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Love in Fractured Times: New Films Speak to the Power of Memory as a Means of Survival

In this essay from the Locarno Critics Academy, several new films grapple with the power of old memories.

“Too Late to Die Young”

KimStim

A scent takes us back to childhood. A flavor transports us to the strange dish tasted during the course of a trip. The memory always works by interconnections. It is easier to access memory through the senses than through intellectual means.

As a result, it is inevitable that this phenomenon is strongest felt in reminiscences of our childhood, when our senses were more vivid. Old memories can be surprisingly vivid. Dominga Sotomayor, the winner of the Leopard for Best Director for her film “Too Late to Die Young,” understands that perfectly. In her film, memory is always related to the atmosphere of a particular time and a particular place; the film is brilliant for the way Sotomayor creates a complex network in which these details interact.

The film is set in the early nineties in Chile, just after the fall of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Sotomayor quickly introduces us to a universe where at each moment, through the use of complex framing and lighting schemes, she transports us to a dream space — a kind of memory limbo.

It is an identifiable non-place for all of us who have experienced the doubts inherent in the sometimes painful transition from childhood to youth. We observe as this happens to the movie’s three adolescent main characters, representations used by Sotomayor to talk about a society in perpetual loss of, innocence.

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Similar work is carried out by the Argentine actress—known for Lucrecia Martel’s “The Holy Girl”and now director María Alché with her debut feature “Immersed Family.” Alché’s film is much less political than the work of Sotomayor; she focuses more on introducing us through plastic formal tools to the psychological space of Marcela, a woman who surrenders to an emotional breakdown after the death of her sister.

As in “Too Late To Die Young,” the physical space in “Immersed Family” is a character in itself and is, at the same time, an extension of the characters’ psychologies. Both films are able, through sensory immersion, to make us not only companions within the historical moment of their subjects, but also clinical observers of their characters’ states of mind.

For two Asian representatives of the International Competition, family universes are understood in quite the opposite way. On one hand, the South Korean master Hong Sangsoo’s “Hotel by the River” also transports us to a physical space standing in for the inner limbo in which Younghwan (Ki Joobong, who won one of two top acting prizes at Locarno this year), a poet in partial self-exile, finds himself. Staying at the hotel, Younghwan decides to summon his children and meet with them again after a long time, now that he recognises that he is close to death.

The film, a swan song and a winter story, is permeated with a curious melancholy. The use of black and white—a favored tool of Hong’s—places “Hotel by the River” in this last period that we could already call the trilogy of remorse.

Faithful to Hong’s tradition, memories have a presence through dialogue. But now more than ever, the filmmaker decides to use actual flashbacks. These illustrations, always from times neither in the distant past nor the relative present, work to bring us closer to a perspective of a present broken by a past. This is a past that, through this flashback structure, intervenes and blockades the flow of the characters’ lives, while  illustrating a disunion similar to the existential one between this poet and his descendants.

Ying Liang’s “A Family Tour” is a similar case. The filmmaker, who’s now working from exile after the political conflict generated by his previous film, “When Night Falls,” places us in an atomized universe, physically and generationally unconnected beings and victims of a social politics that forced them to seek a space for union that seems impossible to reach.

One of the triumphs of this film lies in its ability to make us share in this family trip, to make us feel part of this experience. Still, its greatest success lies in Yian Liang’s ability to express the discomfort of an individual and artist whose punishment for free expression is to have memory as a recourse to connect with another time, with a family universe.

 

Opposite to the kind of hopeless panoramas envisioned by the filmmakers of “A Family Tour” and “Hotel by the River,” Locarno showcased another perspective on family as a dismembered organism in “Yara,” the most recent work of the Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, internationally recognized for his monumental documentary “Homeland: Iraq Year Zero.”

 

Diametrically opposed to “Homeland,” “Yara” invites us to participate in the daily life of the eponymous teenage girl, who lives only with her grandmother in the Lebanese mountains.

With a minimum of narrative contrivance, Fahdel is able to craft an idyllic fable of the state of the world, in which wars in the Middle East and the economic and social policies that accompany them—as well as the massive intercontinental migrations that happen as a result of them—have no devastating consequences on the individual. On the contrary, Yara and her grandmother represent for Fahdel an opportunity to makes us believe in the possibility of beauty and love in fractured times.

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