At the Denver Film Festival, we focus on films that aren’t likely to get wide distribution. However, we also hope to pick a “sleeper” that takes off later so when people start talking about it, we can smugly say, “We saw that months ago.” Since the pandemic—during and after which we have continued to age—we only schedule films during daylight hours. No late-night galas for us. From Week 1:
Concrete Utopia, Um Tae-hwa, a dystopian thriller. Remember Parasite? South Korea’s on a filmmaking roll. In this one, an earthquake levels all of Seoul except for one apartment building. Complications ensue. It’s about how easily some of us shed human kindness in a disaster, and that story’s been told before, but this version has impressive sets, excellent acting, and a mystery. Director Tae-hwa says, “In Korea, where you live is who you are.” Those social pigeonholes play out here. The rubble landscape is mostly concrete and looks like Gaza City today. Released a few months ago and may be streamable.
Shorts 1: Narrative. We see shorts programs every year, for their international mix and to see the work of new filmmakers. Five films, one from Greece, four from the USA. The Family Circus, Andrew Fitzgerald, USA, features a Vietnamese American family and is touching, tense and hilarious. How far will you go to protect family? It was our favorite of this group. Fitzgerald, based in L.A. has several award-winning short films. Available on Vimeo.
Shorts 3: Animation Films from Sweden, Malaysia, Japan, China/USA, and four from France. We used to expect animation from famous Eastern European studios, like Zagreb, but not lately. Adult themes: sex, angst, death. Not your kids’ animation. The Malaysia/Swedish film Well Wishes My Love, Your Love: one person lends his artificial arm to a boy for a day, is breathtakingly lovely. One favorite was the Swedish stop motion animation The Lovers, Carolina Sandvik, a transformation from vibrant youth to skeletal life-in-death, with layers of interpretation possible. YouTube.
Rule of Two Walls, directed by David Gutnik, Ukraine, 2023. A documentary about making a film during the war, seen through the eyes and work of Ukrainian artists who remained in Ukraine, painting, designing posters, writing and composing music, performing rap as defiant acts. Gutnik is Ukrainian-American. After filming in Ukraine on a shoestring and returning to the US, Liev Schreiber, the American actor, who has Ukrainian ancestry, got involved as Executive Producer.
We loved the scenes of two young women gluing posters to walls. Well-designed, the vivid posters have slogans like, “we are not afraid of you, Russia.” Air raid sirens sound intermittently throughout the 77-minute film, and people keep walking, the film crew keeps traveling to its next location. A woman says, “we don’t go to the bomb shelter anymore: we follow the rule of two walls.” Two walls between you and the explosion give the best chance of survival. There’s difficult footage of the recovery of Bucha’s many civilian casualties. One artist’s painting features a toddler being approached by death. At the time of filming, over 200 Ukrainian children had died in Russian attacks. That number nears 600 now.
Moving, tough, grittily filmed, many featured artists and the film crew are young, gifted members of the generation that’s grown up in free Ukraine. A rap performer rants at Russians before a packed, cavernous hall and they shout the angry chorus with him. The camera dollies through forlorn galleries of the national art museum, all the art down, stored for safety, a scene heavy with melancholy, symbolic of what these Ukrainian artists are trying to do: save their culture, save their very identity.