Thursday, October 13, 2005

41st Chicago International Film Festival - Part 1

Everlasting Regret (Changhen Ge) - Sumptuously filmed but superficial look at the tumultuous changes in Chinese society from the 40s to the 80s as seen by Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) in Shanghai. The ambitious 115 minute film jumps from era to era--the dates of each chapter could come right out of an encyclopedia entry for 20C Chinese history: 1949, 1966, 1979. However, the transitions are rough and confusing, leaving many details of its character's changed lives unilluminated. The film felt cut down from a much longer version. The characters are beautiful and sympathetic, but dull. Heroine Qiyao starts out with luck and naïveté and manages to live a good life in spite of the way her loved ones are often pulled away (to Hong Kong and even other continents), but her achievements are meagre. One noticeable change as time goes on is the deterioration of the phsyical quality of life as Communism sweeps in. Just compare the moments in which tea is served as the film progresses. If director Kwan has anything to say, it lies in the narrative of material life.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Border Café (aka Café Transit) - My favorite film of the festival so far, and one of the best Iranian films I've seen. Certainly the easiest to watch. I nearly skipped it until The Reader pointed out it was written and directed by the writer of The Circle, my favorite Iranian film to date and, like this one, a feminist film. The Fest capsule sums up the plot nicely: "Following the death of her husband, Reyhan (Fereshte Sadr Orafaei) is expected to follow the custom of her region and marry her brother-in-law Nassar (Parviz Parasstoel)." But, of course, she doesn't want to, and she resists, instead stubbornly continuing to run the café she and her husband ran. What made this film different from every other Iranian film I've seen is that, being set near the border, it included character from other nationalities, which lends the story an open, less insular feel. One of the major characters whose life is touched by Rehan is a Greek trucker whose wife is missing (or perhaps abandoned him)--Rehan's food, which reminds him of his wife's, is the first real solace he's had since this personal loss. The other major foreign character is a young Russian woman whose life has been scarred by war (like Rehan, she's lost a sister). In a beautiful pair of scenes, the two women console each other for their losses despite being unable to verbally communicate. A woman in our audience cited that scene in praising the director in the Q&A, saying if she hadn't known otherwise, the sensitivity of this woman's story would have made her assume a woman had directed. Kambozia Partovi was cosmopolitan, humanist and charming in person, just like his film, and with mild exasperation explained to a young man in the audience who'd asked how he'd told a woman's story so well that understanding anyone's oppression was simply a matter of imagining yourself in their shoes. Films like this are challenging because they dramatize issues that can seem so moot and almost insultingly behind us in the West--Should a woman have basic autonomy in the matter of who she marries, yea or nay?--but in many parts of the world where cinema isn't just a cheap escape, these stories matter deeply. (Like last year's Moolaadé) What better way to celebrate an International Film Festival than to try to understand another culture rather than demand it serve ours?

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

Well-Tempered Corpses (Dobro Urejeni Mrtveci) - At times, this absurdist black comedy from Bosnia-Herzegovina entertained me with the kind of material I expected from Everything is Illuminated's present-day storyline. It begins and ends in a morgue where two doctors pass the time drinking, painting and betting on how many bodies will arrive by the end of the shift. After the bodies arrive, we get multiple storylines showing what happened to these people leading up to their deaths. One is a thorough, and I mean thorough bitch, another is a good-hearted fool, the third is unlucky and just possibly on the brink of a life turnaround, and the fourth--well, the fourth isn't really dead. Again. There is a surprisingly positive portrayal of a gay couple in here, which is nice while it lasts. My favorite storyline involves the often-dead man who exploits a U.N. tractor for monetary gain by pulling a wagon back and forth between two cities along defunct railroad tracks and calling it a train, charging his customers by their weight, like livstock. There's a recurring tone of "only-in-a-godforsaken-country-like-this," but absent a slightly more amitious satirical purpose the film feels a bit pointless. The comedy could have been tightened up quite a bit--even at 92 minutes, it's just a bit too long--but it's amusing.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

Song: "The Greatest" by Cat Power

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