> Volume 4 > Screeners '02 #5

Special Edition
Screeners '02 #5

Artisan:  Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, Roger Dodger, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Cowboy:  All About Lily Chou-Chou, Daughter from Danang, Devils on the Doorstep, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

Disney:  Lilo & Stitch, Moonlight Mile, The Rookie, Signs, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet.

DreamWorks:  Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Film Movement:  El Bola.

Focus Features:  8 Women, Far from Heaven, The Pianist.

Fox:  Antwone Fisher, The Banger Sisters, The Good Girl, Ice Age, Minority Report, One Hour Photo, Unfaithful.

IFC:  My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Lion's Gate:  The Cat's Meow, Frailty, Max, Secretary.

MGM:  All or Nothing, Barbershop, Bowling for Columbine, Die Another Day, Evelyn, Igby Goes Down, Nicholas Nickleby, Personal Velocity, 24 Hour Party People.

Magnolia:  Interview with the Assassin.

Manhattan Pictures:  Enigma.

Newmarket:  Real Women Have Curves.

New Yorker Films:  ABC Africa, The Farewell, How I Killed My Father, Songs from the Second Floor, Yellow Asphalt.

Peninsula:  Dahmer.

Universal:  About a Boy, The Emperor's Club


Shunji Iwai

Hayato Ichihara
Shûgo Oshinari
Ayumi Ito
Takao Osawa
Miwako Ichikawa
Izumi Inamori





All About Lily Chou-Chou


There has been a debate among cinephiles and filmmakers for a few years now on the future of film in a digital age. With digital cameras getting better and closer to film in depth and projected texture, many cinematic stalwarts like George Lucas have moved into the digital production.

Lucas, of course, went digital because it meant he could work with digital effects directly on the print (or disk, I suppose) -- a decision built by ease rather than aesthetics. However, the effects are so shiny and rounded at the worst parts (while dull and jagged at the best parts) that Lucas' digital photography, however close it may look to filmic cinematography, looks horrible.  He is the antithesis of filmmakers like the Dogme 95 bunch who see digital as the purest form of filmmaking, far away from the huge effects-heavy mega-productions by Lucas. Their films, though, have a grainy look that gives the affect of home videos but lack the visual awe of film geniuses like Alain Resnais and Michaelangelo Antonioni.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai has finally given the closest thing to a digital Resnais film. His All About Lily Chou-Chou features some of the best visuals of the year, images that have a pristine look devoid of pixels and the various grain that has hindered the development of a seemingly filmic digital cinema. Iwai and cinematographer Noburo Shinoda have found the lighting and setups that turn their movie into a piece of art almost comparable to Darren Aronofsky's dizzying Requiem for a Dream (however, the editor for this film is nowhere near the artist that Jay Rabinowitz is). I challenge anyone to look at the film's final image and comment that it looks the least bit digital.

Now whether recreating film quality on a digital medium is a true achievement could be a completely different debate. What is certain is that Iwai has written a film deserving of the visual genius he has to use on it.

All About Lily Chou-Chou looks at the way loners must find solace in art. The way that his characters lose themselves in the music of fictional singer Lily Chou-Chou, a Japanese Björk whose vocals are delivered by an unbilled singer named Salyu (her identity is evidently meant to remain a secret -- it took me an hour of obsessive investigation to finally get her name from someone), is in many ways comparable to the ways drug addicts (including those found in Aronofsky's film) lose themselves in a high.

Iwai makes clear that Japanese society is just as uninviting to the loners as such people are treated in America. The film's protagonist, 15-year-old Yûichi Hasumi (Ichihara), is maligned by most of the campus at his large suburban Japanese middle school. After being abused by bully Shusuke Hoshino (Oshinari) and the rest of the cliques at the school, he returns home to his mother's apartment to work on his website dedicated to Lily Chou-Chou. It is in the world of chat rooms that he is accepted -- a tangential celebrity to the internet fans of the singer. During the course of the film, Yûichi gets into regular discussions with another "Lily-phile" on the website's chat room. As the conversations begin to include personal tidbits about his day, it becomes clear that this faceless person on another computer somewhere else is the closest think to a confidante for Yûichi.

Things have not always been so bad for him. Even at a younger age, he and Shusuke were friends, but athletic achievements and an election as class president has turned Hoshino into a popular student above the friendship of peons like Yûichi. There's another budding friendship for Yûichi that could lead to romance, though as much as we may root for him, it's doubtful that anything can be achieved.

