The Bacchus Lady (directed by E J-yong)
She seems innocent enough, the old lady sitting in a doctor's office at the start of The Bacchus Lady, but the pointedly named So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) has an unconventional trade, which has led to her embarrassing medical complaint. “The fucker. I should have made him wear a condom,” she complains as the doctor confirms her fear of gonorrhoea. The Bacchus Lady initially looks set to take a comic approach to its subject matter, finding awkward laughs in the incongruity of a 65 year-old prostitute, who subsequently finds herself being forced to take care of a young child, but writer-director E J-yong has more serious things on his mind. “South Korea has the 11th biggest economy in the world but the highest senior poverty rate among OECD countries,” a journalist tells So-young early in the film, and the plight of Korea's elderly citizens is a theme that is explored with piercing insight here. The hundreds of women who patrol Seoul's Jongno Park making eyes at the men who wander by are a sad emblem of a society that fails to take care of its ageing population, and in many ways So-young is an outcast, just like the transgender cabaret singer (An A-zu) and the one-legged artist (Yoon Kye-sang) with whom she forms a kind of makeshift family.
This might be a film concerned with tackling a social issue, but E J-yong does so through character and incident rather than making his film a polemic. He takes a non-judgemental approach to his characters; most notably, when So-young is asked to perform one last service for the elderly men she has been in service to her entire adult life. The tonal shifts that occur during the course of The Bacchus Lady might have been whiplash-inducing in less confident hands, but the film's balance of sharp humour and piercing emotional depth is a high-wire act that never falters. Much of this is down to the astonishing central performance from Youn Yuh-jung, who frequently communicates her character's internal turmoil, her memories and regrets, without even saying a word, as in one the film's most resonant moments, when So-young stands on a street corner at night and watches a stooped old woman pushing a cart full of trash past her, her gaze speaking volumes about their respective positions in life. “Don't call me Granny. My vagina is still young,” she snaps at one man early in the film, but that combative vitality seeps out of her over the course of the narrative, being replaced by a weariness as the weight of her actions and a lifetime of hardship catches up with her. It's a performance that allows us to feel like we know this selfless, unfortunate character, and invites us to form a bond with her that makes the starkness of the film's final scenes so devastating.
A Woman's Life (directed by Stéphane Brizé)
A Woman's Life is the new film from Stéphane Brizé, a French director whose impressive but unassuming films had largely flown under the radar until Vincent Lindon's performance in The Measure of a Man earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2015. Brizé's latest film is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's first novel Une vie, and as the book covers almost three decades in the life of its central character, Brizé and his frequent co-writer Florence Vignon have taken an elliptical approach to telling the story. The film is constructed of short, disconnected scenes that give us a brief glimpse of how Jeanne (Judith Chemla) lives, with the early scenes in particular – such as Jeanne tending the garden with her father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) or being bathed by the family's maid (Nina Meurisse) possessing a touching intimacy. These ellipses can also carry a powerful emotional charge. When Jeanne catches her husband (Swann Arlaud) in bed with another women, the moment is skipped over by Brizé's editor Anne Klotz – we just see the buildup as she opens the bedroom door and then cut straight to her running from her husband is dismay at his betrayal. Likewise, a harsh cut to the ultimate consequences of his serial infidelity is chilling.
Antoine Héberlé's handheld camerawork can be aggravating with its jerky misframing, but he also uses the Academy ratio to find some striking compositions, and at its best, A Woman's Life is nimble and perceptive. There's a lovely moment later in the film when Jeanne discovers her late mother's secret stash of love letters, opening a window on a whole life that she never knew existed, but these moments grow more scarce as Brizé's deft touch seems to desert him in the film's second half. Jeanne faces a catalogue of misfortune, from family bereavement to the financial strain of supporting her feckless son, and a bleak torpor settles on the film as the fleeting joys of previous years become a distant memory. Jeanne's whole world often seems to be crumbling around her, as she sits in her once-grand home, now hearing the rainwater dribble in through the cracks in the roof and shivering against the cold. The funereal pacing of this section of this film eventually takes its toll, though, and while Chemla works hard in the lead role, the script doesn't afford her much in the way of development or the means to express an inner life, which makes it hard to stick with her as she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the dire state of her affairs. It's easy to see what Brizé was aiming for with A Woman's Life, but the one-note nature of the film's storytelling makes it feel too often like a dreary slog.
