Hot Docs

Hot Docs Review: The Great North Korean Picture Show [James Leong and Lynn Lee, 2013]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment


Baltimore – The aptly titled GNPS is a collection of montages from 2009 when, after months of email exchanges and gentle persuasion, Leong and Lee finally got the permission to shoot inside the Hermit Kingdom, albeit with handlers trailing their every step. From start to finish, this seemingly plain analysis showcases the performances of a group of young film school students in “real” life in order to tease out a version of the North Korean reality, all while without telling you explicitly how the directors themselves perceived. It doesn’t get much more meta-circular than that.

Kim Jong-Il is known for his love of films, even going to the length of kidnapping a South Korean director in order to set up his own version of Hollywood  in the 70s. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the group of aspiring actors and actresses whose job it is to propagate every bit of Kim’s brain droppings. Naturally, you won’t see scenes of hunger-ravaged villagers stripping tree-barks – these upper-middle class of North Korea behave like any middle class in any Western society – except that they recite Kim’isms or burst into patriotic songs whenever they have been on camera for too long. The format of the documentary is simple – whatever the North Koreans didn’t cut, they (likely) showed. They were allowed to follow the daily drudgery of one actress in particular for a few days; they shadowed a director on the set of a film where he struggled to milk emotions from his extras that just wasn’t there; and watched as a short-film about vaccination took form even as the cast performed at the level of 6th-graders.

At the end, one really wonders if the entire ordeal was staged. I will use the screenshot above as Exhibit A: does that look like a closely-knit family to you? It’s supposed to be the scientist father and housewife mom of an actress. Perhaps they felt ill-at-ease being on camera… but every shot of this film portrays the same type of insincerity. The sanitized and vetted version of North Korea looked sparse and dustily ancient, an anachronism that would boil the blood of a Doctor Who fan had he/she spot a blue box in the background. In fact, it had the look of a cheap Doctor Who stage set. Time had officially stopped – even though the film director knew of modern Japan/China/S. Korea and their advances, he refuses to construct modern set and instead film in streets that were carbon-copied from 1930s Shanghai. I’m sure people would point to the power outages as a sign that it’s not all “fake” and, to be fair, there was a healthy dose of blackouts. And the directors themselves don’t opine in the film, as I said. But what I took home is a status update on North Koreans to a group of people who are consciously committed to cheat themselves, fearing that they are ill-adapted and any changes would swept them out to sea. Well, now that the film-loving Dear Leader is replaced by his missle-loving son, perhaps the people in the film would gain clarity? Or will they become rocket scientists? If you have never seen the insides of North Korea (there are many other documentaries, however, about refugees), I recommend this. Just don’t expect it to confirm/reject your perception of the situation.

Hot Docs Review: The Auctioneer [2013, Hans Olson]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


A puzzling look at rural life in Alberta, The Auctioneer follows the unique life of Dale Menzak. A man with multiple hats (literally and figuratively), Dale earns his keep by working as a farmer, undertaker and auctioneer. It is the last job where we spend most of his time, as we follow Dale as he prepares for several auctions of farm equipment from the offspring of farmers who have gone to seek a new life under a more urban landscape. Following a verite documentary style, we see Dale go on his daily life, having various conversations with friends and clients. To be honest, not a whole lot goes on in this film. Hans Olson was pretty content to let the actions speak of itself, never bothering to ask why the subjects were doing what they did. While that might have works for a lot of documentaries, the problem with this one is that there’s just a whole lot going on. Between long (albeit gorgeous) shots of the Albertan sky and landscape, the film just doesn’t string together enough interesting scenes to hold your attention, as a result, the film feels a lot longer then 57 minutes and at the end, you are just left wondering what you just really saw.

The Auctioneer screens
Thu, May 2 7:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Sat, May 4 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Hot Docs Review: Fall and Winter [Matt Anderson, 2013]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | 1 Comment


Baltimore – I’m not a fan of throat-singing. That’s why I don’t like this film.

I’m joking; I love it when humans imitate didgeridoos. But I hate it when cowards imitate visionaries. When someone said “the whole planet will be a desert in 70 years”, that says more about their lack of imagination (and geophysical education) than their foresight. I really don’t recommend this film unless you are already in the choir and love being preached to. Fall and Winter is an alarmist piece that preys on hippies. Starting with a collection of the problems facing modern America, it tries to make some feeble connections so it can invoke personal transformations as a valid solution to these manifold problems.

To paraphrase and expound myself: The film introduces human evolution, agriculture, industrialization, plutocracy (or maybe they wanted to say oligarchy?), war, celebrity culture as evils that led to the visible problems of modern America (read, ONLY America, no where else): poverty, social stratification, pollution, globalization, climate change and natural disasters. The way out, we’re told, is to “re-embrace” nature, abandon our artificial machinations and join the Occupy movement and harbor a DIY attitude, making everything from Mother Earth. Because otherwise, as our Indian brothers foretold, “the white brothers will not be able to rejoin the great spirit and will parish”.

