The Ice Storm blew in on opening night, Boogie Nights feted its own hype, Washington Square filled the annual Disney slot, and Jim Jarmusch's loud Neil Young and Crazy Horse doc Year of the Horse rattled teeth in all five boroughs--but these American movies weren't what mattered at the 35th New York Film Festival. Rather, it was the seemingly uncommercial foreign fare that thrilled most: a Russian work of poetic minimalism about a man caring for his dying mother (Mother and Son); a Spanish/Argentinian co-production that finds unique pathos in the archetypal father-son feud (Martin (Hache)); an Egyptian historical epic-cum-musical (Destiny); a neo-naturalist Kids set in northern France (La Vie de Jesus); and a Japanese cop movie whose shootouts play like still-lifes (Hana-Bi).
Now here's the rub: None of these five has U.S. distribution. In terms of the American arthouse industry, this is unrisky business as usual. For the NYFF, it evinces an enduring commitment to the fringes amid the temptation to stuff the roster with more mini-major sneak previews. And to us Twin Cities filmgoers, who can count our viable indie venues with two or three fingers, it's maybe another reminder to support and/or lobby those two or three so they'll keep bringing in the stuff that wouldn't otherwise play here.
Since most of the 24 films I saw at the NYFF have been reviewed at length elsewhere (and can be seen in due time), I'm devoting the space below to those five foreign obscurities that hopefully will turn up around the East Bank campus--along with flashier entertainments by Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-Wai, and a worthy French movie about a 7-year-old cross-dresser that stands to make a mint.
Hana-Bi The Japanese Eastwood (but infinitely artier), actor-director ("Beat") Takeshi Kitano unloads the entire clip with this moody cop thriller (a.k.a. Fireworks), which nearly outguns his Sonatine. As in that neo-yakuza masterpiece, the shootouts are anti-visceral to the point of being opaque. The central bloodbath--involving a sweaty ménage of cops and crooks--is revisited several times through the guilt-ridden psyche of one of its survivors, a stonefaced ex-detective named Nishi (Kitano). But even in slo-mo, it takes a while to figure out who shot whom in what order and from what angle, and whether the wounds were fatal. Nishi's partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) has been paralyzed in the blaze, allowing Kitano to compare the coping mechanisms of these two former cops: Horibe immersing himself in his gorgeous paintings, and Nishi in the "art" of his hair-trigger temper. Dirty Harry it ain't--but it will make your day.
The Kingdom II Another four-and-a-half hours of camp-horror soap opera from Lars von Trier, wherein the monstrous baby born at the end of part one turns out to have unnatural growing pains (as well as the head and voice of Udo Kier); the hospital's chief consultant (Ernst Hugo Jaregard) believes that his health depends on whether his stools sink or swim; the staff forms a betting pool around the hot-rod antics of a crazed ambulance driver; the old Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) continues her impassioned search for ghosts; the Down syndrome dishwashers contemplate marriage; and several characters meet their maker--and live to tell the tale. Despite a heavier dose of FX (and another jaw-dropping, shaggy-dog denouement), The Kingdom II can't fully conjure the spirit of the original--perhaps because von Trier's busy schedule compelled him to share the writer-director duties with a pair of Zentropa Entertainment associates.
Martin (Hache) The festival's only real sleeper (no distributor, and no hype either), this Spanish/Argentinian charmer drapes a well-woven shawl of comedy and melodrama around a father-son relationship that's both tender and authentic--especially given Dad's habit of acting like a jerk whenever his work heats up. The kid (Juan Diego Botto) is a pseudo-hard-core, 19-year-old Zack de la Rocha wannabe who ODs on stage in Buenos Aires and then comes to stay with his wealthy filmmaker father (Federico Luppi) in order to clean up. But Dad's free-spirited and heavy-partying associates are so fond of the kid that they let him do whatever he wants, even procuring dope for him on occasion. Not counting a poorly handled drug casualty in the third act, Martin (Hache) is a sweet and funny crowdpleaser that also happens to allegorize Spain's remote parental attitude toward Argentina.
Destiny Dubbed "the Egyptian Sam Fuller" by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, director Youssef Chahine fearlessly takes Islamic fundamentalism to task in this multiculti historical epic that features spurts of action, some terrible violence, a little romance, and a few musical numbers. Its contemporary critique of religious persecution loses nothing by being set in the Muslim Andalusia of the 12th century, where the liberal Arab philosopher known as Averroes (Nour El Cherif) is forced into exile by a fanatical Islamic sect. Chahine is no stranger to intolerance himself: His previous film was banned in Egypt amid anonymous death threats. Still, he sees fit to buoy Destiny's defiant politics with bursts of song and dance that play like a hybrid of "Bollywood" and Gene Kelly (Chahine has cited the latter as a direct influence). As the desire for free expression informs both theme and aesthetic, the film's central metaphor is that "ideas have wings--no one can stop their flight."