Documentary follows Danish-Thai couples in arranged marriages

On the surface, the Danish documentary “Heartbound” sounds like something of a lark: There are 926 Thai women who live in the small Danish fishing community of Thy. Twenty-five years ago, there were no Thai women, except for Sommai, a former sex worker from the Thai resort city of Pattaya.

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As it turns out, Sommai, who has developed a loving relationship with husband Niels, has been helping lonely Danish men find companions in Thailand, and she has become like a mother to many of the villagers.

“Heartbound” follows the ins and outs of several of these couples over 10 years – a substantial commitment of time for the subjects as well as for the filmmakers, Janus Metz and his anthropologist wife, Sine Plambech. And “Heartbound” is far from being a lark. There’s companionship, but there’s also plenty of heartbreak.

The film begins with the journey of Kae, Sommai’s niece, who is coming to Denmark to see whether a suitor named Kjeld will be a good companion. She needs to support a son back home. And she is expected to move into Kjeld’s house, after only a peremptory meeting, and she’s expected to have sex with him if she wants a proposal of marriage. That’s just the way it is. But many of these Thai women are coming from impoverished circumstances, broken marriages, with children to support and the prospect of having nowhere else to turn, unless they opt to become one of many prostitutes in Pattaya.

So the anthropological and societal questions are serious, as is the possibility of exploitation.

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One of the women from Sommai’s village, in fact, turns out to be too young to qualify for residency in Denmark through marriage, so she accompanies her friend Lom to Pattaya to work in the sex bars in an attempt to support her child. (Thai fathers rarely enter into this picture.)

Another couple, John and Mong, seem to be thriving in Denmark, and they have a garden full of angels and Buddha statues. Another couple, Frank and Basit, are getting a divorce. And as the film spans the years, Sommai begins to feel homesick for Thailand.

Despite stories of success, “Heartbound” is heartbreaking in many ways. Relatives die. Family ties are irrevocably broken. Young women end up selling themselves. And those who enter loving relationships with men in Denmark still long for those they left behind.

The directors say that they believe their film is “about longing and survival – physically and spiritually.” But it’s also clear that these Thai women have sacrificed much of their lives in the hopes that they might save the future for their children.

The big trouble comes when the women realize they have succeeded — that they’ve managed to raise their children and educate them and prepare them for a productive life. Then what? Stay in an arranged marriage? Stay in Denmark? For some, the answer is yes. For others, the answer is a big fat no.

“Heartbound” premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s an acquisition title, which is festival lingo for: It’s looking for a distributor.

Tensions simmer in this Slovenian tale of rebellious youths

Violence lurks in nearly every scene of Slovenia director Darko Stante’s “Consequences,” which is having its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And you’ll be waiting for a big explosion, almost from the beginning.

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The tension comes from Andrej (a magnetic Matej Zemljic) as he tries to navigate his new life at a Slovenian detention center, where he has been sent by his relatively well-to-do parents and less-than-well-meaning Slovenian authorities after numerous rebellious outbursts.

Once there, he meets the center’s top bully, Zele (Timon Sturbej), who extorts money and threatens to beat up anyone who doesn’t do what he says. It’s a familiar setup, with schoolyard taunts and lunchroom thefts.

At first, Andrej tries to stay out of trouble, despite Zele’s constant tauntings. But then the two seem to realize they have something in common. Both are closet homosexuals, although it’s rather clear that Zele, who masquerades as a heterosexual stud, sees his sexuality as a weapon to use against Andrej.

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All of this plays out under the nose of the center’s adults, who are incompetent at best and impotent at worst. Zele has full run of the center, and he leads a band of hoodlums who terrorize the townsfolk on weekends.

The cinematography, the blocking of scenes, the score and the set designs are first-rate. And so is the acting. But there’s something missing, especially in the one-note portrayal of Andrej’s frustrated mom, who gives her son a distorted sense of what love might be.

