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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #5: Next Sohee, Where Is This Street, Nayola

Next Sohee, Kim Si Eun, July Jung
Kim Si Eun in Next Sohee

July Jung's Next Sohee is never less than unsubtle, and never less than compelling - it makes its point, then makes it again, then makes it again, then underlines it with a sudden act of violence, then repeats the cycle once more. The pieces all fit too neatly, the story makes too much sense, but it's earnest and passionate, directed with sensitivity and acted with nuance and intelligence. If there's something garishly banal about life in a British city, all mismatched architecture and old spaces crudely repurposed for new lifestyles, then Korean cinema has convinced me there's something soul-sappingly utilitarian about life in a Korean city; Jung's relentless excoriation of the exploitation of labour under modern capitalism only augments that perception. This is a cold, unyielding picture, but a fiery portrait of injustice, infused with profound compassion - you may not understand every character's every action, but you care for them nonetheless, and understand that those actions are sincere.

It's also deeply, deeply sad, a quality that doesn't emerge entirely until the movie's final scene. Jung's style is direct and unambiguous, and entirely unshowy, which can make some of her more overt artistic choices feel random - one wonders if there's anything else beyond merely conveying the essence of each individual moment to its fullest. Indeed there is, as mild and fleeting flourishes coalesce into meaningful gestures, most meaningful in that final scene, which poses a question about one of the movie's two lead characters that should haunt the thoughts of every viewer. Jung's two principals, Bae Doo Na and Kim Si Eun, are superb in quite different ways, one a simmering storm of internalized emotion, the other an expressive torrent of those emotions, though Jung maintains a composure throughout that allows each the space to anchor her film around their separate interpretations. Terrific performances at the heart of a fine film.

Where Is This Street? or With No Before or After
Where Is This Street? or With No Before or After

If the COVID-19 pandemic drove us all further inside ,ourselves, physically, emotionally, philosophically, I'm not sure it's a drive Joao Pedro Rodrigues needed. His and partner's Where Is This Street? or With No Before or After is the pair's most esoteric offering to date, an expression of artistic prowess in search of a purpose... but maybe the search is the purpose. Seeing some of contemporary cinema's most singular voices continue to explore, and seeing them afforded the opportunity, is a proper pleasure, even if I found the product of their explorations less than wholly worth the effort. Here reflecting on Rodrigues' inspirations and origins as a filmmaker, but situating those reflections on a very present point in time, this is a movie constructed out of simple, blunt, ever-transitory motifs into an amorphous, indistinct, abstract whole that no doubt means very much to its creators, yet may mean nothing at all to its viewers. Rodrigues' brushes with clarity as an artist, dotted here and there about his career to date, certainly haven't developed into anything more substantial than playful little dalliances, which is entirely apt.

This is a light, fairly short movie, but it's also patient, and sly in its playfulness. It observes, designs, imagines, rarely states nor stages anything outright, and whether it does or not it remains coyly indecisive, and thus may mean anything at all to its viewers too. There is both before and after here, the sense that things continue to exist outside of their being perceived - Where Is This Street? is a movie fixated on emptiness and ephemerality, and seems either to affirm or even bestow upon its empty spaces their own existence. Thus is serves not only to document but to deposit, and its ruminations on and excavations of the past of Portuguese cinema are most potently felt in its suggestion that movies make actual, palpable changes to their makers, their viewers, and their own origins. Something lingers in every split second of this movie, whether it's the same thing or a new thing every time you sense it. Maybe this movie is altogether too gentle, too insecure to make much of a change, but it makes enough to matter.

Nayola, Jose Miguel Ribeiro

Fellow Portuguese filmmaker Jose Miguel Ribeiro looks to wartorn Angola for his first solo full-length feature in nearly 30 years, and his first to score any real international attention, Nayola. It's an ostensibly humble picture with little to say beyond the obvious, and seemingly little to offer in its modest animation style, but it has an impact considerably greater than its initial appearances might suggest. And though, eventually, its machinations may progress along apparently pre-destined paths, expressing little, if anything, more than expected, it has weight and meaning, and goes about its business with a more robust artistry than I'd anticipated. All of which is to say this may not be the most groundbreaking movie you'll see in this lifetime, or this year, or even this week, but it's comfortably worth what little of that week it'll eat up.

I was most impressed by the intensity Ribeiro achieves in key sequences - he summons out of canny animation and an impactful soundscape some vivid emotional responses, from mournful sorrow to abject terror, and here and there a kind of blissful appreciation of the beauty on display. Employing a variety of animation techniques in a single image is nothing new, but Ribeiro has an astute eye and a clear appreciation of his own for the expressive capacity of a striking visual; his colour schemes are also quite fantastic, transforming from vibrant, graphic reds, browns and blacks to faded electric blue and grey, to rustic greens, beige and taupe. It's his strong aesthetic sensibility that sustains Nayola's purpose as a feature, even as its narrative struggles to develop its otherwise significant events into little more than points on a pre-planned course.


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