The Athens International Film Festival took place from April 27th to May 3rd. It’s one of the annual events that just about everyone in Athens looks forward to. Because of my teaching schedule, I only had time to see two films this year: The Host and The Lives of Others. Both were good.

Here’s the trailer for The Host:

The Host is ostensibly about an amphibious monster, presumably a mutated fish, that terrorizes sunbathers on the shores of the Han River. Gang-du, who works at a food stand near the shore, and his daughter, Hyun-seo, are among the crowd of people running for their lives when the monster strikes. When Gang-du accidentally lets go of his daughter’s hand, she is snapped up by the monster, who soon disappears into the river. After authorities, worried about the monster and an apparently related break-out of a new virus, evacuate the area, Gang-du receives a call from his daughter, who says she’s still alive. The rest of the film follows his efforts to convince his family and the authorities that he must return to the sewer system surrounding the river to rescue her.

While that’s the ostensible plot, the movie is really an allegory about the destructive impact America has on countries like South Korea. We watch in the opening scene as an American military official orders his Korean assistant to dispose of toxic chemicals by pouring them down a sink drain. This pollution is what presumably leads to the monster’s mutation. As the film progresses, we see additional ways in which American foreign policy and military intervention harms the Korean people.

On the whole, this is a really good film. PJ and I were told by friends that the movie is comic more than suspenseful, which is the only reason I agreed to see it. Parts of it are hilarious. The trailer shows a brief glimpse of a scene in which Gang-du and his relatives are mourning Hyun-seo’s presumed death. Their mourning keeps getting more and more outrageous. By the time they are all rolling around on the floor, I couldn’t stop laughing. The movie’s a little long — a good 20 minutes (at least) could have been cut out of the middle — and I really didn’t like the ending (I just didn’t get it). But I certainly enjoyed it for the most part.

The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. Here’s the trailer for it:

The Lives of Others is set in East Germany in 1984. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by  Ulrich Mühe, is a secret service agent for the East German government and specializes in spying on potential dissidents. He is assigned to eavesdrop on a famous playwright and his actress girlfriend, in large measure because the actress is the recipient of a government official’s amorous attentions; the minister wants the playwright out of the picture so that he can move in without any competition.

Wiesler is very much a drone. He doesn’t even take off his clothes or indeed even do more than sit on his couch as he has sex with a prostitute he’s hired for a quickie. Although Wiesler is very good at his job and dutifully believes in what he is doing, as he hears more of these artists’ lives and begins to understand his superiors’ motivations he slowly comes to question not only this particular act of surveillance but the entire East German governing system as well. Eventually, he takes this questioning a step further into almost invisible but nevertheless active resistance.

Like The Host, The Lives of Others is a little too long — the middle section drags a bit. But this movie is nevertheless an excellent film. Ulrich Mühe is excellent as Wiesler. The entire film relies on the believability and ultimate likeability of his character. His low-key performance keeps us interested in the film, even when we’re not entirely sure of where it’s headed. For me, the last 20 minutes or so of the film really saved it by giving us an ending that is both powerful and rewarding. If I were a member of the academy, I may have voted for Pan’s Labyrinth instead of this one for Best Foreign Film, but The Lives of Others is nevertheless a really good film.