Exhibition (2013)

Liam Gillick in Exhibition directed by Joanna Hogg

Writer/Director:  Joanna Hogg

Stars: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston

Joanna Hogg’s third film deals in gracious architectural spaces and the upper middle class creatures who fill them.  Elegant, mannered, a study in static frames and noises off, Exhibition jettisons plot in favor of vignette, presenting a series of scenes from a marriage that’s neither ideal nor enviable, but, by the end of the movie, has come to make a kind of twisted sense.

Artist D (Viv Albertine) and architect H (Liam Gillick) spend their days creating at their respective desks, occupying separate floors of their London townhouse.  They communicate in a rather stilted manner via intercom, implying their relationship has become stiff through overuse.  The third party in this marriage is not a child, or a lover, but the house itself, which appears to have grown between them like a tree root, forcing them apart over time.

D certainly seems to have a more intimate relationship with the house than she does with H.  She drapes herself around its curves, on a windowsill, a corner wall, a rock in the garden.  She seeks approbation and satisfaction in its reflective surfaces.  She dons fancy knickers and performs crude burlesque in one of its empty rooms.  The house gives her what H will not: tranquil approval of everything she does and is.  So she orients herself towards it, usually presenting us (and H) with the back of her head, or the shrug of her shoulders.  Only the house is permitted to gaze upon her face.

D and H have decided to sell the house, after 18 years of co-habitation, so D’s interactions with the furniture and windows have a nostalgic quality from the get-go.  She must indulge her guilty pleasures while she still can.  Consequently, she pushes H, so much less arch and fascinating than the house, away.  He attempts to maintain their connection, but the house has intruded on his side of the relationship too.  He sees D more clearly in reflections than he does in reality, and can only say “I love you” via the intercom, when he’s insulated from her reaction by the wood paneled walls.  Is he reaching out to D, or the echo of who she once was to him?

A brief moment of passion fizzles as D flops on the bed like the proverbial dead fish, unable to ignite even the energy it would take to wriggle out of her clothes.  When he asks, “Can’t I play first?” she denies him via complete inertia, wanting him to stick it in and be done.  H flails above her, frustrated, completely unable to penetrate the barriers she has erected around her secret self, the one she shares only when alone with the house – with whom, of course, as we’ve already seen, she is only too happy to play.

Viv Albertine in Exhibition directed by Joanna Hogg

D and H discuss the previous occupants, the architects who designed and built this suave structure, and lived there into their 80s, when the spiral staircase became too much to navigate.  They ponder the possibility of the house absorbing this couple’s lifelong love into its edifice, and, by implication their own. Although they’ve decided to move on, they feel it’s important to preserve the house as it is, a monument to love and regret. They ask the realtor (Hogg’s muse, Tom Hiddleston) if they can insert a “No Demolition” clause into their terms of sale.  He smirks denial at them.  Once they quit possession, that’s it.

Hogg’s eye for negative space is fully utilized here, both in terms of the stylized photography and in the force that drives the narrative.  Exhibition’s truths are more easily located in cavities rather than content – often in a punning manner, as when H gets into a fight with a builder who has impinged upon his parking space, or when another contractor discusses the width of the gap between the elevator car and the shaft.  D and H have identified themselves with a restrictive structure for too long.  It’s only on occasions when they break free, out onto the streets of London, that they are able to access emotional honesty, as when D, alarmed by the wailing of emergency sirens, runs outside in her underwear to check that no accident has befallen H, showing more concern for his well-being in that moment than in any of the scenes inside the house thus far.

The house in Exhibition is not just an enviable address but an all-encompassing lifestyle. As young artists, D and H required a frame, and they found one they thought was perfect within the clean modern lines of the house.  But, over the 18 years they’ve lived there, the frame has become a constraint.  The house contains and confines them in ways that go beyond walls.  For the sake of their love, their careers, their sanity, they must move on.  By the time they’re slicing into a replica house cake at a party to celebrate the sale, symbolically destroying their des res, it’s hard not be glad they’re making their escape to a more creative and fulfilling future.

