Film Festivals


By • Oct 23rd, 2002 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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The advance buzz on this year’s New York Film Festival was that it was “unusually weak” — top heavy with Asian films as 8 out of the 27 selections — while the featured, opening night film, Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” was proclaimed (in mid-May, by Time’s Richard Corliss) a ludicrous “factory musical” with a rock star, Bjork, who “could neither sing, dance, or act.”

Such predictions proved inaccurate as they were made by those who had no first-hand knowledge of the films — except for Corliss, who filed before “Dancer” had been awarded the Palme d’Or and Bjork the Best Actress at Cannes. Of course, it is easy to mock a picture like “Dancer” with a penny-dreadful plot worthy of a silent film melodrama, and preposterous musical sequences compiled from the coverage of one hundred, fixed, video cameras. (More on “Dancer” to follow.)

I found it an unusually rich year, enhanced by the participation of most of the films’ directors and a number of their stars at the press conferences following the screenings.

For a moviegoer like me, increasingly starved for foreign films, even in New York City, the Festival has become a great source of cinematic nourishment. While it lacks the abundance of offerings at Cannes, Montreal, and Toronto, in a year of worthy selections, like this one, you can well believe that you have savored the cream of the world cinema’s crop. Most of the critics’ screenings were held at the Walter Reade Theater, the one Lincoln Center venue built especially for film projection, in which all but the front rows have excellent seats. When one compares the sound system at the Walter Reade to that of Alice Tully Hall, (the chamber music and recital auditorium where the public screenings and a number of the critics programs are held), you truly appreciate the privilege of a press pass. One could only wish for increased air conditioning at the usually stifling Walter Reade.

Covering all but five of the Festival offerings, with accompanying press conferences, proved a stimulating exhaustion, to coin a phrase.

For his new outrage, “Dancer in the Dark,” [Denmark/Sweden – Fine Line Features] writer-director-cinematographer Lars von Trier has juiced up the formula that made him famous in his English-language debut “Breaking the Waves” in 1995. “Dancer” also visits calamity upon calamity on a sweet, naive young woman, ending in fatality; and it executes the victim in the most grotesque manner possible. In “Dancer,” it’s done by hanging the heroine, strapped to a back restraint, in order to ridicule capital punishment in America. (I’ve always thought that capital punishment cried out for musical treatment, didn’t you?)

The star of this endeavor is not Emily Watson, the trained Royal Shakespeare Company actress of “Waves,” but rather the inexperienced, Icelandic rock goddess, Bjork. She plays Selma, a near-blind factory worker and musical comedy fantasist. Selma’s fantasies are meant to justify the MTV-style musical numbers which intrude, periodically, on the deeply dopey melodrama, the most ludicrous being Selma’s aria before she is hanged. While I think “Dancer” has to be seen to be disbelieved, I find Bjork the prime reason to see the silly thing. Bjork gave von Trier fits when he called “Action” and she could not perform on cue, but only after she had worked herself up for the take. As an actress, I find her touchingly believable in an impossible role. Her singing is a matter of taste, which, certainly, isn’t mine.

Bjork had the nerve to trust her acting instincts over von Triers’, and is every bit as affecting as Emily Watson in “Waves.” I think she richly deserved the best actress award she received in Cannes (and the NBR Special Achievement Award in January, for which she didn’t show). At the conference, Bjork’s dark, greasy hair, topped by an appalling green, curled hair ribbon to go with her light yellow dress, showed that her fashion sense is every bit the equal of her singing voice — that is, positively Icelandic — and quite comparable to the formal shmatta she wore to the award ceremony in Cannes. Evidently, outlandish sells. Undoubtedly, it also speaks to the looks of many of Bjork’s idolators. I am amused by the uncredited, program annotator who claims that “The musical numbers, built on the neo-realist style pioneered by Stanley Donen, were photographed with a system of more than 100 mini-DV cameras positioned around the set.”

I assume that the neo-realism alluded to is not the black- and-white verismo of Rossellini and DeSica, but the brawny, macho dances of choreographer Michael Kidd in Donen’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which one of “Dancer”‘s dance numbers strives to resemble. There is, of course, a clear difference between Donen/Kidd and Von Trier as cinematic choreographers. The former “neo-realists” designed their coverage of dances with one camera because they were veterans of stage and film musicals, and knew how to design camera angles to best display their exceptional choreography. The so-called “gifts,” as the novice von Trier describes the gleanings from his 100 fixed cameras, are not designed but accidental. While there are quite a few directors who hope for accidents in their shots, they have never been directors of musicals, until now.

According to an interview in “Dancer”‘s press kit, Von Trier believes that “West Side Story” was the last serious filmed musical, though he is, seemingly, unaware that “Story”‘s choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was America’s outstanding ballet and musical theater artist, nor that “Story”‘s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, has gone a lot further in advancing the serious musical than a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet,” which premiered in 1957. Of course, Sondheim has had 43 subsequent years to hone his skills. The sight of the still gloriously beautiful Catherine Deneuve playing Bjork’s dear friend and factory sidekick is as great a treat as the opening satire on amateur theatrics. The theater group is rehearsing “The Sound of Music,” with Selma in the leading role of Maria. Only Deneuve keeps Bjork, the blind diva, from falling off the stage. The extreme literalism of staging of “My Favorite Things,” with every single item of the lyric being brought onstage by Deneuve, is almost a definitive satire on community theater. However, the “professional” musical numbers which follow are also hoots in themselves.

