THE THIRD MURDER
It’s hard to fault Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Walking, Like Father Like Son) for not being able to top the opening moments of his new film The Third Murder: a soft piano melody guides us through a brutal murder, first a hammer to the back of the head, followed by some gasoline and a match, the flames absorbing the face of the killer in close-up. What’s so fascinating about this choice is that it demystifies the heart of its own courtroom drama before it even begins—the killer, Misumi (played marvelously by Kôji Yakusho), is unequivocally guilty, we watched it happen. As a result the mystery becomes less about who’s guilty of murder but more about what the actual crime is as defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), hired to represent Misumi, wrestles with legal strategy vs. truth and law vs. justice. (At one point the characters discuss how murder justified by a personal grudge is less offensive to the court than if justified by financial need, as it is less selfish.)
The film has a few well-developed twists and turns to keep up the suspense, it’s especially nice to see that the use of withholding information come a from place of genuine character work, but it’s when the film takes a hard look at parental failure and the systemic faults of the Japanese courts—inherently looking to simplify complex human emotions and actions to expedite the judicial process, and sleep better—that The Third Murder becomes special. There’s a brilliant sequence near the end of the film where the conflicting information (motives, emotions, testimony) and institutional failures become physically manifested in a dreamy flashback of the opening murder scene, where our previous certainty of what we had seen comes into question, and the courts pursuit of “truth” becomes impossible. Unfortunate, however, that the film doesn’t end there and instead goes on for an additional 30 more minutes, retreading a lot of the same territory to an ultimately perfunctory finale.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
“Do you know why this is my favorite tree? Because it’s tipped over and still growing.”
A candy-colored, sun-soaked delight from beginning to end, The Florida Project is a euphoric ode to childhood innocence/imagination and the resilience of the American underclass. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine), gracefully and empathetically observing the ecosystem of the impoverished community on the margins of the Magic Kingdom (simultaneously a symbol of American wealth and wonder), tracks a ragtag group of energetic 6-year-olds, their well-meaning, week-to-week living guardians, and their motel manager played with seemingly infinite kindness and elegance by Willem Dafoe.
The vibrant cinematography by Alexis Zabe echoes the children’s sense of curiosity, discovering pockets of beauty in just about anything—dumpsters, rundown knock-off concessions, abandoned housing projects all radiate adventure and imagination. It’s a lovely visual sentiment that coincides with the film’s more moving later developments of tacit community contracts (see: Dafoe’s sense of protection for his marginalized tenants) and the resourcefulness needed to stay afloat in systems of class-oppression. It’s also worth noting that there will be very few things this year as beautiful and heart-breaking as this film’s coda: a sudden, last-minute burst of unhinged energy the camera struggles to contain as two best friends with nothing to lose bullet their way towards Cinderella Castle. Tipped over and still growing.
Chronicling the last 10 days in the life of the titular Mrs. Fang, a 68-year-old woman slowly being taken by Alzheimer’s in a small fishing village in China, the latest documentary from master filmmaker Wang Bing is a tough but ultimately rewarding experience. A brief prologue introduces Fang Xiuying to us looking relatively healthy—framed in two compositions, one inside and another outside her home, observing the space and the presence of the camera it’s clear that she knows this is where she’s going to die. The rest of the film operates in three opposing modes: in devastating, claustrophobic close-ups of Fang (her skin pulled tight, mouth agape, and eyes glimmering), in carefully composed wide shots of her family in and around the house (having casual conversations, sharing stories and doing their best to ensure she’s comfortable) and then in a few digressions into the every day life of the village community; including fishing, gambling and walking dogs. Perhaps most moving however is Wang’s calm, ephemeral editing, that takes on richness in how it mimics Fang’s own observational eyes.
Wang eventually illustrating that no matter how undignified and horrifying death can truly be (and a few of those extended close-ups are nothing short of horrifying, as you see the person Fang is in her eyes being actively betrayed by her own body), the people and rituals we surround it with can give it meaning. The harrowing climax contrasts the wide shots of the usually talkative Fang family with medium-closes of the back of their heads, silence pervading as they all begin to see the end for Xiuying. The implication is that there’s real power in bearing witness—and by filming this particular event and these people Wang has brought us in on it, immortalizing the lovely Mrs. Fang.