Tag Archives: foreign language

The Third Wife

5 Jul

 

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Recently I had the opportunity to rewatch the taboo, erotic drama “Adore” (2013) starring two very compelling actresses – Naomi Watts and Robin Wright – as mothers having relations with each other’s 18-year-old sons. A hypnotically alluring WTF, “Adore” pulls you in and makes what’s off the moral compass seem rationally right by immersing you in the characters and their desires. The same applies to Ash Mayfair’s compelling directorial debut, “The Third Wife,” though besides the forbidden fruit and foreign soil (it takes place in Vietnam; “Adore” is set in Australia) there’s little other tether: “The Third Wife” takes place a century and more ago, when money and position allow men to have their way, in this case engaging in outright polygamy – thus the title.

The film focuses on the inclusion of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the new third wife in question, barely a teenager. When we meet her, her husband Hung (Long Le Vu) sucks an egg yolk from her belly before taking her. It’s a painful, erotic and disturbing scene. Set in the rural setting of a silk farm (worms, webs and lush green bamboo imagery fill the screen) during the colonial era, the women are isolated and subjected to the rule of tradition, but Hung is not an overtly oppressive head of house and the three women (the other two wives played by the stunning Nu Yên-Khê Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya) and Hung’s pubescent daughter Lien (Lam Thanh My) interact freely and forge a knowing sisterhood. 

Other subplots causing friction on the plantation flow through Hung’s son, named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), having an affair with his second wife, Xuan, and the budding same-sex attraction between a very pregnant May and Xuan. It’s the kind of quiet tension that so completely filled Zhang Yimou’s fantastic early works (“Raise the Red Lantern” and “Red Sorghum”) or the first film out of Vietnam to earn Academy Award recognition, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993). 

Mayfair, who grew up in Vietnam but was Western-educated from an early age, crafts a composition that feels masterful beyond her slim CV in emotional complexity, plot and orchestration. Of course, it helps have on hand artistic adviser Tran Anh Hung (director of “Green Papaya,” and husband of Nu Yên-Khê Tran), formal recognition and support from Spike Lee (the Spike Lee Film Production Award) and Chananun Chotrungroj’s dewy and glorious framing of erotic meanderings amid verdant backdrops. The film stumbled into a bit of a controversy when Mayfair cast a 12-year-old in the role of May. That aside, Nguyen Phuong Tra My and the whole cast deliver deep, heartfelt performances, conveying effectively what the laconic script has intentionally left to thespian heft. If the notion of a 14-year-old bride, or actor roughly that age playing such, disturbs you, think how the women relegated into such roles without a choice felt.

Aniara

18 May

‘Aniara’: Another trip to deep space goes awry, a getting away from it all that demands escape

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Much of this sleek Swedish sci-fi flick may feel borrowed from the recent, grim “High Life” from the unlikely source of Claire Denis, but its roots go back to the similarly named 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Denis’ contemplation on loneliness, lust and what constitutes law and righteousness beyond the outer limits, “Aniara” dumps us aboard an outer space cruise ship occupied by souls from wildly varying social strata. The vast voyager comes replete with discos and gourmet eateries, but it is not a vacation, not by any means. Those aboard are en route to a Martian colony because Earth has become uninhabitable.

Not long into the journey something goes bump, and The Aniara gets knocked off course and on a trajectory out of the solar system and into deep space. The initial projection of two years to get the engines back to full capacity and get back on course comes as a bit of a bummer – it was supposed to take three weeks to get to Mars – but hey, they have unlimited algae, so all’s good, right? No. Plans don’t go accordingly, timelines shift, cults form and society devolves into chaotic semi-lawfulness. Think Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel “High-Rise” (2016) and you’d have the right idea.

It’s a piquant setup and something of an existential exercise, pitting hope against the torturous throes of not knowing. As adapted by first-time feature filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the time-hopping narrative orbits around a strawberry-haired woman blessed with the gender opposite moniker of MR (Emelie Jonsson). MR proves quite the gravitational point; she’s the tech who runs the mental relaxation room known as Mima. The small, seatless amphitheater’s something like your favorite bar and bartender without the hangover – kind of: While resting in an inverted yogi Savasana pose, waves of flame shoot across the ceiling of Mima while visitors in their hyper-relaxed state take walks along the beach or a stroll through a verdant forest. In short, they get to go to their happy place. As the reality of return becomes increasingly glum, the demand for Mima spikes. And even there, the prospect for virtual escapism begins to become something of a shop of horrors.

