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Cannes Dispatch 5: A Critical Favorite from Korea and a Less-Loved American Film

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By Dennis Lim

When the prizes are handed out tomorrow, it’s almost inconceivable that Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” will not be among the major winners. This superbly controlled melodrama is Lee’s return to directing after a four-year stint as the South Korean minister of culture and tourism. Engrossing and unpredictable, his new film is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, so the briefest of synopses will have to suffice. A young widow moves to her late husband’s hometown of Miryang (the literal translation provides the English title); about a third of the way in, a catalyzing event propels her character — and the film — into entirely unexpected directions.

Jeon Do-yeon works through a remarkable spectrum of emotions in the lead role, and she has fine comic/empathic support from “The Host” star Song Kang-ho, as a local mechanic who becomes her befuddled suitor. Without getting too much into specifics: It’s a film that both acknowledges the absurdity and understands the necessity of its heroine’s actions. The idea of religion-as-salvation is handled even-handedly, with crucial skepticism and an absence of condescension.

There are unavoidable shades of “A Woman Under the Influence,” but Lee’s close study of a female psyche in crisis also recalls the unblinking directness (if not the aesthetic strategies) of two mid-’90s films: “Safe” and “Breaking the Waves.” The film’s secret weapon is its disarming plainness — a transparency that confers a kind of grace and belies an emotional complexity. It’s about as limpid and unexploitative a film as you could imagine on the subject of human suffering.

“Secret Sunshine” is a near unanimous favorite among the critics. James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” on the other hand, provoked a (wholly unwarranted) chorus of boos at its first press screening. Only Gray’s third film in a dozen years, this heartfelt cop movie — set against a late ’80s Brooklyn backdrop — finds the talented, underemployed director of “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” still mining the turf he apparently knows best: immigrant, blue-collar, outer-borough New York.

Pitting noble, hard-bitten cops against drug-dealing, club-owning Russian mobsters, “We Own the Night” could be accused of a certain upright conservatism, portraying as it does pre-Giuliani NYC as a crime-infested Gomorrah. (That same critique, substituting Reagan for Giuliani, could also apply to the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” very pointedly set in 1980.) Still, setting aside the sometimes creaky plot machinery, there’s plenty to recommend this film: a fine Joaquin Phoenix performance; three brilliant action sequences (including a car chase in a convincing digital downpour); and some potent ideas about class aspiration and immobility. The main complaints have been about the predictability of the plot, but Gray is plainly aiming for the emotional intensity and grand inevitability of Greek tragedy. Grave, earnest, not especially interested in humor or irony, he may not be a fashionable filmmaker, as the critical response has confirmed. In fact, he’s something of an anachronism; at his best, though, he’s also one of the few true classicists working in American movies.

[Photo: James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” Columbia Pictures, 2007]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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