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Today was the last day of regular festival programming. Tomorrow they show the festival favorites, and then that's it.
After taking the El across town after work, I arrived at the Bridge theater and met my new friend Bob again before my first movie started. It was another long, strange, eclectic day of movies, so let's get started!
Films I saw today: Please Teach Me English, The Uninvited, Model Magic (including Peanuts, Subway Salvation, Rachel Johnson - The Toll Collector, Terra, How Mermaids Breed, Free Radicals, The Hungry Squid, Showa Shinzan, and Harvie Krumpet)
Like Cops, the last film I saw yesterday, Please Teach Me English is a wacky foreign comedy that is totally pleasant and funny and entertaining. It is also populated by lovably silly characters, and also makes use of hilarious dream sequences to show us what those characters are thinking and feeling. But Please Teach Me English is possibly even wackier than Cops, and includes even more dream sequences and surreal visual effects, some of which are animated. And, of course, the biggest difference is that Please Teach Me English is a South Korean romantic comedy about learning to speak English.
Young-ju is an entry-level public official with no desire to learn English, but after a disastrous encounter with an English-speaking customer, her office agrees that at least one of the employees must learn English, and Young-ju is chosen randomly to be that one. So, the charming and not at all lonely Young-ju (according to her voice-over narration; in fact, she is a goofy klutz desperate for love) heads resignedly to class. There she meets the slick, charming Moon-su, a shoe salesman determined to learn English so he can have a conversation with his long-lost, English-speaking sister, Victoria, when she comes to visit soon. His mother, a janitor at the local mall, was forced to give up Victoria when she was very young, and still feels ashamed of herself about the whole thing. Both she and her son are very nervous and excited about the coming meeting with Victoria. Young-ju, unaware of all of this, just wants Moon-su to notice her, and decides that learning English is the way to do it. But Moon-su only has eyes for their beautiful Australian English teacher, Catherine, with whom he flirts outrageously and unstoppably.
Please Teach Me English takes some of the expected romantic comedy plot twists: chance and misconceptions work together to keep our young lovers apart, but ultimately (and I don't think I'll be spoiling anything by telling you this) they get together and live happily ever after--and learn English. But despite the familiarity of certain story elements, Please Teach Me English is a totally fresh, imaginative, and wonderful film. I was afraid its sense of humor would be wacky in the way that some Hong Kong films are wacky--in other words, childish and rather dumb, with lots of mugging and slapstick. And indeed the film is loaded with mugging and slapstick, but somehow here it works. Please Teach Me English manages to be goofy without being stupid, moving without being mawkish, and happy without being dull. It has a really creative, colorful, lively visual style. The film is cartoonish in the best sense of the word; you'll see, among other things, animated thought bubbles, dramatic slow-motion leaps, ridiculous grimaces, a level comprehension test imagined as a "Street Fighter"-type fighting game, and a dream sequence in which Moon-su must spell an English word correctly in order to remove a woman's bikini top. And be sure to stick around for the credits, as there are outtakes and extra scenes detailing how the lives of Young-ju's other classmates turn out.
Please Teach Me English is a totally entertaining film and, like Cops, well-worth seeking out.
My Poll Rating: Excellent
My next movie was also at the Bridge, but I still had to rush to get in there on time, as the starting time had already passed. Luckily, I missed nothing, and even had time to finally introduce myself to my favorite festival programmer, Travis Crawford, before the show started. Unfortunately, he was tense and tired and in a rush, and I'm not exactly good at talking to people, so things could have gone better. But I don't think I made a complete ass of myself. I just hope if he does remember me, it's not as that annoying fan boy who held him up that one time...
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After watching two of the funniest and happiest films I've ever seen at the festival (or at all, for that matter), I saw The Uninvited, which is easily one of the darkest, somber, and most horrifying films I've ever seen (though it also, like Please Teach Me English, hails from South Korea). And in this case, by horrifying, I don't mean the kind of jump-in-your-seat, fear-for-your-life horror of a film like The Toolbox Murders; I mean a deep, sickening, stick-with-you, fear-for-your-soul kind of horror. This is a movie replete with images and ideas that you will just want to forget, but won't be able to. Which is very appropriate, since the movie is about memories--memories so terrible that thinking about them can drive you insane. It's also about the awful, life-shattering things people can do to other people, or to themselves, without even meaning to.
The film quickly introduces one of its more striking recurring images--that of two young girls sitting silently together. This may not sound like a vision of horror, but what it comes to suggest is quite horrible enough. We first see the two little girls when our main character, Jung-won, falls asleep on a subway train. It's a familiar fear to many of us--falling asleep and missing our stop. When Jung-won suddenly wakes up, he finds himself at the end of the line, with the train just about to shut its doors and head off to the depot. He escapes just in time, but when he turns back to look at the train pulling away, he sees two little girls still sitting in there, alone.
It's a haunting image, in more ways than one. The morning after, Jung-won hears on the radio about a mother that poisoned her two children and left them on the subway. He realizes what he really saw the night before, and is shaken. That same morning, at his job as a construction engineer, he's able to predict the location of a power line in the ceiling. Then he goes home and finds the two girls sitting at his dining room table.
What is happening? How is he able to see these things? Why does he have a dream of following a trail of breadcrumbs to the two children, their bodies now burnt and blackened nearly beyond recognition?
