Schedule and program notes
The NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS series, a joint presentation of MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, began in 1971, at the tail end of the euphoric "New Cinema" movements inspired all over the world by the French New Wave. Its ground rules disallow films by directors who've had more than one film released in the U.S., and it tends to focus on first or second-time filmmakers. In the 90s, it's taken on two primary functions: giving New York audiences a sneak preview of the year's Sundance crop and showing an assortment of films from all around the world, many of which will never be distributed in the U.S. As the quality of American independent films has declined over the past few years, I've come to value it most as a showcase for work from Asia and the Middle East. Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Wong Kar-wai received their first New York screenings here, and it has shown a number of major recent films from these regions: Elia Suleiman's CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE, Ning Ying's ON THE BEAT, Tsai Ming-liang's VIVE L'AMOUR and Dariush Mehrjui's LEILA. It's a far more friendly festival for ordinary spectators to attend than the relatively elitist New York Film Festival. Tickets for most films are still available on the day of their screenings, and the NYFF would do well to adopt its admirable policy of adding more screenings for sold-out films.
There are a few surprising gaps this year: French screenwriter/actor Jacques Nolot's directorial debut, HINTERLANDS; the third Dogma film, MIFUNE'S LAST SIGH; mainland Chinese director Lu Yue's MR. ZHAO (one of Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorite films of last year); Kazakh director Darizhan Omirbaev's KILLER; and 3 Korean films that have generated a buzz on the festival circuit over the past year: THE POWER OF KANGWON PROVINCE, TIMELESS, BOTTOMLESS BAD MOVIE and SPRING IN MY HOMETOWN. However, MIFUNE will be released by Sony Classics later this year, and I hope we'll get to see the Asian films at this summer's Asian-American festival, if not the next New York Film Festival, and HINTERLANDS at the Gay & Lesbian festival. This year, only three American films are included, and I'm surprised by the omission of Sundance favorites like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and Chris Smith's AMERICAN MOVIE. With only 23 slots to fill, the festival can't please everyone, and while I'm anxious to see all of the above titles, this year's lineup nevertheless looks like the strongest in years.
BIRTH OF A BUTTERFLY (Mojtaba Raei, Iran) ***
Sometimes I've walked back into the outside world after seeing a film and felt as if I'd stepped into its world instead. (This was the case with Tsai Ming-liang's THE HOLE, whose vision of a fetid, overcrowded Taipei rhymed with the ugliness of navigating around Manhattan in pouring rain without an umbrella.) When BIRTH OF A BUTTERFLY ended, I was jolted by the incongruity of watching an Islamic allegory shot in rural Iran at the Museum of Modern Art. Spectators who can't enjoy a film unless they feel mastery over it should stay away; much of its meaning is likely to remain obscure to a non-Iranian and/or Muslim audience. (The three-part structure brings Mohsen Makhmalbaf's THE PEDDLER to mind, while its desert and mountain vistas recall those of GABBEH, but BIRTH OF A BUTTERFLY is a great deal less accessible than these films.) The greatest strength of its first two thirds lies in Raei's attentiveness to the physical and spiritual power of landscapes and the poetry of human interactions with them. As oblique as the characters' behavior often seems, the beauty of its images kept me enthralled. Not until its final (and most overtly religious) part, about a schoolteacher whose neighbors believe he can perform miracles, does BIRTH OF A BUTTERFLY come together as a narrative film. Unfortunately, Raei's direction sometimes succumbs to the picture-postcard temptation, a tendency not helped by the sappy score of Kambiz Roshan-Ravan - in particular, one shot of blazing sunlight accompanied by a heavenly choir left me cringing - and only Carl Dreyer could have pulled off the film's final leap into the metaphysical. Even so, it's refreshing to see a film that makes so few concessions to Western festival audiences; I'd much rather miss some details than be talked down to.
No distributor. If one emerges, they must re-do the subtitles.
BUTTONERS (Petr Zelenka, Czech Republic) ***
BUTTONERS is the third film I've seen in as many months with a plot woven out of interlocking strands, and the whole is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Taken individually, each of the 6 sections is consistently witty and clever. It's easy to see why Jan Svankmajer aficionado Michael Brooke has been enthusiastic about it: in its fascination with secrets and fetishes, it shares a great deal in common with Svankmajer's CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE. (In fact, one entire subplot, including the concept of "buttoning," could have come straight from that film.) However, Zelenka obviously intends for it to amount to something more than a simple comedy, and his grasp for Significance exceeds his reach. At its most ambitious, BUTTONERS feels a bit smug and self-consciously "Buñuelian", but when it sticks to finding humor in small details, it's extremely entertaining.
