Posts in Category: Chicago International Film Festival 2010

Sword of Desperation [Hisshiken torisashi] (2010)

If you love Yasujirô Ozu, Sword of Desperation may impress you. The film pays such attentive homage to Ozu’s style that it could easily be mistaken for one of his films. On that level, it’s an impressive work. However, it’s a work that’s all borrowed style and no substance.

The film opens with a murder. Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a highly regarded swordsman, approaches concubine Renko (Megumi Seki) after a domain-sponsored Noh performance and stabs her, seemingly in cold blood. Instead of having him killed, the domain council strips him of his rank and reduces his rice salary.

Flashbacks surround Kanemi’s self-imposed exile, illuminating the reasons for his murder. It seems Renko’s growing influence on Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami), the domain’s lord, upset the balance. Her insistence on wasting domain money on decadence while the peasants starved frustrated the councilmen. Kanemi, fully aware of the dishonor of his actions, felt compelled to act for the good of the domain.

Sword of Destiny loses interest in the story of a flawed but (somewhat) just antihero about halfway through. It seems like fireworks will go off when Kanemi is called from his exile to work as a servant for Tabu, but that never happens. The film, instead, gets distracted with a fairly ridiculous, vaguely mystical swordfight between Kanemi and Lord Obiya (Koji Kikkawa), who opposes Tabu’s policies and plans a coup. Kanemi is warned early on what Obiya has planned, and it’s strongly hinted that he can regain his honor by picking up the sword and saving Tabu’s life.

The entire third act descends into an orgy of violence that not only loses sight of its characters and the initial, compelling conflicts of the film—it loses sight of story and theme. The first half has virtually nothing to do with the second, aside from extending an odd romantic subplot involving Kanemi and his niece-in-law, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), whose husband rejected her. However, this subplot takes a backseat to the wanton, unearned violence and ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying scene.

Aping Ozu’s style doesn’t exactly help the film’s cause. Every moment of the film is slow and methodical, attempting to mine suspense—as Ozu did—through the intense focus on mundane action and ominous shots of nature (gloomy skies and windblown trees). The almost obsessive attention to detail makes the raucous violence of the last half hour feel like a cheap way to end what started as a sober, reflective film. It’s tonally jarring in a way that’s more frustrating than a compelling defiance of convention.

The film’s style also undermines the fact that the screenplay does not have nearly the same laser-like focus as director Hideyuki Hirayama. Perhaps if more time had been spent giving the story a more natural arc instead of lingering on shots of servants opening and closing rice-paper doors, the film would have worked better overall.

Ultimately, the best part of Sword of Desperation is Toyokawa’s intense performance. I just wish a performance that good could have found a place in a better movie.

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Asleep in the Sun [Dormir al Sol] (2010)

Surrealism is a tricky thing. There’s an incredibly fine line that an artist must walk in order to achieve an end product that combines dream-like logic with heady, symbolic imagery. Play things too “weird for weird’s sake,” and you risk alienating the audience. Play things too real, and you risk a film that’s filled with an assortment of inexplicable character changes and plot twists that are explained away with the shrug of dream-like strangeness. Asleep in the Sun, for all its ambition and beautiful imagery, walks the line but stumbles a little too much to fully achieve its goals.

The film tells the story of Lucio (Luis Machín), a loving husband and unemployed watchmaker in 1930s Argentina. His wife, Diana (Esther Goris), is suffering from something unknown. By description, it sounds like bipolar disorder, but nobody ever describes her problem in clinical terms—not even the doctors. Her growing obsession with dogs—specifically, dogs that Diana believes can talk to her—leads Lucio to reluctantly confine her to a “phrenopathic institute” run by the shadowy Dr. Reger Samaniego (Carlos Belloso).

It’s around this time that the word “Kafkaesque” comes into play. What first seems like an ordinary sanitarium starts to seem like a labyrinthine prison. Lucio starts to get a sense that Diana is trapped there, held against her will by a doctor who refuses to see him. Samaniego’s assistant, Dr. Campolongo (Héctor Díaz), talks in circles eerily reminiscent of The Trial, which confuses and frustrates Lucio. When he finally meets Samaniego, the good doctor subtly implies mental illness is a contagious disease, and that Lucio is likely infected and should voluntarily commit himself, as well. Just when Lucio is prepared to sue the institute, he receives the call that Diana will be released.

