February 18, 2005

Berlin Dispatch. 6.

Now that the last of the films of the 55th Berlinale's Competition has been screened, the International Jury must be furiously deliberating - or partying, and if they are, we can be sure to see Bai Ling's bare midriff in the German papers yet again tomorrow. Either way, they'll be announcing all the Bears, Silver and Gold, tomorrow. Meantime, catching up quickly, with more notes following the jump...


Sokurov clarifies his position.

The soundtrack for Words in Blue (also known as Fear and Trembling in the States) features a sincere songster and his guitar, a guy who goes by the name of Christophe - that's it, just Christophe - who sounds like some remnant of late-70s European radio, and fortunately, there are no subtitled translations of his lyrics. Undoubtedly, they're laden with sickly metaphors linking love and stars and candles or what not. Pretty much wraps up all you need to know about the film. Oh, there are moments. Vincent (Sergi López) is occasionally fun to watch as a teacher at school for the deaf and dumb. Clara (Sylvie Testud) has enrolled her daughter, Anna (Camille Gautheir), there, even though she's actually physically capable of hearing and speaking. But Clara's overly protective approach to raising her has given her more than a few ticks, while Clara herself is terrified of the power of words, you see. The explanation for all this neurotic behavior, when it comes, is almost as absurd as the story's resolution.

Wes Anderson Anjelica Huston says she's seen The Life Aquatic six times now and sees something new in it each time, enough to make her revise her overall take on the film. I don't doubt it. Even as I simply kicked back and enjoyed the trip through what Huston calls "Wes World" (though the guy two seats down laughing maniacally every single line did threaten to spoil it all), I knew fairly early on that I'd want to see this again at some point. I don't have a lot to add to much of what's already been written and would pretty much agree with those who argued in the CONVERSATION last month that, while this comedy might not be one of Wes Anderson's best films, there are several passages at least that are richer than they seem at first glance. Comedies tend to be underrated like that.

The film aside, Huston, Anderson and a radiant Cate Blanchett showed for the press conference. What I find striking about Anderson these days is how open and friendly he seems compared to the half a dozen or so filmmakers Armond White has called the "American Eccentrics," which I take as a sign of confidence. He doesn't seem as driven by some fear of being found out in the way that, say - as much as I love his work - Spike Jonze does. You probably know that his next feature is an adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but what I didn't know is that he's also been considering making a documentary on Fran Lebowitz, an intriguing proposition.

As one last note on this one, I just have to chime in with Armond White's cheer: "Billmurray! Billmurray!"

I was probably not as devastated or as physically affected by The Wayward Cloud as Filmbrain was, but the film was nevertheless directly responsible for my decision to write shorts rather than reviews on Wednesday night - which is to say, "stunned" is probably a better word. And fortunately, this blog format allows me to get away with capsules rather than proper reviews, but I'm not even sure I'm ready to encapsulate. If I were, I'd find something to chew on with regard to the easiest criticism I've heard lobbed at it so far, that is, the whole sexist thing, by raising the example of Catherine Breillat - but as much as I would like to map out my own thoughts on the very different ways Breillat and Tsai Ming-liang confront the exceedingly complex and disturbing dynamics of explicit sex on film, I still need more time and distance. Not to mention re-viewings of What Time Is It There?, for which Cloud is something of a sequel, and of course, Cloud itself.

For a director whose films have so little dialogue, Tsai Ming-liang is surprisingly talkative and your online viewing (or listening) tip for this entry would be the press conference (scroll down to Wednesday) that immediately followed Cloud's world premiere; besides Tsai Ming-liang himself encouraging us to take the thoughts the film might provoke in our own directions, it's marvelous to see the serious dedication to him expressed by his actors. The press booklet, an handsome object, is also a keeper, with short prose poems by Tsai Ming-liang on each page and a shot of him lying on a white bed, on his back, his legs spread, and between them, a watermelon, sliced in half, its giant sopping red meat gaping at the camera. It was probably taken as he set up Cloud's opening scene, one of a few in which Tsai Ming-liang seems to be daring the audience to become aroused. While there are clinical and deeply sad depictions of sex in Cloud, unlike Breillat, Tsai Ming-liang also recognizes - and explores - our conflicted reactions to porn, the ways our revulsion in the face of blatant exploitation slams up against the other parts of us getting turned on, however voluntarily or involuntarily.

