WFF Round-Up: Saturday
Devils on the Doorstep
(d. Jiang Wen, 2000, China - International Version) One of the best movies of the festival. A black comedy about the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, shot, for the most part in beautiful black and white (the final, bloody expressionistic sequence turns to color). Equal parts comedy and horror film (the film ends with a pair of massacres, all after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and an execution), the film tells the story of Ma Dangsan (Jiang Wen); one night, while having sex with his lover, there’s a knock on the door from “Me,” when he opens the door a gun is thrust in his face and he is “entrusted” with some prisoners, a Japanese soldier and his Chinese translator. It’s hilarious as both sides try to bumble there way through the situation, especially since neither side can really talk to the other, always having to use the translator as an intermediary. Things proceed to get really out of hand after “Me” fails to turn up, and Ma and the village are forced to keep the prisoners a secret, something hard to do with a garrison of Japanese Naval Reservists living in their midst. When Ma can’t kill the prisoners, and the hired executioner fails to do so, they strike a bargain with the prisoner, precipitating the tragic demise of just about every Chinese character in the film. Other than the humor, the horror, and the well-drawn performances (something you typically see from actors turned directors; Jiang Wen was one of the most popular actors in China, though he’s probably best known in the West as Gong Li’s lover in Red Sorghum
; this film got him in trouble with the Communist Party, and he was banned from appearing in films until quite recently), the strengths of the movie include the way the film humanizes the Japanese prisoner, who morphs into a sympathetic and tragic character as the film draws to its inevitable conclusion, and the way the film blurs the lines between where getting by and collaboration begin and ends when living under military occupation.
A funny anecdote, there were problems with the projector bulb at the beginning of the screening (it was fixed really fast), which caused the projectionist to stop the film for a bit. Everyone in the audience got a good laugh when people began to joke about the long arm of Chinese censorship.
What Does the Lady Do With Her Rage?
(d. David Fleer, 2002, USA) Portrait of Chicago artist and breast cancer activist/survivor Hollis Sigler. The documentary story of an artist/intellectual/what-have-you bravely facing a terminal disease is a genre unto itself (even to the point of the announcement of the death occurring over a freeze frame of the smiling subject or in titles at the end of the film). This film was a pretty average example, marred by some remarkably, overly melodramatic narration about breast cancer. Sigler’s artwork was, however, very interesting. It would probably be worth watching on PBS or something.
(d. Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2001, Thailand) My first Thai film. The story of love love going really, really, really awry, as fate, and bad choices slap the characters around. Another deft combination of comedy and sadness, the story centers on Pan, a young man from a rural village who marries Sadaw. Everything’s good with the marriage, and Sadaw’s pregnancy, until Pan is drafted, runs away from the Army to pursue a singing career, gets into a fight with his boss after some unwanted homosexual advances, runs away, becomes a sugar cane farmer, gets into another fight with another boss, runs away to Bangkok, becomes mired in petty thievery, gets thrown in jail for two years, only to be released to find a brokenhearted Sadaw, embittered from having been essentially abandoned by Pan and her subsequent lover, a medicine salesman who seduces her and then leaves her with another child. It’s a pretty crazy story, but it’s handled in such a way that all the twists and turns appear somewhat natural. The two leads are great: Suppakorn Kitsuwan, who plays Pan, has expert comic timing and a romantic twinkle in his eye, even if he doesn’t have much going on upstairs; the beautiful Siriyakorn Pukkavesa, a Thai TV show hostess, has an expressive face, which conveys heartbreak and happiness with equal measure. Mon-Rak Transistor
is a quasi-musical, steeped in tradition of “look thoong” (translated in the movie as “folk music”), a Thai form of popular music. The look thoong classic “Mai Leum/Don’t Forget” haunts the film, and even today, I can vividly hear the melody; the film features two renditions of the song, where characters from the film suddenly appear to sing the chorus. If anyone cares, the title is in reference to the wedding gift that Pan gives to Sadaw, a transistor radio (“Mon-Rak” translates roughly to love story).
(d. Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000, Iran/Italy) Definitely not as good as her previous film, The Apple
, but still serviceable. A drama in the neo-realist style set along the Iran-Iraq border, the film tells the story of a pair of itinerant teachers who carry their slate blackboards on their backs, nomadically traveling from village to village, trying to find pupils among the disinterested Kurds. One teacher throws his lot in with a bunch of Kurds trying to cross the border back to Iraq, while another tries to find pupils among a bunch of child smugglers (shades of A Time for Drunken Horses
). While the film moves towards what I thought would be it’s inevitable tragic conclusion, its sudden appearance still came as quite a shock.