The catch with “Aniara” becomes its overly ambitious scope, which begs for the razor eye of a master (say Kubrick or Tarkovsky); Kågerman and Lilja get the grandness and wonderment of the universe beyond right, but their chapter-esque jumps in time tend to break apart what came before. MR ultimately pairs up with fellow female crew member Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), so there’s something at risk emotionally and we’re reassured that true human companionship bears more value than a visit to Mima – phew. Years out, as prospects gray and the suicide rate skyrockets, folk still party like its 1999, engage in ritualistic orgies and even bear babies. Is it sustainable? It turns out space is a very cold place to contemplate time.

Shadow

10 May

‘Shadow’: Things aren’t just black and white for dynasties preparing a bloody red rematch

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Before Chinese director Zhang Yimou got into wuxia-infused dynasty dramas (“House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero”) he wove provocative, intimate tales of personal struggle (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qui Ju” and “Not One Less”) that edged into the political (one, “To Live” was banned in China). In 2016, perhaps rattled by the ascent of Trump in American politics, he jumped the shark with the “The Great Wall” a cockamamie actioner with Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe checking in as Western avengers of sorts saving China from a horde of ravaging monsters. Yeah. The good news – and it’s relative, mind you – is that Zhang’s latest, “Shadow,” marks a return to form, even if the plot is something of writhing nest of snake to untangle.

Somewhere in an ancient “great walled” country (clearly China, but fictitious, nonetheless) two clans remain at uneasy odds after ganging up to conquer a vying third. The Yan and Pei dynasties decide to settle who rules the lands by setting forth their best warrior in a winner-take-all contest. During that cage match the great legionary for the Pei, Zi Yu (Chao Deng) is wounded severely, but all the Yan take in victory is an impregnable mountainside city.

If that already feels like a lot to chew on, it’s just the backstory. In the now, the Pei king (Ryan Zheng, serving up a wonderful rendering of feverish instability) is something of a delusional fop who favors political appeasement by marrying off his sister (Xiaotong Guan) to the young Yan prince (Lei Wu). It’s an idea she despises, and with cause. To make matters more complicated (can they be?), there’s a more central thread about the Pei king and his “shadow,” a double named Jing Zhou (also played by Chao, pulling off the double duty with aplomb). That’s right, quicker than you can say Jean-Claude Van Damme or “Double Impact,” in a dank subterranean cave, the wounded warlord – slender, hobbled and disheveled, also with a dash of madness – trains his doppelgänger for a grudge match with the victorious Yan warrior. Then there’s the matter of Zi Yu’s wife, Madam (Li Sun) and the budding of a romantic triangle. More plots within plots.

It takes nearly half the film before Zhang delivers the anticipated hyperkinetic goods as the Pei, armed with razor-barbed umbrellas, literally slide into the Yan city and duke it out with their halberd-wielding rivals. What’s most noticeable throughout the film is the palette Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao choose: Everything’s dank and drab, black or white or some washed out shade of gray – I’m not sure there’s ever an outside scene when it’s not raining – except for gratuitous spurts of crimson blood. Part of that choice is clearly thematic, most visually obvious when the two warriors fight atop a black and white, yin-yang symbol. The obvious representations of the forces of light and darkness are not, in this case, explicitly just good and evil, but more the nuanced contemplation of madness and corruption versus loyalty and a just rule.

Zhang has cited Kurosawa as major influence, and you can see it clearly on display in “Shadow.” It’s also got Shakespearean bones, but it’s no “Ran.” (Few films are.) While it’s better than an also-ran, the serpentining plots within might give you a touch of head spins before the gorgeous, grand spectacle of battle, dueling zithers and venomous final bow.

 

Never Look Away

15 Feb

‘Never Look Away’: Germany’s Oscar entry takes artistic license with historic traumas

 

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The German Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the Oscars, “Never Look Away” has stiff competition coming at it next weekend from “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Roma” (Mexico) and “Shoplifters” (Japan) – films that crowned many Top 10s last year regardless of language, begging the question: Is it worthy to be in such a distinguished field,arguably the best in years?

