1. Coming Home (Chinese)
2. You Call It Passion (Korean)
3. A Decent Engagement (Indian)
4. A Separation (Iranian)
5. Mustang (Turkish)
6. Footnote (Israeli)
7. The Source (French about North Africa)
8. Poli Opposti (Italian)
9. Barbara (German about East Germany)
10. The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (French)
Ten International Film Previews
These are not reviews per se, but sketches and reflections on what these films may say about the world today and one country in that world. They are not representative of their country. Their selection depended on films that I have watched in the last week, mainly on the flight home from Israel. The list excludes the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, on which I wrote three blogs. The compilation is not comprehensive either – no Russian films, no Latin American films and no films from Black Africa. The order of the previews is arbitrary, simply traveling from east to west and then south to north.
Coming Home (China)
First shown at Cannes in 2014, the title of this film in Chinese literally translates as The Return, a name that makes far more sense in terms of the plot and theme. For the film is about a professor, Lu Yanshi (Lu played by Chen Daoming), sent away to a “re-education” camp during the Cultural Revolution who returns twice to his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu played by Gong Li) and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina. [I know that referring to Lu – the husband – and Yu – the wife – can be very confusing; it was while watching the movie, at least for the first half hour. But that is how they refer to one another.] The first time when he escapes, his family is intact, but he is re-arrested when he tries to meet his wife. He returns a second time when he is rehabilitated years later. In neither case does he come home, for the first time he cannot reach home and the second time there is no home to come to; intervening events have destroyed “home” in any meaningful sense except the physical.
The film is superbly acted, but it is far more than a domestic drama or even an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. The film is an allegory of recognition. In fact, Yanshi, the name of the professor, literally means “how to recognize” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the term is more often associated with passionate romance, definitely not the passion of the next film discussed. Yet this is a film of passionate romance on the deepest level.
When the professor first returns and encounters his daughter whom he has not seen in over ten years – he was arrested when she was four years old – she does not recognize him as her father or her responsibilities to him. Ironically, this loyal child of two revolutions – a communist and a cultural one – only knows personal ambition. As a direct result of this failure of recognition, and the trauma of a blackmail Yu was forced to endure, Lu’s wife will suffer amnesia and no longer recognizes her husband when he returns a second time. The movie offers an allegory that suggests that it is one thing for greed, blind ambition and power mongering behind a Cultural Revolution to produce an authoritarian and repressive state. It is perhaps even worse when contemporary China enters a state of amnesia about that period creating a double calamity for the victims.
You Call It Passion (Korea)
Newspaper stories can be about publishers and the pursuit of power, such as Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, or about juxtaposing a journalist’s ethos of setting truth against power by covering the tale of two very different but dedicated, determined and diligent journalists (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) trying to uncover the Watergate scandal. Or it can be about a hard bitten reporter who turns out to be a very good detective as James Stewart did in Call Northside 777. Newspapers used to be excellent backdrops for interweaving glamour and intrigue, money and power, ambition and ethics. This is no longer the case as newspapers struggle to stay alive in the world of the new media. This tale of the tabloid press is a little bit of all of these themes, but never seems to focus on any of them as it narrates the tale of a very bright but innocent newspaper intern, Do Ra-hee (Park Bo-young) who joins the workforce of a very large, likely pulp, newspaper in the entertainment section that is more about scooping for scandals than it is about allowing readers to get greater insight into the artists and entertainers in Seoul.
Though the intern is a woman who looks like a teenager to a North American, this is no weak feminist track like Front Page Woman. The movie is about getting the scoop on a famous young male actor, but as a cross between the reporter as detective as well as one torn by ethical concerns when offered material by “a reliable source” that could destroy a career but enormously advance that of the young reporter. I initially thought the movie was going to be a contemporary Korean remake of the classic Hollywood tale It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but this time with a young female rather than male reporter trying to get the goods on a celebrity. But the closest this movie gets to the hard bitten reporter is the entertainment editor, Ha Jae-kwan (Jung Jae-young), who yells at his journalists to put passion into their jobs and make passion what their jobs are about. But the movie is really about saving their own jobs by uncovering economic skulduggery. The film is a lesson in lack of direction where a movie fails to decide at the core what it is about. Neither comedy nor romance, neither exposé nor ethical drama, neither a poem to a journalist’s passion for truth nor deconstruction of an editor’s drive to get a scoop while being a bit of both of the latter, the movie is a lightweight addition to the genre of newspaper movies.
