* Reviews from the Bangkok Film Festival

road home couple W FRAME      The Road Home: Love in the Time of Starvation

This is a dispatch from an early incarnation of the Bangkok International Film Festival, sometimes known as the Bangkok Film Festival. It appeared on a US website called CultureVulture. I’m leaving out the wrap-up and just running eight short reviews. Seems that my suspicions about Zhang Yimou’s shift in loyalties were right.

Here is the lowdown on the highlights and the hyped:

The Road Home

Perhaps Zhang Yimou’s new film, The Road Home, was so disappointing, dismaying actually, because it was so hyped. What happened to him? Could this be a piece of political penance? Zhang made his name in the early 1990s with gorgeous period films (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) that dramatized the plight of women in traditional Chinese society. Zhang last year took an abrupt, grittier turn with the contemporary Not One Less. Inspired by recent shoestring Iranian films, he realized that the mundane triumphs and struggles of very ordinary people,such as a teenage village schoolteacher, could still make a gripping story. And he didn’t shirk from showing the dirt and ugliness of any Chinese city and village.

The Road Home and Not One Less share some superficial similarities. A 30-ish present-day businessman returns to his native village for the funeral of his father. As the film shifts from black-and-white to color, he dreamily recalls how his schoolteacher father–an “intellectual” by Chinese standards–met his illiterate mother when he came to teach in the new village school. There is plenty of potential drama here. But this isn’t a movie: it’s a treacly pink- and red-tinted extended music video that might illustrate a compilation of mournful flute tunes.We see many scenes of the mother as a fresh-faced girl–pretty, pig-tailed Zhang Ziyi–running in slow motion in the countryside, spying on the school and preparing dishes for the eligible bachelor. Eventually, the two exchange a few words on culinary matters.

That’s it. There is no further revealing conversation, no scenes in the classroom, no interactions with adults or children, none of the village itself, no further hints of the teacher’s “political problem.” No reminders of age-old shrines, customs, superstitions or workaday rhythms. We get no inkling how either this girl of leisure, the sole child of a blind widow, or her fellow villagers put food on the table.

The most repugnant deception is the fairy-tale time and place. The narrator tells us that his parents met “forty years ago.” Yet in the late 1950s, the entire country was wracked by a Mao-induced famine that killed about 30 million people. Emaciated or bloated from dropsy, the villagers would be scrounging for grass, weeds and bark. And this isn’t a fertile, rice-growing area; it appears to be low thinly-forested hills–just the sort of area where the half-dead fed on human flesh.

If we push the time up to 1960,as China was pulling out of the Great Leap Forward, there still wouldn’t be such variety and abundance of food or even those pink-flecked cotton quilts (they went into the soup). There wouldn’t be a herd of sheep remaining to amble across the fabled road. The lack of dialogue is understandable, though: at that time, Chinese peasants would be talking about nothing but food and death.

Chac

Like The Road Home, Chac (Jury Winner, Best Documentary)is feeding off the nostalgia for simple village life that often infects urban people removed by two generations from the backbreaking, precarious, smothering reality. But as Chac demonstrates, documentaries have an insidious way of enabling the subjects to subvert the director’s intentions. Here the subjects are two Vietnamese families, relatives of the mother of director Kim-Chi Tyler. Appearing at the screening, Tyler rightly insisted that Chac isn’t concerned with the American Vietnam War. Her mother did marry a kindly, much older American civilian, thus enabling Tyler, her mother and brother to escape before the fall of Saigon. But the other facts of the mother’s early life would be the same regardless. Many a strong-willed, ill-educated Vietnamese woman faces the same circumstances and the same sparse options today.

Tyler always knew that her late mother, Chac (the name aptly means “strength” in Vietnamese), had fled her Mekong Delta village after being repeatedly beaten by her husband, Tyler’s natural father. What Tyler discovers when she returns is that her mother was also beaten by her own mother and brothers,”Bio-Dad” has no regrets nor apologies and her younger sister died in mysterious circumstances. Tyler is informed by her wispy maternal grandmother that Chac was “a whore.” The two families are bickering and gossiping to this day.