When she returns home, Diana seems subtly different. She confuses the names of family members, her cooking isn’t up to par, she grows increasingly obsessed with reading her old diaries, and—most tellingly for Lucio—she suddenly enjoys fellatio. Lucio’s fear and suspicion mounts. He returns to the hospital to confront Samaniego, and that’s when things get really weird.

Unfortunately, writer/director Alejandro Chomski makes two grave miscalculations that undermine the film’s dream-like qualities: too much foreshadowing, and too much “realism.” The film has a few echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth in its attempts to ground a fantastical story in a brutal reality, but it doesn’t pay dividends here. It simply makes Lucio’s actions in the third act seem really out of character and boneheaded. The inconsistency is pretty much chalked up to, “It’s surreal—it doesn’t have to make sense.”

However, it’s stuck in the center of a precarious plot that’s not surreal enough to betray the characters’ previous behavior, yet isn’t grounded enough in believability to be accepted as some sort of convoluted science-fiction. Numerous twists pile up in the last 20 minutes, but they’re too predictable (because of all the foreshadowing) and/or too inconceivable to make the film satisfying as a whole. The end result is a bit of a disappointing mess.

Despite the big problems with the third act, the film is loaded with elements worth admiring. It boasts great performances all around, anchored by Machín, whose doleful eyes create palpable despair that make him easy to root for even when he’s acting like an inexplicable idiot. Chomski and cinematographer Sol Lopatin create gorgeous images that make the film easy on the eyes even when it’s hard on the logic centers. Several early dialogue scenes impressively evoke the absurd, circular illogic of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Lots to admire, but ultimately it doesn’t hold together.

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Golden Slumber [Goruden suranba] (2010)

Two men see each other across a busy street. They were once the best of friends, but they haven’t seen each other much since college. They share a meal, catch up on old times, and park a few blocks away from where the Prime Minister’s motorcade will be heading down the main street of Sendai. That’s when Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) reluctantly explains to Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) all of the following: he impregnated a slot jockey, fell into massive debt, and went to the yakuza to bail him out. His final assignment: bring Aoyagi to the site of the Prime Minister’s assassination, to let him be this plot’s Lee Harvey Oswald.

Before Aoyagi can ask any follow-up questions, a bomb explodes (both literally and figuratively), and he’s on the run. The propulsive opening scenes of Golden Slumber introduce a film that’s unwilling to pigeonhole itself in any genre. Part conspiracy thriller, part action, part comedy, and part romantic drama, writer/director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job balancing tonal shifts that would have seemed jarring or unearned in less skilled hands.

Why Aoyagi? As characters frequently point out throughout the film, it’s all about image. Two years earlier, the mild-mannered deliveryman became a minor celebrity when he rescued pop star Rinka (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. Aoyagi eventually theorizes that people like it when a hero falls from grace. Suddenly, Aoyagi finds himself teaming up with a mobster (Yasushi Hodogaya) and a serial killer (Gaku Hamada) in order to elude authorities and attempt to clear his name.

In the midst of the chaos is a much more complex story about friendships in decay. Years ago, in college, Aoyagi and Morita formed the Food Culture Research Club with friends Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Kazu (Gekidan Hitori). Well-utilized flashbacks explore the closeness of their past and contrast it—quite starkly, at times—with their present-day fragmentation. Although they all remain in Sendai, their lives have pushed them away from each other. The assassination conspiracy forces Aoyagi to return to Haruko and Kazu for help. Nakamura shows no fear in portraying this as a difficult, awkward experience for all involved. This is a group with many unresolved issues, which need to be confronted head-on in order for Aoyagi to survive. For the characters, this dynamic serves as a wonderful core that instantly makes them more interesting than they would be otherwise.

Mostly, though, the film is a fast-paced thriller with some great comedic moments. Take, for instance, the moment a terrified Aoyagi returns to his apartment to watch news coverage of the assassination. He learns the Prime Minister was killed by a bomb planted inside a radio-controlled helicopter. “The assassin,” the newsreader declares, “must be very experienced with RC helicopters.” The film then cuts to Aoyagi’s reaction, and for the first time we discover a wall filled with RC helicopters. They, of course, belong to his girlfriend (Saki Aibu), whom Morita has warned him not to trust. “Has she ever told you to hand out flyers?” he asked Aoyagi, deftly referencing Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged activism.

