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TIFF 2022: Walk Up, Dry Ground Burning and Other Festival Content

Dry Ground BurningDry Ground Burning

Unknown Wonders—a Bulgari ad (or, as the fashion house would have it, “brand film”)—was the second sponsor bumper before every public screening at this year’s TIFF. The first time I saw it, the credit “Anne Hathaway” was unsurprising enough, but being followed by one for Zendaya and “A film by Paolo Sorrentino” had a Family Guy mad libs quality. I laughed helplessly and instantly hated it, even though (or especially because) it’s a predictable commercial in which two stars vibe at a luxurious Italian villa. The assignment perfectly fits Sorrentino’s sensibility, down to a peacock entering the frame, and hence partially exemplifies why I gave up on his work years ago. At a party, someone argued for it as TIFF 2022’s equivalent of AMC’s Nicole Kidman ad, a camp classic for the people, and maybe they were onto something; by fest’s end, I was bemusedly pumped for each appearance.

With Bulgari on the brain (advertising works!), I was perversely excited to spot its distinctive logo in my final TIFF screening of 2022, on a book’s spine within the titular, sole (albeit multi-story) location of Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up. The synopsis on Korean company Finecut’s site spells out Walk Out‘s structure neatly: director Byungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and daughter Jeong-su (Park Mi-so) visit his old friend, interior decorator Kim (Lee Hye-young), who “owns the 4-story walk-up building, and she takes them up floor by floor to show them the renovations she has done. The three of them go into the rooms on each floor to look around. After the film begins in this way, we start again at the bottom and ascend one floor at a time”—in three rhyming segments, with (arguably) an extended coda of sorts, all sporadically financially preoccupied. In the first, Jeong-su blurts out that “art has nothing to do with money,” generating a look of disbelief from Kim (Lee Hye-young); later, Byungsoo gets wine-drunk and complains about the difficulties of funding—specifically, the financier of an international shoot for which he’s already done location scouting and hired crew has pulled out three weeks before production. By the third segment, Byungsoo’s moved onto the top floor with an associate of hers Kim introduced, who became his girlfriend sometime in the off-screen gap between parts two and three. That omission leaves implicit initial domestic bliss offscreen, proceeding straight to routine quarrelsomeness, especially when Byungsoo decides not to attend a foreign festival’s retro of his films. His COVID-restless partner wants to travel, but Byungsoo complains that, among other things, the fest wouldn’t pay her way, just his. “They must be a very small festival,” she observes—at which point the press and industry audience, half of whom I recognized from New York, burst out laughing. At these moments, Walk Up exemplifies a “festival film” in every conceivable sense.

As with all but two of Hong’s eight features starting from 2017’s The Day AfterWalk Up is shot in low-contrast, not terribly prepossessing black-and-white and continues his march towards consolidating total control. He’s once again his own composer and editor, roles he took on starting with 2020’s The Woman He Ran, as well as DP, a position he assumed on last year’s Introduction and In Front of Your Face. The latter transition hasn’t been smooth; I’m still mildly fuming over a moment in the former where the camera automatically rack focuses during a long drinking scene that, with a real operator present, would have no focus changes. That error registers with distracting impact in such a deliberately pared-down context; if focusing on actors simulating realism in drab spaces, every part of these images has to carry more weight and be perfect on its own terms.

These kind of pedantic hyper-formalist complaints (even by my standards!) have had time to fester because, for the last few years (specifically since The Woman He Ran, his last film I really enjoyed), I’ve been more bored than, as an until-very-recently superfan, I would ever have expected to be by Hong’s movies. This isn’t about repetition: his work has always found plenty of ways to tweak reconfigurations of men and women in variously bi-/tri-furcated narratives. This has remained true structurally, but the (mostly) sober and semi-spiritual era entered into with 2015’s signal-of-change Right Now, Wrong Then has almost certainly been as good for the autobiographical writer-director’s life as it’s been tonally enervating for his output. He doesn’t seem like the same person who, in 2015, said “I like to drink; it’s an important aspect of my life […] I have no hobbies”; I’m happy for him, but…

There is a familiarity in not just the dialogue, but the way it’s delivered by now-equally familiar actors, that has the quality of listening to an unloved relative repeat themselves for many years on the same few subjects. If I found Walk Up tedious, its extreme elisions—in which a father-daughter relationship falls apart and is rebuilt while Byungsoo begins a whole new relationship that itself ebbs and flows—still put into relief how much Hong’s recent work has been structurally bolder than I’d realized. Introduction travels from Germany to South Korea and makes them almost identical, while In Front of Your Face hinges on a revelation about its main character that retroactively changes its narrative’s meaning; neither registered as strongly as they might due to my aversion to this late style, but Walk Up helped me, if not appreciate them more, then at least understand their innovations better. (I’m working backwards this year and will catch up with his first film of 2022, The Novelist’s Film, shortly.) To attach such structural bold leaps to this increasingly uninviting aesthetic, and the confidence Hong places on the latter’s ability to sell the former, is at least abstractly admirable.

