PSIFF diary 2

Cold Light

More from the Palm Springs International Film Festival:

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Weerasethakul’s latest film is one of the best puzzle films I’ve seen in years: a brilliantly cinematic depiction of supressed sexual desire carefully alluded to through the suggestive body language between two young men (a lackadaisacal worker and a soldier on leave) and its evocative juxtaposition of night and day, urban and rural, civilization and nature, narrative and non-narrative. The first part of the film basically follows the implicitly erotic friendship between the two men as they explore the city and surrounding nature; the film then inserts a blank screen for at least a quarter of a minute (invariably provoking outraged viewer comments about whomever the unfortunate projectionist happens to be) and then appears to present a number of haunting vignettes based on Thai folklore that only gradually begin to connect in odd ways to the initial part of the movie. A thoroughly thought-provoking and teasing film that will inspire countless interpretations for years to come.

Cold Light (Hilmar Oddsson, Iceland)

Of all the films I’ve seen at the festival so far, Oddsson’s poetic and compelling film (an adaptation he planned for 15 years) has impressed me the most–but that could largely be due to the fact that I encountered it with absolutely no expectations. It’s possible that it has minor flaws (in the pacing of its third act, for example) but these are merely quibbles against a film that is unusually insightful regarding childhood imagination, and such themes as the role of art in emotional journeys and the ambiguous relationship between Man and Nature. It’s based on an Icelandic novel that begins with a sensitive young boy who navigates life with his close-knit family in a fishing village by sketching abstract images merging the people he loves with portentous fears. Later, the boy grows up and finds himself emotionally crippled on account of a tragic past. However, instead of telling the story linearly, as the novel does, the film expertly juxtaposes the past and present throughout, drawing complex parallels between them and culminating with the dramatic climax of both eras simultaneously. Gorgeously shot on location with the Scandinavian light and warm interiors in counterpoint, the film is a thematically nuanced and emotionally powerful character study. Keep an eye out for it.

In the Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, USA)

This documentary about the life of Henry Darger–a Chicago janitor who was so reclusive that his few associates disagree on how to pronounce his name–is a technically impressive feat. It compiles layers of carefully-animated montages revealing Darger’s juvenile but elaborately detailed fantasies he wrote about and illustrated in secluion for 40 years. But while the premise is intriguing and the connections between Darger’s autobiographical writings (narrated in the film) and his creative work would keep a psychologist entertained for years, Darger’s mixture of military worship, religious populism, and idealization of gender-ambiguous little girls grows pretty tedious after a while. In fact, the film has a slightly suffocating feel as the viewer is immersed in Darger’s work in place of a more objective critical probing. One promising angle, the idea that a person’s economic standing ensures his or her social acceptance, is merely touched upon when an interviewee states, “If you’re poor, you’re considered ‘crazy;’ if you’re rich, you’re considered ‘eccentric.'”

Days and Hours (Pjer Zalica, Bosnia)

Zalica’s film is a very accomplished and observant family drama reminiscent of last year’s Since Otar Left with their similar stories of a family coming together after the loss of a member and quietly working through the emotional difficulties left in its wake. In this case, the absent family member is the son of an aging Bosnian couple, a soldier killed in the Bosnian war seven years earlier, and the drama revolves around their relationship with their nephew, Fuke, who arrives in their home to repair their hot water heater. The repair, however, requires extra parts and Fuke’s rickety car keeps him stranded for a while at their home. Thus, the house becomes the film’s primary setting and the characters spend their time talking amongst themselves and their neighbors, attempting to surmount technological breakdowns and heal historical wounds; the film slips easily into a microcosmic portrait of cultural renewal and perseverance. It’s perfectly cast and its beautifully lit interiors and colorful Bosnian neighborhood come richly into focus.

La Femme de Gilles (Frederic Fonteyne, Belgium)

I had a very mixed, if largely negative, reaction to this film; although I appreciated its formal qualities (a pronounced lack of dialogue and a communication of emotion and narrative through composition and body language alone), it suffers from several jarring aesthetic decisions (rare but overdone emotional outbursts and atonal music) and an overall masochistic plot about a suffering innocent woman. I have the same resistance to many of von Trier’s films, as if the characters and plot exist merely to rub the audience’s nose in cruelty and pain, and which often add insult to injury by suggesting the dramatic construct is supposed to be cathartic or restorative for the viewer. Fonteyne’s film tells the story of a pregnant woman in 1930s Belgium who is married to a factory worker who she suspects is having an affair with her sister. As the situation grows more intense, she dutifully turns a blind eye to the affair in order to spare her marriage and begins a descent into selfless tragedy. Again, Fonteyne’s mis en scene is exquisite–I’d like to see more of his work–but the film’s one-note defeatism left me cold.

Click here for the third part of the PSIFF summaries.

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