Film Comment Selects 2006

The latest edition of “Film Comment Selects,” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual survey of recent world cinema chosen by the editors and writers of the bimonthly magazine Film Comment, offers a varied selection from many diverse countries, with as many different approaches to style and subject matter. The series, screening at the Walter Reade Theater from February 15 through February 28, ranges from unique approaches to genre films to unclassifiable and provocative experimental work. Reflecting what is an ongoing trend in many of the world’s film festivals, films from Asia are abundantly represented in the series, about half of the features being shown.

Ernest Abdyshaparov’s Saratan (2005) is a modest and quite appealing comedy depicting the struggles of a Kyrgyzstan town, as the people contend with lack of resources as they try to make it on their own years after the republic’s independence from the former Soviet Union. The film follows a town mayor (Kumondor Abylov) and the thousand daily headaches he must contend with, such as a nagging wife who constantly belittles his low status and the fact that no one tries to bribe him, elders complaining about late pension payments, complaints from victims of a sheep thief (Tabyldy Aktanov) roaming the village at night, and a Communist firebrand (Shambyl Kamchiev) who loudly voices dissatisfaction with town leadership and writes lengthy manifestoes for his police statements. Meanwhile, the town’s police chief spends much of his time on the job chasing after seemingly every attractive woman in the town, married or unmarried. We first see him sneaking out a woman he has brought to the station to spend the night with him. He catches the sheep thief after sneaking out of a married woman’s house. Abdyshaparov, in his debut feature (which won the top prize at the 2005 Marrakech film festival), makes effective use of the beautiful landscapes of Central Asia (filmed in the little-used Academy ratio), and natural and funny performances by his nonprofessional cast. Many of the characters are quite unique and memorable, such as a woman who uses the policeman to frighten her daughter-in-law into obeying her, and the three alcoholics who lament the destruction of the land. Songs and lively local color also contribute to this film’s considerable charm.

Masahiro Kobayashi’s Bashing (2005) takes as its inspiration the ostracism experienced by Japanese humanitarian workers in Iraq after surviving kidnapping there. The film’s protagonist, Yuko (played with quiet intensity by Fusako Urabe), an aid worker recently returned after being freed, is a withdrawn and sullen woman plagued by constant harassment by strangers and threatening anonymous phone calls at home. As the film begins, Yuko in short order loses her job as a hotel maid, and her boyfriend coldly rejects her, astonishingly telling her that if she had been killed, she would have been a hero, but having returned alive, she is now simply “an embarrassment to all Japan.” Yuko’s father (Ryuzo Tanaka) also loses his factory job of 30 years due to the negative attention his daughter’s return has caused. The film, set in the cold landscape of Hokkaido, hones in with laser focus on Yuko’s oppression, aided by the roving, stalking camerawork that at times recalls the Dardenne brothers. Minute, repetitious details of her drab existence dominate: trudging up the steps to the apartment where she lives with her parents; making her soup order at the local minimart; lying in her bed, curled up in a fetal position; and staring wistfully at the ocean, contemplating a return to the place that, however dangerous, was the only place she felt useful and loved. Interestingly enough, the film, as harsh as it is in condemning Yuko’s treatment by society, does not make her simply a helpless victim. Yuko is not entirely sympathetic. She often walls herself off even from those closest to her, especially her parents, who, unlike everyone else, are mostly supportive of her work. It is also clear that her aid work is not entirely altruistic; Iraq was an escape from a country where she felt a failure, and a place where she was adored by the children she worked with and fed sweets.

Kobayashi’s film is a rather blunt but compelling critique of some of the intolerant and cruel elements of Japanese society. The film, other than an opening statement saying that the film was based on true events, does not attempt to put its scenario in a larger context (Iraq is not mentioned at all), which may make the film’s oppressive sense of claustrophobia seem irrational and farfetched. Being aware, for example, that in 2004 (when the true events that Bashing takes as its inspiration occurred) Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made public statements blaming the hostages for their predicament, greatly enhances one’s understanding of the situation the film presents. Nevertheless, Kobayashi, aided by Fusako Urabe’s complex performance, and strong work by the supporting cast, intensely portrays the persecution suffered, especially in rigid and moralistic societies, by those who step outside of that society’s constricted roles.

