An Icelandic parody of the cop genre, an Iranian drama edited to look like a single take and a Korean film about family dysfunction — here’s what I watched on the Busan International Film Festival screening website this week:
Director: Hannes Thor Halldórsson
A viral tweet from some time ago said something to the effect of, “Every time someone makes something hypermasculine, it automatically becomes gay.” The Art Of Self-Defense (2019) nailed this idea with a single scene, showcasing a bunch of men deriving their sense of masculinity from lethal karate bouts, only to end the session grappling with their opponents in a different way, by getting naked and massaging each other. Icelandic comedy Cop Secret gets this on a fundamental level too, channeling the inherent macho aggression of the cop film into an inoffensively fun, if sometimes overly silly spoof of the genre, featuring two cops who embark on a gay romance. Think of a cop cliche and it’s in the film — a high-speed car chase with a cop who yells, ‘Take the wheel’ as he leans out of the window to shoot, a cop who frequently operates outside the law, a scene in which a cop hands over his gun and badge in resignation. Even the film’s villain inexplicably speaks in American-accented English while everyone else speaks Icelandic, as if to mock Hollywood productions with English-speaking protagonists but stock Russian villains. Despite this, Cop Secret never devolves into a ‘spot the cliche’ exercise thanks to the relative genre novelty of its central romance and intriguing crime subplot.
Bussi — yes, the protagonist of this gay romance is named Bussi. I’ll let that sink in — is Iceland’s toughest cop and the embodiment of the genre’s cliches. His gruff heterosexuality is cast into doubt after he’s assigned to work with Hörđur (Egill Einarsson), a pansexual model-turned-policeman from a neighbouring town. The two initially spar, but eventually succumb to their feelings.
The film presents stylised images of male aggression only to challenge them, like a close-up of the villain shaving with a dagger that zooms out to reveal just how impractical and foolish that would be. It’s also careful to point out how Bussi’s hypermasculinity has only led to repressed emotions and a proclivity to violence. Despite adopting the tone of a parody in some stretches, it wisely steers clear of making his fledgling romance with Hörđur’s the target of its jokes. Directed by Hannes Thor Halldórsson, the goalkeeper for Iceland’s national football squad, Cop Secret is far from groundbreaking, with its corny villain and dodgy CGI working against it. Still, its resulting blend of original and borrowed ideas is so sincere, even the cheesier moments will elicit a smile.
The Absent Director
Director: Arvand Dashtaray
A Tehran theatre group assembles for a rehearsal of Macbeth, only for it to wrap up with a chilling interpretation of the adage: The show must go on. Director and Iranian theatre professional Arvand Dashtaray assembles the film as a single continuous shot, replicating the staging of live theatre, in which actors who aren’t afforded the luxury of retakes must deliver a seamless performance.
When the group arrives at their director’s home, they’re already racing against the clock to shoot and upload a single scene worthy of helping them qualify for an arts festival. This tight timeline establishes a layer of tension that Dashtaray builds on steadily, adding to the fraying performers’ internal and external pressures over 85 minutes. The cost of committing to art in a country that looks unfavourably on it weighs heavily on them, with a fickle-minded director, allegations of infidelity and marital discord further compounding their stress. The drama unfolds organically, never feeling manufactured even when the lines between the person and production blur. The director’s wife, Marene (Marene van Holk), playing Lady Macbeth, absorbs some of her character’s paranoia as she panics that the rest of the cast are plotting against her. This dynamic is rooted in her real fears that she, a Dutch woman, is ultimately an outsider among the rest of the native Iranian cast.
The film’s continuous shot is a smart complement to the fragmented nature of its storytelling, which transitions smoothly between the past and present to fill the gaps in the narrative. The house’s spacious interiors offer the camera enough space to weave and track the characters and their private crises. At one point, it swirls around the table they’re seated at as each discusses their mounting frustration with the production, mirroring how the conversation keeps going around in circles. A large unanswered question at the centre of the film’s plot makes the experience slightly unsatisfying by the end, but it’s only because The Absent Director immerses us into the artifice so skilfully, it’s hard to imagine what happens after the cameras stop rolling.
The Apartment With Two Women
Director: Kim Se-in
Early on in The Apartment With Two Women, a friend tells the middle-aged protagonist Yoon Su-Kyung (Yang Mal-bok)) that she’s “ageing backwards”. The film gradually unravels how a lifetime of cruelty has made this compliment possible — Su-Kyung’s youthful looks have come at the cost of her daughter, Kim Yi-Jung (Lim Ji-ho), having to grow up before her time. In a role reversal, the daughter endures the drudgery of a sales job, does the chores at home and has even taken to covert smoking as a coping mechanism while the mother goes out to dinner with friends, relaxes at the local pool and has enough time left over to take up the flute. The mother’s hair, dyed a volcanic red, is designed to draw attention. The daughter’s hair, cut into thick bangs, is designed as a curtain she spends most of the film cowering behind. The Apartment With Two Women employs long stretches of silence to let the resentment and animosity simmering beneath this uneven partnership sink in, only to shatter it with a series of furious screaming matches. At one point, the clacking of the mother’s approaching heels becomes the soundtrack to the daughter’s fear. Even the title points to their estrangement. It’s not The Apartment With A Mother And Daughter. They may as well be strangers. Only strangers might hate each other less.
Director Kim Se-in’s debut is a bleak look at how cycles of abuse and neglect can perpetuate unchecked. Su-Kyung’s selfishness eventually drives away anyone who might care for her. Yi-Jung’s craving for a mother’s love manifests as a clinginess that suffocates anyone who might befriend her. Over 140 minutes, their words cut and the wounds fester. Frequently heartbreaking, this well-observed portrait of dysfunction chronicles how families build each other up and cruelly tear each other down in the way only families can. A turning point in the film comes when Su-Kyung attempts to run her daughter over with her car and pass it off as an accident. By then, anyone who’s been paying attention knows that their relationship was a flaming wreck long before that.