While we're on the subject of films one sees at festivals, some of which do and some of which don't, necessarily, fall under the category, such as it is, of "festival films:" One bad habit of mine is lack of due diligence in keeping track of films I see at festivals and admire and don't get a quick theatrical release in the U.S. following their festival bows. Of course, this habit becomes less irksome as time goes on and I attend fewer festivals, but it will still bite me in the ass now and again.
For instance. Yesterday I was waiting for a bus when I ran into the great writer and critic Phillip Lopate, who lives in my neighborhood. We have been friendly acquaintances for a while now, and it's always a pleasure to run into him and catch up. During our chat, he mentioned his enthusiasm for the Korean film Secret Sunshine. Which I myself had seen, and greatly admired, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. I wrote up a brief appreciation of it on the Premiere/In The Company of Glenn blog, articulated my approval when Do-yeon Jon, the film's lead player (shown above), got an acting award at the festival, and then filed the film away for potential future reference. Filed it away to the extent that the very limited theatrical release it got from IFC in late December of last year just did a complete end-run around my consciousness, such as it is. Phillip's great feeling for the film, as expressed in our chat, of course made me kick myself, after having gone on the record with my various "best" lists in various venues and not having even brought up the damn thing. I'm not quite ready to write up a unified field theory or any such thing, but one feature of the New Cinephilia, which relates in certain respects to the whole notion of the "festival film" as well as to a certain "Long Tail" idea of markets, is something that for the time being I'll call consumption fragmentation. To wit, an item such as Secret Sunshine does, like Harmony Korine's aforementioned Trash Humpers, have something resembling a built in (albeit small) audience; there's a Western bloc of Korean film aficionados who are just going to check this thing out reflexively, as it were. At some point, though, one critic, or reviewer, or another, is going to decide that picture X is something that deserves, and should get, the attention of a wider audience. In my case, well, I think that Secret Sunshine is such a picture, and I suppose were I to put it that way to a critic such as Phillip, he might concur. In any event, we agreed that in certain respect the picture is a tough sell; by certain conventional standards, it's both lengthy and slow, and the tragedy that occurs about 40 minutes into its running time and puts the narrative on a different track than had been expected is a very, very upsetting one. Almost generically so, as it happens. But it's better (in a sense) experienced than described; seeing the film cold, with almost no expectations, was quite a galvanic thing, and I see I said so when I first wrote up my thoughts from Cannes:
Not a frame is wasted in this 142-minute Korean drama from director Lee Chang-Dong, which begins with a mother and son stranded on the road to Miryang, the Korean town whose Chinese characters translate as the film's title. The mother and son are rescued by The Host's Kang-Ho Song, here with another bad haircut, playing a friendly auto mechanic who falls hard for the woman, a piano teacher settling in the town of her late husband's birth.
The first 40 minutes or so comprise fish-out-of-water comedy/drama of the sort that might have Hollywood pursuing remake rights, but an awful tragedy sends the movie and its heroine into another direction altogether—a direction I think is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, hence my skimpy plot description from here. The story's component involving religion evokes Bunuel without adopting his barbed irony; the theme of a woman losing control of her life recalls Cassavettes, but Lee doesn't go for the burn-rubber emotionalism of the American director. What makes this movie so hard to pin down critically, especially in blog-time, is how little Lee's style recalls other directors'[...]
I stand by all that, but note that since I wrote that, I've learned how to put the tilde over the "n" in Buñuel's name, so yay me. If you're in New York, Secret Sunshine is still screening at the IFC Center as of this writing. It's tough, yes, but well worth checking out.