Ma' Rosa (directed by Brillante Mendoza)
Jaclyn Jose was the surprise winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes for her turn in the latest film from Brillante Mendoza, and she's certainly the Ma' Rosa's trump card, giving a fierce and affecting performance as the matriarch trying to hold her drug-dealing family together under immense police pressure. Rosa and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) run a small grocery store in a poor district of Manila, but their real income lies in the distribution of crystal meth, which leads to them both being detained in the police station overnight after a raid. They try to plea their way out of their predicament, but the police are after a bigger score, and it soon becomes clear that a specific amount of money will satisfy the cops, and they don't care where it comes from. Mendoza flips the script here by making the drug dealers the sympathetic protagonists against a corrupt police force and, it is implied, a corrupt society.
Mendoza and his screenwriter Troy Espiritu set the film up efficiently and skilfully. The raid on the family's store has a terrifying immediacy, captured by the director's handheld digital cameras, and while the film is often ugly to look at, it does at its best evoke the dangerous vibrancy of rainswept Manila streets at night. The threat is tangible inside the police station too, where the officers are laid-back and jovial until the time comes to intimidate Rosa and her husband, or the supplier whom they are forced to give up. But the air goes out of the picture when the focus shifts away from Rosa, which is a surprising move – despite the acting plaudits she received in Cannes, she's offscreen for a large chunk of Ma' Rosa. Instead, the story is picked up by her children, who are forced to try and raise the cash required to free their parents by any means possible. They sell their possessions and one sells his body, but the limited performances of the younger actors and the lack of context Mendoza provides (is this the first time he's had sex for cash? He doesn't seem particularly perturbed by the idea) ensures this section of the film lacks tension and direction. Only towards the very end, when Rosa drives the narrative once more, does Ma' Rosa spark again. The final close-up of her sweat-drenched face – tired, anxious, defiant – makes you wish Mendoza had trusted it more.
Zoology (directed by Ivan Tverdovskiy)
A tall tale about a long tail, Zoology is an offbeat fable about the way our differences define us, and the way people treat those who refuse to conform, particularly potent message in contemporary Russia. At the start of Ivan Tverdovskiy's film, Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) is unpopular and unhappy, cruelly mocked – both in and out of earshot – by her colleagues at the zoo for being a dowdy, introverted middle-aged woman with no prospects. Everything swiftly and inexplicably changes for Natasha when she collapses at work and complains of a pain in her lower back. The next day she visits her doctor, and he seems remarkably unflappable in the face of the fleshy tail that has suddenly materialised at the base of her spine, sending her for an x-ray where she forms an unlikely bond with a hunky radiologist (Dmitri Groshev). Soon the erstwhile wallflower is getting a new haircut, wearing fashionable clothes, drinking, dancing and being emboldened rather than oppressed by the secret that she has hidden under her skirt.
It's fun to see Natasha come out of her shell, particularly as Pavlenkova is such a delightful screen presence, her face bearing an impish grin as she overhears the town gossips spreading rumours about a cursed woman in the vicinity, but it doesn't take long for the tide to turn. Her boss rounds on her for the way she now dresses and acts at work, her accidental revelation of her appendage at a club causes mass panic, and we suspect her new boyfriend's attraction may be a case of fetishisation rather than love. That final point is made in a startling scene towards the end of the film, but at other times Tverdovskiy seems uncertain of where he wants to take his unusual premise. The film touches on notions of religion and new age mysticism in sequences that are funny but don't have much evident purpose, and ultimately the meaning of it all feels frustratingly out of reach, with a sense of inevitability hovering over the film's climactic image.