NYFF Capsule Reviews #2: Beloved Sisters, Hill of Freedom, Two Shots Fired

Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf, 2014)

The film is a 3-hour historical piece chronicling the passionate love triangle between the great German poet Friedrich Schiller and two aristocratic sisters, Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld. Part fiction and part fact, it is told from and based on the older sister Caroline’s perspective (who was already married), showing how the three of them spent their lives in a complex menage-a-trois defying and affecting everything from social customs and norms to immediate family and even in the end, ironically, each other. On paper, it could have been just another prestigious period piece with top-notch production values (which are indeed brilliant, from costumes to rousing music to art direction to the cinematography of Germany/Switzerland). Worse, it could have ended up being an expensive and glorified TV mini-series. But due to a couple of factors, thankfully, we get a powerful cinematic experience. The first quality that elevates the film is its modern and contemporary approach to filmmaking. From jump cuts to roving and sweeping shots, from voice-over to direct-on-camera dialogue, the film has a feverish intensity seldom seen in this genre. It is like the passion and emotional volatility in the lives of the characters has affected Graf’s direction as well. While the film moves at a fast pace, kudos to Graf that he still maintains a lush, sexy and stylish grace. The pace, if quick, is never rushed (there are so many clever and carefully constructed scenes which frame our three protagonists against each other, and a meeting between Schiller and Goethe is staged in an extremely stylized but humorous way). The other aspect, and perhaps the most important one, that helps the film is the perspective from which it is told. It is not yet another historical drama about a male egotistical European genius told from his point of view, but rather a story told by and about the women in his life. It is the unbreakable bond between the sisters, their will and stamina, that drives them to a great extent to define and seal their and Schiller’s fate in their romantic arrangement. This aspect indeed adds another layer of modernity to the film as well. Having said that, it is not a perfect film. Certainly not a great one. In spite of all the style and passion, it seriously suffers by the end. Perhaps because this is the part which is based mostly on fiction as Caroline destroyed most of her bio in real life. By the 2-hour mark, things begin to lag and the tension and drama are more shrill and overemotional than poignant or powerful. Some might also argue that at the conclusion and the exact note where the film ends, it betrays its feminist tone which carried the first half so well.


Hill of Freedom (Hong Sang-soo, 2014)

Hong Sang-soo’s latest release follows his trademark simplicity-driven style and approach of low-key, serio-comic quirk. A short (running just a bit over 1 hour), bittersweet story about longing, loneliness and the search for true love. More significantly and interestingly, we see how this quest for love clashes and conflicts with our principles and morals. Mori (Ryô Kase) is a Japanese teacher who used to teach in Korea and there fell madly in love with his Korean colleague Kwon. After a confrontation with his corrupt and unethical peers, he leaves the country with a bitter taste and due to his sudden departure loses contact with Kwon. Unable to physically reconnect or locate her, he keeps writing Kwon detailed letters about his feelings for her and his quest to find her, which Kwon reads later, all in one go. Mori, in the meantime, makes another visit to Korea after a few years and stays in a hostel with an array of characters representing various forms of human stupidity, kindness and the search for happiness in a gentle and kind manner (again something typical of Hong). This hostel is situated near a cafe called ‘Hill of Freedom’ whose grandiose name works as a signifier of the emotional and psychological freedom of our leads (and in a more literal sense, their meeting spot). On the surface, the movie can be dismissed as a trifle, and it indeed is very low-key and casual in its style, acting and production values. But the non-linear narrative adds an aspect of fate, chance and even mystery, not only to the story of our fateful lovers but other equally human supporting characters: the aged hostel owner, his grown-up ne’er-do-well meddling nephew, the cafe owner Youngsun (perhaps the most complex of them all), the rebellious teenage guest, her older lover and her father. All of these roles not only bring their own baggage (most of which is explored appropriately in an ambiguous manner, adding a layer of intrigue and leaving us to interpret whatever we want to), but also helps Mori to reflect on his own issues and balance his happiness with his sense of right and wrong. Kase is perfect in the role of Mori, who is the anchor of the film. With his charming, tender, wistful Mori, he carries the film and its equally charming, tender and very funny, but never trivial, insights and ideas about culture (Korea vs. Japan), love, loneliness and honesty.


Two Shots Fired (Martín Rejtman, 2014)

This film is more comedy than drama. Even if it starts with some grim proceedings, Argentinian filmmaker Rejtman’s Buenos Aires-set tale, given its free flowing, unexpected narrative, ends up being an absurdist comedy, which is a more precise way to describe it. The movie begins with, well, two shots being fired. The perpetrator and victim both being 17-year-old Mariano, who seems a well adjusted kid (he swims, he is part of a flute quartet), yet who tries to kill himself one very hot summer day, when he stumbles upon a gun in the toolshed. After his unrealistic, almost unscathed survival, his mother becomes distraught and obsessed with trying to keep him away from anything remotely harmful (knives, scissors). From this point onwards, the movie unfolds in a dreamlike manner, with one idea or character morphing, or passing on to another thought and role. With the progression of the film, the initial suicide attempt becomes less and less significant and we meet new people and kind of go with the flow. The new characters comprise Mariano’s brother, their friends and girlfriends, as well as parents and their friends. We follow both groups on their everyday, banal activities and attempts to enjoy and live their lives, making this film essentially a window onto Argentinian middle-class ennui. The interesting thing is how the almost robotic, desensitized youth mirror the equally listless and lost adults. Both groups are looking for something, on the surface caring for nothing and just passing time, with infrequent flickers of genuine warmth and empathy revealing their humanity. The film is very dry and unemotional. The humor and performances are droll, precise and controlled (complementing the aspect of absurdism). The whole film has a minimalist and carefully planned feel to it. From the static shots-driven direction to the dialogue and its deadpan delivery, all seem calibrated to the last bit. But this much control and this detached, hands-off approach makes us feel less and less for these (mostly) unlikable and uninteresting individuals. Their carelessness and boredom seem to be infectious. After a while, all the bits and pieces (there is hardly a meaningful narrative) of their interactions seem pointless, going on for too long and not exactly worth our trouble. Sound plays a major part in the film as even the timbre of the actors’ voices appears to be measured and pre-defined. The sound design and mixing is a stand-out in regards to how it captures the daily hum of a bustling city like Buenos Aires (or the nearby countryside). The daily din (whether insects and dogs in the night or children, cars and doors banging in the daytime) seems to be a lifeline for the characters, protecting them and feeding their urban neurosis and anxiety at the same time. It’s like if these sounds stop, their lives will stop too.