Might a third dimension be too much for the Milwaukee Film Festival?
That prospect crossed my mind as I accepted a pair of 3D glasses for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a fluorescent Chinese marvel about Luo Hongwu, a man returning home to the Guizhou province to search for a past lover. Seventy minutes into the film, Luo enters a movie theater and only then are viewers asked to put on their glasses. What follows is a miraculous single take in 3D that lasts nearly an hour and uses Steadicams, drones and zip-lines to swoop viewers into an uninterrupted, nocturnal fever dream about memory, melancholy and the movies.
“How do we know we’re dreaming?,” one character muses, and the question perhaps doubles as director Bi Gan’s manifesto, a statement that clues viewers into how to surrender to the ambiguous, heightened sensory experience that is “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Truth be told, by the time I queued for Bi’s neon-drenched triumph on the second afternoon of the 15-day festival, my senses were already in overdrive: “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a silent classic presented with live musical accompaniment, had bewitched my ears; “Monos,” a thunderous, violent drama set in the mountains of Colombia, had seared my eyes; and “Driveways,” an empathetic portrait of small-town kindness, had exercised my heart.
Adding a 3D event—the first at the Oriental Theatre since “Jaws 3-D” in 1983—only amplified how the 11th edition of the Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 31, cartwheeled among competing genres and styles, often to dizzying effect.
There was one knockout movie that, like the festival at large, deftly blended a madcap mix of tones. Swiveling between bleak, hilarious, diabolical and wrenching with astonishing ease, Bong Joon-ho’s multi-layered black comedy “Parasite” was not just the festival’s best picture. With its wide range of feeling, it was also the festival in perfect microcosm.
Winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “Parasite” opens with a family of grifters living in a tiny, dire basement in Seoul, where the vast gap between the rich and the poor has forced the family to respond in wildly inappropriate, and wildly funny, ways. Through a shared contact, the son, Kim Ki-woo, bluffs his way into becoming a tutor to the daughter of the extremely wealthy Park family. That’s when the movie shifts into a labyrinthine double parody: As Ki-woo schemes to have the home’s hired staff replaced one by one by his sister, father and mother, “Parasite” lampoons both home-invasion thrillers and the myths of trickle-down economic theory. It’s as heady and entertaining and wondrous as it sounds.
If you’ve seen other films by Bong (“Snowpiercer,” “Okja”), you won’t be surprised when the slapstick register of “Parasite” assimilates sudden and devastating violence, or when Bong ties that lashing out to a sustained portrait of class resentment, dog-eat-dog capitalism and misplaced grudges among the underclass. What’s new, though, is how Bong’s political punch carries greater nuance—the struggling Kims and the privileged Parks are presented as flipsides, leaving open-ended the question of which family is most parasitic—and, it must be said, greater despair. Late in the film, when patriarch Kim Ki-taek concedes he has no plan, it is a portent of how severe economic inequality breeds desperation and, by extension, an abandonment of self-restraint.
I haven’t touched on Bong’s biggest twists, because going in the less you know about the movie the better. “Parasite” began its area theatrical run the day after the festival ended, so run to Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre, Brookfield’s Marcus Majestic Cinema or Wauwatosa’s AMC Mayfair Mall 18 before anyone can spoil its secrets.
Many of the festival’s documentaries arrived spoiled, using the same flat, drab talking-head template familiar from television. For instance, the opening night selection, “I Want My MTV,” confuses an uncritical oral history of the music channel for an act of journalism, while “Building the American Dream,” which generically examines the nexus between labor law and undocumented construction workers, has value as agitprop but no value as cinema.
It was therefore gratifying when two superb nonfiction pieces each left Milwaukee with jury prizes, starting with Brett Story’s anthropological “The Hottest August,” which won the Herzfeld Competition Award for its artful quilting of New York City residents speaking about their everyday lives. What emerges is a rumbling sense of anxiety about the modern world, consistently couched in strange, eloquent, quotidian images from inside the five boroughs.
Cultivating ordinary existence in times of conflict is also the subject of Waad al-Kateab’s “For Sama,” although its central crisis is much less abstract. Recorded in Aleppo during five years of the Syrian Civil War, the relentlessly riveting documentary is arranged as a letter to al-Kateab’s daughter that explains the complex reasons why her parents decided to stay in a war zone despite the clear dangers to themselves and their infant. “To try to live a normal life in this place is to stand against the regime,” al-Kateab says, while her unflinching camera bears real-time witness to bombs, killings, blood-soaked emergency rooms, grieving mothers and mass burials.
That makes “For Sama” sound like a harrowing horror show, which it is. But it’s also a deeply moving love story; an intimate video diary from the point of view of a specific woman, wife and mother; and one of the most personal, eye-opening chronicles of civilian resistance ever committed to film. It rightly earned both the Documentary Festival Favorites Award and the inaugural Mohammed Amin Courage in Filmmaking Award.
While al-Kateab aims to demystify life in wartime, Alejandro Landes magnifies its incomprehensibility in “Monos,” a feature film about eight teens guarding an American hostage upon orders of a South American paramilitary organization. Things go wrong, of course, but that plot is merely a pretext for studying how these feral “monkeys,” damaged by strife, are ill-equipped to play soldiers, play lovers, play adults. Landes contributes a bravura, prowling visual style—he owes a great deal to Dutch cinematographer Jasper Wolf—but it’s Mica Levi’s throbbing, clanging musical score that best communicates how this young squadron has been unnaturally ravaged by war.
Not all movies need to shout, though, as French master François Ozon proves in his spare yet dramatically explosive take on the enduring effects of childhood trauma. “By the Grace of God” is a “Spotlight”-style procedural that cleanly, speedily charts the real-life mission of three men, survivors of abuse, to expose how the Catholic Church allowed Father Bernard Preynat to continue working with children even after his crimes were known. The movie is deceptively austere; look closely, and you’ll notice that Ozon often switches gears to mine each scene, and each character, for rich ethical quandaries.
Trapped by escalating dilemmas, the Newcastle working-class parents at the center of “Sorry We Missed You” can’t catch a break. Director Ken Loach’s pressurized, step-by-step takedown of the gig economy—Ricky delivers parcels, Abbie provides home care—ingeniously presents the family’s efforts to get ahead as thrashing about in quicksand. Given how Ricky’s key to upward mobility is a new white van, and how his aspirations lead to a trenchant (and brilliant) ending, Loach risks comparisons to “The Bicycle Thief.” But even Vittorio De Sica might envy how “Sorry We Missed You” persuasively finds cause with the exploited through a timeless story that is generous, direct and true.
“It just seems to me that everything’s out of whack,” Ricky says, echoing the frustrations felt by Kim Ki-taek in “Parasite.” The two men might be separated by continents, but their shared, simmering grievances are universal—which is why audiences at the Milwaukee Film Festival didn’t need special glasses to be overwhelmed by their cautionary dimensions.
Five Favorite Films at the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival
- “Parasite” / dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea
- “For Sama” / dirs. Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, United Kingdom
- “Sorry We Missed You” / dir. Ken Loach, United Kingdom
- “Monos” / dir. Alejandro Landes, Colombia
- “By the Grace of God” / dir. François Ozon, France