' ' Cinema Romantico

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

See How They Run


Set in 1953 London, “See How They Run” opens with the 100th performance of “The Mousetrap” and the American director, Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), hired to direct a film adaptation explaining in voiceover why he doesn’t care much for Agatha Christie’s play, or for murder mysteries in general. Indeed, he recites all his qualms of genre, such as the hoary manner in which they all conclude with someone getting everyone else together in the drawing room to explain exactly what happened. This prologue concludes with Köpernick himself getting knocked off, victim of the very murder that sets in motion director Tom George’s own cinematic murder mystery. It’s a set up worthy of, nay, suggesting Charlie Kaufman, not so much tongue-in-cheek as self-aware, taking the form of a murder mystery in order to explore and critique the gene, especially with the arrival of murder mystery novel-loving Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) shadowing the world-weary Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) as he investigates the crime. That investigation, however, never takes flight, less joyfully farcical in its rendering than weirdly robotic, exemplified by the exhausted red herring that Stoppard might have gone rogue, while the intriguing notion of art nefariously co-opting real life is tossed off rather than thought out and explored Strangely, for a movie that deliberately sets its characters up as archetypes, it is Rockwell and Ronan who most transcend the material. The former is trying on an English accent for size, only kind of committed to it, which winds up wholly appropriate because his character only comes across kind of committed to his profession, while Ronan transcends Stalker’s eager beaver set-up by never becoming overbearing or even a sleuthing natural, just doggedly candid. She is so winning in that candidness, frankly, that she deserved to culminate the movie by getting everyone together in a drawing room and explaining what happened.   

Monday, March 20, 2023

Return to Seoul


Early in “Return to Seoul,” Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Park Ji-min), a Korean adoptee raised in France, tells a couple new friends about her ability to sight-read music, to simply sit down at a piano, pick up sheet music, and play, and to do it without fear. To demonstrate this ability, she gets up from the table and goes about rearranging tables in the small joint, encouraging various strangers in the place to switch seats and sit next to one another, like you might in some corporate mandated training exercise, three small outings of friends suddenly becoming one large party of friendly strangers with Freddie as facilitator. It’s a wild, unexpected way of establishing a wild, unexpected character, one who may or may not have returned to Seoul to seek out her adoptive parents, it’s hard to say, because director and writer Davy Chou eschews explanation for energy and emotion, a person charting her path sight-unseen, sitting down at the piano of life and just playing. So often a director, or a screenplay, dictates a character’s journey, but kind of in the vein of the miraculous American indie “Ruby in Paradise,” “Return to Seoul” is guided by its character, the movie itself sometimes deliberately feeling as if it is struggling to keep up with her.

Freddie might have been raised in France, but “Return to Seoul” never sets foot there, sticking almost strictly to the South Korean capital. Yet, she speaks French, or occasionally American, never Korean, meaning that in conversations with her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok) have to be translated. If she is counseled by the adoption agency to first immerse herself in the Korean culture before reaching out to and meeting her biological folks, the opening scene in which Freddie brazenly eschews the Korean custom to let someone else pour Soju for her when she has an empty glass puts into perspective her attitude toward such advice, evincing a purposeful kind of dislocation with this place where she is ostensibly seeking a connection. The movie’s assortment of flash-forwards, each one in terms of years rather than days or weeks, further that displacement as opposed to bringing clarity, underlined in her evolving lines of employment, from fancy international relations gig to a literal weapons dealer. In eschewing any sort of context to these occupations, their heightened nature, especially the latter, come across like a hysterically dark joke on mankind’s tendency to define itself through career. That black comedy comes through, too, in a brief sequence where Freddie is briefly glimpsed on a backpacking trip, familiar shorthand for a spiritual quest, juxtaposed against a moment in which she sends a text of nominal profundity from the toilet.

