In the opening scene of Hong Sangsoo’s Introduction, a man is praying. He says he will do anything. He will give up half his wealth, give it to an orphanage even, if God gives him one more chance. We never really find out who this man is, what he did, why he needs that “one more chance”—in the sense that this dramatic opening scene is not the “crux” that drives the narrative, which is shot in black-and-white. Maybe with a bit of a stretch, we might be able to move to another instance of “sinning.” Much later, we get a boy who says he couldn’t do a kissing scene in a movie because it felt morally wrong. He felt it would be like cheating his girlfriend. These scenes seem at once wispy and profound, like a haiku that opens up a universe. That, of course, is Hong Sangsoo.
He sets up a series of conversations between sets of two people: an acupuncture doctor and his patient (a famous theatre actor), the doctor’s son and the doctor’s secretary, a mother and her daughter who wants to study fashion. And in one scene, we get a foursome: the doctor’s wife and their son, the son’s friend and the theatre actor from earlier. And they talk and they talk. Why this title? Because, as the festival synopsis puts it, two mothers attempt to introduce their children to life, but their offspring have decided to write their own introduction. Or then again, maybe it’s because each scene, each set-of-two-characters conversation “introduces” a new tangent in the storytelling, sometimes jumping back and forth in time and memory. In a regular film, you’d call this “plotting”. Here, you’d call it eavesdropping. Maybe that’s all we’ll ever know about these people, and maybe that’s quite all right.
Ferit Karahan’s Turkish drama is a kind of procedural, a more benign version of those Asghar Farhadi nail-biters where very ordinary people try to get to the bottom of what looks like a very ordinary problem (but of course, isn’t). The setting is a boarding school in the mountains of Anatolia. There’s snow everywhere and the strict teachers appear even colder. A few boys are punished for joshing around by being denied hot water to bathe. Inevitably, one of the boys falls ill, and chaos ensues. The authorities are just not prepared. Even the pharmacist says, “I can’t handle an emergency. I only hand out aspirin.”
There is a running joke where everyone who enters the medical ward (where the boy rests) ends up sliding on the ice that’s formed near the door. But the truth is equally slippery, and it may rest with another boy, a close friend of the one who’s unwell. An ambulance is called. Ways to clear the driveway of snow are debated. Meanwhile, the mystery keeps unravelling, strand by strand. The most heartbreaking scene is when the friend of the boy who’s unwell borrows a phone to speak to his mother. It’s almost like she doesn’t care what he wants. All she tells him is that he is their only hope and he has to study well. Frankly, sometimes, snow has nothing on the coldness of families.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
The essence of Radu Jude’s deliciously titled Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn lies between two sets of text. The first one is a quote from the Mahabharata, and it appears after an explicit sex act captured on a phone camera. “No one understands that the world is sinking on the ocean of time that is so very deep and infested with those crocodiles called decrepitude and death.” The second is a stretch of dialogue during a parent-teacher meeting: “There’s fresh news every day. We think we are important but the world forgets us. They say Pontius Pilate was asked, years after Jesus’ crucifixion, if he regretted it. So he tries hard to remember. But he can’t remember the case. Jesus hadn’t been someone important to him.”
Like Jesus, a teacher is put on trial. Her offence is a sex tape she made with her husband, which somehow got online and got viral. It’s the pandemic and everyone wearing a mask. But our protagonist is experiencing an extra level of “social distancing”: no one wants to touch her with a bargepole. There’s a very moral movie to be made from this premise: Should we expect our teachers (or politicians, or even our parents, heaven forbid the imagery that brings to the mind) to be “role models” outside of their public selves? What they do in private, isn’t that their own business? But the film is not a linear narrative of a “what constitutes public morality” trial like, say, The People vs. Larry Flynt. It is… It is… It is hard, frankly, to say what it is.
The narrative is divided into three parts. The first and the third (with a kangaroo court where the pornographic film is actually aired in full) are about the teacher – they are, thus, related to the central storyline. But what does one make of Part 2, which is a visual recitation of a series of apparently connected (yet disconnected) things? We learn, for instance, that a Romanian worker in Italy extracted two of his own teeth because he could not afford a dentist, and he died of blood poisoning. We learn that six in 10 Romanian children are subject to domestic violence. Somehow all this (the press notes call it “an offbeat series of laconic, static images intended as an encyclopaedia of the symbols of our time”) has influenced the Romanian society that has put this teacher on trial today. What all this is as a movie is up for debate. But there’s no denying the excitement of its form, where docu-fiction and slideshows reflect the absurdity of life in Bucharest – and also everywhere else.