Perhaps more evident in her remarks at the screening than from the film itself, Tyler has continued to visit and to forge a bond with the odious father and the rest of the clan. She likes to imagine herself reveling in the life of a simple village girl. She doesn’t get it. When in Vietnam, you don’t get to select the elements of your Vietnameseness. None of these relatives considers that a woman might be more than a pack animal to be bartered between families. To be part of this village, she’d have to submit–or face the kind of penalties Chac might have told about.

Picking Up the Pieces

It’s Woody Allen as he was in the old days. Yes, back when he was not only still funny, but when he knew it was hilarious to suggest he could be married to someone like Sharon Stone. Even funnier is seeing the familiar nebbish inhabiting a New Mexico trailer, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, and playing a kosher butcher called Tex. After Tex hacks up his cheating wife (Stone), a missing body part proves to have miraculous powers. With such a tourist attraction on hand, townspeople are reluctant to see justice done.

Andy Dick, Kiefer Sutherland, Cheech Marin, Maria Garcia Cunciotta, Fran Drescher … the starry members of the ensemble shoot by so quickly that none of them–save David Schwimmer as a lecherous priest–has time to get on your nerves. There are no belly laughs here. Picking Up the Pieces instead produces a well-modulated stream of smiles and chuckles—but how many other movies have pulled that off lately? Director Alfonso Arau and screenwriter Bill Wilson are forces to be reckoned with.

Go-Con!

Anyone who’s ever lived as a gaijin will avoid Go-Con! : been there, done that, why do you think I left? But this is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell the rest of you. Yes, really, most middle-class Japanese men well into their twenties are dorks with the social skills of 14-year-olds elsewhere (How do you think Japan became a single foreign man’s paradise?). Yes, it’s very plausible that such a group could meet weekly, years on end, endlessly performing the same silly drinking games, repeating the same few catch-phrases and feeding the same few lines–without once emitting an opinion on a topic as controversial as a movie. And yes, the role of Japanese women in movies, as in Japan itself, is to provide a well-groomed, tittering backdrop.

Go-Con, according to the program notes, is a Japlish word used by “young and trendy Japanese” and means “hanging out in a new age matchmaking style.” Whatever. Here, three ill-dressed dorks with curious hair meet weekly in a cafe, inviting a changing cast of four women and one man. If the film intended to push the critical envelope, it might have displayed some awareness that, for people this conformist, societal and parental pressure to be married by age 30 still wields tremendous force. That explains why some sensible people waste an evening on long-odds crapshoots. It’s unlikely, though, that the character just returned from the United States, too stylish to be an office lady and presumably working for a US company, would slum among the go-cons. And it’s inconceivable that she would consider rekindling a pre-America romance with Lead Dork.

If they are somehow dragged to this movie, gaijin will gripe that there is only one too discreet scene of a dork with his head in the toilet bowl and not one of any young Japanese man in a drunken coma on the cafe floor. These are valid points. I would argue, however, that this is why Nobuyuki Shintani, as “one of Japan’s leading television directors,” specifically omitted any scenes of men exiting the cafe or stumbling onto commuter trains. This film, after all, was crafted for a uniquely intuitive Japanese audience, which can fill in the blanks with vivid, sensual images of group barfing all the way home. And Japanese women (who never barf, incidentally) will intuitively know the secret words that the actresses wailed in bathroom stalls while they re-applied their matte foundation: “Will there ever, ever be a female Japanese director?”

Fucking Amal (Show Me Love)

A standout among the gay-themed films, Fucking Amal has already won wide distribution and deserved praise in the United States and Europe, so recapping it would be overkill. Let’s just say that some of the compelling reasons to see this emotionally true film have been overlooked by reviewers. For one, there’s the face of Alexandra Dahlstrom, who plays lonely 16-year-old Agnes. Elin (Rebbecca Ljebreg), the girl Agnes has a crush on, is a knockout, extroverted enhanced blonde that could prance in any mainstream American teen flick. But Agnes is the ordinary imperfect girl that you see everyday, with an ordinary, childish face that is still so lovely and expressive. You can’t get enough of it.

