Coast to Coast: 2002 San Diego International Film Festival

By Greg Muskewitz
Posted 05/10/02 01:46:40

Fewer and fewer filmmakers are able to present an observation without gobbling up the obligation to serve an analysis on the unsuspecting subject matter.

Coast to Coast
Fewer and fewer filmmakers are able to present an observation without gobbling up the obligation to serve an analysis on the unsuspecting subject matter.

As excited as I was to be in New York and cover the city’s 2001 film festival, I was happy all the same to hop on a flight back to my hometown in order to attend the 18th annual San Diego International Film Festival. The “vacation” spoke for itself in two of the headlining attractions—Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Séance and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo—enough so as to make the thought of attendance a reality. Except for the omission of the Kurosawa in this column (I prefer to look at the subsequent four movies of his—pre- and post-Cure—all at one time), this should serve as a compendium of the exhibited works, several of which will not be readily shown in a theater near you or me again for some time.

(Note: Due to a lack of time on my part, I have been slacking on either posting my columns or in some cases, even writing them up. So, in consideration of that, with every current column I post, before it I will put up an older one—which in some cases may appear obsolete as compared to when the movies reviewed opened and closed (i.e., Gosford Park, Big Bad Love, Monsoon Wedding, etc.).)

The Cat’s Meow. The first film in almost a decade from Peter Bogdanovich is a giddy lollapalooza of a not-so-fictional backdrop, with questionable veracity, reframed and styled in a calculating effort to concoct an authenticity from the Golden Days. As it happens, it is also a wonderful kick-off for the festival. “This is the whisper most often told,” cautions the voice-over at the film’s start, which is in reference to the mysterious occurrences that took place on a yacht trip destined for San Diego, containing the world-weary likes of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Elinor Glyn, Louella Parsons, and tragically, Thomas Ince. Given the round-up, or here, the unintentional line-up, the camera has a wide range of faces, places, and corners to roam over in order to rouse suspicion and interest. Bogdanovich makes no mistake in letting the tail wag the dog there, but the steady and well-paced flow is aptly derived from Steven Peros’ stage play. One of the benefactions in this transition is the room from which the camera has to proceleusmatically roam and revolve about in, and despite that the interior of the yacht serves as the easy confines of a stage, Bogdanovich allows little room for theatricality. As a portrait of Hearst, it paints him as a very insecure, and ergo, childish man—beholder of so much, but unable to control that which he desires most. As a portrait of Davies, it paints her as a twitty, confused girl, too easily wooed by any form of affection. And so the caricatures and biased suppositions go. The exposition is unequally divided by scenes of delicious information (or gossip) and pertinent insights (such as why “WR” has prevented his paramour from appearing in comedies—“I don’t want people laughing at Marion”), and to a lesser extent—a benefit in most likely cases—the malapropos visual examples lacking the grace and subtlety that should suffice through the spoken word. (One scene that particularly jumps to mind is amidst a game of Charades, where Marion and Chaplin team up to re-enact “man discovering reflection.” Is it vanity that prompts Charlie to kiss “himself,” or the lusty prospect of what was at the other end of the looking glass?) The film’s décor, which includes the cast, contributes to the controlled atmosphere and period by keeping the order of storytelling on track and in line. Several good turns are permitted, especially from Edward Herrmann (as the pacing, brooding Hearst), Joanna Lumley, Victor Slezak, and most surprisingly, Kirsten Dunst. A recent favorite of mine, Claudie Blakely, is also given time to demonstrate her scale of talent and presence within a small amount of space—a skill on her résumé that speaks for itself. (I await the prospect of a larger role, outside of ensemble pieces like this or Gosford Park, where she will have the room that she now has proved she can fill. Unless, of course, the ensemble belonged to someone like David Mamet, where one might note a fine similarity between Blakely and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon.) Those actors, most notably, are distinctly able to purport a likeliness of those in the time period they are portraying, from the swanky, stylish dressings, to the presentation, and down to the gestures and rhythm of movement (in context to the way it was shot and appears in the films of the Twenties). Even when the authenticity is forged or over-looked, the faux pas is discharged as little more than ambitious creative escape or containment. (A large oversight was the absence of Davies’ stutter, the one which prevented her from becoming as successful an actress during the transition of film from Silent to Talkies; on the other hand, the inclusion of the stutter in the play and even perhaps the film, would tend to clutter the deck.)

With Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly, Claudia Harrison and Chiara Schoras.

