Los Angeles Film Festival, Entry 1

The Los Angeles Film Festival is well underway, and this the second year the festival has been held in Westwood Village, an outdoor entertainment plaza featuring several movie palaces and a plethora of eateries between UCLA and the largely Persian neighborhood to the south. The location continues to work beautifully–far better than the scattered set-up of previous years. Sunny and breezy, with temperatures hovering between the upper 70s and lower 80s, it has been downright refreshing to stroll (or run, as the case may be) between venues.

The festival’s newest venue is Landmark’s “national flagship” theater at the Westside Pavilions mall, a 12-screen, state-of-the-art multiplex that is undeniably comfy. But while it touts vegan cookies, artisanal chocolates, and Criterion Collection and Decalogue DVDs at the digital concessions stand (outside its wine bar), let’s not kid ourselves–the major draw here is the ample free parking, a miracle in this part of the city.

So far, I’ve seen a strong and diverse selection of films, with more on the way. The festival wraps on Sunday. Stay tuned for more updates…


Opera Jawa

I’m not going to pretend to understand the dense symbolism and abstraction within this exuberantly imaginative gamalan musical in one sitting, but its startling imagery–a combination of dance numbers and art installations–and powerful themes (love and fidelity, social equality, spiritual fortitude) were exhilarating nonetheless. Think of it as an aesthetic cross between The Color of Pomegranates and The West Side Story and you won’t be far off. Loosely basing the story on the famous Hindu myth of Ramayana, Indonesian director Garin Nugroho has made a film that serves as a tribute to Javanese art (and pre-Muslim culture) as well as a compendium of modern celebrities (a roster of artists contributed to the film, Rahayu Supanggah–one of Indonesia’s most popular musicians–narrates the story through song, the two rival characters are played by famous dancers, and the object of their desires is effectively played by a recently named Miss Indonesia).

The film is part of the excellent New Crowned Hope series commissioned in Vienna for the 250th anniversary of Mozart. I’ve seen the bulk of the films in the series, and they have all been formidable entries; producers of upcoming anthologies should take notes on series director Peter Sellars’ creative success here.

A rich and evil merchant named Ludiro falls in love with Siti, the wife of Seito, a poor pottery maker. When Seito has to leave town to attend to business, Ludiro attempts to seduce and capture Siti, prompting Seito’s return, a climactic battle between them, and a tragic finale. “It is a requiem of grief,” Nugroho has said, “grief caused by disasters, grief caused by conflict, grief caused by anxiety and grief for all the blood shed throughout the world.” While much of the camera movement is relatively straightforward, the film’s complex use of color (especially blood reds), set design, and performance art is remarkable, and Nugroho’s sense of composition is sublime: figures cower under kukusan rice-steaming baskets like serpentine creatures; silver-bodied statues are capped with heads dripping red candle wax; an endless red cloth road stretches through the green landscape between villages. It’s a visual tour-de-force and an invigorating statement on class struggles and cultural life that would probably reward unlimited viewings.


The Paper Will Be Blue

If last year’s 12:08 East of Bucharest lightheartedly suggested a separation between myth and reality regarding the Romanian Revolution of 1989, this film applies its own cautionary corrective in focusing on the lives of confused soldiers caught up in the popular overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator. I’m not so sure either film’s execution is politically significant in the long run, but both films are unquestionably strong entertainments, emphasizing ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances.

Written by Razvan Radulescu (who co-wrote Cristi Puiu’s excellent Stuff and Dough and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), the dialogue-heavy film takes place on the tumultuous night in December when the national television station was under army and revolutionary control, central authority was crumbling, and scores of conflicting reports were flickering over the airwaves and intermittent telephone lines. A young soldier abandons his post to help defend the TV station from rumored pro-regime “terrorists,” and his unit eventually drives through the night searching for him amid the chaos. The film’s sense of atmosphere is immediate and captivating, aided by strong ensemble performances, a vast parade of memorable faces and character actors, and director Radu Muntean’s handheld camerawork (and undoubtedly the fact that he himself was a soldier in ’89). It’s the kind of wry but never less than serious, wide-ranging, cross-sectional portrait of a city that earned Lazarescu such raves, and it further cements Romania’s blossoming cinematic reputation.