The Decay of Fiction
(d. Pat O’Neill, 2002, USA) I generally do not like experimental features, I think that most avant-garde films work better as shorts or as part of installation works, where you can come and go. The Decay of Fiction
is one of the best experimental features that I have seen, and one of the most beautiful films of the festival (as one of the rare experimental features shot in 35mm). The Decay of Fiction
begins as an architectural study of the condemned Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles, which is probably best known today as either a setting for film shoots or as the hotel where RFK was assassinated in 1968; but before all of that, the Hotel Ambassador was one of LA’s glamour spots. Now it sits empty and decaying, awaiting demolition. O’Neill’s camera either sits stationary or snakes through the hotel corridors and suites, often times the hotel is captured with time lapse photography. Overlaid on this footage is superimpositions of actors and actresses, shot in B&W, and wearing period dress. They float through the hotel’s corridors and rooms like spectres from the past; on the soundtrack you hear a melange of period film noir soundtracks as well as dialogue scripted by O’Neill himself. The entire film has an oneiric quality, think of David Lynch, without any real plot (though another filmgoer brought up The Shining
as another cinematic reference), before the film matches the physical decay and former decadence of the Hotel Ambassador with an almost Satanic orgy, an explosion of decadent ghosts worthy of a Kenneth Anger film. It’s a moody, fascinating film.
The Decay of Fiction
was preceded by a Brakhage short called Wold’s Shadow
(1972); hear Brakhage continues his visual experimentation by playing with the aperture and focus of the camera while filming a woodland scene. Very interesting, though I preferred Earthsongs of the Cricket
The Real Old Testament
(d. Curtis & Paul Hannum, 2003, USA) Hands down, the funniest movie of the festival, and a near perfect Midnight Movie. The Real Old Testament
tells several stories from the Book of Genesis
(Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the story of Abraham, the story of Lot, and the story of Jacob; they even provide handy chapter and verse so that the audience can see for themselves that they are not making any of this stuff up) in the visual and narrative style of MTV’s The Real World
. It’s a near perfect facsimile of the television show’s style: complete with interviews, mock credits, bleeped out swear words, digital mosaics to obscure nudity, and a constant barrage of pop music obviously underlying every action in the film (for example, when God is walking through the Garden of Eden, while in voice-over discussing the creation of man, “God is One of Us” plays on the soundtrack; when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and then sleep with him, the filmmakers used NIN’s “Closer” to underscore the scene, hilarious stuff if your familiar with the lyrics).
The plot of the individual episodes follows the outlines of the actual biblical stories quite closely, the filmmakers realizing the perfect blend of absurdity and melodrama already inherent in the stories (with absurdity and melodrama being hallmarks of The Real World
), and they assembled a very talented cast of actors to improvise everything else about the story, including Sam Lloyd as Abraham, he’s probably best known as the hospital’s chief counsel on Scrubs
. The Biblical patriarchs are pretty much reduced to a bunch of whiny, self-absorbed, morons, much like the television show itself, and the movie is consistently hilarious, especially with all the sex, both incestuous and adulterous. See Cain try to bluff God about what happened to Abel, or Abraham trying to cope with circumcision, or when Isaac in an interview referring to his potential sacrifice as a “fucking test.” The film even concludes with a reunion show, where God, unable to take the criticism of the female cast members, walks out in a huff, a la Puck from The Real World
. Great Stuff, and I was glad to hear from the filmmakers that, other than “scary religious people,” the devote, including members of the clergy, have reacted positively to the film, commiserating with a lot of the potentially funny stuff in the Bible.
The Real Old Testament
was preceded by a funny short film called Antiquities Roadshow
, a parody of Antique Roadshow
. The best part was when a guy brought in Nixon’s coffin, with Nixon’s body inside, for appraisal. Other highlights was a guy who brought in his collection of beer cans, and another who brought in a priceless Ming vase, only to see it broken up the appraiser. Then the stereotypical Antiques Roadshow
graphics and music appear announcing that the vase was valued at “$0” (after being valued at $800K). Fairly funny.