NYFF 2013, Day One Dispatch: ‘Like Father, Like Son’; ‘Stranger by the Lake’; ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’; ‘Nobody’s Daughter Haewon’

Like Father, Like Son

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There’s a sweetness and emotional weight to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tales about children and family dynamics that instantly recalls another great Japanese auteur, Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda’s previous film, 2011’s I Wish, follows a pair of brothers who plot a long-traveled reunion following their parents’ separation. Over the course of two breezy hours, they go through various trials and tribulations all in the name of an afternoon spent with a loved one. Rather than forcing the tale’s import with overwrought emotional confessions and stylistic cliché, Kore-eda opts for the power of universality. What makes his refreshing approach in I Wish and in his newest, Like Father, Like Son, so resonant is that the nostalgic inferences never veer into the maudlin.

The multigenerational conference of character is at the root of Like Father, even though it’s only hinted at in quiet moments. A bourgeois family and a working-class family unwittingly raise each other’s sons as a result of a hospital mix-up.  They receive this news when the children are 6 years old, prompting a host of emotional upheaval for everyone involved. Kore-eda’s focus resides squarely with the non-biological parents of Keita, a sweetheart of a child whose sunny affect barely resembles that of his “non-father” Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu), an austere, white-collar alpha. Ryota struggles to reconcile Keita’s parentage, especially when he begins to raise his biological son Ryusei and sees that his free-spirited personality is more a result of his adoptive parents’ nurturing than any genetic lineage. This nature/nurture debate runs subtly throughout Kore-eda’s tender tale, happily forgoing grand gesture for finely tuned family drama.

Stranger by the Lake

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If you’ve heard anything about Allen Guiraudie’s festival hit Stranger by the Lake, it’s probably in reference to the film’s graphic, explicit, unnerving sexual frankness.  To be clear: you see a lot of penis, ass, and unclad male bodies. However, unless you’ve never seen a man’s penis, there’s nothing exploitative, gratuitous, shocking, or even arousing about the material in this tightly wound murder mystery. Unless, of course, you’re put off by gay male sex. More on that discussion during a different article, but if the post-screening washroom chatter is any indication, many male critics are.

The lake in question is at a gay beach where men go as much to swim and get a suntan as they do to cruise the nearby brush for anonymous sexual encounters. Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) goes there most days for these stated purposes. Through his ritualistic beachside visits, he meets two men who, through their deceptively similar orientations, provide the film’s discourse on sexuality and desire. Henri is a rotund middle-aged, recently divorced mostly straight man who goes to the beach to make conversation with the otherwise friendly crowd. He’s had sexual encounters with men before but considers them unsustainable, though not unrewarding, relationships. Michel is a brawny swimmer whom Franck clearly desires. Franck enjoys speaking with Henri each day, but gladly ditches him when Michel arrives to tryst.

Through the obscured light of sunset, Franck witnesses Michel drown one of his regular lovers. It’s a tense moment, but not one that diminishes his lustful infatuation; the two become closer post-murder. As the days go on, Franck’s future becomes more uncertain. Michel’s secrecy about his private life is consistent with most DL culture, and it’s clear that his actions likely stem from some complex self-hatred. All the while, Henri provides an ongoing commentary to Franck about his fatalistic relationship, offering his own anecdotes about love and desire through what’s probably a similar case history as Michel’s. Guiraudie’s film brilliantly weaves this ripe subcultural milieu into the thriller genre with chilling results.

Inside Llewyn Davis 

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What’s inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)? The answer is some regret, a bit of resolve, arrogance, and talent. That’s the title of the titular folk singer’s solo record, but it also accounts for the existential dilemma surrounding the newest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, an expectedly excellent and closely observed study of the New York folk scene circa 1961.

Like most Coen films, Inside Llewyn Davis addresses failure and aspirational difficulty through a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Llewyn Davis was in a semi-successful folk duo until his partner committed suicide, forcing a half to become a whole. This nascent metaphor runs throughout the film as Davis goes from one disappointment to another, be it performance, record label rejection, or short-lived squatting on a friend’s sofa. He just can’t seem to get his shit together. Davis is cut from the same cloth as Don Draper or, probably closer, The Master’s Freddie Quell, in that he’s basically an asshole but you can’t help but root for him. The Coens have that rare ability to show a lot without being showy about it. Their characters follow suit.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon

nobodys daughter haewon

No less an auteur is Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, whose second film in this year’s festival circuit, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, is as beguilingly gender-discursive as you’d hope. A recent TIFF review of his other new film, Our Sunhi, talked a bit about Hong’s approachable, unique style, one that tends to veil the greater aims of his works. Things are so easy, breezy, and beautiful in his films that the serious subtexts about gender are easy to overlook. That would be a mistake.

Like Sunhi, Haewon is a college student surrounded by opinionated men, or rather, men who have a specific opinion about her. Her tempestuous relationship with a professor elicits contempt from her classmates, not least due to the adulterous nature of the affair. Haewon is otherwise friendly and agreeable, especially with strangers, a bevy of whom she befriends at bookstores or on frequent walks at the local park. These interactions, the emotionally charged interpersonal ones and the carefree, ebullient ones with strangers, show that Haewon is a young woman often defined by the perceptions of others. Her struggle to reconcile these conflicting dialogues assigns Hong’s film an immediacy that belies its effortlessness.

— John Oursler

 

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The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.

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