AFI Fest 2011: Day Five (Tuesday)

Tuesday was almost a day full of shorts (it could’ve been – they ran all four shorts programs back to back in the same theatre without reticketing, a very tempting prospect), but I punctuated it with a quiet little feature from Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Unfortunately both that and some of the shorts in the later program suffered a little due to my own tiredness. By this point in the festival, it was getting hard to ignore. But I still had a great time and saw some fantastic shorts. Next year I may just plan to see all the shorts programs. I enjoy them a whole lot.

Shorts Program 2

This shorts program turned out to be one of mostly long shorts – 25-30 minutes each. That’s longer than most shorts I’ve seen at festivals, but these were all really strong. Really, I wish more filmmakers would just make shorts like this instead of features a lot of the time – a lot of indie features are stretched longer than they need to be just to attain feature length. I realize shorts longer than 10 minutes are often difficult to place at festivals, so I’m really glad AFI stepped up and made room for shorts of this length. These all have the production values of theatrical-release features, just at a shorter length. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciated them, either, as several of the shorts from this section featured in the audience and jury awards at the end of the festival.

Unmanned – A young Air Force drone pilot blows up enemy targets remotely by day, then returns home to his wife and son in sunny LA at night – a pretty good gig for the former video game addict until a few events transpire to make him rethink how easy it is to blow up the wrong target from thousands of miles away. The film isn’t preachy, though – it’s obvious, but sincere in the way it makes its points. Very high quality production all around, too, from the cinematography and direction t to the screenplay and acting. This was a senior project for AFI conservatory students, and these students are definitely ready. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Broken Night – A Korean film balanced between tragedy and comedy, as a man who practices insurance fraud (getting into planned fender-benders with accomplices in order to get insurance payouts) ends up trapped by his own game when a pair of motorcycling kids pull the same trick on him – except things get bloodier and more effed up as the night goes on. Some really solid acting, especially from the main actor, and a lot of “whoa, holy crap!” moments. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Frozen Stories – A droll Polish comedy, as dry as dry can be, about a pair of bored and lackluster grocery store employees (declared by the manager as “worst employees of the month”) who join forces to try to win a spot on the TV program “Who is the World’s Most Unhappy Person.” The whole store pitches in to help them (assigning them the worst tasks, refusing to help them get things done, etc, to make them more unhappy), at the behest of the manager, who hopes that having a goal, any goal, will help them out. Shot in a very bright, overexposed style that only increases the bleakness of the situation, this film turned out to be one of my favorite shorts of the festival. Reaction: LOVED.
Babyland – At first I thought this was going to be another abortion drama (like Another Bullet Dodged from Shorts Program #3, which I didn’t care for very much), but there’s a lot more to it. The main character isn’t pregnant, but she wants to be, and pretends she is to try to hold on her (married) boyfriend. She’s kinda messed up, but believably so once you see her home life. There’s one overly convenient twist, but it works for the narrative, and the end is a total shock, in a good way. It genre-hops more than you’d expect in a 25-minute film, but I really enjoyed how it approached its story. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Infinite Moments – A circular story, which I always like, showing a bunch of hospital workers and what they’re doing at a specific moment in time – so you see/hear the same events from about six or eight different perspectives. I don’t think the timing actually works to bring it back around at the end, but it’s still a lot of fun to see pieces you only vaguely knew about from previous perspectives fall into place later in the film. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.

The Day He Arrives

This one has been at the top of my must-see list for the festival since it was announced, since Hong Sang-soo’s film HaHaHa was my favorite film of last year’s AFIFest. And I did see it, but I’m disappointed to say that I was exhausted and zoning in and out throughout it. As such, I can’t really justify reviewing it fully, but here’s a few bits about it from my half-remembered daze. It’s got a lot less story than HaHaHa did, but similar to that film (and other Hong films, from what I’ve heard), a lot of it involves people conversing over drinks. In fact, that’s mostly what this film is, but Hong is so good at sussing out great little moments and character interactions in social situations like this that it remains enjoyable to watch, and I expect would be really good if I had been awake enough to catch more nuances. The main character is a filmmaker who arrives in a small town, intending to meet up with a friend, but he gets waylaid by a fan first, then a bunch of film students, then visits a former girlfriend (awesome awkward conversation there), then ends up killing some time with a friend of his friend, since his friend isn’t home. Eventually there are four of them, hanging out over drinks and chatting – this stuff is great, and seems to come really easily to Hong. This basically feels like a recharge film, a quickly produced affair maybe as he’s working on something more complicated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are some really interesting conversational tacks, all carried out with aplomb by the charismatic cast. There’s also some timey-wimey stuff going on – one section of the film is repeated almost verbatim twice, but with slight differences, and the end is basically the beginning, except his friend turns out to be home. I’m dying to see it again to connect that stuff up properly, but I can’t, having dozed off enough to make deciphering timey-wimey stuff impossible. The worst part is I have no idea when, if ever, I’ll get a chance to rewatch this – Hong’s stuff is not easy to find in the US. Reaction: LIKED, might improve on rewatch