A Decent Engagement (India)
India makes excellent movies, from Bollywood entertainment to serious court room films about justice, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. This is clearly not one of them. Put an American hunk into an Indian setting where he is finally to meet the love of his life in a traditional arranged marriage and you have the basic elements of tension and conflict, comedy and romance. But not one of them is in evidence here. The situations are clichés. The script is terrible. The film is not helped when the lead cannot decide whether he is mentally challenged or an innocent abroad or, more accurately, an American with the patina of an Indian in Delhi. As soon as the lead opens his mouth, we learn that he cannot act. The best part of the movie is the plethora of scenes of Indian life that serve as fillers to a threadbare script, but also serve as a respite from a disastrous movie.
A Separation (Iran)
Iran has wonderful directors and actors. In a country with a built-in stress between creativity and repressive control, especially under the auspices of religious law, the opportunities for exciting and great films certainly exist, even if the conditions for exploiting the opportunities are extremely difficult. Asghar Farhadi’s movie walks that line with a great sense of balance. It is a simple courtroom drama about the unintended consequences of competing but legitimate personal interests and priorities clashing where both truth and a hierarchy of norms are both very unsettled in spite of the claims of Sharia law to have a monopoly on both.
Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) may love one another, but Nader is attached to his father who suffers from dementia while Simin wants to ensure that their daughter has a future. Thus, past and future clash in the present. And the film is greatest in showing that there are no easy answers as two excellent actors pursue that task.
Set in a small remote agricultural village far from Istanbul, Mustang is an absolutely wonderful film. There is no difficulty in determining on which side of the modernity-tradition divide the female director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) falls, as five very close sisters grow up in the home of their aunt and uncle who fall back on protection and policing when the first threat appears on the horizon to the couple’s reputation. The girls, all with a great sense of joie to vivre that is wonderfully portrayed and at all times infectious, is viewed from the perspective of and also driven mostly by the youngest, a mustang determined not to be tamed.
The film begins with the will to live and celebrates life’s joyful, comedic and happy moments, but gradually, and very gradually, descends into claustrophobia in a house made into a prison for confining the human spirit before the plot turns to loss, the greatest being the camaraderie among the five girls, and eventual tragedy. The movie is touching without in any way being cloying, funny without being farcical, and horrific without any of the usual exposure to gross torture. And though clearly on the side of freedom and feminism, the movie somehow manages not to be didactic. Unlike the Indian film above, all the beautiful cinematography of landscape and life are integral to the flow of the film.
This is one film I did not see in the last five days. But not for lack of trying. Since I was flying from Israel, I was looking forward to watching one of the many excellent Israeli films. I could speculate why I could not find one, but instead I will simply add a footnote to an excellent 2012 Israeli film about both the love and the competition between a father and a son who happen to be in the same realm of scholarship. But there is a difference. The father is engaged in pilpul, a minute engagement in teasing out inconsistencies and insights from small passages in the Talmud. The son, by contrast, is a populizer of Judaism and a public intellectual instead of probing into the minutiae of scholarship.
I loved the movie, not simply because it was about the real tension I experience between the minutiae of scholarship and the desire to communicate to a larger audience, but because the movie was about the fact that neither aspiration can substitute for love within the family, and especially between father and son. To do so with an acute comic sense is masterful. The brilliant hilarious scene of s cluster of great scholars crowded into a tiny office to resolve a dispute offers the humorous side of Israel, precisely because it exemplifies what is so maddening and tragic about the wonderful country.
The Source (France about North Africa)
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata provides the template for this contemporary version of women in a small village using a sexual strike to force their underemployed men to undertake work that can ease the burden of their overworked and treacherous effort at carrying water back from a well. Instead of striking for peace in opposition to the Peloponnesian War, these North African women declare a sexual war to overcome the resignation to and backwardness of crippling tradition. Like the Turkish movie above, Mustang, the setting is in a small remote village. Like Mustang, the film flirts with the comedic against a backdrop of hardship, but that is physical as much as it is moral. Both films are about women in motion that brings forth the poetry of that action.
