The Apartment with Two Women
Post-Dardenne social realism all too often functions as safe-enough filler material for international film fest lineups, but director Kim Se-in rather confidently finds her own way through this mode with debut feature The Apartment with Two Women, which had its North American premiere with Film at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films program following some success at Busan and Berlinale last year. Generally a stodgy, occasionally even exploitative pseudo-genre, Kim’s script (she’s the sole screenwriter) and her stars (Lym Ji-ho and Yang Mal-bok, also relatively new talents) bring a bracing immediacy to some particularly painful material that cuts past the perfunctory tendencies of contemporary cinematic social realism.
Demonstrating a really appealing sense of narrative pace that unfortunately ends up undermined somewhat by the film’s ambitious 140-minute runtime, Kim introduces her subjects in quick, unceremonious fashion (in the midst of washing underwear), hinting at a violent, driving conflict that she proceeds to unveil almost immediately, before then pulling back and carefully observing the fraught fallout. Lym and Yang play Sukyung and Yijung, an abusive mother and her withdrawn 20-something daughter who, up until the start of the film, have lived together in a small apartment in a perpetual state of discord. Never having known much else, the sullen Yijung quietly accepts her mother’s verbal and physical assaults, until the day that Sukyung hits her with their car after an especially extreme outburst, and the resulting insurance lawsuit opens up a path for the young victim to break away from her abuser mother.
Initially suggesting itself to be a straightforward empowerment narrative, Kim doesn’t ever allow The Apartment with Two Women to remain uncomplicated for too long a stretch of time, and while her script is generous in giving Yijung some notable early triumphs, it’s also cognizant of the repercussions that follow in the wake of sustained domestic abuse. With this in mind, much of The Apartment with Two Women finds the mother/daughter pair moving in and out of each other’s orbits in their first stumbling attempts to build something new and divorced from this traumatizing dynamic. Yijung takes on a sad sales job and attempts to instigate a friendship with a coworker, while Sukyung takes up with a single dad and attempts to integrate into his family — neither ever quite able to permanently escape their shared apartment. Kim makes a couple disappointing choices suggestive of the recency of her venture into feature filmmaking (the length as previously mentioned, but also the very serviceable, unstylish handheld cinematography), but nothing so significant as to negate the vivid honesty of her writing and the specificity of her vision, which ultimately transcend the superficially drab form that houses them.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The great Jia Zhangke is listed as a co-producer on Kavich Neang’s new film White Building, a sensitive coming of age story that nonetheless occasionally plays like Jia-lite. Set sometime in the mid-2010s amongst the remains of the very real White Building, a marvel of industrial design erected in 1964 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, White Building follows the last gasps of a family being forced out of the aged, dilapidated super-structure before its demolition in 2017. It’s a familiar tale of gentrification and urban renewal played out in microcosm, as world-historical forces are located at the center of this familial unit. Nang (Piseth Chhun) is a 20-year-old with dreams of stardom. He goes around the busy capital city on an old scooter with his best friends, trying to pick up girls and performing hip-hop dance routines for disinterested audiences. The boys hustle for money, practicing their moves and daydreaming about performing on Cambodia’s Next Superstar.
In rendering all this, Neang proves to have a nice eye for unfussy naturalism, capturing scenes in unobtrusive long takes bathed in the neon lights of the cityscape. The film opens with an aerial shot of the building from directly above, laid out like a floor plan; it’s mesmerizing, emphasizing the sheer size and scale of the structure, as well as its deteriorating exterior, all crumbling walls and flaking plaster. And young Chhun is a remarkable performer, full of boundless enthusiasm but also in possession of a pensive side — he’s smart enough to know that his fantasy of hitting it big is just that. There’s a lovely dream sequence that places the boys in full costume on an elaborate set as they perform one of their dances, full of reflective surfaces and bright, shining lights that stand in stark contrast to the water-stained ceilings and drab earth tones of Nang’s apartment. Eventually Nang has to tell his friends that he won’t be able to perform with them anymore, as he and his family will soon be moving. Nang’s father, played with taciturn severity by Sithan Hout, is the leader of the building’s tenant association, and is negotiating a real estate firm’s offers to buy out the building’s remaining tenants. It’s a meager offer — as many people complain, there’s no way for them to buy a new home in the city with what they’ll be paid out – and some outright refuse the offer. Hout tells them that eventually they will be forced out altogether and get nothing in return, so it might be better to take any offer at all. Soon, the water is turned off to the building, forcing the hands of even the most stubborn naysayers. Meanwhile, the diabetic Hout visits the doctor to mend a blackened, gangrenous toe, which he is informed is now dead and needs to be amputated, lest the infection spread to the rest of the body. There’s potent, if obvious, visual symbolism here, as Neang cuts from a shot of the toe to shots of mold spreading across the building. But as for the redevelopment of the White Building itself, it’s something of a mixed metaphor. In either case, Hout refuses the doctor’s advice, preferring instead to treat the toe with traditional remedies like honey. For better or worse, he’s stuck in the past.
