After a month of having my face pressed against the candy store window, gazing longingly at all the mysterious and exotic treats in their brightly colored wrappers, I finally got my golden ticket, the doors of the Los Angeles Film Festival chocolate factory swung wide and, like Augustus Gloop, I made a bee line for the chocolate river and jumped in.

For now I want to run capsules of the things I saw with the intention of revisiting some of the better ones with full length reviews as time permits.

First up from Poland was Andrzej Jakimowski’s Tricks (Sztuczki) a very loosely plotted, autobiographical story about Stefek, a little boy living in a small town with his single mother and his pretty older sister Elka.

Stefek spends his days watching trains, following his sister and her boyfriend, playing with his toy soldiers and trying to strike up a connection with a man he believes to be his father. Whether he’s teasing an old man’s trained pigeons or scattering coins around to see the impact they have on passersby or placing his soldiers in the paths of oncoming trains, he’s a boy adrift in childhood trying to assert his will on the world.

Filmed in the golden light of memory, Tricks strikes a contemplative Jim Jarmusch-like tone, though more innocent and less sly. It’s a terrific film and a promising way to kick off the festival. (International Showcase)

Next came Hello, Stranger (Chereum Mannan Saramdeul) from South Korea’s Kim Dong-hyun. It’s only my first official day at the festival, but this one’s an early frontrunner for my favorite. It tells the story of a group of characters in Seoul, Korea divided by language, geography and culture, but united in their alienation. There is the cab driver who defected from North Korea a decade ago, a Vietnamese illegal searching for his girlfriend, another North Korean just out of the adjustment center and a jaded cop keeping tabs on the immigrant population.

All of these characters fall in and out of each other’s orbit, but this isn’t one of those too-clever ensemble pieces where all the effort is placed in tying things up in a neat bow. The relationships are tangential, incidental and temporary, but they all mesh to form a fabric illuminating the immigrant experience and the sense of isolation and helplessness in the modern world.

It sounds depressing, but the film has a remarkable knack for mixing heartbreak with abundant humor. This is a funny film that gets a lot of mileage out of situational humor and the comedy of misunderstanding.

It also has a refreshing sense of humanity, of lonely souls reaching out for an ally in the cold, confusing world and finding it. Hello, Stranger put me in the mind of the Taiwanese film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone from last year’s LAFF, though it’s funnier and less ethereal. (International Showcase)

Next stop: France with A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille coupée en deux) the latest from the father of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol. Part thriller, part melodrama and part social satire, Girl tells the story of a love triangle as only the French seem to be capable. Francois Berleand is a reclusive, womanizing author. Benoit Magimel is his enemy, the unbalanced scion of a pharmaceutical empire. Caught between them with deadly consequences is lovely Ludivine Sagnier, a naïve TV weather girl on the rise. The result pits man vs. woman, young vs. old, the intellectual vs. the material and the obscenely wealthy vs. the bourgeoisie. It sounds very promising on paper and it manages to hold on to that promise through a good 3/4s of its running time, but sadly it never quite delivers. Reaching for some trite symbolism at the end, A Girl Cut in Two ultimately feels a little like an old man working out his sexual frustration. Fine enough for what it is and always watchable, I only regret it never quite paid off. It opens in LA on September 5. (Summer Previews)

Finally, at midnight came X-Cross (Ekusu-Kurosu), a unique entry in the J-Horror genre from Kenta Fukusaku (Battle Royale II, Yo-Yo Girl Cop). Eschewing the cheap shocks and moody supernaturalism that marks some of the better known entries in the genre, X-Cross owes more to American grindhouse, particularly films of the “teens trapped in an isolated cabin surrounded by maniacs” vein. In this case, a girl on the rebound from a bad relationship signs up for a spa weekend in an isolated village hot spring with her trampy friend in tow. If the fog and creepy one-legged scarecrows don’t convince the girls they’re in for a bad weekend, neither does the grotesque innkeeper with the rotten smile and the strange wooden talisman around her neck, a wooden Y with a leg cut off and a red ribbon tied around it. By the time they’re ready to wash for dinner and the innkeeper suggests they pay special attention to washing their legs, it’s too late and the mayhem begins.

