ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFIFF 53 review: “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats,” Japan’s Mr. Gadget is eccentric, rich, and a national hero but he’s no Thomas Edison.

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (Opfinsdelsen Af Dr. Nakmats) (Dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder, Denmark, 2009, 57 min)

Dr. Nakamats, the focus Kaspar Astrup Schroder's documentary THE INVENTION OF DR. NAKAMATS, is obsessed with self-promotion.

With over 3,300 patents to his name, Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamats holds the record for the more patents than anyone else dead or alive and is the subject of Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s humorous documentary, “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats.”  This is one of 28 documentaries screening at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival

 With the energetic Dr. Nakamats as its guide, the film follows this extraordinary Japanese celebrity as he explains his creative process, his mission to elongate life and his many zany inventions.  With no feedback from the filmmaker or any other credible sources to validate his claims, it’s hard to know how to this take this hour-long display of self-promotion.   Fact or fiction?  The ride is enjoyable enough but frankly, the puzzlement is annoying.

As this straightforward point and shoot film progresses, it becomes obvious that it is controlled entirely by Nakamats, who presents as a goofy self-made mad scientist of sorts who makes grievous errors in presenting himself as a person of substance.  There’s something that seems common among inventors that Nakamats seem to lack—humility.   It is a fundamental tenant of science that you stand on the shoulders of others and that others will stand on your shoulders.  Over claiming your contribution is a violation a basic tenant of the creative process.  Nakamats walks all over this.  Overall, the film is entertaining but misses it potential.  It delivers a confusing if not shallow portrait of an individual whose patent portfolio is as zany as he is.   At the end of the film, you’re likely to be asking– Is Nakamats for real?  Did he pay for the film?  Did he really invent the floppy disk, the compact disc, the digital watch, a unique golf putter, a water-powered engine, the “Love Jet” (arousal enhancer) and an invisible “b flat” bra?   Why haven’t I ever heard of him before?  

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Friday, April 30 (9:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Monday, May 3 (1:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Wednesday, May 5 (6:30 PM Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50, www.sffs.org

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May 5, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: Abandonment Cold Turkey– In Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life,” a Korean girl is dumped at an orphanage when her father starts over

“A Brand New Life” Dir. Ounie Lecomte (South Korea/France, 2009, 92 min)

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Abandonment is hard at any age but it is particularly harsh when a child who has bonded with a single parent is rejected suddenly without explanation. That is exactly the situation in Korean-born Ounie Lecomte’s debut film “A Brand New Life,” a drama set in the 1970’s, in an orphanage near Jeonju, a Korean provincial city.  The film opens with heartwarming scene that is universally familiar—a young Korean girl Jin-hee (Kim Saeron) is smiling ear to ear while riding in the front of a bike that her dad is steering.  As she passes the day with her dad, they shop for new clothes together.  At lunch, she sings tenderly to him but her song is one that eerily foretells their future “You’ll never know…how much I loved you.  You’ll regret it one day when time has passed…”

Later, while on a bus trip in the countryside, her dad lovingly washes mud from her feet and shoes. At a bakery, she is asked to choose a cake but is confused and we soon learn why.  As it turns out, these fatherly acts of kindness are not benign—her dad is intent on presenting Jin-hee spic and span, cake in hand, to a Catholic orphanage, where he is abandoning her.  We later learn it’s because she does not fit into his brand new life with his new wife and infant.  To top it off, it appears all he told her was that she was “going on a trip” and didn’t explain what was going to happen.  And so begins Jin-hee’s brand new life as an orphan.

A rattled young Jin-hee, who presumably has already lost her mother, is now facing the incomprehensible double whammy of loosing of her father—a man who is very much alive and well and in whose love and care so she has felt so secure.  She copes with orphanage life through stoic withdrawal and denial, clinging to the belief that her father is coming back for her.

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Slowly an older girl, Sook-hee (Park Doyeon), earns a place in her heart and the two girls bond as they sneak late night bites of cake, spy on others and attempt to nurse an injured bird to health.  Sook-hee tenderly educates Jin-hee about life and adoption–the ticket out of the orphanage. Sook-hee is 12 or 13 and has started her period but carefully hides this fact from everyone to appear younger to prospective adoptive families seeking pre-teen children.

