Every year in early autumn, movie lovers converge on the Upper West Side for the New York Film Festival, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Here you’ll find the film fan who has been champing at the bit to see the most-anticipated new releases of the fall; the older patron of the arts curious to discover something new in the festival’s retrospective section; the Tisch student prepared to have her mind blown by some deliriously inventive movie imported from halfway around the world; the Manhattan socialite who only bought a ticket on a lark; the writer who isn’t as impressed by his favorite director’s latest effort—one suspects he’s never impressed; the grizzled festival veteran who remembers when the lines weren’t as long and the security wasn’t as tight; and me, the bright-eyed cinephile who finally found the time and funds to come from out of town to experience the East Coast’s premier film festival for the first time.
New York is considered the last of the major film festivals of the calendar year. Consequently, there’s an absence here of that legendary buzz of discovery associated with other festivals. All the movies that end up here have already been discovered somewhere else—Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Venice, Toronto—and everyone who comes to this festival does so with the foreknowledge (or at least access to it) of which movies are worth seeing and why.
This year’s Main Slate was stacked with major titles from the usual suspects, including established auteurs (the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuarón, Claire Denis, Frederick Wiseman, Jean-Luc Godard) as well as impressive up-and-comers (Yorgos Lanthimos, Barry Jenkins, Alex Ross Perry, Pawel Pawlikowski). I planned out for myself a whirlwind weekend focusing on foreign films with uncertain or very limited U.S. theatrical-release plans; I don’t mind waiting with everyone else to see the new Orson Welles movie because I know it won’t be hard to see it later.
On an ideological level, the cinema of Lee Chang-Dong should not appeal to me: Narrative fatalism laced with nihilism and an infuriating narrowness of theological vision ought to set my hair on fire. Yet just as we can revere both Bach and Khachaturian despite their radically different sources of artistic inspiration, so can I declare with no difficulty that Burning, the South Korean writer-director’s first film in eight years, was the best thing I saw at the NYFF. The movie, adapted from a Haruki Murakami story, concerns a recent university graduate working as a deliveryman (his creative-writing degree, shockingly, doesn’t pay the bills). On his route, he runs into a girl from his home neighborhood; the two have a fling. She goes to Africa for a two-week trip and asks him to catsit (the cat mysteriously never shows itself). But when she returns, she has brought with her a handsomer, wealthier, suaver, and ambiguously menacing Korean guy whom she met at the airport in Kenya during a terrorist attack (one of Lee’s favorite techniques: wildly implausible plot contrivances played off as realism).
Burning spends nearly all of its first hour and a half in a mode of formal realism. Lee films the main trio’s day-to-day interactions patiently—some might say excruciatingly—and plainly. Then, in an astonishing mid-movie scene I dare not describe in too much detail lest I rob you of the experience of encountering it for yourself, a joint is lit up, Miles Davis’s theme from Elevator to the Gallows starts pulsating through the speakers, and neither the movie nor its audience will ever be the same. Though the actors continue to play their roles after this scene as though nothing has changed, from this point Lee starts to film and cut his movie more obviously like a thriller. The result is disturbing and exciting in a way that’s only made possible by filmmakers who know everything that cinema is capable of doing to the soul.
Bi Gan, a 29-year-old director from the Chinese city of Kaili, is another such filmmaker—or so I’m told. I darted from my screening of Burning at the Walter Reade Theater across the street to the packed Francesca Beale Theater showing of Bi’s sophomore feature, Long Day’s Journey into Night (no relation to the Eugene O’Neill play). Since its premiere at Cannes this past May, cinephiles have hotly anticipated Bi’s film as the Chinese movie with an hour-long, uninterrupted 3D tracking shot. Indeed, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is . . . the Chinese movie with an hour-long, uninterrupted 3D tracking shot. (Before the screening, Bi introduced the movie with a slight correction: “It’s not a 3D movie, but when the main character puts on his glasses, feel free to put on yours too.”) It’s also, in this particular instance, a casualty of poor scheduling on my own part. I spent the first half of the movie—incidentally, the non-3D part—still processing Burning and thus unable to give Bi’s film my full attention. A rookie mistake. Kino Lorber will be distributing Long Day’s Journey across the country next April, at which time I hope to give it a second look—though even from this first, not entirely attentive, viewing, it’s clear that the 3D shot is not a razzle-dazzle stunt but an earnest attempt at communicating old feelings and stories in new ways.
I do not need a second look at Diamantino, my sole Friday screening, to know exactly how I feel about it. Imagine, if you will, a movie—shot on a shoestring budget with the aesthetics of five different thrift stores stapled together—about a holy fool who happens to be an international soccer star. This airheaded Adonis retires from the sport to selflessly adopt a refugee who turns out to be a spy going undercover to track a half-dozen offshore bank accounts traced to his house but which belong in actuality to his evil scheming older twin sisters who are trying to clone him as part of a Brexit-style political plot to break Portugal out of the EU. There is nothing more I need to say: You should already know whether this is a movie for you.
Saturday was my most-anticipated day of the festival: Not one, but two Hong Sang-soo movies awaited me! Although he is little known in the United States, Hong, by the admission of seemingly everyone waiting in line before his movies that day, is something of a festival darling. He has been making movies for some two decades and has recently accelerated to a rate of two or three a year. As film critic Nick Pinkerton has put it, the more Hong movies you see the better you are at evaluating them. You go into your first one (mine was 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then) unsure what to expect. Viewing your second Hong movie, a pattern emerges: They always seem to feature a male artist (director, author, painter) who arrives in a new town for a brief visit; he meets a woman and falls in love; they have drinks (real ones: Hong famously serves his actors the real deal so everyone gets drunk on camera for maximum soul-baring); he expounds his philosophy of art or relationships or whatever happens to be on his mind after five rounds of soju; there’s a falling out; and then events repeat themselves in some way.
Part of the joy of getting hooked on Hong is waiting to see how he’ll play with this formula. In Hotel by the River, he shifts his storytelling emphasis away from romantic love to familial relationships, namely between father and sons. In Grass, he uses the framing device of a woman sitting in the corner of a café eavesdropping on everyone else’s conversations to examine collective guilt and misery. Hong’s characters are always drawn from life (often his own; his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, the star of all of his movies since Right Now, Wrong Then, has been fascinating to watch through the lens of their artistic collaborations) and despite his films’ similarities of circumstances, each character he invents is a distinct person. Watch enough Hongs and you’ll eventually meet a character who speaks directly to you (mine was Kim Min-hee’s bashfully Christian publishing assistant in The Day After). In the biz this is referred to as the point of no return. NYFF programmer Dennis Lim introduced Hotel by the River with his condolences that Hong couldn’t present it in person this year because he’s already busy working on his next movie. “So, same time, same place next year?,” Lim joked to a roomful of knowing laughter. My tickets are as good as already booked.