Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival's Middle Week Has Hits, Sleepers, and Snoozers

 

Daughter From Danang
Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 5:00 p.m.

Great documentary filmmaking clearly owes as much to life's uncontrollable narrative as to any stylistic considerations. As the latest proof, codirectors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco follow a war baby's belated return to her birth mother in Vietnam, and discover something infinitely more complicated than a teary reunion. Indeed, of any nonfiction film I've ever seen, this one comes closest to mirroring the knotted cluster of race/class/ gender tension, daughterly petulance, and archetypal mamadrama that is Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. (In case you don't know, that's my highest praise.) How to identify all the forces at work here? The illegitimate offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an American GI stationed in Danang during the war, young Mai Thi Hiep narrowly avoids falling prey to the Viet Cong's abuse of mixed-race children. Her unlikely savior: Gerald Ford and his politically convenient Operation Babylift, which enables her adoption at age seven by an emotionally distant woman living in the small-town Tennessee birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. After more than two decades of passing for white (at the insistence of her adoptive mom, who eventually disowns her), the fully assimilated Heidi Bub, as she's now known, decides to trace her roots. But, in the American way, she draws the line at providing financial support for her long-lost relatives in Danang. "I didn't come here to be anybody's salvation," says Heidi after her poor half-sister asks for money. "I came here to be reunited." The film's stark scenes of familial discord--the result of a cultural gulf as vast as the ocean--would be harrowing enough as pure soap opera. (At one point, the camera finds Heidi wiping her mother's kiss from her cheek as if she were swatting a fly.) But once we recognize Daughter From Danang as the story in microcosm of the war's endurance, with the communal interests of a peasant population still locked in combat with American self-interest more than 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the film becomes positively devastating. The United States may have lost the decadelong battle of Vietnam, but it remains committed to winning the war. --Rob Nelson

 

Skins
Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 14 at 7:15 p.m.

With an appropriate mixture of anger, humor, and sadness, this second feature by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) examines the complicated emotional interactions of two Native American brothers positioned at opposite ends of responsibility. Rudy (Eric Schweig) is a criminal investigator on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who discovers a blood-covered body and a liquor store in flames; his older brother Mogie (Graham Greene) is a bitter Vietnam veteran who spends much of his day in a drunken haze. The movie drifts, too, scouring its story (based on the like-titled novel by Adrian C. Louis) in search of a cohesive framework, and struggling to locate a consistent tone. It works best in impressionistic terms, bracketing its contemporary portrait of squalor and desperation with staggering documentary images of a culture on the verge of collapse, as members of the Oglala Sioux try to maintain their way of life on the Pine Ridge rez, in the poorest county in the United States. In the dramatic segments, characters move in and out of the frame too abruptly to make a full impression, resulting in a film that occasionally feels remote and indistinct. But in its best moments, Skins conveys the internal tug-of-war waged by assimilation, and the persistent haunting of the present by the past. --Patrick Z. McGavin

 

Sweet Dreams
Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 14 at 9:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Monday, April 15 at 9:00 p.m.

A typical "film festival film," this alternately dyspeptic and nostalgic (but not realistic) look at a 13-year-old's quest for a turntable in early Seventies Yugoslavia snared best-feature awards at recent fests in Slovenia and Valencia. Young Egon (Janko Mandic) is a nerdy lad who's saddled with an abusive and hysterical mom, and in thrall to his womanizing uncle, the Slovenian equivalent of the swinging single. As Western goods and influence become more pervasive, Egon's longing ends up fuelling a fairly standard "rite of passage" tale. Like so many movies told from the point of view of an adolescent protagonist, Sweet Dreams falls into the trap of turning every adult into a cheap caricature. Egon's mother makes Joan Crawford look like the winner of the Good Housekeeping Mom of the Year Award; Grandma's religious fanaticism borders on insanity; and Egon's gym teacher is, of course, sexually abusive. One wishes that director Saso Podgorsek had taken note of how, for example, Lasse Hallström handled similar material in My Life as a Dog: By treating adults and their predicaments in a more truthful manner, Hallström made his young protagonist's problems even more affecting. Nevertheless, Sweet Dreams' goofy period costumes and quirky supporting characters will likely make it a MSPIFF crowd-pleaser. --Jack Vermee

 

Violet Perfume
Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 9:15 p.m.

Few national cinemas besides the French have seemed much interested in exploring the consciousness of girls--who, when they appear in movies at all, are generally treated as ethnographic subjects, mysterious and ineffable. This Mexican film takes a valiant step in the opposite direction. Set in Mexico City (and based on a true story), it centers on the relationship between two outcast girls who attempt to come to terms with their need for freedom and self-expression. From the moment they first meet, Yessica (Ximena Ayala) and Miriam (Nancy Gutierrez) sense that there's a strong connection between them--a shared knowledge of pain and frustration--and they soon become inseparable. The film's camerawork is subtle and precise, charting the flow of the girls' friendship and mirroring their inquiries into the world around them. But if the first half of Violet Perfume amounts to a kind of dual investigation, a study of girls in search of themselves, the second half becomes abrasive and then even exploitative, as if director Maryse Sistach felt the need to compensate for the transgression of creating a distaff character study by unleashing a cheap and sensational denouement. --Patrick Z. McGavin

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