Tian Zhuangzhung’s Springtime in a Small Town is a visually sublime and nostalgic film that is somewhat reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s exquisite Charulata in understatedly depicting the repercussions of emotional betrayal. The film takes place in the ruins of a large rural mansion in postwar China, as a physically fragile aristocrat (Wu Jun) is reunited with a childhood friend, a Shanghai doctor named Zhang Zhichen (Xin Bajqing), only to discover that Zhichen was his wife, Yu Wen’s (Hu Jingfan) first love. Tian uses slow tracking, long shots, and evocative landscapes to create a timeless, romantic, and old-fashioned melodrama in the best sense of the word. An exquisite, subtly sensual, haunting, and unexpectedly moving mature work from a very talented filmmaker – one of my favorites from the festival.

The Man Without a Past is another understated, idiosyncratic, and hilarious offering from Aki Kaurismäki. A man (Markku Peltola) suffers amnesia after being violently attacked while napping on a park bench. A poor, kindhearted family nurses him back to health and introduces him to the social services of the Salvation Army, and to the shy and compassionate Irma (Kati Outinen). However, as the nameless man attempts to rebuild his life, he finds that knowledge of his identity is the key to reentering society. Kaurismäki’s usually excessively vibrant colors seem to be a bit more muted in this film, although he retains his penchant for borrowed, incongruous American pop culture and melancholic folk ballads. The film does not have the dark undercurrent of loneliness and alienation of The Match Factory Girl, but instead, like Drifting Clouds, focuses on the tenderness, affection, and humanity of all the socially marginalized characters. A highly accomplished and sensitively realized film.

Ten is a captivating, humorous, and understated film by Abbas Kiarostami that follows a series of (ten) conversations by a divorced middle-class woman as she engages a series of passengers in a dialogue while navigating the streets of Tehran: her precocious son who feels suffocated by his parents’ competition for his allegiance and affection; her sister who dotes on her husband; a religious older woman; a beautiful young woman who prays for a successful resolution to her stalled long-term relationship; an anonymous prostitute searching for a high traffic street in which to conduct business. Less narrative driven than Through the Olive Trees and more episodic than the encounters in A Taste of Cherry, Ten is an insightful, universal window into the everyday complexities of contemporary existence.

Jia Zhang-ke’s Unknown Pleasures is a challenging film in the sense that there is a pervasive sense of aimlessness and inertia among the protagonists in the film. The film illustrates the social polarization of Chinese society by capturing the daily lives of underprivileged people amidst images of China’s push for globalization. As Jia explained the reality of modern-day China in the post-screening Q&A session, a kind of dual economy currently exists in contemporary China: one fueled by the global market (and usually the US dollar), and the other by the traditional state-run economy. The people who are getting left behind economically (like the young people in the film) belong to the latter. There are some equally sad and funny episodes like the father finding a one dollar bill and the boys rejoicing that they are rich that powerfully underscores their economic disparity and the social marginalization of the people left out of the global economy. Highly recommended for admirers of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s languid, contemporary films of rootlessness and alienation such as Goodbye South Goodbye, Dust in the Wind, and Millennium Mambo.

Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters is fairly representative of the British social realist films of the past 20-30 years – bleak, atmospheric, interminably depressing, grimy. While some of the more recent films are very well done (Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth or Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, for instance), I found that this particular realist presentation tended to be quite overdone in its attempts to provoke that it almost arcs to the point of caricature. Recommended for those who like the films of Ken Loach or the British social realist genre in general. Although it is a well done film, it just wasn’t my taste.

Like La Promesse, Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son is another well crafted, moral tale about redemption, although this time, played with an element of suspense. The Son falls in the realm of religious parable, not in the sense of finding a revelatory moment of a greater purpose, but in a Bressonian sense that an ordinary, emotionally scarred person can find transcendence from his earthly pain through ritual. The Robert Bresson comparison is probably the best way to describe the film: awkward, fragmented body shots (usually the back of the head), unemotive actors, and repeated shots of manual labor. Although I still think that La Promesse is their best film, this is certainly very high caliber filmmaking, along par with Rosetta. The handheld camera was especially pervasive in this film, and I must admit, I was not feeling too well for the rest of the evening.

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark was next, and it is quite a spellbinding, visually brilliant film, as Sokurov transports us through episodes of Russian history through the confines of The Hermitage Museum in one long unbroken shot (in the same experimental vein as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) that seems to create a seeming perpetuity that underscores a sense of history’s transience, but also Russia’s rich legacy and turbulent evolution – a sense of corporeal ghosts inhabiting a disconnected and inescapable (albeit glorious and majestic) space, and visually (or technically), deriving continuum from a finite space. The film creates a seeming parable for a nation irretrievably moving ever adrift from the rest of Europe, and oblivious (or apathetic) to its cultural and artistic legacy. What is visibly absent though, are the aspects of spirituality and metaphysical concern that had attracted me to his earlier works.

Im Kwon Taek’s Chihwaseon is another painterly, highly formalized, and exquisitely composed film based on the life of a famed 18th century Korean painter. Like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women and Jacques Becker’s Montparnasse 19, the film deals with the essence of creation and artistic integrity. An exquisitely realized film, even more beautiful and accessible than Im’s earlier film Chunhyang.


NYFF companion series – The Actor as Activist: Celebrating Shabana Azmi

Preceding the screening of Khandahar was a short documentary entitled Shabana! Actor, Activist, Woman by Dev Benegal that seeks to capture the essence of the charming and luminous Shabana Azmi’s complex persona: actress, celebrity, wife, mother, Muslim, social activist. Favorite moments from the documentary: Ms. Azmi hosting a group of evicted slum dwellers into her own home as she compassionately listens to their plight and stages a protest; Ms. Azmi stepping back to make tea in the kitchen of an affordable housing apartment, as she encourages the owner of the apartment to take center stage to explain the details of the housing program. What a gracious, fearless, intelligent, and beautiful human being.

khandaharMrinal Sen’s Khandahar (1983) is an absorbing, intelligently constructed film that centers on a blind, invalid, elderly woman (Gita Sen) of aristocratic descent who is cared for by her devoted, unmarried daughter, Jamini (Shabana Azmi) in the ancient ruins of a feudal-era zamindari (the landowner’s estate). On a Christmas holiday weekend, Jamini’s cousin Dipu (Pankaj Kapoor) convinces his friends Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) and Anil (Annu Kapoor) to take a break from their jobs in the city to visit his ancestral home in the remote countryside. Upon hearing that Dipu has returned, the mother becomes convinced that he has returned with Jamini’s prearranged suitor in order to finalize their long-awaited marriage. Sen’s visual aesthetic and incorporation of landscape as a metaphor for spiritual (and economic) desolation is especially stunning and provides tremendous depth to the film’s themes of duty, obsolescence, and fading tradition.

Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) is a highly engaging and insightful portrait of the hypocrisy, inherent contradiction, dichotomy, and residual legacy of rigid class structure in contemporary India as a seemingly socially progressive and “enlightened” college graduate, Surya (Anant Nag) from an aristocratic zamindar family inherits his father’s remote abandoned farm. Arranged to marry a young woman from a privileged family who cannot join him until she becomes of age, Surya begins to seduce a beautiful, low caste married housekeeper named Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), a selfish act that leads to irrevocable consequences. The harrowing final scene exquisitely captures the beauty and cruelty of human existence. Sublime filmmaking – a brilliant example of India’s parallel cinema.

Acquarello, 2002 [reprinted]