The film also includes one of the most novel character traits I’ve ever seen in a chase-filled thriller: the main character is a deliveryman, with unparalleled knowledge of Sendai’s nooks and crannies. As a criminal, Aoyagi’s inept—because he’s not one—but a deliveryman is probably the only “citizen” who could flee the authorities with such resourcefulness.

Golden Slumber, for all its charms, is just a tad overstuffed with subplots and characters. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes, but not by much. Moments and even entire characters could be cut without impacting the story, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining film. Even the extraneous material form pieces in a large, eminently satisfying puzzle.

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Love Life of a Gentle Coward [Ljubavni život domobrana] (2009)

Love Life of a Gentle Coward finds the source of its comedy through a deft exploration of gender roles in the modern world. It benefits from a strong screenplay by Pavo Marinković (who also directed) that, in some ways, feels like the sort of comedy Woody Allen would make if he were still in his prime. Aside from its neurotic examination of romance, the film works as a fairly deep rumination on the way social expectations have muddied the relationship waters.

The titular gentle coward, Saša (Nenad Cvetko), works as a meek culinary critic for a struggling newspaper. He’s a divorced father, intimidated by his ex-wife’s new beau, uncertain of how to act around anyone—especially women. His love interest, Ines (Dijana Vidušin), once played professional volleyball. A career-ending injury has left her unhappily working as a no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades in an all-male athletic club. After a particularly stressful week, Saša goes for a massage at the club. Ines is the masseuse.

A relationship starts to develop. Saša feels inferior not just to the men Ines has been involved with, but to Ines herself. Cvetko’s scrawny frame and sunken, sad eyes resemble a Croatian Steve Buscemi, which aids the character. He’s intimidated physically by nearly every character in the film, but Ines gives him some confidence. “Your balls are different,” she states after Saša’s self-pitying rant about his inability to stand up to the men threatening her at the club.

It’s a somewhat crude statement of theme. Saša spends most of his time thinking about how he lacks balls, but he’s ballsy in a brainy way. During their awkward first date—at an empty five-star restaurant he’s reviewing—Ines’s reaction (“I’d like a kebob from the stand across the street”) inspires a hostile screed against the snobbery and exclusionary tactics of fancy restaurants. It’s the sort of thing Saša’s editor has clamored for (“You keep writing essays. People want opinions. Badmouth, like a real journalist!”), but it’s too aggressive. Especially in light of the fact that the restaurateur is related to a vicious political candidate.

Politics play a role in the film that’s largely unnecessary to the story, but vitally important to its contribution to Croatian cinema. As you may know, Croats have had some…trouble. Marinković wisely relegates the political chicanery to the story’s background, but the upcoming election casts a long shadow over all the characters, no matter how seemingly apolitical.

Before long, Saša’s inferiority complex and somewhat pathetic attempts to both impress and protect Ines put the relationship in jeopardy. It’s here that Love Life of a Gentle Coward has ample opportunity to plunder bland American romantic-comedy clichés, but Marinković defies clichés at every turn. The end result is a film that’s rewarding for anyone who appreciates the odd mixed messages each gender receives about its role in society and relationships, yet it remains distinctly Croatian.

If you like your romantic comedies dark and male-focused, Love Life of a Gentle Coward is the best recent example that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it.

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Norman (2010)

You know the type. Every school has (at least) one—rumors always swirling about that depressed, angry loner whose family life is a total wreck. Will he commit suicide? Will he try to recreate Columbine? Or will he simply slide through high school, like he’s waiting out something deeply unimportant so he can move on to the adult world in which he’s been mired all along.

Norman Long (Dan Byrd) is that kid. His mother died in a car wreck, but the film implies that wasn’t exactly the start of his dour frame of mind. It was more like the straw that broke the sad camel’s back, leading to escalating behavior like real suicide attempts and lashing out at anyone who tries to get close to him. His physician father, Doug (Richard Jenkins), seems to be Norman’s closest friend, and together they harbor a dark secret: Doug has stomach cancer. One failed round of chemo, and Doug sees the writing on the wall. He has precious few months left, and he spends them on a couch, drinking to numb the pain and moaning because it doesn’t work.

This doesn’t sound like it’s setting the stage for a demented teen comedy, but that’s actually the core of Norman‘s story. Norman pushes away potential friends, antagonizes enemies, but ultimately he’s starved for attention from his peers. He’s been thrust into a world of adult problems and decisions that he doesn’t want to make, so he has no clue how to be a kid. At the urging of his default best friend (i.e., the only student who will talk to him), “Gay James” (Billy Lush), Norman unsuccessfully auditions for the “drama team” with a disturbing monologue about his actual suicidal thoughts. He also meets Emily (Emily VanCamp), a new student who seems to like Norman.

