Friday, February 17, 2023

Film Review: Indies Go International, Traveling to South Korea (“Return to Seoul”), Ireland (“The Quiet Girl”) and Australia (“Of an Age”) With Varying Degrees of Difficulty

Return to Seoul (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Return to Seoul 
In Cinemas 

Freddie Benoît, a 25-year old French woman, has taken a short, impulsive detour from her vacation to South Korea. As we follow Freddie’s journey, we realize her life is filled with impulsive acts like this. Her mother is concerned when Freddie tells her what she has done, saying she had wanted to be with her when she returned to Seoul for the first time. Freddie is played by Park Ji-Min, and she was adopted by a French family from Korea when she was a baby. Freddie barely speaks Korean, and luckily at the hotel where she’s staying is a Korean woman (Guka Han) who speaks French. From there, Freddie’s journey takes many unexpected turns, including talking to the adoption agency and all the red tape involved in finding her birth parents, as well as her interaction with the Korean people she randomly meets, mostly communicating in their common language of broken English. Writer-director Davy Chou is a Cambodian-French filmmaker, and “Return to Seoul,” which was Cambodia’s entry for the International Film Oscars (it was shortlisted, but not one of the final five), is his second feature after his 2016 “Diamond Island.” Freddie is not a very sympathetic character, but Chou keeps us on her side as her plight is so relatable, even when she is rude, insolent and unsympathetic with most every stranger she meets. Chou emphasizes the culture shock Freddie has to deal with, especially when she finally does meet some family members. The film, which premiered at Cannes, was originally titled “All the People I’ll Never Be,” which is the sense of dislocation destiny that Freddie and the audience feel throughout, knowing that any slight change in one’s trajectory would have severe consequences on one’s life. Park Ji-Min is excellent as Freddie, who is both curious and repelled by what she discovers about her birth country she knows nothing about. It’s heartbreaking, but never sentimental, and a couple of late plot turns the film takes might feel arbitrary, but they’re in keeping with its themes of home, family and fate.


The Quiet Girl (c) Break Out Pictures

The Quiet Girl 
In Cinemas 

Director Colm Bairéad's debut film is appropriately named “The Quiet Girl” as it follows the titled Cáit’s (a wonderfully expressive Catherine Clinch) lead: she, like the film, doesn’t have much dialogue, but a lot can be construed from knowing pauses and wounded looks. Cáit is able to blend into the wallpaper at home with her gaggle of older sisters, but when her parents decide to send her away to the relatives while Mum is ready to give birth again, her summer accommodation, while more inviting, is as quiet and still as she is. Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) have recently lost their son to a terrible accident, and while Eibhlín is happy to have a child back in the house (giving the neglected girl some of her son’s clothes to wear), Seán is less enthusiastic. With Eibhlín giving Cáit attention that she was sorely lacking in her own home and school, she starts to emerge from her quiet shell to help Eibhlín with housework and eventually Seán on the farm. The film is mostly in Gallic, although heavily accented English is sometimes heard, but English creeps in occasionally. And if it weren’t for the cars, I would have been hard-pressed to figure out the time period. It certainly felt a lot earlier in the century than 1983. Bairéad's low-watt film is based on a short story by Claire Keegan, and it feels like it, but in a nice and slow methodical way that gives the story room to naturally expand. “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for an International Feature Film Oscar this year, and it might lose some of its quaintness under such scrutiny. While I personally found some other international films more ambitious, like “Decision to Leave” and “Return to Seoul,” there is much to admire in this intimate story. 

Of an Age (c) Focus Features

Of an Age 
In Cinemas 

You’ve heard of “meet cute.” Let me introduce you to “meet chaotic.” It is 1999 in Melbourne, Australia, and Kol (Elias Anton), a straight high school student, is about to perform in the finals of a dance competition when he gets a call from his dance partner, Ebony (Hattie Hook), that she has woken up after a long night’s bender on a strange beach and needs him to come pick her up. The only person with a car is her older brother, Adam (Thom Green), who is moving to Argentina the next day. So on top of the deadline of the competition and the rescue of Ebony, the two men, who are basically strangers, have to endure small talk during the hour ride to the beach. Unexpectedly, they do bond over music and movie talk, and Adam lets it slip that his last relationship was with a man. Throughout the course of a day that ends at a neighbor’s party, the two have gone from flirting to intense desire. Director Goran Stolevski has said that he was inspired by Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” but alas, this first part of the movie, filmed with extreme close-ups of faces, feels more claustrophobic than romantic. The second half of the film takes place ten years later when the two meet up again (essentially “Before Sunset”). I really wanted to like this movie, but even with the furtive glances and lusty looks, nothing during that fateful day even hints at anything resembling love, and yet we are asked to believe that when Adam finally leaves for Argentina, hearts have been broken. It doesn’t help that the acting is dialed up to an eleven throughout most of the film with Green being the only one who realizes he’s in a romantic movie. Movies like “Before Sunset” and “Weekend,” with their quick “meet-talk-connect” structure, really need a strong script to make the relationship feel believable. Unfortunately, there’s not much there there, even though much could have been mined at Adam’s goodbye dinner, which would have been a perfect time to see their growing attraction to each other. Alas, that scene is filmed as a montage. The two actors do have chemistry, and the second half is more successful as the movie switches from the thrill of possibility to a sense of regret, but I was left cold.

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