Talking to People. Movies Reviewed: Dear White People, Mourning Grave, Propaganda, PLUS November Film Festivals!
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Fall festival season continues in November! Ekran Polish festival is on right now, with wonderful films like Ida, on tonight; ReelAsian, which just started, Planet in Focus – environmental films, on now; Rendezvous with Madness – movies about addiction and mental health, starts Monday; and the EU film Festival with free films from across Europe, starting later this month. This week I’m looking at three movies about social issues. An American dramedy about a college student who talks to white people, a South Korean chiller-thriller about a high school student who talks to dead people, and a North Korean documentary about a man who talks to… well, to any people willing to listen.
Dear White People
Wri/Dir: Justin Simien
It’s a small town college where students live in “houses” — sort of like fraternities. Your house says everything about your status and something about your political beliefs as well. The school has a white president and a black dean. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is a progressive undergrad who stands up for her ideals. She broadcasts a somewhat controversial talk show on campus radio. She’s black, but calls her show Dear White People. Her house is headed by Big Man on Campus Troy (Brandon P Bell) a popular athlete, whose dad just happens to be the Dean. And who is dating the daughter of the president. Another student, the pretty and vivacious Coco (Teyonah Parris) is more interested in getting famous, so she’ll do almost anything to convince a TV producer to make her the star of a reality show on campus. And observing all this is fuzzy-haired Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a budding journalist… who might also be gay.
But when Sam wins the election as head of the house, toppling Troy from his lofty heights, things start to change. She puts in new rules and tries to change the political outlook… but then comes the blowback.
Another house plans a huge party, where people – as in white people — are encouraged to dress and act “black”. Minstrelsy rears its head, even in the 21st century.
How do Coco, Lionel, Troy and Sam choose to react? To lie down or walk away? Or stand up and fight back? This ensemble cast shows the lives of middle-class African Americans from a new angle. While the film covers a lot of ground, the ensemble cast is uniformly good, across the board. Dear White People is both an enjoyable comedy and a cogent political satire, exposing the errors and vulnerabilities of characters on both sides of the political spectrum. I like this movie.
Dir: Oh In-chun
In-su (Kang Haneul) is a high school student from the big city. He recently moved back to his childhood home in a small town, to get away from his troubles. He likes to sit in the park, sketching pictures of pretty girls he sees. And what do they all have in have in common? They’re all ghosts – he sees dead people.
In fact, he can’t even tell if he’s seeing someone who’s living or dead, but he carries an inherited charm that spins if he’s near a ghost. They’re attracted to him mainly because he helps them redress the wrongs that led to their death. But his new high school isn’t the peaceful place he hoped it would be. Turns out, the school bully remembers him from his childhood, and knows that he’s that weird kid. And the bully’s pretty girlfriend is as cruel as he is. In-su is the only one to challenge them when they’re hurting someone – the rest of the kids just turn away.
And haunting the school is a ghost of a dead student who is always seen wearing a cotton mask over her mouth. Who is she? At least there’s someone who likes him — a pretty girl with very pale skin, who shares his drawings. Will he stop the bullying? Will the ghosts ever find peace? And will his lazy uncle (another adept) help him exorcise the school of its ghosts? This is a cute Korean ghost story that wavers from rom-com, to high school drama to supernatural horror. With a cast of unknown actors, it’s packed with movie references – from the blood in Carrie to the ghost in Ju-on. Nothing too deep, but I liked it — it’s fun.
Dir: Slavko Martinov
A propaganda film about the rest of the world smuggled out of North Korea? That’s what a new film claims to be. BUt don’t expect the usual rosy-cheeked, red army kitsch. This film is actually a sophisticated, British-style monologue narrated by a Korean man sitting in a chair facing the camera. He wears a corduroy blazer but his face is pixillated. And over his voice is a woman’s voice simultaneously narrating in English. And it’s illustrated by a non-stop barrage of short images, each lasting not more than a second or two. There’s historical footage, current advertising, TV clips, vintage photos. If you’ve ever seen a film by the great English documentarian Adam Curtis, you’ll immediately recognize the style. But the content? Not exactly.
It starts out as a funny and fascinating look at western capitalism (supposedly) seen through the eyes of a fish-out-of-water North Korean, trying to makes sense of the consumer economy. We’re treated to hilarious shots of Oprah giving out prizes, and talentless celebrities in skimpy clothing. Americans PR, it decides, is what rules the world. We think we’re free, but public relations, marketing and advertising has turned us all into slaves and zombies. Next, the film harshly criticizes certain western nations: Australia for what it did to its indigenous population, Israel for the Palestinians, the US for what it did to everyone. (Canada is conspicuous by its absence.) Japan comes under special criticism for annexing Korea, drafting the population into forced labour, suppressing Korea’s language and culture, and kidnapping thousands of “Comfort Women” (sex slaves for the Imperial Army). Oops, sorry, I got that wrong. The main beef this North Korea has with Japan is that it kills whales and dolphins.
Then it goes right off the cliff into Truther territory. We’re told political parties and voting means nothing, the jews caused WWI, the Bush family rules the world, 9-11 was a hoax, and the W.H.O. uses vaccinations to secretly poison babies in developing countries . Uh-oh…
In any case, if you want an unusual look at our culture of consumption (as well as the usual internet-style conspiracy theories), this film is totally watchable — if you can get past the dubbing of English over Korean.
Dear White People opens today, check your local listings; Propaganda starts next week at the Big Picture Cinema on Gerrard St E., and Mourning Grave plays this Saturday at ReelAsian, on for the next ten days. Go to Reelasian.com for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.