Cut is the damnedest thing: a visceral allegory whose point is obscure to everyone but the filmmaker. Iranian director Amir Naderi literally lists his influences with on-screen title cards. The technique is bold and may impress cinephiles who like to name-drop, even if its self-appointed “cinematic purity” will probably hurt its chances for any wide distribution.
A young Tokyo filmmaker (Hidetoshi Nishijima) uses a loud-speaker to beg commuters to notice/appreciate the differences between entertainment and cinema. The filmmaker also rehearses his pleas on a rooftop, the same location where he hosts underground screenings of Keaton and Ozu. One evening, the Yakuza interrupt a screening, commanding the filmmaker to join them at their office. They tell him that his brother’s debt has gotten out of control. The brother is dead, so the filmmaker must make up the 12 million yen, plus interest. He has no money. The solution? He pays low-level gangsters for the privilege of punching him.
The beating scenes are brutal and raw. Japanese men take their turn beating the filmmaker, while a bartender and a waitress keep track of the money he’s earned. The filmmaker is a glutton for punishment, and sustains himself by shouting things like “Pure cinema!” and “Shit movies!” Naderi makes no attempt to develop the filmmaker, and by stripping away traditional plot and narrative, Cut’s visceral violence serves as metaphor. Still, the connection between the beatings and the importance of cinema is never given an explanation. I guess filmmakers, not just the young Japanese man, are figuratively beaten for their art. The effect is strange at first, although at nearly two hours and no matter how artful the editing, we become numb to the beatings like the filmmaker presumably does.
This brings us to the climax. Short on funds and with one day left, the filmmaker decides to receive 100 punches, during which time he’ll think of his favorite films. The sequence is the weirdest damn top 100 list I’ve ever seen. The filmmaker gets a punch and a stately title card flashes over the action, complete with a title, director, and year of release. I didn’t jot all 100 films, but he mentions Throne of Blood, The Third Man, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and others. As the list approaches number one, Naderi includes stills from the films and the filmmaker’s bruised face is barely recognizable. The sequence is confident and disturbing, but it’s never cathartic. If the protagonist is a vessel for Naderi’s passion for cinema, then his quest is nothing more than a perplexing failure.
In terms of visceral experience, Planet of Snail is far gentler than Cut. That’s a good thing, since this lovely documentary is the best I’ve seen at the festival. Director Seung-Jun Yi does not talk about the power of cinema, though his style and editing making more compelling case for it than Naderi.
Young-Chan is deaf and blind. He completely relies on his wife, Soon-Ho, to guide him through South Korea. We watch as they go through their routine. She communicates with him by tapping on his fingers, and he responds by speaking to her. Everyday tasks are a unique challenge. For example, the lamp goes out in their bedroom. Soon-Ho can’t reach it since she’s less than four feet tall, so she gives her husband step-by-step instructions on how to replace it. He can’t hear, so she taps them out on his knees. When he finally is done, he shouts, “We did it!” and it’s an utterly heart-warming moment. These two are wholly in love.
Yi follows the couple some more, showing how Young-Chan finds meaning through everyday objects and time with his friends, who are also deaf-blind. He also aspires to be a writer, submitting essays for a literary competition and writing a play that’s performed in a local church. Yi never exploits the disability. He watches and observes with patience, and thanks to the sensitivity of the direction, there is never a moment where we grow impatient for the action to continue. It’s rare to see a documentary where the filmmaker regards his subjects with such empathy and attention. Like Cut, I don’t know whether Planet of Snail will ever be available for US distribution, which is a shame since this unique love story deserves to be seen more than just a festival audience.
shout out: BYT would like to thank YOTEL for being the official accommodation of BYT’s Tribeca Coverage