Pretty Pictures

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim on the 11th BAMcinemaFest

Lulu Wang, The Farewell, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 98 minutes.

THE BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC’S film programming department remains one of the few institutions that has responded empathetically and responsibly to the heightening conversation around representation within the medium. Their year-round programs have consistently highlighted under-seen female directors, should-be-canon entries from black filmmakers, foreign delights, and more. The annual BAMcinemaFest, now in its eleventh year, is no different in range and spirit, showcasing festival favorites (fresh from Sundance and elsewhere) and ripe-for-discovery underdogs to a New York audience. All screenings (running from June 12 to 23) show just once and feature in-person appearances from filmmakers and performers.

Stories of immigrants and marginalized groups in New York are the standouts in this year’s slate. The festival kicks off with the A24-plucked The Farewell, and though it will open in theaters next month, this special preview screening will be prefaced with an introduction from writer-director Lulu Wang and her star, Awkwafina, who’s becoming a reliable comedic presence in studio films (Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, both from 2018). Awkwafina takes the leading role in this indie family drama as the Bushwick-residing Billi, who returns to China, where she was born, after discovering that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live. The family, protective of Nai Nai’s feelings, doesn’t tell her that she’s sick and uses Billi’s cousin’s wedding as a front for them to spend time with Nai Nai one last time. The story, “based on an actual lie,” never gets too sappy, and Awkwafina proves she can churn out a memorable, chucklesome performance without turning to her usual gags or one-liners. It’s especially poignant to watch as a fellow Asian American immigrant who lives an ocean away from her own family, but the experience shouldn’t be too foreign for even, well, non-foreigners. What sadly still remains foreign are films with all-Asian casts. BAMcinemaFest closes with a like-minded film, Diana Peralta’s De Lo Mio, which also brings its New York heroines back to their country of origin. Two sisters travel together to the Dominican Republic and reunite with their brother to tidy up their deceased grandparents’ home. The film is rich with nostalgic familial moments and laced with nuances of cultural differences. And the screening is an extra-special occasion: This is De Lo Mio’s world premiere.

Jong Ougie Pak, Sunrise/Sunset, 2018, black-and-white, sound, 50 minutes.

An excellent companion piece to The Farewell that has neither the star power of Awkwafina nor the distributor influence of A24 is Sunrise/Sunset (2018), by Jong Ougie Pak, a breezy but bittersweet fifty-minute film about a young Korean man who visits his girlfriend in New York after failing his school entrance exams. The film wears the markings of a low-budget picture from a new director—small cast, few indoor locations—but it’s still quite affecting in its portrayal the in-limbo phase of a young person’s life: in this case, that of Min Suk, whose existence is tethered to Korea (especially his mother) but whose aspirations lie in Manhattan, closer to the other woman in his life. The uncertainty of youth, the black-and-white cinematography of the city, and the use of classical music may call to mind Frances Ha (2012), though the cultural concerns are miles apart. In BAM’s pairing, Sunrise/Sunset is presented as a double feature not with The Farewell but with an equally apt Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window, a mysterious, tragicomic documentary within a documentary about an American man’s anguished attempt to chronicle Art Basel Hong Kong 2016. Although the Siri voice narration gives the film a veneer of robotic remove, the detours in director Andrew Hevia’s documentation turn personal and heartbreaking.

Benjamin Berman, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 91 minutes.

Another meta-documentary worth seeing is The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which starts out as a pretty standard end-of-career tribute to the terminally ill magician-cum-stand-up-comedian, the Amazing Johnathan (John Edward Szeles). But this portrait of the illusionist becomes increasingly difficult to take at face value as director Benjamin Berman succumbs to roadblocks with exclusivity and conspiratorial rabbit holes (it’s better to go into the movie with as little prior knowledge as possible). The doc becomes a little too smug when Berman realizes the obstacles would make for an even better movie, but it proves wildly entertaining nonetheless. The best documentary you’ll see at BAMcinemaFest is Juan Pablo González’s 2018 Caballerango (Spanish for “horse wrangler”). Through interviews with villagers in a rural Mexican town, we experience the heartbreak and resignation that looms over them in day-to-day life. The anecdotes funnel toward the recent suicide of a caballerango, though it soon becomes clear that this tragedy is not an isolated incident.

This year’s lineup doesn’t quite have the Gus Van Sant–level indie-darling equivalent of last year’s, though it does boast some major names: Jeff Goldblum in Rick Alverson’s The Mountain (2018) and Nick Kroll in Jeremy Teicher’s Olympic Dreams. Coincidentally, these two are the weakest of the films I watched, though The Mountain demands an acquired taste that I just may lack (to be fair, the Denis Lavant scenes are wondrously bonkers). Then there’s the movie about celebrity aspirants, Liza Mandelup’s Jawline, a fascinating look at teen Instagram stars that both heartens and harrows. The film focuses on the sixteen-year-old superstar-hopeful Austyn Tester, who wants to record inspirational videos for his mostly teen girl fans and get his ticket out of Tennessee poverty. But the exploitative nature of internet fame, in such a saturated market, becomes the wake-up call to his naive dreams.

Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, So Pretty, 2019, Super 16 and DCP, color, sound, 83 minutes.

A more offbeat tale of adolescence can be found in Graham Swon’s The World Is Full of Secrets (2018), which is as mysterious as its title suggests and among the most beautiful of this year’s selection. It concerns a group of teenage girls who share scary stories during a sleepover, many of which are told in relentlessly long takes that manage to hold a mesmerizing power thanks to the haunting atmosphere. I admittedly fell asleep for a few minutes during one of the stories, but like a Miguel Gomes or Pedro Costa, this kind of cinema is possibly further enriched by a brief drift into dreamland. In that soporific span, it’s as if the film had burrowed itself into my unconscious—perhaps this is why Swon’s film has had the most staying power of the bunch. Another visually sumptuous film, and a must-see, is Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty, a slice-of-life picture about a group of queer friends in Brooklyn that plays off of So Schön, a novel written in the early 1980s by the late Ronald M. Schernikau and published posthumously in 2012. Rovinelli herself stars in the film and captured much of the footage on grainy 16 mm to lend an immediate sense of time capsule-ness. Though the characters go to protests and talk about LGBTQ issues, they do so not to check boxes but because these activities are already integral to their lives. Rovinelli’s sophomore feature is so eloquent about modern New York life, yet there’s not much else out there like it. So Pretty embodies what BAMcinemaFest celebrates, and its inclusion here will hopefully push the film into the larger NYC movie canon.

BAMcinemaFest runs June 12 to June 23 at the Harvey Theater and the Rose Cinema in Brooklyn.