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Toronto Correspondences #3: Home Falling Apart

Three portraits of complicated family life: Pema Tseden's "Balloon," Sharipa Urazbayeva's "Mariam," and Kim Seung-woo's "Bring Me Home."
Kelley Dong
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Fern,
The most important thing is to have fun!
When the excitement lapses, for whatever reason, I think a lot about sleep—not the sleep I’ve lost (there are no regrets), but how swiftly sleep arrives at the end of (or before, between, or during [!]) a continuous stream of movies. I’ve been rushing in and out of dreams all day, trying to divvy the material so that pools of plots do not spill into each other. What I especially seek in the films seen here is lucidity, to alert the mind when the senses have been clouded by circumstance. Of course, both the thrills and bores encountered in the theatre take on new meanings (and higher stakes) when considered within the context of ongoing institutional initiatives.   
I mentioned last year that the festival is in the process of establishing itself as an institution “aligned with tenets of social justice,” an ambition that is lofty and overdue. On the TIFF website, programs can be sorted by categories labeled “interests,” including Global Perspectives, Identity, Social Justice, and Women in Film. That last one points to one of many contradictions that TIFF embodies as an arts institution, a commercial marketplace, and a community space. I knowingly repeat myself and make known a very particular gripe of mine by stating that grouping women for sake of inclusion is a simultaneous act of isolation, as it merges the varied practices and political positions of artists (whose status as “woman” is itself mutable) into one hot commodity. But though TIFF’s marketing approach is often limited to the basic recognition that “women make film” (as Mark Cousins’s myopic, Pinterest board of a documentary so declares), there are hundreds of works here that ask and answer to the reverse.
In its attempt to tackle the convergence of modernity and tradition in Tibetan family life, Pema Tseden’s Balloon drowns in its conflicts and packages its irresolution in flat whimsy. The title itself is a euphemism, “balloon” referring to the condoms that two boys discover beneath their mother Drolkar's (Sonam Wangmo) pillow. The pair subsequently steals these newfound toys whenever they can, to the dismay of their parents, who must avoid violating the Chinese government's imposed quota on family size. Between disciplining her youngest sons, preparing for the arrival of an elder son and a reclusive sister, and tending to her elderly father-in-law, Drolkar has little time to herself. Even the private pleasure of sex with her husband, shepherd Dargye (Jinpa), is overshadowed by an ingrained feeling of embarrassment; she blushes and can barely utter any mention of birth control, even as she giggles in anticipation of its use. These simple days and nights of tasks and errands are strung together by handheld shots blurred by dips into fantasy. For each ewe wrestled by a shepherd and chased by a camera, there is a pensive face filmed through curtains and veils, in dim candlelight and across the shimmering water of puddles, or a boy, running across the hilltop with an inflated condom in hand.
It seems Balloon may go on forever along a stream of an endless year, but the death of Dargye's father suddenly interrupts the pleasant monotony, and with it the seams of what began as a rather tranquil diary comes undone at the seams. The soul of the departed is set to reincarnate, and Drolkar is expected to give birth to a child to ensure that the reincarnation takes place within the family. For her husband, the decision is not an individual but a communal one. But even though Drolkar provides the emotional gravity of the film's concluding chapter, Balloon offers a much denser study of Dargye, whose ego as patriarch is wounded at the thought of his wife choosing her body over his will. Dargye screams, hits, projects his fear onto his children and his animals. Meanwhile, Drolkar's visibility hinges upon her invisibility; she is only seen cleaning, cooking, pouring tea, or supervising the joys and livelihoods of others.
When her sister reveals a book written by a past lover, Drolkar throws it into the fire, disgusted by its frankness though refusing to fully divulge her reasons. As the book is set aflame, she too is buried beneath the smoke. That her most expressive, even happy, moments are either in the bedroom or at the clinic (where she receives her birth control) is a terrible tragedy shelved beneath an unevenly assembled narrative that stubbornly insists that the family, despite its turbulences and clashes, is still a unit. Grimly, the film concludes with a red balloon flying high into the sky; it is the same balloon that appears on Balloon's promotional materials, held by Drolkar like a baby in a pregnant stomach, as if her bodily autonomy (and gendered subjecthood under a population control law) is but an ephemeral plaything floating further away, and she attached to it, hanging by a string.
