Chicago International Film Festival 2023 – Dispatch #4

Coming out of the first weekend of the festival, there was a noticeable comedown in atmosphere and mood. Walking to the theater Monday afternoon, things were quiet. The feverish charge had left the streets, and slinking into my seat, I felt a newfound sense of calmness wash over me. The afternoon screening is where the real ones live; I looked around and smiled as I knew I was among my people.

The movie was Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia. It comes after having notable international box office success over the summer, along with screening at TIFF. The film is about classism and how it takes hold of society even in the wake of apocalyptic disaster. In this way, one could easily draw comparisons to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer adaptation. However, in this film we view the world through the eyes of the oppressor, which sets up pretty interesting circumstances early on. The first half of the film is a satirical critique of the inherent absurdity in valuing human lives and existences differently based solely on circumstance. I was thinking about Tae-hwa’s dry wit in relation to Wes Anderson’s early work, namely Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. At some point though, around halfway through the film there is a pretty sharp shift in tone as darkness and brutality overtakes the “utopia” in question and the conflict of the narrative needs to be rushed along to the finish line. The second half does not work nearly as well for me, descending into all too familiar territory with this kind of story and as the script leaves behind the biting social commentary for a much more “good vs evil” conclusion, I found myself losing interest. Still, the opening hour of the film is so strong I would probably still recommend people check it out. It is also South Korea’s official entry for International Feature at the Oscars, but no U.S. release has yet been set.

Concrete Utopia. Dir. Um Tae-hwa.

Later that night, we settled into what will surely be one of the staples of the awards season to come, Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction. This is an incredibly winning film and is one of the most notable directorial debuts we’ve had in a while. It is based on Percival Everett’s 2021 novel, Erasure. The story follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright in what I feel comfortable calling the role of his career. He’s a novelist who has grown tired of the box American society has put Black writers in, with the white populace seemingly only eating up Black narratives that pit Black people in despair and impoverished circumstances. Cord Jefferson’s screenplay is hilarious, emotional, weighty, and thought-provoking all at the same time. This somehow manages to be a satire that had my audience in hysterics numerous times while featuring several moments that had me fighting back tears. American Fiction is the type of film I am confident will sell with audiences and have a huge presence at the Oscars. It’s the first film I’ve seen since Barbie and Oppenheimer weekend I walked out with such elation and confidence in its lasting impact. We’ll be talking about this one for a long time. It’s being released in theaters by Amazon MGM Studios just before Christmas. Buckle up.

American Fiction. Dir. Cord Jefferson.

Jefferson has set a very high bar for the rest of the festival, but with some of the films we have coming up, it’s not even out of the question we may see it eclipsed. As always, keep it locked in here for more coverage coming out of the fest. We’ve even got full reviews for a couple of highly anticipated films on the way!

Leave a Reply