Catching up on my SFIFF Dispatches, which David Hudson kindly posted first on GreenCine Daily. I will have at least one more before all is said and done. (Well, all is said and done today, but I'll be done with the sayin' tomorrow.)
Korean filmmaker Kim Meejeung's first feature (she was an assistant director on Lee Jun-ik's Once upon a Time in the Battlefield and The King and the Clown) is a stunning, memorable, if occasionally convoluted mystery set during Korea's Chosun era. It's particularly notable for its cast of mostly female characters - the story centers around the maids who live and work as virtual prisoners in the palace of the emperor, and its protagonist is a female court doctor, Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hie), who investigates the death of one maid found hanging in her claustrophobic room. Suicide, she's told, but she suspects murder and investigates, unraveling a web of deceit, getting caught up in political maneuverings and eventually fearing for her own life.
The depiction of the period is striking, from the delicious costumes to the recreation of palace life, and the murder mystery fascinates throughout. I sensed some audience discomfort and confusion with the film's more fantastical elements, but for anyone who's seen a Korean period mystery-cum-ghost story before, these things should come as less of a surprise. Still, there are times when the story becomes a bit overly complicated for its own good (I feel the need to see it a second time just to catch up with some of the more confusing plot threads). The dialogue can be a bit expository, though, frankly at times I was grateful it was, given how convoluted it becomes as it all unspools.
And yet it's so richly textured and features such terrific performances, including the young actress who plays the assistant to the doctor and provides the film with rare moments of comic relief (age 11, she takes a break from the chaos around her by rolling her own smokes) that I can't soon get it out of my head, either. The film is bloody, even shockingly so, haunting in ways that would make Guillermo Del Toro proud, and full of indelible images. With its twisting mystery, its compelling central character, and complex feminist tract on a fascinating slice of Korean history, Shadows in the Palace, despite some uneven storytelling, is certainly one helluva ride.
At 35, Serge Bozon has already lived through several incarnations: film critic, actor, DJ, writer, and filmmaker (L'Amitié, Mods). It's that diverse sensibility that gives his WWI-set film La France an oddball charm, a quiet, naturalistic even sensual war drama with musical interludes; it's as if Claire Denis and Jacques Demy had a film together.
The story is a simple one: Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a mysterious letter from her husband, who's off fighting for France. The letter suggests that he's dead but a hints, too, that he may be alive. As a woman, she's not allowed to leave her village, so she chops her hair short and poses as a young man to go off in search of her missing love. She soon encounters and blends in with a regiment led by a soft-spoken but firmly-in-command lieutenant (the great Pascal Greggory) and becomes their sort of unofficial mascot as they move toward the front lines - but are they really moving toward the war, or away from it? The film is about camaraderie to be sure, and has an oddball pace to it that is not like any other war film. At times poetic and sad, other times joyful and even transcendent, it doesn't really pack many dramatic punches, so when the moments do come they are all the more shocking.
Testud (Fear and Trembling; Murderous Maids; La Captive) is perfectly cast, mesmerizing, almost never smiling. Even though she can be uniquely beautiful, she has a deadpan, boyish face that makes you believe that these soldiers would buy into her ruse.
And those musical sequences, four of them in all, are certainly lovely, even if they begin to get a bit repetitious. The songs have a modern pop sensibility very far removed from the period depicted in the film, but these multi-layered harmonies somehow work, even more because they are sung off-key by the cast themselves (who at least pantomime the playing of seemingly hand-crafted instruments).
If I had mixed feelings about the inevitable ending, I nonetheless found the denouement moving. La France is also beautifully shot; one particular standout for me is a haunting scene in which Camille is circled menacingly by the men, only to disappear like an apparition into the moonlight. (As an aside, Bozon stated in a Cinema Scope interview that the film was shot using "a film stock never used before to shoot a movie, Kodak 5299, which is usually used as an intermediate film in numerical post-production." This explains the "aquarium feeling" of the film's night scenes.) And there is an unforgettable scene set in a barn, which is a burlesque of tragedy in one long take of violent acts. It's hard to shake.
La France kept me a bit at arm's length emotionally, and yet is full of moments of rare beauty and poignancy. It's a curious hybrid that magically works, and I hope it finds a distributor here in the States.