At only 90 minutes long, White Building could use a little more room to really let its ideas and milieu breathe. It has a fairly standard three-act structure, with Nang’s misadventures occupying the first third, followed by his father’s medical diagnosis, and then a final act that finds the family living in the rural outskirts of the city after finally leaving the building. It feels rushed, with Nang’s mother and older sister both barely making an impression, despite an emotional climax that hinges on the family finally separating and the children going their own ways. Still, despite some quibbles, this is a strong fiction feature debut for Neang, who got his start helming documentary shorts before this. A direct descendant of neo-realism, White Building understands the plight of an increasingly modern world that is constantly leaving its most vulnerable denizens behind. Neang is no Jia, not yet, nor a Tsai Ming-liang, but there remains a lot of talent on display here.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Kinetic films that depict their restless women protagonists either in quenchless quest for their dreams or in non-stop endeavor to clear various obstacles should be familiar to dedicated viewers. Most recently, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World and Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love offer two such examples of works that clearly capture their own idiosyncratic heroines in almost constant motion, and yet even those aren’t exactly comparable to the particular peppy energy of Eric Gravel’s sophomore feature, Full Time. The film follows Julie (Laure Calamy), a single mother and hardworking head chambermaid at a luxurious Parisian hotel who is both hopefully and anxiously looking forward to a new job interview, this as the transportation system undergoes a nationwide strike. Gravel, in an up-tempo, mostly continuous mad dash, commits his camera to capturing Julie’s everyday struggles within this present-day society. Whether in tracking her through the hotel’s corridors and sterile rooms, or in venturing out with her into the crowded, gloomy streets of a Paris in autumn, where she regularly boards trains and changes lines during her daily commute from the banlieues to the capital, one quality here is certain: just like its lead character, Full Time is breathless and incessant, an unstoppable character study that nonetheless expands its portrait to present a quite vivid vista of the world we live in.
But as much as Gravel’s efforts to deliver a sincere, social-realist perspective on the twined issues of full-time jobs, unfair workplace demands, and the nearly mechanized, repetitive mundanities of daily subsistence — and specifically with regards to these realities in the context of single motherhood — are empathetic and admirable, Full Time isn’t as successful at building depth into this material. It doesn’t offer much insight or vision in either substance or style beyond a basic distillation of what has already been accomplished in many similar, better-known films, with clear influence felt from the work of the Dardennes to Claire Denis’ Friday Night to the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. Still, despite the obvious shared DNA, Gravel’s work maintains a freshness all its own, especially on the strength of its fast, frenetic pacing which keeps the film adrenalized. But in his commitment to this escalating tension, Gravel imbues the film with its most questionable elements: Irène Drésel’s score often feels overblown to the point where viewers will be forced to question the actual intensity of a situation versus what’s merely coaxed according to forceful sonic guidance, encouraging overwrought emotion as much as possible. But again, as is the case across the board, Full Time‘s weaknesses are only one side of the coin, and this repetitive, sometimes manipulative soundtrack also nicely blends with voices humming from radios and TVs and blurs with the urban soundscape to lend a certain woozy moodiness to the sound design, breaking with the conventionality of so many similar socio-political works.
This repetitiveness also extends to the film’s story shape: we follow Julie as she faces one misfortune after another — for instance, it’s easy to predict that a birthday party will be followed by crisis, and it does in the form of a broken arm — and it’s difficult not to feel Gravel the screenwriter in all of these imposed (and somewhat inorganic) inflictions, though at least there are instances in the script that seem like an attempt to counterbalance this penchant toward misery. On the other hand, the way that Gravel frequently strives to over-emphasize the film’s commentary is less appealing. Take for instance dialogue like, “If you no longer want to clean rich people’s shit, there is no place for you here”; or when a job interviewer asks Julie if returning to work after so long would worry her since she’ll see her children less, and she immediately replies, “I love them, but I’m not made to be a stay-at-home mom”; or one day when she misses her train back home and lands in a cheap motel room — after shaking a horny male on the street — where she lies awake mulling fears of an unforeseeable tomorrow while a sunny picture of the Eiffel Tower hangs on the wall, a shot which then cuts to trash bags and bins on the street. Instead of tackling such concerns via a broader and more complicated portrait, Gravel is too content to rely on a more-or-less familiar aesthetic expression and overly blunt thematic canvas. But thanks to Mathilde Van de Moortel’s taut and rhythmic editing, as well as Calamy’s controlled performance in realizing an admittedly relatable and fleshed-out character, the arthouse-inclined Full Time maintains a high enough floor. At the very least, it mostly avoids — or else better mitigates — the usual tasteless, suffocating miserabilism of so many similarly conceived films, which is a small victory in its own right.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Small, Slow but Steady
You’d be forgiven if you mistook Shô Miyake’s new film, Small, Slow but Steady, for a documentary about the forest floor’s invisible undergrowth, or maybe the chronicles of a particularly pensive tortoise. What probably didn’t come to mind is the life of a semi-professional boxer, a world more often associated with brute physicality and unforgiving force. Mikaye based his film on an autobiographical novel by real-life female boxer Ogasawara Keiko, who, like the film’s protagonist, Ogawa Keiko (Yukino Kishii), is hearing-impaired.