Kindly Western couples visit the orphanage routinely.  Sook-hee wants a shot at family life offered by foreign adoption and tries hard to impress by touting her ambitions and interests.  Shy and forlorn Jin-hee does all she can to avoid being noticed but is always central. Those girls chosen for adoption appear petrified and leave by automobile for their new lives while those remaining gather round and sing a farewell round of Auld Lang Syne with a beautiful second verse immortalizing the orphanage:

In the flowery hills

With peach and apricot blossoms

Like a palace full of pretty flowers

How I miss playing there

Eventually, adoption touches both Sook-hee and Jin-hee and their lives are forever altered and we hope happy.  The film is tightly focused on their experiences at the orphanage.

“A Brand New Life,” depicts the pain and grief facing a young child in Jin-Hee’s situation but it does so in a rather flat storyline. Well-worn metaphors play out with priests delivering sermons to the girls about Jesus’ suffering and his plea “Father, Father? Why have you forsaken me” and the girls caretake a wounded bird.    

The film stands entirely on the exceptional performances of its child actors. Preteen Kim Saeron as Jin-hee is remarkably believable, delivering a stoic and traumatized child who can also be moody and willful.  Her smile and porcelain skin light up the screen.  Park Doyeon also shines as the brave and centered Sook-hee.

Sadly, there is little grounding information imparted about the situation facing Korean orphans in the 1970’s.  The adoption of orphan children actually started because of the devastating Korean War (1950-1953) and soon became something of an industry, with over 150,000 adoptions processed since the 1950’s.  The topic is explored in riveting detail in Dean Liem Borshay’s documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee which just picked up the best feature documentary award at the 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  Because the bloodline runs through the father and has been so vitally important in Korea, it was not common for a father to relinquish his child after losing his wife unless the loss was due to infidelity or he was unable to provide for the child.  The circumstances surrounding Jin-hee’s relinquishment are left purposefully vague.  It becomes painfully clear in one of the film’s most compelling scenes that Jin-hee believes that she was sent to the orphanage as a result something she did to her infant step-brother that caused a rift in her family.  Her guilt is astonishing.  

Other cohorts at the orphanage represent a spectrum of relinquishment experiences.  Sook-hee never met her parents and was left with an aunt who subsequently relinquished her.  The orphanage’s oldest ward, Yeshin (Ko A-Sung), a young adult, is crippled and her adoption prospects are so bleak that she believes that she has been taken in by a Korean family solely to cook and clean.

In all, life at this particular Catholic orphanage is good, perhaps exaggerated—food and gifts are plentiful and there is little fighting or rivalry between the girls who call each other “sis” and spend late nights throwing fortune cards.  The staff is approachable and seems genuinely concerned for the girls’ welfare.  For the most part, the discipline seems minimal. In her early days at the orphanage, Jin-hee climbs the fence to the top of a high concrete pillar and teeters in front of all the children, appearing ready to jump. When she won’t come down, a nun opens the orphanage gate and tells her she is free to go.  She and all the children then walk away.  Jun-hee is left alone, with no place to go, but back to the orphanage.  

For Jin-hee, letting go of her family and past is too much to ask.  But until she accepts that there will be no white-knight rescue by her father, she will not embrace the prospects or love awaiting her.  But then, she never asked for a brand new life…everything is out of her control.   A poignant film about loss that falls short of its vast potential.

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Saturday, April 24 (1:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Sunday, May 2 (12:15 PM, Clay Theatre), Tuesday, May 4 (Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50, www.sffs.org

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: In Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s disturbing new film “The White Meadows,” allegory abounds as villagers cry their tears into bottles…what exactly are we watching?

The White Meadows (Keshtzar haye sepid)(Iran, 2009, 93 min)

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows" people living on the remote salt islands of Iran's Lake Urmia cry their tears into bottles. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The White Meadows,” set in the Iran’s remote Lake Urmia region near Azerbaijan, is a surreal poetic fable that addresses the messy topics of sin, guilt, judgment and confession.  In fact, the story has such a strong Biblical feel to it that it’s difficult to discern the Muslim factor but there are several veiled references to contemporary Iran.  The story concerns an old boatman Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) who travels among the desolate salt islands and waterways of Iran’s Lake Urmia (the third–largest saltwater lake in the world) and ceremoniously collects people’s tears in a glass vial and mysteriously takes them away, only to later pour them into the sea.  What the precise role of this man is, we never know, but he is entrusted to hear secrets.  As people unburden their sorrows to him, somehow, they are cleansed.  It all sounds simple and beautiful but in Rasoulof’s world, this shaman is powerless to intervene or give advice against the vast injustices he encounters. 

