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AFI Fest 2014: Ripped from the Headlines

A lot of time at AFI Fest is spent waiting in line. Even holding a press pass doesn't mean I get to trot into certain screenings. Tuesday night, I wondered if it was possible to wait in two lines for back-to-back events at the Egyptian Theater. No Indiana Jones archeologists came forward with a secret passage between the beginning of one line and the beginning of the next so I passed up the promise of the first 30-minutes "Selma" and Oprah Winfrey in order to attend a secret screening of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper."

"American Sniper" was one of the three movies inspired by true events that I saw at this year's AFI Fest. The other two films were "Foxcatcher" and the Korean film "Haemoo." "Foxcatcher" was the AFI Festival closing gala movie. The backers of all three movies hope to generate Oscar buzz.

"Haemoo" is based on a 2007 play about an incident in 2001 in which 25 illegal immigrants died while being smuggled into South Korea. Directed by Shim Sung-bo, the movie is South Korea's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 87th Academy Awards.

On 7 October 2001, the vessel Taechangho dumped into the ocean the bodies of immigrants who had suffocated while being hidden in the fish storage tank. According to a BBC reportthe boat had taken on 60 Chinese and ethnic Korean Chinese but threw the bodies of the dead overboard southwest of the port Yeosu. The majority of the illegal immigrants were from the Fujian Province and South Korea made an official apology to China about the incident. The South Korean police arrested the captain Lee Pan-keun and seven crew members. I could not find more information online in English about what happened to these men.

The movie "Haemoo" (Sea Fog) takes place on the fishing ship Jeonjinho and becomes a love storythe Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok) for his ship and young Dong-sik (Park Yoochun) for a young female immigrant Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri). When his crew fails to catch enough fish to pay his debt, Cheol-joo decides to smuggle thirty illegal immigrants.

A few things begin to go wrong. First the fog obscures their rendezvous and creates an eery setting. The immigrants must jump over the abyss of black water and into the gray unknown. One woman, Hong-mae, falls into the water and is rescued by Dong-sik.

Hong-mae is one of two women in the group. A woman on the ship is bad luck; two are double trouble and that might not just be superstition. One crew member Chan-wook is willing to allow a woman into the warm engine room in return for sex. Even sex with a grimy stranger is better than being exposed to the cold or being hidden in the stinky, stuffy refrigerated hold meant for the day's catch.

Poverty and desperation pollute every aspect of these people's lives. What would one do to survive, especially when things go seriously wrong. A visit from the sea patrol lasts a little too long, although the captain's bluff rings false yet ever so theatrical, worse things are to come.

When desperation leads to death in large numbers, it may make the news. In 2008, 58 Burmese illegals on their way to Thailand suffocated in a seafood lorry when the air-conditioning failed. There were 67 survivors. In 2000, 58 Chinese illegals died in a tomato freight container as they crossed the English Channel to Dover. In 2003, a truck driver abandoned a trailer in South TexasThat milk trailer contained 60 illegal aliens. Of that number, 15 died, including a 5-year-old boy. While Southwestern U.S. human traffickers are called coyotes, in Asia, these people are called snakeheads. I don't think it is a mistake that when the captain in "Haemoo" makes the deal to smuggle humans that we see eel-like fish swimming around in a large aquarium.

"Haemoo" won the Best Narrative feature at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Korean Association of Film Critics awarded Park Yoochun a Best New Actor award. Park Yoochun is a K-pop star transitioning into acting. The movie has been nominated for five Grand Bell Awards (Motion Pictures Association of Korea).

"Foxcatcher" is about the opposite end of the economic ladder. Director Bennett Miller and Steve Carrell were at AFI Fest to introduce the film. Carrell looked sharp in his tailored suit and that served as a stark contrast to his portrayal of John Eleuthère du Pont. The Oscar buzz was loud even before the movie began—just from the trailers and the Cannes Best Director win for Miller.

The movie doesn't begin with du Pont. Instead we see a buffed out Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz. Mark lives alone in an apartment where the neighborhood isn't concerned about open trash containers in plain view or deserted cars. Some of the humor found in this movie comes from the deadpan delivery of Tatum's Mark. He means to inspire a group of children, but his delivery is dull despite his achievements. He doesn't connect with children and he barely connects with anyone else. He eats dried instant ramen. He can pick up and leave and no one bats an eye. Only his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) seems to miss him and for Americans, their displays of affection and they physical nature of their training may make some audience members uncomfortable.

Mark and Dave's parents divorced when Mark was young and Mark was dependent upon Dave. Mark is the student-son while Dave is the teacher-father. Dave reaches out to people with a bear hug and a lack of formality. He's always fussing with his beard, not prissy or proud, but a like he's unconcerned with what other's think and he's a very tactile kind of guy. He's a hugger and not in a creepy sense.

Mark is a follower, a student, striving to be separate and find his own way but being lost in the haze of mumbled words. Tatum's Mark glowering suggests a passive-aggressive nature. His Mark is a man stuck in a rut and yet that rut won him an Olympic gold medal.

Mark is summoned by du Pont to his estate. Carrell's du Pont is someone whose linguistic rhythms are a bit off. His pauses are too long. His silences are not pregnant; they are barren. His shoulders are rounded. He doesn't lean forward but always seems to be pulling his head backward as if his great beak must be lifted upward to prevent him from falling forward.