“Return to Seoul” suggests a film of awakening self-identity, but the way Freddie cites hatred of her own birthday effuses an almost antagonistic attitude toward that identity, those flash-forwards continually throwing her own sense of self back up for grabs, like the indelible moment in the back of a taxi where even before she essentially bids the French boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer) we have hardly even gotten to know goodbye forever, you see her decide to bid goodbye in this flash of positively wicked delight that lights up her eyes. Chou cuts directly from this moment to Freddie waking up sprawled in an alley. If the cut would seem to imply this occurs immediately after their break-up, who’s to say, and I thought of the end of the second season of “Alias” when Jennifer Garner’s spy extraordinaire wakes up in an alley in Hong Kong, unsure how she got there. Of course, “Alias,” in the manner of the serialized TV show it was, spent a whole season piecing the missing plot together, but just as Freddie picks herself up, dusts herself off, and gets on with it, so does “Return to Seoul,” sight-unseen. So many movies seeking to posit chicken scratch emotional journeys still tend to follow familiar narrative roadmaps, but “Return to Soul” honors its character by swerving all over that map, and if we never quite get inside Freddie’s head, it’s only because she’s guided by something else entirely, a feeling, evoked in the scene where she dances on her own.

Park Ji-min’s movement in this moment is astonishing, virtually possessed, as if she’s running at a silent movie-appropriate 16 frames per second independent of the movie’s own modern frame frate, and embodying the song’s dueling lyrics about both not needing anybody and not wanting to be alone, unknowable, unreadable, and utterly alive. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Some Drivel On...Relaxer


Set in the last few months of 1999 as Y2K beckons and featuring a main character, Abbie (Joshua Burge), who spends the entire 91-minute run time sitting on the couch in his underwear playing video games, writer/director Joel Potrykus’s skeezy but strangely moving 2018 indie essentially brings the slacker ethos of the 90s to its dramatic end point by equating the video game record Abbie desperately tries to set with the literal end of the world. It sounds a little like 1962’s “The Exterminating Angel,” of course, the Luis Buñuel avant-garde classic, cited by Potrykus as inspiration, where party guests can’t leave. Yet, while Potrykus plays coy with, say, where Abbie is, like, you know, going to the bathroom, that video game record he seeks to break, and the milk chugging record he attempts to beat before that, are consciously portrayed as not necessarily real records in the first place, a product of Abbie’s older brother (David Dastmalchian) cruelly messing with him, and slyly sending up the whole idea of narrative stakes in the first place. And though “Relaxer” finds ways to break up the visual monotony, never more than an ode to “Castaway,” what’s most gripping is Burge investing his man boy (Abbie desperately wants to have a Chuckie Cheese pizza delivered) a surprising poignancy. Burge’s apologetically whiny voice evokes someone who, as his situation dictates, just wants to be left alone to play video games all day, the sunglasses the character occasionally slips on improbably becoming an adult security blanket as a superpower, as if under the cover of puerility, we are all superheroes in our own minds. 

Monday, March 13, 2023

The 95th Academy Awards


After the host of this year’s Academy Awards Jimmy Kimmel addressed last year’s Academy Award fiasco in which Will Smith strode on stage and smacked Chris Rock, the 2023 ceremony made a course correction. Because if last year’s telecast sans the smack sought unsuccessfully to shift the paradigm, resulting in a telecast that was as clumsily rushed as it was overlong, and insulting to the below-line categories, producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss sought to take us back to a faraway time when the Oscars were truly seen as Hollywood’s Super Bowl, underscored in the “Top Gun: Maverick”-inspired flyover as the show started, stately, slow-moving pomp. True, there were fewer odes to Movie Magic than these shows tend to deploy, though that was more because ABC used those opportunities to plug itself, like a mid-show commercial for Disney’s upcoming live-action “Little Mermaid,” while also carving out time for a Warner Bros.-only montage that must have left its fellow competitors scratching their heads and Jack Warner not rolling over in his grave but pumping his fist.