Slowly, weaving together dream and memory, past and present, the movie will reveal the terrifying answers to these questions. Jung-won becomes so afraid to find the children in his apartment again that he starts staying with his father, a minister at a church. His relationship with his fiance begins to suffer. He seems totally incapable of voicing any of his feelings to anyone. One night, one of the parishioners at his father's church--a woman named Yun--needs a ride home, and Jung-won gets talked into providing it. On the way, she collapses. Not sure what else to do, he takes her to his apartment, and calls the emergency number that he finds on her. It turns out that she has narcolepsy, and that the number was for her husband, from whom she is now separated. When he shows up, she mentions to Jung-won as she's going out the door that he should put his kids to sleep.
Of course, the only kids Jung-won has are the ghostly ones that sometimes sit at his table.
Jung-won is shocked and intrigued that someone else shares his vision. He is determined to meet her again. But Yun has problems of her own. She's currently testifying against a friend of hers who killed both Yun's child and her own. Yes, more dead children. The movie is preoccupied with children, memory, and death. It is full to the brim of grief and regret and horror.
When Jung-won finally gets a chance to talk to Yun again, he learns she is a shaman, like her mother before her. She can see things, and so, aparently, can Jung-won. But, as with the cursed Cassandra of myth, people refuse to believe her visions. She can see into your past and find the memories you've forgotten--which are of course usually memories so terrible your mind has mercifully erased them. Jung-won demands that she do this for him. He knows there's a secret in his past, the secret behind his recurring nightmares. Yun warns him that his request could lead to suffering, but he asks that she go through with it anyway. He has no idea the terrible price the both of them will pay.
But I won't go into any more of the details. The story is a slow series of horrifying revelations, and it would ruin it to give away them all. Suffice it to say, by the end of the film, pretty much everybody's lives have been destroyed by the terrible memories that haunt them.
As you might have guessed from the description, The Uninvited is not exactly an uplifitng film. In fact, it's one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. It will leave you feeling hollow, sad, and ill. But it is also an undeniably well-crafted and effective film, with stunning visuals, excellent acting, and skilled editing and direction. Just make sure you're in a good mood when you put it on.
My Poll Rating: Excellent
I ran a few blocks to the International House to make it to the last of my regularly scheduled festival films. I didn't think I'd make it in time, as The Uninvited was quite long, and I started out, fool that I am, running in the wrong direction. But luckily for me, things were running late as usual, and I made it in in time for Mike Enright's introduction. Which, come to think of it, wasn't so lucky after all...
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This was another--actually, the last in the festival--collection of short films. In this case, the focus was supposed to be on stop-motion, or model, animation; the theme was also extended to include computer models and computer animation. As with most collections like this, there were some really good ones and some really bad ones.
This was a great little short film--or really, short collection of even shorter films--by PES, mysterious creator of the only good film in the Cafe Risque collection. It's just a series of stop-motion animated episodes that make use of peanuts as models. One involves a tiny peanut baby crying. Another involves a model plane bombing a model city with a peanut bomb. Peanuts is fast, clever, and hilarious, from beginning to end. A true delight, and a perfect example of what makes a great short film.
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This one seemed to be a crowd favorite, but I wasn't to impressed by it. It's a claymation film by Carolyn London about a bunch of anthropomorphic animals on a subway train who discover that God has appeared there on the train in the form of a half-eaten turkey sandwich. Sounds like a pretty amusing premise, but the animals turn out to be little more than irritating stereotypes, and the movie is loaded with bad jokes. The God-sandwich preaches for a while before being eaten by a bum, who is promptly beaten up by the other passengers. Then they start to beat each other up, and the movie dissolves into chaos. Not a terrible little film, but nothing to write home about, either.
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But speaking of terrible little films, here's an example of one. Ugh! I could barely hold myself back from audibly groaning at this one. The story is about a woman with extremely long legs who lives alone and works at a toll booth at night in the middle of nowhere so no one will see her freakishness. By the end of the movie she has learned to live with her uniqueness. The animation is kind of neat, in a goth, Tim Burton kind of way, but the incredibly mawkish and corny story, told through whiny narration and completely transparent, unsubtle metaphors, is unforgivably bad. Watching this short is like watching somebody's terrible high school poetry put to film. The negative should be burned.
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This is a sci fi film that starts out well with some pretty impressive visuals--an alien planet orbited by two moons, its sky full of clouds like waves, with giant mushroom-like shapes sticking up above them. Unfortunately, after seeing these amazing images, we meet one of the inhabitants of the planet--an alien astronomer. The alien has a rather dumpy design, not at all equal to the grand appearance of the planet. And soon enough, it starts talking, and that only makes things worse. The voice acting is poor, as is the dialogue. Anyway, turns out the alien has seen something in its telescope--a large object approaching the planet. But telescopes are forbidden by the elders, so the authorities aren't interested in what the alien has to say and just want to take the telescope away. The alien escapes and manages to get a closer look at the thing that's approaching. It turns out to be--are you ready for this?--an American space probe!
Gasp! And by gasp, I mean, yawn. The "the aliens are us" pay-off is the oldest of old sci fi chestnuts, and yet it's rolled out here with so much melodrama, you'd think this was the first time anybody'd ever thought of it. I couldn't believe this was supposed to be the "surprise" ending. Terra, like Rachel Johnson, feels like high school-level filmmaking, and not at all worthy to be shown at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
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My Poll Rating: Very Good
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