As the film goes into its second half, the problems inherent in a film following a person's obsession with another becomes tedious, to the point that Lily Chou-Chou's name and any reference to the Ether she supposedly lives in becomes an annoyance. Iwai has created strong characters that are wholly interesting and his visual palette creates art out of their depression. so it becomes disconcerting that he's unable to remove himself from the novelty that brought film to creation (initially, the story was merely the work of Iwai's tinkering on a Lily Chou-Chou website that attempted that followed the story of the fictitious singer).

Even though the young actors do their best to create undeniably engaging characters (there's even a little humanity brewing beneath Shusuke), the story remains strong, and the direction is unbelievable, the film's achievement is dulled by the very novelty that brought it to life. Initially, Iwai only meant for the Lily Chou-Chou tale to be part of a website on the fictional character that then became a serial novel. Having Lily Chou-Chou, a culturally famed fictional character treated as real in a fiction film, is meant to be a sly joke for the people of Japan. For those of us in the states, though, her presence feels like a diversion from the "real" people at the center of the story.

Jiang Wen

Jiang Wen
Jiang Hongbo
Teruyuki Kagawa
Yuan Ding
Cong Zhijun
Xi Zi
Kenya Sawada
Cai Weidong





Devils on the Doorstep


Devils on the Doorstep finally gets its American release this December after spending two years moving about critic's circles as one of the better films screened at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival. The film, which won the Grand Prix has been a modern equivalent to Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, coming under fire from the nation it documents and being censored by many for its politics.

Even when it was enjoying acclaim at Cannes, the Chinese government was trying to get their hands on the film, asking the festival organizers to remove the film from competition and hand it over to them for destruction. Gilles Jacob didn't listen to their requests and the film turned out winning the Grand Prix, or 2nd place under Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark.

Devils on the Doorstep remains banned throughout China by the Chinese Film Bureau and its director, Jiang Wen, has been barred from directing (though I he was allowed this year to act in Chinese productions again). All this brings to mind the comments that Joseph Goebbels had for Grand Illusion, treating the film as "Public Enemy No. 1."

What in thi little film could bring such anger from China? Simply, Devils on the Doorstep is made without the propagandized bias that China wants to see in its national cinema. Dealing with Japanese aggressors on Chinese land during World War II, the Chinese were distraught with the fact that the film shows some human sides to the Japanese. I can only imagine what the communist government would think if they ever had a polemic filmmaker similar to America's Michael Moore. Something tells me even the leftist ideas of Moore would fall short of the expectations of the communist government.

The film is set in a small Chinese village in 1945, as the villagers try to make peace with their invaders as best they can. All this comes to a halt when an armed stranger breaks into the home of local Ma Dasan (Jiang) and leaves behind two prisoners. The stranger, who simply identifies himself as "me," tells Ma that he will return shortly and pick up the prisoners, but if they happen to escape before his return, the village will pay for Ma's failure.

As time progresses, the poor villagers begin to worry over the money they are spending keeping an angry Japanese soldier, Hanaya Kosaburo (Teruyuki), and his Chinese translator alive, Dong Hanchen (Yuan). Their fate is once again given over to Ma, expected to execute them, who hides them in the Great Wall of China.

He doesn't know just how close the Japanese are to making a final attack on them before the war, which comes to a head in what seems at first to be a calm feast. For nearly 15 minutes, though, Jiang follows the violence that is possible from these people and the way that the Japanese could have continued destroying much of China had Hirohito not been pushed into a peace agreement after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The film is made in a stark black and white palette that sometimes gives the appearance of a Mizoguchi drama with Kirosawa's samurais coming in. For a Chinese production, the film has a definite Japanese look, which may have been part of the reason for the disappointment of a nationalist Chinese government. The beauty projected on the screen is engrossing throughout the film's slightly overburdening 140 minutes (at Cannes it ran 22 minutes longer), making it into one of the most visually stunning works this year, with much praise to cinematographer Gu Changwei.

The historical aspects are treated with a heavy amount of satire, bringing levity to a serious story. Jiang, a master storyteller, expands much of the intensity of the story's violent moments by introducing them at the feet of some of the most disarmingly happy ones. Even when pointing a negative eye at the Japanese belligerence, he understands that the early moments need the humor to foster the terror of the climax: when Kosaburo is questioned by the village elder and shouts threats in Japanese, his translator, fearing death at the villagers' hands, translates everything as benevolent facts.

Some of the traditional storytelling aspects are reminiscent of this year's most overrated work, Zacharias Kanuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) but with a far greater ability to generate pathos in the face of historical fact. The closest sibling would be Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land, another film that looks at the way nations can destroy other nations and themselves at the same time. Both films have a self-effacing humor that makes them more disturbing than they would have been as sheer docudrama.