Then there’s Agnes’s unusual family: it isn’t in any way dysfunctional. The parents, particularly the father played by the wonderful Ralph Carlsson, do and say precisely the right things but are helpless to rescue their daughter from pariahhood. It is thus all the more heartbreaking to sit with them as the minutes tick by and no one comes to Agnes’s birthday party. Correctly, no teachers appear in Fucking Amal; they don’t play major roles in a teenager’s universe. Finally, there’s the depiction of teenage boys in all their luggishness. The girls seem to see it (“Is that the only joke you know?” one girl snaps), but peer pressure or the boredom of the “fucking” little town of Amal propels them to unsatisfactory pairings. Remarkably, the director is a man, 31-year-old Lukas Moodysson. Should he stay in Sweden or answer the call of Hollywood?

Aimée and Jaguar

Trust the Goethe Institute to be a courageous festival sponsor. Three of the festival’s German films were set, at least partially, in Nazi Germany, and two of these dramatized the lives of real gay people. (The other, besides Aimée and Jaguar was Der Einstein Des Sex, based on the life of a Jewish, gay, socialist, activist sexologist.) The reckless, Jewish Lilli (Maria Schrader, an arresting, unconventional beauty) works in the Berlin underground. Improbable but true, she falls in love with a ditzy blonde Gentile (Juliane Kohler), the wife of a Nazi officer and the mother of four. The love story unfurls with the momentum of, well, a Greek tragedy. But the films works on other levels too. It’s a thriller. It has the look and feel and paranoia of the time. And it offers a glimpse of how the underground resistance operated. For Lilli, it meant passing in very high places.

Bishonen

Hong Kong director Yonfan has made a path-breaking Asian film, but will Westerners grasp it? Surely many viewers here were sighing, “At last! Gay Asian men that aren’t transvestites, freaks, queens or (to wit Shang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace) products of very Freudian childhoods.” Not that Bishonen (a Japanese word for “beauty”; the film is also known as Beauty!) offers any slices of settled gay domestic bliss as now crop up so often in Western movies. Yet as the film traces the trail of call boy Jet (Stephen Fung), we at least learn that a gay Hong Kong man might be a tycoon thug, a cop, a movie star or an office worker. Or your brother or your boss.

It helps to understand how deep the homosexual taboo runs in Chinese societies. Probably all the men working as call boys have severed their family ties. And the taboo means the cop, sweet Sam (Daniel Wu), will never come out to his beloved parents and will surely marry a nice Chinese girl to live with miserably ever after. Unfortunately, we get no sense of the larger gay networks. Does Hong Kong only have a gay sub-culture or, as in Thailand, is there a nascent gay community?

Seducing Maarya

How could Seducing Maarya start off so ripe and turn so rancid? Especially when the Maarya is played by the accomplished Nandana Sen, possibly the world’s most beautiful woman? Indian-Canadian Vijay (endearing Mohan Agashe of Mississippi Masala) is devastated by the death of his wife.

When the resourceful new immigrant, Maarya, takes over his restaurant kitchen, Vijay decides that she’d make the ideal wife for his son, Ashish (Vijay Mehta). Although Ashish is gay, he willingly submits to the marriage because it’s “tradition” and will cheer up the old man. The neglected wife and Vijay are convincingly drawn to each and commence an affair.

We seem to be ensconced in a competent, low-key comedy that will convey us to a novel accommodation between New and Old Worlds. But when Maarya’s hoodlum brother shows up, the film can’t bear the weight of violence, incest and Indian politics. Strangely, the Malaysia-born Chinese-Canadian director Hunt Hoe is more fearful of depicting the gay relationship than the incestuous one. Finally, it’s simply not true to character that these street-smart siblings would ditch Canada out of sentiment for Mother India. The pair would have too much fun casing the Canadian angles. φ

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