When life is chaotic we surround ourselves with things to make it simpler and more comfortable. That’s what many of us are doing right now – baking bread, building cosy corners at home, spending more time under the doona. Readers are seeking so-called easy, feel-good reads, and viewers are looking for films and television series that offer escapism and fantasy; worlds far, far removed from our own. In a time of crisis, the desire to escape reality is understandably a strong one.
What if the key to maintaining equilibrium in a time of calamity isn’t to seek art that draws us away from reality but that pushes us even deeper into it? What if instead of seeking mindless entertainment and distraction, we looked towards art that challenges and provokes us? What if we sought art that tells us something vital about our shared human experience? What if art provides the greatest comfort when it connects, rather than disconnects us from the world?
Film is art and we need art now more than ever before. It matters in a tumultuous world – reminding us what it means to be human, helping us make sense of how we feel, to understand the world around us, and each other. Art opens our minds, eyes and our hearts. It tells us, that even in isolation, we are not alone.
SBS World Movies Modern Masterpieces collection offers substance and comfort – a series of arthouse films located in real experiences and emotions, that tell us about the past and about the world we live in now, comprising characters who are thrillingly, vividly alive. They are films about love, war, desire, hate, yearning, suffering and regret. They are films constructed not only out of beautiful images but from big, bold ideas too.
Art connects us to what it means to be human, and the human experience in times of oppression offers one of the most revealing insights. Cold War (2018), Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida (2013), is a stark and sensual tale of love in the long shadow of the Iron Curtain. Spanning 15 years from 1949 to 1964, and travelling from Poland to Paris and back again (with a pivotal detour to East Berlin), Cold War traces the fated romance of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), the musical director of a Polish folk-music ensemble, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), its star performer. Ellipses between scenes move the action forward, encouraging us to think and feel and fill in the gaps. Wiktor and Zula’s love is all-consuming – they can’t live together and repeatedly cause each other pain, but they can’t survive apart.
Pawlikowski deservedly won Best Director at Cannes – based on his own parents’ experience, Cold War is a film of enormous beauty and raw emotion. There is nostalgia here, evident in its gorgeous inky black and white cinematography, and its use of Polish folk music and dance. And there’s darkness too. In Cold War, history is the biggest heartbreaker of all.
Whether looking back or looking to our present moment, art holds up a mirror to society and sometimes what we see of ourselves isn’t pretty or palatable. The Square (2017), written and directed by Ruben Ostlund, pushes uncomfortable viewing to its limits, in the best kind of way. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes International Film Festival, The Square presents itself as an art world satire, but like most films built on a complex premise, it’s about much more.
Danish actor, Claes Bang, stars as the charismatically creepy Christian, a curator of a Stockholm art museum who has his wallet and mobile phone stolen in an elaborate scam that instigates his unravelling. Amidst this personal chaos, he hires an external PR firm to promote the museum’s upcoming exhibition, ‘The Square’. When the advertising campaign goes terribly wrong, Christian’s mask drops further. While he presents publicly as a man concerned with equality and social justice, personal problems – including a poorly judged fling with an art critic (played, scathingly, by Elisabeth Moss) – reveal his many hypocrisies and petty prejudices.
Ostlund’s film is both hilarious and disturbing, tackling issues like migration, poverty, and the limits of freedom of expression. If the film’s artwork, ‘The Square’ is a metaphor for the world itself, it poses the question to all of us watching, of how we might best help one another in an increasingly hostile world – a question we should ask ourselves everyday.
Art also connects us with something extraordinary and unexpected. Lee Chang-dong’s critically acclaimed film, Burning (2018), based on a short story by Haruki Murakami (‘Barn Burning’) repeatedly defies expectations. Like The Square it’s full of unease and modern malaise. Describing this South Korean masterpiece as a psychological thriller only begins to explain it; Burning’s greatest strength is that it’s a film that can’t be definitively explained.
Burning follows the point of view of Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young working-class man with aspirations of being a writer. A chance encounter with an old school friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) sets the narrative alight. Jong-su doesn’t recognise her – she had plastic surgery, in part, because he called her ugly years before. They reconnect, briefly, and when she takes a trip to Africa she asks Jong-su to feed her cat. Hae-mi returns from her trip with Ben (Steven Yuen), a man who is the direct opposite of Jong-su – confident, cold and inexplicably wealthy.
Lee Chang-dong’s film has a dreamy, elusive quality, but it’s grounded in the experiences of young people in South Korea today. Central to this is class and how economic precarity impacts their lives. For Hae-mi, as a woman in a society that expects her to alter herself to meet the expectations of others, no matter the cost, it’s especially dangerous. But no less for Jong-su, who lives mostly in his own mind within the confines of a small town near the demilitarised zone. For Jong-su, class envy, as it plays out in his relationship with the mysterious Ben, is incinerating. His frustrations become just as consuming for the audience.
Like each of SBS World Movies Modern Masterpieces – which also includes Her Smell (2018) and Border (2018) – Burning will scorch itself into your mind and stay there. And in a time of crisis, art that asks us to work a little harder to connect with it might just be the greatest diversion of all.
Cold War airs on SBS World Movies Sunday 2 August at 9:30PM and is available to watch at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Burning airs on SBS World Movies Sunday 9 August at 9:30PM and is available to watch at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
The Square airs on SBS World Movies Sunday 16 August at 9:30PM and is available to stream now at SBS On Demand.