Thursday, October 14, 2004

The New York Film Festival 

From the past titles of posts here, one would expect that this one would be an aggregation of films about New York City. But actually, K. and I just completed our third film festival experience. We've done Sundance, Tribeca and now the New York Film Festival this year. Of the three, there's no question that Sundance offered the most consistently enjoyable experience. But the NYFF did offer one amazing experience that you will be able to experience for yourself in December.

Here then are the four films we saw at Lincoln Center:

Tropical Malady
A Thai film about...well, here people are going to disagree. If you were to ask Dan, Linda and K., they'd say, "Who the heck knows or cares?!" This film was so difficult that when the screen went black at one point (it was unclear if this was a reel change or intentional), the woman in front of me remarked, "This is the best part."

I can't claim to have loved Tropical Malady, nor even to have fully understood it. But here's what I thought I saw: a (admittedly oblique and highly symbolic) two-vignette film about man's struggle against his animal desires.

The first section of the film culminates with what the film program described as a "shockingly erotic moment." I'd beg to differ. It's a peculiar moment at best consisting of much mouth-to-hand contact. It's unclear if it's licking or aggressive sniffing going on, honestly. But whatever it is, it's intense for the participants if not the viewer.

I think that overall this movie feels much like listening to a schizophrenic being interviewed. They seem to be on the verge of making sense but just as soon as you think you might understand what they're getting at, the conversation takes an abrupt turn into obscurity once again.

Or (My Treasure)
This is the tale of a young Israeli girl's attempt to pull herself and her mother out of the gutter. Or and her mother Ruti (Ruthie in the English subtitles) live a chaotic existence. Or is trying to live the life of a normal high school girl. Only she can't always make it to school because she is working as a dishwasher or collecting bottles and cans for recycling fees.

Making matters worse, Ruti is drawn by some inner compass to prostitute herself in the alleys of their city. The film suggests that this may not be strictly helpful in a financial sense, but that Ruti is so seriously broken that the streets and her drunken, dangerous johns are somehow her magnetic north.

In the course of the film, Or tries to pull her mother from the streets - sometimes literally. But it doesn't work. Ruti cannot stop herself. There's an addiction here and nothing we see suggests that is related to drugs.

Both actors are so strong that they appear to be channeling their roles more than performing. Given the depth of naturalism in the performing style, the directorial style is strangely mannered. Each shot is set up and characters wander in and out of frame until the key moment in each scene where the characters are perfectly framed and that moment of drama unfolds. It is an engaging technique in a few instances, but as a consistent technical motif it does not forward the storytelling and it pulls the viewer out of the narrative.

Or is an engrossing work from an emerging artist. It's not fun, but it is accomplished and worthy of some attention. I hope her future work is less mannered and uses film for more fluid and cinematic storytelling.

The Holy Girl
More women and sex. Only this time, it's about Catholic guilt and repression. The Holy Girl tells the story of a young girl named Amalia who lives in a hotel with her mother. Amalia is being taught in school to be alert for a calling from God.

Amalia is standing on the street when a doctor from a convention at the hotel decides to use her rear end as a scratching post for his third leg. Rather than be repulsed, she decides that he is her calling. Her calling to us looks like a crush and its unclear how it relates to God, but she decides to go on the pursuit.

A number of scenes do not seem to further the plot, but what's interesting is the way certain aspects of character and plot are developed over time, filling in blanks and keeping the audience engaged. In the last scene, however, the director elects to end the film without revealing how the story will complete itself.

I found The Holy Girl alternately engaging, funny, confusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, and relentlessly whimsical. Ultimately, it is a flawed piece that has a lot of unrealized potential.

House of Flying Daggers
So after all of these minor experiences, our last tickets for the festival were for HOFD. If you've already seen Zhang Yimou's Hero then you have a clue what you're in for when HOFD is released in December. If you haven't seen Hero yet, this movie is going to completely blow your mind.

I think the best way to describe HOFD is to say that it is a "Shakespearean dream opera." Shakespearean in that it is a tale embroidered on top of, but dramatically improving upon, the fabric of many fables and myths. Shakespearean dream in the sense that Zhang Yimou is able through the skills of his cast, costumers, director of photography, the location choices, and some spectacularly seamless special effects to enable the movements and the landscape to mirror the emotional state of the characters. Shakespearean dream opera in that the story, the heightened emotions, the plot and the choices of the participants and all extremely grand in scale.

The story is about the struggle between the House of Flying Daggers, a secretive group of the Robin Hood persuasion, and the corrupt militaristic government. In the midst of this struggle, the movie focuses on the personal stories of two local constables pursuing the prosecution of the fight against the outlaw group and a blind teahouse girl who may be the mysterious daughter of the lately assassinated (by the government) leader of the rebels.

As Zhang Yimou summarized it, whereas Hero was about sacrifice for one's country, House of Flying Daggers is about personal sacrifices for love. I think that is an accurate overview, but it doesn't clue you in on the experience of the film. So let me tell you this: the audience I saw this film with literally gasped out loud more than once from what they saw and spontaneously burst into applause several times to boot.

I find myself thinking about the film five days later. I can't wait to see it again.

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