Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EIFF: Day Five

When I can, I like to find a unifying thread between all the films I'm watching, and today I have a handy theme: things I'm ignorant about. In particular, today I'm talking about Chinese cinema and Pedro Almodovar. So let's blunder through this together, you and I, faithful reader, and see if we can't crack these nuts.

Getting Home

My experience of contemporary Chinese filmmaking is limited mostly to art-house fare like Zhang Ke Jia, so I was quite curious to see Getting Home, a more mainstream example of the Chinese cinema. Director Zhang Yang does a solid job balancing the sadness and humour in the story of Zhao, a construction worker carrying the body of a dead friend to be buried near his family home at the Three Gorges. It's a charming film, but not without some serious problems.

The plot takes on an episodic shape, with Zhao encountering various figures along his journey who are moved by his plight to help him. Some episodes veer a bit too much into tear-jerking terrain—a fact not helped by the obnoxious score, which underlines each emotion and then adds five exclamation marks in case we missed the point—but others have a nicely understated droll whimsy to them, such as the scene where Zhao fakes mourning at a funeral in order to get a free meal, only to be joined at his table by the man from the coffin. Other comedic moments carry on that tone of low-key weirdness, such as a nice bit of underplayed physical comedy when Zhao tries to commit suicide by knocking his head against a tree.

The problems with the film are deeper than structure or performance, and have more to do with its treatment of the Three Gorges Dam, which has caused environmental devastation and lead to the relocation of over a million people. The unspoken intention of the film seems to be turning these larger issues into minor and ultimately harmless inconveniences. By the time a kindly police officer takes Zhao under his wing, the film had lost me. Getting Home ends as nothing more than a paean to the benign, all-knowing state apparatus in China; Zhao's biggest error is his foolish attempt at self-reliance. The implication is that he should have simply given himself over to the wisdom of the authorities, who will care for all Chinese citizens like a dutiful parent.

Oh, horseshit. Maybe films like Zhang Ke Jia's Still Life and The World don't represent the mainstream of Chinese culture, but at least they don't swallow the government agenda with uncritical loyalty. Give me some intelligent, idiosyncratic filmmaking instead of obsequious nationalist propaganda any day of the week.

Broken Embraces

I must shamefully confess that Pedro Almodovar is a major blind spot for me. Yes, I'm aware this man is one of the major figures in the Spanish cinema at the moment, much lauded for a body of work stretching over thirty years. And yet, I just can't find the motivation to dig into his work, and what little I have seen has only spurred on my galloping indifference. What can I say? It's carried me this far, so I haven't had a reason to stop.

But I found myself enjoying Broken Embraces, his latest collaboration with Penelope Cruz, which makes me wonder if it's time to start digging deeper into Almodovar's work. Strangely, most critics so far seem to have yawned through this one as it makes the rounds on the festival circuit, and I'm not sure what to make of that. Does that mean I too would be bored by this film if I was actually familiar with Almodovar's work? Or is this merely an indication that a good director on familiar terrain can't really excite jaded critics who crave something new, not just another solid film from a well-known director? Your guess is as good as mine, and I won't bother trying to fathom the mysteries of the professional film critic's mind.

In all fairness to the lukewarm reviews so far, I should be clear that this is not a flawless film by any means. For the work of such an experienced director, Broken Embraces is surprisingly clumsy at times as it jumps between different time periods while trying to build up a somewhat overstuffed plot. There comes a point when plot twists start to feel gratuitous, as if Almodovar was throwing in surprises that are justified by the film's themes, but which only provide more unnecessary clutter to the narrative itself. And the ending is a bit limp, with people explaining away the convoluted story instead of allowing events to unfold before our eyes.

So, there are weaknesses. But there's also a lot to enjoy in this weirdly referential comedy-melodrama-noir mash-up, even if it lacks the expected grace of an old master exploring his craft. In fact, the sheer amount of things going on in this film may be its biggest charm.

I'm not even sure I can summarize the film. We begin with a blind writer named Harry Caine, who was once a director by the name of Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), and then go deeper into his past, into a passionate, doomed love affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), the lead actress in one of his films. But Lena is the mistress of the film's producer, a controlling old business man who instructs his son to follow Lena around, filming her every move on set in order to watch for any potential infidelity.

From there, I'm not sure if I can explain much more without giving away the whole game, but suffice it to say, there is a mess of double identities, secret relationships, and so many movie references I can't even begin to process the elaborate conversation Almodovar seems to be having with the entire history of film. In fact, the easiest way to pick apart this film might be to figure out all of its references. There are telling allusions to Vertigo and Peeping Tom, and a glimpse of one of Ingrid Bergman's collaborations with Roberto Rossellini, a real life example of a leading woman in an affair with her director. I can only imagine how much more I'm missing.

Perhaps that's the source of some people's dissatisfaction with this film. It seems like a minor pleasure, and yet it is still so dense that it feels like much of it passes by the viewer at first. Still, the incidental charms of this film are often enough to satisfy, whether it be hilarious glimpses of Girls With Suitcases, the farce Mateo is making with Lena, or the eerie sight of Lena's sugar daddy watching the soundless video of his lover leaving him while she stands behind him, reciting the words she spoke in the video (it makes sense when you see it, honest). Despite the frustrations and the flaws of the film, it's hard not to like a work brimming full with so many striking ideas and images, rich with poignant performances and broad comic turns, often from the same actor.

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