Rasoulof, 37, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010.  Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually.  A rigorous vetting process entails censorship that begins with the script and follows a film through distribution.  The result is a rich set of low-budget films with an allegorical bend that offer some means of exploring social, political and religious codes within Muslim society.  “The White Meadows” carries on this tradition by offering a fable that can have as many real world applications as a poem–or–it can be taken as just as a story about strange people living in a strange land with stange customs.

The old boatman arrives to gather tears when tensions are most high—first, at a funeral for a young woman who has died suddenly and was buried in a mountain of preservative salt until he can transport her body off the island.  The male elders of the village mourn her but declare all is for the best because she was a temptress “to beautiful to live among us.”  Even the presence of her corpse on the island would cause men to dig her body up.   After collecting their tears, he takes her wrapped body off the island and then sneaks a forbidden peak.  He discovers that a fraud has been played out and that he is transporting a young boy Nassim (Younes Ghazali “Among the Clouds”) who intends to escape this bleak island life to find his father who also left the island.  An arrangement is made whereby the young man can accompany him by pretending to be his deaf and mute son. 

Remembering that tears turn into pearls, the boys steals a jar full while the old man sleeps and it is just a matter of time until he is caught.  They arrive next at an island where a young virgin is about to be cast out on a raft and offered as a bride to the sea, destiny unknown–the perfect metaphor for the unpredictable route that Iranian women travel.  Despite her mother’s pleadings, the old man does nothing to stop this act and the more tears that flow, the faster his vial fills.  Before the girl is carried off, the male elders certify publicly, one by one, that she is an undefiled virgin, worthy of sacrifice.  It is soon discovered that the boy has set out to rescue her but has been intercepted.  He is barbarically stoned to a bloody pulp by the village elders.  He survives but the old man proves to be more interested in protecting his position as confidant than in protecting the boy.  At this point, we glean another reference to contemporary Iran– a group of men in power are dictating the terms of societal behavior to their own advantage and ignoring universal moral rules.  

The next village is even more bazaar…inhabitants whisper their secrets into glass jars and then tightly cap the lids.  The crippled village dwarf (Omid Zare) is chosen to deliver these secrets to the fairies deep in a well before daylight.  With dozens of jars tied to his body, and carrying the symbolic weight of an entire village’s woes, he moves slowly through the crowd and down into the dark well.  When it is feared he will not make it in time, his rope is cut and he perishes.  This sacrifice allows the secrets of others to be assuaged but he leaves behind a young bride who will surely face a horrible future alone and ostracized.

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows," screening at SFIFF 53, a painter is punished for using red instead of blue paint for the sea. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

On the next island, a painter is buried up to his neck in sand and left to bake in the sun for the crime of painting the sea “red” instead of “blue.”  He refuses to alter his reality to avoid punishment and the tear gatherer transports him and the boy to an island penitentiary. And on it goes…the tension builds into a set of heart-piercing scenes and bizarre circumstances where ritual and senseless judgment, have more importance than compassion or real justice.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bath the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  

Some viewers may be put off by the lack of clarity and slow meandering tempo of the film.  Those who can pace themselves and handle high levels of ambiguity will be mesmerized by images that are both picturesque and eerily disturbing.  Ebrahim Ghafouri’s camerawork makes the film—much is shot from a distance, capturing darkly clad and covered women moving across the barren salt flats with some close-ups that provide clues for elements that come full circle at the close of the film. The sound is handled simply but eloquently enhancing the sense of isolation in a remote setting.  Extemporaneous guttural wailing has haunting power.  On one level, this is an exceedingly simple film expressing a human dilemma that should be comprehensible to all but whose solution remains incomprehensible… this about sums up contemporary Iran.

Screens: Friday April 23, 6:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Saturday April 24, 9:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Sunday April 25, 8 PM, Pacific Film Archive

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment