Indy Film Fest 2014 reviews: World Cinema 

click to enlarge Seedne Bujaidar in Sombras de Azul
  • Seedne Bujaidar in Sombras de Azul

Indy Film Fest's big goal for its 11th annual summer festival, coming up July 17-26? "Bring more filmmakers to Indy," says president and CEO Craig Mince. And the non-profit raised more than $8,000 through a Kickstarter this spring to make that happen. One other big change: The awards ceremony will be held on the festival's opening weekend, to give attendees more chances to see the winners. The venues remain the same, with most screenings at the IMA's Toby and DeBoest theaters. We looked at all the features the fest provided us in advance and reviewed our favorites.

World Cinema features (also available: American Spectrum and Matter of Fact reviews)

Sombras de Azul (Shades of Blue)
★★★★1/2 (out of five)
shadesofbluefilm.com

Maribel (Seedne Bujaidar), a Mexican woman in her early 30s, flies into Havana in the wake of her brother's suicide. He'd always wanted her to visit Cuba. "Are you looking for a ghost in Havana, a city full of ghosts?" a cab driver asks her on her way into the city. She doesn't directly reply, but the answer is yes — and in a lot of ways. Still in the early stages of grief, she sees — hallucinates? or are we in more poetic territory here? — her brother walking across a plaza, strolling along the beach, a guitar slung across his back.

But when she isn't giving into that kind of magical thinking where we try to will a loved one back to life, she looks for him in the city's art museums, in literature and film, in the people she meets. She stands pensively before a canvas by his favorite painter, Wilfredo Lam; they were both fascinated by the "tribal and complex." She reads the poetry of Dulce Maria Loynaz, buying a collection from a bookseller who says it's just the book for a searcher, a voyager like her. Loynaz's words gracefully intertwine with her own restless monologue, as she eases from lines from a Loynaz poem like "Viajero" (or "traveler") — "I am like the traveler / Who reaches the port where no one awaits her" — to her own reflections on loss and identity. She looks for him in the Cuban woodworker, Eusebio (Yasmani Guerrero) who becomes her sherpa through the city after he unsuccessfully tries to steal her camera (quite the brutal "meet cute"). And she looks for him in herself, asking "how can the same soul exist in two separate bodies: sister and brother," and just what happens to that soul after one of those bodies expires.

And while she searches for him, Havana works itself on her. Traveling to places with a rich, vibrant history like Havana can have a destabilizing, mind-expanding effect on those with open minds and defenses down. And if Maribel doesn't necessarily find the answers or solace she's looking for, she does occasionally reach toward those kinds of deeper, poetic truths that can be accessed, perhaps, only through an earnest appeal to myth and symbolism. When Eusebio learns that her brother wasn't properly buried (his ashes were dispersed at sea), he brings her a bag of crosses, proposing that she plant them throughout Cuba during their travels, burying him many times over as it were. It's a transient, "symbolic" gesture to be sure, but by investing meaning in those trinkets that Eusebio and his uncle usually sell to tourists, she transforms an empty, commercialized object into something relevant to her life.

Director Kelly Daniela Norris's film rises to the challenge of tackling these big themes. Her approach to sound mixing is particularly adept in the way that ambient noise drops out as Maribel drops into herself. In one striking scene, a solo guitar number that she remembers her brother performing replaces the "real-world," diegetic soundtrack of a jazz club she's visiting. The way bold, beautiful, widescreen landscapes contrast with more hectic, handheld shots of Maribel moving through the city seems akin to looking down at your feet before looking up to admire a striking vista. It should be noted that Norris's film is autobiographical — she also lost her brother and dedicates the film to him.

click to enlarge Trap_Street_1.jpg

Trap Street
★★★★1/2

A modern-day Man Who Knew Too Much set in urban China. Li Qiuming, a GPS surveyor in training, is working his Taiwan beat with his supervisor when Guen Lifen, a busy professional woman likely way out of his league, catches his eye. He finds excuses to hang around her workplace, which just happens to be on a "trap street," or a road that won't register in the GPS system for one reason or another.

When Qiuming puts himself in position to give her a ride home in the rain, she happens to leave behind a couple USB drives in his van. He calls her to return them but finds her boss instead of her at the agreed upon place for the handoff, and ... well, you know how this goes in a Hitchcock film, and I'd rather not give away the rest of the plot of this ordinary-man-in-over-his-head thriller.