Stanley Kwan’s Everlasting Regret (2005), based on a popular 1996 novel by Wang Anyi, follows the travails of Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) and her love life, and frequent abandonment by said lovers, in Shanghai from the 30s to the 80s. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the real star of the show is the stunning and sumptuous production design by William Chang, best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. And indeed, stylistically this film most closely recalls Wong’s works, for example the wistful voiceover, spoken by Cheng (Tony Leung Ka-fai), the photographer who enters her in a beauty contest and subsequently harbors an unrequited love for Qiyao that lasts throughout the film’s time frame. Also, the beautiful women’s elaborate hair, costume changes, and successive romantic entanglements also evoke Wong’s films. Compared to Kwan’s earlier works, most notably Rouge (1987), Center Stage (1992), and Lan Yu (2001), Everlasting Regret can only be seen as a definite disappointment. The film’s main weakness is Sammi Cheng’s performance, or more precisely, her lack of one. Cheng is most in her element in light romantic comedies and genre films that are not too demanding in performance terms. Unfortunately, in this film, she is clearly out of her depth, and stubbornly remains a cipher and a blank slate. Even though her character could be said to be one that holds her emotions tightly in check, she comes across as simply a passive, inert object. This makes it impossible to identify with her or feel anything for her predicament, and the few times she allows herself to express great emotion, it seems wildly inappropriate and over the top.

Kwan, in approaching this material, adopts a counterintuitive strategy, telling this epic story without overt melodrama. This results in everything kept resolutely at a distance, a beautiful object with little depth. It also doesn’t help that the film has a confusing, fragmented narrative that reads as a Cliff-notes version of both Wang’s novel, and the historical periods. Consequently, Kwan’s film comes off as a study for a female-centered drama (a genre Kwan is constantly drawn to) than a fully realized one. Only Leung and Su Yan, in her fresh and charming performance as Qiyao’s friend Lili (one wishes she and Cheng could have switched roles), manage to rise above the film’s shallowness.

Shinji Aoyama’s Eli, Eli Lema Sabachtani? (2005) is a film that will probably test most audience members’ patience. An endeavor that is the dictionary definition of uncommercial, from its singularly odd title (Aramaic for Jesus’ last words on the cross: “My Lord, why have you forsaken me?) to the lack of conventional narrative and its ear-splitting industrial noise-rock sound design, Aoyama’s film nevertheless has enough distinctive qualities for those willing to invest the time. Aoyama’s earlier masterpiece Eureka (2000) examined the aftermath of a senseless massacre, evoking a moody, desolate landscape. This new film mines similar terrain, outlining a near future apocalyptic sci-fi scenario in which many in the world have been stricken by an epidemic known as the Lemming Syndrome, a viral infection that compels its victims to commit suicide. The film begins by observing two musicians, Mizui (Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (Masaya Nakahara) as they collect ambient sounds and household objects to incorporate into their noise-rock studio sessions. Most of the film’s music consists of these compositions, often played at extremely loud volume, to the point where this sound becomes a character in the film, having a tactile quality of its own. Their music seems to have a therapeutic on their listeners, helping to stave off the mysterious epidemic. The musicians are tracked down by a rich business executive (Yasutaka Tsutsui) and his private detective (Masairo Toda) who wishes to enlist them to cure his granddaughter Hana (Aoi Miyazaki, from Eureka), whose parents died from the disease and is in danger of falling victim to it herself.

As I’ve mentioned before, those wanting a conventional film are well advised to steer clear. But viewers who are more open-minded, especially those inclined toward experimental or avant-garde cinema will find much to admire here. Masaki Tamra’s widescreen cinematography, consisting of many vast, empty landscapes and circular shots is often quite beautiful and striking, especially during the musicians’ club performances and the film’s climactic outdoor concert sequence. All of the elements are quite effective in creating a unique cinematic experience that is often wryly playful and ultimately quite optimistic and hopeful, despite the film’s doomsday scenario.

For the past five years, the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea has funded an annual omnibus project, “Digital Shorts by Three Filmmakers,” in which three Asian filmmakers are invited to make films with complete creative freedom, using the latest digital technology. The three completed films, after their premiere at the festival, then travel to other venues, together as a package. The latest (2005) edition features three filmmakers with distinctive, and wildly divergent, styles: Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Japan’s Shinya Tsukamoto, and Korea’s Song Il-gon.

