AFI Fest 2013: “The Unknown Known,” “The Past,” “Our Sunhi,” & “The Green Inferno”

AFI Fest 2013On my final night attending this year’s AFI Fest, I hustled across the Chinese multiplex lobby from a screening of Hong Sang-soo’s “Our Sunhi” to another of “Borgman,” the reportedly highly disturbing Dutch film that made waves at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I was too late to secure anything better than a second-row seat, which seemed intolerable after craning my neck earlier for “Our Sunhi.” Thus, I decided to call an audible and see whatever movie was next on the schedule. This turned out to be Eli Roth’s cannibalism-laden B-pic “The Green Inferno.” Yes, that Eli Roth — the guy who made “Cabin Fever” and both of the “Hostel” movies. While I may not have liked “The Green Inferno” (more on this later in the column), I must say, there’s nothing like a film festival where the latest Hong and the latest Roth are playing mere feet from each other. AFI’s willingness to program to a wide variety of tastes, celebrating both the highest art and the lowest, is one of its greatest virtues.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris' "The Unknown Known."
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris’ documentary “The Unknown Known.”

It’s no surprise that the critical establishment has responded in rather lukewarm fashion to Errol Morris’ documentary portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known,” for the film’s evenhanded depiction of the former Secretary of Defense’s political career is far from the hatchet-job that many adamant leftists would have preferred. While Morris does not skirt around criticisms of Rumsfeld, particularly when it comes to the Bush Administration’s Iraq-related blunders, his film is respectful in nature, even when Rumsfeld seems to be holding back essential details. “The Unknown Known” is more concerned with understanding the life and personality of a high-ranking official, with what drove him to make the decisions that he did, than it is with superficial “Gotcha!” moments or partisan lines of questioning. Often, the seemingly throwaway conversations, like the story of how Rumsfeld proposed to his wife, yield the greatest insights into the kind of man he is. Morris also has Rumsfeld read from the literally thousands of memos he recorded into a Dictaphone throughout his tenure at the White House, which provides the recent history a compelling new sense of intimacy. While “The Unknown Known” is unlikely to win Rumsfeld any new fans, the film humanizes the man (for better and for worse) in such a way that it makes him far more difficult to dismiss as the conspiring, corrupt villain that Bush detractors often paint. B+

Tahar Rahim and Bérénice Bejo star in Asghar Farhadi's "The Past."
Tahar Rahim and Bérénice Bejo star in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.”

“The Past” is writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s hotly anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning “A Separation,” and while it lacks the strong social subtext of that near-masterpiece—the setting has moved from Farhadi’s native Iran to a Parisian suburb—it’s an expertly crafted family melodrama in its own right. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to France to finalize his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist”), who’s all the while having problems with her new fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir is still married to a woman who is in a coma for reasons initially unknown to us. The backstory—or the past, if you prefer to take the title literally—is unveiled in a series of dramatic revelations that constantly change our interpretation of these characters and their relationships to one another. (Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie [Pauline Burlet] also plays a pivotal role.) What’s most formally impressive is how, with these revelations, the film seamlessly takes on different protagonists — it begins as Ahmad’s story, shifts to being Marie’s, and then ends up Samir’s. This multi-perspectival approach allows Farhadi to explore the nature of human communication, why we often can’t get through to one another because of our different views of the same events. “The Past” is also quite visually accomplished; the rugged close-ups of “A Separation” have been replaced by more painterly compositions fit for a true melodrama. Which is not to say that “The Past” is at all serene, but it is beautiful in its toughness. A-

Jeong Yu-mi is the star of Hong Sang-soo's latest, "Our Sunhi."
Jeong Yu-mi is the star of Hong Sang-soo’s latest, “Our Sunhi.”

“Our Sunhi” is a Hong Sang-soo film through and through: distinctly quirky, at times darkly funny, leisurely in pace, short in duration, and centered on the lives of film students. The titular character (Jeong Yu-mi) has returned to college after graduation to procure a letter of recommendation for graduate school from Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong), who ends up being one of three men who romantically pursue her. The other two are ex-boyfriend Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun) and his fellow filmmaker friend Jaehak (Jung Jae-young). The predictability of the fact that the trio of suitors’ attempts to woo Sunhi will mount to an awkwardly coincidental climax is part of the fun. Hong is something of an acquired taste, but if you’re a fan, “Our Sunhi” will hit the spot; given how prolific the filmmaker is, I’d liken the experience of watching his films to eating at a favorite old restaurant you make a point of going out of your way for twice a year. Jeong really sinks her teeth into the lead role Hong has crafted here, vibrating with a nervous energy that’s always guiltlessly funny because Hong’s attitude toward her character is sympathetic, not deprecating. I’m not sure that “Our Sunhi” says much profound about human behavior and relationships, but it sure is pleasurable to watch. B

Kirby Bliss Blanton ("Project X") is among the college students put through "The Green Inferno."
Kirby Bliss Blanton (“Project X”) is among the college students put through “The Green Inferno.”

Now about that Eli Roth movie. “The Green Inferno,” Roth’s loving ode to the cannibal and travelogue sub-genres of horror, tries its best to be as offensive and disgusting as possible, and is mostly successful. I admittedly had a good time watching it with a very vocal crowd; it’s hard not to chuckle at a scene that features a character masturbating while imprisoned by savage South American cannibals (as a result of a geographically unfortunate plane crash, no less). But at the same time, haven’t we seen enough horror flicks that have operated on this very same sense of comic extremeness? (Though, I will admit, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another that goes as far as this one in terms of demolishing any semblance of good taste.) It’s appreciable that Roth has developed a sense of humor that was sorely lacking from his reprehensible “Hostel” pictures, and that he’s found a decent damsel-in-distress in lead actress Lorena Izzo, but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that “The Green Inferno” was made for purely selfish reasons, that Roth simply wanted to amuse himself by tackling his favorite film styles. It’s an enjoyable enough sit if you like this kind of thing—though I must stress, do not under any circumstances see “The Green Inferno” if you do not like this kind of thing— but it never really justifies its existence. More blood, more boobs, more stereotypes — it is what it is. C

That’s a wrap on my AFI Fest 2013 coverage. See you next year.