These Academy Awards shunned controversy. I swear at the exact moment my Washington Post app informed me the Silicon Valley Bank would (of course) be bailed out, ABC red carpet presenter Ashley Graham was noting that stars having decide what to wear would be the most important decision of their lives. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani-born activist nominated as an executive producer for short subject documentary, who most added levity when Kimmel went into the audience to ask some faux questions and in reference to last year’s Cannes imbroglio that I’m just too tired to explain asked if she thought Harry Styles had spit on Chris Pine. It wasn’t that her “I only talk about peace” riposte put things into perspective, really, as in her own way she just kind of casually punctured the inane Tinseltown bubble. Even Kimmel seemed to know he’d been had without having been had at all. Then again, on the red carpet, Malala briefly waxed ecstatically about how she would get to see Rihanna, reminding me of myself a few moments earlier when Nicole Kidman arrived. Nobody knows anything, I know, and awards don’t mean anything, thank you professor, but my God, did you see, the stars are out???!!!


Stars like Lady Gaga! The jaded realist in me knows the Original Song performances should absolutely be cut as a less-than-radical time-saving measure, even if the Little Monster in me treasured Lady Gaga’s performance of “Hold My Hand” as my favorite moment of the night. She eschewed an intro to essentially introduce herself (she’s Gaga!), zigging where everyone zagged to by presenting a stripped-down version of the song mirrored in how she had noticeably wiped off her makeup and changed into a black t-shirt and ripped black jeans, assuming her occasional over-earnest theater kid persona, calculated but true blue all at once, pure, unfiltered Gaga, recounted almost entirely in close-up because no humdrum wide shot was going to do. 

But yes, no, really, the performances of the Best Original Songs at these shindigs just need to be cut in perpetuity. These Oscars ran three-and-a-half hours and if you cut the songs and Kimmel’s in the audience bit (deployed when they were re-setting the stage for Rihanna’s performance), you could have got down there close to the mystical three-hour mark. Even so, Kirshner and Weiss’s production felt long, though it wasn’t all their fault. If once upon a time the Oscars were a sun blotting everything else out, now they culminate an endless awards season, providing something of a last-week-of-school sensation that is difficult to counteract and a gradual emergent predictability about how it will all turn out that diminishes suspense. Some presenters perked things up, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning this year’s unofficial Why Doesn’t She Host? Award and Hugh Grant doing his patented thing of making things more entertaining by making them more awkward, but overall, there wasn’t much pizazz. 

I found it noble, in a way, because after last year, when many of the awards took place in a separate ceremony before the show, the 95th Academy Awards ensured that all the awards would be televised in real time. The awards themselves have always been my favorite part, or more accurately, the winning speeches, these little self-contained moments of joy that feel apart from the big picture. But they are not created equally, they can’t be, and while I enjoyed many of them, few truly stood out in the manner of Ruth Carter’s emotional ode to her mother upon winning Best Costume Design for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” or M.M. Keeravani winning Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” (along wiht Chandrabose) turning his acceptance speech into a kind of acapella DJ mix of his own song and The Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” 

No one was more winningly earnest than Brendan Fraser in winning Best Actor for “The Whale.” After a couple decades wandering in the wilderness, you could feel him trying to take in and appreciate the scope of the moment, speaking in a way that suggested he wanted to get his words just right. “You’re so quick with that stick, so why don’t you sit,” Julia Roberts told the orchestra conductor when she won Best Actress in 2001, “because I never may be here again.” More than most, in a way they would never understand, Fraser seemed to know the possibility of never being there again. “The Whale” was distributed by A24 Studios, as was the evening’s biggest winner, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which swept all the other acting awards – Michelle Yeoh for Best Actress, Jamie Lee Curtis for Best Supporting Actress, Ke Huy Quan for Best Supporting Actor – and also won Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Directing, and yes, Best Picture. If the 1998 Oscars belonged to “Titanic,” the version twenty-five years later similarly belonged to EEAO.


