Festival commissioned a veritable who’s who of international auteurs to complete short, half-hour digital works. That series produced more than a few acclaimed works by the likes of Jia Zhangke, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, and Tsai Ming-liang, and it offered a chance for filmmakers to try out new ideas and new forms, taking on the patina of a kind of automatic writing. Terminal Norte would have fit right in with this aesthetic agenda, allowing Martel to forgo her typically precise mise en scene and instead tinker with the unique formal qualities of digital cinematography.

Of course, like all of Martel’s work, the film is also unabashedly political; La Cienega and The Headless Woman are razor-sharp eviscerations of the upper middle class, while Zama is one of the great chronicles of the soul-deadening effects of colonialism. Terminal Norte is more concertedly direct, less opaque in its polemical agenda. In putting these performers front and center, what emerges is a unifying sense of collective defiance in the face of conservative social mores. The 36-minute film is almost non-stop music, as each musician is given a chance to sing and dance for the camera. Despite the wildly disparate genres on display, each performance depicts an overriding sense of loss or anger. It’s not exactly clear what these women have lost, or what obstacles they’ve faced, but given the presence of a wide spectrum of LGBTQ representatives, it’s not hard to imagine the worst. Ultimately, Terminal Norte becomes a rousing portrait of solidarity, a rallying cry that demands these artists be seen and heard. It’s a “minor” work, perhaps, in both length and scope, yet still bracing in its boldness, and a fascinating addition to Martel’s small but important oeuvre.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

Credit: Lois Patiño

The Sower of Stars

Lois Patiño is one of the most experimental figures among the burgeoning Catalan scene. His concerns tend to be painterly, usually affording pride of place to some of the most fundamental elements of visual communication: figures, and especially landscapes. His 2015 short Night Without Distance, a color film presented entirely in reverse-negative, was one of the finest films made that year. Most recently, with his feature Red Moon Tide (2020), Patiño assayed a more narrative approach, albeit an elliptical one. Despite many impressive moments, Red Moon Tide’s mythological approach often diluted the power of his images.

With The Sower of Stars, Patiño is back in his wheelhouse. It’s a short film centered around Tokyo Bay at nighttime, the shimmering lights of boats on the water providing a kind of visual baseline for an increasingly complex weave of isolated points of light, from skyscrapers, neon signage, bridges, and commuter trains. As the film progresses, certain visual anomalies assert themselves, with moving water in the “sky,” bridges “beneath” the ships, buildings intersecting. Patiño has woven a textured skein of illumination, often compressed into an overall flatness, at other times forming a cube-like, multidimensional matrix.

Throughout The Sower of Stars, we hear two alternating voices (Yumika Teramoto and Tetsuro Mareda) offering a fractured, poetic narration. In the final credits, we learn that Patiño has assembled this text from various sources, including Paul Celan, Susan Sontag, and Samuel Beckett. But as the “conversation” progresses, it becomes evident that the male voice embodies the spirit of Death, and the female voice in querying him about its own meaning. Near the conclusion of Sower, Death recites a number of “farewell poems,” short verses written by condemned men that serve as their final testament.

This is the most powerful moment of Patiño’s film, in that it brings the aims of the work full circle. The intersecting visual elements present a Cubist Tokyo that can never exactly exist, and this suggests a point of view — perhaps that of Death — that perceives a reality beyond time and space. The Sower of Stars invites us to share that perspective in all its luminosity.

Writer: Michael Sicinski

Rewind and Play

French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has been working on a film about Thelonious Monk for more than a decade. Rewind and Play is not that movie. Instead, this hour-long documentary is more of a stepping stone, one that brings Gomis closer to the inimitable jazz pianist’s process. He describes Monk as an artist who explores “intermediary spaces as if truth could be found floating in between things.” You can sense precisely that in Monk’s most exhilarating works, where zigzagging rhythms and momentary silences use this feeling of transience as an unexpected fount of emotion. Even on a more traditional piece like the Straight, No Chaser recording of “I Didn’t Know About You,” Monk could deepen a jazz standard’s emotions surrounding newfound love with the slightest curve of a melody. Gomis asserts that Monk approached his life in the same way he did his art, and it’s through this unassuming film that we see an honest depiction of who Monk really was.

Appropriately, we don’t come to understand Monk through direct means. In 1969, he was ending his European tour with a show in Paris, but spent time earlier in the day recording a solo performance for Jazz Portrait, a French television program. This broadcast was released on DVD by Mosaic Records, touted as “Just Monk, a grand piano, and two cameras” with “no distractions.” This logline seems believable, and is of course partly true, but it wasn’t the full reality of Monk’s time there. What Gomis does is provide a necessary companion piece, editing down footage from the original two-hour film rushes to present the frustrations plaguing the proceedings.

Much of Rewind and Play revolves around the quiet tension between the interviewer — jazz musician and producer Henri Renaud — and Monk. Some of the interactions are awkward due to amateurish questioning, such as asking why Monk put his massive Baldwin grand piano in his kitchen. “That was the largest room in the apartment,” Monk replies. But Renaud continues to flail and offend in his desire to narrativize, becoming the sort of journalist who foolishly inserts personal stories because he can’t pry more details from Monk. At worst, there’s explicit racism, like when he recounts when Monk and Sonny Rollins played in Brooklyn together. At one point in the night, a fight broke out between two Black people, and Renaud likens it to something out of “the best American movies.” Such nauseating gawking mirrors the disrespect with which he treats Monk. To Renaud, Monk is merely a marketable product, and that notion is deeply felt in his constant desire to qualify the pianist’s work; he constantly repeats how this music, despite being too avant-garde for audiences in the past, is now highly respected. The work can never speak for itself.

Rewind and Play is a reminder that the media is racist because the people involved are racist. On Jazz Portrait, Monk is merely a spectacle meant to entertain, not an actual human. When Renaud asks Monk to reflect on his first concert in Paris, Monk notes that he graced the cover of a French magazine but was paid the least out of any musician in the show. Renaud chooses to ignore this injustice — a familiar experience for Monk, as he was often given paltry royalties from exploitative record labels — and scrap the take, explaining that what he said was “not nice.” As Monk is asked to repeat lines and replay pieces, the artificiality of filming this program feels increasingly at odds with the freedom found in his improvisations. What one won’t get from seeing the original broadcast is this stark contrast, and where Rewind and Play most succeeds is in revealing Monk’s absolute love for music. One of the only times we see him smile is after performing a song — in that moment, we understand how music was his ultimate form of expression, as well as a haven from everyday bullshit.

Writer:Joshua Minsoo Kim