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Monday, September 20, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Over the moon, but no time to...

Screen Grabs: Over the moon, but no time to rest

Now that the election's over, remember other countries? An Iranian thriller, South Korean mayhem, and a gay Irish pair hit screens

Now that the world has breathed a giant sigh of relief at the US declining accelerated fascism (we think), perhaps we can throw caution to the wind for a moment, and even think about other nations’ problems again. Newly arrived streaming movies run a thematic and geographic gamut, from homophobia in Ireland to crime in South Korea to fundamentalist terror in the Middle East. They’re not all as serious in tenor as that may sound, but in any case, at least the social ills depicted are taking place somewhere else

First, however, there are a few special programs to make note of: This Wed/11 marks the start of No Time to Rest!, a new online SFMOMA online screening series in conjunction with Feminist Art Coalition. Its five programs over as many weeks provide a focus on women filmmakers making films about women’s activism, in various forms both thematically and cinematically. Each of the first four programs is dedicated to short works by Eve Fowler, Jeanne C. Finley, Kelly Gallagher and Ja’Tovia Gary. Rhe final selection (Dec. 16-22) is veteran local artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 2010 feature Women Art Revolution!, a documentary overview of how feminism crashed the artworld boy’s club beginning fifty-odd years ago, with the filmmaker drawing on footage she shot throughout much of that span. More info here

Also playing virtually this week are the already-in-progress American Indian Film Festival (more info here), which continues through Fri/13, and the SF Transgender Film Festival, whose Thurs/12-Sun/15 (more info here). 

When the Moon Was Full
The weightiest of the new foreign-film arrivals is this fact-inspired drama by female Iranian director Narges Abyar. When you think of the cinema of Iran, you probably imagine a mix of neo-realism and poetic lyricism, heavy on symbols, light on overt political commentary—the template of such festival and arthouse favorites as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and other leading lights of that nation’s “New Wave” in recent decades. But Abyar is no patience-testing minimalist. Instead, her film chronicling a lurid real-life tragedy is fast-paced, energetic, with lots of hand-held and otherwise active camerawork. While nearly two and a half hours long, Moon has the headlong feel of a thriller, plus the blunt indictment of a ripped-from-headlines cautionary tale.

Faezah (Einaz Shakerdoost) is a willful young woman who falls for the bold but respectful advances of Abdolhamid (Houlan Shakiba), who works in a Zaherdan bazaar. It’s a love match, and despite some doubt about the groom’s background, her family agrees to the marriage. Things start off well enough. But it gradually becomes obvious that he has hidden a great deal from his bride—particularly the fact that he’s the only one among his brothers who isn’t neck-deep in terrorist activity. When it turns out that their Jundallah (Soldiers of God) group has actually cached money and weapons in the home where the couple live, Faezah is horrified. 

Abdolhamid keeps reassuring her that he is ignorant of and uninvolved in his brothers’ frequently murderous deeds. But when the young family moves to Pakistan, ostensibly just a temporary stop en route to European emigration, he succumbs to their influence—and ideology. Faezah finds herself a virtual prisoner, constantly lied to, finally endangered by a husband too weak to break from his siblings, or resist their fanatical doctrine. They claim to be waging righteous jihad against “infidels.” But like mafiosi, they’ll practice any deceit and murder the innocent when “necessary,”, claiming as justification “Islam is a religion of war, not peace.” (The film takes pains to emphasize this is a perversion of the Quran’s teachings.) 

When the Moon Was Full (which is playing Roxie Virtual Cinema) starts out buoyant, almost comedic in tenor. But as its heroine’s suspicions turn to disillusionment and then panicked dread, it darkens into a powerful worst-case-scenario tale in which hope steadily shrinks. The real-life Rigi brothers may be dead now (most executed by the Iranian government a decade ago or more), but their al-Qaeda-connected Sunni militant organization survives. Not mentioned in Abyar’s film is that at times the group has reportedly been “secretly encouraged and advised” by Western governments hostile towards Iran, including the US, UK, and Israel. 

Beasts Clawing at Straws
Mayhem of a different type is plentiful in Kim Young-hoon’s accomplished debut feature, which is currently playing via both the Roxie and CinemaSF’s virtual cinemas. This Pulp Fiction-y jigsaw of South Korean criminal intrigue, with mordant humor if less garrulous snark than the Tarantino model, at first seems a somewhat random assembly of unrelated narrative elements. What the disparate protagonists have in common, however, are desperate money troubles. 

Among them are a lowly sauna-hotel employee (Bae Seong-woo) in a difficult domestic situation who discovers a tote bag stuffed full of money abandoned in a guest’s locker. A bar hostess (Shin Hyun-bin) lets an infatuated customer, a punky young fugitive from China (Jung Ga-ram), “fix” her violently abusive spouse—but that does not work out as planned. A customs officer (Jung Woo-sung) in heavy hock to an unforgiving loan shark tries every crooked dodge to avoid paying with his life, or limbs. Others embroiled here include a creepy cop, a sadistic enforcer, a hapless pal-cum-patsy, and more. But it’s only with the late arrival of chic middle-aged Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) that this tale locates its key player—and high-heeled archvillain.

It takes a while to realize the storytelling chronology is scrambled, the better to parcel out explanatory details (like where that bag o’ cash came from) in a tricky tale whose parts all ultimately snap together. (Presumably the serpentine, irony-laden plot comes from the original Japanese novel by Keisuke Sone that Beasts is based on.) A whole lotta bodies pile up before that happens, making this a satisfying crime caper with elements of cruel black comedy whose sometimes grungy action is leavened by the garish neon hues of harbor city Pyeongtaek at night. 

Dating Amber
Considerably less lethal, but end-of-the-world-seeming to its protagonists nonetheless, are the woes besetting the Irish high schoolers in this seriocomedy. The current annum of 1995 might as well be 1935 for Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), both miserable teenage denizens of a small town outside Dublin. Their crass classmates seem entirely preoccupied with bullying anyone who’s “different.” So Eddie’s apparent disinterest in girls gets him suspected of being a “faggot,” while everyone is quite sure that nonconformist Amber must be a “lez.” Fact is, they’re right—but the two youths aren’t about to admit being gay to this horrid lot. 

It’s Amber’s idea that they “pretend to go out so everyone will leave us alone.” This fake dating turns into a real friendship, offering some respite not just from peers but from their separate domestic dramas: Her mother (Simone Kirby) has been over-controlling since dad’s suicide, while Eddie’s father (Barry Ward) pushes his son down a military path he’s obviously ill-suited for. But while these adolescents can be themselves around each other, they may also be on vastly different schedules re: coming out, even to themselves. In particular, Eddie risks becoming a case study in homosexual self-loathing and denialism.

Writer-director David Freyne’s prior feature The Cured was something entirely different: A dead-serious zombie tale admirably more interested in character psychology than gore. By contrast, Dating Amber is at times too-strenuously comedic, aiming to render the leads more sympathetic by the pretty lazy tactic of simply making nearly everyone else a shrill, intolerant caricature. Its fairly solid dramatic elements would have more punch if the humor weren’t applied with such a thick brush. Still, it’s a likable enough film with an energetic style, and just enough depth to avoid seeming over-formulaic. It’s being released Tues/10 to On Demand and digital platforms. 

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