A film with a deaf main character is necessarily a film about communication, and boxing, like all sports, is a medium that allows humans to convey and quell their emotions — fear, rage, grief — when other outlets fail. It’s also an intensely intimate activity, two sweaty bodies orbiting around and colliding into each other, in perpetual motion until someone goes down, often in a shower of blood. Punctuating the film’s subtle narrative beats is the mesmerizing patter of jump rope against floor and the percussive slap of mitts against sparring pads, lending the film a propulsive intensity that the script itself downplays.
Petite, guarded, and not particularly friendly, Keiko’s not the type to explain herself or educate others, however well-meaning, about deafness. When she bumps into someone on the sidewalk and causes him to drop what he’s holding, she simply walks away. “Ill-mannered lout!” he shouts after her. Even if she weren’t deaf, her behavior would probably be the same. The Chairman (Miura Tomokazu), who owns the shabby, family-run gym where Keiko trains, readily admits that she doesn’t have a particular talent for the sport. Such a matter-of-fact statement would never appear in a more traditional sports movie, but the familiar tropes of superhuman talent or rags-to-riches arcs are strikingly missing.
Small, Slow but Steady is far more concerned with Keiko’s day-to-day routine and the incremental set pieces that make up her quietly remarkable life. It’s shot on warm, grainy 16mm film stock around the Arakawa district (the same neighborhood where Ozu shot Tokyo Story), a slightly neglected corner of the city that’s galaxies away from the futuristic glamour of Shibuya or Harajuku. Partially set in the early days of the pandemic, the constant presence of face masks adds another buffer between characters while impairing Keiko’s ability to lip read, isolating her even further. The film’s central conflict is the Chairman’s decision to close the gym, though “conflict” might be grandiloquent; it’s simply a decision, and a pragmatic one at that, given the gym’s flagging membership and his own deteriorating health.
During the day, Keiko works as a maid at a high-end hotel, where her colleagues treat her boxing with polite incredulity. At night, she goes home to a bare-bones apartment she shares with her floppy-haired brother, Seiji, a cook who spends most of his time noodling with a guitar. They sign together, gruffly; in one scene, he attempts to draw her out of a bad mood, but she refuses to engage. “Talking doesn’t make a person less alone,” she shoots back. One of the few times she smiles in the entire 139-minute film is during an outing with deaf friends, the three of them signing animatedly over beers (while Kishii is not deaf, the other actors in this scene are.) The entire conversation is untranslated, shifting onto viewers the isolation that many deaf people must feel on a regular basis. It’s fitting, then, that Keiko, whose interior life is as closed off from viewers as the inside of a boxing ring is to spectators, finds herself most relaxed in the one scene audiences aren’t meant to understand.
Writer: Selina Lee
Once Upon a Time in Calcutta
Far from being a new director or a new film, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s third feature Once Upon a Time in Calcutta speaks to a director fully versed in the grammar of the cinematic and language of storytelling. Sengupta’s prior works, unseen by this writer, appear to speak to a director acutely aware of the distancing effects implicit to the work of capital across the face of newly developing land- and city-scapes, of which the film at hand appears to be little different in its focus or interest. Similarly, Calcutta takes the perspective of Ela (Sreelekha Mitra), a disaffected and bereaved wife and mother, as she pursues independence, only to indiscriminately encounter the obstacles of endemic corruption, interpersonal misogyny, and possibly fated consequence to immoral action. Yet, to present the movie as such would not be the whole, as the film is as much the ownership of a cast of characters for whom the city of Calcutta exists as their own, including the gig-economic Raja (Shayak Ro) and Pinky (Rikita Nandini Shimu), through which a morass of precarious and multi-level market scheming labor interrupt sincere attempts at love and connection.
Located in a setting in which disbelieved “old ways” of marketized astrology and fated symbology lack purchase against a new way of usurious and normalized economic speculativism that hollows relations, Calcutta tracks an ever-increasing sense of emptiness at the heart of development that selectively applies to certain classes and echelons of society. Commensurately, the film applies distinctive visual languages to certain settings and characters, such as those deserving of derision: for example, take Pradipto (Anirban Chakrabarti), an MLM schemer, whom Ela futilely utilizes to achieve her dreams of independence; or else those imbued with distinct levels of attentiveness and awareness, namely Pinky, Raja, and Shishar (Satrajit Sarkar), for whom the reality of their situation and presence within society’s economic reality is all too real. Calcutta, in this way, is a film all about failed escape, and as such, it’s appropriate that figures such as Gökhan Tiryaki, the cinematographer for Nuri Bilge Ceylan, were involved. The results, while perhaps inspired by the character of such Turkish cinema, suggest a film that pays a greater attentiveness to conditions “on the ground” in Calcutta as it lives and breathes, or maybe even gasps for breath. While by no means a masterpiece or rewriting of all that has come before, Once Upon a Time in Calcutta exhibits the dramatic potential of a director who refuses to ignore what is oft left forgotten in what is considered “the stages of development.”
Writer: Matt McCracken