Cinema One Originals is a little different this year. It has diversified its main competition program, allowing three documentaries into the lineup along with seven narrative features. It has also widely expanded its international section, with twenty films from all around the world being screened right along with the competition, the restored classics, and a selection of other films produced by Cinema One.
The festival opened with Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. The Korean film follows a rural cop as he investigates a series of grisly murders that may have something to do with an outsider living in the woods. The investigation becomes personal when a malevolent force appears to take control of his daughter. There’s a lot going on in this film; so much that it sort doesn’t make any logical sense. But that really seems to be part of the point. This is the story about how evil is unknowable to some degree; how our basic human faculties can fail when confronted with something truly horrifying. This poor, provincial schlub is completely out of his depth, the character flailing as he’s called upon to face things greater than himself.
It was one of the biggest hits in South Korea this year, and that makes it an interesting companion piece to another hit, Train to Busan. Both are films about bad fathers who try to redeem themselves to their young daughters in extreme horror situations. Both display a general mistrust of authority, the movies conveying a frustration with people who supposedly have your best interest in mind. But whereas Train to Busan kept the angst at the fringes, The Wailing lays bare deep wounds in the South Korean psyche, manifesting them as evil, possessive spirits that take hold of future generations. It’s also equally fascinating to look at these films as a reflection of current events in South Korea, where a popular uprising has taken hold, challenging the power of a president that seems to have let supernatural forces take control.
The first of the competition films to premiere is Jules Katanyag’s Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago, which tells the story of an aging albularyo (Peewee O’Hara) who just wants to live a quiet life with her granddaughter Rosa (Rhen Escanio). Unfortunately, Rosa is going through a sexual awakening and finds herself attracted to some outsiders who have just rolled into town. This plot involves drug deals and sex and gangsters and revenge, though one wouldn’t necessarily expect it from the opening scenes. Though it’s hard to say what one would really expect at first, given that the opening scenes involve the main character apparently high on mushrooms she foraged herself, dancing in the middle of the forest with a strange spirit woman that only speaks through hissing.
Suffice it to say that the film is crazy. And if you can’t ride along on its wavelength, you’re going to have a bad time. One might even call it self-indulgent, right down to its weird use of its subtitles. But if you can catch a ride, what we have here is what could be described as a “wasak feminist revenge film.” It is a very silly film that also happens to be a parable of women unable to fully take hold of their sexuality, all of it resulting in a celebration of violence. I’m not entirely sure it holds together, and the production values could be better at certain points, but the shagginess of the film works out as an asset in the end.
Borgy Torre’s Tisay also seems to have feminist intentions, but I think it falls a little short of those ambitions. The main character Tisay (Nathalie Hart) is a small-time bookie, taking bets on Barangay league basketball games for her godfather Brando (Joel Torre), who she is also sleeping with. She’s been tasked with helping to convince star player Simon (JC de Vera) to keep the semifinal game close so they can make money on the spread. Simon, who falls forTisay for real, agrees to their terms but is ultimately unable to do the deed. This, of course, leads into all sorts of trouble for the two.
This is a very polished film from a director that’s clearly at the height of his technical powers. The movie just moves with intensity, in full control of the emotions of every scene. That said, the film feels pretty problematic by the end. It places too much emotional focus on the romance between Tisay and Simon, which turns out to be the film’s weakest aspect. It feels like the movie is over convinced of the worthiness of Simon as a partner, in spite of the awfulness that he actually displays. This all just falls apart in the third act, which is a mess of elements that never really gel together, before heading into an emotional catharsis that the movie doesn’t quite earn. But don’t get the impression that this film isn’t worthy of consideration. This is a finely made movie that verges on being great. But it just doesn’t seem to have the right tools to really embrace its themes.
Also seen in the international section of the festival: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is essentially a fictionalized take on the travel journals of early 20th century explorers who went into the Amazon. This film is, quite simply, one of the best films about colonialism that I have ever seen. Through its parallel stories, the film studies the various effects of colonialism on the people who have lived in these jungles for centuries. It’s a terrific, incisive film that gets strange and trippy in the back end.
I also got to see Swiss Army Man from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, which you may know as the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. That’s an accurate description for the movie, but it doesn’t quite cover everything that it does. There some weird sweetness built up in the relationship between this corpse and protagonist Hank (Paul Dano), the weird premise just a launching pad for a long discourse on the pretenses of civilization. There are surprising Gondry-esque touches all over the film that make it pretty entertaining overall. The emotional climax is kind of a mess, but the journey there is pretty fun.