Bright Lights Film Journal

37th Chicago International Film Festival (2001)

“It’s so twenty-first century!”

Was it coincidence that at least five festival films featured insistent cell-phone ringing onscreen, mocking transgressors in the audience? Actually, such acoustic violations were not a problem at the 37th Chicago International Film Festival. In fact, audiences were no problem at all: Chicagoans flocked to the festival in droves, providing a record number of sold-out houses, making hits even of unlikely offerings like The Orphan of Anyang.

Nevertheless, the festivities began with a twenty-first century thud: for an opening night publicity magnet, festival programmers had the bad taste to book the Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughter-the-terrorists thriller Collateral Damage, an offensive choice even before September 11. It attracted publicity all right – all the wrong kind – when the studio sheepishly withdrew the film, filling the slot with David Mamet’s Heist.

Then there was the tribute to Halle Berry for her “ability to inhabit a wide range of memorable characters.” No offense to the shapely and talented Ms. Berry, but a memorial to her ten years in movies seems premature. What will they do when she delivers a real career-defining performance? Compared to last year’s tribute to Gregory Peck, this choice smacks of crass star-mongering.

Still, no one argued with the roster, despite the absence of new works from Godard, Makhmalbaf, Rivette, de Oliveira, and Rohmer – all running at the parallel New York Film Festival. Chicago’s program offered three times as many films, so lucky film buffs risked going cross-eyed from sorting through nearly a hundred features on the festival schedule. In fact, ten filmgoers could each choose ten different films and each experience a completely different festival. With this caveat in mind, the highlights of one festival experience follow.

Bursting with visual inventiveness, the cheerful Amélie resurrects an anarchic spirit seen recently only in Being John Malkovich. The plot moves like some shaky Rube Goldberg contraption, full of false turns and expendable byways, hurtling along on acrobatic camerawork. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes time to follow every offbeat tangent, from the inner likes and dislikes of a housecat, to the world travels of a garden gnome, to the mini-drama of a suicidal goldfish. In the title role – a fractured version of sleeping beauty cursed by her own psychology – Audrey Tatou provides a solid anchor for all the whimsy, not least with her unique look: goofy from one angle, yet pointedly shrewd from another. About midpoint, though, Jeunet takes off on a boy-doesn’t-meet-girl conceit that, by the final reel, nearly runs the film off its rails, saved only by last-minute lashings of wit. Still, no one leaves the theater with a frown.

The reliably earthy Shohei Imamura pulls down the pants of pretension once more in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, sending a laid-off salary man to a remote seaside town populated solely with lusty oddballs (Zorba the Greek would fit in nicely). The aggressively coarse local fishermen look with derision on his craven corporate ways; equally unwelcome is an impudent African Olympic hopeful who keeps running through the village, with his Japanese trainer in hot bicycle pursuit, wielding a plastic baseball bat. The raucous comedy takes a turn toward magical realism as the hero embraces his fate in the arms of a woman who orgasms in epic geysers of warm water, which then runs down into the river and under the red bridge, renewing nature (and occasioning lots of water imagery). Now and then, Imamura also pauses to ponder science and the cosmos, as in a visit to a high-tech tunnel designed to capture neutrinos (“It’s so twenty-first century!”, cries the heroine).

Abel Ferrara goes unexpectedly romantic in ‘R Xmas, which contrasts the double life of an upscale Latino couple: first they shop for Christmas toys for their daughter, and then they head downtown to work as drug lords (powders supplied by their parish priest!). Once again depicting the mean streets of New York as a volatile stew of races and nationalities, Ferrara pushes the suspense, but spares a certain tenderness for the husband and wife’s commitment to each other, dramatized in their responses to a kidnapping (no, it’s not the daughter). Taking a breather from The Sopranos, Drea de Matteo shows she can move her gum-chewing Noo Yawk blonde to a deeper and more adult level, and has the presence it takes to command center stage.

Aging landowners on estates going to seed, sisters planning an impossible trip to the big city, long-standing extramarital accommodations, unrequited love among the young, disrespected servants: these elements make La Ciénaga seem like a sweaty, sordid version of Chekhov, which may come closer to the playwright’s intentions than all those productions in starched frocks. Importing these characters to Argentina, director Lucrecia Martel updates the scene with urban legends, rave parties, and swamp-clogged swimming pools, then adds her own off-kilter details: one child has a surplus tooth growing out of his palate. What’s missing is the Russian’s embrace of human weakness and his yearning for poetry, but the director skillfully layers a dozen different stories around one ruefully funny performance: Graciela Borges, as the drunken household diva, pulls shards of broken glass out of her breast as she absently follows TV coverage of a local apparition of the Virgin Mary on a water tank.

