February 1, 2006

FYC. 2.

Koreanfilm.org contributor Adam Hartzell has recently seen half a dozen films submitted to the Academy in the Foreign Language category. Over the weekend, we ran his take on three: Say Good Morning to Dad, On the Other Side and What a Wonderful Place. In this second part, he considers Shop of Dreams and Ahead of Time and two he would like to have seen nominated, The Ruins and Gie.

Rafael Film Center As commonly happens around Oscar time, acquaintances will ask me for my picks. I try my best not to disappoint them while still speaking truthfully. I try to tell them the Oscars don't interest me much so I don't really care who wins, whose nominated, what so-and-so's wearing, what so-and-so said, etc. But I also understand the economic impact it can have for some compelling films that very much need the PR. It's not the answer people expect, as if when asked, "How are you?," I went into a litany of physical and emotional complaints or a theoretical discussion about how the question confines you to one state rather than simply answering with the obligatory, "Fine."

Or even more, it's like in Me and You and Everyone We Know when Christine asks Richard what happened to his hand and he presents a long and short story. Long version: "I tried to save my life but it didn't work." Short version: "I burned it." The "long" and "short" here are not meant to measure the length of time it takes to tell the story, but depth of experience. The long gets at the heart of the matter whereas the short gets at the facts. When people ask me about my Oscar picks, they don't want to hear a long dissertation about the Oscars, they just want to know the short picks.

So why am I, someone who doesn't watch the Oscars, talking about the submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film category? Well, because I care about the long version. I care about the depth of experience I have with a film. And presently, I'm having that type of experience with subtitled cinema. So since the San Rafael Film Center has allowed me to play Academy member for a weekend with its selection of submissions from around the world, I figured I'd take advantage of this rare opportunity. And this second installment addresses two films that I'd love to have seen nominated.

Shop of Dreams But let's get rid of some of the chaff first. The worst of the bunch I saw was Estonia's submission, Shop of Dreams, directed by Peeter Urbla. This film follows three women who start up a costume rental business. But "follows" is really being generous because the primary problem here is that the film jumps around what barely exists as a swatch of a plot. What emerges is a story as jittery as the camera work of the poorly laid out side-plot involving an unethical documentarian, or as hodge-podged as the clashing contrasts of patterns worn by the make-up artist. (Although I do love the shawl of stuffed animals stitched together reminiscent of the pants Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea used to wear.) The dialogue suggests the possibility that the costumes the women rent were actual costumes from films of Estonia's past. But I haven't been able to confirm whether that is indeed the case, so its only saving grace falls as limply as these costumes tossed across the screen. To say any more about this film would be to distract from the films truly worth the Academy's attention.

Ahead of Time Perhaps Shop of Dreams should have been a musical like Iceland's entry, Ahead of Time, directed by Águst Guðmundsso, because its jumping around might then have been justified by genre conventions. (Astute readers will note that I didn't mention Iceland in my first report. Correct. In the middle of the week, I decided to take the ferry back to the North Bay to catch one more film in the series.) The land that has gifted the world with Björk, Sigur Rós and Múm (and punished us whenever Einar stepped up to the mike for The Sugarcubes) submits a musical comedy to the Academy. This is a follow-up to a sequel of another musical comedy directed by Güdmundsson in 1982, so the band that has re-formed here are quite old for the teeny-bopper competition they enter, which is the basis of much of the comedy, finding humor in the uncoolest of hipsters. I'm not a fan of musicals, so it says something that I found myself smitten by the general absurdity of the ditties at the beginning, but then the usual musical tropes got old for me. I liked the chorus of random Icelanders in the first few numbers and the lovely self-ridicule of Iceland's recent hot status as the land that will help us 12-step away from our addiction to oil by investigating the energy potential of hydrogen, but the film drags too much in the middle for me to recommend it.

The Ruins Whereas, Slovenia's entry, The Ruins, by Janez Burger, reaches a fever pitch at its golden end. The Ruins is my kind of film, very heady and revolving around heightened social discomfort. A Croatian director is helping Slovenia get globalized by bringing a long lost Icelandic play to the stage. The director makes the mistake (or was this intended?) of casting his wife and his best friend, and the romantic tension required for the role begins to pull the director onto the stage along with his actors. As is often the case with films about actors, the film brings up questions about how we perform in our "real" lives and how we might purposely put ourselves in situations that allow for exits and entries from our own personal stage. Speaking of performances, the primary players here weave together some powerfully primal portrayals. The film disturbs me not on a shock-for-shock's-sake level, but for how viciously manipulative people can be with each other. In the audience, I can sit back and ask, "Why does it have to be this way?" But when you are out there in the world performing the roles you've taken on for yourself or the roles you think you've been assigned, it's more difficult to get the distance of perspective that watching a film allows. As I said, these are the kind of films I prefer and I find myself itching to see this film again to see if my impressions hold up. But I'm well aware that my interests can be peculiar to most, so as much as it's my favorite of the films, I would have deferred a nomination to a wonderful film that is much more accessible to a wider audience.

