Films from New Directors/New Films 2001
Reviews by Derek Lam

 

Face (directed by Junji Sakamoto)
For sheer chutzpah and excess, few films at this year's New Directors can match Junji Sakamoto's Face. A postmodern fairy tale of self-empowerment, it boasts such attractions as a troupe of elephants, a wicked stepsister straight out of the storybooks, violent yakuza and ruthless loan sharks, even the Kobe earthquake as divine retribution. The plight of its heroine - withdrawn Masako (Naomi Fujiyama), forced to go on the lam when provoked to murder by her mother's death and her stepsister's unending abuse - reminded a few of Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman. Given the film's earthy view of survival as a matter of physical and sexual resilience, it's not hard to see why. (A bar-hostess who takes kindly to Masako gives her advice on how to stay alive: "Run, and when you get hungry, eat. Then run again.") Yet in the absence of any real interest in social commentary, Face in fact occupies territory a lot closer to Lars von Trier's recent work. Like von Trier, Sakamoto aspires to some sort of postmodern mythmaking, conjuring up a world where melodrama in extremis, with all the attendant clichés, coincidences, and sheer emotional extravagance, is laid out with such flagrant disregard for realism that it dares the viewer's disbelief. And against such a backdrop there's the sentimentalized heroine: inarticulate, not particularly bright, but blessed with a heart of gold, seeking love, and sacrificially virginal. Indeed, the fantastical ending to Face echoes the miracle that concludes von Trier's Breaking the Waves: believe it or not, it's up there on the screen. Sakamoto's sense of humor, however, is less bitter than von Trier's, and he's blessed with a performance whose sheer physicality is hard to beat. Fujiyama's every gesture relates to her character, from the elephantine walk to the way she strikes a tambourine off-beat. An emblematic detail: when hungrily devouring some bento on a train, Masako drops one of her wooden chopsticks. Undeterred, she simply snaps the other in half and continues wolfing down. It's a priceless moment.

 

Hole in the Sky (directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
Next to Face, there's less a sense of sheer directorial performance in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Hole in the Sky, but it's perhaps the more genuinely affecting of the two films. Kumakiri, a 26-year-old director working on his second feature, betrays his youthfulness in some of the film's more capricious (some would say precious) details: Hole in the Sky is the name of the roadside diner the film's protagonist Ichio operates alongside his father. In a flashback, we discover that Ichio's father - some sort of aviation fanatic - once set up an igloo(!) during the town's annual ice sculpture festival, and projected inside, on the eponymous dome, footage of warplanes in action. The projector catches fire, the igloo collapses with a number of children inside, and Ichio and his father become ostracized by the townspeople. If that's a little too extravagant a setup, luckily the whimsy never intrudes into the drama proper. One day, when his father goes off with a friend (in a hilarious-looking car) to follow a cross-country, horse-racing tournament, Ichio runs into Taeko, a young woman abandoned by her boyfriend on their road-trip together. How the relationship develops and what undercurrents exist are keenly and patiently observed: why does the shy Ichio seem at times oddly possessive and insecure? What exactly motivates Taeko to develop a relationship with the lonely chef? As much a gentle love story as a meditation on the conflict between an individual's will for independence and his desire for companionship, Hole in the Sky invokes a specifically Japanese trauma in Ichio's abandonment by his mother. Seen in old, Super-8 home movies as a bohemian free spirit, Ichio's mother presides over the film as its central absence, and crystallizes its commentary on the unresolved conflict between wanderlust and home. It's mature and psychologically perspicacious material, and Kumakiri provides additional pleasures with his elegant, largely static Scope compositions. One cannot fail to mention that Ichio is played by Susumi Terajima, a regular of Takeshi Kitano's troupe (he played the cop pursuing "Beat" in Hana-Bi), here making Ichio's boyish awkwardness painfully believable.