When James accuses Norman of being too unreliable to be put on a team, Norman blurts out that he has cancer—and finally, he gets the attention he’s so desperate for. He spends much of the first half of the movie claiming he doesn’t want anyone to know, but once the rumor gets out—thanks to James, who spreads it like wildfire—Norman’s more than willing to act the part. He observes Doug and mimics his pain and weakness. He both exhausts and starves himself to create that gaunt, skeletal appearance. In short, he puts a hell of a lot of effort into perpetuating an act that gets him attention he claims he doesn’t want.

And then there’s Emily. Their relationship complicates almost immediately because of the cancer rumor. Norman is livid, because he knows that one day earlier, Emily liked him for him. Now, he fears, she’ll just feel sorry for him, and she’ll hate him if and when he comes clean. Despite all the problems, he spends time with her, lets her think he has cancer and that it’s worsening. A sympathetic teacher (Adam Goldberg) suggests that Norman make a film documenting his struggles. The end result is a jarring, experimental paean to depression, loneliness, fear, and thanatophilia.

Norman is a sharp-toothed teen comedy that doesn’t shy away from making a mess or going to extremely dark, emotional places. It’s clearly sympathetic to Norman’s misguided actions (and every single action Norman makes during the film is misguided), but Talton Wingate’s screenplay doesn’t let him off the hook. At its core, though, it’s an extremely well-made coming-of-age story for cynical teens. The narrative structure is familiar, but the emotional complexity and bleak satire of high school politics make it something more.

Byrd first appeared on my radar screen as the central character in the brilliant but ill-fated CW sitcom Aliens in America. Aside from an appearance in Easy A, I haven’t seen much of him. His performance as Norman, which should be a career-maker if anyone in Hollywood pays attention to this film, demonstrates an ability to handle an extremely challenging role with impressive commitment. He proved his comedy chops in Aliens in America and as the only entertaining part of Easy A—here, he shows an aptitude for dramatic acting.

It goes beyond that, though. Norman is so idiosyncratic, so complicated, so contradictory, it’s astounding that Byrd can make the character work. It’s also a testament to Wingate and director Jonathan Segal (both first-timers) that the film doesn’t completely fall apart under the strain of its central character’s foibles. Weaknesses in any element of this film would have caused it to collapse.

Byrd’s not the only one doing stellar work here. Every actor in this film does exceptional, redefining work here. The possible exception is Jenkins, who is great, but he’s had such a long, storied career, it’s hard to say he’s revelatory here. VanCamp, Lush, and Goldberg all impressed me, more than they have in the past. I couldn’t say if it’s a situation where Segal managed to find the perfect ensemble, or if he just works exceptionally well with actors. I’ve seen them all before, and they’ve all been good. Unless they’re involved with fan clubs for the respective actors, anyone watching this film will feel like they’ve underestimated these performers in the past, no matter how good they’ve been.

I’m not usually the type to gush or rave, but Norman is tremendous, one of the best films I’ve seen this year (right now, it’s neck and neck with Lebanon). Those of you in Chicago have two more chances to see it.

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Polish Bar (2010)

Polish Bar explores the seamy side of the city, focused on two people whose lives erode as a result of poor decision-making skills. The film boasts terrific acting, skillful handling of difficult characters, and gritty, neo-realistic style. All of those qualities make it eminently watchable despite the occasional creative misstep (such as the unnecessary, heavy-handed presence of an Orthodox Jew). It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like harrowing depictions of pathological fuck-ups, Polish Bar is the film for you.

Reuben Horowitz (Vincent Piazza) claims to want one thing out of life: to succeed as an underground DJ in Chicago’s club scene. He has a long way to go, however. He spends his days working at a jewelry shop run by his uncle, Sol (Judd Hirsch), and his nights DJ’ing at a strip club. Oh yeah, he’s also a small-time coke dealer, working with best friend Tommy (James Badge Dale) and stripper Ebony (Golden Brooks). Ebony has to take care of her 16-year-old brother (Maestro Harrell—that’s right, Randy Wagstaff from The Wire), who disapproves of her stripper career and her increasing use of the cocaine she’s supposed to sell.