And that would be Indonesia's entry, the excellent biopic Gie, from Riri Riza. The film takes a look at a significant chunk of the life of Chinese-Indonesian activist Soe Hok Gie. Gie grew up in the time of the Sukarno government and is presented to us as a sensitive young man who was an avid reader of great books. Yet his sensitivity does not preclude him from taking solid stands to advocate for democratic reform. Gie sees democracy in artistic forms such as literature and film and seeks an independent voice rather than one associated with the warring political parties forming around him at university.

Gie I knew nothing of Gie before watching this film, so I don't assume I'm being told the whole story anymore than Riza did himself, saying as much at the beginning that Gie the film is an interpretation of Gie the life. But I respect that Gie is presented here as complicated, showing his faults along with his triumphs. Apparently Gie had trouble conveying his affection for the woman who most mattered to him. And as for his feelings about a prostitute his friends arranged for him to meet, it's a little disappointing that a young man so adamant about identifying with the lowly pedi-cab driver couldn't find himself relating equally to the eternally marked sex worker. But that's what makes this biopic different from the ones that show us inhuman saints. Gie is a human figure whose strengths far outweigh his failures. We are given more than a glimpse at what he accomplished, what he would have been capable of later in life, and what work still needs to be carried on by us. And never do we find the spectacle of the film overriding the work of all the individuals involved in this stage of Indonesia's history. More than anything, this film made me want to know more about Gie, his contemporaries, and Indonesian history. And that is the lasting impact of quality world cinema that truly transcends its time and place while remaining rooted there at the same time. Even though I prefer The Ruins out of all the films I saw, choosing a "Best" film in any award category at festivals is all about negotiation. And I would be willing to fold all my cards to have Gie selected as a nominee.

Sadly, Gie didn't make the cut. I haven't seen any of the films that did make the nominees list. Perhaps they are interesting films, but I'm still disappointed. We have a primarily European contingent, such as Germany's biopic Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Marc Rothemund). (In another case of submission serendipity, Gie makes admirable mention of Sophie Scholl as a role model for political action.) And the two non-European nominees have already been distributed, Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad), or have already been guaranteed distribution, Tsotsi (Gavin Hood).

The Academy missed a great opportunity by not selecting Gie. For once the Academy could have been ahead of the game rather than following a trend considering that Southeast Asian cinema looks to be on the verge. In marketing speak, "It's the New Korea!" - "The New New Hong Kong!" If only they had ignored the long running time like I did the parking ticket that resulted from its length; for once the Academy could have been part of the introduction rather than a note in the epilogue of the story about a region's vibrant cinema. If only the United States would stop looking for comedy in the Muslim world and just honor this excellent film created indigenously. (At least, there's still a chance for Paradise Now to make that happen.)

Yet again, the Academy has refused to garner my interest. On Oscar night, you won't find me watching a TV. You'll find me watching a film in a theatre instead. I'm sure I won't be alone.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 1, 2006 6:44 AM


Adam: Thanks so much for your synopsis of the foreign films shown at the San Rafael. And especially for your fine review of "Gie", which I likewise viewed. Your disappointment that "Gie" was not nominated by the Academy and what it might have meant had it been nominated got me thinking. In the last year I have become enamored with film from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand. The Bali massacre mentioned in "Gie" is the first mention I have ever heard of yet another horrific human atrocity. As much as this knowledge saddens me, I'm ever aware that vigilance is required. History is so vast and filmmakers help us learn in focused ways. As do your synopses. Thanks again.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at February 3, 2006 5:56 PM

Thank you, Michael.

I am hoping that GIE gets some sort of distribution, along with many of the films I've been hearing about from that region of the world. I missed all the Malaysian films featured at the San Francisco International due to schedule conflicts. (I was out of the country; quite a scheduling conflict.) So I hope I have some second chances in the future.


Posted by: at February 6, 2006 3:31 PM

Very sorry to hear you missed the Malaysian features, Adam; I was hoping we could swap notes.

I'm sure you already know, but, there's a notable discussion about "Gie" between critics Lisabona Rahman and Paul Agusta at the Criticine website.


They're fairly critical of the film, but, I was intrigued by their focus on the homoerotic themes. My friend who accompanied me to "Gie" picked up on that, but, I didn't much. Did you?

Posted by: Michael Guillen at February 6, 2006 3:40 PM