 

No Place to Go (directed by Oskar Roehler)
A mother's abandonment of her child also provides the subtext for Oskar Roehler's No Place to Go. Roehler, whose mother--West German writer Gisela Elsner, celebrated socialist living in her novels only to commit suicide shortly after Germany's reunification--has made a fictitious account of Elsner's last days, from between the breach of the Berlin Wall to her suicidal leap weeks later from a sanatorium window. Rather savagely and unfairly dismissed by Amy Taubin in her Voice round-up, No Place to Go in fact succeeds as a largely sympathetic portrait of a remarkably isolated individual whose attitude to her solitude alternates between pride and self-pity (a trait the filmmakers visualize effectively - if perhaps a little too neatly - via the use of a bouffant wig the protagonist refuses to do without in the presence of others). Eschewing the historical grand ironies that effectively galvanized Volker Schlöndorff's recent The Legend of Rita, Roehler's relatively apolitical film chooses to use the events of 1989 as a catalyst to bring about a series of encounters between its lone protagonist (known in the film as Hannah Fischer) and various forms of company: a desperate transaction with a male gigolo working the Berlin hotels, a sleepover at the home of some GDR, blue-collar volk, an impatient visit to Fischer's own, wealthy industrialist parents (the real-life Elsner's father held a top position at Siemens), a chance encounter with a former companion, now pot-bellied, from the radical days of the Sixties (a terrific scene), and briefly, a visit to the son she abandoned, now living with a girlfriend openly resentful of Fischer's behavior. If The Legend of Rita ended on a resolutely mythic note, the conclusion of Roehler's film is a good deal less glamorous: a suicide scene all the more affecting for being so uninflected. The real attraction here is the performance of Hannelore Elsner (no relation to Gisela). Conveying remarkably the impression of nakedness when deprived of her wig, she makes palpably credible the vulnerability of a character that could quite easily have remained a mere conceit.

Durian Durian (directed by Fruit Chan)
Finally, a word on Hong Kong director Fruit Chan's latest film, Durian, Durian. Chan is one of the most important and valued of Hong Kong's current working directors, not only for his interest in assessing the territory's post-'97 zeitgeist, but for his resuscitation of a staple genre in Cantonese cinema: the socio-realist melodrama. His previous work - the so-called "handover" trilogy - looked at 1997 from the perspective of a disaffected teenage punk (Made in Hong Kong), a group of middle-aged, out-of-work British soldiers (The Longest Summer), and a young boy living in one of the territory's poorer districts (Little Cheung). The sheer scope of Chan's project is undeniable: despite the focus on the less well-to-do, it traverses boundaries of age and ethnicity to provide a cross-section portrait of Hong Kong rarely shown in the territory's cinema (Chan's characters--whom he insists on casting non-professional actors for--can range from local-born Hong Kong kids to recent immigrants from the Mainland, from Indian and Pakistani workers to Filipino maids.) Crucially, Chan's feel for specific, local colors - from his choice of locations to the activities particular to Hong Kong he chooses to depict - has always been strong, and coupled with a rough-and-ready style developed from his first project (Made in Hong Kong was shot from ends of negative that Chan had saved up on various projects he had worked on as an assistant director), the results can never be less than interesting. And yet there's a tendency to editorialize what often threatens to overwhelm observation. Whether it's the sporadic stilted dialogue or voiceovers, or the often heavy-handed symbolism, agenda tends to precede character, even in the best of Chan's work. Happily, Durian, Durian mostly avoids these pitfalls (it's the least prone to speechmaking of his films), even if it still has less to do with an individual's story than Chan's own ideas about reunification and reconciliation between Mainlanders and Hong Kongites. Chan's sympathy for his protagonist, a Mainlander working as a prostitute in Hong Kong, is never in doubt, nor is his sincerity; one has to admire his ambition in dividing the film's setting between Hong Kong and the young woman's hometown in Northern China, where Chan locates a neat visual parallel to Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, with a massive river bisecting the city, over whose frozen surface its inhabitants have to traverse daily to get to the other side of town. If Chan seems eager to convey the message that, given an effort to understand one another, Mainlanders and Hong Kongites have more in common that they would expect, it's put across in less italicized a manner than one would have expected from his previous films, and at least stands for some sort of social vision all too rare in an increasingly postmodern and de-contextualized cinema.---dw


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