Pattern Recognition (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Modest Reception)

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Like many of Hong Sang-soo’s films, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) has a loose, inconsequential narrative that’s unified by the director’s taste for doubling. In the opening sequence, the title character (Jeong Eun-chae) falls asleep while waiting for her mother (Kim Ja-ok) at a restaurant, and has a dream where she meets Jane Birkin (playing herself), who tells Haewon that she resembles her daughter. Similarly, over the course of the movie, Haewon is wooed by two older men who could be regarded as competing father figures: Seonjun (Lee Seon-gyun), a morose film school professor who vaguely resembles Serge Gainsbourg, and Jungwon (Kim Eui-sung), a jolly screenwriter who lives in the US. Writing about Hong’s In Another Country (2012), which I haven’t seen, David Bordwell argues that the director’s patterning of motifs engages the viewer in a kind of lighthearted game, but that’s no substitute for a gripping narrative.

An obsessive minimalist who returns to the same themes in film after film, Hong often gives us two versions of a particular scene, thereby testing the viewer’s ability to recall the differences. Early in the movie, Haewon goes for a stroll with her mother, who points out a young man she finds handsome (Ryu Deok-hwan). But while neither of them sees the man throw his cigarette on the ground, Hong underscores this action by zooming in on the butt. A little later, the two women are browsing outside a bookshop when they run into the man again. He tells Haewon that she can pay whatever she likes for the book she’s looking at, but she declines as it would reveal too much about herself. Later on, after breaking up with Seonjun, Haewon is walking in the same area alone when she notices a cigarette on the ground, suggesting that the handsome man will make another appearance. So it comes as a surprise when Jungwon emerges from inside the bookshop instead. He makes Haewon the same offer as his doppelgänger, but when she declines again for the same reason, he counters that she just needs to pay enough not to reveal herself. But while this sort of patterning is amusing for its own sake, I can’t say that I cared very deeply about any of the characters.

On the other hand, Mani Haghighi’s Modest Reception (2012) also has a somewhat loose narrative that’s unified by its patterning of motifs, but the story it tells is vastly more absorbing. In the opening sequence, a pair of wealthy Tehranis, Kaveh (Haghighi) and Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti), gain access to a remote mountainous region on the Afghan border by literally throwing bags of cash at a soldier (Saeed Changizian) guarding a checkpoint, introducing a motif that’s repeated and varied throughout the movie as Kaveh and Leyla attempt to trick various people into accepting large charitable donations without them realizing it. We don’t see the events leading up to their journey, and as the characters tell a different story to everyone they meet, it’s only at the end of the film that we learn why they risk their lives entering a war zone to give money to a bunch of strangers. Watching the movie, I not only wanted to know what was going to happen next, but was trying to figure out what led up to this point based on certain clues dropped throughout the movie.

Late in the film, Kaveh and Leyla come across a man (Ghorban Nadjafi) in the process of digging a grave for his infant daughter, which is extremely difficult as the ground is frozen solid. Kaveh cruelly offers to pay the man for his daughter’s corpse so that he can feed it to the wolves, and though the man holds out for a while, he eventually gives in when Kaveh starts burning wads of bills — money that the man needs for his other children. Leyla is so disgusted by Kaveh’s behavior that she leaves him there, but after she and the man are gone, Kaveh tries to finish digging the grave himself, which is nearly impossible as he has a broken arm. (By this time, the sun has set and wolves can be heard howling in the distance.) Earlier, Kaveh had told the man that he knew what it was like to lose a child, and the zeal with which he attempts to dig the grave suggests that he may have been telling the truth, though we can’t be sure. Likewise, shortly after leaving Kaveh, Leyla pulls over to vomit by the side of the road, hinting that she might be pregnant without making it explicit. In other words, what makes the film so compelling is the manner in which it reveals story information so as to generate mystery and suspense.


The Young Ones (The Place Beyond the Pines, What Maisie Knew)

This blog entry contains spoilers.

In the opening scene of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), a carny daredevil, Luke (Ryan Gosling), walks from his dressing room to a nearby tent where he and two other guys drive motorcycles around the inside of a metal sphere. Perhaps as an homage to a similar scene in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Cianfrance films this action in a virtuoso long take, the real subject of which is its own audacity. That is, once Luke gets inside the metal sphere, one isn’t wondering what the character is going to do next so much as how long the shot will go on and if Gosling is really on that motorcycle. For better or for worse, this shot is emblematic of the movie as a whole, which seems to exist primarily to show that Cianfrance is capable of making a big, sprawling epic in the manner of swaggering New Hollywood auteurs like Scorsese and Brian De Palma.

If the film’s bid for epic grandeur strikes me as a little strained, that’s because the banality of the characters is so much at odds with Cianfrance’s efforts to turn their lives into a kind of contemporary Greek tragedy. The first part of the story centers on Luke, who knocks up a girl from Schenectady (Eva Mendes) and later starts robbing banks in order to provide for his infant son, Jason. The focus then shifts to an earnest cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), and as the two men cross paths only once, the movie depends on parallelism to unify its plot. In particular, both men have sons the same age, and in the film’s final segment, the two boys become friends as teenagers, each unaware that a chance meeting between their fathers fifteen years earlier helped to shape the course of their entire lives. But while the plot sometimes feels a bit contrived, on a scene-by-scene basis, the filmmaking is lively and gripping throughout. Specifically, in the climatic confrontation between Avery and Jason (played as a teenager by Dane DeHaan), the suspense is doubled as it’s not clear if Jason’s already killed Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen). The movie is 140 minutes long, and if nothing else, I can’t say that I was ever bored.

Much more modest in scale but no less moving for it, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew (also 2012) is solely concerned with the effects of a divorce on the couple’s young daughter. The title character (Onata Aprile) is a primary school student who finds herself being shuttled back and forth between her parents after her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), kicks her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), out of the apartment. However, as both of them are too busy with their careers to look after her, Maisie increasingly becomes the responsibility of their new spouses: the girl’s former nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and a lovable bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), with whom Maisie has a special rapport. As the title suggests, the narration is restricted to Maisie’s range of knowledge throughout, motivating a number of ellipses in the plot, so that the viewer judges the adult characters based primarily on their parenting skills.

Accordingly, as it only becomes apparent that Beale has been carrying on with Margo when Maisie goes to visit him at his new apartment, one can’t tell if the affair was the chief cause of the breakup or if the marriage was already in trouble when it began — and therefore, whether or not Margo is a home-wrecker and a floozy. What is clear, however, is that she put a great deal of time and effort into preparing a room for Maisie at Beale’s new pad, indicating that Margo is a more suitable mother than Susanna, who’s not unloving but doesn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to be a parent. (At one point, she throws a small party for her music industry friends on the same night that Maisie has a classmate to the apartment for a sleepover.) Similarly, while Lincoln accompanies Maisie to a puppet show and then the park to look at turtles, when Beale takes her out, it’s to a fashionable restaurant rather than someplace that would appeal to a child. Therefore, if there’s something of a shadow over the movie’s ostensibly happy ending, it’s not that Maisie’s been abandoned by her biological parents so much as the unlikelihood of them simply turning her over to Margo and Lincoln.