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Los Angeles Film Festival 2014: The Liberator, 10 Minutes, and Han Gong-ju

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2014: <em>The Liberator</em>, <em>10 Minutes</em>, and <em>Han Gong-ju</em>

There’s a moment that pretty much tells the story of how The Liberator tells its story: After delivering an epigrammatic one-liner about the future of South America, Simón Bolívar (Édgar Ramírez) cuts a check just as the film smash cuts into the middle of the war financed by that check. The intervening years, and the web of people and causes and actions leading to war, are also trimmed away by the cut as we’re dropped into the chaos of a battle in which the only course of action seems to be continuously pushing forward. If we stipulate Bolívar’s heroism and political significance, we should also stipulate that history is multifaceted and complex, perhaps too much so for a two-hour film. The Liberator struggles under that burden, and in trying to encompass the whole of Bolívar’s life, it unfortunately also suggests that the fate of an entire continent flowed from the psychological scars of the son of a dead mother and husband of a dead wife, which is fine if you’re dealing with a fictional action hero as opposed to playing with the live grenade of historical discourse.

Directed by Alberto Arvelo and penned by Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton, the film follows Bolívar’s rise from “little rich boy” among the Venezuelan colonial elite to revolutionary military and political hero in the fight for independence from Spain. The film is upfront about lensing the world psychologically through Bolívar’s eyes, as in the first sequence that intercuts between Bolívar the man escaping from a coup attempt and Bolívar the boy running away from his mother’s wake. It’s also seen in the way the environment is so drastically pinned to Bolívar’s temperament and position in his predestined historical arc: When he first brings back his wife, María Teresa (María Valverde), to Venezuela from Spain, the landscapes are bright and lively, complete with colorful storybook butterflies. When María falls ill, it takes but an instant for the skies to go grey and stormy as a background for Bolívar to brood.

Of course, these rapid transitions come from the demand to keep pushing forward. Time isn’t on the side of this film, but rather, time drives it. However, it doesn’t take a 1970s neo-Marxist Cahiers du Cinéma editor to see that these kinds of symbolic condensations also mythologize and deify their subject. In order for the world of the film to make sense, you also have to buy into the message underlying that world. In another scene, Bolívar suffers temporary exile into the jungle, and we see him punching a child and choking him in the mud for stealing his boots; this is presented as a crisis of conscience. Another quick cut and suddenly we’re seeing him giving a rousing speech to the men (including that same child) before heading into battle. In order to make that transition work, we have to believe there’s something special about Bolívar, that he’s already a hero so as to get people to so easily follow him, as opposed to showing the long process of learning, contemplation, and dialogue that social change actually requires.

And so this is the process of the film: It cannot show history with any sort of complexity, so it instead gives us masses of people moved by Bolívar’s words, and gorgeous sweeping vistas of the landscape backed by a stirring orchestra. We get montages of battles and movement, and symbolically charged moments like Bolívar dancing with his slaves and laying hands on a beatific native woman in order to justify the claim of founding fatherhood for all the people of the continent. Arvelo and Sexton go so far as to endorse the “Bolívar was assassinated” theory as much as they can without stating it outright. The film instead works best in its small moments: Bolívar in love, or the camaraderie he shows on the battlefield with his compatriots—and these moments also give Ramírez the chance to play a human being rather than a symbol.

My own inner ’70s neo-Marxist Cahiers du Cinéma editor demands that I also point out the resonant timing between the release of such an ultrapatriotic film and the climate of intense political unrest in Venezuela. In its sweeping bird’s-eye battle views and reliance on gestural symbolism, this rendition of a centuries-old story can’t help but resemble a centuries-old art form: the historical painting. That genre of painting derived its overflowing prestige from depicting the actions of Great Men and great battles. What those kinds of work said, far more than whatever they were supposed to be about, was: “I have been authorized by wealth and power to transmit this image to you. The truth cannot fit in this frame, but let’s pretend that it can.”

With an entirely different sense of space, Korean director Lee Yong-seung quickly sets the boundaries of the world in his debut feature 10 Minutes: a cramped, cubicled office floor where even the boss is jammed into a corner nook, and an apartment in a posh Seoul neighborhood that nevertheless feels just as claustrophobic when it houses a family of four. These are the two spaces that Ho-chan (Baek Jong-hwan) shuffles between; he dreams of passing the barrage of exams needed to become a television producer, but in the meantime he makes his first foray into the working world as an intern for a government media agency. He quickly comes across as an earnest and diligent worker, though the actual purview and product of that work is deliberately left hazy beyond stacks of paperwork and PowerPoints; after all, as he’s told, “all workplaces are pretty much the same.”