Held together by two mesmerizing central performances from Albertine (former Slits guitarist) and conceptual artist Gillick, Exhibition is an inventive study of the way structure affects content.  We are where we sleep.  Outwardly precise and mannered, inwardly quite chilling, there are also some darker lessons in here about covetousness, about contemporary obsessions with property values, and a warning that if you gaze long enough into architectural interstices, they will gaze also into you.

Exhibition will screen as part of AFI Fest 2013 on Monday, November 11 @ 7:30 p.m., at Chinese 3 and on Wednesday, November 13 @ 4:15 p.m., at Chinese 2

Our Sunhi

Our SunhiWriter/Director:  Hong Sang-soo

Stars: Jeong Jae-yeong , Jeong Yu-mi , Kim Sang-Joong

Our Sunhi won the Silver Leopard award for its director, Hong Sang-soo, at the 66th Locarno International Film Festival. It’s a refined chamber piece, shot digitally, and focused on static dialogue scenes that play out in a single take – it’s about as far from a commercial Hollywood movie as it’s possible to get.  Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing narrative, following a young film student and three men who all believe they know her better than she does herself, and therefore have some kind of claim over her affections.

In Hong’s world, characters cross paths, communicate, depart, and move on to the next coffee or beer klatch without once making the connections they think they have.  Alcohol lubricates and befuddles these encounters (empty bottles pile up in the background of almost every scene, part extenuating circumstance, part leitmotif).  The men look back fondly on their conversations with Sunhi, and discuss her behind her back as though she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a captivating yet eccentric female who exists purely to salve their ills.  Yet Sunhi is more than that, a troubled individual seeking her own path, yearning to express sexual desire, and frustrated by the men’s insistence on shaping her persona to suit their needs.  Tellingly, she disappears long before the movie’s end, amidst the riotous autumnal hues of Seoul’s Changgyeonggung Palace.  The men fail to notice her absence, although she continues to be the focal point of their discussion.

Our Sunhi

Sunhi (Jeong Yu-mi) herself is emblematic of Generation Y clichés, twisted by indecision and ennui, incapable of solid achievement but convinced of her innate talent and superiority.  After a mysterious absence, she returns to her film school to ask for a letter of recommendation from her former professor,  Choi (Kim Sang-Joong).  She believes studying in the USA will somehow ignite her previously dormant passion for filmmaking.  He scoffs at the idea, and tells her she should embrace creativity and make films now, “while there’s still time”. He agrees to write a letter, but cautions that it will be ‘honest’.

From the first, then, Sunhi is subject to the whims of men who want to tell her what to do.  Stung by the encounter with Choi, she seeks solace in beer, and runs into her ex, Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun).  He, apparently, has had some success with a movie he made about the failure of their relationship, and she feels betrayed.  Munsu, nonetheless, is still in love with her, and waxes lyrical about the reunion to his friend, another movie director, Jaehak (Jeong Jae-yeong).  Choi is also friends with Jaehak, and also inclined to praise Sunhi’s feminine mystique – she has been flirting with him in order to persuade him to change the somewhat harsh terms of his reference letter.  When Jaehak finally meets Sunhi, he too falls for her charms – who wouldn’t, having heard such glowing recommendations?

Tonally, Our Sunhi combines elements of classic farce (eventually, all Sunhi’s suitors collide) with some wry observations on human nature and some poignant emotional punches, such as when Sunhi tenderly caresses Jaehak’s face in a bar, only to have the moment destroyed by a food delivery.  The long takes demand powerhouse performances, and Hong gets gold from some of his regular collaborators, especially Jeong Yu-Mi.  She’s more than able to anchor us in Sunhi’s perspective of the ridiculousness going on around her, twitching melodrama into comedy with a simple furrow of her brow.

Our Sunhi’s gentle pace and quietly building absurdity may not be to everyone’s taste.  It’s the kind of film that rewards those who stick with it, beginning in banality but ending in powerful insights and a decidedly comic final payoff.  Fans of Hong’s other work – he’s a prolific director with more than a dozen credits – will, as always, enjoy the wry observational nature of this piece, which may also provide an engaging entry point for neophytes.

Our Sunhi will screen as part of AFI Fest 2013 on Saturday, November 9 @ 6:30 p.m. in Chinese 3 and on Tuesday, November 12 @ 7:45 p.m. in Chinese 5.