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."
Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) Set in a well-manicured Paris suburb, this French tale of a 7-year-old boy's fondness for girl's clothes would have been perfect for U Film's recent LGBT fest--except that Sony is certainly banking on a crossover landmark. Universal and upbeat (but plenty harrowing, too), it follows the adorable Ludovic (Georges DuFresne) through his efforts to cross-dress, despite the belief of his conformist parents (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Michele Laroque) that his outgoing nature reflects negatively on them. Undaunted, Ludo wears a fairy-princess costume to his family's housewarming party, and professes his desire to marry the son of his dad's boss. Drawing on crayon-colored fantasy scenes of God haphazardly dropping chromosomes through the chimney, director Alain Berliner filters Ma Vie through his young hero's eyes without shrinking from grown-up critique, creating a film that recalls Edward Scissorhands in its magic-realist take on suburban intolerance.
La Vie de Jesus Not the Christ story, thank God, but it is a passion play of sorts. Just a hair away from being a skinhead, Freddy (David Douche) is an unemployed and epileptic 20-year-old in the northern French town of Bailleul, who alternately hangs out with his crew of biker buddies and pressures his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) for sex. And that's about the extent of plot in this snail-paced piece of naturalist melodrama, a kind of rural Kids cast entirely with non-actors whose blank stares convey a hint of restless mischief. Accordingly, first-time director Bruno Dumont favors endless shots of the kids idly cruising the vacant countryside, and a sex scene of such clinical explicitness as to suggest that what Freddy and Marie are sharing isn't love. Still, like an over-revved scooter, the film gathers an aching momentum as the protagonist stews in his jealousy over Marie's Arab suitor (Kader Chaatouf) and quietly plots an un-Christlike revenge.
Mother and Son A thirtysomething man combs the hair of his dying mother, holds her close, tells her stories, administers her injections, nurses her with a bottle, and carries her through the Russian countryside while thunder rolls, the wind blows, and shadows fall. Are these the last two people on earth? As directed by the Tarkovsky disciple Aleksandr Sokurov, this is less a narrative film than a poetic rumination on the mother-son bond; its images are so flat, still, and minutely detailed that it often seems we're watching a painting. Then there are times when the camera moves so slowly that the mother almost appears to be levitating, as if preparing to pass from this world into the next. Although it's thoroughly and uniquely cinematic, Mother and Son is best seen not as a movie so much as an opportunity for meditation.
Fallen Angels I'd seen Wong Kar-Wai's pseudo-sequel to Chungking Express on tape more than once, but the NYFF's belated U.S. premiere made me wonder if this might be the coolest movie in years. Forgive the hyperbole, but Fallen Angels is just mindblowing: an alternately seamless and jagged mix of romantic melancholy, shoot-'em-up mayhem, screwball consumerism, futuristic dystopia, and mid-'90s Hong Kong travelogue, all impeccably timed to another of Wong's sexy jukebox compilations (Laurie Anderson, Massive Attack). The narrative tracks another set of lonely souls including an orange-haired punk chick named Baby (Karen Mong), her contract-killer ex-beau (Leon Lai), his agent (Michelle Reis), her ex-con acquaintance (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and his crush, the heartbroken Cherry (Charlie Young). The film is already over a year old, but we can at least be grateful that the buy-it-and-bury-it brothers at Miramax didn't pick it up: Now it stands a chance of actually being seen.