Wide outdoor expanses. Static frames. Frequent cuts to black. Impassive camera subjects. The sense that humor’s hovering, but withheld, in dead, thin air. It seems we’ve heard this song before. But in his second feature, following his 2004 deadpan debut Duck Season (a pocket-sized, black-and-white coming-of-age kinda-comedy that was inexplicably picked up by a then optimistic Warner Independent), Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke retreats into this much-rehearsed visual style only to dig a little deeper, and with a color palette that, if not vibrant, at least provides the director with some new emotional hues to work with. The surprisingly touching result is as affecting as it is atmospheric, and the overall impression is less one of self-conscious mannerism than of genuine heartache, an honest attempt at conveying a young man’s necessary, if tenuous, stab at human interaction. At first, the whiff of Kaurismäki and Jarmusch is undeniably pungent, but Eimbcke keeps peeling back his layers of detachment one by one, until something pure and plangent remains onscreen.
British filmmaker Duane Hopkins studied as both a photographer and painter, and this becomes abundantly clear upon viewing his elusive and evocative debut feature, Better Things. While its setup—numerous characters populate interlaced narratives—might make you reflexively shrink at the possibility of yet another melodramatic, everything’s-connected coming together, the film eschews overdetermined genre conventions. At once abstract and impressionistic, if anything, it lists too far in the opposite direction. By opening with a series of static shots and cutting deliberately, disorientingly from one storyline to the next, Hopkins announces his intention to limn a specific environment, and the people in it, through textural detail, mood, and landscape rather than plot, dialogue, or character development.
One wouldn’t expect a strictly by-the-numbers thriller to find its way into the Film Comment Selects series, given that the annual event has made its name as a kind of brattier, outré sibling of the more august (read: stiff) New York Film Festival. Yet, The Chaser, a film that straightforwardly follows a former detective turned pimp as he races against the clock to locate one of his girls, who he believes is about to be sold into slavery by her trick, doesn’t surprise, shock or awe. Depending on your preference, it actually does one better: first-time director Na Hong-jin’s solid command of thriller/policier basics results in a comforting ride—thrills, humor and scares are well-parceled, characters develop, cheesy Eighties synth washes abound, the police are all morons, and he’s even managed to breathe some life back into the stolid foot chase (twice!). That he gets away with introducing a sad-eyed precocious kid into the narrative is merely icing.