A rudimentary rule of filmmaking is, picture can slightly suffer but never sound. In cinematic art if people cannot hear, i.e. understand, what’s said onscreen then visuals are just pretty pictures. That’s also true about story. Screenwriters rewrite and polish scripts repeatedly, whether adapting from existing written material or flushing-out an original idea. Screenplays are limited to what audiences’ will hear/see: they direct dialogue and expressions, action and movement. Actors swear by first-rate screenplays that make them worth their weight in gold, and that carries over to audience’s reaction to a film. Over-compensating a script’s weakness by foisting technical razzmatazz on viewers isn’t the answer, yet sums-up the sharp distinction between two films shown this year, SWEAT and GULL.
Swedish director-writer Magnus von Horn, who lives/works in Poland, focuses on a “social media influencer” in his second film, SWEAT. A super-fitness trainer, Sylwia’s (Magdalena Kolesnik) life revolves around 600,000 online friends/followers she’s continually chatting at/sending posed videos to, or chiding for not (physically) pushing harder. She fights hard for endorsement contracts, lacks for nothing, and pooch Jackson provides companionship; Sylwia’s mom gets treats as well. Walking Jackson one evening, Sylwia spots someone suspicious (Aleksandra Konieczna) parked in front of her modern building; his close proximity unnerves her. Not enough to simply phone police, she instead gets training colleague Klaudiusz (Julian Swiezewski) to intervene. By overreacting, the consequence is more unsettling than the threat.
Von Horn apparently couldn’t decide what he wanted to say: was it about the character(s) and (so-called) stalker; or, about interfamily relationships; or, social media/self-aggrandizement. His characters are disturbing: Sylwia – self-centered, needy, calculating, lonely; Mom – nervous, standoffish, impenetrable; Klaudiusz – vain, self-serving, unsophisticated; stalker Basia – lonely, gullible, pitiful. The scene with Sylvia and mom during mom’s birthday party is disconcertedly peculiar, defying a reasonable explanation for being there; and, even the social media angle sends an enigmatic mixed message. Although the film’s production values are good, it’s not emotionally engaging on any level, other than to enjoy some entertaining music.
What GULL (Gal-mae-gi) lacks in production values it makes up for with its story. On the day that Obak (Jeong Ae-hwa) meets her eldest daughter In-ae’s future in-laws, the 61-year-old experiences a devastating betrayal. Obok’s decades-old seafood stall has supported, and educated, three daughters and a lazy husband. After the congratulatory dinner, Obok meets fellow vendor friends to celebrate, and talk over the fish market’s fate. Earmarked for redevelopment, Gi-taek heads the project’s committee they all have a stake in. Obok over-celebrates; later she discovers she’s bleeding. Eventually, she abandons pretense as her veneer crumbles and confides in In-ae. They take action. Police interview Gi-taek. But, the “loosening of tongues” at the market causes repercussions. Surprisingly so, as vendors abdicate commitment to friendship and morality, jockeying for better positions in the forthcoming redevelopment deal.
Kim Mi-jo’s impressive debut indie and graduation film, GULL, won the Grand Prize at Korea‘s Jeonju International Film Festival. Kim was invited to participate in Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival’s reputable New Directors competition, where GULL had its international premiere. Kim didn’t shy away from directly, emphatically, and empathetically addressing rape and, how the accuser often becomes the victim. Her script describes the protagonist’s distinctive character, her sacrifices, her grit. Watching female vendors turn on Obok while making excuses for Gi-taek stings; men just sidestepped the issue. Kim conversely illustrates how moral courage can exist in many forms in this #MeToo age.
Classic narratives with simple, sagacious, and often socially relevant themes have a life beyond the cinematic experience by rousing peoples’ perceptions and awareness. SWEAT’s adrenalized start fizzles, sputtering into a hyped-up melodrama, whereas GULL’s earnestly illuminates how reactions to rape in many cases only perpetuates its continuation. So, it’s a no-brainer which story leaves the lasting impression.