Test For The Art-house Crowd

ON FILM

Korean Comedy May Help Gauge Baltimore's Hipness Quotient

August 07, 2009|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Will hip audiences who packed the house at the Charles for "Bruno" show up for a Korean film that's actually younger in spirit? Will older art-house audiences support an oddball comedy simply because it's novel entertainment?

The Maryland Film Festival has bet "yes" on "Daytime Drinking," Noh Young-seok's no-budget road movie about a recent college graduate who tries to drown a romantic breakup in gallons of booze as he lurches from one misfired getaway to another across a snowy, underpopulated landscape. (It plays today through Wednesday.)

Noh directed, wrote, produced, scored, photographed, designed, recorded and edited the film. Though it resembles deadpan American comedies such as Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," it has a curious wit and inventiveness all its own.

Japanese No drama is highly stylized; Korea's Noh comedy is hyper-realistic. But it's also stylistically engaging, full of long takes that let us drink in all the comic nuances of men and women willfully misleading or simply misunderstanding one another. Noh pulls off some inspired visual flourishes, too. At one point, Noh places the audience in the position of a TV set in a guesthouse room: We watch the hero as he watches whatever comes across the tube. It's as if we're Big Brother - but we feel for this forlorn guy. He's everyone's little brother.

Maryland Film Festival programmer Eric Hatch first saw "Daytime Drinking" at the Toronto Film Festival last September. He's been following South Korean cinema for years, but he went to this scruffy example of it simply because the festival write-up made it sound inviting. It sounded that way to hundreds of other people, too: The movie filled the theater for an evening screening after already playing once or twice. Hatch says, "It is refreshing to see a film that's very 'DIY' and also this fresh and hilarious. It was not intent so much on making an artistic statement than on entertaining its audience."

Hatch followed the film as it hopscotched around to a few scattered festivals in North America. He thought it would be a perfect fit for the Maryland Film Festival because "it has a lot in common with American grass-roots comedies that are very self-made, self-taught films. Some of them, like 'Humpday' and 'Hannah Takes the Stairs,' have gone into theaters like the Charles, but there are a lot more out there."

" 'Daytime Drinking,' " says Hatch, is "consistent with the direction that the festival hopes to go in. We'll be focusing [with foreign films], as we do with domestic films, on first-time filmmakers or young filmmakers whose names are not too well-known even on the art-house circuit, but whose films deserve to be seen at the Charles or Harbor East."

Although the festival has long insisted on showing domestic features only if they can be accompanied by someone associated with the film, it has waived that requirement for foreign films - at least for now.

"Within a few years," says Hatch, "we hope to have a stronger presence as a showcase for foreign films and a budget that will allow us to have their directors present their work right next to American filmmakers."

In May, the sold-out festival audience at the Charles' large Theatre 2 responded to the film like Toronto's audiences: They started laughing within the first 10 minutes and didn't stop until the closing credits. That's one reason Hatch and festival director Jed Dietz decided to give "Daytime Drinking" a festival afterlife at the Charles.

"It gives us a chance to fight the perception that foreign films are stuffy, arty experiences - as much as I love films that fit that description in people's minds, 'Daytime Drinking' helps us make the point that you can see a dry, witty buddy comedy about drinking even when you're reading subtitles."

Noh's movie does have a little-known distributor, 11 Arts. But it hasn't opened in more than a couple of cities.

"We want to play a role in helping films that have small distributors or are self-distributed," says Hatch. He notes that a lot of modest distributors open their films only in New York and Los Angeles before release on DVD. "Daytime Drinking" wouldn't be playing in Baltimore were it not for the collaboration of the festival with Charles owner Buzz Cusack and Charles programmer George Mansour.

The festival is doing all the promotion: blasting out e-mails, taping fliers and posters to the walls of video stores and coffee shops, supplying the news media with screeners and alerting Korean-Americans that they have a rare chance to see, on the big screen, a peak example of contemporary Korean popular culture. (Another Korean film, "Thirst," will play at the Charles a few weeks from now, though not under the aegis of the MFF.) .

In September, the film festival will follow "Daytime Drinking" with another 2009 favorite, the documentary "Chops," a chronicle of a contest for high school jazz bands that Hatch compares to the documentary spelling-bee smash "Spellbound."

"With the number of screens in town, we hope there's room for experimentation; we think there's an audience in Baltimore for these kinds of films and that the general audience can only benefit from a wider variety of films coming here," Hatch says. "We just hope audiences take advantage of these opportunities so they don't come to an end."

In a way, this experiment will test whether Baltimore's art-house community has the commitment to support festival-style programming year-round. Even more than in decades past, to get what they want these days, moviegoers as well as filmmakers must prove they have the chops.

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