“What is a ghost?” asks The Devil’s Backbone, “Something dead which still seems alive.” Stylishly produced by Pedro Almodóvar and vividly staged by Guillermo del Toro, this historical horror drama sets a plucky youngster into an isolated orphanage during the tumult and famine of the Spanish Civil War. A ghost soon appears – seeking revenge, of course, but against whom? Is it the widowed schoolmistress with a wooden leg? Or the philosophical Argentine professor who drains fluid from his jars of preserved embryos and sells it as tonic to the villagers? Or perhaps the fascist stud who tips the sexual balance in this community? Or the children who believe that a huge unexploded bomb planted in the courtyard is alive, ticking with heartbeats? The script (which del Toro developed in film school as his thesis) draws such distinctive and well-rounded characters – and then stages such imaginative effects, with impressive attention to sound – that the film accumulates a surprising sweep, even more so since the final body count is positively Shakespearean.

There are no solutions in Millennium Mambo, only merciless clarity. Hou Hsiao-hsien, master of the elegant long-take, turns a piercing eye at the self-destructive life of a restless Taiwan disco-baby on the threshold of the millennium. Trapped in an abusive relationship, rejecting Chinese culture (she and a friend use only western names, Vicky and Jack), she has caged herself in a dead-end world of strobe-lighting, lap dancing, bong-smoking, and Ecstasy-popping, all set to pulsating electro-pop or in the blank silence of surveillance cameras. Aided by lighting of almost palpable physicality from longtime collaborator Mark Lee-Ping, Hou has refined his strategy: with no traditional plot, he fills the space where narrative would be with the drama of behavior, in breathtakingly sustained riffs of jealousy and despair, lengthy sequences where nothing happens except life. How does he do it? Is his secret hidden in the offscreen spaces that he manipulates so well? Shunning facile moralizing, Hou adds a memory dimension by having the heroine narrate from the year 2010. Escaping to a winter film festival in Japan, she presses her face into the foreign snow, perhaps hoping to remake her identity, but Hou cautions that “snowmen melt”.

The prize for best performance by a fish unquestionably goes to a large white carp in Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?: this aquatic actor not only wins a laugh from one improvisation, but also shares a moving scene of grief with actress Lu Ying-ching. The director finds playfully deadpan comedy as he did in The Hole, yet this film’s substance concerns loss. A mother and son respond differently to the death of the father: convinced that her husband may be reincarnated as a cockroach, the mother seals off the windows and turns their flat into a shrine. The son, a sidewalk peddler of wristwatches, becomes obsessed with a customer passing through on her way to Paris, and then wanders the city to change every clock he sees to Paris time. (If Lee Kang-sheng, the director’s chosen counterpart on the screen, seems especially at home in this role, it’s because he is: his own apartment serves as a major location, and the enigma of his father’s suicide served as the impulse for this film). In a parallel story, the customer arrives in Paris, but faces the loss of her homeland to become a lonely outsider: a fish out of water. With long takes and some extraordinary multidimensional compositions, Tsai also demonstrates his ear for urban sound: breathing, chanting, grunting, chopping, the hissing of a Métro train, the whir of a projector, the crunch of a cookie, and always the dripping of liquids. A striking climactic sequence, suggesting the ending of The Godfather, dynamically intercuts the three principals as each tries to find release in a different form of sex, yet with little satisfaction. While Tsai makes numerous bows to Truffaut, the final shot of a man approaching a giant ferris wheel seems to whisper The Third Man.

No one cracks a smile in The Orphan of Anyang, not even the title infant. Still, it’s understandable since this absorbing underground production from China presents an urban wasteland full of laid-off factory workers, young hookers, and drunken pimps. The authentic camera-in-the-street locations give an eye-opening glimpse into the grubby food stalls, red-lit brothels, and grim prisons, which all seem to be photographed through layers of pollution; this “real” China is a long way from the decorative chinoiserie of Zhang Yimou. Working with mostly non-professional actors, writer-director Wang Chao generates considerable compassion for his down-and-out characters. Choosing a minimalist style with still more long-takes (are they putting something in the food in China?), he occasionally lacks enough technique (or budget) to pull off all his ideas.

