As bloated Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and A.I. disappoint to a staggering degree this summer, foreign films without huge promotional budgets are delivering offbeat, heart-stirring cinematic experiences afflicted with one minor marketplace burden: subtitles. You’d think that an American public addicted to website scrolling, instant messaging and cell-phone menus would no longer balk at scanning words onscreen. But, no, mon Dieu, in American movie theaters, English rules! While Miramax finesses the problem with ad campaigns and trailers implying its foreign films are actually English-language (see the one for With a Friend Like Harry, for example), a trio of wonderfully genuine films are now on screens, supplying a welcome relief from the linguistic bait-and-switch game.
Hailing from Iceland, Vietnam and Taiwan, and radically different in style, all three are set within a circumscribed universe of families (one single-parent, one extended, one nuclear) beset by sexual tensions, deceit, betrayal and some decidedly odd forms of reconciliation. Plot points and character arcs come to hinge on the cold of a Reykjavík winter, the heat of a Hanoi summer and the intrusive waters of Taipei. Fierce narrative inventions combine and collide with stylistic panache. Maybe Iceland’s 101 Reykjavík, Vietnam’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Taiwan’s The River are old-fashioned, for in place of digital effects and sci-fi concoctions, they expertly deliver the kind of cinematic magic that can transport an audience unreservedly into a believable and all-consuming parallel universe, only to be spat out at the end, on a summer evening, on a city street or multiplex asphalt, forever transformed.
At last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where 101 Reykjavík had its North American premiere, first-time director Baltasar Kormakur was jazzed: His film was getting major buzz, his bar back home in Reykjavík was thriving, he had a major role in another Icelandic film at the festival and he’d just been invited into the cast of the new Hal Hartley movie, Monster. Back then, he couldn’t have known that the buzz would evaporate without his landing a major distributor; luckily, New York’s Film Forum has performed yet another rescue to our benefit, one that will hopefully incubate an audience.
If 101 Reykjavík has energy to burn, its protagonist most certainly does not. A slacker terminally tied to his mother’s couch, Hlynur divides his time between drinking, surfing porn on the web, masturbating in his creaky bed, shagging women and visiting the unemployment office, where his surliness nearly loses him the stipend he relies on for his, um, lifestyle. Liquor virtually jump-starts the film’s energy, as scenes of Iceland’s younger generation partying its way into oblivion carry the same kind of freshness that Icelandic bands and singers have already brought to the global music scene. No surprise, then, that the film’s soundtrack is credited to Damon Albarn, star of the Brit pop group Blur, and Einar Örn, who started the Sugarcubes with Icelandic diva Björk. The driving rhythms of the music may not be synchronized with any productive energy on the part of Hlynur, but they are indeed in pace with the sexual energies and essences that suffuse this film.
For that, there’s Victoria Abril to thank. Made famous by her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors, Abril would seem an odd casting choice for an Icelandic film. What’s she doing in Reykjavík? Why, she’s playing Lola, a clever deus ex machina dropped into this frozen universe to teach flamenco dance–and set the blood of the natives on fire. Poor Hlynur! Lola is introduced as a friend of his mom’s, setting the stage for a madcap sex farce, rife with mix-ups.
With Mom conveniently absent over the holidays, and Abril left to babysit mama’s boy, Hlynur cannot imagine any impediment to his lusty fantasies. When Mom returns with her own agenda, though, even this jaded couch potato of a son is shocked. Mom announces proudly that she’s now a lesbian and Abril is the woman of her dreams. Be happy for us, my son. And that’s only the beginning.
101 Reykjavík is a straightforward sort of movie, but its unabashed innocence and stylistic aplomb are wonderfully endearing. Equally pleasing is its refusal to follow the rules of niche marketing, which would certainly prohibit a single film from aiming so broadly. A brash young heterosexual male, his masculinity mangled by a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects, gets his comeuppance. That’s one film. A middle-aged woman, responsible for aged relatives and an overdependent son, finds happiness in the arms of a foreign female. That’s another. Add to that count Abril’s character, an expatriate who’s sick of wandering and ready for a nest, and Hlynur’s girlfriend, whose pregnancy falls victim to his commitment phobia, and the mix becomes wonderfully complex. It’s such a relief to find all these characters together in one movie, with a killer soundtrack to boot, that 101 Reykjavík surely deserves to be seen, if only to inspire legions of viewers to dream of Victoria Abril while stocking up on Icelandic pop and mixing a cocktail.