WEST BEIRUT (Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon) ***
The mere existence of a Lebanese film seems like a novelty, but there's nothing exotic about WEST BEIRUT. Although set in a very specific time (1975-83) and place (a Beirut separated into Christian and Muslim quarters), the preoccupations of its teenage characters - 2 Muslim boys named Tarek (Rami Doueiri) and Omar (Mohamad Chamas) and a Christian girl named May (Rola Al Amin) - aren't all that different from those of American kids of the same period. (Tarek goofs around in French class, baiting his pretentious teacher, while Omar carries around a Super 8 camera and films voluptuous women.) The three are catapulted across the divided city from one risky run-in to another, and while they may initially perceive the civil war as an escape from the pressures of school and their parents, they eventually realize the full dimension of the tragedy facing their country. Doueiri's claim that the film is 90% autobiographical rings true. His vision of adolescent life is acute and perceptive: Tarek, Omar and May feel like real teens, not adult projections or fantasy figures. WEST BEIRUT tends to follow an episodic structure, rather than a conventional dramatic progression, and its changes of tone don't always work. Although it moves along fairly quickly, its pacing sometimes feels a little clumsy and overextended. At any rate, the setting and the characters' emotions come across far more strongly than the plot. (According to Doueiri, the no-man's-land brothel in which Christian and Muslim men can still treat each other as peers is based on a real place, but it still feels like a heavyhanded piece of symbolism.) The world of WEST BEIRUT seems simultaneously foreign and familiar, and it skillfully makes us understand what it's like to grow up under such terrifying circumstances.
Distributed by Cowboy Booking International. Opens in New York and L.A. on August 6th.
THE WOUNDS (Srdjan Dragojevic, Yugoslavia) **1/2
Speed-freak pacing, black comedy, cartoonish violence and a Dionysian party sequence: "over-the-top" would be an understatement for THE WOUNDS' first half hour. One could easily mistake it for a new Emir Kusturica film, especially when one partygoer grabs a roast pig off a spit and starts attacking people with it. Gradually, its differences from Kusturica - especially a slightly more realistic depiction of violence - emerge, but it still exists under the long shadow of UNDERGROUND. Despite the dubious politics of Dragojevic's first film, PRETTY VILLAGE, PRETTY FLAME, it was an exciting reinvention of some of the war film's hoariest tropes: the lost patrol, the platoon as microcosm. THE WOUNDS fails to work the same magic with the gangster film. Politically, it's certainly more admirable than PRETTY VILLAGE, PRETTY FLAME: through a cautionary tale about two teenage friends who grow up to become thugs in mid-90s Belgrade, its goal is to show the long-term consequences of the murderous nationalism and moral degradation that led to genocide in Sarajevo. I was engaged all the way through, but it feels secondhand - although Dragojevic obviously wants to capture present-day Serbian life, many of his ideas come from other films - and, even worse, hollow and glib. I can't fault its merit as entertainment, but Dragojevic is talented enough for me to have expected much more than that.
Distributed by Leisure Time Features. Opens this fall.
BARRIO (Fernando Léon de Aranoa, Spain) ***
BARRIO follows three teenage buddies around for a summer in a borderline-slum neighborhood: a far cry from Spain's glamorous beaches. It moves at a relaxed pace, showing a real understanding of what it's like to live in this barrio and managing to describe the dead-end lives of bored people without ever becoming boring itself. However, once the narrative picks up around the halfway mark, the film's schematic nature quickly becomes obvious. BARRIO is an obvious descendant of Italian films like Fellini's I VITTELLONI and Lina Wertmülle'Õs THE LIZARDS, and its view of the ills caused by poverty, not to mention alcoholism, domestic violence and unemployment, is pretty familiar. (When one kid becomes fascinated by his brother's gun, I could see a tragic conclusion coming from a mile away.) This is a compassionate, well-observed film, but it feels a bit like a sociology lesson.
FOLLOWING (Christopher Nolan, UK) **
Dave Kehr has described FOLLOWING as an English Sundance film, and its production history (shooting only on weekends over the course of a year with a crew of 8) is the kind of triumph-over-adversity story that the American press eats up. Over the past decade, it's become a tradition for young American directors like Robert Rodriguez and Nick Gomez to make a name for themselves with no-budget genre movies, and FOLLOWING is the English equivalent. However, it's far less impressive than LAWS OF GRAVITY or EL MARIACHI. Despite the crisp black& white cinematography and convoluted chronology, this is yesterday's goods - a tired story involving compulsive voyeurism, burglary, a femme fatale and several double-crosses - wrapped in a shiny new package. It only comes to life when exploring the crypto-sexual impulses behind burglary, but one can always turn to Bresson's PICKPOCKET for a much better version of that.
Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. Opens in New York on April 4th.
ORPHANS (Peter Mullan, UK) ***
Actor/director/writer Mullan is best known for starring in Ken Loach's MY NAME IS JOE, but his feature debut stays away from Loach's vein of social realism. Instead, he brings a refreshing sense of absurdity to a 24-hour saga about 4 Glaswegian siblings responding (badly) to their mother's death. The handicapped sister is the most sensible of the quartet; her three brothers decide to spend all night, respectively, guarding the casket in a church, pub-hopping after getting stabbed and trying to pass the wound off as a work-related injury, and searching for the assailant in order to avenge the stabbing by killing him. Despite the constant threat (and presence) of violence, itÕs quite a funny film. (The THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY/HAPPINESS-style cum shot is particularly hilarious.) His cast is quite appealing, and its strengths lay mostly in their performances and his sharp, profanity-laden dialogue. ORPHANS doesn't have an American distributor yet, but it would be a shame to see it passed up in favor of more MASTERPIECE THEATER dreck.
