Hong and Graf at the Berlinale

The Daily — Mar 2, 2021
Ha Seongguk and Shin Seokho in Hong Sangsoo’s Introduction (2021)

Anyone looking to demonstrate the range of the competition at the Berlinale this year might set Hong Sangsoo’s Introduction next to Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs. Barring a single drunken outburst, Introduction quietly, almost coyly reveals an intricate network of connections between nine characters on two continents in three chapters over the course of a mere sixty-six minutes. Fabian, by contrast, is a boisterous three-hour adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1932 novel that practically revels in the decadence of Berlin at the tailend of the Weimar era. Both films, though, center on a young male protagonist hampered by a dash of naivete but determined to follow an inner moral compass.

Introduction actually begins with a prayer. It’s not our young protagonist, Youngho (Shin Seokho), bowed over his keyboard but rather his middle-aged father (Kim Youngho), a doctor pleading in a near-whisper for God to right a wrong. We’ll come to suspect that the father’s predicament is one of his own making. As everyone around him is eager to point out, Youngho has a winning handsomeness going for him, but he’s so clueless as to what to do with it that, on a whim, he follows his girlfriend, Juwon (Park Miso), to Germany, where she plans to study fashion even though she seems to lack the drive to make a career of it.

Hong’s title hinges on two mothers hoping to spark a fire in their aimless kids. Juwon’s mother introduces her daughter to a successful artist (Kim Minhee) with connections in the fashion industry, and later, back in Korea, Youngho’s mother (Cho Yunhee) will summon her son to a lunch with an actor (Ki Joobong) referred to more than once as a legend in the world of theater. She tells the actor that Youngho has given up acting because he can’t bring himself to kiss or even hold a woman who isn’t his girlfriend. Youngho’s argument that such an empty gesture is morally wrong leads to a soju-fueled tirade from the actor. Real or fake, he growls, every embrace is a good and beautiful.

Castigated and woozy, Youngho and the friend he’s brought along, Jeongsoo (Ha Seongguk), sleep off the soju in a car parked on a beach, where Youngho dreams one last dream of Juwon. Structurally, Introduction is nowhere near as clear-cut as, for example, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), and it’s probably reading too much into this soft-edged black-and-white feature to suggest that it wraps with a baptism, but a wade into the icy ocean waves does seem to have the cleansing power of an answered prayer. “Hong’s is the cinema of the oblique pattern, the imperfect echo, the repetition that changes meaning slightly with each new recitation,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety.

The waters are far more sinister in Fabian, but so, too, is the world Graf leads the viewer into in his sharp opening sequence. In present-day Berlin, the camera descends the stairs to an underground subway station, rolls through the bustling crowd, and resurfaces on the other side where it’s 1931. A cacophony of clashing textures—color-drenched Super 8, black-and-white archival clips—explodes and carries on exploding for about twenty minutes before the narrative finally begins to rein in the noise.

In a club far dingier than any she frequents in the 1920s-set series Babylon Berlin, Meret Becker emerges from a shadow starving for sex with thirty-two-year-old Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling). He’ll shake her off and fall for Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress guarding the cash box at a shoddy cabaret. In tandem, two narrators trace what essentially amount to two storylines, Fabian’s friendship with Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schuch), scion of a wealthy lawyer, and his boundless love for Cornelia. Doom threatens both. Writing for Variety, Jay Weissberg finds that Graf’s film is “blowsy where the book is succinct, awkwardly paced and portentous where Kästner is consistently rhythmical and unpretentious. Set in a teetering world of dissoluteness and disillusion in which a good man without professional ambition awakens to life’s promise only to have it all torn away, the story has modern resonances that Graf keenly underlines, and while the film’s core is affectingly developed, the rest tries too hard to expose the empty rapaciousness of exhausted decadence.”

Others will find it more difficult to resist the emotional pull of Fabian’s inability to hold up his side of the deal he’s made with Cornelia to allow her to become a Babelsberg producer’s kept woman in exchange for a plum movie role. Then there’s the sincerity of Stephan’s faith in Fabian’s potential as a great writer, wasted on ad copy for a cigarette factory before he’s forced to join the ever-growing ranks of the unemployed. The unexpected payoff is a counterintuitively casual rendering of tragedy.

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