Policy and parenting similarly collide in filmmaker Sharipa Urazbayeva’s Mariam, a fictionalization of events in the life of Meruert Sabbusinova (who plays the titular character). When her husband vanishes for months, Mariam is overwhelmed by his absence: she cannot drive her son to school, her daughter and baby must be watched at home, and money is fast running out. For miles, they are seemingly alone in their Kazakh village, surrounded by an expanse of snow often with only candles to light the house from the darkness of the sunless sky. Warmth is subtracted from the frame, leaving only a wash of cool-toned grey and the pale pinks of flushed cheeks. As the future grows more precarious everyday, Mariam repeatedly visits the police for information on her missing husband, but even this resolve turns into a surrender to fate. There are kids to feed and bills to pay, so Mariam pleads for the police to issue a certificate confirming her husband's death, which would enable her access to welfare benefits. But still, he lingers, like a shadow waiting to materialize, so moving on still remains out of arm's reach.
Like Balloon, Mariam is undercut with tonal diversions, carried in by a flirtatious police officer that attempts to be a replacement to Mariam's husband, the unheralded hinting—the sound of footprints stomping through the snow—that Mariam's husband might be haunting the premises, and the dreaded possibility of his return. But strokes of elegance are scattered throughout that are only achieved when Urazbayeva forsakes the predictable patterns of narrative, and narrows the path to only Mariam. A jump cut to Mariam pouring warm water from a bowl over the head of her baby, covered in soap. He laughs, he screams; Mariam does not react, obviously accustomed to his wily wiggling. After she wraps him in a towel and sends him off, it is then her turn to bathe—this time, her children pour the water. The exchange contributes nothing to the mystery at hand, nor does it alter what lies ahead, but on its own with little decoration, the looseness of the habitual behavior exhibited speaks of love and synchronicity, of motherhood as muscle memory.
Bring Me Home
The bracing rhythm of Kim Seung-woo's debut Bring Me Home, another movie about missing people and mourning mothers, proved to be quite the shock for the audience at the screening I attended, who provided a chorus of gasps. This relentlessly audacious, and thus completely unforgettable film opens with the sob story of a couple who have not seen their son, Yoon-soo, in six years. In their empty apartment, at their empty dinner table, they subsist on their loss. The boy's mother, Jung-yeon (Lee Young-ae, in her first film role since 2005's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), is stiffened by fear, barely following the motions of daily life as a nurse. Her husband tries to both keep a job and continue his cross-country search for his son whenever he can, using a map of South Korea as a guide and any tips that the couple can get, their flyers having become ubiquitous on lamp posts and the national news. It is the father's abrupt death during one search that launches Bring Me Home into surprisingly grotesque territory. On the heels of the funeral, Jung-yeon comes into contact with a tip claiming that the boy is alive, renamed Min-su and toiling away as a worker at a faraway fishing spot. She drives, and the film picks up pace.
Genre-bending has become somewhat of an expected property of Korean cinema, and Bring Me Home more than adequately fits the bill. The city is replaced with a countryside town, where the fishing spot in question houses corruption and a laundry list of violations against vulnerable children. The occupants can indulge themselves freely because of the protections afforded by the spot's de facto leader, Detective Hong (Yoo Jae-myung), who struts about the property with his uniform and badge. With no hesitation, Jung-yeon accepts the challenge, and wages war against Min-su's captors. The film's transition from a quietly brewing portrait of grief to a bloody cataclysmic event is rough and forceful, since Kim conflates dramatic climax and acts of violence, choosing to mark every story development with an unsettling assault. These shifts, however jolting, can be best understood as manifestations of Jung-yeon's own simmering, boiling, then enflamed maternal instinct as she moves from crying to fighting. But the higher the peak of chaos, one begins to question whether such a drive is in itself good, if being only a mother and seeing everything only in relation to the child is in itself good. Bring Me Home falls one step short of sealing its stance, adding a minute detail at its very end that rewrites its prior timeline so that Jung-yeon may evade finitude, and then unfold into limbo. It is not pleasant by any means, but at a festival inundated with pleasantries, a dose of gloomy and gory obscurities is a certainly welcome form of fun.
How are you, Danny?


TIFF 2019TIFFPema TsedenKim Seung-wooSharipa UrazbayevaFestival CoverageCorrespondences
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