Well, yes and no. It’s a stirring cinematic achievement, gorgeously shot, well-acted and peppered with piquant daubs of erotica, but at three-plus hours and with a slightly mawkish protagonist, “Never Look Away” never gets into your bones the way its competitors do. A fictionalized account of abstract artist Gerhard Richter’s life, the film – as most biopics do – begins with the stand-in youth, Kurt (Cai Cohrs) growing up in Dresden in the 1930s and living through the infamous Dresden firebombing, which, when rendered onscreen, is itself grandly reimagined through an abstract lens. Long before the catastrophic event, however, in a telling setup, the wide-eyed Kurt is taken to an art gallery by his eccentric and comely aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi guide promptly demeans and dismisses the works of foreign greats such as Picasso, but it’s during the visit that Kurt discoveries his inner passion to paint, and his aunt, who often parades around the house nude, instructs him: “Everything that is true is beautiful” and therefore he should “never look away.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Elizabeth’s free-spiritedness is mental illness. Kurt’s parents, at a loss after a far too stark incident, place her in a sanitarium, where on the eve of the air raid she’s gassed by the hospital’s director Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, reminiscent of a young Bruno Ganz – though with a stronger chin and steelier gaze). Depressing indeed, but where there is fire there is rebirth.

The film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who notched an Oscar for his 2006 contemplation on the devious impact of the Stasi turning citizens against each other in “The Lives of Others” (which also starred Koch), postures the ambition of an epic – it certainly has the historical scope and running time of one. After the bombing we lurch forward to a postwar Kurt, now a young man (played by the dewy-eyed, handsome Tom Schilling), diligently painting away at an art school. It’s there that he falls for a fellow student named Ellie (Paula Beer), who oddly (or poetically) enough happens to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth. She’s also the daughter of Koch’s hospital director. Yes, you can see miles away where the karma connection is goingthe kind of fate you’d find in a Greek tragedy in which the players are unaware of their position as the gods – or in this case, the director – move them around to suit their purpose.

The cast has ardor, especially Beer and Koch, but the script by von Donnersmarck can’t match it. The restrictions of the biopic-shaped arc can take some blame. (Richter, apprised of being the inspiration for the story, has expressed disdain, flagging it as a gross exaggeration.) No matter, it’s rewarding to see von Donnersmarck return to form after the 2010 debacle“The Tourist,” a mindless thriller that paired Johnny Depp with Angelina Jolie and somehow made the result sexless and dull, even pulling Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to Hollywood hack level. Here von Donnersmarck artfully concocts a dreamy rewind of how war and shifting circumstance can afflict the passionate. Fellow nominee “Cold War” covers a similar swath of time; the last act of “Never Look Away” even unfurls with the erection of one of the greatest of all Cold War icons, the wall between East and West.

Cold War

20 Jan

‘Cold War’: When Iron Curtain falls on love, you really can’t just sing your troubles away

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“Cold War,” that other gorgeous black-and-white film in a foreign language (opposite Oscar fave “Roma”), tells the tale of an improbable love made even more improbable by world-shaping events that unite and rip apart the lovers across decades, shifting borders and political ideologies. It’s heartbreaking, deep in romantic angst and propelled by sound and music.

The well-known subject of the title is the film’s driving force. We catch up after World War II with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) an accomplished pianist and musicologist wandering the Polish countryside recording song of the region, when he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman of the mountains with talent – and with a very dark past. It’s love at first note, but the two are torn apart by time, totalitarianism and station. She’s whisked off to a perform in a troupe entertaining the Russian upper brass under Stalin. He defects to the west, she even takes on work as an informant as Russia’s conformist tendrils wrap around and strangle the Polish spirit. Time and coincidence bring them back together for trysts, the passion etched upon their faces. They also take on other lovers and companions, but when they meet up in their old homeland, Yugoslavia or Paris, all that exists is each other.

The film, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (who won the 2015 Foreign Language Best Film   Oscar for his conflicted nun drama, “Ida”) wins primarily on the all-consuming performance by Kulig. Her Zula is aloof, enigmatic and sensual. It’s like looking at a young Catherine Deneuve – you can’t take your eyes off her, and you’re not exactly sure what she’ll do next. In an early 1960s Paris nightclub, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” comes on the jukebox and, buzzed on bourbon and freed by the rock anthem, Zula takes over the club, a whirlwind of pixie dust that ends up sashaying across the bar top. It’s as infectious as it is outrageous. As Zula’s long-burning object of desire Wiktor, Kot’s no mere garnish; he has melancholy eyes that betrays his vulnerabilities. 

For some, the jumps in time and place between reunions and the personal and global events that fill those chasms might seem like too much for a love that has never been allowed to blossom, but that’s kind of the point of “Cold War.” It’s about a love that is incapable of being squelched no matter what is thrown at it – the Iron Curtain, nuclear proliferation, insidious spy games or government-sponsored hit squads, take your choice. Of course, the stark framing in black and white serves to emboss the improbable union. It’s got fairy tale trimmings and dreamily romantic gazes, but this is about as far from Hollywood as one can get and still be in love in every frame.