The best short of the three, Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires, contains a dedication at the end: “For Memories of the Jungle 2001-2005.” Indeed, this often funny and beautifully shot film returns him to the milieu of his two previous features: Blissfully Yours (2002), in which a couple escapes to the jungles for a respite from their problems; and Tropical Malady (2004), a love story between two men that morphs into a mystical reverie. Worldly Desires references, and often parodies, these earlier films, following two film crews shooting simultaneous projects: during the day, a feature film about a couple on the run; and at night, a music video of a quite lovely pop song, featuring a female singer and a cadre of backup dancers. This film also hearkens to the director’s early experimental films, a form he continues to return to. There is much sly wit on display, such as crew members commenting on landscape shots and indulging in Hollywood gossip, and two men taking a leak with the pop song as musical accompaniment.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Haze screened in New York in its longer form at the New York Film Festival. It encapsulates the considerable strengths and weaknesses of this always fascinating filmmaker, who has refined his distinctive visual style ever since his breakthrough with Tetsuo the Iron Man (1998). This and subsequent films such as Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998), A Snake of June (2002), and Vital (2004) are all handmade and bear his unique stamp. Tsukamoto wears multiple hats in the creation of his films, writing, photographing, editing and often starring in his films. However, his prodigious cinematic talents often come at the expense of narrative and logical coherence. In Haze, Tsukamoto takes full advantage of the flexibility of digital technology to tell the elliptical Poe-like tale of a man (Tsukamoto) who wakes up, bloodied, in a cramped space, not knowing how he got there. He must contend with his confusion and fear, not to mention dismembered cadavers, nerve-wracking sounds, and sharp metal objects appearing out of nowhere. He hears the voice of a woman (Kaori Fujii) who he may have known in the world outside of this bizarre confinement. Tsukamoto effectively uses off-screen space and fragmentary editing to create tension in the viewer. However, in the end it amounts to very little, just a baffling outline for a story rather than a complete one. It seems simply to pander to Tsukamoto’s reputation as a purveyor of “extreme” cinema.

Song Il-gon, currently one of Korea’s most interesting filmmakers, is no stranger to digital films, having already shot two features (Flower Island [2001]and Git [2004]) in this format. Song’s contribution, Magician(s), is the most technically audacious of three, consisting of a single 40-minute take. (Song subsequently expanded this short into a 95-minute feature, preserving the single-take technique.) The surviving members of the rock band Magician have gathered at a bar in the woods for the anniversary of the death of a female member who committed suicide. Song collapses the present and the past so that they occur simultaneously in his scenario. The dead woman appears throughout the film as an unseen figure in the present, as the other band members drink and struggle to come to terms with the death of their friend, and in the past in flashbacks with her boyfriend in the band, and the circumstances that led to her suicide. A pan of the camera, and the movement of a character becomes a trip through memory. Although the film doesn’t quite shake the sense of being an elaborate technical stunt, it remains quite compelling, mostly due to the impressive work of Song’s cast.

Lu Chuan’s Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) dramatizes the true story of the volunteer patrol who, from 1993 until they were disbanded in 1996, tried to prevent the destruction of the Tibetan antelope, which was being hunted wholesale for their pelts. In the film, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a Beijing journalist follows the patrol, headed by Ritai (Duobuji), as they track down poachers, one of whom murdered one of the patrol. Most of the film depicts the increasingly dangerous trek through this majestic and beautiful, but also harsh, forbidding and deadly terrain. There is no simple dichotomy, with the patrol as simple heroes, and the poachers as mere ruthless villains. There is moral ambiguity on both sides: the patrol is often forced to sell seized pelts for food and supplies, and often abandon their loved ones for the cause, while some of the poachers are driven to this activity as an alternative to starvation and homelessness. Most of the cast are nonprofessional Tibetans, and in the brief respite from their life-threatening vocation, we can glimpse the richness of their lives and culture. Lu adopts a radically different style from the rapid editing of his first feature The Missing Gun (2002), opting for long takes and a slower pace, echoing the patrol’s travels, aided greatly by Yu Cao’s impressive cinematography.