Lee’s debut feature is a tale of contemporary precarity and economic survival. Ho-chan is the eldest son of a disabled and debt-ridden father, and his story at first seems to pose the tension between following one’s dream and the cold necessities of financial stability when he’s presented with a full-time job offer from his boss. However, Lee lets the complications of office politics and desperation slowly build until we’re blindsided by how much the horizons of Ho-chan’s world have contracted. Eventually even the possibility of stability seems forlorn, let alone any kind of dream or aspiration.

Lee decisively showcases the deft, subtle hand needed to pull off satirical social critique, populating Ho-chan’s workplace with characters that highlight the office as a potentially dreary dead-end, and yet also a bauble that might be worth settling for. There’s a stark discrepancy between what the co-workers tell Ho-chan and what they do for (and to) him, but not to the point that they become caricatures or evil people; instead, the film traces the disconnect between their outward good humor and the inner life we never access directly, but nevertheless see in every action. They show bravado and pride because without that they’d either be unemployed or jump out a window, and it’s unclear which they’d consider the worse outcome. It’s just one of the strands of dark humor that run through the film, sardonically perched between workplace hijinks and anomic tragedy. Lee maintains a striking control over the material, and we’re continually left guessing which side we’ll end up with.

He’s aided by a measured performance from Baek; Ho-chan has to put on a display for his family and his colleagues, and for most of the film, his feelings aren’t given any overt outward expression. Yet we can see them in the contours of Baek’s microexpressions, from a twitch of the eye to a downward glance. And when he’s pushed to the limit, his reactions are just as compelling.

Lee gives him the right spaces to work with, not just in the cramped confines that dominate the film, but in the cityscapes of Seoul as well. Though these wide open shots might provide some respite, they also capture the loneliness and uncertainty of Ho-chan’s situation. The streets are never bustling, never lively; the most energy we get from them is a drunken shoving match. If Lee fashions the office as a coffin, he makes the city into a mausoleum. It’s the right aesthetic to underpin the choices Ho-chan has available to him. He says out loud something we probably think but never actually put into words: “I want to have an easy life.” Yet in his world it’s difficult to discern how to get that, or even what such a thing would look like.

Here’s a sweeping generalization about Korean films: One of the most impressive things about them is the way that they lay out their extremes of affect and emotion right on the table. In certain films you get both moments of unremitting tragedy and darkness right alongside bits of the absurd and light-hearted, and defying expectations they merge into a cohesive whole that probably better reflects the way we experience the ups and downs of life itself. So it is with Han Gong-ju, the first feature from writer-director Lee Su-jin. The titular teenage protagonist, played by Chun Woo-hee, has moved to a new town and a new school. She tries to get along with her new landlady, and falls in with group of a cappella singers at school after a Pitch Perfect “singing in the shower” meet-cute. Yet we also find out that this change of scenery was spurred by the aftermath of unspeakable trauma, the consequences of which trail her like a dark cloud.

The film is slow to parcel out the explicit details (in both senses) of that trauma, though Korean viewers would likely recognize the points of inspiration from an infamous 2004 gang rape case. In any case, we can know what happened to her without knowing, just by reading the subtleties of Chun’s body language: in the way she cradles herself and shrinks into space, and in how her furtive glances struggle to rise from the floor. It’s a stunningly delicate performance, which at first comes across as bristly and vacant, but which we come to recognize as giving us the space for sympathy and empathy.

Lee’s formal finesse allows him to use a myriad of techniques that connect us to Gong-ju’s perspective, such as the sharp sensory triggers that propel us from present to the past, and the way he lets some subjects drop out of the shallow focus which instead rests on the background. To us these characters are just blobs of bokeh because Gong-ju is focused elsewhere; she’s looking at them without looking at them. Aside from being aesthetically compelling, these strategies also give us a glimmer of the everyday experience that Gong-ju endures. The trajectory of the film isn’t so much about approaching an understanding of what Gong-ju has been through and what she’s like now; the natures of shock and trauma perhaps prohibit us from ever reaching that kind of understanding. Instead, it’s about seeing how Gong-ju now lives in an entirely different world, how others put up barriers between her world and theirs, and how some people have the heart to overcome those barriers.

The way that Gong-ju’s story unfolds is at turns infuriating and tragic: the police blame and disclaim the victim, the perpetrators’ parents hound and harangue her, and even her own parents are of little help—or worse. In this situation the lighter storylines with the landlady, Ms. Lee (Lee Young-ran), and her love life, and the friendship Gong-ju forms with chirpy Eun-hee (Jung In-sun), aren’t extraneous branches, but more like necessities. They help propel us through an otherwise uniformly bleak world, just as we hope they give Gong-ju the same kind of strength to keep pushing forward. One should not really hope for a happy ending to spring from tragic foundations, but one of the undercurrents of Han Gong-ju is that the act of living is, in effect, the marshaling of such hope.

The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 11—19.