PIFF 42: Take 3

The 42nd Portland International Film Festival is rolling headlong into its second weekend. I'm rolling right along with it in the blog's third installment of impressions and notes about films I've seen. ("Review" would be too highfalutin a word for these modest scribblings.) Here goes, and no better way to start than with South Korean director Hong Sang-soo and Hotel by the River, shot in just over two weeks, between January 29 and February 14, 2018.


I first encountered Hong Sang-soo when his films Claire's Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone, and The Day After played at last year's festival (PIFF 2018: Take 2 and PIFF 2018: Take 5). At that time I wrote, "I do not yet know what to make of Hong Sang-soo. He may be one of those filmmakers in whom pleasure is to be found as much in reflection afterward as in viewing the film, maybe more."


Hotel by the River is distinctively Hong Sang-soo. A lot of talk. Not much happens. It captures something of how life is. I think of Eric Rohmer when I think of Hong's films. The cast includes Hong regulars Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, and Kwon Hae-hyo.


Ko (Ki Joo-bong) is an aging poet staying at a nondescript hotel with a view of a river. His two sons visit him there. They meet at the hotel coffee shop and talk. That night they go to a nearby restaurant for dinner, more talk, and consumption of quite a bit of alcohol.


Also staying at the hotel is a young woman (Kim Min-hee, with whom Hong had a scandalous affair in 2012, on which On the Beach at Night Alone was based) who is recovering from the end of her affair with a married man. She is consoled by a friend who meets her at the hotel. The two women spend much of the time in the young woman's room talking and lying in bed together, always fully clothed.


Ko the poet is sufficiently well known to be recognized by the waitress at the coffee shop, who asks him to autograph a copy of his book she bought, and by the friend of the Kim Min-hee character, who also recognizes one of Ko's sons, a film director. When asked what she thinks of the director, she replies that she is ambivalent. He does not appeal to the masses, but he is hardly an auteur. He is just diligent. Is Hong Sang-soo perhaps thinking of himself here?


The director is unmarried, a subject about which he is sensitive and defensive. His brother is divorced but does not want to tell his father. After dinner the sons wait outside while Ko uses the restroom. The director asks if they can smoke. His brother tells him their father said it is okay.


When Ko asks if their mother ever speaks of him, the divorced son tells him that every day she says he is a shit, a total monster. Ko, a mild-mannered little fellow, takes this in stride. He explains they were young when they married and never really in love. There is an oblique reference to an affair where he knew love for a time until the woman left him.


Hotel by the River is marked by missed connections and chance encounters, puzzling disappearances, odd coincidences, and family bickering, all comedic in a low-key fashion. Scenes such as one of the women out by the river in a snow-covered landscape of austere and desolate beauty are exquisitely framed and beautifully shot (the movie is filmed in black and white). The ending is abrupt, almost melodramatic.


Hong Sang-soo is probably not to everyone's taste. I like him and I liked Hotel by the River. I will see it again if the opportunity comes along.


Dir. by Hong Song-soo. 96 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.


First Night Nerves (Hong Kong/China). I had trouble following this one at the beginning. It was okay once I figured who was who. Maybe better than just okay. I thought of Fellini a little as I watched it. My PIFF pal Steve said he thought of Woody Allen. Celebrity, glitz, high fashion, money. Some lovely shots of Hong Kong. The film is about the production of a play featuring two successful actresses who are none too fond of one another. Rivalry, backstabbing, insecurity, a young woman's romantic pursuit of one of the actresses while the young woman's wealthy grandmother advertises for a suitable husband for the girl, a director who has not been a man for some time. Soapy, campy, tabloid gossipy, with gay and trans characters and of course the über wealthy. And above all, more than mildly entertaining.


Dir. by Stanley Kwan. 100 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

The Chambermaid (Mexico). Eve is a maid in an upscale hotel in Mexico City. Along with the routine, mundane tasks that go with the job she must cater to a VIP guest's repeated demands for more amenities, an Argentinian woman who wants her to look after her infant son while she showers, a window washer with a crush on her who hovers outside rooms peering in while she cleans them. The Argentinian woman asks if Eva's four-year-old son is playing with his penis yet. They all do at that age, she says knowingly. This one, referring to her own son, will be doing it all the time if he's anything like his father.


Eve is quiet, unassuming, and diligent. She reads the copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull given her by the instructor at her GED class and calls the woman who looks after her own son whenever she has a free moment. The older woman who operates the elevator is reading Petals on the Wind, a popular novel I sold by the bucket load while working in bookstores in the 1980s. Jonathan Livingston Seagull also helped pay the rent in those days. It seems that Petals on the Wind is now a Lifetime original movie. Ah, but I digress.


My PIFF pal Joyce commented at the end, It's not Roma but it has its moments. Indeed. A nice little film with undeniable charm.


Dir. by Lila Avilés. 102 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.


Central Airport THF (Germany/France/Brazil). Berlin's Tempelhof Airport was opened in 1923. It ceased operating in 2008. Today its hangars are used as Germany's largest emergency shelter for refugees and its airfield serves as a city park. Central Airport THF is a documentary that loosely follows a year in the life of a young Syrian refugee seeking asylum. Life for the refugees housed at the airport as their cases wend slowly through the bureaucratic process is not something any of us would want to endure, but the picture we get stands in contrast to reports of treatment accorded refugees at the southern border of the US. Interesting, informative, worth seeing.


Dir. by Karim Aïnouz. 97 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.


One Day (Hungary). Anna's three children are a handful. Simon, maybe eight give or take a year, forgets things and loses stuff. Kindergartner Sarí may have a touch of hyperactivity. Toddler Márkó contributes to the chaos. Between school, kindergarten, daycare, ballet, fencing, a cello concert, her job, things come at Anna relentlessly, never a respite, most of it pretty banal but one thing after another after another, and nothing is ever easy. Household finances are a mess even though she and her husband are both professionals; she is an Italian teacher and he seems to be an attorney. Oh, yes, her husband, afflicted with a touch of infidelity. He has something of an affair that may or may not be over. He doesn't want to talk about it.


One Day is effective in its portrayal of a woman overwhelmed. Anna is intelligent, conscientious, responsible, altogether a sympathetic character. The performance by Zsófia Szamosi as Anna is as good as any I've seen at the festival. Yet the film is more tiresome than compelling, in the end just not satisfying. I wanted to like it and almost did. Some in the audience applauded. Maybe mine is a minority view.


Dir. by Zsófia Szilágyi (former assistant to Ildikó Enyedi, director of the luminous On Body and Soul, which screened last year at PIFF 41). 99 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.


Ray & Liz (UK). I gave up on this one about an hour into it, something I almost never do, and I was far from the first to make an early exit. It is a mean and squalid film about a lower-class British family, father an alcoholic, mother self-absorbed and mean, children neglected and brutalized physically and psychically, given to behavior that might be expected of them in the circumstances. PIFF pals Bob and Janet saw it through to the end. Neither thought I missed anything by by walking out.


Dir. by Richard Billingham. 108 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.

Upcoming showtime at Regal Fox Tower: Sunday March 17 @ 8:30 pm.

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David Matthews

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