While John du Pont's mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) loves horses, John does not. Jean doesn't approve of wrestlers and wrestling because it is low and she doesn't like seeing John being low. Yet John wants Mark to become part of his stable, a stable of wrestling champions. Mark comes and is seduced into John's lifestyle which includes cocaine and praising John. Yet John needs more than one champion; he wants Dave. Mark tells John, Dave, can't be bought.

Yet somehow, John does buy Dave. Dave and his family move to the du Pont estate in time to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Just how Dave was bought or convinced to join the Foxcatcher gym, the movie fails to explain, making the murder even more a mystery. Dave wasn't the first wrestler on the compound threatened with a gun by du PontThe kind of regime that a wrestler undergoes, the constant obsession with weight isn't integrated into the narrative, making the sudden binging and the 24-hour purging seem atypical for the sport. While more attention has been paid to female anorexia and bulimia, particularly in gymnastics and dance, the problem is also evident in wrestling. In 1997, three collegiate wrestlers died within a month of each other as a result of eating disorders.

Moreoever, Dave died in January 1996. Du Pont was on trial in 1997. That also means quite a lot happened between the 1988 Olympics and Dave's death. Further, while the reporters searched for a gay angle, there was none.

Going into the movie, I only had a vague recollection of this incident and perhaps it's better that way as it allows the story to unfold slowly. What Miller and Carrell make clear is the signs were there; John du Pont was a troubled man, in his fifties but alone and friendless. His social skills were polished by vast amounts of money; the glare of that bounty blinded people to his mental and emotional issues until this one final act.

"Foxcatcher" was a gala event at the Dolby Theater with limited tickets and reserved seating for the press who received seats. "American Sniper" was a surprise special screening. The press and general admission ticket holders lined up for over three hours. First, we had to wait for the line to see "Selma" and Oprah Winfrey to move. The Egyptian seats 600. Some of those seats are already reserved. Others go to premium pass holders first. Then the line for general admission tickets begins. The first 100 will get in. Queue line tickets are handed out about 90 minutes before the doors open. You'll know your number in line. Numbers above 300 are unlikely to get into a popular event.

The AFI staff turned away about 200 people for the conversation between Michael Keaton and Ed Norton as they promoted "Birdman," a movie that was already out and not screening at AFI Fest. For "Selma" which was originally offered as a 30-minute preview and turned into a full-length screening with an appearance of Winfrey, that line went around the block with people who failed to read the fine print arriving after the doors had closed. Unlike SDCC, people from the previous event can't remain in the venue, everyone has to clear out. Even press. Choices have to be made. Sorry Oprah. I thought Clint Eastwood would make my day and he did. He appeared to introduce the movie.

"American Sniper" is based on the autobiography of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History." The book was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 20 weeks in 2012 and the movie which opens nationwide on 25 December 2014 will undoubtedly bring renewed interest to the book.

In the movie, we first meet Chris Kyle, he's a young boy (Cole Konis) taken hunting by his father, Wayne Kyle. Wayne is a religious man, a Sunday school teacher and deacon. Wayne teaches his two boys that there are three types of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Wayne wants to raise sheepdogs and would give his boys a whooping if they every turn into wolves. Chris has already begun defending his younger brother (Luke Sunshine), making his father proud. As young men, Chris (Bradley Cooper) and his brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell) become bronco busters.

Cooper is beefed up and Texas primed. His Chris is a hulking giant of a man with a rigid sense of justice and a bull-like determination. Yet all that intensity is focused on the wrong women and on bucking horses. Chris is a Texas cowboy in an era ruled by computers and geeks. Bronco busting isn't a sport one can do forever. Eventually, Chris decides to join the military and finds that the SEALs will take him. The training is grueling if not bordering on abusive and yet, probably better than a butt sore from a bucking horse and rope burns that scrape open calloused hands.

When the SEAL training spits him out we have a tall no-nonsense good ole boy who knows how to treat a girl like Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) right, even if she's a little bit guarded at first. After the drinking games, he politely holds her long blonde hair while she's hurling out the liquid calories and cheap bar snacks. They get married, but he's soon off doing his SEAL dutyto be a protector of men and liberty. Killing is necessary because mercy toward the wolves is cruelty to the sheep.

This part of the movie troubled me mostthe killing of men, women and children. We don't hear their side. We don't sympathize with them. After 2006 "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima," this seems like a step backward. Is it too early to see our enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq as real people?

To his fellow soldiers, he is "Legend," but to the enemy he is the "Devil of Ramadi." Chris ends his four tours with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probably kills. Yet we are told by Taya Renae that Chris hasn't quite left the war behind. He's sullen. His blood pressure is high. He's embarrassed to be called a hero by another returned soldier. Yet we don't actually see evidence of the strained nature of the husband-wife relationship. This is another weak point in "American Sniper." However, the ending is still unsettling. This is definitely all about Chris and not enough about his relationship with his brother or his wife. The gore content is kept at a polite distance.

Of the three movies, "Haemoo," definitely exploits the gore of murder or at least the aftermath where one must get rid of the bodies. That's fair because "American Sniper" and "Foxcatcher" are about a particular character, a real person, who is somehow involved. "Haemoo" has a better developed female character in Hang-mae although none of these movies has a happy ending. All the movies take a real incident, adapt and interpret it and give us something to think about after we've forgotten the headlines.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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