The film doesn’t flinch as it shows Reuben and Ebony crumble under the combination of financial burdens, illegal activities, and self-delusion. Reuben insists he’ll only deal until he gets the money to pay off his elaborate DJ rig and his dingy (but undoubtedly expensive) loft. Ebony says she’ll only strip and deal until her brother’s out on his own. Nobody believes them, nor should they. Things fall apart in a hurry—Reuben loses his cocaine connection, and Ebony uses more coke than she sells, exacerbating their financial woes—and neither handles the change well.

It’s tough to watch people—even fictional characters—spiral into addiction and denial. The major strength of Polish Bar is that it feels real—not just in its low-budget, bordering-on-vérité cinematography, but in its strong performances and nuanced portrait of good people doing bad things for reasons only they believe. The fact that Piazza and Brooks are very good but not well-known helps sell the apparent realism of the film. On the other hand, the presence of actors like Hirsch, Badge Dale, Harrell, Meat Loaf, and Richard Belzer are sort of distracting in their familiarity. They all turn in great performances, but it’s strange watching something that feels like a documentary and having a moment of recognition, realizing it’s an actor, and being reminded that I’m just watching a movie. Still, I’d rather have recognizable actors doing great work than unknowns doing mediocre work (which is more common in films like this).

The elephant in the room is the presence of Moises (Dov Tiefenbach), Reuben’s Orthodox cousin. I give writers Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave credit for making him a real, interesting character, and Tiefenbach for playing him subtly. Reuben wrestles with his Jewish identity throughout the film, but never is it more heavy-handed than when Moises turns up on the scene. He acts as a spiritual counselor, whether Reuben wants him to or not, which allows the writers to slip into atypically on-the-nose dialogue and foreshadowing of Reuben’s character arc. Moises feels more like a dramatic construct than a real, necessary presence in this film, which undermines its otherwise impressive verisimilitude.

Overall, though, Polish Bar is an extremely well-made, well-written, and well-acted film. It’s a little rough around the edges, which benefits the film’s style but may turn off a certain sect of moviegoers. Those who are open to low-budget indies will undoubtedly appreciate what it has to offer.

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Abacus and Sword [Bushi no Kakeibo] (2010)

Finally, a movie for Tea Partiers to enjoy! Abacus and Sword weaves a tale of fiscal responsibility and the importance of good accounting practices in an increasingly modern world. To my surprise, it also stars Masato Sakai, who starred as Aoyagi in Golden Slumber. Seeing these two performances from the same actor, within a few weeks of each other, has convinced me Sakai is an incredible actor worthy of international acclaim. The film itself does not quite live up to Sakai’s performance, but it does overcome some third act lagging to deliver one of the most poignant endings I’ve seen in a very long time.

Based on actual journals and accounting records, Abacus and Sword chronicles the decline of the samurai age in 19th-century Japan, but it does so in a novel way, by focusing on a family over the course of 50 years. Inoyama Naoyuki (Sakai) serves as a bookkeeper in Kaga Domain. Known as “the mad abacist” by his peers because of his skill and devotion to the abacus, Naoyuki is the only one good enough to unravel a conspiracy involving rice theft. The 1830s marked a prolonged famine in Japan, so Kaga administrators rationed rice to the people—except Naoyuki’s superiors held on to 30% of the rice in order to sell it at a higher profit to rival domains.

Revealing this earns Naoyuki enemies, but also the respect of Lord Shigemaga (Masatoshi Nakamura). As this unfolds, Naoyuki enters into an arranged marriage with Koma (Yukie Nakama), a beautiful fabric-dyer. They quickly have a child, Nariyuki, who narrates the story as an adult. Once Nariyuki arrives, the film puts most of its energies into dramatizing the strained relationship between father and son.

After living on credit for years, Naoyuki demands that his family live responsibly. He keeps impeccable books on the household expenditures, sells off every frivolous possession they own, including a few items of extreme sentimental value to the family. As Kaga’s economy collapses, he applies many of his techniques at home to the domain as a whole. As Nariyuki gets older, he starts to chafe under his father’s iron abacus. Naoyuki stresses the importance of living a responsible, debt-free life. He also sees the political writing on the wall—he knows the abacus is the future, and the sword is the past. Nariyuki would much rather learn the way of the samurai than the way of the abacus, and as a war is waged against the remaining shogun (a 20-something Nariyuki among them), he realizes the true value of his father’s teachings.