This is Stante’s feature film debut, and it’s notable. While “Consequences” rehashes themes from such forerunners as “Rebel Without a Cause” and Larry Clark’s “Kids,” it has a distinct vibe, mainly because of its cultural Eastern European context.

“Consequences” was an acquisition title at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Uncork’d.

Quirky, delightful Icelandic film mixes music, ecoterrorism and adoption

Part of the joy of attending international film festivals is discovering foreign language gems like Icelandic director’s Benedikt Erlingsson’s quirky drama “Woman at War.”

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At the center of this odd tale of someone “who persisted” is Halla, a 50-something choir director in Iceland who seems upbeat and nonthreatening as she prepares adults for recitals and concerts. But still waters run deep with Halla, who is played perfectly by Halldora Geirhasdottir.

Halla is an environmental activist who is determined to wage war on Iceland’s aluminum industry, which she fears will ruin the Highlands, which cover most of Iceland’s interior.

Halla is decidedly low-tech in her war, stalking the power lines near the aluminum plant with a bow and arrow, causing shortages and such that disrupt the flow of electricity. But she starts stepping up her game as she gets more and more publicity as “The Woman of the Mountains,” an ecoterrorist.

That’s stretching the meaning of the word terrorist, because Halla is not directly attacking any person, but Iceland’s government is nevertheless alarmed that their nation will be regarded as hostile to industry.

Halla’s character is further softened by a long-delayed application to adopt a child in Ukraine. Just before one of her biggest attacks, she is notified that her application has been approved and that a young girl is waiting for her.

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Despite such dramatics, “Woman at War” is surprisingly amusing and light-hearted. We get the mood quickly, because as Halla stalks across the pristine Highlands, a three-piece band follows her every move and provides the film’s soundtrack. She occasionally looks at it, as if wondering how a piano ended up on the Highlands, but otherwise doesn’t pay the band much attention.

In an interview provided to the media at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie screened Friday, Erlingsson addresses the use of this band, saying: “The music was there from the original first vision that led me to the movie. … I saw a woman running down an empty street. … Once I got a closer look at her, I could also see there was a three-piece band playing right behind her. Playing just for her and not at all for me. I listened closer until I could hear what the band was playing, and it was the soundtrack to the woman’s life.”

With the plot twist of the Ukrainian adoption, Erlingsson shakes up the soundtrack by introducing three Ukrainian women, in traditional garb, who become a choir for Halla on her quest for a child.

“Woman at War” is scheduled for a theatrical release early next year, with Magnolia Pictures handling distribution.

It’s delightful.

Real-life couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem star in Iranian director’s first Spanish-language film

“Everybody Knows,” which screened Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival, starts out with a big family wedding in a town outside Madrid – and it attracts the return of one of the family’s favorite members, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and her two children.

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Laura lives in Buenos Aires with her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin), and her return to Spain is joyous for nearly everyone except Bea (Barbara Lennie), who is married to Laura’s childhood love, Paco (Javier Bardem). Bea tries to tell herself that the Laura/Paco romance is over, but she wonders.

And then a tragedy befalls the wedding, with a kidnapping of a child. And when Paco becomes heavily involved in trying to raise the ransom for the missing child, Bea becomes increasingly worried.

But the center of the movie doesn’t belong to Bea. It’s the story of Laura – of her long-ago relationship with Paco, of her new husband Alejandro, and of her loving relationships with her two children.

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As usual, Cruz commands every scene, and writer/director Ashgar Farhadi clearly knows how lucky he is to have her star in one of his movies. His previous movies have been set in his native Iran (“The Salesman,” “A Separation”), and they’ve explored a specific culture, while rising above those specificities to be universal. As Farhadi’s first Spanish-language feature, “Everybody Knows” shows that he can excel in multiple genres.

The opening scenes in the bell tower of the town’s Catholic church are fantastic. And a love tryst in that same tower is charming – but at the same time ominous, in a Hitchcockian kind of way.

It’s hard to discuss the plot of “Everybody Knows” any further without getting into major spoilers. Let’s just say that big surprises lurk in what you think is going to be a crime drama.