The balance between these two impulses slowly shifts back and forth throughout Cloud. To back up, briefly: Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) returns to Taiwan and happens to meet up again with Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng). "Are you still setting watches?" she asks him. That's the first and last line of dialogue between them. Wordlessly, then, they strike up their relationship again; he keeps it a secret from her that he now earns a living performing in cheap porn flicks.

He'd like to keep these two lives separate, and yet an erotic strain to their relationship flares up after all. Unplanned and, with aching resonance, in a tucked away, florescent-lit porn section of a video rental outlet. The flame that might have remained "pure" (as suggested in a scene in which they fry noodles together) is immediately tarnished by the reminder of Hsiao-kang's self-exploitation - which, it must be added, is not strictly a turn-off for Hsiao-kang, as we see most explicitly in a scene in which he looks on as one of the more degrading solo performances by a Japanese porn actress is being filmed and, privately, that is, neither for the camera nor for profit, he performs for himself alone.

Wayward Cloud, for the press

Lee Kang-sheng, producer Bruno Pesery, Tsai Ming-liang, Lu Yi-ching, Chen Shiang-chyi.

As many times as Tsai Ming-liang stresses that he's pro-eroticism and anti-porn - he considers porn an "abuse" of the body - I am disturbed by a worrying element of what you might call an anti-sex-positive note in all this; I could be wrong and, like I say, need to see the film again, right on up to its horrifically fascinating final sequence. I will go ahead and add, though, that I'd really rather do without the musical numbers. I realize they're meant to deflate romanticized notions of love and perhaps some might appreciate the breaks in the intensity of all that goes on between them, but their clunkiness, however intentional, distracts from the far better-realized scenes of what I think of as the actual film.

But this is merely scratching the surface. I have pages of notes to return to eventually (written after the screening; I don't understand note-taking during), but in the meantime, Tsai Ming-liang:

In this age of consumerism,
is there anything that can't be sold for profit?
Music videos, adult magazines, romantic comedies,
phone-sex services, porn films, used lingerie,
social escorts, hookers, kidneys, chest hair.
Nothing except love.
Can you buy love?
Do you still believe in love?

This Charming Girl That's a question Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo) might well ask herself if her friends don't ask her first. Lee Yoon-ki's debut feature, This Charming Girl, comes off at first as a small slice-of-life sort of portrait of this quiet and barely perceptibly lonely woman, but it crescendos - without ever raising its voice. Slowly at first, through a series of hand-held snippets from her daily life, playing out almost exclusively at the post office where she works and the apartment where she watches TV alone, we come to realize that Jeong-hae has issues. Security, for one, what with her locks and alarms. When she eventually sees that the kitten she rescues from the yard at the foot of her bare and imposing apartment building isn't going to fill the hole inside, she takes a step that could lead to disaster.

I'll leave it at that other than to say that, when it eventually becomes available, I'd highly recommend Charming for an evening when neither Hollywood nor standard American indie quirk will do.

The answer to the question, "So, what's The Sun about?" is promising: Following Moloch, his film about Hitler on the verge of collapse, and Taurus, a portrait of Lenin gorging on power, Sokurov presents the third in what'll eventually be a tetralogy on the nature of power and its effect on individuals who wield it, focusing this time on Emperor Hirohito during in the last days of World War II, as he decides to renounce the centuries-old Japanese tradition of holding emperors to be direct descendants of deity and to accept the unacceptable: defeat.

The first half of the film does not bode well as far as delivering on this promise is concerned. The compositions seem off-kilter, the colors murkier than usual (there are an infinite number of greenish browns but there is very little actual black and no white at all) and the editing seems clumsy. Plus, it's hard to tell where this first half-hour or hour is going or if it's actually going to go anywhere at all.