It becomes disappointing to consider that the Chinese people are not allowed to see a film like this -- you get the distinct impression that the government is not fearing public sympathy for WWII Japan, but that the Chinese people might discover that the tables have turned and that China is now the aggressor.

Achero Mañas

Juan José Ballesta
Pablo Galán
Alberto Jiménez
Manuel Morón
Ana Wagener
Gloria Muñoz





El Bola


The striking image of child abuse is always hard to watch, but never as hard as in El Bola. For over an hour, director Achero Mañas hints at the intensity of the beatings brought upon 12-year-old Pablo (Ballesta). There are fades to black at moments when his father Mariano (Morón) looks set to raise his hand to the child and regular images of cuts across Pablo's face and bruises on his back. But then, when you feel that this is going to be more about the emotional toll of such abuse than the physical toll, Mañas shows one attack in full view.

It is repugnant and terrifying. Looking at a huge man hit and kick a much smaller child is a painful sight -- moments into the attack, you begin to wish that Mañas would be kind enough to move onto something else.

However, this is not a film built around the exploitation of audience sentiment through the showing of child abuse. In actuality, El Bola struggles to understand how a child can attempt to find freedom from a tyrannical father and the way that people must attempt to find it within themselves to help.

Pablo is shown to be a normal Spanish kid, going about his day in school before hanging around with his friends. Their favorite game, though, shows what adolescent boredom can beget: before they can get to driving age, they have already begun playing chicken by standing on train tracks. He is called El Bola because of the ball bearing (or 'el bola') he carries as a good luck charm, and, considering that he's yet to be struck by a speeding train, perhaps this pellet has been felicitous.

He is shown early in the film with his father, a hardware store owner, without any hint of the violence lingering within the man. Their relationship -- as well as Pablo's relationship with his mother Aurora (Muñoz) -- seems normal, with the seeming affability that one would expect during the few years preceding teenage rebellion.

As the film continues, the abuse becomes noticeable, which brings the worry of Pablo's new friend Alfredo (Galán). The differences between Pablo's father and Alfredo's father José (Jiménez) couldn't be more apparent. Spending his time after school with Alfredo and even going on a family excursion with them, Pablo begins to notice the extreme differences between his father's authoritative abuser and José's gentle disciplinarian.

There's also an interesting freedom within Alfredo's family, which lives a type of bohemian lifestyle. Alfredo comments on the fact that the family has had many friends die of AIDS and it seems to be hinted that José is probably gay. But none of this matters to the kids, who accept him as a joyous man who brings exuberance to every moment. It becomes an interesting lesson for Pablo, who came into the friendship thinking his father was normal and probably thinking that those like Alfredo's father were abnormal.

Stephen Holden in The New York Times recently commented on the way this dichotomy of paternal forms comes similar to the way Spain has changed since the death of Francisco Franco. Mariano has the dictatorial abusiveness of Franco and his power to wield control without provoking the abused to rebellion. Now, Spain is more like José, a country that enjoys its liveliness and its melting pot of various cultures, races, and ethnicities.

However much merit there is to this theory, it does raise very interesting ideas, like how close child abusers are to the dictators that have ruled the world. This doesn't mean that Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-Tung, and Joseph Stalin weren't model parents (in fact, they very possibly were fine fathers), but that their brand of wanton abuse comes relative to the size of their dominion. The peons will still fall to the hands of the powerful despot, and for the abusive father, especially ones struggling with their own economic welfare, they can be just as powerful (and violent) when it comes to their homes.

Jan Schütte

Josef Bierbichler
Monika Bleibtreu
Jeanette Hain
Elfriede Irrall
Margit Rogall
Samuel Fintzi
Rena Zednikova
Birgit Minichmayr





The Farewell


"The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That's great art -- nothing is self-evident. I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh."
--Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was once the toast of East Germany, whose plays including Mother Courage and Threepenny Opera became hits across the Western Hemisphere. When he died, though, he was seen as another artist dallying the communist insurgence that riled up people like Joseph McCarthy. In fact, before returning to his GDR home, he had lived in America with the State Department looking into everything he did.

Jan Schütte's The Farewell attempts to understand Brecht (Bierbichler) during a single day from the last week of his life. Brecht, who died in 1956, was never a real socialist, but did have connections to people in the GDR and the underground. He left America because East Germany was willing to give him the freedoms of an international artist, as long as they could keep a close eye on his, of course.

