Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Writings on the Wall

24 City plays again tomorrow, 10/23, at River East at 8:50pm.

After seeing more than half-a-dozen or so movies at any festival, one starts seeing patterns in the selections, overlapping themes. It’s always risky to lunge at generalizations about The State of World Cinema or (grander yet) What the World’s Thinking About. Better to regard the experience as a private optical illusion—the magic reassembly of disparate films into a cohesive whole.

That said, almost everything I’ve seen so far at CIFF has involved somebody losing their job. The exceptions—Sleep Dealer, Don’t Look Down, Delta, and 24 City—have involved people accepting menial labor. Comparisons to the global economic crisis are so obvious they don’t need to be spelled out… except these movies were conceived at least a year in advance, by artists working in different countries with different agendas. How legible was the writing on the wall?

Of the movies I’ve watched concerning unemployment, only one has incorporated failure in its overall aesthetic strategy: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata. The CIFF program aptly describes it as a quiet drama about an average Japanese family—just barely avoiding an allusion to Yasujiro Ozu—and so it is until the final half-hour, when it operates in a sort-of narrative free-fall, with each new development seeming to come from a different movie. Before then, it is a compelling, but somewhat familiar look at a family in crisis, with the central story concerning the businessman father who’s too proud to admit he’s been laid off. The film follows his wife and two children (well-meaning misfits both) separately, so to stress how alienated they’ve become from one another. In its structure and patient, long takes, Tokyo Sonata has less in common with Ozu than with Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), the greatest contemporary family film; and like Yang’s great accomplishment, understated humor tempers the melancholy of Modern Life. But then there’s the final 30 minutes. Without giving away too much, it forces the audience to switch from thinking about a family in crisis to what it means to lose everything—home, relations, one’s very sanity. It’s been less than a day since I watched Tokyo Sonata, and I’m still undecided as to whether its plot twist is brilliant or merely a great trick. Either way, I hope it returns to Chicago with a proper run so I can see it again.

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