Thursday, November 20, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 1

Well, it's high time the SLIFF reviews started trickling out. Here's the first batch, and from here on out I'll try to keep them coming at a reasonably steady pace. But don't wait for me to filter through the roster: the festival continues and St. Louisians should take advantage! If you want to see where I'll be for the remainder of the festival, you can check out my calendar over at Highway 61, where I'll be cross-posting.

I'm already sensing that the festival has taken a lot of my advise from last, though probably not from me. There's a lot more late-night genre options and shorter intro commercials for one thing. More on that after the festival.

Title: Vanaja
Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Country: India
Score: 7.0
After already playing in almost every other festival in the world (it seems) and getting a DVD release, “Vanaja” finally made its way to St. Louis. It tells a the coming of age story of Vanaja in a rural Indian village, who hopes to overcome her poverty, low-caste status and poor prospects by learning traditional dance in the home of her rich landlady. While working as a servant girl, she wins the approval of the landlady and sets about becoming an accomplished dancer.

This familiar arc is soon disrupted both by her father’s increasingly lethal drunkenness and the arrival of the landlady’s attractive, politically ambitious son. Despite early flirtations, any chance of a storybook romance is foiled by age and class, resulting in a painful relationship that includes rape, a contentious pregnancy, blackmail and difficult choices about motherhood.

For some reason I felt hard to please while watching “Vanaja,” both during it predictable plucky-hero dances towards her dreams first half and it’s more complicated young-mother making tough decisions second half. Perhaps it’s because both plotlines are such perennial festival scenarios. Yet what they lack in originality they make up for in delivery. There’s a great deal of well-earned emotional moments and enough time and nuance to gather honest sympathy for Vanaja and her situation.

The acting, particularly the 15-year-old lead Mamatha Bhukya and Urmila Dammannagari’s curmudgeonly landlady, is where the film really shines. Director Domalpalli deserves credit for his unassuming sunlit photography, which captures the rustic dustiness and colorful highlights of rural India. Working on a small budget, the film nevertheless has just the right atmosphere to intensify the drama without overwhelming it.

Title: Interkosmos
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 4.0
Part of a double-feature by experimental director Jim Finn, “Interkosmos” is a mishmash of appropriated documentary footage transformed into a fictional history of a lost East German space program. A mixed crew from assorted communist nations attempts to establish mining and refueling stations on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but spends most of their time chatting aimless by radio. Their greatest success is in positioning orbiting libraries of communist material, which later conspiracy theories suggest was the real mission goal all along. When the budget disappears, the manned ships go silent and the government covers up the program.

Finn’s premise and his unusual style of integrating archival footage with artificially-aged fiction are certainly interesting, but this first feature by the director suffers from a fatal lack of focus. Monologues about dolphins, minimalist space exercise routines, an all-girls Marxist hockey match, a hamster in a space suit, NASA videos of Earth and a lot more are loosely fitted into place, but they amount to a fairly arbitrary collection of things that Finn found amusing more than a story or even a compelling overview of a story (which is probably closer to his intention).

Even with the short ~70 minute run-time, the film feels far too long and drawn out. It’s hurt by a lack of editing discretion and abundant repetition, revisiting low-interest imagery with minor variations of what we’ve already seen and digested. The overextended intro and end credits are perhaps the clearest examples of indulging at the audience’s expense. Even the best set designs, like a spaceship cockpit and two moving models of the moon stations, are given too much time to sink in while we listen to mildly informative monotone voice-overs. The film is at its best when it plays the narration for bone-dry humor, as in the radio transmission conversations with their blend of bored small talk and Marxist rhetoric.

Title: The Juche Idea
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
Much more successful than his previous film is Finn’s “The Juche Idea,” a rough retrospective of fictional propaganda films created by an enthusiastic North Korean director. The director once again appropriates a disparate assemblage of archival footage including media coverage of national celebrations, internal theatrical releases and corporate training videos.

Not only is it clear that Finn has matured as a director and polished his style since the former film, he also seems to have homed in on his strong suit: humor. Laughs are stitched from all sorts of unexpected resources, rather from juxtaposing Kim Jong-il's ideological tenets with laughably lame film clips, mocking language-training videos with badly green-screened backgrounds and heavily-accented ludicrous conversations or just from spouting inappropriately convoluted metaphors.

One still finds too much repetition, a lack of visual stimuli and the unsatisfying feeling that no cogent movie really forms from the individual scenes, but the pacing is more stable, the rhythm tighter and the themes better realized. For those who are interested, I’d recommend sampling this film first before giving “Interkosmos” a try.


Molly said...

I agree entirely about Interkosmos and The Juche Idea. I was also disappointed in the relatively sparse amount of actual archive footage in the first film, which smacked of a neat idea poorly implemented. The Juche Idea had a much better handle on the pre-existing footage, which it used much more effectively and humorously by juxtaposing it more consistently with appropriately ironic commentary.

Anonymous said...

I've been fascinated by N.Korea's Juche Idea for awhile - it's hard to find much real information on it.

So was this film about the Juche Idea, as in, a documentary, or was it more of a mockumentary?

Molly said...

It's sort of it's own weird middle ground thing, but certainly closer to a mockumentary about somebody making an unfortunate documentary/propaganda film about the Juche Idea - what do you say, Walrus?

It does have actual quotes from Kim Jong-il, and some real information in it, too, I think. You have to do a lot of mental sifting.