2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Eleven – COLD WAR and SHOPLIFTERS
When the program book for the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival dropped, I immediately circled today as the highlight. There were two awards season heavy hitters with Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow up to IDA in COLD WAR and Hirokazu Kore-ada’s latest rumination on family in SHOPLIFTERS. Pawel Pawlikowski had come home with a Best Director prize at Cannes and Hirokazu Kore-ada had walked away with the Palme d’Or for SHOPLIFTERS. Walking into the films, I had every reason to expect great things. And they both delivered.
COLD WAR is a love story loosely inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s parents. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a composer, pianist, and leader of a folk art company in post-war Poland engaged by the Communist government to create a world class celebration of the peasants / proletariat. Zula (Joanna Kulig) auditions for the company and he’s instantly intrigued. They fall deeply in love, but separated by the lure to escape Communism, even if it means a loss of prestige and power, amidst a divided Europe. There are crossings back and forth as it’s clear that these two can’t live happily without each other, even if the world is driving them to misery. It’s heartbreaking.
COLD WAR is also very beautiful. Pawlikowski eschewed wide frame in favor of the Academy ratio for IDA and he repeats that here, to perhaps even better effect. The compositions are beautiful and it forces an intimacy between the characters in the frame. With the chilly black and white photography, the close compositions, and the wonderful chemistry between Kot, who’s very good, and Kulig, who’s flat out terrific, form and content are perfectly aligned. I heard some grumblings about the final resolution of COLD WAR, but I think it’s all on point. COLD WAR is one of the best films of the year.
Hirokazu Kore-ada has explored the concept of what makes a family in numerous films and this might be his magnum opus on the subject. In SHOPLIFTERS a family of thieves and scam artists take in a young girl in an abusive situation. She’s not theirs by birthright, but certainly finds herself in a better place. Maybe, at least, given that Kore-ada is interested in the nuances and questions as much, of if not more than, simple statements.
SHOPLIFTERS displays all of Kore-ada’s trademarks. An understated, realistic tone, exquisitely natural compositions, a light touch with humor, and thoroughly realistic and flawed characters. Even when set in the midst of winter, it’s warm and full of life. The film could easily slip into overly sentimental fantasy, and Kore-ada leads the viewer a way up that path, before he reminds everyone of the gravity and reality of the situation. All of that is brought even more to the fore by the cast of terrific actors, lead by the late great Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch, who lend depth and complexity to all the characters. The humanity and complexity are the point of Kore-ada’s films, and every flawed character here is a wonderful asset to creating a buffet of emotions and ideas. SHOPLIFTERS is also one of the best films of the year. SHOPLIFTERS is also one of the best films of the year.
I expect both COLD WAR and SHOPLIFTERS to be nominated for Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Academy Awards. Both have theatrical runs coming up, albeit you’ll likely have to wait until January in Milwaukee. COLD WAR only had one showing at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival, but SHOPLIFTERS has a final encore on Thursday, November 1st at 7 pm at the Avalon Theater. The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 18, 2018 to November 1, 2018. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.