TOKYO EYES (Jean-Pierre Limosin, Japan/France) **1/2
TOKYO EYES mixes up the kind of cocktail of cinephilia and youthful romanticism that usually appeals to me: it aspires to be a techno remix of BREATHLESS or a more optimistic CHUNG KING EXPRESS. Limosin is French - he's made 3 other features and 3 documentaries, including ones on directors Abbas Kiarostami and Alain Cavalier - and had originally intended to shoot in Paris, but wound up shooting in Japan ( and in Japanese, with an all-Japanese cast) after getting funding from both French and Japanese producers. I suspect something got lost in translation. If Limosin was as inventive a director as his models, he might have pulled this off, but his direction seems rather bland next to Assayas or Wong at their best. Furthermore, the characters feel more like types - a violent yet idealistic young man and a girl whose love may redeem him - than real people. This is the kind of film that holds one's attention by promising something exciting around the corner, but it never makes it off the ground.
SITCOM (François Ozon, France) ***
French culture seems much more capable of dealing with sexual fluidity than our own, although I don't know how much these attitudes are reflected in everyday life. Next to Ozon's short, A SUMMER DRESS, VELVET GOLDMINE's celebration of bisexuality and gender-bending looks terribly academic. His first feature, SITCOM, has often (and unfairly) been grouped together with a number of "transgressive" American and European films, but it really has little in common with films like I STAND ALONE and HAPPINESS. Its TEOREMA-derived scenario - after a father brings him a pet rat, his family's sexual behavior suddenly goes into overdrive - is an excuse for a gleeful indulgence in "taboo" subject matter: homosexuality, interracial sex, incest, orgies, S/M. However, the sex itself is a cloak for a vein of optimistic humanism. Rather than simply mocking the kind of middle-class family life so often glorified by television, Ozon attempts to imagine how it might be reconstructed in a more egalitarian fashion. I can't deny that SITCOM is a much cruder piece of filmmaking than A SUMMER DRESS or Ozon's medium-length SEE THE SEA (which made my 1998 Top 10 list), but I don't find any less entertaining or fascinating.
Distributed by Leisure Time Features. Opens in July.
XIAO WU (Jia Zhang Ke, China) ***1/2
Since the early 90s heyday of RAISE THE RED LANTERN and FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, mainland Chinese cinema, perhaps torn by the twin pressures of censorship and the demands of Western audiences, has both declined and fallen out of fashion. I'm not surprised that Ning Ying's excellent ON THE BEAT, a quasi-documentary comedy about Beijing cops, didn't get released in the U.S., but neither did Zhang Yimou's last film, KEEP COOL! In any case, XIAO WU's focus on the quotidian, dry wit and passive "hero" remind me more of Elia Suleiman's CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE than any other Chinese film I've seen. Xiao Wu is a shy, seemingly depressed pickpocket who spends his days wandering around a provincial city killing time. He's not a particularly likable or conventionally well-rounded character, but XIAO WU has such a strong and precise sense of place that it's easy to imagine oneself in his shoes. Its story, which consists of a series of exchanges between Xiao and former friends (now gone "legit"), women, cops and his family, reveals a great deal about the modernization of China. Let's hope that American distributors and audiences will give a damn about Jia's crystal-clear vision of everyday life in an unglamorous China of beepers, karaoke clubs and grey-market capitalism.
PASSION (Gyorgy Feher, Hungary) **1/2
This is the kind of dour, glacier- paced Eastern European film one might have thought capitalism had long ago eliminated. After first, watching it is like trying to swim in molasses, but its very long takes and very slow camera movements have a cumulative power. Slow motion is still motion, and drama begins to emerge around the 45-minute mark. PASSION is most memorable as an evocation of a backwater Hungary so ugly and fetid one can smell the mildew. If this sounds like Béla Tarr, that's no coincidence: he collaborated with Feher on the screenplay. Although it provoked plenty of walkouts, I wasn't bothered by its slow pace or grim tone. However, it did make me wish I was watching Tarr's DAMNATION instead; there's absolutely nothing in it that Tarr hasn't done better in his own films. (His mordant wit is sorely missed.) Although Feher obviously has plenty of talent, I'd rather see what he does when he finally finds his own voice someday.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Christophe Restiau/Johan Roger, France) **
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON might look impressive in a program of student films, but it really has no place in a series like ND/NF. It was developed through screenwriting workshops in the north of France and shot in the directors' hometown with a cast of townspeople. The fruits of this care aren't particularly evident in the blandly heavyhanded film that Restiau and Roger made, and they seem to be operating under the delusion that a series of acting-class exercises constitute a real drama. Mercifully, it's only 39 minutes. I'd heard good buzz on OPEN BODIES, the other medium-length French film on the same program, but I didn't really feel like sticking around after sitting through this and PASSION.