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NYFF 2018: Ray & Liz, Asako I & II, Hotel by the River

The downside to the New York Film Festival's omnivorous selection process, wherein several of their programmers spend the year collecting their favorites and showing them free of competition, is that it can be very tough to gauge what kind of an experience you're going to have in a given day of watching. A movie programmed by Dennis Lim versus one chosen by Kent Jones will undoubtedly have wildly different contours, and the press screening dates have more to do with their premiere dates, which themselves are arranged by availability of the talent associated with each movie. 

All this to say, you can see the most depressing and the most warm films one right after the other, and depending on what order you see them in, one could act as a palette cleanser or it could ruin the taste of better movies. I likely would have walked out of the Walter Reade on cloud nine following the press screening of the luminous restoration of "The Other Side Of The Wind" and gone home. But I stayed and watched human haggis Steve Bannon misinterpret Welles' "Chimes At Midnight" during Errol Morris' deeply depressing and infuriating "American Dharma." I had to walk around with Bannon's words ringing in my ears all day like the staccato of piss dribbling onto the constitution from a Neurogenic bladder. Scheduling matters. 

If English photographer-turned-director Richard Billingham's "Ray & Liz" had been the last film of the day, I might have lingered on its various excretions, the urine and puke that clutter the otherwise gorgeous frames. Thankfully it was followed by the engulfing warmth of "If Beale Street Could Talk," which gave me a little distance to process the nightmare procession. "Ray & Liz" is an extension of Billingham's photographic obsessions, namely England represented by a pair of impoverished grotesques, their dirty wallpaper and stained furniture ensconcing them like diseased royalty in their council estates. Billingham's major failing as a dramatist is his invitation to judge his characters. In still photographs they're fascinating objects, on film they're bloated holy fools, but they're never quite people. 

Your mileage may vary for such a spectacle (Harmony Korine hasn't had a career because people don't enjoy this sort of thing, after all) but I found it just ugly enough a worldview to get in the way of my appreciation for Billingham's obvious talent as an image-maker. I don't much like watching the handicapped taken advantage of, no matter how well done, and this film makes quite a spectacle of just that in its second vignette. It's a shame because his editing and compositions at times get close to the squalid grandeur of Terence Davies, and that ain't hay. It was still ultimately a relief to have Barry Jenkins' film afterwards. Though not perfect, it was a warmer look at the world and one I desperately needed. 

Watching "Asako I & II" and "Hotel by the River" on the same turned out to be quite fortuitous for similar reasons. First the bad news. I haven't seen "Happy Hour," the five-hour movie with which director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi made a splash a few years ago, so I had no idea what to expect of his eclectically titled follow-up. Having seen it I still have no idea what it is. I heard someone call it a melodrama on the way out of the press screening and … well, maybe? Asako (Erika Karata) lives by herself in Osaka when one day at a gallery she meets Baku (Masahiro Higashide), an anti-social lunatic who starts fist-fights in clubs and vanishes for days and weeks at a time with no warning. She's inexplicably drawn to him, to the point of a sort of dependency, which presents a problem when he goes on an errand and never returns. Two years later, Asako lives in Tokyo and works at a coffee shop that happens to service a Sake company across the street. A junior executive named Ryôhei (also Higashide) whom she thinks is Baku, takes a shine to her one day when she comes to retrieve a coffee pot from his office. Of course she's freaked out and reluctant because he looks like the guy who abandoned her but after the 2011 earthquake hits (!?) she decides to give him a shot. Many years after that she starts seeing the real Baku again and we finally meet Asako II. 

I mention the earthquake because I sort of expected the resultant trouble at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant to somehow figure into the action. It would have explained why in the hell everyone in this movie acts so strangely. The music hints that something vaguely sinister and/or paranormal was going on between Baku and Asako, but that's a red herring, as is ultimately the doppelgänger plotline. It's not that the tension between Asako's love for both men isn't important, it's that it's never remotely important that they look the same, nor is the similarity ever explained. It, like Baku's apparent personality disorder and a thousand other extremely bizarre incidents, is left maddeningly unexplained. I get throwing in personality quirks to liven up a drama, but this film is all third arms and sixth fingers (what's with the scene where Ryôhei's friend berates her roommate for ten minutes?), a misshapen gnu that asks you to trust it knows what it's doing. Ironically the movie ultimately winds up being about trust, at which point I realized I was all out.

Just as I was scratching my head fiercely enough to draw blood at Asako's dead-ends and double visions, over sauntered dependable old Hang Sang-soo with one of two films at the festival. To my great shame I missed "Grass," the shorter of the new films, but "Hotel by the River" was movie enough. It concerns five people holed up in a, uh … hotel by the river (gotta tell ya, reader, the urge to use the word 'titular' in this piece has been overwhelming). The usual familial and romantic troubles abound, the soju flows, and the melancholy hilarity never stops. Hong must have been affected by the trouble in his personal life of late because Hotel is free of his usual framing devices and indeed has an unusual fixation of legacy. His lives are usually in the throes of progress and chaos, but here his protagonist is an old poet (Gi Ju-bong) dreaming of his own death. He calls his large adult sons (Hae-hyo Kwon and Joon-Sang Yoo) to meet him at the … inn by the water, so he can start dispensing wisdom and approval in case he perishes. 

Hong's writing has to be some of the most successful in the modern canon to never ever approach sharpness. It's baggy, overgrown, and it frequently feels as though his actors are improvising through scenes of brutal awkwardness. Near the end the old poet reads a new work to two women by whom he's become obsessed. The poem starts obvious, takes a left turn at a non-sequitur, and then becomes unspeakably moving. The film travels much of the same path, leaving us in a stupor of battered grace and hard-won reflection. I expect a lot of things when I step into a movie at the New York Film Festival, but I don't always get to see something this special. Sometimes it pays to not know what's coming. 

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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