New Directors/New Films is caught in the middle of a film festival traffic-jam that starts every year (post-Sundance, Slamdance, Berlin, and SXSW; concurrent with Sarasota and Full Frame; and pre-Tribeca and Cannes). Running from March 25-April 5 at The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF brings the international festival circuit home for viewers who prefer not to rack up the frequent flier miles that would otherwise be required. In this year's stylistically diverse program, there are several gems that shouldn't be missed.
The standout of this year's fest is So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain (pictured), the highly anticipated follow-up to Kim's debut feature In Between Days, a Sundance and Berlin award winner from 2006. When a mother leaves her two daughters with their aunt in Seoul in order to finalize a divorce, she also leaves them with a piggy bank. When it is full, she tells them, she will return. And so they wait, grilling grasshoppers to sell to local youths, and counting their change. Kim saturates her film with the pregnant stasis of childhood, and her young actors, Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim, express more depth than any of this year's leading or supporting Oscar noms.
Coincidentally, two of ND/NF's other strongest contenders are both South American narratives that focus on the emotional plight of maids. The Maid, the second feature from Chilean director SebastÃan Silva, looks at a live-in-housekeeper/nanny suffering a midlife crisis. In her 40s, she sleeps in a single bed, has no boyfriends, few hobbies, and little contact with her own family. She exercises her frustration by locking out the family's other hired hands and other not-so-passive aggressive gestures. Meanwhile, the Peruvian The Milk of Sorrow examines the psychological trauma that is handed down from rape victims to their children. Not wanting to suffer the fate of her mother, young Fausta has placed a potato in her vagina — an emotionally and physically scarring decision whose side effects are now life threatening.
Whereas the weight of reality is clearly felt by the protagonists of The Maid and The Milk of Sorrow, the same can hardly be said for Harmony and Me. Mumblecore poster-boy Justin Rice is dumped by his girlfriend and proceeds to go to work, be grumpy, make inappropriate remarks at a funeral, and generally embody the dictionary definition of Ennui. However, "the bored middle class" is hardly a new subject, and the token disaffected, ironic humor is hardly a replacement for a compelling story. To make matters worse, the film feels like a web series whose episodes have been strung together.
Justin Rice isn't the only young'un who is lost and confused in ND/NF. Teenage Axl has traveled from Spain to London in search of his long-lost father in Unmade Beds, only to find him married with children and working in a real estate office. Posing as a customer, Axl examines prospective apartments by day and by night indulges in sex, drugs, and rock n' roll (as well as other genres) with a community of hipster squatters. Director Alexis Dos Santos renders earnest angst through Godard/Raoul Coutard-inspired color schemes. The lively and engaging script only falters with its ending, which is a tad too neat and symbolic for my taste (particularly the sky-diving — but see for yourself). On the other side of Europe, Russain sixteen-year-old Mukha is burning down buildings and practicing her boxing skills in The Fly. But then her mom dies, and her absent father suddenly appears. Neither wants each other, and their mutual inability to conform to small-town standards is at once unapologetically severe and idiosyncratically funny.
The travels don't end there, however. Pascal-Alex Vincet's Give Me Your Hand follows two twin brothers as they tromp through the woods and hitch-hike from France to Spain for their estranged mother's funeral. Alternating whimsical escapades and anonymous sexcapades, the film sometimes imitates its characters and wanders off-course, though it ultimately conveys something of the contrary attraction and contraction of brothers. Reversing the formula, Barking Water has a dying father searching for his distant daughter. With the help of his ex-lover , he escapes from the hospital and goes on a cross-country road trip, visiting old friends and family and reliving memories. The two leads have a strong emotional rapport on-screen together; however, the film too often prefers to cut short their dialogue in favor of a mix-tape soundtrack and sepia-toned flashbacks.