On paper and on stage, the 2020 SBIFF may, by many accounts, be remembered as the year of Brad Pitt, the seemingly down-to-earth mega star and gift to cinema whose tribute night at the Arlington impress a full house, in various ways. There was the man, the celebrity myth, and the legend, who has spent time being a local and seemed to be speaking to all of us when he closed the evening with the mantra/shout out, “Santa Barbara rules!”
But from another, we could also say this was the year of Bong. Bong Joon-ho, that is, the artistically and commercially brilliant South Korean director whose film Parasite has already made history as a smash in both the multiplex and arthouse, has won favor as Cannes Palme d’Or winner, and is now an Oscar contender in the Best Film category — the big kahuna, not the Foreign Film category.
And now Bong can add to his mantle a shiny statue from the Santa Barbara SBIFF, recipient of this year’s Outstanding Director award. After accepting the award last night, from Parasite actor Lee Jung-eun (in the critical “original housekeeper” role), Bong kindly bounced back some of the celebrity spotlight on the festival, and on us. “I never expected that this film would get so much attention and be embraced at Cannes and in Santa Barbara,” the director said. “It has all been very surprising. I never imagined I would be standing in this beautiful theater accepting this award.”
In a wise and generous gesture, SBIFF took this opportunity to expand yesterday’s program into a veritable Bong Fest. Parasite was screened in a free screening at the Lobero (which has, thankfully, had daily free screenings), and a mini-retrospective of Bong’s earlier work was folded into Thursday’s schedule. My own Bong Day activities started at 8 a.m. “breakfast club” screening of his juicy 2003 crime film Memories of Murder, a grisly but also funny and genre-goosing variation of the crime film scene.
Next up came the arty monster-mash-up of 2006’s The Host, a massively popular movie in Korea and a breakout would-be blockbuster film. But it was his 2009 film Mother — which had its U.S. premiere at SBIFF, incidentally — that established Bong’s importance as a director of distinctive vision. Necessarily less humor-lined than his other work, Mother tells a tragic tale, with Bong’s particular cine-storytelling brio. As with Parasite, the last 15 minutes of the film bring on elements of surprise, meaning, and emotional depth.
At the Arlington, through a meticulous translator, Bong cut an engaging and unpretentious figure in an interview with Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. The director expressed mock surprise at the audacious supermarket-trashing scene with the super pig “hero” from his previous film, 2017’s Okja. “What a strange movie,” Bong exclaimed, with a sly grin. “Why did someone shoot that movie?”
His future looks suitably and deservedly bright, with a six-hour limited television series extension of Parasite and two other smaller scripts in development. “But I have to get through this awards season before I can continue writing,” he said.
Pulling back to an overview on his current, suddenly starry fate, Bong offered that, “Ever since I got here to Santa Barbara, I’ve been thinking about whether I am actually outstanding,” mentioning the stellar career of one of his heroes, Martin Scorsese, who is a quarter century older than the Korean director. (Earlier, Bong pointed out that both he and Scorsese are great fans of the 1960 Korean film The Housekeeper, cited as an influence on Parasite). “I will try my best to be a truly outstanding director in the next 25 years to come.”
RUSSIANS, INCOMING: One of the virtues of a festival like SBIFF, committed to the sweep of international film more than what’s coming out of America (despite the eye candy of movie star nights), is the chance to see work from countries that may be ostracized via strained relations, politically. Iran has played a starring role in SBIFF over the decades, and this year’s program features a “Russian Arc” sidebar, affording us a window into the film art and awareness and attitudes “on the ground” in Russia. Never mind Putin or social media meddling for the moment.
Two powerful films take us into the sad legacies of wars in and around Russia in recent history. Dito Tsintsadze’s Shindisi deals with the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, and a fierce battle in the town named in the film’s title but tells its tale on a very personalized level. The addition of actual video footage found on a dead soldier, just hours before the attack, adds extra grit and veracity to the film. Dipping back to the infamous and protracted Russian invasion of Afghanistan — often referred to as the USSR’s Vietnam — director Pavel Lungin’s Leaving Afghanistan effectively airlifts us into the arid, rugged mountainous terrain of the conflict, and the late-breaking turbulence surrounding the act of ending and “leaving” the war.
Other notable foreign films continue to roll into the schedule. Last night, the Polish Oscar contender Corpus Christi dazzled, with its emotionally complex tale of a prisoner turned ersatz priest in a small village. Our hero’s alternating currents of capacity for violence and all the compassionate and community-bonding qualities fitting for priesthood seizes the heart of the film, and our complicated attentions. The Serbian film Stitches, directed by Miroslav Terzic, is an almost stealthily poetic and quiet, mesmerizing film, following the dogged search of a mother for her son lost (or sold) at birth.
FRINGE FACTORING: Any festival worth its salt should be held up to the light of parody and “fringe festival” actions, which has happened to SBIFF in some modest way with the new organization called the San Pesci Legends International Film Festival (aka SPLIFF: bring your own weed). On a recent evening, a group of guerilla theater types created a comical flash mob-y intervention scene outside the Metro multiplex/SBIFF central.
Merry pranksterism was the goal, with mock-stars with attitudes, mock-paparazzi, slobbering and/or bored fans, and mostly mock-films in the mix, although there are actual short films being presented at a SPLIFF event tonight, Friday at SCBAST (513 Garden Street), an evening called “an interactive theatrical film festival satire.” SBIFFsters like us are too entrenched in the main event to drift over, but the idea of is enticing to our irreverence-seeking senses.