2011 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-soo. Starring: Jun-Sang Yu, Sang Jung Kim, Bo-kyung Kim, Seon-mi Song.

Shorts Program 1

I’d planned to see Shorts Program 1 because I knew it included The Eagleman Stag, which I’d already seen at the LA Film Festival but have been dying to see again, but was thrilled to discover the whole program was animation. I LOVE animated shorts. They’re probably the most creative and innovative films out there right now, and I always look forward to seeing what people can come up with. This program had a ton of variety, in animation technique, tone, and length. It was a great way to end the evening.

Maska – Okay, I basically slept through this one, a rather long (25 minutes or so) Polish stop-motion version of a Stanislaw Lem short story. That all sounds great, and Polish stop-motion is definitely freaky (think of Czech stop motion and then think of Polish movie posters, and you’ll have the general idea), but it was a little slow and quiet for my amount of energy. Reaction: NONE
Night Hunter – Another relatively long one, but this one held my interest a little better, largely because I was fascinated that it’s basically a horror story starring Lillian Gish, as the animator used film still cutouts from Gish’s 1910s and 1920s films to create the character. It’s fairly on the experimental side, with a lot of creepy sound design and unusual animation techniques filling in for a sparse story. Reaction: LIKED.
To Die By Your Side – This one perked me up, and I was fully alert for the rest of the program. :) Co-directed by Spike Jonze, this is a jaunty stop-motion affair with a bunch of figures off book covers (in Shakespeare & Co.!) carousing after the shop is closed, with a skeleton and a girl falling in love and trying to figure out (delightfully) how to manage that given their different states of, uh, aliveness. Reaction: LOVED.
Once It Started It Could Not Have Ended Otherwise – Much more intriguing in concept than execution, this film uses cut-out yearbook photos to suggest the underlying sinister aspects of this particular high school. The idea is great, and a lot of individual elements work really well, but the script just doesn’t go far enough. Reaction: LIKED.
The Eagleman Stag – I’ve already stated above that I loved this short at LAFF. It’s basically paper cut-out stop-motion, but with an all-white aesthetic that’s really unique and lovely, but it also has an incredible script, with the main character musing on the nature of time. It’s very philosophical, but moves very quickly – the second time watching it was actually better, because I was able to concentrate on the voiceover much more. The film won the Best Short award at both LAFF and AFI, and I’m pretty sure it would’ve won an Oscar, but apparently it didn’t get submitted in time or something. Bummer. The whole film is not online, but you can see a trailer that gives a good idea of its style and tone here. Reaction: LOVED.
Libertas – This very personal film is about the animator’s childhood moving from Singapore to Australia, done in a very low-fi and scruffy hand-drawn style. There’s not a lot to it (it’s only 3 minutes long), but it was a nice and different addition to the line-up. Reaction: LIKED.
Zergüt – Part high-speed photography, part stop-motion, exploration of the insides of a refrigerator. Basically, food pr0n, but with really stylish slow-motion photography. Lots of smashing things. No real story or anything, but some nice visuals. Reaction: LIKED.
One Minute Puberty – One of the shortest films here (though slightly longer than a minute), a fast-moving hand-drawn look at a boy’s growth through adolescence. It’s fun and funny. And it’s right here. Reaction: LIKED.
Dr. Breakfast – A man gets breakfast ready then his soul gets super-excited and jumps out his eye, gobbling up the breakfast and then whizzing around the world after more breakfast, leaving the man’s catatonic body behind to be cared for by a pair of talking deer. Sound absurd? Yes. And AWESOME. This short is hilarious, bizarre, and fantastic – great high to leave the fest that night. And you can see it right here! Reaction: LOVED.