Returning from last year’s New York Film Festival, I was duly impressed by the program’s “boutique” leaningsthe sense that each film displayed certain distinctive qualities that made it worthy of inclusion. As selection committee chairman Richard Peña notes in a recent Lincoln Center newsletter, “We’re not an encyclopedic or panoramic festival, but one that has been known [as] being highly selective. People feel that these films have been chosen and that we stand behind them.”
It was only during the ensuing months that I realized even a surfeit of quality has its downside. Seeing three to four films a day over a week’s time tends to dull, if not disable, a person’s regular critical faculties. With the field often overshadowed by festival masterpieces, it’s easy to mistake many quietly assured, quality efforts for disappointmentsI underrated two of last year’s highlights, Topsy-Turvy and Time Regained. Mind you, I’m not complaining. I truly enjoyed my recent seven-day immersion at the 38th New York Film Festival. Simply regard the musings above as a caveat to what followsand understand that criticism and evaluation, especially of great works, is an ongoing process.
So, with past experience in mind, my leading contender for this year’s undeservedly dismissed sleeper is The House of Mirth, Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel. Favoring a cinema of memory devoid of cloying sentiment, Davies seems the perfect choice for a literary period piece. And Gillian Anderson’s assured and affecting performance as Lily Bart is a revelation. As with the book, though, the slow, agonizing denouement seems overly determined and fatalistic. Was my ambivalence the by-product of a long flight and hurried cab ride? Or was the film simply an intermittently engaging misfire? Whichever the case, I eagerly await The House of Mirth’s theatrical run to reassess my initial impressions.
Unfortunately, the festival’s marathon-like schedule and embarrassment of quality tend to foster such critical uncertainties and oversights. To make matters worse, a festival film must also battle the viewer’s often distracting preconceptions, fueled by advance buzz. On the plus side this year, Agnès Jaoui’s wittily observed comedy of manners The Taste of Others was a welcome surprise, invested with real pathos and emotion. On the negative, Jafar Panahi’s Circle, his follow-up to the arthouse favorites The White Balloon and The Mirror, was a slight disappointment, the many winning sequences and harrowing revelations overshadowed by the weight of incipient didacticism.
Cutting through the vagaries of personal viewing quirks and media-generated misinformation, the festival’s biggest story was the dominance of East Asian cinema. Of the festival’s 26 features, eight were filmed by directors hailing from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Japan. And not only did the region account for the festival’s two most striking filmsmore about those laterit also supplied much of the program’s dramatic heft and cinematic range.
Perhaps the festival’s most engaging film, Im Kwon Taek’s Chunhyang has the sweep and simplicity of an epic folk tale. The film chronicles the socially forbidden romance between a governor’s young son and his lover, a courtesan’s daughter; despite the many grim and sometimes brutal twists, Chunhyang maintains a buoyant, good-spirited tone throughout. Another crowd-pleaser, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, marks the director’s celebrated return to Taiwanese cinema. His martial-arts spectacle balances breathtaking fight sequences (choreographed by The Matrix’s Yuen Wo Ping) with its principals’ engaging romantic frisson.
If Asian cinema’s most pop-friendly offerings assume the trappings of legendary epics, its most assured dramatic entries are expansive character-driven sagas. Jia Zhang Ke’s decade-spanning drama Platform chronicles the slow dissolution of a travelling performance troupe, as Maoist socialism gradually surrenders to the inexorable current of capitalism. And though the narrative momentum flags in the film’s final third, the first two hours are simple and grippinga tour de force of spare, economical filmmaking.
Even better, Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, a road movie shot in sepia-tinged black and white, explores the aftermath of a devastating bus hijacking. Aoyama’s beautiful widescreen images contrast with the internalized pain of his three principals, a bus driver and a pair of mute siblings. Despite several contrived plot twists, the film is an always engaging, often revelatory work.
Given the significant presence of East Asian films, the viewer might wonder whether the festival’s programmers were indulging some unspoken political agenda. But as Peña convincingly argues, the selection process has developed a certain “institutional logic” over time. The program’s restricted slate of films effectively creates a “zero sum game” in which such prejudices would become glaringly apparent. Certainly the overwhelming quality of the works presented supports his assertion; only Japanese master Nagisa Oshima’s comically subversive samurai tale Gohatto and Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza-in-L.A. shoot out Brother could be considered disappointments. Which begs the question: Was the festival’s high proportion of Asian films merely a cyclical quirk, or does it signal a new wave of regional dominance in world cinema?
