“They’re both judges,” explained Peter Goldberg, a retired public defender, as he waved at two filmgoers seated near the front of the Jan Serr Studio Cinema.
We were there to see “The Guilty,” a Danish thriller that proved to be one of the most buzzworthy movies at the 10th annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Nov. 1. Of course, everybody’s a judge at a film festival, where rulings, objections and oral arguments monopolize every theater lobby, every queue and every sidewalk.
Thankfully, the verdicts don’t need to be unanimous. Despite our matching tastes—we’ve stood together in the same MFF lines for several years now—I was less enthused than Peter about “The Guilty,” a real-time police procedural that never leaves the call center where an emergency phone operator tries to help a frantic, kidnapped woman trapped inside a moving van. For me, the utilitarian production design could not obscure a schematic screenplay that overburdens the title with multiple meanings, nor protect a late twist that turns the story on its earpiece. For Peter, though, the film used its claustrophobic suspense to cross-examine the criminal justice system in surprising ways.
Might my friend’s cultural approach, rooted in his personal experience, outweigh my formalist concerns? Resolving such queries is central to evaluating any work of art, but the festival setting is often inhospitable for measured analysis. In fact, it’s easy to feel bewildered while spending 15 days inside the MFF tribunal, watching too many movies and making too many snap judgments, which is why any ranking attempt could rightfully be declared a mistrial.
But if lobby chatter is any gauge, all cinephiles are list-makers by temperament. Count me among the guilty.
For most of the festival, it seemed to be South Korea’s year. During the opening weekend, I saw Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” and Hong Sang-soo’s “Grass,” and their impact went largely unchallenged until the final stretch, when a Japanese film knocked “Burning” from the top perch and an American film pushed “Grass” out of my top five.
Still, I suspect that “Grass,” once separated from a festival where noisier ventures likely drowned out its graceful minimalism, will only grow in stature. Barely an hour long, the mysterious, black-and-white story concerns a café patron in Seoul quietly eavesdropping on three pained conversations, shot in long takes, that seem connected only by threads of accusation and pleading. It might be one of Hong’s slightest works, but it’s an act of fine sculpting that unexpectedly becomes unmoored from conventional time and existence: With its accommodating owner always out of frame, the shapeshifting café maybe stands in for purgatory, or maybe worse.
The Top Five
The main characters of Lee’s “Burning,” which details an awkward love triangle before splintering into Hitchcockian menace, are also stuck in a kind of anguished limbo, but here it signals larger ideas about class division and cultural malaise. “How does he live like this at his age?,” the young, country-raised Jongsu asks about Ben, his rival who maintains a luxurious yet curiously vacant life in Gangnam. Jongsu and Ben practically belong to different species, but it’s their shared sense of dim prospects—whether romantic or economic or spiritual—that both binds and maddens them. “Burning” is ultimately about simmering fear and frustration, which explains why there’s no catharsis when the lethal denouement finally arrives.
To my eyes, the novelistic heights of “Burning” were equaled at MFF only by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” but Kore-eda swaps Lee’s modern, hypnotic style for something closer to traditional neorealism. Winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “Shoplifters” extends the director’s usual domestic themes, this time centering on a makeshift brood that survives via petty theft. How should we feel when they “rescue” a four-year-old girl from abusive parents, making her one of their own? Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines plot, the movie is less interested in crime than in probing, with startling nuance, joy, and dark turns, what it means to be a family.
What elevates “Shoplifters” above “Burning,” I think, is that it’s powered not by rage but by a sprawling humanism. Both films shrewdly diagnose the bleak realities coursing through their societies, but only one suggests a way forward.
“Birds of Passage” also surveys family loyalties within a lawless milieu, albeit on a more epic, violent scale. Set primarily in the 1970s, the crime saga charts how the nascent drug trade in northern Colombia corrodes an indigenous Wayúu tribe governed by rigid customs of honor and superstition. What happens when ancestral wisdom is sidestepped in favor of a quick buck? If the film’s answer is prosaic, its journey is riveting and its imagery sublime. By synthesizing genre, ethnography and poetry, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra have created something totally new.
Majestic visuals are the best thing about Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” too. Photographed in bracing monochrome and the square-like Academy aspect ratio, the story follows Polish musicians Wiktor and Zula through a tempestuous 15-year love affair. They may not be well suited, but the camera loves them, especially Joanna Kulig, who plays Zula as a chanteuse both silver-tongued and vulnerable. In one long, swirling shot, she lashes out by dancing madly to “Rock Around the Clock,” and her face beckons Wiktor to launch a thousand ships to win their war.
Such deep yearning is well beyond the reach of the riffraff who ogle the servers at Double Whammies, the Texas sports bar at the center of Andrew Bujalski’s workplace comedy “Support the Girls.” In the Me Too era, that setting raises eyebrows, I know, but Bujalski’s groove is much closer to Richard Linklater than, say, Kevin Smith. Behind the funny, accumulating crises over a 24-hour period lies an analytical regard for what it takes to manage low-wage labor, an egalitarian interest in the humanity of each character and, finally, a unified howl in favor of female solidarity.
Given how nearly half of the features presented at MFF this year were directed by women, “Support the Girls” would have been a fitting choice for the festival’s audience award. If you ask me for my thoughts about the actual winner, the inspirational documentary “Science Fair,” I’m going to have to plead the Fifth.
Five Favorite Films at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival
- “Shoplifters” / dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan
- “Burning” / dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea
- “Birds of Passage” / dirs. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia
- “Cold War” / dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland
- “Support the Girls” / dir. Andrew Bujalski, USA