Park City ’17: Fifty Shades Darker and Lighter

Once I got through the slog of braving horizontal snow and the climb up Main Street to get to the Treasure Mountain Inn, site of the Slamdance Film Festival, I execute a 180˚ pivot and resume watching films at Sundance. This time, I block out all the distractions — the 10,000 angry white women’s march down Main Street earlier that morning; the 750,000 who marched, or should I say, gathered back home in Los Angeles; the over 2 million others who gathered in opposition to the subject of their ire, the new American President — and lived the rest of Sundance Saturday in monochrome. That is, the two nighttime attractions I took in were distinguished by their nod to remarkably similar visual means of essaying stories from our past. While one was a well-told story of love and deception in postwar Germany, the other relives the white-hot tempest of racial and class issues in 1990s Los Angeles.

First up: FRANTZ, the latest cinematic marvel by François Ozon, whose works have been showcased at festivals the world over since his 2002 breakthrough hit 8 FEMMES. Anchored by a breakthrough performance by newcomer Paula Beer, the story hews loosely on BROKEN LULLABY, a 1932 drama by Ernst Lubitsch: in post-WWI Germany, Anna mourns the death of Frantz, her German soldier fiancé by placing flowers on his grave. Her routine is disrupted one day when she espies a stranger also laying flowers at his grave. The stranger, Adrian, is a Frenchman who befriended Frantz in Paris years before and who has similarly been traumatized by the war. Putting aside the antipathy toward Adrian by her adoptive parents as well as her own animosities, Anna brings Adrian into her life. Thus begins a largely platonic relationship through which Anna is able to relive her memories of Frantz through the stories of her beloved as shared by Adrian. Eventually, the true nature of Adrian’s bond with Frantz is revealed, precipitating a sojourn by Anna to Paris to learn the whereabouts of Adrian, leading to a surprise (or two). By offering a stark contrast between two different societies at opposite ends of the spectrum of war and conflict, FRANTZ finesses one of director Ozon’s boilerplate tropes — that of the big “queer” reveal — and goes well beyond that distinction to observe the stark differences in the larger human condition. Anna and her adopted parents cope in a tattered German village struggling to recover from the war; Adrian’s station in life, on the other hand, is mostly surface gloss that progressively fails at concealing profound melancholy. That FRANTZ is realized as a monochrome period drama (kudos to Pascal Marti for his black & white cinematography) is a treat; it offers proof that the accoutrements of classic 1930s-style Hollywood cinema still has a place in today’s pantheon of movie achievements. Small wonder that FRANTZ was recognized with the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Paula Beer’s performance at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Her starring turn, not to mention the visual textures and pliant storyline, made FRANTZ a memorable movie-going experience.

Cinematography of a similar, yet remarkably distinguished variety, informed GOOK, Justin Chon’s sophomore directorial effort and, for him, a radical departure from the slapstick comedy of his debut effort MAN UP and his numerous other genre-related outings as an actor. Watching Chon’s film unfold onscreen at the Egyptian Theatre, cinematographer Ante Cheng’s black & white cinematography instantly recalled another classic, expressionistic work from an earlier era of independent cinema in Los Angeles — none other than Charles Burnett’s 1977 KILLER OF SHEEP, a portrait of a South Central slaughterhouse worker’s everyday struggles against gradual yet inevitable dehumanization. This visual strategy serves director Chon’s story to a “tee” as his story unfolds, DO THE RIGHT THING-style, over the course of one spring day: Eli (Chon) and his n’er-do-well brother Daniel (David So) struggle to keep afloat the family business, a shoe store located in Paramount, a suburb in Southeast Los Angeles and as far away from South Central as one could imagine. Yet the events of the day conspire to encroach upon their everyday struggles: on this day, the Rodney King beating verdicts are due to be read in a courthouse on the other end of the county; Eli is under pressure to move a stockpile of illegally-trafficked basketball sneakers in order to make that’s month’s store payments; and Daniel, he of the wannabe b-boy charms, is an easy mark for customers adept at sweet-talking their way into negotiating extravagant discounts for designer shoes. Complicating matters is the presence of Kamila (Simone Baker), an 11-year old neighborhood girl who ditches school to hang out and “help” at the shoe store, to the ire of Kamila’s brother Keith, who greatly dislikes Eli and Daniel. As the resulting Los Angeles Rebellion sweeps over South Central, Keith and his homies roll toward South Central because they heard reports that “everything is free” for the taking, but then, a new plan is hatched: to turn around and instead head to Eli and Daniel’s family shoe store to exact revenge for harboring Baby Sister and, by the way, to avail themselves of some shoes for themselves.

While deftly side-stepping the politically-charged ramifications of the film’s title (Eli explains the term to Kamila in a scene that evokes more father-and-daughter compassion than the dysfunctional relationship she endures at home with Keith), GOOK’s period aesthetic similarly grounds director Chon’s film to a time and place at odds with those scenes captured by news cameras of the L.A. Rebellion. Here, the only visual references to the Rebellion are brought to us courtesy of old-school televisions sets (I think it best to remind one and all that HD televisions were just a concept back in 1992); there really are no scenes here of actual burning and looting — just the slice-of-life scenes of working-class people struggling to get by. In GOOK, Kamila’s gaze rests upon two quarreling siblings who are trying, and not too successfully, to run a business neither of them are seriously invested in; on a liquor store owner from across the street (Sang Chon, director Chon’s real-life father) who is shell-shocked from too many petty robberies into taking action; to a vengeful brother who simply has no clear motive for directing his ire upon Eli and Daniel. The Los Angeles Rebellion is a keynote event in L.A. history that by all means of logic should not affect the citizens of Paramount, CA. Yet due to white-hot passion (or is it misguided hot-headedness?), the Rebellion in the form of Keith and his homies, not to mention maurauding Latino gangsters who hassle Eli almost daily, finds a way to come to sleepy Paramount, and it is here where GOOK finally explodes into a tragic-comic climax. As with most of the Asian Pacific American works screening here this season, GOOK observes director Chon walking his own fine line: as a comic actor, his own acting and storytelling sensibilities are tempered by his story, drawn from personal experiences. Is GOOK a heartfelt yet cautionary homage? Or is it a manneristic appropriation of an indie cinema that may have seen its better days? My inclination is for the former. Other audiences I suspect might dismiss the film as the latter. To do so would ignore director Chon’s complicated, nuanced perspective on today’s social situation in Los Angeles. One might do well to, to paraphrase Spike Lee, “Take a shower, shave, shut the fuck up,” and listen and learn from what director Chon brings to the big table of cinematic ideas.

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