Return to Seoul (Chou, 2022)
The mysteries of birthright, the icy pangs of abandonment, and the desultory pleasures of self-reinvention take 25-year-old Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Park Ji-min) on a painful odyssey in Davy Chou’s sophomore feature, which offers us an especially challenging addition to the canon of cinematic adoption narratives. This one is particularly loaded with a welcome bevy of nuances, especially in the cultural alienation felt by an adopted child who has been Westernized to the point where their birth culture becomes incomprehensible to them. That dynamic is brought out with a doubled force when the said child is a fiercely independent woman raised by French parents and the culture she cannot comprehend (in this case, South Korea) is predominantly patriarchal in nature. The awkwardness, frustration and bewilderment felt by Freddie when she finally meets with her birth father and learns firsthand how incompatible she is with his world is mined with an intelligent mixture of tragic humour by Chou, giving the scenario the skeins of a comedy of manners while also being acutely aware at how painful Freddie’s subsequent revelations become.
Flinty and unpredictable as she may be on the outside, Park’s characterization is full of vivid surprises, for as much as Freddie pulls into the compulsions of learning the inherent truths of her South Korean heritage, she also pushes back against them with double the velocity, her actions sometimes confounding even us as much as it does the other onscreen characters. Park—despite being a first-time actress—handles Freddie’s wild tensions with commendable control without losing the character’s core resilience, navigating several jumps in time and outward metamorphoses in an impressively dexterous way. Though the Freddie that begins the film is not the “same” Freddie at the very end, Park is able to thread the needle of her maturation while keeping an air of danger within her; like a live grenade on the cusp of explosion, she throws herself into terrain that even she sometimes is not ready to tread, and Park is able to believably display that contradictory mixture of stubbornness and vulnerability. She is (to put it mildly) a frustrating character, but I think one that many viewers with adopted backgrounds will find intensely relatable.
As I mentioned, Chou charts Freddie’s journey across an eight-year span, with each new phase in her life being marked by unseen intervals that we can only guess at. The drastic changes in her character in each new act of the film can be disorienting, though this is undoubtedly by design, for having Freddie ostensibly become a different “character” during every stage of her journey makes the ending especially fitting. Chou’s handling of the temporal jumps is not the most finessed, with the differing rhythms of the acts bumping together in uneven ways that threaten to weaken the film’s focus, but for the most part, the film’s emotional trajectories are clear-sighted, with the ending packing an especially powerful punch for all that cannot—and will not—be resolved by cinematic intervention. For that, one can appreciate Chou’s efforts to colour outside the usual lines, even if they don’t always work to their fullest extent. At the very least, he has Park there to help shift the film to exciting gears, leaving us all to hope she will choose to act in another film at some point in the near future.
No Bears (Panahi, 2022)
In July, Jafar Panahi was arrested yet again by Iranian officials, this time for inquiring about the whereabouts of his friends and colleagues who’d been detained a few days prior. Shortly afterwards, he was slapped with a six-year prison sentence—an identical punishment to the one he was served in 2010 for his active criticism against Iran’s ruling powers, though he only spent two months in prison before being given a conditional release. Now, with little hope of a similar degree of leniency, there is no telling how long Panahi will be imprisoned, and No Bears may very well be his last film for a long while.
Like all the films he made after 2010, when he was banned from directing by the Iranian government, No Bears exists as an act of sheer resistance, with Panahi working on it in secrecy and taking advantage of various loopholes to ensure its safe completion and dissemination. Those familiar with his oeuvre will be happy to see Panahi remaining true to his brand of quiet incisiveness here, blending a meta commentary on his restricted liberty with an overarching moral fable that deals predominantly with conservative Iranian traditions and the unexpected complications that arise when an artist’s endeavours yield negative consequences rather than harmonious accord. With the former theme, Panahi plays a softly fictional version of himself for this story: A film director chained to Iran who cannot move beyond its borders, requiring creative methods to allow him to direct a new film set in Turkey, about lovers trying to escape to France using fake passports. While Panahi discreetly assembles his new film in a remote border village (which includes secret meetings with his assistant director in the dead of night to exchange raw footage), he also begins mingling with the local residents there, turning his camera on local faces and customs while sometimes having to valiantly struggle to maintain a working Internet connection.
