The Chicago International Film Festival was back with a stronger crop than usual, handing out awards to films from all over the world like Godland, Corsage, Saint Omer, No Bears and Alis. But beyond those recipients of the Silver and Gold Hugos, and beyond the more prominent end-of-year favorites for awards, there were a massive swath of exciting indies from newcomers and established auteurs alike. Not everyone can be a Hong Sang-soo, but they certainly deserve space to give it a shot.
Many of the films I caught from first-timers (Rounding, King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones) were victims of inexperience and budget. They simply didn’t have the resources or personnel to pull off their ideas. Others, like Stephen Frears’ The Lost King, suffered from perhaps too much experience—set in its ways, wary of attacking topics in ambitious or unexpected ways. Those that split the difference, or somehow managed to be exciting and invigorating despite their filmmakers’ relative freshness or age, were those that stuck with me. They weren’t just artifacts of their narratives or images, but markers of careers either past or yet to flourish in their entirety. There’s little else like it, being on the first wave of something amazing, yet that’s what every film festival offers if you’re willing to take a shot on movies you might not have otherwise given a second look.
Here are five under-the-radar films that made me appreciate my local fest, and that I hope you keep an eye on as they make their way out into the world at large:
Before, Now & Then
Director: Kamila Andini
A contemplative and wrenching Indonesian period drama, Before, Now & Then observes a masterful performance from Happy Salma as Nana, who escapes war only to find a bittersweet marriage with a rich older man—and his mistress. With incredible color and understated storytelling, replete with dream sequences and hazy visions, writer/director Kamila Andini creates a muggy aesthetic simultaneously stifling and buzzing with life, and all the hope the latter brings. A coy turn by Laura Basuki as Ino, the other woman with whom Nana finds an intimate bond, also stands out among a talented cast. A life haunted by regrets, memories and possibilities finds a way to move forward thanks to small bonds and an inner steel. Violence, political strife, marital problems—the world keeps on turning, but Before, Now & Then explores what’s needed to hold steady through it all.—Jacob Oller
Decision to Leave
Director: Park Chan-wook
A detective finds himself falling for his murder suspect, who is fingered for killing her husband. If that sounds like a plot ripped straight from an Alfred Hitchcock film, that’s because it’s textbook Park Chan-wook. The Korean director has been taking inspiration from Hitchcock for much of his career, one defined by twisty mysteries and perverse thrillers that the Master of Suspense likely could never have fathomed. Park’s latest is perhaps the director’s most Hitchcockian in the most crucial aspects, though also more subdued compared to his track record. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an overworked detective who is—in true clichéd, noir form—married to his job more than to his actual wife. The latter lives in quiet, foggy Iso while the “youngest detective in the country’s history” works weeks in Busan, where the crime and murder that sustains him runs rampant. The couple tends to talk about how to keep their marriage lively instead of actually acting upon it. Hae-jun’s wife (Lee Jung-hyun) relays helpful facts about the health benefits of having regular sex, suggesting that they commit to “doing it” once a week. Still, Hae-jun spends more time on stake-outs than in his own bed due to insomnia, which plagues him as a symptom of his pile of unresolved cases. Concurrently with another active case, Hae-jun finds himself adding another crime to his growing folder: A mountain-climber who fell tragically to his demise. Though by all appearances an accident (despite the late climber’s proficiency), the mountaineer’s much younger Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), quickly elicits suspicion from Hae-jun and his hot-head partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo). Park introduces the film’s femme fatale in the most unassuming way: Camera on Hae-jun, with her measured voice off-screen as she enters the morgue to identify her deceased husband. Hyper-stylized, surprisingly funny and a little convoluted, at its heart, Decision to Leave is a tragic story about love, trust and, of course, murder. Arguably, Decision to Leave is more of a romance than anything else; the crime/mystery aspect of the narrative is the least interesting part, though one could assume that’s entirely intentional. While not negligible, the crime is more of a conduit through which the real meat of the story, the relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, is catalyzed and slowly evolves. Their romance is dependent upon requited longing and looming, unresolved threat—the kind of threat that fuels Hae-jun’s sleepless life, the kind that he can’t live without. From the string-centric score to the noir archetypes, to the themes of romance, betrayal, obsession and voyeurism, Decision to Leave is Park’s most clear evocation of Hitchcock to date. Because of this, it becomes somewhat evident where the story will go, even when things take a turn. But the familiarity of the crime narrative reads as intentionally superficial, a vehicle for a more unconventional exploration of the standard detective/femme fatale romance which has laid the foundation for Park’s own sumptuous spin. While not Park’s best work, nor a masterpiece, Decision to Leave is an extravagant and hopelessly romantic thriller that weaves past and present into something entirely its own.—Brianna Zigler
How to Blow up a Pipeline
