"Boxing Gym" (Frederick Wiseman)
What Frederick Wiseman is doing barely constitutes as documentary filmmaking anymore — there's no talking heads, no narration, all sound is diegetic, and only bare bones context is provided. His camera seems to observe interactions between people instead of instigating them, and while that commitment to realism is an admirable one, it's also inherently flawed: We never can be sure the people on camera would act the same without a camera present. Thankfully, this doesn't lessen the intensity — the near hypnotic power — of watching patrons at Richard Lord's Boxing Gym partake in their physical routines.
Newbies to the gym are instructed to bounce a sledge hammer against a rubber tire (a means of finding a comfortable rhythm), while more accomplished athletes spar with each other inside the ring, and bodies of all builds and experience test their limits and work to surpass them. The pleasures of "Boxing Gym" are almost entirely elemental: repetition becomes ritual, representing human resilience, body and soul. The film's greatest failing is that most are more familiar with the atmosphere of a gym than, say, the interiors of a ballet school, as chronicled in Wiseman's previous film, "La Danse." Thankfully, Wiseman's latest is half the length of that three-hour documentary, but it still doesn't offer much in the way of insight beyond such startling truths as "Hey, just 'cause they all throw punches 'n stuff doesn't mean they're, y'know, actually violent." In other words, if you go to a gym yourself there's really nothing new here. As a friend suggested just before our screening, "It's Wiseman. You know exactly what you're in for." While efficiently engaging and even memorable, it's tough to deny that the film in our head before seeing "Boxing Gym" is nearly identical to the one in there now. [C+]
"Poetry" (Lee Chang-dong)
Following a string of brilliant character studies, Lee Chang-dong takes down the excellence just a touch for his latest. "Poetry" is Lee's second feature since completing his duties as minister of Culture and Tourism in South Korea, and like "Secret Sunshine" before (along with the earlier "Peppermint Candy," and career-peak "Oasis") it's a psychologically rich and probing drama. Under the microscope this time is Mija, played by award-winning actress Yoon Jeong-hee, whom Lee wrote the part for (her first major role since retiring in the mid '90s). She's fantastic, blending compassionate warmth and soulful remorse, helping "Poetry" earn its richly melancholic tone. Mija's a woman on the verge of a communications breakdown: She struggles to recall nouns, then verbs — the onset of Alzheimer's, say the doctors — and is guardian to a rude teenage grandson who refuses her every display of affection and concern. She also takes a poetry class, and when the ugliest of life's misfortunes threatens the simplicity of her existence, Mija looks to her prose as an expression of her innermost feelings.
The vagueness employed here is intentional — no sense in spoiling the power of experiencing "Poetry's" methodical and controlled progression for yourself. What can be said is the central conflict in many ways refracts that of Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" (which likewise played both Cannes and Toronto), subbing out Kurosawa-esque procedural movements for something along the lines of an understated meditation on communal and family relationships, closer in its unhurried style to Ozu or Mikio Naruse. But where "Mother" and "Poetry" really dovetail is in their handling of a late-film moral crisis — instead of descending into vigilantism, as Bong's film does, Lee arrives at something more poignant, an affecting finale which utilizes actual poetry in a better, non-pretentious way than near any film this writer can think of. [B] —Reviews by Sam C. Mac, courtesy of In Review Online
"Boxing Gym" (Frederick Wiseman)