Vivian Qu, a first-time writer/director, is concerned with the ways in which technology can be exploited by a state with such vast informational and surveillance resources at its fingertips. China's police state comes under fire here, with its presumption of guilt (and not innocence) against the defendant and brutal suppression of even the appearance of dissent, though the technology certainly remains the same around the world.

Qiuming has built his life around these same devices that allow the state to gather evidence against him. He installs security cameras and checks rooms for bugs as a side gig — and like many a young man, he spends his leisure hours playing a ton of video games.

But Qiuming isn't, say, a technology addict who spends all his time in virtual worlds; he proves quite sweet and vulnerable when he tries to court Lifen and they interact in the old, familiar ways, meeting in a park, dancing in a club that plays '60s soul. That relationship is compromised by the omnipresence of surveillance technology, which is benignly present for the morally untested Qiuming until he realizes that someone might actually want to watch him using those same tools he's accustomed to installing.

Trap Street is expertly paced and devastatingly convincing; if it’s nothing new to feel alienated and persecuted (the story certainly has its precedents in Kafka and Hitchcock), it does make original points about just how much we’re implicated and involved in a global information network and how little we understand its scope and impact on our lives.

click to enlarge chanthaly1.jpg

Chanthaly
★★★★
facebook.com/ChanthalyMovie

We open with Chanthaly, a young girl, happening upon what looks like the aftermath of her mother's suicide attempt. This much is sure: Mom is dead, and 15 years later, Chanthaly is a withdrawn, troubled young lady with a heart problem. And now she's seeing ghosts. Could her pills be causing the hallucinations? Is Mom speaking to her from the beyond? Is she just seeing things in the Yellow Wallpaper (after the classic short story that finds a woman taking rest cure seeing things in the wallpaper basically because she has nothing else to do)? The film doesn't over-emphasize this "feminist" reading, but she is being kept cooped up at home by her cold fish of a father, who won't let her have male visitors or go out on her own.

Director Mattie Do, the first Lao woman to direct a feature film, makes an assured debut here; she elicits a fragile, fractured performance from lead Amphaiphun Phimmapunya, and while the film sticks for the duration to one set, a middle-class Laos home, she varies styles and pacing enough that it never lags, especially during a closing half-hour that moves beyond the social questions and into otherworldly territory (with an impressive change of palette marking the change in dimension).

click to enlarge tu.jpg

Tu Seras Un Homme (You'll Be a Man)
★★1/2
facebook.com/pages/Tu-seras-un-homme
Who will become a man? Is it Leo, a 10-year-old who may be brilliant and/or permanently physically handicapped by a childhood accident? Or Theo, his free-spirited, 20-year-old babysitter who helps him come out of his shell? Maybe neither of them? This French film nicely builds suspense by playing off common fears: Will Leo's mercurial dad quash Theo and Leo's relationship in a violent way? Is Theo's interest in Leo less than wholesomely pedagogical? Who's that woman in the attic? The trouble is that there's not much to the story beyond that suspense. Plot twists that could work in a straight-up thriller just needlessly complicate the action and distract from the central relationship between Leo and Theo. Which is too bad, because the movie ends just as their give-and-take starts to get interesting, particularly as Leo reverses roles and calls Theo on his bullshit.

click to enlarge th_6b1ac8dac9a667dc9ed286213753d555_bensathome.jpg
Ben's At Home
★★1/2
bensathome.com
I'd venture that most people who decide never to leave the house again aren't in quite as fine fettle as Ben (Dan Abramovici), who manages to get laid and keep his job during a brief, self-imposed exile following a tough breakup. But that's part of the light, breezy charm of Mars Horodyski's 70-minute, Montreal-filmed comedy. Sure, Ben's in danger of losing friends and looking like a full-blown agoraphobe to the delivery girl who stayed at his place after her shift. But this whole exile thing will likely be a momentary setback for a relatively well-balanced guy with puppy-dog eyes. That said, I liked spending about an hour with Ben and his buddies, online dates and dog. There's something to be said for a kind of indie, let's-make-a-movie earnestness, particularly when the stakes are low enough that it's okay if a joke falls flat or a performance doesn't quite jive with the rest.

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