It’s here where the latter theme emerges as Panahi slowly becomes embroiled in a scandal when rumours emerge that he casually took a compromising photograph of two lovers in an illicit relationship. The village’s elders soon question Panahi on the photo, demanding he hand it over to them, but Panahi insists it doesn’t exist. Once-cordial relations very quickly cool into veritable hostility as the itinerant director becomes the target of suspicion and mistrust, which are then further compounded when tensions on his film escalate and the film’s stars—suddenly more real to us than previously imagined—cut Panahi right down to size for seeking to tidy up a story that wants no easy answers. As No Bears goes on, we see Panahi in a lonelier and more disparaged state than we’ve ever seen him before, which becomes eerily prescient when we take into account his present condition.
This is the striking thing about No Bears: It is in a more pessimistic register than we’ve seen Panahi work in before. Here, he is directly acknowledging some of the limits and ethical ambiguities that arise when shining such a strong light on stories that aren’t always his to tell. The powerful reverberations of storytelling and artistic depiction are interrogated even further when we bear witness to the many implosions in the narrative fabric, which coalesce into an uncharacteristically bleak finale. As fictional as much of it may be, the prevailing disillusionment that boils over into stringent self-critique forces us to re-examine Panahi’s older films to see how closely No Bears’s concerns speak to his previous methods, and to even postulate whether Panahi’s insights here will have irrevocably changed his artistic ethos when he is eventually released from his captivity and given the chance to go behind the camera once more. What films does Panahi have in him after reckoning so deeply with his methods here? What will change and what will remain the same?
Our answers are only preliminary. Like the old man in the film who tells Panahi that the threat of bears is a mere fiction meant to keep people on their toes, the future of Panahi’s career is also a question that will keep us on guard as his output will now sputter to a halt and a lot of time will have to pass before anything is known for certain. The master has left the building, albeit only for a moment. And like any master worth following, he has left behind his most challenging work for us to reckon with in his wake.
One Fine Morning (Hansen-Løve, 2022)
Never hurried, never fussy, and always content to let the warm breath of life whisper through her characters, Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema is contemporary French realism at its most inviting. After changing up her methods as a way of paying tribute to a cinematic legend in Bergman Island last year, Hansen-Løve returns to more familiar territory with One Fine Morning, giving us a simple yet greatly satisfying look into the life of Sandra (Léa Seydoux), a woman juggling a myriad of responsibilities that are gradually accumulating into greater threats of havoc. Not only is she trying to make ends meet by working as a translator in order to support her eight-year-old daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins), but she is now also caught up in finding a suitable long-term-care home for her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), whose eyesight and mental capacity are fading away by the day due to a nasty neurodegenerative disease. Once an esteemed philosophy professor who is still respected by his former students (as evidenced when one of them buttonholes Sandra on the street to ask about his wellbeing), Georg and his failing health—and his extensive book collection—occupy most of Sandra’s time and energy. But, as Hansen-Løve has explored before, love need not be sidelined by duty, and Sandra suddenly begins relishing the sweet taste of romance when she bumps into an old friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), and begins a surreptitious affair—even though he’s already married.
