Archive for March 2009

ND/NF: Balancing Between Silence and Singing: Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow

March 31, 2009

milk

Indigenous Peruvian Fausta (Magaly Solier), protagonist of director Claudia Llosa’s second feature The Milk of Sorrow, suffers her entire childhood and early adulthood from a condition referred to in her community as “la teta asustada,” translated in the film as “the milk of sorrow.” This affliction is believed to be transmitted to an infant who suckles from the breast of a raped and violated mother — as happened to Fausta’s mother and many of her neighbors in the village where Fausta was born during one of Peru’s periods of violent political upheaval.

The condition might not be listed in medical textbooks, but as far as popular notions go, Fausta would be a textbook case: burdened under a terror and sadness so heavy she rarely smiles, refusing to walk anywhere on the streets unaccompanied, and suffering from violent fainting spells and nosebleeds when she becomes overwrought. But despite a lifetime of certainty of the worst, Fausta hasn’t been entirely crushed. In the core of her being smolders an incredible power and beauty. When she is with her elderly mother there is joy and love. The film opens with Fausta listening to her grandmother sing. The sound of her song to my ears jangles at first with unfamiliarity, but compels me to listen and open myself to its authority. Fausta’s mother’s melody follows an order of the singer’s own devising — reminding me a little of the pansori performance opening Ch’unhyang (2000), an unfamiliar style requiring patience and attention to win me over.

Her mother’s lyrics, revealed through the subtitles, are grimmer than grim, evoking a darker time in Peru, full of anguish, rape at the hands of terrorists, the murder of husbands, a world many years before the film takes place. While I experience this strange disconnect between the eerie beauty of the song and the violence of the message, my heart surprises me by locating hope here between Fausta and her mother: the singer and listener have survived. But when Fausta’s mother dies, part of me fears that the private Fausta will herself die.

Another secret weighs at the core of Fausta’s physical body. Taking to heart the advice of one of Fausta’s mother’s neighbors for how to avoid rape during the years of terror, Fausta has inserted a potato deep into her vagina (Why a potato? Well, among other cultural significance to the potato in the region, Peru is said to be the birthplace of the potato).  Her mother’s neighbor had said that by making her body loathsome, she preserved her dignity. Indeed, the woman later removed the potato and bore her husband children. But the extremity of Fausta’s self-protection is out of step with the contemporary Peru she inhabits. When Fausta’s uncle brings her into the emergency room after the violent fainting spell that strikes her moments after the death of her mother, he tells the doctor of Fausta’s condition, victim of “la teta asustada.” The doctor isn’t interested in his abstract, poetic description of the “milk of sorrow”: he asks the uncle if he knows about the potato in Fausta’s vagina. An operation will be necessary to remove it before it causes her further injury: the potato has begun to sprout.

Fausta refuses to heed the contemporary world: she will not remove the potato, and turns her energy almost entirely to the question of how to transport her mother’s mummified body to the village where she was born for burial. And within the self-martyrdom of her refusal to believe her country can move beyond the terror of her early childhood, the seed of her mother’s secret singing begins, like the potato itself, to flower up inside her. And as the story develops, the film balances Fausta silence with the eruptions of her own singing, the purest concentration of her passion and feeling.

–Matthew Griffin

Buy Tickets:
Wed Apr 1: 6:15 (MoMA)
Fri Apr 3: 9 (FSLC)

ND/NF: The difficult but steady lives of Chinese coal miners in “The Shaft”

March 31, 2009

shaft

In a country whose rapidly growing economy (well, at least until recently) has fostered a surge in its need for and use of fossil fuels, someone has to do the digging. Digging for fuel, specifically in cavernous coal mines, often for very little pay  and in unsafe conditions, is an increasingly common profession in rural China.

One such family who’s lives are shaped by China’s late great entry as one of the world’s industrial powers is expertly documented in Zhang Chi’s The Shaft, which examines the compromises a young woman, daughter to a retiring coal miner and sister to a young entrant in the field, has to make in the face of her family’s inability to break free from the shackles of mining work and the loss of her mother.

Although not as unrelentingly bleak as the recent festival circuit favorites of Li Yang (Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain), like his work Chi’s debut theatrical feature has an indelible sense of place and offers an valuable glimpse into life in the Chinese countryside within a country in the throes of modernization. With a delicate eye that favors tableau like settings and symmetrical compositions (which probably also informs the schematic, three part story structure), Chi’s film has a palpable verisimilitude which gives the audience a strong sense of small town life in China’s Western Provinces. Whereas Yang gets at the difficulties of life in rural China through the rhythms of arty, slow burn thriller/tragedies in communities ruled by stagnant, misogynist social codes, Chi’s more interested in the positive aspects of community and family, especially amidst difficult circumstances.

While Yang’s delves deeply into notions of filial responsibility and allegorically, he also winds up suggesting, not unlike a product of big budget Chinese cinema like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, that subservience of one’s desires to that of the state (or its preferred means of ideological control, the patriarchal family). Regardless, someone has to care for those who do this sisyphean work. Someone has to love them in the face of their industrially sponsored  despair. It is in this spirit that Zhang Chi’s clinical look at the human costs of life at the bottom of the Chinese coal industry, aptly titled The Shaft, examines one family burdens with grace and dignity.