Soon the girls are separated and hunted down by a motley assortment of crazed scythe and axe toting villagers. They’re able to communicate sporadically by cell phone and the narrative jumps, first showing events from the perspective of one character and then rewinding and showing the perspective of another. It’s a nifty narrative trick that manages to keep you entertained and guessing through most of the 90 minute running time. Though the denouement disappoints a little as they often do in these things, the creepy, funny and over-the-top ride along the way is more than worth the trip.

All in all, my first day was a raging success. It’s early and my energy is still high and I’m looking forward to another round. As time and Wi-Fi connections permit, I may have additional postings throughout the day. For now, the café is filling up and I don’t want to be an Augustus Gloop.

8 Responses to “LAFF 2008: Day 2”

  1. Hello, Stranger sounds absolutely amazing.

  2. What Nick said.

    Craig, are you getting any benefits with press access?

  3. “he’s a boy adrift in childhood trying to assert his will on the world.” Nice.

    “The relationships are tangential, incidental and temporary, but they all mesh to form a fabric illuminating the immigrant experience and the sense of isolation and helplessness in the modern world.” I love the best examples of this type of cinematic story telling.

    All you had to say was Ludivine Sagnier and I was sold on A Girl Cut in Two. Though my expectations of the film are rightly tempered by your review.

  4. Tremendous write-up, Craig. Thanks to you, these are all titles I’m now tentatively interested in, and seeing what others have to say about them.

  5. X-Cross owes more to American grindhouse, particularly films of the “teens trapped in an isolated cabin surrounded by maniacs”

    Great. Another homegrown American specialty outsourced. USA, no longer the #1 exporter of cabins surrounded by maniacs. I think Gibbon wrote of Rome’s slippage in maniac supremacy in “The Rise and Fall…”

    …another North Korean just out of the adjustment center…

    Finally an opening at the Adjustment Center. For weeks I’ve been trying to schedule an appointment to get my priorities realigned.

    Brill and thrilling survey of the first day’s offering, Craig. Even in summary your wrap-ups unfold and expand like those tightly-wrapped leaves in handcrafted cups of gourmet tea that bloom before our eyes.

    I don’t know where else we could read such a thorough overview, and don’t even want to waste time looking. Why flip around through 160 channels at midnight, when we know where to find Bill Moyers?

  6. Nice recap of your day, Craig. I’ve read over your summations and like Alexander, I’m now curious about them all. Very cool, and I love that I’d only heard of one of these prior!

    And I like the Charlie analogy to kick it all off too.

  7. Nick. It was thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

    Daniel. Mainly free movies until I puke and I get to skip the long lines. Theoretically there are interview opportunities I might be able to take advantage of, but I don’t feel up for it. Perhaps if there’s a next time at another festival.

    Sartre. You’ve seen more of Ms. Sangier elsewhere, so to speak, but she’s beautiful as always.

    (in George C. Scott voice) Ryan, we can not allow a maniac gap!

    Thanks Alexander and Joel. Hopefully some of these will get some play outside of the festival circuit. The Chabrol film has a distribution deal, but no word as yet on the others.

    As you can see, neither time nor wi-fi permitted additional posting. Day 3 recap coming later today though.

  8. I am not surprised that there is already a deal on the Chabrol–this is one director who has clout. Of course like the others here, I am most intrigued by your reaction to HELLO, STRANGER, TRICKS and the Chabrol.
    This is unquestionably a comprehensive and passionate report, and that Augustus Gloop-Chocolate Factory lead-in is wonderful. Your adreneline is flowing and your stamina is at its height! Looking forward to Day 3 recap.

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