TIFF’s financial priorities lie, as they must, with big-star titles for which premium admission can be charged. (This year a friend introduced me to the useful saying, “So bad it must be a gala selection.”) The biggest transaction at the festival was presumably Focus Features’ $30 million acquisition of global rights (minus the Middle East) for Alexander Payne’s latest after a buyers-only screening. The overall stakes of festival season were further put into context by Disney CFO Christine McCarthy, who took a moment off from discussing Marvel on an investor call the day before TIFF started:

Searchlight, I just want to mention kind of—it’s not a, it’s not an IP brand, but it is a genre brand. […] I know there’s a lot of conferences right now, a lot of film festivals. And some of the content that is being shown at those venues are from Searchlight very, very well received. And we know that they’ve kind of been a magnet for awards, but it’s really high quality, lesser budgeted, more adult dramas.

The Trumpian syntax and repetitive cadence of “very, very well received” are inherently depressing, while the fact that the conversation immediately went back to Marvel served as a useful, equally demoralizing reminder that even the biggest business at TIFF matters relatively little in the largest scheme of things. In that context, a relatively slow TIFF might be reframed as laudable for highlighting big studio products that are still relative anomalies, like allowing The Fabelmans the space to breathe in a way it probably won’t during theatrical release (Steven Spielberg’s name-draw value doesn’t seem to be what it once was). But—if I’m not indulging my favorite pastime of constructing perverse arguments for their own sake—TIFF’s full-on return to an IRL incarnation, after a cautiously attended 2021 edition I sat out, was an underperformer. Friends who normally marathon 45 movies stalled at 30 or struggled to find even one watchable film a day as the fest wore on. For some attendees I talked to, this was a positive thing (more time to catch up with friends, eat decent meals etc.) ,but I talked with one unamused booker who found the travel/lodging expense to only see one or two titles a day disproportionate. This viewing shortage was in part exacerbated by fewer P&I screenings to make space for more public screenings (understandable, given the presumably urgent need to sell tickets after the last few years). That there was less to show overall (“only” around 200 features, which honestly is still probably too many) is, at least in part, presumably a side effect of post-pandemic lack of programming options.

But these downgrades also included diminishing both the physical and schedule space of the Wavelengths section overseen by senior curator Andréa Picard and programming associate Jesse Cumming. Their flagship four nights of experimental shorts programs were cut to two, with these routinely sold-out screenings moved from a larger theater in the TIFF Bell Lightbox complex to a smaller auditorium, while the total number of feature selections was reduced to seven. This is regrettable, considering that Wavelengths’s programming routinely houses my TIFF highlights as with my most anticipated feature of the festival, Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s Dry Ground Burning. Lifelong Ceilândia resident Queirós (co-directing with Pimenta, DP of 2017’s Once There Was Brasilia) once again dives into the deep end of local history, with an admirable refusal to contextualize for outside viewers. Like 2014’s White Out, Black InGround allots extended time for nonfiction subjects to recount their experiences (often involving abuse received by the police or other authority figures) directly to the camera while smoking possibly even more cigarettes than Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

The plot revolves around two half-sisters who get involved in manufacturing and distributing gas illegally, and its title is a description, not a metaphor—the fuel’s potency is demonstrated to potential buyers by being thrown on dirt and set aflame. One of Burning‘s main settings is the ad hoc refinery (seen in the still above), where the industrial and sculptural meet as the overwhelmingly huge tools and the defamiliarizingly loud, confusing and sometimes literally partially on fire facility adds to the sci-fi feeling of the narrative. The gas is distributed by a network of motorcyclists who ride at night through flames into darkness, creating both spectacular images (building on Brasilia‘s look, these blue-and-gold nightscapes will be very appealing to digital Michael Mann-heads) and enveloping soundscapes; between the equipment and the bikers, this is invigoratingly loud and carefully mixed with a level of detail regular ambient/electronic listeners will appreciate.

In Brasilia, a very low-budget spaceship hovered over the city; its blocked-out view of the exterior world is here revised from a similarly interior perspective, this time with a camera planted in a large police vehicle whose inhabitants see the outside almost solely through split-screen footage fed by security cameras and drones accompanying them. Rejecting both defeatism and respectability politics, Burning is invested in its protagonists’ political actions (one of the sisters is running for office), which include driving through town on a truck, blasting beats and rapping about restoring rights to the formerly imprisoned, making this arguably a quasi-musical. The film is unsurprisingly and unambiguously anti-Bolsonaro, even if one of its more spectacular shots is a slow, skeptical circular pan from within a rally of support for him, seeking out faces in the crowd for the record—a queasy epic effect is generated from this unsavory crowd of thousands. In their introduction, Queirós and Pimenta said the richly textured Burning took 18 months to shoot and two years to edit, and all that effort definitely shows. It’s the kind of work TIFF could use more of and the kind Wavelengths is specifically so good at making carefully curated room for. Maybe next year they’ll get the chance to do more; as Hathaway says in Sorrentino’s short, “In the search for wonder, there are no endings.”

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