Gothams and Golden Horses

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023)

When Past Lives, the debut feature from playwright Celine Song, premiered at Sundance in January, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson called it “a film that is at once restrained and brimming with feeling, a movie that could be fairly described as both big and small.” Like Song, Nora (Greta Lee) is an immigrant from Korea who writes plays, and in one scene in Past Lives, which won Best Feature at the Gotham Awards on Monday evening, Nora auditions actors by having them read from Song’s 2020 play Endlings.

Nora is happily married to another writer, Arthur (John Magaro), but a visit from a childhood friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), has all three characters thinking about what might have been. Song “organizes Past Lives around the concept of inyeon, a tricky-to-translate term that the movie defines as a form of destiny that governs how interpersonal relationships evolve through multiple layers of reincarnation,” writes Slate’s Sam Adams. “There’s something ever so slightly cagey about the way the movie brings up this quasi-mystical idea, pokes fun at it, and then reengages with it. But it’s most powerful as a vessel for the movie’s meditations on regret and loss, and especially what it feels like to lose something you never really had.”

The Gothams, launched in 1991 by what was then the Independent Filmmaker Project and has since been renamed the Gotham Film & Media Institute, are intended to open each year’s awards season with a celebration of independent vision, but Robert De Niro came close to stealing the show when he realized that a section of his speech paying tribute to Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon had been cut. He’d meant to lambast Donald Trump—as he does any time he’s given the opportunity—but someone zapped those comments off the teleprompter. De Niro assumed it was Apple, the distributor of Killers, and when he delivered his censored remarks from his own notes, he added that he was going to thank Apple. “But I don’t feel like thanking them at all after what they did,” he said. “How dare they do that, actually?”

De Niro’s costar, Lily Gladstone, won the award for Outstanding Lead Performance—but not for Killers of the Flower Moon. She won instead for playing Tana, a grieving Native American woman in Morrisa Maltz’s debut feature, The Unknown Country, a road movie and a “blend of fictional and documentary elements well suited to [Gladstone’s] sturdy, luminous humanity,” as Robert Abele writes in the Los Angeles Times.

The award for Outstanding Supporting Performance went to Charles Melton, who, as Kyle Buchanan observes in his New York Times profile, “does more than just hold his own opposite Oscar-winning costars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore” in Todd Haynes’s May December. Melton “gives the movie its bruised, beating heart.”

Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters, a portrait of Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian mother whose two eldest daughters have left the family to join ISIS in Libya, won Best Documentary. Four Daughters is “neither fiction, nor documentary; neither memoir, nor reportage,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, and Ben Hania’s “aims are much broader than simple dramatization: Four Daughters is also a therapeutic exercise, and a commentary on the filmmaking process itself.”

A. V. Rockwell won the Breakthrough Director award for A Thousand and One, the winner of a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, crowned with the Palme d’Or in Cannes, won Best International Feature and Best Screenplay. Lee Sung Jin’s Beef, a major hit on Netflix, scored the Breakthrough Series award. Both of Beef’s stars, Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, were nominated for the award for Outstanding Performance in a New Series—and Wong won.

Golden Horses

In other awards news, Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka’s Stonewalling won Best Narrative Feature and Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring) won Best Documentary Feature at the Golden Horse Awards over the weekend. Hsiao Ya-chuan won Best Director for Old Fox, which also scored prizes for Akio Chen (Supporting Actor), Wang Chih-Cheng and Shirley Kao (Makeup and Costume Design), and Chris Hou (Original Film Score).

The Golden Horses are “generally considered as the most prestigious awards in Chinese-language cinema, though they have become less representative of the full width of the Chinese-language industry in recent years due to mainland Chinese pressure on Taiwan,” notes Variety’s Patrick Frater. “But the Taiwan government is fighting back by bolstering other aspects of its cultural soft power. And for those in attendance Saturday at Taipei’s 2,500-seater Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall venue such trifles seemed far away.”

“Few movies capture the surreal comedy and engulfing horror of the money-driven world as piercingly as Stonewalling,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times in March. “A cool, quietly brilliant heartbreaker, it tracks a twenty-year-old Chinese woman facing a series of seemingly impossible hurdles. She’s trying to learn English, struggling to make money and straining to please her boyfriend, who treats her like a rehab job with him playing the role of the project manager. It’s 2019 when the story opens, and she’s just trying to get by; it’s early 2020 when it ends, and everyone is wearing masks.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang notes that this latest film from Huang and Otsuka “completes a kind of thematic trilogy with their earlier Egg and Stone (2012) and The Foolish Bird (2017), in which the gifted Yao [Honggui] also played isolated young women in difficult, increasingly desperate circumstances. Movie by movie, she and the filmmakers pull back the veil on a world whose cruel logic is dictated by economic necessity and where women bear the brunt of that cost at every turn.”

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