If it was not anything close to my favorite film of the year, in the reception it engendered, good and bad and everywhere in-between, and the conversations it started, it really did feel like the picture of the year, whether that was Right or Wrong. What’s more, in the aesthetic weirdness of its rendering, it was hard not to feel some sort of hope, for an evolving Academy that not too long ago would have opted for something stuffier in a heartbeat. Maybe that means something, that the infusion of new faces into the Academy really has been a spark, or maybe it just means that tonight was a fantastic moment in time. The 95th version ended, after all, with Jimmy Kimmel plugging his own talk show the ensuing evening, on ABC, a division of Disney, playing the role of company man, as if reminding us that despite everything we had seen, the mouse remains our overlord. On the other hand, maybe at the 2033 Academy Awards, ABC will run an A24 montage. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Legally Mandated Oscar Predictions

Time, an old saying goes, is a flat smack to the face, evoking how everything we have done or will ever do is bound to circle back around and thwack us flush across the cheek; take that, you cockeyed optimist. Indeed, if it only seems as if Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars just happened, nope, sorry, that was nearly a whole year ago and now we have returned to the scene of the smack. Will Smith has not returned, of course, banned from the Oscars when the eternally spineless International Olympic Committee still cannot even bring itself to ban Russia. And while I’d like to think the Academy might enlist Mr. Rock to present the Best Actor award on Will Smith’s “behalf,” that’s too much rocking the boat, and I don’t want these Oscars to rock the boat, not one bit. Enough with trying to reinvent the Oscar wheel, do you hear me? I want these Oscars to be the wheel; specifically, the wheel from a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. I want Jimmy Kimmel’s crack about the smack to be strictly milquetoast. I want these Oscars to be stately, stuffy, and absolutely interminable. 

On with the predictions I am legally mandated by movie blogging code to make.

What I wouldn’t give for a Billy Crystal opening monologue that begins with him taking some Babylon-style elephant poop to the face.

Legally Mandated Oscar Predictions

Best Picture: “The Fabelmans” would be a win for The Movies™; “Top Gun: Maverick” would be a win for Movie Theaters; “All Quiet on the Western Front” would be a win for movie promotion; “Elvis” would be a win for Auteur Theory; “Tár” would be a win for Message Board Theorists; “Triangle of Sadness” would be a win for the Marxist crazies; “Avatar: Way of Water” would be a win for the whales being killed by wind farms; “Women Talking” would be a win for so many Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus comedians still trying to carve out careers (“So, did you see ‘Women Talking’ won Best Picture? You know, I get enough of women talking-” [throws up in mouth]); “The Banshees of Inisherin” would be a win for Kirsten Dunst of “Melancholia”; “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would be a win for Charlotte Gainsbourg of “Melancholia.” 

Best Director: Thought for sure this would be an unofficial career achievement Oscar for Steven Spielberg, like Meryl Streep winning for “The Iron Lady” or Ingrid Bergman winning for “Muder on the Orient Express.” As those go to show, however, it’s customary to win your unofficial career achievement Oscar for something a little more trifling and “The Fabelmans” is too good. So, no, if the tea leaves are to be believed, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert will win this year for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and Spielberg can win once more a few years down the line for making a movie about Andy Williams building the Moon River Theatre in Branson. 

Bless this mess.

Best Actress: I know Hollywood is in a rush to induct Cate Blanchett into the Three-Timers Club, but she’s 53. She’s got plenty of time. Can’t we give Michelle Yeoh one right now? Anyway, if/when Cate wins, I hope she sees through the Andrea Riseborough meme/grassroots campaign by calling Riseborough up to the stage and giving her the Academy Award instead so we can get a bunch of Tweet threads and op eds about live action cronyism and see through the dream I’ve had for this category since the Riseborough brou-ha-ha began and have it conclude with two Best Actress Oscars a la the two-Gold Medal 2002 Winter Olympics Pairs Figure Skating event, nay, hullabaloo.

Best Actor: Colin Farrell’s biggest hurdle to overcome in this race is his own native Irish brogue, having used it, naturally, in “The Banshees of Inisherin” whereas native Californian Austin Butler not only adopted a southern accent to play “Elvis,” but has carried that accent right through awards season, demonstrating as much commitment to campaigning as the part, which I can only assume will put him over the top. I, for one, hope Butler gets so stuck in the accent that it accidentally becomes his permanent voice, so he winds up making a middling thriller about a Queens detective speaking like Elvis.