Let’s start with a few easy one-liners: Can Yellow people safely modernize (burn coal, dig for iron, buy oil, all that jazz) since it’s not written in the prophecy? When we move to an “Mother Exoplanet”, should we export and import our spiritual connections with Mother Earth? Is there even enough land for us to make mud-houses and still “hunt and gather”, live off the land as we’re “meant to be”? If you do a quick mental exercise, you’ll find that every person on Earth is currently entitled (because of course everyone is equal) to 5 acres of land. That includes the Arctic and Antartica. If we were to reset the Earth in 5 acres partitions and start living by the land as hunter gatherers did, we may run into two alternative scenarios: A) What the film wants you to believe – everyone will be fine and dandy, and all of our problems will have been vanquished. B) SAME AS WE HAVE TODAY. COMPETITION DUE TO SCARCITY. I’m betting on B). Because while my 5 acres may well be made of gold, with no tools and no trading partners, it’s literally worth less than shit in terms of sustenance. Even if each 5 acres is self-sustained, and if you are lucky, one of your neighbors happened to be a woman who chose you (and not her other 3 neighbors) with whom to procreate for a seemly acceptable total of 2 children, you’ll now be sharing 10 acres among 4.

And now we can think about competition – which, for good reason then, the native Indians are very good at. Living off the land doesn’t mean the end of wars. Keep doing that math and you’ll reach the main problem: everyone involved in the film conveniently forgot about the term “OVER-POPULATION”. Regardless of the content of your solutions – if your claim is that everyone should adopt, you should check your logistics. So, I don’t need to go into an itemized list of the non-sensical conclusions reached in this film such as agriculture is an evil that lead to constant wars and celebrity culture. It’s call history, by the way. Just because one happened before the other doesn’t prove that Genghis Khan caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The inclusion of the Occupy Movement further bares the flaws – precisely what happened to the thoughtless Occupy movement will happen to any of the solutions proposed. It will dissolve because it has forgotten the ground from which is spawn is that of a society, one that provided for the pizza that were sent around to freeloaders. An hierarchy will automatically form in a group of humans unless they are independent of each other – that’s why we’re “SOCIAL” animals. And then all of the problems told in the first half of the film will return to haunt the new paradise. What is infuriating is that the star-speaker of the film, an Indian Chief, is talking about the genuine and tragic destruction of his culture; but he and his people are used as a ruse to support the cause. Why doesn’t the filmmaker mention over-population? Because that would stipulate a solution – and this is a film made for people who will obviously champion freedom of the individual carte blanche, including having 10 children. Without addressing population crisis, the stance taken in the film is equivalent to shouting “Who cares if I add to the burden of the planet? My responsibility to the planet stops at my genitals!”

This is a thoughtless and superficial film that caters to the converted. It promotes a nostalgia of the “old-days” when humans were more in-tune with the natural world and reduces it to rhetorics, without reminding the audience how and why that lifestyle is left behind, and what the consequences of regression will be. Of course, I can’t blame anyone for not condensing human history into 1.5 hrs… though the filmmaker certainly tried. I’ll close with a quote from one interviewee: “I think Mother Earth is gonna scare the shit out of us, and we deserve it”. The whole point of being close to and understand nature, I believe, is that Earth and other celestial bodies will scare the shit out of you regardless of what you do. If you mystify nature as too complex and don’t do something about it, you WILL deserve it. So, when any of these people have committed their own grand-children to a hunter gatherer’s life of traumatic injuries and a lifespan of 40 yrs, fighting smallpox and killing (among) 7 billion other people for food instead of clamoring for welfare to take care of their problems, please call me at my office on Mars.

Hot Docs: The Defector: Escape From North Korea [2013, Ann Shin]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


An intense and gripping affair, The Defector follows a group of North Korean defectors as they try to make the 3000+ kilometer journey to escape out of China on their way to claiming refugee status.

Directed by Ann Shin, we are quickly thrown into a world of safe houses, secret meetings, hidden cameras and a particularly mysterious broker named Dragon. The man is responsible for guiding the defectors to freedom but seems morally ambiguous (he is still, running a business). Dragon’s methods and actual motivations are constantly in question and as such is of great stress for both the crew and defectors. Among the defectors we meet are Sook-Ja and Yong-Heem two North Korean ladies who have already suffered through a lifetime of hardships in both North Korea and China. Yong-Hee was instantly sold to a China businessmen to be his wife when she arrived in China while Sook-Ja has not heard from her sister (who also defected) in seven years.

At 70 minutes, this documentary moves ahead at the pace of an action packed television show. Computer graphics and staged scene shots are used to move the story along so at times, the slickness of it all might seem a bit too stylized at times but doesn’t take anything away from the film. Being an illegal operation, all the people involved had to have their identity hidden but it was done in a tasteful way as not be too much if a distraction throughout the film. As we follow the group from Yanji to Xian to their final destination, the constant threat of detection by Chinese officials looms large with everyone (including the film crew, who probably would have been screwed if they were discover) and that constant threat weighs on everyone and makes the documentary that much more engaging. I would have liked to hear some opinions from Chinese officials on the matter, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

An entertaining, informative and beautifully shot film on human smuggling and the life and dangers that face North Koreans in and out of their country every day. Recommended.