Crimes and punishments: Sundance 2013, part two

01 February 2013

Three more features - including two prize-winners - examine the effects of punitive responses to crime (and "crime").

Reviewed: Jiseul (Muel O.); The Meteor (François Delisle); Wajma (An Afghan Love Story) (Barmak Akram).

South Korean film Jiseul (2012) arrived at this year's Sundance Film Festival with four top honours from the Busan International Film Festival last October, and left having won its Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film. Written and directed by Muel O., the film is a condensed, fragmented and lyrical account of a particular episode in Jeju Island's history: that of 1948, in which US-backed South Korean troops were ordered to treat everyone living 5 km beyond the mainland as communist rebels, and to execute them on sight. The film's sole focus is on a group of villagers caught up in the eventual massacre of some 30,000 people, who had initially rebelled in response to a police attack during a march commemorating Korea's struggle against Japan.

Minimal exposition and a clear preference for abstraction make Jiseul more aestheticised than moving, though it is not without merits: Jung-hoon Yang's high-definition monochrome is beautiful, and the way it combines with a rich texture of howling winds and the sharpening of a knife (a recurring motif) is immediately commanding. The cinematography lends emotional distance, but it also contributes to a moral ambivalence that is heightened by the narrative's separation into two distinct threads: the villagers whose lives have been upturned overnight, and the rank and file tasked with arresting and murdering them. While the latter form a small camp outside a hilltop forest, the former (who numbered 120 in real life) seek sanctuary in a system of underground caves. The rank and file, many of whom are young and inexperienced, are presented in fragmented shots; their ennui, confusion and hierarchical formation are all made clear. In contrast, the villagers are shot in inclusive long takes that suggest a togetherness and mutual dependency in the face of increasing panic and physical hardship (one of them is heavily pregnant). Contrasts are countered by continuities, however: a young and injured soldier helps the villagers at a crucial moment, while a captured villager betrays the whereabouts of the others in a naive belief he'll be rewarded with freedom.

Jiseul, whose title translates from the Jeju dialect to "potato", which is the sole source of the villagers' nutrition, recalls Raya Martin in its mannered stylisation of history. Chapter headings ("to fetch the spiritual", "where the spirit stays" and so on) appear arbitrary, and hint at the unhelpful quasi-spiritual slant; in the final moments of the film, a female soldier, having observed events in bewildered silence, utters, "no more killing; goodbye, sir". The tears of a newborn child follow... Given that mention of the massacre re-enacted here was illegal in South Korea for half a century after it occurred - and given the US government's own sustained silence on the matter, as the film itself tells us at its end - the material demands a more anchored framework, one by which a fuller historical understanding would accommodate a more cogent condemnation of both the national regime and the role played by the US in backing it.

Le temps détruit tout

The Meteor (La météore), writer-director François Delisle's fourth feature since his debut Ruth (1994), probes the challenging emotional terrain endured by three principals following an unexpected and life-changing incident (cinema's go-to "life-changing incident" is a car crash). Because such emotions are heavily informed by both solitude and interiority - and so are prohibited by the social interaction by which drama conventionally reveals its stakes - Delisle interweaves an experimental tapestry of first-person confessions in voice-over, accompanied by a mixture of abstract images that by turns reflect and contradict the words spoken.

Fortysomething Pierre is serving a lengthy prison sentence for manslaughter following a hit-and-run; his incarceration leaves behind his elderly mother, who lives alone, and his ex-wife Suzanne, both of whom relate their conflicting reservoirs of guilt, embarrassment, physical longing and loneliness. For everyone here, time destroys all, which is as bleak a notion as it is also constructive: after initial devastation and self-doubt, Suzanne learns to love again, while for Pierre imprisonment keeps time to a standstill, as mirrored by his opening revelation that his mother's sister has been diagnosed with cancer and been given three months to live... though in the film's final "scene", which seems to take place much later than that window, his aunt is still alive.

Disembodied, Delisle's narrators acquire a linguistic physicality whose power stems from the images it conjures: Noémie Godin-Vigneau's face is as striking and haunting as Pierre's recollection of being raped on his first night in jail. The film is bookended by images of a waterfall and of the skies, suggesting (alongside its title) an earthly or even geological timeframe that perspectivises the human component without belittling it or rendering it meaningless. Conceptually dogged, The Meteor risks listlessness but its effect is accumulative, gradually developing into a strangely intimate and moving account of three distinct people as well as an indictment of a punitive justice system that is founded upon the denial of nuance and empathy.

Disproportionate punishments are also the focus of Wajma (An Afghan Love Story), which took Sundance's Best Screenwriting prize. Set in present-day Kabul (filming permission was apparently acquired following the submission of a synopsis to a different film), writer-director Barmak Akram's second feature boasts remarkable performances and a sensitive, unsentimental approach to storytelling. The film purports at its outset to be based upon "several true stories", a simple but effective lexical adjustment of that popular narrative trick that brings a sense of social urgency as well as a knowing suggestiveness: here is a film in which one particular fable stands in for many. Furthermore, its parenthetic subtitle is both cuttingly ironic and deliberately clichéd: herein, all romance is denied.

Twenty-year-old Wajma (Wajmar Bahar) is wooed by Mustafa (Mustafa Habibi), an amicable waiter almost five years her senior. The pair spark an interest in each other when attending a wedding, but since relationships between unmarried couples are de facto prohibited by Afghan social law, they must liaise in secret. When Wajma is accepted into law school, Mustafa says, giddily: "Let's treat ourselves. Let's cuddle." When Wajma discovers she is pregnant, however, Mustafa drops all responsibility; his reason is based on the wrongful assumption that Wajma was not a virgin when they had sex. When Wajma's father (Hadji Gul) returns home from southern Afghanistan - where he detects land-mines for a living - cruel punishments are meted: Wajma is beaten, interrogated and locked up.

Wajma boasts remarkable performances. Bahar and Habibi are both convincing as young lovers embarking upon a socially forbidden romance, while as the former's parents, Gul and Breshna Bahar attract empathy and understanding even when their characters are upholding repugnant social values. Devastated by the shame his daughter's pregnancy will bring upon his family, Gul as Wajma's father draws out a complex and believable figure. After an initial outburst of violence, he appeals to the local prosecutor, who advises him that according to Article 398 of the penal code, if he had directly caught his daughter during the act of fornication, he would be within reason to kill both parties(!); because that isn't the case, however, Wajma's father has two options - to get Mustafa to marry Wajma, or ("in our outdated society") to relocate Wajma to the provinces until she gives birth, after which the child would be given to an orphanage.

That Mustafa's probable confusion and subsequent evasion of social expectations convenience the narrative into its downbeat resolution should be treated as a minor qualm; to begin with, a scene in which Wajma's father confronts the boy at his place of work packs surprising nuance - for all the older man's conservatism, his proud worldview is clearly the outcome of a backward social imposition. And his response following Wajma's attempted self-immolation is sincere and heartfelt. The film ends at its emotional peak, cutting at a point that seems as sensible as it does bleak: having secured her daughter an Indian visa (for $500) and watched her enter an airport terminal whence she can see out her pregnancy in exile, Wajma's mother drives home in very real, heartbroken - and heartbreaking - tears. Less, here, is more.