Tribeca Film Festival: Episode two

Journals Of Musan, Puncture, Detective Dee, plus a trip to the reRun to see Pioneer and St Nick

by Amber Wilkinson

Some people say the art of storytelling is dead but my second day at Tribeca brought good news who like their narratives to have a beginning a middle and an end - I saw films with softly spoken stories through to epic excess and visual flamboyance, but all with fascinating tales to tell.

In the quiet but stealthily gripping corner is Park Jungbum's debut The Journals Of Musan. Jungbum directs, writes and stars in the central role as Jeon Seung-chul - a North Korean defector who, following time in a resettlement camp, finds himself like a fish out of water on the streets of the South. Honest to a fault - and to the point where it begins to strain credibility - he struggles to forge either bonds of work or friendship, marked out in the former by a national insurance number which reveals he is a defector and lacking the shared popular culture to make a good fist of the latter. His loneliness in a crowd is stark and ameliorated only by a stray puppy, which shows him unconditional love.

This is a slow-burn of a film, initially feeling on the dull side, but as the runtime lengthens, our bond with Seung-chul grows, just as Seung-chul finds himself increasingly attached to the pup. While some might be tempted not to stick with the inaction after the first 20 minutes, by the time the emotionally heightened, surprising and morally searching denoument arrives, wild horses wouldn't drag you from the cinema seat as you long for this silent softie to find even one genuine friend.

Equally surprising - and in many respects, no less moving - is American indie drama Puncture. It's fair to say that American indies at Tribeca, with some notable exceptions, have a habit of feeling like 'also rans', with the cream of the crop being scooped off by Sundance and SXSW. Puncture, however, bucks that trend and, along with an absorbing narrative, also features a blistering performance by Chris Evans (Fantastic Four's Johnny Storm) that should - if there is any justice in the film world - see him pick up a lot more serious dramatic roles as a result.

Evans plays Mike Weiss, one half of a law firm partnership with his long-time buddy Paul Danzinger (Mark Kassen, who also co-directs with his brother Adam). Though friends to the end, the pair are polar opposites in terms of personality, with Paul a rooted, steady-as-you-go family man, while Mike has a devil-may-care flair and attitude which also extends to drug use of almost every shade - although, interestingly for the movie world, he is a functioning addict.

Most of their lives are spent in the realm of straightforward personal injury claims until they take on the case of an ER nurse who caught HIV after being stuck with a soiled needle at work. What starts off as an ordinary claim, quickly becomes mired in a much bigger - and more dangerous - world, as the pair uncover corporate conspiracy between pharmaceutical giants which is putting money before lives.

Although having all the ingredients of a court room drama, what really makes Puncture work is the Kassen brothers' emphasis on character rather than the ins and outs of procedure. The interplay between Mike and his own addictions is every bit as absorbing as the two men's fight for what's right. That this is based on a true story also adds a disturbing 'documentary' aspect, when you consider the implications for medical advancements in general if all companies care about is the bottom line.

But if Puncture is firmly embedded in reality, Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame, couldn't be further from it. This epic, freewheeling fantasy trip is exactly the sort of film that may well no longer be made thanks to China's State Administration of Radio and Television's new guidelines (more about that here). With its visual excesses, superior soundscape and outlandish yet gripping story that takes in everything from shape-shifting to spontaneous combusion, this film is all action all of the time, yet still finds time to say something about sexual politics and power and corruption.

I wrapped up day two with a side-trip away from the festival to the reRun Theatre and Gastropub across in Brooklyn. It's an intimate - and achingly cool - space, which offers the chance to catch some of the smaller American indie gems that don't always make it (through no fault of their own) to the worldwide festival circuit. Not only are you likely to see something interesting on the screen, there's also a pretty good chance you'll spot someone interesting in the crowd. The first time I visited, Married Life director Ira Sachs was just a few seats away and this time around no less a body than Robert Downey Snr (Putney Swope) was in attendance.

The line-up was a showcase of Texan filmmaker David Lowery's work - short film Pioneer, which just won the short film award at SXSW, and his feature debut St Nick. After the excesses of Detective Dee, the quiet, minimalist economy of David Lowery's storytelling was a welcome change and while his visuals forgo flashiness and bombast, they are no less arresting.

Pioneer is the perfect example of a simple story well told - both literally and figuratively. A white father (Will Oldham, who is probably better known by his musical stage name of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) tells his black son a bedtime story - a story of struggle in the Wild West at once fantastical and, at points, horrifying, yet simultaneously emotionally grounded in reality outlining how his son and he came to be where they are. Oldham puts in a terrific performance as the storyteller, finding the cadence and poetry in Lowery's script to keep the audience hooked and eliciting, along with the director, some lovely natural reactions from the youngster playing his son.

And Lowery certainly knows how to get a naturalistic performance from a child, as evidenced by his feature St Nick. It tracks two runaway kids as they use their resourcefulness make a home for themselves in a rundown building. The narrative may not be straightforward but it is filled with a surprising amount of intrigue that proves compelling. Lowery lets much of the action unfold in silence, letting the children's resourcefulness - beautifully shot by Earthling director Clay Lifford - unfold at an unforced pace, leaving us so attached to these little bundles of energy that we don't know whether we root for them to be found or not. This is a thoughtful and gorgeously shot debut - and I'm amazed to discover it has never found its way to any festivals in the UK.

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