Black Souls

22 May

‘Black Souls’: This dark mob family drama doesn’t go where you expect, unless it’s Italy

The three brothers in “Black Souls” lead very different lives: Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) runs the family goat farm in a remote village in the Italian foothills while Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) run mob operations in Milan. Luciano wants nothing to do with the new initiative and works tirelessly to steer his son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo) away from it too. But Leo, who does a little strong-arming on the side himself,  has his sights set on Milan and beyond.

052115i Black SoulsSmall doings carry big ramifications, and quickly Luigi and Rocco, looking to buy influence – 30 keys of coke will do that – and expand, find themselves in the middle of a potential turf war with Leo square in the middle as the agitator between Luigi’s cosmopolitan go-for-broke flair and Rocco’s staid, more conservative approach. It’s easy to see why Leo gravitates toward Luigi’s playboy as opposed to Rocco, who married, has a daughter and, at the root of it all, shares the same conservative sensibilities as Luciano.

As director Francesco Munzi’s weave has it, all parties wind up back at the old family farm, where past meets present and generational sensibilities collide as dark dealings loom at the corners. Much of what transpires feel leaden and reminiscent of “The Godfather” scenes on Italian soil: quiet and purposeful, and steeped in tradition and the unwritten code of the underworld.

There are several junctures where “Black Souls,” for all its somber drive, appears to move in predictable and clichéd directions, but Munzi and his writers – working from Gioacchino Criaco’s novel – smartly never quite go there. The developments add up to something new, unexpected and ominous, though not fully sating. Much of Munzi’s vision hangs on his four principals and on cinematographer Viadan Radovic. Most is asked of Ferracane, whose Luciano becomes the tortured Job of the mountain.

In large, he and the cast all deliver. But Munzi hangs on the emotional residue of a scene far too long, so much so that the magic he and his actors have conjured up begins to settle, and the poignant flourish suddenly becomes stale. There’s no denying Munzi’s hypnotic poetry and simmering macho cadence, but for all its bleakness, “Black Souls” could have been a gangbuster with a touch more soul.

White God

10 Apr

‘White God’: Dogs are fighting for justice on streets (and in the subtext) of Hungary

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The Hungarian-Swedish co-production “White God” begins with an absurdist slo-mo sequence of a young girl on a bike pedaling away from a sea of pursuing dogs. None of the canines is ferocious – most are quite cuddly – but still the girl rides on with urgency and fear on her face. Surly this must be a dream sequence, and it’s tucked away as such until later in the film, when it’s realized it was no subconscious imagination. What has taken place is a “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” resurrection by man’s four-legged best friend.

041015i White GodFrom the opener we wind back to a story about a preteen named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen, described as a Hungarian street dog – he’s got a German Shepherd’s body, a golden coat, a boxy face, piercing eyes and a curled tail like a Shar-Pei (played by Arizona sibs Luke and Body, trained by Teresa Ann Miller). Problem for Lili, who’s quite talented with a horn, is that her parents are divorced and she has to go stay with pa (Sándor Zsóstár or Zsótér) for an extended period. Pa’s not much for animals. He works in a meat-packing plant, and after Hagen spends the first night in his new digs barking away the night, the pooch is punished and put out. The girl never stops looking for her dog, who becomes the leader of all the city’s stray curs, eluding dogcatchers and stealing scraps here and there until ending up with a noose around his neck and in the pit, fighting other dogs Michael Vick style.

The collective dog wrangling and stunts helmed by Miller, when en masse and on the streets, are spectacular. The scenes of actual dogfights look staged and unreal. The film overall is uneven, gorgeously shot and well intentioned, but overwrought and hyperbolic. The film’s director, Kornél Mundruczó, clearly owes something to Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog,” one of the iconic director’s last works, about a white German Shepard that had been trained to attack black people. It’s not only in play in the title; there is a subtext not so subtly depicting oppression and subjugation in Hungary where Gypsies, likened to street mongrels, have been targeted as a lesser ilk.

Recognized at Cannes and submitted by Hungary as its Foreign Language Film entry for the Academy Awards, “White God” is something bold and experimental. Beautiful and brutal, and even with its shortcomings and derivative leanings, it’s a unique experience. Allegedly the street dogs used on the set were found homes afterward – a tidbit that adds to the film’s collective warmth and resonance.