The Lesson (2014) — Image via abraxasfilm.com

MSPIFF 2015 Short Takes, Part 1

The 34th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival has presented a strong crop of films so far, especially when it comes to international narrative features — an area in which MSPIFF distinguishes itself from its U.S.-focused friendly (?) rival, autumn’s Twin Cities Film Fest. We’ve already posted a few full-length reviews of films seen at the festival, and here are some briefer thoughts on some others:

Voice Over (Cristián Jiménez, 2014)

Voice Over (2014) — Image via rouge-international.comVoice Over (La voz en off) begins with a birth — not the events surrounding a birth, but the thing itself, filmed in messy detail. After this graphic opening scene, however, Cristián Jiménez’s film settles into place as a lightly quirky drama about an upper-middle-class family in Valdivia, Chile. The focus is on Sofia (Ingrid Isensee), a divorced mother trying to make a living doing voiceovers for commercials. In the first 15 minutes of the film, Sofia’s professor sister Ana (María José Siebald) returns from Paris with her French husband and infant in tow, the sisters’ father Manuel (Cristián Campos) leaves their mother (Paulina García) for unclear reasons, and Sofia restarts an affair with a married man.

The reactions of Sofia and her family members to these and other events are conveyed with warmth, understanding, and humor. Voice Over may not be the most compelling film at the festival, but it’s generally a pleasure to watch. It screens again Apr. 20.

The Second Life of Thieves (Woo Ming Jin, 2014)

The Second Life of Thieves (2014) — Image via mosquitofilmsdistribution.comEnigmas abound in Woo Ming Jin’s The Second Life of Thieves, a film that subtly shifts between different times and perspectives as it delves into the lives of several residents of a coastal village in Malaysia. The protagonist, of sorts, is Tan (Chung Kok Keong), a village functionary who must investigate the deaths and disappearances of several migrant workers in the area while coping with the fact that his wife has apparently run off with his old friend, Lai. The center of the film consists of two long, mythical-feeling flashbacks in which Lai’s daughter Sandy (MayJune Tan) tells the story of her father as a younger man (Berg Lee) and Tan reveals the story of his own hidden relationship with Lai.

Interspersed into this story and the subplot of Tan’s migrant-worker investigation are poetic voiceover meditations on the nature of love, betrayal, and death, often accompanying pensive shots of the rural landscape around the village. Though The Second Life of Thieves sometimes drags a bit despite being less than 90 minutes long, it contains some memorable images and characters. It returns to the festival Apr. 15.

Wildlike (Frank Hall Green, 2014)

Wildlike (2014) — Image via wildlikefilm.comThough Frank Hall Green’s Wildlike has some incidental parallels with last year’s similarly titled Wild, ultimately the story it tells is very different. While in Jean-Marc Vallée’s film the wilderness is a catalyst for healing from trauma, in Green’s it is more the backdrop against which 14-year-old Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) finds the human connection she may need to break out of a cycle of misfortunes. When Mackenzie’s mother goes into rehab, she sends her to live with her late father’s brother, referred to only as Uncle (Brian Geraghty), in Juneau, Alaska. Unfortunately, Uncle turns out to be more than a little bit of a predator. One day, Mackenzie escapes from his clutches, but lost in an unfamiliar corner of the world, she doesn’t know what to do and ends up randomly attaching herself to Rene Bartlett (Bruce Greenwood), a stranger who has come to Alaska to hike in Denali National Park and mourn the loss of his wife.

Over the course of the film, we are held in suspense by the twin questions of whether Mackenzie will be able to steer clear of her uncle’s efforts to find her and what the reluctant Rene will do with the responsibility that has been thrust upon him for her safety, questions that are not entirely resolved by the film’s hopeful but ambiguous ending. In any case, between the quality of Greenwood and Purnell’s performances and the majesty of cinematographer Hillary Spera’s images of Alaska, Wildlike is definitely worth seeing. Its second screening takes place Apr. 21.

No One’s Child (Vuk Ršumović, 2014)

No One's Child (2014) — Image via artandpopcorn.comStories of feral children who have been raised by animals have been around for centuries. In No One’s Child (Ničije dete), director Vuk Ršumović takes the meme and turns it to the service of subtly biting social commentary. The film begins in 1988 in the Bosnian woods, where a group of hunters finds a young boy (Denis Murić) living among the wolves. The boy is given the name Haris and shipped off to an orphanage in Belgrade. Over time, he tentatively integrates into human society, guided by counselor Ilke (Miloš Timotijević) and befriended by older boy Zika (Pavle Čemerikić). But Zika has his own problems, and Ilke cannot protect him when newly independent Bosnia demands his repatriation so he can labor in a work camp in support of the war effort against Bosnian Serb separatists.

Murić’s performance, especially in the early scenes, is the film’s anchor and most compelling feature. The young actor does an exceptional job of shading each slight step his character takes toward behaving less like a wolf and more like a human. Having watched Haris undergo this slow transformation, despite multiple setbacks at the orphanage, makes it all the more affecting to watch his reaction to events in Bosnia upon his return. No One’s Child screens again Apr. 17 and comes recommended.

The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov, 2014)

The Lesson (2014) — Image via abraxasfilm.comAfter viewing The Lesson (Urok), I couldn’t help but overhear some fellow audience members arguing about whether the film is a dark comedy or just dark. Based on the film’s ending, I have to go with the former, but certainly the atmosphere throughout is pretty grim. Proud, rarely-smiling Nadya (Margita Gosheva) is an English teacher and translator in rural Bulgaria. The daughter of a wealthy father (Ivan Savov) and a classy mother, Nadya was going to become a lawyer in Sofia but ended up back in her village, married to the well-meaning but incompetent Mladen (Ivan Barnev), a sometime drunk who aims to make money by fixing up and selling an old camper van. Meanwhile, her mother has died, and her father has acquired a distinctly unrefined new wife, resulting in father and daughter’s estrangement.

When Mladen gets into financial trouble, it is up to Nadya to find a solution, but a series of setbacks keeps causing her plans to go awry. As a result, she is forced to decide which of her principles she is prepared to sacrifice in order to pay her husband’s debts and keep her home. There are no good solutions, only more and less degrading ones. Paralleling all of this is the mystery of which of her students has been stealing money from the others and from her, a matter that causes her to come up with a set of increasingly pragmatic strategies for uncovering the thief.

Gosheva gives an intense performance as Nadya, who is on screen at virtually all times, and the film’s cutting social critique comes across effectively through its deliberate pacing and the interplay between Nadya’s personal troubles and her efforts to solve the school theft mystery. The Lesson is well worth seeing and returns to the festival Apr. 21.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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