The series also features three recent films by the incredibly prolific Raul Ruiz, including The Lost Domain (2004) and Days in the Country (2004). Many of Ruiz’s films are often heady concoctions containing elements of B-movie thrillers, absurdist dialogue, wicked wordplay, elaborate visual jokes, and labyrinthine conspiracies. Ce Jour-la (That Day) (2003) is a prime example of this filmmaker’s delirious scenarios, which make his films a decidedly acquired taste. Set in a near-future Switzerland, seemingly ruled by shadowy military juntas (army vehicles roll through the streets in many scenes), this film, beyond its outrageous and bloody body count, is a potent satire of the intersection between corporations and the state. The intricate plot revolves around Livia (Elsa Zylberstein), a dotty, eccentric beauty who seems unaware that she is heir to a vast fortune resulting from a bottled sauce called Salsox (the focus of a funny restaurant scene). It seems that her family members have conspired to have her killed, headed by her own father Harald (Michel Piccoli), who hopes to gain her fortune to save himself from impending financial ruin. Harald arranges the escape of a psychopathic serial killer, Pointpoirot (Bernard Giraudeau) from a nearby mental institution, so that he can murder her while she is left alone at the family’s palatial mansion. The film becomes as unhinged as Livia and Pointporot, as the family’s plans go awry and the bodies pile up. The serial killer is also a diabetic, stopping to buy a digital blood glucose monitor before his killing spree, obsessively checking the readings between knifing and shooting the family members who come to the house. All authority figures, most notably two policemen who are supposed to be out looking for the escaped killer, are either indifferent or actively complicit in the crimes. Ruiz’s signature visuals are all present: the distortion of the image as Pointporot has hypoglycemic attacks, odd shifts of focus and framing, fluid tracking shots. Ruiz’s scenario recalls trashy dime-store thrillers, Agatha Christie locked-room mysteries, and some of Claude Chabrol’s recent work.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ odd, elliptical, and deliberately obscurantist Kinetta (2005) follows a plainclothes detective (Kostas Xikominos), a photo shop clerk (Aris Servetalis), and a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), who obsessively restage murders by a serial killer victimizing a Greek seaside resort. The film completely dispenses with any typical genre elements, focusing on the progressively disturbing fascination all of the participants find in their odd vocation. The near-complete lack of dialogue and the nervous handheld camerawork contribute to make the film a baffling experience. However, unlike other recent films that breathe new life in this well-worn genre by focusing more on unique characters than thriller mechanics (most notably Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder [2003]), Kinetta ultimately tries the viewer’s patience with its sub-Lynchian pretensions.

In contrast to the confusing Kinetta, Billy O’Brien’s nasty nature run-amok thriller Isolation (2005) demonstrates that there is sometimes a virtue to hewing to B-movie conventions, if it is done with verve and style. Dan Reilly (John Lynch, in a compelling performance that alone elevates the film), in debt due to his failing farm, allows the farm to be hired out to an ethically-challenged (to say the least) geneticist (Marcel Iures) conducting DNA experiments to enhance cows’ fertility. Predictably, however, things quickly go horribly awry, as the mutant cow fetuses escape and terrorize those on the farm, including a vet (Essie David) and a couple (Ruth Negga and Sean Harris) hiding out in a trailer on the property. The film’s moody cinematography and Cronenbergian body horror atmospherics, make the film diverting and entertaining, and in all an above-average addition to the now very-crowded gory horror-film genre.

Famed photographer William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton, his only film to date, was shot in 1974 in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood Mississippi, with the Sony Porta-pak, an early video technology priced for the consumer market. Eggleston replaced the lens with a Bolex 16-millimeter lens that provided greater clarity. Even though he is best known for his pioneering work in color photography, Stranded in Canton features luminous, ghostly black-and-white images. Eggleston shot 30 hours of raw footage which was edited into a 76 minute film, with a voiceover by Eggleston. It stands now as a time capsule of long-gone haunts populated by various colorful personages, such as bar hoppers, musicians, geeks decapitating chickens with their teeth, drag queens, and partygoers indulging in drunken Russian roulette. Opening with images of Eggleston’s own children, Stranded in Canton is a freewheeling portrait of areas of the South the photographer turned his brutally honest lens on. Eggleston himself will make a rare appearance at the New York premiere.

Other potential highlights of the series include Mexican filmmaker’s controversial Cannes selection Battle in Heaven (2005), the follow-up to his astonishing debut, Japon (2002). Also, Elaine May, best known as a comedy writer and performer (as part of an act with director Mike Nichols), and an accomplished director in her own right. All four of her features – A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and the notorious Ishtar (1987) – will screen in the series. Elaine May will appear in person for a special screening of Ishtar. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a major Japanese director, will be represented by his latest film, Loft (2005).

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