It was a treat to see Joel Grey, as Selma’s father, playing a hostile witness at her murder trial, and tap dancing on a courtroom bench as brilliantly today as he did on Broadway in “George M.” more than 30 years ago. In fact, the entire cast of “Dancer” is excellent, so we should give von Trier a few cheers. Perhaps one day on a double bill in Cinema Heaven they will show “Dancer in the Dark” with James Brooks’s “I’ll Do Anything” (1995) with all of “Anything”‘s musical numbers (written by Prince and other pop luminaries) restored. Then we can truly judge which songs and dances were more out of place, ill-executed, or just inappropriate.

“Yi Yi” (A One and a Two) [Taiwan/Japan – Winstar Cinema] won this year’s best director award at the Cannes Festival for Taiwanese director Edward Yang. At just under three hours, this thick slice of bourgeois family life in Taipai is self-indulgently long (like a number of other films in the Festival) although it has its felicities.

The family’s 8-year-old son and documentarian (he photographs the back of his subjects’ heads) is delightfully grave and a stunner to look at. His father, NJ (Nienjen Wu), the film’s protagonist, is actually a noted screenwriter in Taiwan. Mr. Wu is convincingly morose throughout the flick. NJ’s dejection is due, in part, to his wife’s trip to a funny farm; his technology business’s imminent failure; and his abortive romance with a high school sweetheart who reenters his life while his wife’s away.

The film is punctuated with two feigned suicides; the real, transcendent death of its grandmother, the family’s matriarch; and a melodramatic murder which caps this study of ultra-quotidian, Americanized-Asian lives. Most family sagas, even those with elements of magic realism, bore me to somnolence. I liked best the film’s poetic abstractions: a panning shot of lighted glass office buildings at night to a lyric piano score; the overhead shot of a railroad yard which looked like a hideous, urban excavation scar; and the sound of heavy rain on an overpass during a meeting of the film’s young lovers. (I mistook the young woman of this couple as the daughter of the family, because she is the next-door neighbor and is always in the family’s apartment.) But this was only one of the many errors I made from having my eyes glued to the sub-titles of a long film.


Nagisa Oshima, now 68, who gave us the 1975 sexual shocker, “In the Realm of the Senses” returns from a 14-year absence from filmmaking with “Taboo” (Gohatto) [Japan-New Yorker Films]. It concerns Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) an effeminately pretty recruit to a samurai regiment, who, despite his thin wrists and long hair combed prettily forward, wields a wicked practice sword. The picture’s novelty, which would have appalled Kurosawa, is that all the grizzled veterans in this world-without-women lust for beautiful Kano. Of course, baby-faced Kano proves to be a true Samurai executioner, which gives him the equivalent of cajones.

We are woken from “Taboo”‘s snooze-making dialogue scenes by the violence of lots of hand-to-hand combat with both wooden practice swords and razor-sharp steel blades for execution. But even the simulated, under-a-blanket anal sex is excruciatingly dull.

It is mighty confusing when pretty boy Kano puts to death a balding retainer who looks just like the baldy who has been buggering him. In a subsequent scene, the bugger proves to be quite alive. Homosex among samurai warriors as late as 1865 (Kurusawa’s samurai pictures date back to Europe’s medieval era) may have a certain frisson, but there is absolutely nothing erotic about Matsuda’s passive, painted and combed boy-toy.

Pansori is the Korean song form of narrative sung speech similar to the German sprecht stimme. To a Korean, these croakings lift the spirits. To a foreign ear, this caterwauling is a repellent..

Pansori first generated the 18th Century, Cinderella-like fable of “Chunhyang,’ which moved from song to novel to drama, to no-less-than-14-Korean films before the present one. To summarize, Chunhyang, the beautiful daughter of a Korean prostitute (the lowest of the low in ancient Korean society) is wed to, and then separated from, the handsome son of an aristocrat. After long separation and torture (Chunhyang refuses to oblige a lascivious local governor who treats her as though she were her mother), Chunhyang is rescued by her beloved who makes their union royal in a state ceremony.

This is an atypically lavish production for a Korean film utilizing 12,000 costumes and 800 extras. It had an unusually lengthy, six-month shoot, the first two of which were scrapped by the veteran director, Im Kwon Taek, whose list of films goes on for an astonishing number of pages. Taek’s difficulty was in harmonzing the singing narrative with his pristine images and soaring crane shots. Mine was enduring earfuls of grating pansori. “Chunhyang” could have been an international success as a hot, date film, a la Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with two very attractive young lovers (Lee Hyo Jung as Chunhyang and Cho Seung Woo as Prince Mongryong). But it is fatally marred by the agonizing pansori, declaimed “a national treasure” according to director Taek, whose cracked-voice wailing makes Tom Waites’ sound silken-toned. Only a Korean aficionado would purchase the soundtrack to “Chunhyang.”

The foreign nature of Asian music is what makes so much Asian theater intolerable to this world theater fan. At the end of “Chunhyang,” a theater audience was shown roaring its approval of the film’s famous pansori cantor. Not only was this audience participation jarring to the film’s fairy-tale setting, but it seemed crassly self-congratulatory. This is a strictly parochial film which only Koreans will cheer.

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