“Fans in China are very different from those overseas. In China, many people really love me and care about my life. But there is always some jealousy mixed up in this feeling of love. I think that is the big difference. Overseas, there is none of that.” – – – – – Gong Li
Bàwáng Bié Jí / Farewell My Concubine
Chen Kaige – China, 1993
Lavish, historical, masterly visual story-telling from Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine was a heavyweight in the surge of Chinese cinema in the 1990s. Set amidst a troubling time in China’s history, the film focuses on the relationship between two men, performers in a Peking opera, and the woman that enters their lives as adults. The early sections of the picture portray a harsh world of training, seemingly more like punishment than an organic learning experience.
Farewell My Concubine (the name of the play later in the film) makes terrific use of the near-three-hour running time, never lingering or hardly pausing for breath. Depicting significant chunks of Chinese turmoil in seamless fashion, the film looks simply beautiful throughout – be it the vast production design, illuminating costume design, or the painted faces. Performance plays a huge part in the film’s narrative, via the deception or tragedy that we are inevitably pulled toward. To add, the trio at the center of the acting ensemble, Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li, are all magnetic in their own way. – – – – – Robin Write
Der siebente Kontinent / The Seventh Continent
Michael Haneke – Austria, 1989
The Schober’s have found financial success. They have a lovely daughter. They have a beautiful home. Mrs. Schober makes excellent dinners. Little Evi is polite (though her faking blindness in class earned her a slap). And Georg continues to impress his superiors at work. They’re terribly boring–and so is this film, at least until director Michael Haneke treats us to nearly 30 minutes destruction. The Schoeber’s have had it with their boring lives, and seek out to destroy everything worldly possession. And once the madness has subsided, their motives are unveiled. Simple, rigid, unadorned and unconcerned–this is The Seventh Continent. – – – – – Ian Nichols
Les Invasions barbares / The Barbarian Invasions
Denys Arcand – Canada / France, 2003
There’s nothing funny about terminal cancer. Or heroin. Or cheating on your wife. And there are many things less upsetting than a damaged, bitter father-son relationship. So The Barbarian Invasions might not appear to be a pleasing viewing prospect. Denys Arcand’s follow-on story from The Decline of the American Empire (nearly twenty years prior) is far from bleak as a whole. In fact, it is intelligent, compelling, and inviting from the very start.
The set-up is so immediately engaging and familiar you perhaps feel the film is way beyond the ten minutes you’ve watched so far. While the political backdrop and family history contribute to the movie’s narrative and form much of the script’s dialogue, one of the real perks is the dry humor that is also present. The bittersweet and frank interactions, that often tend to be about the main character Remy’s outlook on women, fit perfectly, and ground us to the human story. One of a kind. – – – – – Robin Write
Oslo, 31. august / Oslo, August 31st
Joachim Trier – Norway, 2011
The cycle of addiction gets an empathetic treatment from Trier as he follows Anders, a bright, thirty-ish dude smartly played by Anders Danielson Lie, through a single day. By the time it’s over, confirms that days like this are the norm. Anders is on leave from a drug rehab center so that he can attend a job interview. When we see him awaken next to a woman in a hotel room that morning, then watch his fumbled (deliberately?) suicide attempt. We realize that the cycle of slipping, self-loathing and attempt at redemption is as much a part of his routine as brushing his teeth. The job interview is a snap – he impresses with ease. Then things go sideways when the interviewer asks him to explain the lapses in his employment history.
The rest of the day unfolds deliberately as Anders meanders in his limbo meeting old acquaintances and new, always aware of the barriers his past has tossed in the way of his journey from “clean” to “sober”. It’s a futile position he’s in and Trier presents the details with a sincerity and honesty that never gets maudlin or melodramatic. What has been lost to addiction is not gone because the vacuum that has been created in Anders’ timeline only perpetuates the cycle. He knows from friends who have gone clean that the sober life is not necessarily better, just different – and perhaps a little less exciting, making the value of the climb back up problematic. Trier has created a beautiful looking film that examines a social problem in a way we have not seen before. And the result is totally gratifying. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Sekkar banat / Caramel
Nadine Labaki – Lebanon, 2007
Of course we couldn’t have a celebration of international film without an entry from Lebanese cinema. And another first-timer at the Cannes Film Festival. A woman too. Caramel, the film, is perhaps as delicious as the gloopy confectionery. Actress-turned-director Nadine Labaki reflects the messy yet sweet aspects in the lives of a group of Lebanese women who frequent or work at a beauty salon. The setting of Beirut has likely never been so far away from the conflict of war. Rather a warm, honest tale of traditional values, the aging process, sexuality, identity, controlling desires.
And speaking of warm, the depth of vivid color throughout the film’s setting is so comforting you can almost feel the heat. The women have to tackle everyday issues, and Labaki has such a tactile command of the story, never trivializing real-life problems, rather offering a more soothing, relatable approach. These tough adult times are delivered through a fine selection of performances from the ladies. Labaki herself, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad, Sihame Haddad – all bring something refreshingly different to the table. Labaki is back on Cannes this year with her new film in competition. – – – – – Robin Write
Claude Chabrol – France / Canada, 1978
in 1978 the fresh-faced, 25 year-old Isabelle Huppert, played a young woman hiding her taboo profession from her parents in Claude Chabrol’s magnetic Violette Nozière. Huppert was no stranger to French audiences, an up-and-coming star in the making. What we know now, in a filmography crammed with performances of the highest order, is that Huppert deserves mention alongside the American greats a la Meryl Streep, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn. Though fans of the French actress could understandably be perturbed by such comparisons as she warrants incredible merit on her own terms.