If in fact the festival’s selections are indicative of an area’s cinematic health, then American moviemaking is in the midst of pronounced infirmity. Only a handful of U.S. titles were screened, none of which offered the promise or surprise of last year’s breakthroughsthe endlessly inventive Being John Malkovich and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Ed Harris’ long-delayed pet project Pollock, though ultimately a solid biopic of Jackson Pollock, rarely transcends its generic tortured-genius trappings. That said, Harris has given himself a meaty role, and his directorial debut will likely be an Oscar favorite.
Despite intermittently wooden acting and a sometimes baldly ponderous script, I much prefer David Gordon Green’s courageous debut, George Washington. Charting the seemingly aimless everyday gropings of a racially mixed group of adolescents, the young director explores the unspoken hurt of childhood poverty while discovering visual poetry in a landscape of broken-down homes, railroad yards, and rotting dumps.
Of course, both Pollock and George Washington are already scheduled for theatrical release. More surprisingly, most of the above-mentioned foreign films have distributors as wellthe notable exceptions being Platform and Eurekaso theoretically some of these titles (and hopefully many) will receive local screenings during the next 12 months. This is important: World cinema shouldn’t be treated simply as a coterie item exhibited in “select” markets over a compressed two-week period. Rather, these films should be enjoyed and experienced as part of our ongoing lives.
Without question, Nashvillians deserve an opportunity to view the festival’s two unqualified standouts, In the Mood for Love and Yi Yi. Employing radically different stylistic and narrative approaches, together the films suggest the seemingly limitless potential of modern cinema. The former is an episodic, imagistic reverie stretching the limits of cinematic language; the latter is an assured, compelling family melodrama unfolding in a natural rhythm of medium shots and long takes. I certainly look forward to revisiting and reappraising both films over the ensuing months (and years).
In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai’s latest, is a romantic swoon of a film. Charting the measured, sexually repressed, ultimately chaste relationship between two neighbors (played by Hong Kong icons Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), the movie is a muted, hushed period piece, concealing a simmering reservoir of deep feelings. Over dinner, the pair discover that their respective spouses are having an affair. The scene’s emotion is conveyed in subtle yet telling moments: Cheung distractedly stirring her coffee, an averted glance registering Leung’s discomfort, the elegant patterns traced by a trail of smoke.
In an effort to comprehend their spouses’ infidelity and exorcise the resultant pain, the jilted neighbors begin acting out imagined scenarios. Keyed to the gentle samba of Nat King Cole and the muted tango of Mike Galasso’s haunting score, their interactions are halting and restrained, creating a charged atmosphere in which a mere touch bears the weight of erotic possibility.
Paired once again with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong fashions a visual world at once dreamlike and sumptuous. And though some would argue that the director’s style effectively subsumes substance, the film’s vividly detailed color scheme and lyrical slow-mo passages reflect a deceptively rich emotional tapestry. With many scenes shot through curtains, refracted through glass, or reflected in mirrors, In the Mood for Love becomes a vaguely remembered but cherished evocation not only of lost love but also of a lost era.
Played out over a well-paced three hours, Edward Yang’s sprawling drama Yi Yi explores the large questions that underlie our increasingly difficult and trying modern existence. Following a garishly boisterous wedding, the family matriarch is discovered lying in a coma outside her Taipei apartment building. Soon after, her daughter Min Min suffers an emotional collapse and is hurried off to a Buddhist mountain retreat. The ensuing action chronicles the struggles of Min Min’s husband NJ and their two children, daughter Ting-Ting and son Yang-Yang, as they learn to cope with a strangely unfamiliar life of uncertainty.
Maintaining a light touch throughout, Yang expertly negotiates his intricate narrative while treating each character with understanding and dignity. Most often, the director records the family’s interactions in static, extended shots, his frame crowded with the refuse of everyday life. But Yang’s understated style merely foregrounds the film’s stunning moments of cinematic poetry: the mother’s breakdown reflected in an office window, a young girl’s head illuminated by a thunderstorm, the ill-fated romantic explorations of father and daughter detailed in a deftly crosscut sequence.
Yi Yi locates its redemptive center in two seemingly unlikely sources. NJ’s business associate, the benignly inscrutable Mr. Ota, maintains a bemused, Zen-like temperament, noting that no matter how we plan, each day is uniquethere is no “magic.” Similarly, the indomitable Yang-Yang (the emergent artist) observes the world with a wide-eyed innocence, regarding each moment with a sense of wonder.
In one of the film’s many inspired moments, Ting-Ting’s prospective love interest muses that the advent of cinema has effectively tripled our life span. If so, the New York Film Festival’s 2000 edition easily provided a year’s worth of images and experiences. As for me, my not so secret wishes: the opportunity to absorb fully those images and experiences, a distributor and local playdate for Eurekaand of course, a return ticket to next year’s festival.
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