Best Supporting Actress: Though my Tinseltown sources are telling me the Archbishop of Canterbury will be on hand to present this award for Queen Angela Bassett’s long overdue Hollywood coronation, it is hard not to notice that Jamie Lee Curtis is trying to sort of Melissa Leo her way into the conversation. I’d be more ok with it if Jamie Lee Curtis deserved a makeup Oscar for “A Fish Called Wanda,” except that “A Fish Called Wanda,” which I cherish, was released in 1988, the same year as “Married to the Mob,” for which Michelle Pfeiffer deserves a makeup Oscar even more. Can we get them both one next year? 

Best Supporting Actor: I’ll be happy for Ke Huy Quan when he wins for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” but if Hollywood turned its back on him for 30 years, I’ll be most interested to see if Hollywood considers giving him this Oscar as settling the bill and forgets about him all over again. Hope not!

Ehren Kruger showing up to accept his possible Oscar.

Best Adapted Screenplay: I don’t know, I just know we can’t give the man who wrote “Reindeer Games” an Oscar for writing.

Best Original Screenplay: The brewing “Everything Everywhere All at Once” bonanza is setting the evening up as a feel-good story, and fair enough, but we need a little gloom to balance it out. So, let’s at least give Martin McDonagh a Screenplay Oscar for “Banshees of Inisherin.” 

---------------

Wait. I’m being informed that I did not, in fact, make Oscar predictions in my Oscar predictions post, failing to meet the legal requirement. I apologize. After consulting with the psychic on the corner who, in turn, consulted an Oscar spirit, my predictions for the major categories are as follows.

Me, consulting Oscar spirit.

Best Picture: All Quiet on the Western Front
Best Director: Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans
Best Actress: Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Best Actor: Austin Butler, Elvis
Best Supporting Actress: Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
Best Supporting Actor: Don’t be stupid, spirit advised, which I took to mean just pick Ke Huy Quan for Everything Everywhere All at Once
Best Adapted Screenplay: Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Best Original Screenplay: Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Thursday, March 09, 2023

1986 Oscar Best Original Song: Revisited


Lady Gaga was nominated along with BloodPop for Best Original Song at the upcoming Academy Awards for composing “Top Gun: Maverick’s” love theme leitmotif “Hold My Hand,” though I can only assume they are destined to lose to M. M. Keeravani and Chandrabose’s “Naatu Naatu” from the Telugu epic “RRR.” Objectively, that’s hard to argue against, even for me, devoted Little Monster, though the devoted Little Monster in me will be heartbroken when she loses. But hey, she’s got already got her singing Oscar, it’s the acting Oscar that comes next. (Cinema Romantico continues to have no comment regarding “Joker: Folie à Deux.”) I don’t really want to talk about this year’s Best Song category anyway. No, I want to talk about the Best Song category the last time we had a “Top Gun” movie, in 1986, when “Take My Breath Away” took home the Academy Award. Since we occasionally revisit the Best Original Song category, we thought this might be a good time to time travel back to 1986, when college basketball still didn’t have a three-point line and the Cold War was winding down, never to be fought again. What we found was an absolute stacked imaginary category.

1986 Best Original Song Oscar Nominees & Winner (in bold):

An American Tail An American Tail “Somewhere Out There” James Horner & Barry Mann (music);
Cynthia Weil (lyrics) 
The Karate Kid Part II “Glory of Love” Peter Cetera & David Foster (music); Cetera & Diane Nini (lyrics) 
Little Shop of Horrors “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” Alan Menken (music); Howard Ashman (lyrics) 
That's Life! “Life in a Looking Glass” Henry Mancini (music); Leslie Bricusse (lyrics) 
Top Gun “Take My Breath Away” Giorgio Moroder (music); Tom Whitlock (lyrics)

Of course, we are required to remember right up front that Best Original Song is strictly limited to Original Songs, in whatever byzantine way the Academy defines originality, eliminating old pop hits used in movies which should be a category unto itself but, as always, do not get me started. That means Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” from “Blue Velvet” and, best of all, Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” from “Platoon” are verboten here. (Add The Feelies version of David Bowie’s “Fame” in “Something Wild,” dealer’s choice from the “Stand By Me” soundtrack, and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in “Top Gun” and, once again, holy cow, what a category. Alas.)