But things pick up considerably about halfway in as Hirohito stops merely talking about what he has in mind and begins to act on it. Historical figures are infamously hard to portray - the actor has to nail what we already know and then pick it all up and take it some place new - but we've seen two outstanding examples of how to go about it during this festival: Michel Bouquet as François Mitterand, and now, Issey Ogata as Hirohito, who faces far more than mere film critics in taking on the role.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is, in a way, all about Romain Duris's performance. To the great pleasure of the audience, he doesn't simply carry the film, he drives it. Sure, there are moments when he goes over the top, but that urge is inherent to the entire project, a remake of James Toback's Fingers and, I'd argue, one of those rare remakes that surpasses the original. Roars past, headlights flashing, horn honking.

Romain Duris

Romain Duris.

Again, given the nature of the other films in this section, you might chalk up some of my enthusiasm to sheer appreciation for a movie that, at last, moves. But it's not all swishy camerawork, fast cuts, thumping soundtrack and young Scorsese banter (though it's hard not to think of De Niro's Johnny Boy, watching Duris do a little dance before whacking his next whack). When the real estate gangster decides to give his true talent as a pianist a serious shot, the film builds to, for me, one of the great scenes of the festival in which two people confront each other in major speeches, each delivered in their own languages, neither of which the other understands - and each knows this - and both experience a minor epiphany. Great stuff. I won't explain, since the less known going in, the better.

The same - the less known, the better - goes double and triple for The Accused. I worry already that a twist in the plot will spill over to a twist in the film's fortunes, and that would be a crying shame. So I'll leave it at that and instead consider The Peacock and The Accused, directorial debuts for, respectively, a renowned cinematographer and a renowned editor, the two final screenings of the Competition (and this seems to be an odd Berlinale habit, saving some of the better films for the final days when much of the high-profile press has flown out and many of the marketeers have made their quota of deals), together.

The Peacock is a series of accomplished tableaus, both narratively and pictorially. In the foreground are two brothers and a sister. One of the brothers, the little thin one, as opposed to "Fatty," narrates here and there, while the sister (Zhang Jingchu) remains front and center. Just behind them are the parents, and behind them is the town that can pride itself on nothing other than at least not having to sink to the depths this family must, due to its relentless series of shames.

That, in part, is what makes it a fascinating "double feature" with The Accused, which is all about shame and humiliation as it's dealt out in one of the more western of western societies, Denmark. Here, it's not just that shame is not shared collectively; the collective seeks to lump it all onto one individual, just as the same social mores reward individual artists or entrepreneurs for collective achievements.

Beyond this juxtaposition, though, is the contrast between what a cinematographer looks for a film to be and what an editor needs a film to be. Gu Changwei can afford handing over to the audience the task of filling in the gaps of a post-Cultural Revolution epic, while Jacob Tuesen discovers pin-pointed spots within his story that the very same audience might miss if he didn't know precisely which shot needed what for every single subordinate clause and prepositional phrase to get its due.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 18, 2005 6:20 PM


That single line is without a doubt the best, most accurate review of The Life Aquatic I've come across.

Posted by: Filmbrain at February 19, 2005 7:36 AM

David, thanks so much for the extended coverage of Berlinale; it was very enjoyable reading. As someone who has written festival journals before, I know how exhausting they can be with so many screenings, summaries, food on the run, and scattered venues. And you even took time to meet some 'Net denizens in the flesh, which is genuinely important consideration these days. Stellar job.

Posted by: Doug at February 19, 2005 3:59 PM

Many thanks, Doug. Now, if I only wrote half as perceptively as you do at filmjourney.org, we'd really have something here. As you can imagine, I'm always glad the Berlinale ends on a weekend. Gives you a chance to catch up with sleep!

Filmbrain: Talk to you again soon.

Posted by: David Hudson at February 20, 2005 1:12 AM