-Brandon Harris

Buy tickets: Wed Apr 1: 6:15 (FSLC)
Thu Apr 2: 9 (MoMA)

Ambiance and Ambivalence at New Direc– Aw, Screw It All, Let’s Get Hammered.

March 30, 2009

After drinking sake with Armond White, joshing with A.O. Scott and seeing a couple pretty-darn-good movies, I felt pretty content with my experience writing for New Directors/New Films, solid in the knowledge that I’d had a few adventures, laughs, et cetera. However, apparently this was not enough for the editorial staff who decided, with the precision of moving plastic soldiers in a game of Risk, to throw me in to the one situation I wasn’t prepared for:

An after-party.

IMG_1478  Film Society Bloggers

The filmlinc blog's New Voices are out on the scene!

“Just make sure I don’t get too drunk too fast,” I told my friend. I thought for a second. “Or too slow.”

The Directors’ After-Party for the New Directors/New Films Festival was held Sunday night at Josephina, a classy New-American joint with organic-natural themes, the sort of place that seems smart and doesn’t do too bad either. People filed in from on early, starting at around 8:30 and a burst of unexpected rain seemed not to deter them.

As for the atmosphere, it was a difficult for me to discern who was who. Unlike Cannes or Sundance, ND/NF is a “working” festival; the people here aren’t on vacation. They see their films and then go home or go to work or back to their lives. Thus, there’s not a lot of opportunity for socializing before-hand in a small community like Park City, where the parties go on for nights.

Instead though, you manage to get an interesting cast of characters gathered from around the city’s film scene in one place. Given my singular ignorance, I was fortunate to run into a figure from my school, the well-connected-and-witty Jeremiah Newton, who volunteered to point out to me various figures, including film critics, directors, distributors and movie-house owners.

Still, the directors were hard to pick out, something that can be testified by the most common question asked to me that evening (“Do you have a film in the festival?”), to which I could only shake my head and grit my teeth, identifying myself as a lowly blogger. Still stranger were the times one managed to actually locate a director. Sterlin Harjo of Barking Water, a Native American road movie, was a nice guy, but after talking to him about the dearth of money for Native American cinema and Chris Eyre’s career, he was surrounded by his friends back from the buffet and I had to move.

IMG_1587 So Yong Kim, director of Treeless Mountain

Memo to Nick Feitel: the director above is So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain)

A man I later found out was Vladimir Kott, of the Russian family comedy The Fly, said “yes” when I asked him if he was a director, but that was just about all the English he spoke.

“What film?” I asked enthusiastically.

“Zeflai,” he responded.

“What?”

“Zeflai. Zefli.”

We had a stand-still, for a moment, at the buffet.

“I have, uh, translator,” he said as he returned to getting food and turned away from me.

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Updated: Another director I.D....Jack Pettibone Riccobono, co-director of KILLER

But all in all, I had a pretty good time, which I suppose is the point of these after-parties. Learning how to duck the Key-Lime-Tart Vodka-Drink offered and find your way to a glass of Merlot or a Whiskey Sour proved a good skill to learn and I even had some street cred with people coming up to me about my interview with Armond.

“Free booze, free food. Some good movie talk. I’ll take it in a flagging economy,” a fellow student told me.

“Come on,” I told my date. “My ears are turning red, along with the rest of my body.”

And then home.

-Nicholas Feitel, ND/NF New Voice

All photos by Susan Sermoneta.

ND/NF: Opening Night in pictures

March 30, 2009

A photo series by Susan Sermoneta:

3387564162_b1f07f620513387603606_e94c18d8a73389266890_1f30e000d9313388827858_1159bc366e1From top: Amreeka director Cherien Dabis, the party in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, Unmade Beds Director Alexis Dos Santos, two partygoers.

RELATED: Morgan H. Green’s review of Amreeka, and Brandon Harris’s interview with Alexis Dos Santos.

ND/NF: Birdwatchers glares from afar

March 30, 2009

Reaching at but never grasping the heels of the likes of Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog, Marco Bechis’s Birdwatchers portrays the on-going conflict of paradigmatic shift between the indigenous people of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil and the “fazendeiros,” opulent opportunists who exploit the land and its naturals for monetary gain.  The wordless opening scene cuts from a glorious wide shot of the jungle to a motor boat cutting through a river, slowing to a stop so that the binocular and camera-clad tourists can gawk at the Indians standing around at the riverbed like a herd of deer.  As soon as the boat is out of sight, the Indians disperse into the woods to a clearing where they receive payment for a day’s work.  They get onto a truck bed where their jeans and T-shirts are, and are driven back to a reservation.   There, the supposed chief, a drunkard, and the tribe shaman decide that they must take their land back, and camp out on the property of the fazendeiros.  More Indians join “the movement” as time goes by, and soon the tensions escalate into “metaphorical and actual war.”

