Sundance 2009: Ma Bar, A Film From My Parish and Old Partner

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As Paste winds down its Sundance 2009 coverage, here's a round-up of a few films we haven't covered extensively yet:

ma_bar_still.jpg Ma Bar
It's hard enough to leave a film audience wanting more when you've got 90-120 minutes to get their attention in a feature film, much less in the more-limited span of a short. But if, in just three minutes, you can show enough of a story that the viewer can't stop thinking about the everything that happened before and after, not to mention what is actually happening in front of the viewer's face, you've really accomplished something. Such is the case with Ma Bar, a documentary short by a pair of Scots—rising star Adrian McDowell (nominated, among other things, for XFM Music Video of the Year) and hot newcomer Finlay Pretsell (shortlisted for the Grierson Best Newcomer award). In profiling 73-year-old Scottish weightlifter Bill McFadyen, they make the audacious choice to jump straight in medias res, with no directorial narration or subtitling and no backstory. And there's no "whatever happened to" at the end of the film, either. All we get is the voice of McFadyen himself, speaking about his philosophy of competition, including the stunningly matter-of-fact "Losing I don't tolerate," which appears on the film's poster. Beautifully shot black-and-white footage of the power lifter in his home and at competition completes the piece. A week later, I'm still thinking about it.  An impressive feat, indeed.

a_film_from_my_parish_still.jpgA Film From My Parish: Six Farms
A Film From My Parish: Six Farms is over nearly before you finish reading the title, but what a fun ride it is. The seven-minute documentary exclusively uses stop-motion photography and animation (no video at all) to capture, condense and illustrate director Tony Donoghue's interviews with elderly farmers on six farms near his home. The film crackles with an almost manic nervous energy that is completely unexpected for a celebration of rural, Irish life.  Donoghue (the most entertaining and winning of all the directors I've met thus far) explained to me that he'd seen so many scenes of wind rippling through crops in the Irish countryside with harp music playing that he wanted to get as far away from that feel as possible. And what do you know, it really works: Donoghue's old avant-garde filmmaking days serve him well. By the way, Donoghue is also blogging about the Sundance experience.

old_partner_still.jpgOld Partner
Old Partner is a tough sell based on just a plot description. An elderly family in South Korea learns that the ox they have owned for over 40 years has less than a year to live. Later, the ox dies. Thrilling, eh?

But the South Korean entry in the World Documentary competition is so much more than that. It's an enthralling character study of three main characters, one of whom happens to be an ox (the program director introducing the film said, "I honestly don't know which of the three I love the most.") Grandmother Lee is constantly (and loudly) bemoaning the sorry state of her life (I'd love to get a count of how many times she repeats "Woe is me" in the course of 90 minutes), but it's soon apparent that her's is a good-natured groanfest, and that she's completely devoted to her husband. Grandfather Lee is a man of few enough words as to take on an almost Sphinx-like quality. He's addicted to work, even when it threatens his life (he's in very poor health). And although he's passionately devoted to his ox (and it's a testament to the film that writing that phrase doesn't actually seem at all ridiculous), he is not afraid to overwork him, ignore his sicknesses, or beat on his face with a cane ("He pounds on the ox like that, thinking it's me," Grandmother winks). And the unnamed ox (Unnamed! After 40 years!) really is a compelling character in his own right, above and beyond the parallels he reveals in the lives of the other two main characters.

But the film goes much deeper even than that. It's an exploration of "how we can live with and preserve beauty and virtue," as director Chung-ryoul Lee explained before the screening. And it's also a profound meditation on love and loss, family and the sacrifices that parents make for their children. In Korea it's common for a rural family to sell much of what they own, including sometimes even an ox, to pay for the children's education. In fact, this very event transpired in Lee's own family, and he describes the film as, in part, a tribute to his own parents. It's a telling phenomenon that, as Lee explained, many people have contacted him to tell him that after seeing the film they have called their own parents.

It's not a perfect film. There are a couple of overly obvious metaphors, and at least one lapse into a bit of sentimentality. But Lee does do a great job of pulling the vast majority of the film away from the sentimental ledge. He also does a remarkable job of gently exploring the 40-year long intimacy of the trio without seeming to insert himself into the life of the family.  And some of the shots are gorgeous. Near the end of the film, as we see Grandfather and the ox walk up a hill towards us in ponderous slow motion, it should be heavy-handed, but it's not. It's beautiful.

But praising the technical merits of a film like this seems too small. It's a big-hearted little film, and you leave the theater feeling elevated having seen it.

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