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Andreas Malm’s 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline saw its argument for more climate activism morph into an argument for different climate activism. Money isn’t cutting it. Protests aren’t either. Maybe sabotage will. Its vitality flows like an antidote to the poisonous nihilism surrounding the climate crisis from progressives; its fiery points threaten the crisp piles of cash collected by conservatives. Filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber’s air-punching, chair-clenching, heart-in-mouth adaptation is the best way to convert people to its cause—whether they’re dark green environmentalists or gas-guzzling Senate Republicans. Adapting a nonfiction treatise on the limits of nonviolent protest into a specific, heist-like fiction is a brilliant move by Goldhaber and his co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol. In its execution of a carefully crafted plan, held together by explosive and interpersonal chemistry, it thrusts us into its thrilling visualized philosophy. How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t naïve enough to rely on optimism, opting instead to radicalize competence. Think of How to Blow Up a Pipeline like a word problem. The most exciting word problem you can imagine, where the two trains leaving the station collide in an explosive snarl of steel, your onboard loved ones saved only by quick thinking and teamwork. How to Blow Up a Pipeline contextualizes its concepts into actions so we can better understand, internalize and identify with them. There’s not a moment lost getting us there. Malm’s chapters (”Learning from Past Struggles,” “Breaking the Spell” and “Fighting Despair”) are elegantly transposed, their high-level arguments humanized into character and conversation. The ensemble—led by student protestors Xochitl (Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), whose plan organically gathers together surly Native bomb-builder Michael (Forrest Goodluck), horny crustpunk couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), terminally ill Theo (Sasha Lane) and her reluctant girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), and disillusioned landowner Dwayne (Jake Weary)—is colorfully drawn and filled out through savvy, well-cut flashbacks. Everyone has their reasons, and we have everyone’s back. By structuring its simple plot (blow up a goddamn pipeline) as a zigzag, How to Blow Up a Pipeline builds its team without losing steam. It’s as efficient and thoughtful in its planning as its heroes, and the results are just as successful. It’s as satisfying as any good bank job, only it’s stealing a little bit more time on this planet from the companies looking to scorch the earth. Responding to tragedy not with hopelessness but with proficiency, it’s not a dreamy or delusional movie. It knows its sabotage doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It understands that people get hurt. What makes How to Blow Up a Pipeline great, is that it so deftly wins us to its cause anyway. It’s absolutely electric filmmaking.
Director: Guy Davidi
Few countries can understand the kind of military indoctrination underway in Israel like the United States. Depending on what half of the country you come from, it’s more than likely you have a relative who followed the trajectory from gun hobbyist to spiteful fetishist in the last 20 years. It’s not unlikely that you have a Facebook friend more upset that Kyle Rittenhouse is being sued than by the 582 mass shootings this year that have killed 604 people in the U.S. So when an American sees footage of an Israeli elementary schooler holding an M-16, the horrible truth is that it’s not as shocking as it should be. But documentarian Guy Davidi’s Innocence only starts there, providing a harrowing multimedia case against his country’s conscription and the pressure squeezing the Israeli children staring down its barrel. Refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces has been around as long as Israel, predominantly publicized by open letters or graffiti from active service members, or in loose organizations of high schoolers. The main issue isn’t just that they must be trained to kill in order to stay in their country—what one subject of Innocence calls a “compromise”—but that they’re being put to use as an enforcing instrument to what the Human Rights Watch is finally calling apartheid against Palestinians. Davidi, who left his IDF service after three months, already made a movie about this a decade ago: 5 Broken Cameras, co-helmed by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat. Here, his focus is back on Israel, with the implied question being “If you can’t care about Palestinians, how about your own children?” Davidi underlines the history that’s led up to this deadly, tragic modern era by giving a voice to students and soldiers alike, but especially to those who didn’t survive the transition from one to the other. Innocence uses the words, letters, poetry, artwork and home video footage of soldiers who took their own lives during the course of their training to craft a crushing portrait of social railroading where victims feel like they have no way out. This revelation—that we’re hearing dead ex-soldiers—rolls towards you slowly and unavoidably. You might not realize it the first time Innocence tells you. You might subconsciously tune it out. This narration, from those like Halil Givati Rapp, isn’t just compelling audio, but a respectful reconstruction of life. They are tracked back from the brink to the beginning, shrunk down from front line soldiers back to frustrated kids tired of camcordered questions from mom and dad. Innocence’s constant, poetic voiceover and onslaught of harrowing images compels us just as strongly in the other direction as a hawkish piece of bloodthirst. But one of the best things about Davidi’s work is that it becomes hard to think of those that succumbed to the IDF, or even the most conservative corners of its ideology, as “bad.” With an influence net, woven tight and cast wide, as potent as Israel’s, there’s little blame to be put on individuals when so much blood is on the hands of systems.
The Novelist’s Film
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo’s outrageous productivity is only outweighed by his intense microscoping onto a lifestyle he must know, love and loathe like an unsightly birthmark. The black-and-white The Novelist’s Film is an aging artist’s take on aging artists, wry and poignant, with just enough wonder in its burst of color to make it all worthwhile. Following novelist Jun-hee (Lee Hye-young) as she runs into various old acquaintances, colleagues and hangers-on (which she sometimes becomes herself), the series of conversations is squarely set in the auteur’s style: Stationary, boozed-up, self-referential. Poking and prodding at age—how experience can make us impatient and insufferable, just as it makes us feel better than so many others in our orbit—gives the familiarity a bit more pep, and the formal control Hong displays is still hard to match. It might be too slight for some, especially taken out of context from the rest of Hong’s work, but it’s observed with the sly eye of a tenured professor.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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