Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NYKFF ’12: Late Autumn

The setting is Seattle and the lead actress is Chinese, but it is based on a classic 1961 Korean film. Yet, this is a universal story that might remind viewers of films like Brief Encounter and Before Sunrise. Two not-lovers’ abbreviated relationship will be ambiguous but deeply meaningful in Kim Tae-yong’s Late Autumn (trailer here), which screened at the recently wrapped 2012 New York Korean Film Festival.

Kim’s Late Autumn and Lee Man-hee’s before it should not be confused with Yasujiro Ozu’s classic film of them same name. Still, they are similarly distinguished by their wistful tone and humanistic sympathy for their flawed characters. Anna is serving a seven year prison term for killing her abusive husband. Released on a seventy-two hour furlough for her mother’s funeral, she shares a long bus ride with the caddish Hoon. Initially, the “escort” thinks she might be a soft touch, but she is not impressed with his act. Ironically, she is the one who makes an impression on him.

Stifled by the awkwardness of her homecoming, Anna prefers the solitude of walking through Seattle’s historic downtown area, but her path keeps crossing Hoon’s. As they spend guarded time together, something develops between them. Yet, whatever it is, cannot last, which is the delicate beauty of the film.

Yes, we have been told before, time is fleeting. Yet, it is quite exquisitely expressed in Autumn. However, Kim’s film has a dark side unlike the David Lean classic or a host of sentimental copycats. In addition to Anna’s tragic past, Hoon is running away from something rather ugly. Time may or may not be quite fleeting indeed.

Tang Wei is achingly vulnerable as Anna, showing a remarkable range of emotions while maintaining her frozen façade. Best known for her breakout turn in Ang Lee’s erotically charged Lust, Caution, she was to have appeared in the Chinese Communist Party creation myth propaganda film The Founding of a Party, but reportedly Mao’s grandson had her scenes cut for reasons of ideological philistinism. It is not much of a recommendation for Founding, but another good reason to keep an eye out for Autumn.  Tang is a beautiful and remarkably talented actress, who has worked in Chinese cinema since the Founding debacle. Hopefully, Korean and American productions will continue to be an option for her as she contends with the Party’s institutionalized dogma.

A true multinational South Korean-American-Chinese-HK coproduction, Late Autumn is an elegantly simple story, even if its funding is head-spinningly complex. Heart-felt and emotionally mature, it is an assured work highly recommended for those who missed its opening night screening at the tenth annual NYKFF. After a double-secret theatrical release, it seems like a strong programming candidate for one of the Asian film showcases in New York. For those eager for more Korean film on the heels of the festival, the Korean Cultural Service hosts their regular free screening tonight (2/28) at the Tribeca Cinemas, featuring Park Shin-woo’s sinister film noir White Night.