Die Bad. The four loosely-threaded vignettes in this South Korean omnibus of foot-in-face violence lead to one greater common bond shared over a regulatory-flow basis: the introduction of a short, inchoate conflict resolved at the end, or throughout, with a corollary punctuation of street martial artistry and a blaring soundtrack. Kung fu with a side-order of heavy metal. In other words, it’s sloppy and unkempt; a series of scenes set to the formula of, or dictated by, small verbal interludes before the donnybrooks are unleashed. The only small aberrations that earmark each act are variations in the color scheme and cinematography—the plain image, the blue-bleached image, the granulated image. Writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan visually alternates the brawls of invincible stamina to appositely see different timecodes for when the fights should start, mixing the action at the end of one vignette, a beginning, a middle, or intermittently shuffled back-and-forth to during the course of a dual-layered segment. The first vignette overstays its welcome, plunging very early into a routine of monotony that is to be strictly adhered to over the duration of the running time.

With Park Sung Bin, Ryoo Seung-bum and Seung-wan.

The Gleaners and I. Although I have never been one for watching documentaries, considering that I was attempting to view as many of the films being showcased as possible (and added to that, that I had already missed a couple early ones), I made an “exception” for Agnès Varda’s film. The Gleaners and I is Varda’s study about the act (and sometimes art) of gleaning—“collecting after harvest,” as well as a timely memento mori. She illustrates, in a very classroom lecture-y way, the different denotations and connotations of what and where one gleans. The flipbook of possibilities range from stalks of corn, tomatoes, potatoes, grapes and figs (considered a heterodox to those who believe the ability to glean is only from something that grows by roots), expired foods, trash, and so on. Varda documents examples from farms, countrysides, landfills, public dumpsters, vineyards, and food markets. She interviews traditional gleaners, modern gleaners, gypsies, judges, artists, homeless, those rebellious and health-conscious. Along for the field trip—as the educational aspect of Varda’s exposé is most prevalent to—is her new toy, the digital videocamera. She breaks from her studiousness, here and there, to play with it, to experiment with the bells and whistles, indulge in harmless narcissism, pretend to swallow big-rigs she passes on the road with her hands, and even to point out how she forgot to turn her camera off as the lens-cap dances to dubbed music. The image is venial and appropriate when one takes the time to consider the homespun nature of her project or report. However rudimentary her thesis on the subject is, Varda is able to explore her interest, pass it on to the viewer and still give them something to learn about. That accomplishment affords it (and her) a passing grade.

With Bodan Litnanski and François Wertheimer.

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. Approximately the thirteenth Gamera entry since his first name-bearing vehicle in 1965, this is Shusuke Kaneko’s third in a revamped trilogy (Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe and Gamera 2: Advent of Legion). Without having seen either of the two predecessors, the action here speaks for itself, and the inclusion of a previous character who shared a psychic connection with Gamera is quickly explained. The premise sets in motion an inevitable battle between the misunderstood heroism of Gamera, and a far more nefarious creature—something of a Power Rangers anomaly—known as Iris. A local teenage girl is responsible for unleashing the wrath of Iris; they, too, share a psychic connection, and she plans on using that special bond to seek revenge for the death of her parents during a previous rampage of Gamera’s. Kaneko is able to simultaneously parody the establishment of Japanese monster movies (one military guru is outraged, “Why is Japan continually being attacked by monsters?”), and fashion an action/sci-fi flick with a dash of genuine excitement and creativity. For what they are (and not counting the occasional CGI versions used), the visual effects look efficient and stretch beyond the necessary or adequate means for a movie of this caliber. (I admit I missed the latest Godzilla outing from 2000, but I doubt its technological upgrade met this, or the preposterousness of Jason X’s main villain.) Kaneko and co-writer Kazunori Itô also sprinkle in some campy fun with random fairy tale elements (e.g., The Sword in the Stone) and exaggerated social commentary involving atypical Asian teenage angst. (Let’s just say some emotions get squashed!)

With Yukijiro Hotaru, Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Ai Maeda and Aki Maeda.

Song of Tibet. Same old song: the road traveled most often (as in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home) is taken again and worn away to schmaltzy detritus. Two Tibetan codgers indulge in a multitude of flashbacks for the benefit of their granddaughter, back to their rebellious youth and “courtship,” as the grandfather reaches his expiration. Directed by Fei Xie, the geriatrics’ plight is trivialized by the anachronistic slang of a modern-day American translation (references to each other as “buddy”), the perfection of the ultimate one-up—mooning the loser and slapping one’s butt—and an assortment of other gags and outright goofiness. That, nevertheless, heeds no shame when the switch is turned on for automatic pathos. Xie lacks the maturity of Yimou, the structure of the alternating storylines, the unimposing styles (notably the black-and-white photography for the present, and the color for the past), and maybe least important, the presence of Zhang Ziyi.

With Danzengzhuoga, Laqiong, Dawangdui, Renqingdunzhu and Dazhen.