The film shows Brecht as he deals with the political furor surrounding him. While the authorities wait a few kilometers down the road from his summer cottage, he listens to the complaints of radical Woolfgang Harich (Fintzi). When the communist police tell Brecht that they will be waiting to make arrests, he is promised his own safety before turning around and warning Harich. It is a historical moment (unknown to me) that automatically brings to mind Brecht's opening dialogue to Threepenny Opera: "A man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he'll give him sexpence. But the second time it'll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he'll have him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police."

It also tries to make sense of the sexual urges that marked Brecht as a philanderer on par with a Roman emperor. In the day that Schütte shows, Brecht is surrounded by his wife, a couple mistresses, and few women who'd love to be his next mistress. There's something hypnotic to them about his artistry and philosophy. He's like a SoHo café-corner philosopher who has a horde of women around him not because of what he says but because of the presence he is able to emanate. While Josef Bierbichler doesn't quite create the self-assuredness that the females in the cast are trying to react to, his performance does show a sad disillusionment to the very success (artistically, sexually) that Brecht could evoke.

The characterizations are almost roundly spectacular, especially Bierbichler and Monika Bleibtreu as Brecht's wife Helene Weigel who would continue to be the star of his Berliner Ensemble even if she never really became the star of his love life. If Brecht seems the least bit real in the film, it's because of the way he's played in the film and they way others attempt to play off of him. No matter how many bumps there may be in the underdeveloped screenplay, the performers and Schütte's somnambulant direction help to find a stable foundation for the reality of Brecht's later years to life in the film. By the way he is presented, his life really does seem vital and important, regardless of the fact that the film never really tackles the works that made him so instrumental. Even in his final hours, he seemed to be living his own quote: "Don't be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life."

While the film fails to really introduce the writer to anyone who's never read a biographical sketch of the author, it does bring up many interesting views of celebrity and the type that intoxicated the people -- especially those vanquished by a Soviet state -- to the point of absurdity. Never is the film true art, but it is true. Sometimes, that's much more disturbing.

Anne Fontaine

Charles Berling
Michel Bouquet
Natacha Régnier
Stéphane Guillon
Amira Casar
Hubert Koundé





How I Killed My Father


At the beginning of How I Killed My Father, affluent gerontologist Jean-Luc (Berling) receives a letter informing him that his father Maurice (Bouquet) has died in Africa. The man becomes introspective, caught off guard -- for a moment the audience feels uneasy because the man's form of instantaneous mourning seems less out of sorrow and more out of catatonia.

Part of the reason for this is the fact that Jean-Luc's relationship with Maurice was familial only -- their shared genes allow him to find some pain in the loss of his father, but the lack of any real emotional investment between the two means that he cannot really care about the live of his own father.

When he was about 10-years-old, Jean-Luc and his 4-year-old brother Patrick were abandoned by Maurice. The old man gave no reason behind his exodus and his forgiveness seems impossible to attain. Patrick (Guillon), who was too young to remember his father, takes the abandonment in stride, but it seems to have always been a struggling point with Jean-Luc, as is the case with most children discarded by their fathers.

But Maurice has a surprise: that evening, in the middle of an awards banquet for Jean-Luc, the seventy-something doctor returns to see his kid. It is evident that the report from Africa has overstated Maurice's death -- perhaps he meant it to be a way to finalize his (slight) relationship to his kids, perhaps a small bit of wishful thinking -- and that he has come back to find a place in his family again. Jean-Luc's refusal to resurrect his love for his father is not the least bit surprising.

However, Maurice finds it easy to get in the good graces of Jean-Luc's pretty wife Isa (Régnier) and Patrick, who wants to be a standup comedian but has only found work as Jean-Luc's chauffeur. Jean-Luc becomes more aggravated over the return of Maurice because the people he loves are too willing to let him into their lives -- he cannot understand that they, without any previous bond to him, see him as nothing more than a kind old man.

It is notable that the film never really comes to terms with the two men and which one is truly in the wrong. Maurice left his family and wants to return while Jean-Luc scorns him but has himself become a poor husband and brother to his own relations (he has even convinced Isa that she cannot have children because he doesn't want any with her). But even in looking at their shared domestic failings, there is a hint of the moral high ground: the medical work of Maurice has been taking care of poor Africans while his son has prospered helping the rich to stop aging.

Director Anne Fontaine's central conceit comes at the end, and, though giving an intriguing view into the previous hour and a half, it throws the film off its tacks. The rapport between these two men is what really that seizes the interest of the audience in this story, not the temporal elements that frame it. I, of course, will not detail the finale, but it removes the audience from the film in such a way that gives the entire movie a feeling of disappointment.

