We've already posted a round-up of features we caught at this year's KAFFNY -- Korean American Film Festival New York (which you can read here and here) -- but now we're going take a look at two films that weren't able to be part of this year's lineup because of music rights or other similar issues. They're still very much worth taking notice of, and are likely to appear in other screenings or forms at some point in the year.
"Make Yourself At Home" (aka "Fetish")
The debut feature from filmmaker Soopum Sohn couldn't be any more different from his Oscar winning experimental short "Island to Island"; this being a narrative that dabbles in genre while also a highly personal commentary on assimilating into American culture. The story centers on Korean woman Sookhy (Hye-kyo Song from the upcoming "The Grandmasters" by Wong Kar Wai) who starts a new life in America thanks to her arranged marriage with Korean-American Peter (Rob Yang). Adapting to a new country is rough at first, but the new-girl-in-town finds a warm welcome from neighbors Julie & John (Athena Currey and where-the-hell-have-you-been Arno Frisch from "Funny Games"), whom she soon begins to emulate to startling degrees. Things get a bit more deranged when Peter suddenly dies, which may or may not have to do with her family's roots in shamanism. Sookhy won't be sent back to Korea, though, and does everything in her power to cement her position in the country, no matter what the cost.
Sohn finds success in the thriller elements, as do the actors: Sookhy and John are tensely unpredictable but also extremely realized characters, each with their subtle nuances that give even the slightest look or line an unignorable weight (Julie doesn't get the same treatment, unfortunately). Even though the movie works great as a solid genre piece, it's an extreme disservice to overlook the deeper meaning present, that of assimilation and identity. Sometimes it's humorously satirical -- such as when Sookhy offers to cook a traditional meal and Julie brings her to the Asian food aisle in a supermarket -- while other times it is harsh cultural criticism, such as the inevitable confrontation between the two female leads, both clad in matching schoolgirl outfits. The majority of reviewers put blinders on to these and took the plot strictly at face value, which is a shame considering the amount of intimate depth the picture actually has. To work well as a piece of entertainment is one thing, to work well as art wins you awards, but to succeed as both is something that's entirely different and enormously commendable. [A-]
"Make Yourself At Home" was featured in the 2010 iteration of KAFFNY.
Another strong debut, Jinoh Park takes a much simpler route than his peer Sohn (who not only DP'd his short-films, but cast him in one of his own), detailing a night out on the city between two aspiring actors. We're first introduced to Jun (played by the director) at his usual dive-bar singing gig, belting out a Sinatra song as if he were trying to convince an audience of 800 that he was the real thing. It's an odd start, but doesn't beat the following scene which involves our hero conversing with Robert De Niro on the "Taxi Driver" poster. This kind of quirkiness could be very dangerous -- in fact, even the brief flash of that descriptor can turn off the most moderately skeptic cinema goer -- but thankfully it's played very deadpan, with De Niro (who, obviously, we can't hear) saying the bulk of the dialogue and Jun mostly thanking him or asking him to repeat what he said. Funny, intriguing, playful, but also a tad disturbing.
This is the kind of behavior that permeates the entire length of the film, even when the two actors finally collide and decide to meander through the city together. "Should've Kissed" can be cute when it wants to be, like when Jun plays charades on his knee for female actress Summer (Marina Michelson). The two don't talk much and they certainly don't dig too deep to discover much about one another; they're comfortable knowing what they already know and they seem to find solace in the fact that they're going through similar career crises. However it's not the romance that Park is primarily concerned with, rather, he uses the two to represent the idea of being just a speck in the big city and also as his general disillusionment with the coveted "American dream." Interestingly enough, he does so in the form of an immigrant and an out-of-stater, both who come up empty handed on the exact same level. It's a brave conclusion to come to, but definitely not one without some cold hard truth to it. Still, the director's many quiet scenes coupled with the two characters randomly going off in a monologue or a scene compose a film that might be a little too dense at times, in fact, sometimes it's hard to tell whether the characters are saying something true or if they're acting out a scene from something else. It works at times, but it mostly feels a bit messy with ideas buried far too deep, so that even a second or third viewing may not be very helpful in understanding some ideas. That said, the filmmaker's humor and off-beat sensibility take the feature to heights that any other romance-in-the-city movie could never hope to come near. [B+]