Screening at the New York Film Festival 60 (NYFF60), three films, Alcarràs, One Fine Morning and Return to Seoul each deal with the trials of a family circumstance. In each we relate to the family’s search for resolutions. In a satisfying way, the obstacles they confront help them build toward family unity. Yet the bittersweet results leave them rueful and challenged by uncertainty.
Alcarràs opened at NYFF60 in its New York premiere. The winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale Festival, it reveals a family of farmers under siege by developers. The pastoral portrait by filmmaker Carla Simón recalls the simpler life of a farming family in a quaint, rural village in current-day Catalonia, Spain.
The Striking Cinematography of Alcarràs
With striking cinematography, Simón focuses on the beauty of fields and orchards and the loveliness of the natural soundings, emblematic of another way of life. From the first frame, she focuses on the innocence of children imagining adventures in an old abandoned car. The scene harks back to a time without advanced technological toys and mobile phones. The kids under their own creative power use everything in their sphere of reference for mental exploits of their own making.
Immediately, conflicts erupt when a large crane destroys the old car, devastating the children who rush home to tell their parents. The filmmaker uses the crane as a symbol of the encroaching global development made without thought to the harm it causes. Indeed, this family’s plight represents a microcosm of what is happening in the world, including the larger issue of the displacement by the wealthy of those without power and money to stop them.
No Written Contract
Then the scene shifts to the patriarch, a tenant peach farmer. He and his two sons argue as they review the contractual arrangement they had with the owner of the large estate, who died recently. Their father and grandfather before them signed no contract to work the land. For previous generations a handshake and a word sufficed. Unfortunately, in a court of law, the “word and handshake” contract the family had for generations nullifies their right to farm the land. Without a paper contract, they can do nothing except stay in the house that the owner recognized as theirs.
Planning to make a killing on the land, the estate owner’s son and heir intends to sell it. Even if the Solé family gives him all the money from their local business and crop export, the land trumps that value. Thus, the son can’t be persuaded. Unless another way of making money can be found, the son will sell. For the Solé family, the son’s cruelty devastates their livelihood and peaceful, meditative way of life.
A Divided Family
Deciding to use the land to build and house solar panels, the son doesn’t sell. Beneficially, the orchard can take up the remaining land not used for solar panels. Infuriated, one of the Solé sons sides with the heir of the estate. Enraged, the patriarch and other son refuse to allow the heir to put up the panels. A fight ensues. Alienation between brothers increases.
Simón mines the themes of tradition vs. progress, underscoring the complications of responsible environmental development. Seamlessly she unfolds a layered story of family unity dispersed on the winds of change. Additionally, she raises questions about how one means of safeguarding the environment may, on the back end, actually put it in jeopardy. An interesting film, complex and profound in meaning, it is a must-see. A MUBI release.
One Fine Morning
One Fine Morning opened at NYFF60 in a New York premiere. Filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve (Bergman Island) focuses her lens on the realistic story of a family in crises, with an issue we all recognize. With intensity and poignancy, Léa Seydoux’s magnificent performance as Sandra strikes us. At a crossroads, this professional translator and single mother must care for her ailing, blind father (Pascal Greggory). Additionally, she must work through her grief at the loss of her husband.
Emotions Torn by a Father’s Illness
Like many today who confront caring for a family member who is on a downhill slide, Sandra and her sister attempt to locate the proper facility for their father. Ironically, though he has a girlfriend, his former wife becomes involved with his placement. Furthermore, Sandra’s on-and-off-again lover (Melvil Poupaud) breaks her heart when he ends their affair. Unavailable emotionally because of his marriage and fatherhood, he feels overwhelming guilt. On the other hand, Sandra, overwhelmed by her responsibilities, seeks him out as a respite and safe haven. The more she needs him, the less he craves being needed.
With exceptional teamwork, Hansen-Løve teases out an incredibly rich and emotionally nuanced performance from the superb Seydoux. Leaving no stone unturned, the film gives an authentic, almost documentary feel to the created family relationships and interactions. Manipulating our emotions in support of the women on whom the burden falls, it underscores the selfishness of the father and lover.
Two Kinds of Selfishness
At least the father can’t help it because of his disease and increasing dementia, problematic in his new placement. On the other hand, the lover manipulates Seydoux’s Sandra like a cad who enjoys two women. However, when the father remembers his girlfriend’s name and not that of Sandra, who sees him daily unlike the girlfriend, this devastates her. But on a positive note, the lover turns from his dead marriage and seeks to possibly end it, moving toward Sandra.
Hansen-Løve’s humanity and fidelity to the uncertainty of situations between lovers attempting to find their way shines. Against a backdrop of pain and loss, profound emotions unspool in this engaging, realistic film. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Return to Seoul
Return to Seoul also held its New York premiere at NYFF60. Lying to her adoptive parents, Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a young French woman, visits South Korea instead of Japan. First, she’s curious to track down her South Korean birth parents whom she never met. Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou brings Freddie face to face with both parents over a period of years,. With amazing sensitivity focusing on Freddie’s impulses and emotions, he intercuts scenes of Freddie’s flamboyant behaviors with friends she makes in Seoul with her search.
As she demonstrates her wild nature, we understand the underlying anger and stress of being abandoned as a child. However, as she continues her journey and goes to the adoption agency, her attitude and behavior shifts with the growing knowledge of her identity.
Eventually, she meets her father and his family. She speaks no Korean, and he speaks no French. The filmmaker moves from an unpredictable situation to a surprising result. Indeed, daughter and father come from different worlds. She realizes what she lost and what she gained as she converses with a translator who expresses the father’s feelings of remorse. The only similarity between them appears to be in her facial features and drinking behavior.
Unable to get in touch with her mother, Freddie remains emotionally distraught. In turmoil, she abandons the desire to see her father. Disgusted with him because he gets drunk, she moves on. Yet she, too, drinks. Judgmental and disapproving, she ignores her own flawed and destructive behavior.
Avoiding Dealing with the Emotional Trauma of Adoption
Chou reveals the complexity of emotions. Freddie is unable to easily deal with her trauma and psychological displacement from years of longing for her real parents. Sadly, unless Freddie confronts it this trauma stands in the way of any deep, personal feelings she has with partners. Instead, in the first part of the film, she appears to prefer one-night stands and no deep commitment with anyone.
Dividing the film into three sections, Chou reveals how, through a series of circumstances, Freddie eventually finds her mother. Instead of rejecting her request to see her daughter as in the past, her mother agrees to meet. Thus, the long-awaited for reunion finally occurs. The film’s conclusion is poignant and satisfying.
The film’s strength expands with the development of Freddie’s growth. Contrasting Freddie’s underlying emotional resonance against a backdrop of stunning cinematography of Seoul’s nightlife and bustling cityscape that beckons superficially, Chou heightens themes about family, alienation and love. The beautiful compositions and rapid-vs.-slower editing keep the audience expectant and involved in Freddie’s story. A Sony Pictures Classics release.