Sakai plays Naoyuki as a man of keen intelligence and gentle humor, which makes it all the more upsetting when his conflicts with Nariyuki cause him to reveal real anger. The phenomenal performance anchors a strong cast that includes Masahiko Nishimura and Mitsuko Kusabue as Naoyuki’s parents. Politics are just a backdrop to this story of a family struggling to get by on a low abacist salary (the lowest salary in the domain) without accumulating any debt. Frayed tensions, and not just between father and son, lead to conflicts both small and large. It’s the rare historical drama that’s more about people than events. Its fantastic characters and slight cultural irreverence make it wonderful to watch…

…until the third act, when the story makes a slight shift from the people to the events. The more entwined in history the characters become, the less interesting the film is. However, all is forgiven with the ending, which packs such an emotional wallop that even the self-described robot writing this review had to muster all the restraint in his arsenal to avoid bawling like a baby while simultaneously calling my parents to apologize for…everything.

History fascinates me, but fictional historical epics often irritate me because they’re too much of a surface-skim of broad characters and well-known events. If you’re like me, you’ll love a movie like Abacus and Sword, which makes the political and historical context clear but doesn’t dwell on it, opting instead to examine how a single family deals with broader events occuring off-camera. That’s the way to do an historical epic, and director Yoshimitsu Morita knows that. If you have the ability to see this at CIFF or any other U.S. film festival, take advantage of the opportunity. I have my doubts about it getting an official release.

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Devil’s Town [Đavolja Varoš] (2009)

Devil’s Town, a sort of depraved take on ensemble slice-of-life films, follows a disparate group of characters over the course of a single eventful day in Belgrade. I’ll be the first to suggest that my cultural ignorance may result in my inability to understand its reason for being, but that was my gut reaction. Tons of characters, situations, wanton violence, rampant sex and nudity, and a cultural obsession with tennis pro Jelena Jankovic all add up to a film that’s never dull but also never quite meaningful.

Writer/director Vladimir Paskaljević does an admirable job balancing numerous storylines despite the film’s relatively short running time. It opens with Jelena Ivanović (Marija Zeljković), a poor girl who wants to take tennis lessons like her obnoxious friend, Ivana (Mina Colić). She needs money, but her mother (Andrea Erdély) makes very little money and is currently distracted with a man (Nenad Pecinar) she met on the Internet; meanwhile, Jelena’s father (Radoslav Milenkovic) has taken a vow of silence in preparation for becoming a monk. He lives in what looks and sounds like a subway tunnel, so clearly he’s not a sound financial source for Jelena’s lessons.

Then there’s Ciril (Uros Joviĉić), whose girlfriend Natalija (Jana Milić) dumps him. Enraged, he visits a brothel run by Marna (Lena Bogdanović), Ivana’s mother, and pays for sex with Nutela (Márta Béres), whose husband Viktor (Igor Đorđević) is too preoccupied with a tennis match to do anything with their baby other than feed him beer, which ultimately results in the baby being taken away by child protective services. Nutela is also visited by a former gynecologist (Vlasta Velisavljevic) who has a heart-attack. Unbeknownst to her, the gynecologist is the father of Viktor’s best friend, Filomen (Goran Jevtic), who’s obsessed with making an awful-sounding film with a score he’s composed himself, consisting of harmonica and primal screaming. Filomen blackmails his father into financing the film in exchange for finding his businessman brother, Boris (Nebojša Milovanović), who has recently returned to Belgrade after family issues forced him to travel abroad.

In case you’re not getting the point, it’s this: there’s a lot going on, and all these people are connected to each other in unexpected ways. It’s alternately funny, bizarre, upsetting, titillating, and shocking. Nothing really jells, though. It’s not that it needs some kind of overarching story that brings everyone together, but it would be nice if it had a unifying theme to give all these storylines meaning (and “Isn’t random chance funny?” doesn’t qualify). It plays out as a series of chaotic events, but what is Paskaljević trying to say about chaos, or chance, or anything?

As I said, maybe the answer’s in there, but it sailed over my uninformed head. A Serbian audience may draw all sorts of meaning from these events, which may hold cultural significance that eludes me. So I’m stuck as the ugly American, relying on my instinct to not recommend this film because I have my doubts that the average American filmgoer would understand it any more than I did. But let me tell you, I’ll be pretty frustrated if I’m right and the film has the same problems in Serbia that it does here.

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