A common comparison has been forged between Fontaine and David Lynch, especially in reference to his dizzying masterpiece Mulholland Dr. But what these Fontaine advocates are missing is the fact that Lynch makes his film's reversals as integral to the story as everything else that happens in it. Lynch leaves the audience for 30 minutes to consider everything that has been pulled out of their grasp and then ends in such a way that provokes meaningful post-film conversations trying to piece together the puzzle.

Fontaine, on the other hand, seems more interested in the provocation than the introspection. The movie does call for some commentary among filmgoers as the credits begin to role with Jocelyn Pook's elegant music, but most of it is brought upon by the film's resolve to remove itself from the rest of the story without really giving merit to it.

This doesn't mean that How I Killed My Father is a bad film -- on the contrary, it is deep and engaging in its elliptical narrative. While the final scene strikes of misdirection, every frame that precedes it is of utmost interest. The way that these two divided individuals try to create some semblance of a bond is amazing, with two performances striking in their achievement.

This is especially true for Bouquet, who has worked many times with Claude Chabrol (he was Richard Gere's Unfaithful character in Chabrol's La Femme Infidéle), as well as François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Henri-Geroges Clouzot, and Abel Gance, and reminds the audience of what Chabrol could have done with the film. Within his placid face is a man of great intensity -- looking at him, you can see that he has, perhaps far in the past, perhaps yesterday, committed some wrong that he cannot forgive himself for.

Dan Vereté

Raida Adno
Tatjana Blacher
Moshe Ivgi
Motti Katz
Sami Samir





Yellow Asphalt


The three stories in Danny Vereté Yellow Asphalt come as vague attempts to help the viewers understand the tribal Judean Bedouins scattered about the Israeli countryside. This is not a people often heard from in film (truthfully, I've never heard of a Bedouin movie) and their place in the global society they are so near comes as a surprising view of the nomadic world of the Middle East that isn't allowed into the propaganda that Western society has decided to use.

The Bedouins are not exactly the Axis of Evil, but their relative closeness in lifestyle to Iranians, Afghans, and Palestinians help to turn them into the evident terrorists in the eyes of a fidgety America. It's somewhat disturbing to think that the American population considers Israelis to be civilized (which is not in question) and the Bedouin to not be (which is in question). Their population in the Israeli desert is not far from the Mennonite populations in the rural East, but few Americans would call a Mennonite uncivil (they probably would call them primordial, but that in itself is disparagingly reductive).

Yellow Asphalt should come as a chance encounter with the Bedouin population unlike any other available to an American audience. It should be an amazing work that gives a view into a people long ignored by U.S. geography and history books uninterested in really touching on the minority populations that cannot be found in easily described nations like Israel. Whatever commentary the film brings, its lasting effect is to introduce the Bedouin culture, however negative that very commentary may be.

While I am thankful to Vereté for bringing to the screen much of the Bedouin culture (and New Yorker Films for allowing it to get an American release, even if it is only in Manhattan), I can only be discouraged by the lackluster affect of the film itself. It is a movie that strives to be more politically and socially significant, but its lasting appeal stops there. None of the three stories at the center of the film are truly engaging and the way that Vereté films them can only be described as boring.

The first story, "Black Spot," could be the epitome of pointlessness, looking at the way that two Jewish truck drivers react to the way Bedouin men have confronted them after running over a child. The Bedouin in this extended scene are shown as quiet, steadfast, and mystical in their peaceful nature; the Jews are meanwhile shown as fast, violent, and greedy. This is the exact same feeling that is found in the third story, "Red Roofs," which has some violence from the Bedouin but gives them the moral high ground over an especially corrupt Jew (in the film's most disturbing visual comment on the Jewish people, the only scene of Jewish home-life has the third story's Jewish business owner sitting at home and calculating his money).

The only story that can be counted as a success in its commentary is the middle one, "Here is Not There," where Vereté follows the German wife of a Bedouin as she tries to escape her husband's tribe with their two children. Having lived in the forced labor and chastity of the Bedouins, she has decided that it is time to return the kids to the society that she grew up in and give them the chances that the Bedouins could never give to her daughter.

What is striking about this story, though, is not what Vereté is trying to say, but the ideas that it brings to mind. There has been much coverage of the various occasions when Saudi husbands take their half-American children back to the Middle East and the way that the American wives cannot get any way to bring their kids back home. Here, the sympathy is placed directly on the shoulders of the woman, even though she is essentially doing the same as the Saudi husbands who are regarded as evil.

It's tough to call the film a failure when it strikes such interesting connections, but Yellow Asphalt cannot be noted as intentionally producing such ideas. Danny Vereté may have the best interests in mind as he made the film, but the final product lacks the relevance of a narrative film and the authenticity of an ethnographic one.

Reviews by:
David Perry