Peter Cetera was almost the Oscar winner you’ve been dreaming of.

As far as the retroactive make-believe 1986 Best Original Song category, right off the bat, obviously, “Glory of Love” isn’t going anywhere. Nobody needed “The Karate Kid Part II,” but “The Karate Kid Part II” needed to exist for us to have “Glory of Love.” That’s a fair tradeoff.

“Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” doesn’t really deserve to get bounced either, I grant you, but in this revised category, I’m the sole judge and juror, understand. And this slot goes to, what else, “I Hate You,” the punk song from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” helping to establish the time-traveling film’s mid-80s mise-en-scène, written and recorded by associate producer Kirk Thatcher in a DIY-appropriate 24-hour period. “’Cause I hate you! / And I berate you!”

Ok. So. That leaves us with three more to consider. That “American Tail” garbage gets the heave-ho, and look, respect to Mancini and Bricusse who did some fine work over the years, but this was 1986, son, savvy, and that one needs to hit the highway. What takes their place? Well, if everyone likes to talk about Steven Spielberg’s 1993, hey, what about John Hughes’s 1986?

First, “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark from the soundtrack for “Pretty in Pink,” which Hughes wrote, is a no-brainer. It’s insulting, in fact, insulting to 9-year-old Nick who didn’t even watch the 59th Academy Awards because they aired opposite the 1987 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Indiana and Syracuse (the Oscars were still on Mondays back then) that “If You Leave” wasn’t nominated. No wonder I wasn’t watching!

But wait! What about the movie Hughes wrote and directed, released on June 11th, “Ferris Buller’s Day Off?” Because if everyone thinks about that soundtrack in terms of already released pop songs, like “Twist and Shout” and “Oh Yeah,” there was also the obscure Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City,” which my research seemed to suggest was recorded specifically for the movie, making it eligible. Because those guitar chords as Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron roar away from Shermer High toward downtown Chicago sonically encapsulate the brewing joy of a day off so impeccably, that even now, all these years later, when I leave my home on some morning in May here in Chicago when the sky is blue and it’s warm but, crucially, not hot, I swear I hear those chords as I walk to the train and think “How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”

I can’t nominate both (for reasons we’ll get to presently) so which one do I choose?! “If You Leave” might be the one I’d most want to hear on the radio, but “Beat City” works best in the movie. The latter gets the nod.

 

That brings us right along to “Fire with Fire.” No, no, the 1986 romantic drama starring Virginia Madsen and Craig Sheffer was not nominated for anything, for real, make-believe, or otherwise, but does exist as something like the art world’s version of Sam Bowie being drafted one pick ahead of Michael Jordan. Because if “Fire with Fire” passed on a particular sonic creation by film composer Patrick Leonard, he took it to a different 1986 movie, “At Close Range,” and that eerie, unforgettable score fueling one of the great title sequences in movie history (see above) became the chassis for the greatest Madonna ballad, “Live to Tell,” which would surely win our retroactive faux Oscar if not for...

