Chan-wook emigrates! Malick disappoints! Colfer Annoys!
An early start was justified on this nippy Friday morn, with a preview of Stoker (dir. Chan-wook Park) before its JDIFF premiere that evening (the later screening clashed with Beyond the Hills, so I was grateful of the opportunity). What a wonderful visual feast it offered! It was some relief to see Chan-wook emigrate with gusto, especially as others have failed to transition effectively. But Stoker builds a compellingly idiosyncratic atmosphere early on and barely lets up. Eccentric framing (keep an eye on the excessive head space afforded to characters), brilliantly disorientating jump & match cuts and a gracefully weird soundtrack ensure this is an invigoratingly cinematic gem, and perhaps the most accomplished film visually of the festival. Also great to see the ever talented Mia Wasikowska enjoying a weighty, offbeat lead role. The only problem to speak of is a script (bizarrely penned by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller) that in the last act struggles to sustain the creepily perverse tone of what came before. No matter - at ninety minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome, and the film is frequently straight-up brilliant.
Not part of the JDIFF line-up, but taking advantage of a break between films I decided to sneak in a screening of Terence Malick's much-anticipated Tree of Life follow up To The Wonder. A real disappointment - while the film retains the ethereal, floating camerawork and cinematic poem stylings of Malick's previous film, it's an altogether flatter film. Flat is the only appropriate word - the material just never takes off, with even the typically graceful cinematography seeming a tad mundane and overcast at times. At the core this is a relationship study with spiritual under- and overtones, but Ben Affleck's barely present male lead is a big problem: despite enjoying much screentime, he is never developed as a compelling, interesting or - fatally - loveable individual. Olga Kurylenk fares better as the de facto lead, although Javier Bardem as a spiritually conflicted priest and Rachel McAdams as the third point in a love triangle are also wasted. The sheer bulk of shots of contemplative brooding grows increasingly ridiculous as the film trudges onwards. Malick scaling down and making a short film in a short space of time is theoretically a relief after the decades long waits were used to. But those waits produced masterpieces. Despite Malick's singular directorial style and the occasional moment of genuine beauty, To The Wonder fails to soar.
Appropriately enough a short little Korean film called Sleepless Night (dir. Kun-jae Jang) immediately offered a welcome counterpoint to To The Wonder. It's a militantly low-fi film focusing on the relationship between a couple portrayed by Ju-Ryoung Kim and Soo-hyeon Kim. It undoubtedly lacks the peerless auteuristic flair of Malick's film, but it's much more emotionally rewarding. Over sixty minutes we are shown a selection of scenes from this loving couple's married life - and barring one intense yet weirdly ambiguous scene in the middle it all comes together perfectly. It's simple, but simplicity is sometimes the strongest asset a film can have. The film was preceded by a 40-minute 'short' called Vanishing Point (dir. Abhijit Mazumdar), which to be honest was pretty useless.
Not as useless as the appalling Struck by Lightning (dir. Brian Dannelly), a vanity project for writer / star Chris Colfer. This is one of those films at a festival that serves only as a timekiller between more interesting films, but I still felt like my time was absolutely wasted. All I knew was Colfer was a Glee alumni and I had two hours until Beyond the Hills, but even that couldn't prepare me for the inane nonsense that followed. It tries to be smart and quirky, but comes across as idiotic and annoying. It's dragged down to the deepest depths of screen hell by the irritating Colfer, who portrays a character who is literally the most detestable little bollocks I've ever been asked to symphatise with. Trite morals and a wasted Alison Janney add insult to injury in a film that's to all extents and purposes worthless. JDIFF 2013 has projected its single worst film.
Rounding out a long day - five and a half films! - was the aforementioned Beyond the Hills, the latest from 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days director Cristian Mungiu. For a 155 minute long film set primarily in an Orthodox Monastery in rural Romania, its surprisingly involving (the potentially heavy subject matter lightened further by welcome incidences of black comedy). The film is built around the relationship between old friends Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), the former of whom has become a nun. When Voichita proves to have developed new priorities in life, Alina suffers a mental breakdown that throws the small religious compound into disarray. It's well directed, visually confident and very watchable stuff that doesn't get bogged down by its own miserablism. The central theme of the increasing incompatibility of traditional, devout faith & ritual in the modern world is engaging - Mungiu does not shy away from criticising the illogical actions of the religious devotees, yet there's also a strong pining for something irretrievably lost through the onward march of modernisation.