Millennium Mambo. The winner of my imaginary Best of the Fest award, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s detached drama of a young girl tripping and slipping through life was the most rewarding viewing experience I got from this year’s selection of worldwide films. Hsiao-hsien is often associated for flaring up the Taiwanese New Wave, particularly through his distinct period pieces. The hullabaloo in the United States is that, for the most part, his work has been undistributed, with only the slipshod showing at a film festival. (Only in the last six months have any of his works become available on video.) 2000 saw the first showing of one of his films in San Diego with Flowers of Shanghai, which aside from the exquisite and precise cinematography of Mark Lee Ping-bin, I found too disconnected and sterile. Much has been made of Hsiao-hsien’s departure from the past for Millennium Mambo’s present; although his style and attitude on his subjects maintains preserved, the objective examination is languid, but compellingly rich in detail. The ossature of the film, and of Vicky’s (Qi Shu) perambulation of the motions, does not seek to show new acuity in this type of avatar. It—they—are followed in a pacifistic query that does not judge decisions or outcomes. Fewer and fewer filmmakers are able to present an observation without gobbling up the obligation to serve an analysis or commentary on the unsuspecting subject matter. On a majority, the film is relatively celibate from emotions. Smiles are saved for the escapism offered in the trance music, or likely when the characters “pop dexies.” The occasional snow intermezzo in Yubari also provides for the unexpected (and vicarious) divertissement, but the reserved anabasis of one’s sentiments is often when self-discovery takes place. At times, I’m lead to believe that Hsiao-hsien is suggesting the facelessness, or lack of identity and connection that the youth of many Asian countries have become trapped by. The suggestion is not a trend, but a reoccurrence that has been examined and broached by Asian filmmakers during the past decade. Some might feel that Hou’s own lack of warmth towards the dilemma is a weak one by taking no stance, but it removes him from the narrow-minded pedagogy of his critics. His enthusiasm is rather dominant in the stylistic aesthetics utilized as his tools, especially a pattern in his narrative approach. The voice-over narration foretells a vague description of an impending future act, and advances after that by giving a visually-realized version. In essence, it sums up much of what the art of direction is: taking what’s in writing and putting it in pictures, through his eyes. But the mentality of Hsiao-hsien’s thematic experimentation is what proves so fresh and neoteric.

With Tuan Chun-hao and Jack Kao.

Murderous Maids. A misleading title, if for no other reason than the provenance of it is defined only in the antecedent chapter of this dreary, impecunious chambermaids’ “diary.” A more fitting title, and perhaps one that would attract an even larger audience, if not more selective, could unbegrudgingly be found along the lines of Incestual Lesbian Maids, or touched up as Incestual Lesbian French Maids. No matter the level or length of longanimity one invests in the [highly-] expectant dénouement, it never quite quenches the rewarding nature of any of the aforementioned prospects. As an exercise in volition, it appeals in a masochistic demeanor (which could arguably be the audience this is for), and the frosty, pensive disposition of the filmmakers and the characters contribute to visual look and feel of anemia. Jean-Pierre Denis’ quiet approach to the stentorian amorality and fetid machinations brand him heavily as either voyeur or nihilist, with a perverse sense of pessimism in both directions.

With Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmentier.

Peppermint Candy. Pre-Memento utilization of the backwards progression of a story, separated by interlards of the reverse-motion of a train and the box-sprung insanity of a South Korean denizen slowly rewound. The locomotive accompanies the antagonist from his suicide in 1999, to his innocence as a nerdy, flower-smelling, love-struck student/photographer in 1979, each portion replete with a different style haircut on actor Sol Kyung-gu. As his madness, temper and unhappiness are reeled back in, it serves the opposite effect for the viewer, who instead adopts the antagonist’s irascibility and vexation. (Only it reflects the distress with the main character rather than sharing his distress with the surroundings.) Several points are made and taken (then quickly dismissed) with the temperament and climate of the society, but director Lee Chang-dong strayly abandons his zings for the ever-so-direct wrapping-up of the character’s de-evolution.

With Moon So-ri.

To Protect and Serve. American-made mockumentary shadowing a sharp-tongued documentarist (largely participating throughout the events) and his subjects, a tag-team trade-off of the LAPD’s finest. The older officer is a louche with a childhood hang-up on the family dog, himself in the process of stalking a new prostitute on the street; the other officer is the stereotypical drongo—large in size, but not terribly bright. (Side-hobbies include cooking; you would expect him to be played by Patrick Warburton.) Writer/director Joseph Perez effortlessly scrounges up a mild satire of voyeuristic police shows (“C.O.P.s,” “Tales of the Highway Patrol,” etc.) and what ulterior motives or hidden agendas the cops may be carrying around with them. As a comedy and even down to the mildness of the satire, there are enough jokes and comments made that work (“Hugs for Thugs”), but the omnipotence of the all three characters’ perspectives tends to be too over-reaching. Between the whip pans, the excessive editing, the ambulatory camera, the multiple stationary shots from one occurrence (forget that the documenter’s single camera wouldn’t be able to film the same thing over and over without worrying to set up a position), and so on, it makes it plain that apart from Perez’s pointedness, he also falls back on convenience and laziness.