Bechi makes no qualms about his intentions being as didactic as they are lyrical.  His frames are constantly bisected, symbolizing the schism inherent to the film’s story, using as his go-to image that of harvested land versus the sprawling jungle.  The tribe’s youth are prone to the tonally accurate but logically ambigious act of suicide by hanging, putting an emphasis on the helplessness that plagues the marginalized group but also limiting the taking of one’s own life to a conceit (see: device).  The gravity of life lost is obscured by the preference for polemical narrative.  The most problematic and in some ways indicative misstep is in the decision to assign a shaky P.O.V. shot and boogeyman soundscape to the evil spirit the Indians believe are inhabiting the forest — Belchi’s images have a tendency towards the literal, and prove to be a disservice to its elemental story.

Films with the ambition of Birdwatchers rarely come this close to success however.  While Belchi may not be able to find the right balance between his aforementioned impulses towards sensory cinema and didactic grandstanding, there’s no shortage of talent on display here.  The film’s most powerful scene is a testament to sensibilities worthy of attention.  A young shaman-in-training, lit by headlights and guns pointed at him, lashes out against his oppressors, screeching a native war cry and promising their death by his hands.  It is at once cathartic in its moment of empowerment but devastating in its futility.  

One may wish that Malick or Herzog had helmed this instead, but there aren’t too many films that can’t be said about.

– Sam Song

Buy tickets:

Wed Apr 1: 9 (MoMA)
Thu Apr 2: 6:15 (FSLC)

Road-tested classics: see a ND/NF gem at Critic’s Choice

March 30, 2009

Sometimes you’re not ready for something new, different or mumblecore. Sometimes you want to see a movie that already has some critical gravitas behind it.

Critic’s Choice is for you. All this week we’ll be showing great films that premiered in past New Directors/New Films programs and went onto New York Critics Circle recognition, critical accolades, and even Academy Award nominations.

Monday @ 3PM: Big Night – Stanley Tucci’s mouthwatering directorial debut tracks the fortunes of two brothers running an uncompromising Italian restaurant. Try the Timpano at home if you dare!

Tuesday @ 3PM: Frozen River – The little indie that could, this film earned two Academy Award nominations (for best original screenplay and best actress, Melissa Leo) in a field crowded with films that with much bigger budgets. If you missed it, come see it here.

Wednesday @ 3PM: Metropolitan – Before there was Gossip Girl, there was Whit Stilman’s pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of well-to-do Upper East Side youngsters. A classic.

Thursday @ 3PM: In the Company of Men – Anyone checking out Reasons to be Pretty on Broadway? This must-see debut was what made Neil LaBute’s name.

Friday @ 3PM: Half Nelson – Back in 2006, this flick had huge word of mouth for its idiosyncratic depiction of a troubled drug-addicted high school teacher and his unlikely friendship with a student. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck will be at the Film Society on Sunday to talk about their creative process as well.

ND/NF: Home is where the highway is in Ursula Meier’s quirky family drama

March 30, 2009

"HOME"

In an emblematic scene in Home, Ursula Meier’s first feature film, Marthe (the mother, played by Isabelle Huppert) wants to give snacks to two of her children, Julien and Marion, who stand across the newly-constructed highway from her after arriving home from school. With the encouragement of her children she decides to pitch the bag of food over the highway. The bag lands on the edge of the road and they erupt in cheer. Just as Julien tries to make a grab for it a car suddenly runs over the bag in a small burst of cheese and bread, much to everyone’s surprise. This scene highlights the warm love shared between the family, especially from the mother, as well as their unique, spontaneous approach to problem solving (that warrants a laugh and a cheer). At the same time, however, there is a rather dark quality to it in the way destruction can come suddenly — the obstacle of the highway is at first a comic problem, but it very quickly becomes a life-threatening one. This dichotomy of humor and dark drama comes to define Meier’s film, a subtle mix of emotional tones that is at once exhilarating and unnerving.

The story focuses on the drama that unfurls within a family when a highway is built right next to their house, blocking their normal route to the outside world (school, work) and making their daily routines a huge challenge. The family’s resolve to stay despite the highway and the noise, danger, and chaos it causes has them adapt in small and drastic ways: Marion, the bookish middle child, wears homemade hazmat suits to deal with the toxic emissions; they cement the walls and windows to reduce the noise. As the tensions within the family caused by the highway start to escalate the humor starts to fade and absurdism sets in, threatening to destroy the once happy-go-lucky family.

The central question Meier seems to be asking is: “What constitutes a home?” At first it is the house itself, the location (the middle of nowhere?) that allows the family freedom. As the house becomes destroyed, however, it becomes clear that home is something else (love? family? sanity?), though Meier never makes that something else explicit. Ultimately, Home forces us to ask: What are those things which keep us together, that make us feel secure, and (most importantly) what do we do when a highway is built right on top of them?

-Kazu Watanabe

Buy tickets to Home: Thu Apr 2: 9 (FSLC) and Sat Apr 4: 6:30 (MoMA)