Vivid colors, red earth, laughter, communal dancing and surging music are what Abbas Kiarostami finds in ABC Africa when he accepts an offer to document the work of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans. With his warmth and curiosity, he establishes an unusual intimacy, poking his lens past beaded curtains into shops, even peering over a student’s shoulders to read his notes. Instead of hiding his videocams, the Iranian filmmaker patiently shows them to Uganda’s army of smiling children and even hands his microphone over to a toddler. Yet he finds a country of mostly women and children, with men aged 15 to 45 all dead from AIDS. One indelible image shows a nurse tearing up a cardboard box to construct a makeshift coffin for a child victim of AIDS, then tying the bundle to a bicycle for delivery. With formal daring, Kiarostami also shoots a five-minute sequence in utter darkness (“We are like blind people”). If he perhaps curtseys to his sponsor once too often, the final montage of children’s faces appearing in the clouds makes up for it.

The ambitious, humanistic The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein is a labor-of-love indie, a plea against war that took writer-director John Gianvito six years and thirteen credit cards to make. A cast of nonprofessionals enacts three narratives set in the deserts around Santa Fe: a Chicano Gulf War veteran returns to unemployment, criticism (“You didn’t finish the job in Iraq”), and his own uneasily suppressed rage; a distraught mother searches for her half-Arab children who have disappeared; a middle-class teenager takes to the streets to escape his parents, who are unsympathetic to his peace movement work. These three stories loosely interface, along with various compelling digressions, including an illustration of the militaristic influences on children; sincere and often moving talking-head testimony from peace workers; and a brilliant performance on the oud by Naseer Shemma to memorialize the death of 800 Iraqi civilians in America’s 1991 bombing of the Al-Amiriyya shelter. With nearly three hours of seat time, it’s a good thing that Gianvito is able to balance some awkwardly earnest scenes with stylistically bold visuals: these range from Griffithian iris shots to majestic rainbows to a creative visualization of the Highway of Death nightmare in Kuwait. Although the meaning is not crystal clear, the climax with the fiery destruction of the huge groaning giant at the Burning Man festival makes great sense as spectacle.

New wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud brings a career’s worth of cinematic history to his role as a porno auteur trying for a comeback while coping with a midlife crisis in The Pornographer. Once the mischievous young lion of the nouvelle vague, Léaud has darkened into a glowering old lion, with more weight and complexity than director Bertrand Bonello seems able to use in this French-Canadian co-production. The star slouches intensely through the title role, visibly squinting as he tries single-handedly to will a coherent emotional arc for his character out of this sketchy script. Meanwhile, the director pokes very mild fun at soft targets: the solemn manifesto-making of Parisian undergraduates and the vapidity of porn starlets. While a no-fig-leaves sex scene milks the audience efficiently, the expected parallels between porn and cinema are not developed. Léaud’s complaint to an interviewer that “You talk about my career; I talk about my life” makes a valid point, but some final doses of existential despair seem particularly unearned, and the conventional visuals do not help.

The unpredictable and disarmingly funny The Human Comedy from director Hung Hung spins modern variations on the Book of 24 Filial Pieties with an array of geeky protagonists in Taipei, including a shoe store clerk too obsessed with silver-screen heart throb Tony Leung to respond to a flesh and blood (if gawky) suitor; a squabbling couple driven to enduring real estate pitches because of their flat’s cockroach infestation (featuring a shot from the flying-cockroach-cam); a young actor suffering through inept amateur theatrical rehearsals of a stylized poetic drama, who finds out he is required to stand naked on stage before his mother; and a beleaguered husband squirming through hilarious misadventures in a hospital emergency room during a typhoon. Not every movie finds a place for a line like “Sometimes I talk to my toilet”.

While Chicago is reasonably well served with repertory venues, this film festival is remarkable for making few nods to the classic past. A showing of Godard’s Band of Outsiders almost qualifies, but the closest it came this year was due to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reached back to 1954 to sponsor William Wellman’s Track of the Cat in the full widescreen splendor of an archive print from Warner Brothers. If audiences will not turn out for oldies – full of golden-age craftsmanship, classically composed cinematography, a richly textured score, and lively dialogue – then tell that to the 700 people who almost completely filled the theater (and despite this cat’s reputation as a real dog). Why the festival continues to ignore the chance to showcase elaborate restorations from the world’s film archives remains a head-scratching puzzle.