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But that’s the way Farhadi works as a writer. He leads you down a comfortable path – and then lowers the boom.

Farhadi hasn’t made a breakthrough movie for U.S. audiences. “A Separation” won the 2012 Oscar for best foreign language film, but its total box office take worldwide was only $7 million – not bad, but not a great total for an Oscar winner.

“Everybody Knows” has more box-office potential, in part because it’s in Spanish, and in part because it has two bankable stars – Cruz and Bardem.

It should do well on the arthouse circuit. Focus Features has acquired the distribution rights in the United States, and it will probably release it in New York before the end of the year, to qualify for awards season. An Austin release date hasn’t been set but will probably be in early 2019.

At times over the top, ‘Loro’ satirizes Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi

Originally released in Italy as two movies, “Loro” from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, made its international debut Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival as one. It’s long, clocking in at well over two hours, but it’s a doozy.

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Sorrentino has become the great Italian director over the past decade, with two brilliant films, “Il Divo” and “The Great Beauty.” Like those, “Loro” has lots and lots of magnificently staged scenes, set to throbbing techno music and populated with gorgeous young women dancing suggestively — and sometimes topless. There’s so much toplessness in “Loro,” in fact, that some will be offended. But it serves a purpose, since this is a satire of the life of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in some ways bears a resemblance to President Donald Trump.

As portrayed by Toni Servillo in “Loro,” Berlusconi is fundamentally insecure, but he has obtained great wealth because he knows how to sell his various schemes, whether it’s general investments or real estate projects. He also operates a media empire, in which he plays a hands-on role in picking models to be game show co-hosts. And because he loves wielding power, he attracts the attention of numerous schemers eager to be in his corrupt orbit.

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One such schemer in “Loro” is Sergio Mora (Riccardo Scamarcio), who rents an estate across the bay from Berlusconi’s estate and hosts a never-ending outdoor party with dozens and dozens of models dancing and posing and trying to gain Berlusconi’s attention. The aim is to have the young women seduce the aging Berlusconi, with Mora hoping that he’ll be repaid by an appointment to the European Parliament.

The parties are amazing. They’re also amazingly sexist. But that’s part of the point. You can’t do a biographical film about Berlusconi without having sexism and objectification playing key roles. That’s a big reason why Berlusconi’s TV stations are so successful.

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Mora has a good shot at getting to Berlusconi, in part, because he has befriended the high-class call girl Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who helps him round up models and promises access to Berlusconi, since she and Berlusconi have an intimate relationship.

And if you haven’t ever seen Smutniak in a movie, prepare to be amazed.

But the top female role goes to Berlusconi’s long-suffering wife, Veronica Lario (Elena Sofia Ricci). When she and Berlusconi go toe-to-toe in a truth-telling battle royale, there’s a bit of Katharine Hepburn bravura on display.

Servillo, of course, can hold his own in any dramatic face-off, and he has become one of Italy’s top stars because of his chameleon-like performances in Sorrentino’s movies.

Sorrentino is a flamboyant auteur, and his films are not for everyone. Still, his scenes are impeccably choreographed, with such style and pizazz that it makes many American movies look downright boring.

It’ll be interesting to see how “Loro” fares on the arthouse circuit in the United States. It touches on timely political themes, but it’s over the top in some ways. Then again, how would you make a movie about Berlusconi without pushing boundaries?

The touching ‘Shoplifters’ is sure to get Oscar buzz – and you can see it at the Austin Film Festival

A Japanese family struggles to survive through petty crimes and other means in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new feature, “Shoplifters.”

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It premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival and seems like a surefire Oscar nominee for best foreign language feature. It’s making the rounds of fall festivals like Toronto after winning the top prize in Cannes, the Palme d’Or.

The film centers on Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Jyo (Sibita Shata), who spend their days going through elaborate routines to shoplift their family’s various needs, whether it’s food, clothes or toiletries. The family is complex, with a wily grandmother, a larcenous woman who appears to be the mother of the group and an older daughter who brings in income by performing sexually suggestive acts at a peep show.

