While the Miami International Film Festival continues to draw an audience in the Spring each year. However, they host a smaller festival focusing on Foreign titles and art house contenders in the Fall each year. Miami GEMS Fest may be a small gathering, but their lineup is a mighty one. On two screens and over four days, they brought many of the contenders for the Best Foreign Film category to South Florida. The city of Miami brings together diverse audiences to help build momentum for international films. The 2018 Miami GEMS Fest delivered some great art films and crowd pleasers for all audiences.
On my first day of the Miami GEMS Fest, I was able to attend four films, and below we’ve got a rundown of the features. My movies included “Burning” (South Korea), “Cold War” (Poland), “El Ángel” (Argentina) and “Everybody Knows” (directed by Asghar Fahardi).
“Burning” – Directed by Lee Chang-dong
The film follows a young writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) who reconnects with a girl Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) from his past. The two begin to reconnect and he agrees to watch over her house while she visits Africa. When she returns, she has connected with the rich and stylish Ben (Steven Yeun). The story evolves into a mystery and thriller, pitting Jong-su and Ben against each other in a cat and mouse game.
“Burning” will become a film school phenomenon, both due to its ambiguous storytelling and well-crafted script. The camera moves through scenes as an extension of Jong-su, a curious and ponderous individual who seems stuck in life. It also works as a compelling look at young men and women in the world right now. Ben represents the rich and privileged, while Jong-su is struggling and directionless. There is the search for meaning in everything, and while Jong-su works through his own personal problems, he may have stumbled into a story much darker than he anticipated.
The real standout is Lee Chang-dong, whose work on the film is spectacular. He gets a lot out of the screenplay and builds in multiple layers and callbacks to William Faulkner. The trio of leads actors stretch their abilities and create multifaceted characters. The most impressive for American audiences will be Yeun, who electrifies the rest of the film. His charisma and subversive nature help to build tension throughout the film, and unless he was on from the word go, the movie probably does not work. At 148 minutes, “Burning” is a behemoth to take on, but it will stick to your brain like few others this year.
Grade for “Burning” – (★★★½)
“Cold War” – Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Historical epics are in the Academy wheelhouse, but Pawel Pawlikowski has proven he can tell sprawling and intimate stories in this genre. What Pawlikowski stand out from other directors his how he can tell a fully emotional and expansive story in very little time. His 2013 Oscar-winning film “Ida” was only 82 minutes long. His new feature, “Cold War” only runs 88 minutes, but it tells an epic and soaring tale efficiently and beautifully.
“Cold War” follows Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) against the background of post-World War II Europe. Wiktor, a teacher of music and dance, pushes for teenage Zula to join an arts program in 1950s Poland. Over the following years, they become secret lovers while Russia strengthens its grip on the country. Wiktor escapes to Paris, but cannot let go of Zula. Their romance lasts for more than a decade, crisscrossing between Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.
Kulig stands out as Zula, diving deep into the emotionally complex and borderline bipolar character. Kot tries to keep up, but Kulig’s whirlwind nature takes over the film. Just as integral to the telling of the story is the sound mixing and editing. The music soars over the picture and helps tell their story through the evolution of music. From Polish folk to French Jazz, and the even Carribean/Latin. Pawlikowski allows the music to help the audience transition between chapters of the film.
Finally, the cinematography cannot be ignored. Pawlikowksi brings back Lukasz Zal to shoot the film, and he proves he is one of the best DPs working today. The black and white cinematography soars. The 4:3 aspect ratio focuses the audience on the images on display. The visually unique film stands out as one of the best shot films of 2018.
Grade for “Cold War” – (★★★½)
“Everybody Knows” – Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Farhadi has become something of an Academy favorite over the past decade, directing two features to Best Foreign Film Oscars. Both “The Salesman” and “A Separation” rank as amazingly told tragedies with impeccable insight into the human condition. At its best, “Everybody Knows” can hit some of those heights. However, the overloaded cast and mostly predictable “secrets” hurt the film’s ability to live up to lofty expectations.
Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns home to Spain with her children for her sister’s wedding. Her husband (Ricardo Darín) stays back in Argentina. When Laura’s daughter is kidnapped at the wedding, her former love Paco (Javier Bardem) does his best to help Laura’s family find the missing girl. The resulting story brings up issues of the past and reveals buried secrets.
The cast features a who’s who of Spanish actors and actresses. Bárbara Lennie stands out among the rest, giving the only truly emotionally gripping sequence of the film. Bardem has strong moments throughout, but for a story filled with tension, it feels like he could have gone up a level. The same goes for Cruz. The film’s poor execution comes from a combination of melodrama and uninspired twists. The focus on twists and mysteries are not particularly interesting. Worst of all, it takes the focus off the intense family drama that delivers the best moments. It feels off for someone like Farhadi and unfortunately keeps the film from ever becoming more than mediocre.
Grade for “Everybody Knows” – (★★)
“El Ángel” Directed by Luis Ortega
Crime films of the 1970s still inspire many of today’s best filmmakers. The era saw a rise of drug traffic around the world, and another rise of organized crime ensued. The gangster films in the years that followed still carry a swagger years later. In many ways “El Ángel” pays homage to the era and tries to tell its story through that lens. Director Luis Ortega has a strong feel for the film, crafting a “Scarface” style film if Pedro Almodóvar had directed it. However, there are some questionable depictions of LGBTQ characters and pacing issues that damped the experience.
“El Angel” follows the true story of Carlos Robledo Puch, a 19-year-old who became one of the most infamous criminals in Argentina. By then, he had committed 11 murders, more than 40 robberies, and counts of sexual abuse and kidnapping. He became known as “The Angel of Death” due to his good looks and extremely youthful face.
Lorenzo Ferro brings the most out of Carlos. Ferro has an incredibly expressive face, with doe eyes that help communicate the Carlos’ complicated emotions. However, Ortega allows Ferro to over-rely on a few facial expressions. As the film progresses, they lose their effectiveness in big emotional moments.
However, there are two big issues with the film. First, the LGBTQ representation is troubling. There are a lot of slurs thrown around the film, and Carlos takes on the role of the jealous partner in many instances. It’s troubling and even used as the inciting reason for some of his violent actions. That brings us to the second issue, the laissez-faire way in which Ortega represents violence. Most of the violence creates comedic moments in the film. This creates an uneasy mixture of tones that don’t quite fit into dark humor. Some will praise the film for its 1970s aesthetic, but the period setting clearly has downsides as well.