With Lee Corbin, Ben Murphy and Jake Wall.

Poisons. Russian grab-bag floating between dark revenge comedy and light surrealistic hallucination. The indecision of which tone and theme to emphasize is one of the deepest nails in this coffin. One arm reaches for funny and the other arm for fancy, and Karen Shakhnazarov’s direction exhibits the similar cross-eyed, flip-lipped indolence. Either way leads this into obscurity, inasmuch as the comedy is lacking proper support or shape, and the dreams are completely dislocated from any progressive development or point. Anyone with an imagination, it seems, could have done a number of fun reenactments with the encyclopedic print-out of infamous cardinals or royalty who have poisoned those who stood in their way throughout the past several centuries. (And here they welcome the modern neophyte into their realm of decadent grandiloquence despite his own indecision whether to poison his adulterating spouse.) During the closing lines of text, there is a hinge into reality that claimed this to be based on a true story. If the names were changed to protect the innocent, I saw no such clause to prevent the embellishment of their apparent insanity. They wouldn’t look any more foolish than they already do.

With Oleg Basilashvili, Aleksandr Bashinrov and Olga Tumajkina.

Design. Davidson Cole’s first entry, a caliginous but entirely desultory story, follows a fractured and tandem outline whereby chance is on a high enabler, and reason has been all but muted. The story’s classification falls into the always-iffy category of separate character storylines that all tie together in the end. However, this falls on the other side of the spectrum from where the recent and more respectable Lantana landed; that, too, may not be the best of examples, but what it does is warrant the want of belief through the way the tale is woven. Cole, who writes, directs and stars in the lead role, orients his structure in a far more haphazard manner, relying on the audience’s flat-out unconcern or lack of interest in the way things are strung together. What does appear to interest Cole, or consume his time, is the amount After-Effects that are added in post-production—multi-frames within a frame, discolorations, and other “tricks” that pollute the canvas of the screen. Other examples of his disregard for the form are seen through the constant exacerbating jostle of the camera, split-second edits, and the poorly lit images.

With Jennifer Morrison, Mary Kay Cook, Edward Cunningham and Daniel J. Travanti.

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. Hailed as the first-ever [fiction] motion picture production from the Inuit Eskimos, the three-hour epic bildungsroman elaborates on some of the ins and outs of the frozen lifestyle, from love to lore. The title character is the second-born in the Igloolik community his family resides in, along the Canadian Arctic. Mainly a tale of struggle, family camaraderie and love, the favored Atanarjuat is continually pitted against the son of a neighboring family and their jealousies and competition over a woman who was promised to the adversary, but prefers the protagonist. It takes a lot of sloshing through seal blubber before the meat of the storytelling is concentrated on and around, but it provides an insightful examination into a heretofore unscratched way of life. Their myth and lore still remain just as intact and shrouded in mystery, but their daily life is finally made clearer and available. It’s almost impossible to take in the beautiful blizzardy scenery without feeling some form of a chill.

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. With Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Pakkak Innukshuk, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq and Lucy Tulugarjuk.

Triumph of Love. Clare Peploe directs an adaptation of the French play by Marivaux, of deceptive identities and confused love, and gets her husband Bernardo Bertolucci to produce. Shakespeare, it’s not, and though the hijinx permeate a certain resemblance in concept and execution to some of the Bard’s more cavorting, frolicking follies, the language of this adaptation takes a hit, a debilitating deflation. Since there is an undisguisable modern re-routing of the language (however, not to the tune of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), none of the actors are able to join into a rhythm or pattern to the beats of conversation, let alone in their own dialogues. Mira Sorvino is the princess who has deviously tried get an usurped prince to fall in love with her so she can rightfully return him to his throne. She exhibits a natural aura of flighty love, uncontrollable and twitterpated. Despite the androgynous nature of her character (or one of them), her zaftig is easily enough hidden via the normal androgyny of the period dress, but there is far too much weighted against Sorvino’s likelihood as a male for her to be passed off as one at all. A speechless encounter might be digestible, but the seduction of another female is out of the question. Peploe’s evanescent appearances of an alfresco audience are negated by the very untheatrical features of unsteady camerawork and jumpy, “dead air” editing. (Or is it “dead time”?) No matter—both alternatives are as pleasant as riding on rims.

With Ben Kingsley, Jay Rodan, Fiona Shaw and Rachael Stirling.

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