Despite the apparent immorality of the family’s finances, the motley crew act lovingly toward one another. The bond between Osamu and Jyo seems especially strong, as they navigate the complexities of a big city to keep their little hovel humming.

Things begin to change, however, when Osamu and his son are headed home one evening after a day of work and notice a small girl who is crying and has been left alone in freezing weather. Osamu can’t leave the girl behind, so he takes her home to the family, and, after some debate, his wife decides that the family should keep the kid. They eventually discover the identity of the parents, but they also discover that those parents don’t really want the child.

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And that’s the most important part of this story. Everyone in this makeshift larcenous family is a throwaway person, and they have come together to save each other. To spell it out any more would ruin the revelations that come later, when the actions of the son bring the family’s complex history to light.

Let’s just say that “Shoplifters” is one of the most humane and touching films of the year. And if you’re not familiar with Kore-eda’s work, you might want to check out “Nobody Knows,” which explores similar themes, before seeing his latest.

Magnolia Pictures is distributing “Shoplifters” in the United States, and it’s expected to be in New York and Los Angeles theaters by the end of the year. It will also be part of the lineup at the Austin Film Festival, which begins Oct. 25.

This film explores sexuality in a different way; is it art or exploitation?

More than a few people were surprised when “Touch Me Not” took home the Golden Bear, the top prize at 2018’s Berlinale.
The sexually explicit film from Adina Pintilie was in the festival’s competition with Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” Jose Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe” and David and Nathan Zellner’s “Damsel.”

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But describing “Touch Me Not,” which also screened Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival, as merely sexually explicit is to ignore what Pintilie is trying to do. She’s exploring varieties of sexual experience, from the perspective of trans people, the physically disabled and the psychically disabled, among others.

The map for this exploration comes directly from the Romanian director, whose face appears onscreen, as she interacts with the film’s protagonist, Laura Benson. It turns out that Laura is deeply alienated from her body – and from the bodies of everyone else. She does not want to be touched, and her intimacy issues are extreme. Even the thought of intimacy can produce primal screams.

All of this mixes a documentary style of filmmaking with what is obviously partly fictional. But the lines are intentionally blurred at times. It feels as though the director is trying to make some kind of breakthrough – or an artistic statement about the ultimate beauty and variety of the human body. But that’s a rather ambitious goal for anyone, much less for a filmmaker whose image hovers over the proceedings, with a somewhat godlike presence.

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We get a sense of such dynamics in the opening scene, where a steely Laura pays a male prostitute to come to her room. No touching is allowed.

Pintilie tries to get Laura to be a bit more participatory by introducing her to a therapy regimen that includes sexually adventurous characters.

The real-life characters include Hanna Hofmann, who’s in her 50s and spent most of her life as a married man. In the last decade, she has transitioned and is a real estate agent as well as a professional escort. She and Laura do not become physically intimate, but Hanna tries to show Laura how she enjoys her body – and how her sex work helps her explore identity.

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Laura also meets Christian Bayerlein, a disabled man with spinal muscular atrophy who’s also a political activist and who enjoys a robust sex life; Tomas Lemarquis, a hairless actor who has alopecia universalis; and Seani Love, a male escort who specializes in breaking down sexual boundaries – a rather frightening prospect for Laura.

“Touch Me Not” will not be a crowd-pleaser – and it’s not at all certain that it will draw much of a crowd at all. It’s challenging, and it’s unclear whether Pintilie’s experiment in sexual exploration is even artistically successful, despite its embrace by jurors in Berlin.
There’s an odd disconnect with some of the characters, in part because each one seems far more complicated than a few minutes of screen time can illuminate. Such superficiality can lead to charges of exploitation. But Pintilie seems genuinely interested in her subjects, despite the inherent prurient subject matter.

Kino Lorber will be distributing the movie in the United States, and it’s expected to be released in New York and Los Angeles on Jan. 11.