In this film, an outsider Leila (Leila Bekhti) is married to a village teacher. Rather than the youngest daughter of a family acting as the spur to upset the settled applecart because there is neither a road nor a cart to bring the water from the village well, Leila organizes the protest against assigning women to carrying water hanging from a pole slung across the backs of the women, including pregnant ones. The result of the current obsolete system leads to a disproportionate number of miscarriages and deaths of children. Unlike the Turkish film, and unlike Turkey itself these days, Radu Mihaileanu imbues his movie with love and hope rather than tragedy and despair.
Poli Opposti (Italy)
This movie is a sophisticated contemporary comedy set in a thoroughly modern world, not only one where sexual repression has been removed, but where the women have become the hard bitten, cold and insensitive ball breakers, and the men have been transposed into sensitive souls. Often funny, always very well acted, this traditional version of a comedy of opposites that attract and fall in love, is conceived in an inverted mode. It is a delight to watch precisely because credibility is not a stake. The female warrior divorce lawyer (Sarah Feiberbaum) and her son are saved from being cast into the cold of an unloving world by a sensitive human relations counsellor (Luca Argentero) who believes in pushing cooperation and dialogue rather than exacerbating already deep divisions. If Lysistrata informed The Source, the sophisticated comedies of traditional Hollywood provide the template for this movie, but it is updated by reversing the archetypal male and female roles.
Barbara (German about East Germany)
The story portrayed in Coming Home of abuse by political authorities in China was mirrored by events in East Germany. But Barbara is a film about voyeurism rather than intimate love in the face of oppression. Nina Hoss plays a brilliant physician, not sent to a re-education camp, but to the boonies because she applied for an exit visa. Lu Yanshi just wanted to return home. Barbara just wants to get out. Escape, not unlike that of Huckleberry Finn, a book she reads to a patient and escapee she is protecting. But Barbara had become hardened, not by male abandonment, but by male domination and real repression. She smokes heavily and smiles rarely. But when she does, she lights up the screen.
Though a failure in trust imbues both Coming Home and Barbara with an enormous degree of tension, it is all the more oppressive in Barbara because it appears to be so total and comprehensive leaving very little room for humanity and empathy. Yu in Coming Home develops cold and expressionless eyes, but they are sometimes awakened and we delight in the joy and sensitivity of those rare occasions. The same look, however, in the landlady in Barbara is menacing rather than simply vacant. Both films record the devastating effects of state oppression with great attention to detail, but the regime of surveillance, the informers in East Germany, are omnipresent and anonymous. In the love story of Lu and Yu, the informers are intimates and the party secretary is portrayed in a sympathetic way. East Germany and Stasi reached a dead end; If Coming Home is any indication, there is some hope that China can overcome or get around oppression because, after the Cultural Revolution, room has been made for inter-human sensitivity and empathy even as the government retains its iron grip on society in general and the country suffers from collective amnesia.
However, excellent films can emerge from the worst conditions.
The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (France)
Two sisters, one glamorous, cold and self-serving, Iris (Emmanuelle Béart), the other, Joséphine (Julie Depardieu), mousy, intellectual and self-effacing, one oblivious to the needs of her son, the other sensitive but often clumsy in dealing with the needs of her two daughters, especially the older one who is so caught up in the attraction of the glitter of her aunt, provide the core of this story of recognition both on the inter-personal and collective level but from a radically different standpoint than Coming Home. In Yellow Eyes, the deceit is obvious and eventually self-destructive. That is why it is a comedy. In Coming Home, the failure of recognition becomes buried deep in the broken families resulting from the Cultural Revolution.
The acting is brilliant as is the direction by Cécile Telerman. One of the greatest rewards in watching foreign as well as American films is observing women come into their own as great directors. When the variety of directors throws light, not only on the screen, but on and into the world in which we live, the rewards are enormous.
With the help of Alex Zisman