Ok. So. Back to “Take My Breath Away,” performed by Berlin and written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, which retains its nomination. Right? Wrong! Don’t misunderstand, I love “Take My Breath Away,” just as I have loved Moroder and Whitlock’s Danger Zone (performed by Kenny Loggins), but I have always loved the duo’s “Lead Me On” (performed by Teena Marie) just a little more. “Take My Breath Away” swoons, “Danger Zone” swaggers, and “Lead Me On” does both, winning our Not Real Retroactive 1986 Best Original Song. Teena Marie was an unknown legend in her time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

In Front of Your Face

On several occasions during Hong Sang-soo’s “In Front of Your Face,” the blog’s favorite movie of 2022, Sang-ok (Lee Hye-yeong) smokes a cigarette. This doesn’t sound like much. Used to be, after all, in those days when Camel ads graced the backs of magazines, that cigarettes were everywhere, including movie screens, where smoking them was often just something for actors to do. Smoking has been phased extensively out of movies, however, just as it has been extensively phased out of public life, particularly in Seoul, where “In Front of Your Face” is set, and so when Sang-ok sneaks a smoke, beneath a pedestrian bridge or outside a restaurant in the rain, it assumes added dimension. That’s part and parcel to Hong’s approach. The title refers to nothing less than heaven itself, which Sang suggests is hiding in front of our faces at all times if only we would let ourselves see it and that we see it by being present, living in the moment. Archaic platitudes, perhaps, but they have never mattered more than here, conveyed in images as mundane as they are monumental, like a painterly one of Sang sneaking a smoke beneath an umbrella in the rain. A cigarette is next to godliness.


A one-time well-known Korean actress who has since lived in the States for a long time, Sang-ok has returned to Seoul to stay with her sister Jeong-ok (Cho Yun-hee) ahead of a meeting with a movie director, Jae won (Kwon Hae-hyo) hoping to cast Sang in a part. Taking place over a single morning, afternoon, and evening, “In Front of Your Face” chronicles her conversations and interactions with these people, as well as a brief trip to her childhood home that has since been bought and transformed into a boutique. This is what passes for action, and though a secret Sang is keeping will eventually be spilled, when it is, it’s evocative of Hong’s intent is to capture his film’s truth in gestures, expressions, reactions, the essence of human behavior. He underlines this in his filmmaking approach, long takes of minimal fuss, typically two shots of people talking. If that sounds boring, or decided not revelatory, it could not be farther from, Hong allowing the deeper truths to quietly emerge on their own time. As Sang and Jeong’s breakfast on a scenic outdoor patio, the distance between them seems to metaphorically grow in the course of their lengthy conversation as we realize – they realize – how little they truly know one another. During her conversation over dinner and beer with the movie director, Hong so subtly pulls us into its rhythm, that when the camera suddenly tilts up and to the left to accommodate another character that just entered the room, he is acknowledging the spell being broken, for us and them.

That secret? Sang is dying, which I hope you won’t take as a spoiler, not least because of how Hong builds this eventual revelation into the movie’s myriad gestures and occurrences too, from the simple food stain that Sang gets on her blouse to the very opening images in which the way Sang briefly lies down on the couch in the dark has a decided funereal air. And though her confession arriving late would seem to retrofit the preceding narrative with a sudden sense of urgency, that urgency takes a different form, putting not so much an exclamation point or even a period as a kind of ellipsis on how life’s monotonous flow just kind of continues as is even when you’ve been sentenced to die. That’s what seems to propel Sang’s nigh mad laugh when she tells the director her fatal prognosis, not facing death with the nobility of some disease of the week weepie but as something more like the grim punchline to this silly thing called life. The return to her childhood home, meanwhile, suggests a more lyrically existential version of Martin Blank in “Grosse Pointe Blank” returning to his childhood home only to find it a convenience store. The shopkeeper allows Sang inside where she passes through various rooms, eventually meeting the shopkeeper’s daughter who Sang almost clutches as much as she embraces. If “In Front of Your Face” is all about concentrating on what’s right in front of you, here Sang allows herself to go down memory lane, just struggling to hang on.


Given her impending demise, when Jae won proposes resurrecting Sang’s career by sculpting a new movie in her image, it becomes less about resurrecting her career than an idea of legacy, and that the project dies as a drunken evening gives way once again to morning, suggests the impotence of legacy, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise. It’s a helluva thing Hong is doing here, making a movie to evince the limits of movies as myth-cementing agents even as his own movie’s images repeatedly personify the fleeting beauty of life.