May 26, 2008

Seattle Dispatch. 2.

A round of reviews from Sean Axmaker at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Red Awn SIFF welcomed the North American premiere of The Red Awn, the directorial debut of Cai Shangjun (screenwriter of Zhang Yang's films, including Shower), in its opening weekend. The film leaves the urban cultures of Zhang's drama for a rural story of a father returning, after five years away looking for work in the city, to his home village where his wife has passed away and his son has had him pronounced legally dead. Yongtao, now a teenager, simmers with rage and resentment toward his long absent dad, who has left a veritable orphan since his mother's death, and the grudge continues even as they head out together to harvest the wheat fields with a local man who owns a combine. Cai is more circumspect than Zhang, both as a director and a writer of his own material, leaving us to put together what the father's life has been like in the city and why he's so forgiving of his son's increasingly defiant and destructive actions.

Meanwhile, he shows us a culture in rapid transition, where the rural folk (especially the young) flee the farms for work in the city and small armies of independent combines fan out over the countryside and compete for work. There are no tidy scenes of forgiveness or explanation, only a father whose astounding tolerance and protection of his ferociously angry son is a measure of his guilt and sense of failure, and a son who slowly comes around to grasping the chance that his father offers him.

Jose Padilha's Elite Squad [site] is a companion piece to City of God, this one from the perspective of the officer of BOPE, an elite squad of cops more like Marines than patrolmen. The film is crammed with examples of police corruption (the Elite Squad was created as an antidote to unrestrained extortion and graft) and gang predations, which gives the film a Dirty Harry justification for the astoundingly violent tactics and aggressive neglect of civil rights of this unit. And Padilha's strategy is rather suspect when he makes every liberal voice either hopelessly naïve or glibly hypocritical (the young activists, all children of privilege, are just another link in the drug trade chains). It's a busy whirlwind of a film with a narration that drives it as much as the jumpy direction. And yet, for all the glorification of the mercenary methods of this elite squad, it's still a fascinating portrait of a nightmarish police and crime culture and a vivid narrative. It comes down to survival: the favelas (ghettos) of Rio de Janeiro are literally a war zone, each district under the control of a drug warlord. You don't have approve of its extreme message of vigilante justice to appreciate the vivid portrait of a culture mired in violence and predation and polarization. And the climax can be read as a troubling triumph of this vigilante justice; I see a man whose sense of justice has been whipped out of him by the very nature of life and death in the urban drug war zone.

Tarsem Singh's The Fall [site] is a lovely reminder that stories don't belong to the teller. They have a life of their own. They live in the hearts and minds of those who hear them, read them, see them, whose experiences ricochet and reverberate off the characters and narrative turns and story details, expanding and enriching them with their own personal meanings. Tarsem's second feature is a glorious embrace of narrative innocence directed as a deliciously, vividly visual phantasmagoria of an adventure fantasy. As an injured silent movie Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace) with a broken heart spins his make-believe epic to little immigrant girl Alexandria, a child migrant worker in the orange orchards who broke her arm in a fall, their respective personal experiences and cultural references mix for a story that shifts with each new addition and adjustment. It's as if a Terry Gilliam film were actually directed by Zhang Yimou, based on a script concocted by a child. Shot all over the world, it's stunning to look at and a charge to see the travelers make their through a world where you can leap a continent just by crossing over the next rise. The story imagery and character identities are equal parts imagination and appropriation from the real world, and those connections, far from being deeply symbolic, are almost naively direct reflections of their respective emotional lives.

Foster Child I wrote about Brillante Mendoza's Slingshot during the Vancouver festival and finally caught up with his other 2007 feature Foster Child. While not exactly a companion to the viscerally anxious and perpetually in motion Slingshot, it too is comprised of long handheld shots that take in the chaotic world of the slums, but Foster Child is a warmer portrait of family life in trying circumstances. The poverty and desperation is just as palpable, but where Slingshot showed the constant hustling and thieving (and not just from the poor) in a male-dominated culture, Foster Child is anchored by women, notably a wife and mother (Cherry Pie Picache) who brings in a little extra income as a longtime foster mother. She lives in a tin-roof place barely better than a hovel in a Manila slum, with her construction-worker husband and two sons, one of whom is just as attached to John-John. Mendoza carries us through the home life, the poverty of the area, the often neglectful foster mothers and families that the system relies on, and the sprawling families and pregnant young girls that fill the slums. But it's not an expose; it's an introduction to a social culture with a perspective defined by the sincere affection of a mother for her adorable little boy over the course of their last day together before giving him up to adoptive parents, an affluent Caucasian couple from San Francisco. Mendoza's new film, Serbis, played in competition at Cannes to disappointing reviews, but from the evidence of these earlier films, he's a filmmaker to watch (hey, SIFF - a plug for a future Emerging Master?)

Dario Argento's Mother of Tears [site] is his first film to get a theatrical release in years, but this long-awaited completion of his Three Mothers trilogy is dreadful. The problem isn't that it makes no sense (I defy anyone to explain to me what Inferno is about - or even what happens). It's that it's simply clumsy and graceless and, quite frankly, ugly. Even daughter Asia, as a wide-eyed archeology student who watches the release of evil bring witches from all over the world to Rome (actually Turin, which is an unconvincing stand-in) and swarm the streets like a gang of harpy thugs or like refugees from an 80s New Wave video, can't get through his lines with a modicum of conviction (Udo Kier doesn't even bother; he just goes nuts). Written from a compendium of B movie dialogue clichés and directed as if he'd never worked with actors before, Argento's film is a cheap production with little visual creativity and dull cinematography, produced to showcase familiar shocks and images rather than delving into the abstract beauty of his glory days of horror. Once a director of high style, with cameras that danced and floated through scenes of dynamic choreography and searing colors and stunning visions, the master of abstract ballets of blood and beauty has become a tired old man.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 26, 2008 12:42 PM