One Fine Morning courts its sense of familiarity willingly, never seeking to take ambitious routes when believable ones can work just as well. Perhaps one could consider Hansen-Løve’s embrace of this conventional and no-frills narrative an underwhelming decision after the relative adventurousness of Bergman Island, but sometimes an artist needs to settle back into comfortable territory as a way to cool their feet and keep sharpening their skills. Hansen-Løve is also talented enough to make her story meaningful even if it trades in casual clichés, and that’s mainly down to the effortless way she draws her characters and gives them ample space to feel out their journeys. One Fine Morning would certainly not work if Sandra, for instance, was not elevated in her relative ordinariness by the quietly impactful emotions Seydoux imbues her with, or if flashes of Georg’s brilliant mind did not continually peek through the din of his dementia, which Greggory so capably performs. Its meditative qualities also sneak up on you with a force. The scene in which Sandra movingly talks about we are the sum of the books we leave behind for other people to discover is one example of Hansen-Løve’s uncanny ability to wring wells of profundity from the humblest of ideas, and it encapsulates why this film—unsurprising as its general story may be on the whole—manages to nevertheless console us with its wise and warm perceptiveness anyway.
That is the magic of Mia Hansen-Løve: Even when she chooses to stay squarely in an unobtrusive lane, she still has the power to grace it with an affecting brush. If you meet her on that wavelength, she knows exactly how to reward you.
Valeria is Getting Married (Vinik, 2022)
At a taut 76 minutes, Michal Vinik’s Valeria is Getting Married flies in and out of our lives with the same swiftness in which the titular character arrives in Israel from Ukraine, seemingly ready to enter a marriage with a man she hardly knows thanks in part to an agreement arranged by her sister and brother-in-law. Valeria’s sister, Christina, has already gone through the same thing, tying herself to an Israeli husband who provides her with a comfortable life that she otherwise couldn’t get in Ukraine. “It’s best not to mix emotions in this whole love thing,” counsels Christina’s co-worker when she and Valeria pay her a visit. Everyone is eager to tell Valeria that she’s getting the best deal of her life—that her happiness will naturally follow from getting everything she needs and wants from her generous husband. But constant reassurances cannot rub out the flickers of hesitation in Valeria’s eyes, especially when she meets her new husband-to-be and he immediately bestows her with a new cellphone as an eager token of his affections. Nervous, airless chatter at the dinner table cannot disguise the fact that this brokered union is not going to reach its consummation and maturity—or even reach the doorway, for that matter.
Vinik’s indictment of manufactured marriages that are dehumanizingly transactional is a cutting one, and she is unsparing in her critique of the male characters in particular. They are ruthlessly financially driven and cruelly possessive, not bothering to hide the fact that they believe they “own” their women like private property and treat marriage as a patriarchal obligation rather than anything resembling tenderness. It is a disgusting display of greed and privilege, but Vinik, in her wisdom, also takes some care to ensure no one is reduced to one-dimensional villainy. She allows her male characters to act out a few displays of kindness towards the women, though it’s also hard to take those acts as anything more than hollow gestures of politesse. Valeria and Christina undoubtedly come out as the most courageous characters here, and the close bond they share helps to add subtle contours to their motivations that I thought was particularly intelligent. Christina, especially, develops into an intricate study of sisterly devotion and societal loneliness, with Lena Fraifeld doing some truly stunning acting as her hidden depths begin flashing more and more across her face in several choice close-ups.
The script’s main weakness is not in its chamberlike succinctness or the goals it strives to attain, but rather in its struggle to thoroughly define Valeria’s personhood. Relative to Christina, we don’t get a full sense of who Valeria wants to be and the kind of emotional connection she is looking for, other than love be a prerequisite. She is something of a cipher, which undercuts Vinik’s endeavours somewhat because the very message she is trying to instil is that women are not ciphers that can be passed around between men like pawns. They have their own agencies and needs, but in failing to develop Valeria’s character to its fullest extent, Vinik’s argument is more deflated than it ought to be. It is difficult to care about Valeria other than on the most basic of levels, nor can Dasha Tvoronovich provide enough interiority through her acting to compensate for what the script excludes.
Oddly enough, the film ends up being more Christina’s story than Valeria’s, which is fine, but I can’t help but wish Valeria was given the same level of characterization, especially since she is the one to set the plot in motion. It’s a little disappointing to have an underdeveloped heroine in a story where all the women should be fully fleshed out and equally compelling, but to Vinik’s credit, she handles the thematics well enough that it can almost be overlooked. Almost.