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Thursday, September 21, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Parents on the line, nurturing or murderous

Screen Grabs: Parents on the line, nurturing or murderous

Korean baby-trading 'Broker,' French courtroom drama 'Saint Omer,' and Canadian horror Skinamarink

Parenting, or the lack of it, is key to several films arriving this weekend. Among them are esteemed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest Broker, which actually has been around a couple weeks already, but expands to the Roxie and Rafael on Fri/13. Though atypically set in South Korea, it otherwise hews close to his familiar template, in dealing with unconventional (and/or broken) families in a gently seriocomic fashion.

Here, two working-class men (Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won) take in a baby abandoned by its young mother (Lee Ji-eun), hoping to sell it on the adoption black market. When the mother suffers guilt pangs, she tags along with them to assure the child lands in a good home. This isn’t the first time the men have participated in this illegal trade; they are already being spied upon by two women police detectives (Bae Doona, Lee Joo-young) eager to make an arrest.

While this may sound like the stuff of a shocking expose, as usual Kore-eda demonstrates an affectionate sympathy for all his well-intentioned characters—in fact the “baby thieves” are by far the most naturally parental, nurturing figures here—despite their foibles, arriving at something more warmly conciliatory than accusatory. Broker isn’t among the director’s best, but his low-key sentimentality and expert performances once again worm their way into your emotions. Minor spoiler alert: More than a few viewers may be unable to see a ferris wheel in the future without choking back a tear or two.

A much darker scenario is afforded by documentarian Alice Diop’s first narrative feature Saint Omer, which opens at the Opera Plaza this Fri/13. Inspired by an actual 2016 case, it has Kayije Kagame as a literature professor who travels to the titular small town in northernmost France to attend a murder trial, thinking it might provide material for a novel. Defendant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) left her 15-month-old baby on a nearby beach to be swept away with the tide—which she admits to. But she professes not to know why, claiming the influence of “sorcery” and an “evil eye.”

In her own testimony and that of others, we can glimpse some factors that surely contributed to this extreme act: From birth, her upbringing created an cultural-identity divide between Senegal and France that left her feeling fully accepted by no one. The father of her child is a much older white man (Xavier Maly), who added to her insecurity by treating their relationship as a sort of guilty secret. Having worked on a thesis in philosophy, she is belittled in the courtroom by a faculty adviser who dismisses her choice of Wittgenstein as a focus—as if it were inherently ridiculous for an African-born woman to scrutinize European ideas.

Meanwhile, Kagame’s Rama looks on, apparently recognizing many of the same internalized conflicts in herself. A literary theme is reinforced when she sits in her hotel room watching scenes from Pasolini’s 1969 Medea, with Maria Callas in the title role.

As horrifying as the central crime is to contemplate, Saint Omer is itself almost too tastefully reserved in depicting its aftermath. It is primarily a courtroom drama, one that might have been as effective onstage; the somewhat dry script is not rendered more involving by two largely impassive, over-contained lead performances. There’s a lot to chew on here. But it’s a testament to the film’s aloof air—admittedly, an amplification of characters who’ve long felt they have to tiptoe everyday through enemy territory—that I felt unmoved until the soundtrack arrival of Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” at the close.

Much more harrowing as a portrait of child endangerment, if also utterly abstract as a narrative, is writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s debut feature Skinamarink. It opens at the Roxie and Alamo this Friday, then goes to genre streaming platform Shudder later in the year. This singular experiment focuses on a 4-year-old boy and slightly older sister who wake up one night in their ordinary-looking, condo-ish home to find their parents absent… and all the doors and windows seemingly vanished. Eventually other things start disappearing, too. And an inexplicable glimpse of a chair suspended from the ceiling presages entire rooms turned upside-down, our wee protagonists stuck walking on what used to be the ceiling.

Have they somehow been drawn and trapped into another dimension? Certainly something fantastical is definitely going on. But we don’t know what or why, even after it becomes clear that they are not alone, and that their elusive company is not… well, nice. Skinamarink (named after a nursery-rhyme-like kid’s song) has no “plot,” per se. Made for a miniscule $15,000, it consists almost entirely of grainy POV shots in which we stare at corners or walls dimly lit by flashlight, sometimes not lit at all—at times we’re virtually watching darkness, seeing little but dust on the camera lens or pixels.

We rarely glimpse the tiny siblings themselves, though it’s entirely their experience we share. The sparse, often incomprehensible dialogue is subtitled… occasionally. Ostensibly set in 1995, the movie has been made to look like a relic of a yea-earlier era (i.e. “vintage” horror heyday the 1970s), as if shot on film that’s been deteriorating in a basement for decades.

All this is likely to exasperate many viewers. Yet the effect is very unsettling, even though you seldom know what (if anything) is “happening.” Skinamarink taps a profoundly unpleasant sense of child peril, terror of the darkness, and that primal sense of being unmoored without the reassuring proximity of adult guardians—the kind of panicked helplessness that surges so easily when you’re of pre-school age. This 100-minute whatsit may bore or annoy, but it is definitely not quite like anything else you’ve seen. Whether you end up actually glad to have seen it is another matter

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