In Violette Nozière, Huppert balances the clandestine, the wry gaze, the seductive poise, with the boiling emotion, impressive outbursts. Elements of her acting we’ve long since come accustomed to and in admiration of. Sharing the Best Actress prize at Cannes with the then more universally well-known Jill Clayburgh for An Unmarried Woman, Huppert would become a regular it seems at Cannes. The French actress would win again in 2002, and feature in many, many films in and out of competition. But it took 40 years for AMPAS to finally nominate her. Oh dear. – – – – – Robin Write
Tanta agua/ So Much Water
Ana Guevara, Leticia Jorge – Uruguay / Mexico / Netherlands / Germany, 2013
We have all experienced a holiday where we’ve been trapped inside by the rain. And directors Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge managed to capture the feeling of boredom and frustration with their film Tanta Agua. The film follows Alberto (Nestor Guzzini), a divorced father, who takes his two children for a vacation at a thermal resort in Salto. Things don’t turn out as planned as the non-stop rain forces them to stay indoors, away from the pools and with no TV (the horror!). Alberto’s efforts to entertain his children are met with indifference by Federico, his youngest son, and Lucía (Malú Chouza), his teenage daughter. Nestor Guzzini and Malú Chouza play excellent, very believable roles as father and daughter, with their interactions being well delivered and highly amusing.
The effective use of of close-ups, places the viewer right inside the scenes of this family’s life, sensing their often uneasy interactions, their boredom, their concerns. The story focuses mainly on the daughter, and we might consider it a sort of coming-of-age film. This is particularly evident in the second half of the film, when an interest of the daughter for a guy in the resort comes up. Her hopes, struggles, disappointments are finely played by the protagonist Malú Chouza, and the film acquires here a somewhat more dramatic side, without ever becoming a real, genuine drama. I first saw this film at the London Film Festival back in 2013 and it has stayed with me since. Such a wonderfully memorable film. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Leviafan / Leviathan
Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia, 2014
Leviathan is an incredible movie-going experience that was – surprisingly! – chosen by Russia as its Foreign Language submission. Despite the fact that the film is a downright critique of the scorned society the Putin regime has molded over the past decade in the motherland. A Russian man recruits his lawyer friend to sue a corrupt mayor who’s attempting to seize his house for demolishment. This corrupt mayor is the quintessential portrait of a Russia that its director Zviaguintsev isn’t proud of being part of. And it’s is no surprise the 50 year-old director resided in Toronto, far away from his native country’s harsh realities. – – – – – Jordan Ruimy
Podzemlje / Underground
Emir Kusturica – Bulgaria / Czech Republic / France / Germany / Hungary / Yugoslavia / Serbia, 1995
Underground winning the Palme d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival meant that director Serbian Emir Kusturica was one of the select few to achieve this honor twice. He first won in 1985 with When Father Was Away on Business. Underground was very much a comedy, satire, drama, historical epic, all mixed into an unforgettable tale of two rowdy, roguish friends plowing through six decades of Yugoslav history. Blacky and Marko’s antics in that time reflect the turmoil and social attitudes of those involved, the dark humor of which makes the whole affair all the more important. Powerful images, themes, and that brass orchestra score which opens the picture, will not leave your head for weeks, months after. – – – – – Robin Write
wǒde fùqin mǔqin / The Road Home
Zhang Yimou – China, 2000
The Road Home, directed by Zhang Yimou, is a disarmingly simple girl meets boy story. But even after twenty years, It remains one of the most visually seductive and emotionally affecting movies I’ve found in a DVD clearance bin. In rural post-war China, a peasant girl (Ziyi Zhang) makes a great leap into her first experience of love when she crosses paths with the new schoolteacher (Honglei Sun), who has returned home for his father’s funeral. Impressed by his gentle manner, Zhang tries to win his heart by following the traditional village marriage recipe. Each day the women cook a hot lunch and serve it to the workmen out in the fields. Helped by her grandmother, Zhang eventually cooks the best lunch the schoolteacher will ever get to taste.
But, before the meal is savored, Zhang is tested by many obstacles. She has no control over which worker selects her dish, and day after day, something goes terribly awry. The stove breaks down, her blue plate special is accidentally spilled en route or worse yet, it’s heartily consumed by the wrong man. After feeding many lunch hour heartbreaks, one day the teacher randomly chooses her dish and she secretly witnesses the pleasure he receives from her labor of love. In the following days, the schoolteacher searches for the magic chef and when he finds her, the two begin walking together. No pyrotechnical effects are more involving than simply watching these two people walk down the dirt road that leads from the school to the teacher’s home, where his widowed mother lives.
But love and movie-making are never as simple as this pastoral idyll. Just when the audience is satiated by nature’s bounty, the schoolteacher is summoned away to answer vague politically incorrect accusations by the distant unseen communist bureaucracy. And so, Zhang begins her indefinite wait for his promised return. It is she who becomes the prisoner of the state. The Road Home runs barely ninety minutes, but this humble love story will stay with you for the rest of your life. Like a lower octane Romeo and Juliet blend without bad parents, plot twists, swords or poison, The Road Home is a singularly effective lesson that teaches us how less story can be far more enchanting than anyone in Hollywood imagines. – – – – – Leslie Davis