The Elephant and the Sea

A droll drama of apocalypse and inactivity, Malaysian filmmaker Woo Ming Jin’s newest DV film is reminiscent of the work of Malaysian expatriate Tsai Ming-liang in more ways than one, but that’s not to say it’s just mimicry; it’s a uniquely striking and compelling film that has a lot to say about life in Southeast Asia in the wake of natural disasters and personal loss.

The film offers parallels narratives whose protagonists are a teenager and an elderly man; neither meet in the film, but live in a fishing village in western Malaysia. Elliptically told through static long shots that convey the setting’s natural–if dilapidating–beauty, the characters attempt to patch up their lives after an unseen disaster. In the process, they align themselves with two distinct worldviews: the teenager becomes obsessed with squeezing monetary value out of anything he comes across, including a pile of beached fish, a friendly neighborhood girl, and a tire flattening/repair scheme; the elderly man find value in virtually nothing. After returning home from a few days at sea, he’s told his wife has died and his house is quarantined, and he spends the rest of the film stoically sorting through useless donations, spending his money on prostitutes, and sleeping outdoors because it happens to be cooler than indoors, despite the protestations of his confused social worker.

There’s relatively little written about this film online (save a few dismissive reactions incensed by its lack of plotting), which is too bad considering its significant visual and structural wit. There is a lot of unforced humor–the teenager is faced with a competitive schemer who pathetically reverses his own tire trick, a laborious trap he sets to catch a monitor lizard unexpectedly captures a hungry child, behaviors in general are amusingly curt and infused with a weary desperation. Through it all, Woo seems to be both skewering and empathizing with behavioral patterns brought on by hard times, and suggesting ways in which his protagonists’ deeper ethical awareness could possibly bubble to the surface.


It’s Winter

Maybe it’s fact that the excellent nonprofessional Iranian actor in this film, Ali Nicksolat, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jack Nicholson, but Rafi Pitts’ elegantly rendered drama kept reminded me of classic American films of the ’70s dealing with existential, working class issues, like Five Easy Pieces, Killer of Sheep, or Wanda. I’ve seen a good number of Iranian films, but none have so poignantly addressed the frustrations of middle class tradesmen unable to find meaningful work in an industrialized society. Iran’s high degree of unemployment has been in the news lately, but rather than appeal to international commentators, European-educated director Pitts has cast Iranian superstar Mitra Hajjar–in a film otherwise teeming with nonprofessionals, in effect playing themselves–and worked with the demands of the censors in order to gain an audience with the Iranian working class, a population of supreme concern for Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, whose 1969 novel Safar (The Trip) inspired the film.

Like The Elephant and the Sea, the film also contrasts two characters; Mokhtar leaves his wife and daughter in order to seek work abroad, and Marhab (played by Nicksolat) is an adventurous drifter. The film begins with Mokhtar, but as his departure appears to be permanent, Marhab enters the narrative looking for a mechanic’s job while setting his romantic sights on Moktahr’s ex-wife, Khatoun (played by Hajjar). Pitts artfully infuses his melding of documentary and fiction with a reserved, iconic sense by shooting conversations from a distance, cutting off the dialogue and emphasizing moments: routine police checks, a flirtatious courtship, figures set against impenetrable landscapes of snow, twisting alleyways, and crowded garages. The plot races past pivotal moments to dwell on the incidents in between, as characters look, wait, arrive, and depart, underscoring the sense of working class impatience.

Mokhtar is restless; he knows he is skilled but is frustrated by his lack of opportunity, which causes him to live life spontaneously, always dreaming of a better future. But as much as the film conveys his inner dissatisfaction, it also suggests Khatoun’s quiet determination to raise her daughter and persevere through the transient men in her life. (“What I find fascinating with women,” Pitts says on the website for the region-2 DVD already released, “is that they are constantly in touch with reality, maybe itís because they give birth. Men seem to live more in a dream world, whereas women seem to deal with facts.”) In its steady gaze at the lives of men and women in working class Tehran, Pitts’ film is one of the strongest Iranian entries of recent years.

One thought on “Los Angeles Film Festival, Entry 1

  1. Pingback: Sita Sings the Blues and Azur and Asmar

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