AFI Fest 2007: Day 2

The hard thing for me about festivals is that at any given moment, there are many other movies playing. There is no way to see everything and I always worry that I’ve made the right choice. I fear I’m missing out on something. Then again, that’s part of the fun. It’s a gamble. You take blind chances in the hope for a big payoff. On my first day I skipped the sold-out screening of Southland Tales, a well-regarded documentary about Lindsay Anderson and a concert film of Sigur Rós to take in two other films I had a good feeling about. How did I do on my first official day? Quite well.

secretsunshine-250.jpgSecret Sunshine (Milyang)
South Korea 2007.

Sometimes the great thing about foreign films is that, unlike mainstream American movies, you can’t always see their Big Idea clearly after 15 minutes. They don’t conform to a preset template or try to fit comfortably within an audience’s expectations. They can’t be neatly summarized in a trailer or, as you’re about to find out, in a compact, easily digestible blurb. They present unique challenges and they also offer unique rewards. Secret Sunshine offers both in equal measure and it was the perfect way to kick off the festival.

The film begins as a woman, Shin-ae, is traveling from Seoul with her son to the small Korean town of Milyang (the name means ‘secret sunshine’) where her husband had grown up. It was his dream to one day move his family back there before he died and Shin-ae aims to pick up her life beginning with her dead husband’s wish. It’s a kind of rebirth for her after tragedy and it will turn out to be the first of three during the course of the film.

One of Secret Sunshine’s primary pleasures is the way it constantly surprises and defies your expectations as it wends its way through multiple incidents, themes, emotions and even film genres, somehow seamlessly. It’s an impossible film to categorize in the typical way and to outline all of the turns it takes would be to rob it of much of its power. I will say that more than once I thought the story had painted itself into a corner and I was going to leave dissatisfied, but every time it rallied and offered me a new surprise.

Holding the whole thing together is a miraculous performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae. When I say ‘miraculous’, I’m not just speaking in critical cliché or hyperbole. There was a polio victim in the back row who literally stood up from his wheelchair and walked triumphantly out of the theater when the movie was over. Ok, that’s a complete lie. I was speaking in cliché, but it applies.

Jeon really is terrific, running the gamut of human emotions from simple joy, to fear, to anger, to sadness and even outright despair. Despite the fact that her behavior is at times questionable, her performance is such that you never lose sympathy for Shin-ae. I can see why the jury at Cannes was impressed enough to award her the prize for Best Actress at this year’s festival.

In the end, the sometimes vague, elliptical and elusive nature of the story may have kept this movie from being a slam-dunk for me (at least upon first viewing), but the performance by Jeon Do-yeon makes it worth watching.

I don’t know if Secret Sunshine is getting a U.S. theatrical release. As for DVD, Netflix lists it but with no known release date.

confessionsofasuperhero.jpgConfessions of a Superhero
USA 2007

If you’ve ever been to Hollywood Boulevard in the vicinity of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, you’ve seen them. You may have even had your picture taken with them. They’re the assorted low rent superheroes, movie star look-alikes and tattered cartoon characters that patrol the sidewalks of the Street of Dreams, having their pictures taken with tourists from around the world in exchange for tips. For some people, they’re a joke. For the authorities, they’re little more than panhandlers, a nuisance. For the tourists, they’re as close as they’re ever going to get to the real thing.

Director Matthew Oggen and his crew spent nearly two years filming the lives of four of these characters. They are Chris Dennis (Superman), Jennifer Gehrt (Wonder Woman), Joe McQueen (The Incredible Hulk) and Maxwell Allen (Batman). Confessions of a Superhero is their story and in a strange way, these people are the most authentic slice of Hollywood you’re likely to find. Their characters (sometimes held together with paperclips and duct tape) are artificial, but their dreams are very real and the pleasure they bring hundreds of tourists every day is obvious on any weekend day in Hollywood. In a city whose business is essentially phony, they fit right in.

Confessions of a Superhero could’ve taken the easy route and simply slowed down long enough to point and laugh. There is sport to be made here if that’s what you want, a certain Jerry Springer quality, and I admit there’s a small part of that in my fascination. There’s a bit of a freak show. Luckily Confessions took the high road, unafraid to show the absurdity and occasional delusion of these folks, but mainly interested in finding the human being beneath the costume. They’ve all got different stories and different backgrounds: Joe is a transplant from North Carolina who spent his early years in L.A. sleeping in doorways. Maxwell is happy to remind you he looks a bit like George Clooney. He’s got anger management issues and a checkered, but possibly fabricated past. Jennifer is the pretty homecoming queen with dreams too big for the small Tennessee town she grew up in. Chris is a little more vaguely defined. He claims to be the son of Sandy Dennis (a claim the deceased actress’s family denies), but his defining characteristic is a full-fledged obsession with Superman. His apartment is filled with paraphernalia. Unlike the other three, it’s difficult to tell where the real Chris ends and the character begins.

The one thing they all have in common (and the thing that unites them with a significant portion of the population of Los Angeles) is a dream of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry. The sad thing is that there are more people who want to be famous in this town than those who ever will be. It’s not that these people are on the bottom rung of the ladder (the are), but the fact that they may be on their way down rather than on their way up that’s a little heartbreaking when you get to know them as people. The appealing thing about them, however, is that they have a certain Ed Wood can-do spirit. They’re not going to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, they’re going to go out and make their dream come true in the best way they know how. Though they may or may not achieve greater success, in some ways they’re living their dream right now. How many of us can truly say that?

Confessions of a Superhero is currently playing in New York and Austin. It will play in Los Angeles in the middle of November. It comes to DVD on January 22.

Today I’ve got as many as four films to see. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a definite. The new Alex Cox film Searchers 2.0 is a probable. The 2nd screening of Southland Tales is a maybe, though I may pick something else at the last minute. I’ll be able to catch up with Southland Tales when it’s released in a couple of weeks.

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