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October 13, 2006

Foreign films pass muster at Chicago film fest

A quick primer: The Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is organized into competitive and showcase categories. Foreign films can be entered into the main competition, the first and second feature competition, or slotted in the non-competitive world cinema category. Whatever their status is, imports usually garner some of the most buzz at the CIFF, since oftentimes the festival circuit is the only time American audiences will be able to see these films on the big screen. Two foreign features this year are The King and the Clown, a controversial Korean smash hit, and Darkbluealmostblack, a less well known film from Spain.

The King and the Clown is something of an anomaly in the budding Korean film industry. Ostensibly based on a small passage from Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (the annual records of the longest-ruling single dynasty in history), which mentions King Yeonsan’s favorite court clown, the film is a period drama that, despite its strong homoerotic themes, smashed box-office records in the relatively conservative South Korea.

In the film, the clown in question is Geong-gil, played by Lee Jun Ki, an effeminate young man who specializes in female roles. His longtime performance partner is Jang-saeng (Gam Wu-seong), who is clearly infatuated with Geong-gil in more than just a brotherly way, but refuses to take advantage of Geong-gil’s devotion to him.

The two arrive in the capital, where the bold Jang-saeng decides that they’re going to make their mark by satirizing the king. Their act is appropriately lewd and harsh, and they quickly become hits, catching the eye of the king’s police in the process. They are hauled in to be flayed, but in a stroke of brilliance—or perhaps madness—Jang-saeng proposes that if they can make the king laugh with their skit, they should be kept alive.

The plot unfolds from there into a maddening tangle of jealousy and political intrigue, as the king takes an immediate liking to Geong-gil and calls upon him for companionship (of a non-sexual variety, actually, but that doesn’t stop Jang-saeng from expressing his disapproval).

Geong-gil is basically a passive fellow, content to follow Jang-saeng’s direction for the most part, but when he is taken under Yeonsan’s wing, he discovers a sensitive side to the king that was alluded to during the title credits. This dual characterization of the king, who was generally considered one of the worst tyrants in Korean history, actually plays a major part in whether or not you buy into the film as a whole. Portrayed by Jeong Jin-yeong with equal parts gusto and abandon, Yeonsan comes across as a Freudian case study, using his mother’s betrayal by the state as an excuse to purge any royal advisors who are bold enough to question his inability to exert self-control; his fixation on Geong-gil can be read in a similar vein.

All this psychoanalysis does detract somewhat from the enjoyability of the film, and the last half hour descends into unbearable histrionics that leave Lee’s porcelain-perfect face permanently tear-streaked. However, the film finds salvation in its lighter moments. The comedy is plentiful leading up the denouement, but in the end it’s the relationship between Jang-saeng and Geong-gil that truly captures the audience’s attention and evokes an emotional response.

Ironically, their story is never better captured than in the scenes when Geong-gil is entertaining the king with hand puppets: Across the top of a folded screen, he narrates the back story of two servants, one of whom takes the punishment for a stolen ring, when it was the other who committed the theft. The servants, of course, are Jang-saeng and Geong-gil, and in that moment, the audience is able to see what the true love story of the film is.

The King and the Clown will be screened at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema on Sunday, October 15, at 5:30 p.m.

I am always on the lookout for new Spanish cinema, so imagine my excitement when I received a screener for Darkbluealmostblack, a surprisingly uplifting film about angsty 20-somethings living in Madrid. Directed by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, the movie revolves around Jorge (Quim Gutiérrez), a janitor who studies by correspondence because his time is consumed by his job and caring for his disabled father.

Jorge’s brother, Antonio (Antonio de la Torre), is serving prison time. In theater workshop, he meets the peculiar but beautiful Paula (Marta Etura), who wants to get pregnant so she can be moved to the maternity ward. Antonio, however, is sterile, so he enlists Jorge to do his dirty work. The arrangement is already an odd one, and it’s complicated by Jorge’s longstanding crush on neighbor Natalia (Eva Pallarés), a beautiful intellectual whom Jorge feels is unattainable on both a financial and a social level.

The intricate relationships between the four main characters make up the bulk of the film, and Arévalo draws upon common insecurities to forge links between his protagonists. Jorge, for instance, is accustomed to having two built-in excuses for failure (his job and his father), Antonio doesn’t want to lose Paula, who he knows wouldn’t give him the time of day if they weren’t in prison, and Paula is searching for redemption after being betrayed by a past love. The plot may play out like a telenovela episode, but Arévalo’s preference for medium close-ups and close-ups lends the camerawork a simple ethic, supported by the numerous poetic moments that occur to the glum but ultimately lovable cast.

Arévalo has some of Almodovar’s reknowned talent for finding (or inserting) comedy in dramatic situations, as shown by the side story of Jorge’s friend Israel (Raúl Arévalo), Sean for short. His hobby is taking incriminating photos of the customers who frequent the gay masseuse across the street, but one day he is startled when he recognizes his father on the notorious massage table. Rage and betrayal ultimately turn into something like enlightenment when he visits the masseuse and discovers that he can identify with his father’s urges. It’s a little creepy, but it’s a welcome shot of dark humor through the gravitas of the film.

Because of the circumstances, not everyone ends up happy at the end of the film, and even the happy ones face an uncertain future, but we get the feeling that all the characters have gone through a transformation, which is something that we can all identify with.

Darkbluealmostblack plays at AMC River East on Tuesday, October 17 at 8:30 p.m., and at Landmark’s Century Center Cinema on Wednesday, October 17 at 7 p.m.