Los Angeles Film Fest Diary

It’s always great to see a film festival establish its groove, and the Los Angeles Film Festival is doing just that in its fourth incarnation since its merger of two film organizations. Evolving from a festival that specialized in independent American fare, it is now more international in scope and offers several high-profile screenings this year, even if much of the program seems directly lifted from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (But who’s complaining?)

Last weekend, I managed to catch four rewarding films, with more screenings planned later in the week.

South of the Clouds (Zhu Wen, China, 2004)

Novelist Zhu Wen’s second feature is a quiet, studied portrait of a factory retiree, Xu Dagin (Li Xuegian), who decides to travel to the Yunnan province in Southwest China, a region close to Tibet and known for its cultural eccentricities. Living in industrialized Beijing–which Zhu films in overcast, grey tones–Xu’s family attempts to navigate the challenges of modernization. Over his protests, his daughter accepts the romantic advances of an entrepreneur in order to establish an aerobics club. As the realization of his retirement and deteriorating health begins to settle in, Xu’s journey to Yunnan becomes a symbol of his life’s unmaterialized dreams and missed opportunites.

Zhu effortlessly cuts from a shot of Bejing’s cityscape onboard Xu’s train as it passes into a dark tunnel to a shot of Yunnan’s mountainous beauty as the train emerges from the darkness of another tunnel, and the stylized transition precipitates the more ironic layers of dreams and reality that pervade the second half of the film. Xu is met by a friend of the family, who insists on being his tour guide, erroneously driving him from location to location–Xu’s journey is an inward journey as much as it is a physical one. And far from enjoying a lost paradise, Xu becomes embroiled in a strange legal case that enforces nebulous restrictions on his ability to return home. (The police chief in charge of the investigation is sensitively played by none other than Tian Zhuangzhuang, the film’s executive producer and director of such films as The Blue Kite and Springtime in a Small Town).

Zhu has called the film a tribute to his parents’ “fifth generation,” a silent generation that endured a great deal of political adversity: “The generation of our fathers has it tough. Nowadays, people love to express themselves. But their generation did not like talking too much. They bore everything in their hearts, and were burdened with heavy responsibilities. At that time, our country was not rich. Now, as good times come, they find themselves old and lonely. This is a crucial juncture in their life, and it is not an easy one.”

South of the Clouds recently took the Firebird Award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (the jury included Marco Bellochio and Hou Hsiao-hsien as two of its members) and its subtle ambiguities and theme of inner journey in a remote locale has been compared to Rossellini masterworks like Stromboli or Voyage to Italy. The comparison is apt, though Zhu’s stately visuals render the theme with a contemporary Asian aesthetic that emphasizes the sense of realism while allowing extended reflection.

Another Road Home (Danae Elon, US, 2004)

Although the rise of 16mm camera technology occasioned the growth of documentary filmmaking, the arrival of even more flexible digital video seems to have inspired a particular breed of personal diary films in the last few years. One of the best recent entries in the genre was Yulie Cohen Gerstel’s My Terrorist (2003), an essay film exploring her controversial forgiveness of a convicted Palestinian terrorist who had once attacked an Israeli bus she was riding in. Elon’s film addresses similar ground from a different angle: Elon’s father was a career-minded academic whose absence required the assistance of a Palestinian man, Musa Obeidallah, who served as Elon’s caretaker in Israel throughout her childhood. Now a Jewish ÈmigrÈ in New York, Elon decided to locate Obeidallah’s family, now living in New Jersey, in an attempt to reconstruct her past and pay tribute to their sacrifices.

As a first-person essay film, Elon films her search and eventual discovery of the Obeidallah family, and the conversations between them, her parents, and Musa himself (still living in Palestine) in a sensitive and penetrating fashion, underlining the humanity and difficult life decisions undergirding the Arab-Israeli conflict. The film derives genuine strength from the way she taps into the two family’s shared history while simultaneously leaving political commentary on the edges of her investigation, questions to be continuously pondered. In one of the film’s memorable scenes, she arranges for her father, Amos Elon (who has written many articles and books on Jewish history), to have dinner with the Obeidallahs and it’s telling when he shifts uncomfortably in his seat and asks if the Obeidallahs are “political,” revealing the way in which personal relations in the region have been separated by intellectual and ideological barriers, even by those who would seek reconciliation. (Of course they’re political, Elon responds.)

It’s a film that sensitively assembles candid family reunions and conversations and uses them to explore notions of home and personal/political allegiances with compelling and enlightening generosity.

Chinese Dream (Victor Quinaz, US, 2004)

This 13-minute short film preceded Unknown Soldier, and it’s a remarkably focused and accomplished piece detailing a Chinese dishwasher working in a Hong Kong restaurant who dreams of immigrating to New York and the oppressive tactics of his boss, who refuses to help him. Shot in three days for $15,000, the film is visually stylish (a standout example superimposes fast-motion footage taken at various times of the dishwasher working through a mountain of plates, creating a beautifully-layered sequence of physical movement) and succeeds in evoking the protagonist’s existential longing for life change. It is the first production of Chicago’s Immediate Theater Company and was created by “industry professionals working for free.” Many of its fleeting images are still fresh in my memory.

Unknown Soldier (Ferenc Toth, US, 2004)

Toth’s remarkable debut film depicts the gradually eroding social opportunities available to a Harlem black youth after his auto mechanic father unexpectedly passes away. The film seems like a merging of Jean-Luc Godard (energetic street camerawork set to a rousing jazz score) and neorealism (a simple plot sketched in broad strokes emphasizing its urban setting and the people and faces that inhabit it). Ellison (played with perfect understatement by Carl Louis) is an 18-year-old young adult without family savings or business opportunities, who must eek out an existence through various low-wage jobs and high rents, sleepless nights on the streets, and a growing desire for financial independence and romantic love.

The film was shot on digital video and the graininess of the low-key lighting and nighttime shoots accentuates the film’s rough-and-tumble approach to narrative drive. Emotional devices are wonderfully understated (the viewer never even learns how Ellison’s father dies and the film doesn’t slow down to emphasize Ellison’s grief) and the story evolves into an unsentimental and compelling look at the economic vortex that threatens many urban lives. As a last act of desperation, Ellison attempts to join the Army–a common destiny for many in his position–but is rejected because of physical liabilities. The film’s moral force is generated from the tension between Ellison’s desires to retain his integrity and the pressures and opportunities that make “quick fixes” (criminal compromises) alarmingly appealing.

After the film, Toth and Louis offered a Q&A and explained their pragmatic approach to the film. Toth had lived in Harlem and wanted to make a film reflecting the life patterns of people he knew there (one of the film’s actors is the superintendent of the apartment building of the film’s major setting), but his only film experience was having assisted on a friend’s production. Sticking to the social milieu he knew well, hiring a small crew of film students, and telling a simple story with a great deal of urgency and verve has created a powerful film that has deservedly won top accolades at various festivals this year.

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