Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Three very worthy films on screens locally (and non-locally, for that matter): Introduction plays at Northwest Film Forum, Parallel Mothers at SIFF, and Flee at both SIFF and the Crest.
In May 2018 I included links to some old reviews of Hong Sang-soo’s films in a very early incarnation of the Seasoned Ticket column—Seasoned Ticket #4 (http://blog.scarecrow.com/the-seasoned-ticket-4/), as a matter of fact. Since then, the (let’s use the word) prolific South Korean filmmaker has cranked out another half-dozen features, and good for him. I like artists who don’t atrophy under the pressure of turning out masterpieces; even so, the occasional masterpiece pops out. Someday I’d like to program a weekend of Hong’s movies, one right after the other, so that they bleed together and beyond a certain point you can’t really tell them apart.
Hong himself seems to anticipate this effect in some of his movies, the ones that seem to double in on themselves. I think Introduction would play well in such an all-day marathon; it has a quality of incompleteness that makes you wonder whether something got set up in some previous Hong Sang-soo film that’s getting paid off here, a vague feeling that maybe you’ve dozed off and missed a scene or two. 66 minutes, made up of seemingly stray encounters in different parts of the world, is just barely enough time to call feature-length, and that, obviously, has something to do with this incomplete quality, even if there are enough cigarettes burned in the film to fill a three-hour epic. By comparison to Hong’s previous film, The Woman Who Ran, this one feels small, more shrugged off, even if you’re always aware that you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker.
Pedro Almodovar is, by consensus, a master filmmaker, but this is one director who won’t shrug his way through a movie; everything in Parallel Mothers is finely crafted and carefully dressed. The story, as is often the case with Almodovar, is something that might be laughable if we encountered it as a Hollywood melodrama of the 1950s, or a Julia Roberts vehicle from the Oughts: Two women (ably played by Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit) deliver their babies in the same hospital on the same day, making a pleasant connection in the process, only to realize months later that something irrevocable happened during their stay. If such a contrived story is an example of bad taste, Almodovar smothers it with his good taste, a series of beautiful costumes and enviable apartments, the Almodovar-world where style is set up to counter the various traumas the characters carry with them.
Almodovar has been getting some extra attention for Parallel Mothers because of the way this story weaves together with an investigation into fascist atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. I’m not entirely sure how skillful the weave is, but the movie’s final sequence does carry a mysterious force. There are so many things piling up in this film that its momentum wobbles; Aitana Sanchez-Gijon is so good as Smit’s mother—a woman embracing long-held ambitions as an actress—that you might hope the movie would veer more in her direction. The people accumulate, the striking close-ups resonate (Almodovar gets a great deal out of a finger poised upon a computer mouse), and the screen fades to black or goes to an iris-out in ways that other directors seem to have forgotten how to do.
It may not be one of Almodovar’s greatest films, but at this point almost everything Almodovar creates (we’ll forget about I’m So Excited—see, he does occasionally shrug) is authoritative and thought-through, providing a profound kind of pleasure. This filmmaker’s work offers so many surface delights that I have sometimes wondered about the depth of his achievement, but it seems clearer than ever that all the handsome design is an embrace of style as a defiant and even courageous wedge against oppression, conformity, and whatever else you can name that threatens the spirit.
Finally, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is a documentary told (mostly) in animated form, for reasons that might have something to do with artistic ambition but also with maintaining a certain amount of safety for its pseudonymous protagonist. This is the story of Amin, who fled Afghanistan with his family years ago, a saga that has many harrowing twists and a bunch of wonderfully specific details (including the universal language of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and Bollywood pictures—Amin’s sexuality was awakened by a looming Van Damme poster, in fact). The animation works very effectively for this complicated tale, which is consistently engaging and sometimes nail-biting. It’s a storybook treatment of a nightmarish boyhood—the animation protects Amin, but it also protects us.
January 28, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.