If the Berlinale were going to award a prize for best animals, top contenders would be the huskies in cult director Abel Ferrara’s “Siberia”, starring Willem Dafoe as a rugged loner named Clint who uses the dogs to pull a sleigh, and the cat in the Korean film “The Woman Who Ran”. The dogs and the cat can hardly be considered the main characters of either film, but they provide an anchor in works that are in many ways plotless.
Korean director Sangsoo Hong’s enigmatic but delightful and short (77 minutes) film is an intimate look at a day or two in the lives of four women friends. Nothing like a describable plot intrudes on this affair. Instead, we are treated to a series of seemingly superficial conversations that, for all their banality (delight in a new garment, noticing that there are chickens outside, observations about a mountain seen through a parlour window) add up to a rich amount of insight into what makes these women tick.
The one we end up focusing on is Gam-hee, played by Min-hee Kim, of 2016’s “The Handmaiden”. She claims to her friends that she has never spent a day apart from her businessman husband, even when he went on business trips, but for reasons never explained, on his latest trip she has stayed behind. This is what causes her to meet with her friends in the countryside outside Seoul, but it becomes clear as the film unwinds that she has much more time on her hands than she is letting on.
The dialogues that show the friends digging through the superficial courtesies and niceties to get at what is really going on have to be seen to be appreciated. But one scene that goes outside the bubble of the female friendships involves an encounter between Young-ji (Eun-mi Lee), co-resident with her friend Young-soon (Young-hwa Seo) in the countryside apartment, and a male neighbour (Suk-ho Shin). He asks the women if they could please stop feeding the stray “robber cats” who roam the parking spaces, because his wife is afraid of cats. Young-soon says that cats have a right to be fed too, to which the young man complains that people are more important than cats, and so on. The scene ends with a shot of one of the “robber cats” staring up at the man, and making a coy gesture with its head as he walks away, defeated. The scene, which the director said was made in one shot, is sure to make it to the cat video hall of fame.
The huskies are the animal engine of Ferrara’s film. They pull Dafoe, whose character is called Clint, on an odyssey that begins in a remote bar he runs in a snow-covered northern wilderness, past a gulag-style watchtower where men are indulging in an orgy of shooting prisoners. They take him to a cave where Clint sees a procession of zombie-like people who are demanding a doctor. The expressions on the dogs’ faces, as they watch the looney intruders, is priceless.
Clint’s doctor father shows up, with shaving cream on his face, as if preparing to take Clint as a boy, and his brother, on a fishing trip to Canada. The only problem with the father’s presence, as Clint points out, is that another doctor long ago declared him to be dead.
The dogs then accompany Clint — sans sleigh — into a desert landscape where Dafoe’s dead father shows up again, performing sophisticated surgery in a tent operating room while native people provide treatments with herbal cures outside. Later we are treated to an extended shot of Clint dancing wildly to the American rocker Del Shannon’s 1961 chart-topping hit “Runaway” — a 45-rpm disc that Dafoe said at a news conference was the first rock record he ever bought.
Clint meets with a procession of women along the way. One (Cristina Chiriac) who comes into his bar, with her Russian-speaking babushka mother, is heavily pregnant with what may be Clint’s child. Later Clint winds up in a modern living room where he talks to his estranged wife (Dounia Sichov), with whom he has a son, about why their marriage fell apart. “My therapist says you’re selfish,” she tells Clint, who rejoins: “Then get a new therapist.”
The film is sure to delight Ferrara fans and irk those who are not. But one thing anybody who sticks it to the end cannot fail but be amused by is another performing animal — a fish that spouts Nietzsche in German. Another great animal moment at a festival whose main prize is…the Golden Bear.
By Michael Roddy