The time-honored trope of family gets a further, equally unpredictable workout in two Asian films from directors mining nearly opposite terrain, nationally and aesthetically.
Tran Anh Hung is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker whose early work (The Scent of Green Papaya) was suffused with nostalgia for a preliberation Vietnam, where a privileged boy romped through a fabulous manse in tandem with the child-maid in whose care he was entrusted. Shot on a soundstage in France, it was a hard sell to anyone looking for a film devoted to history, politics or modern Vietnam. As if in retaliation against his critics, Tran’s next film (Cyclo) moved ruthlessly into the present, tracking the rough life of drug dealing and prostitution in the contemporary, corruption-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, with The Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has melded the best of both early works into a lush, poignant film, set in a near-timeless Hanoi, that traces a trio of sisters through the cycles of family relations, the vagaries of their husbands, their brother’s future and finally the youngest sister’s coming of age.
Public and private are fascinatingly intertwined, as are past and present. The film’s action, for instance, is bracketed by two memorial observances: a banquet at the start of the film for the clan’s mother and another, which they head off to prepare at film’s end, for their father. In between, the fantasies and dreams of the three daughters reprise the themes of their parents’ marriage in subtle ways.
Lou Reed supplies the anthem to which Lien, the youngest sister, and her beloved (too beloved, perhaps) brother Hai awaken. Other tunes haunt other locations. Visual beauty accompanies emotional shifts, from serenity to pain, from suspicion to temptation, amid shifting family fortunes. One sister suspects her husband of infidelity, another doesn’t. One husband is faithful, another may not be. Nothing is quite what it seems in this romantic universe, certainly not the business trips taken by the set of husbands, with momentous results. Yet nothing is ever entirely defined either, as ambiguity itself becomes the essence of the work.
To be honest, plot is not the point here. Instead, prepare to succumb to a higher power: the shimmering essence of a Vietnamese summer. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot a great deal of Wong Kar-wai’s meditative In the Mood for Love, has outdone himself. In one jewel-like shot, the surface of the water in an antique bronze bowl at the center of an adulterous liaison bubbles into a cloud of luminosity, turning the air liquid with its force. Surfaces reflect the temperature, skin shines with humidity and the languid universe of Southeast Asia claims a magnificent visual register. How ironic that the films shaping our views of modern Vietnam these days seem to be made by French–or American–hyphenated filmmakers, whose cinematic canvas has become a space for them to work out their own complicated relationships to this magnetized place. The emerald green so emblematic of Vietnam is present here, not in the sorts of battle scenes that characterized Apocalypse Now (to be re-released this month in Francis Ford Coppola’s definitive director’s cut) but rather in the quieter battles of a family.
It’s the quotidian feel of life that is worshiped in Tran’s film. Such a religious word is not out of place: The Vertical Ray of the Sun, no mere movie, is a prayer rung out across the movie palace, a benediction to the everyday, a stirring of the skin where no breeze has traveled, a visual altar upon which to gaze. Ultimately, what Tran offers is a way of experiencing life as a thing of beauty and a process of, dare I say it, enlightenment. What’s important in the universe of Vertical Ray is the tenderness of life, the joy of human connection and the sense of continuity. Luckily, it’s got the marketing muscle of Sony Classics behind it, beefed up with Crouching Tiger revenues, so it might just win some hearts.
The River, only now having a limited theatrical run five years after its debut, makes a completely different parable out of the common shards of parental eros, adolescent frustration and city life. More King Lear than Midsummer Night’s Dream, The River continues director Tsai Ming-liang’s obsession with disjointed families, isolated individuals and sparer-than-spare narratives. Instead of lush landscapes, Tsai plunges us into a cerebral world of perfect frames and rigorous compositions, where alienation becomes palpable and the physical world offers few comforts.
Ever since he first came to notice (with Vive L’Amour and Rebels of the Neon God), Taiwanese/Malaysian filmmaker Tsai has been a cinephile’s favorite for his uncompromising visual minimalism and perverse goings-on. In The River, a fractured family carries out its business in near-silence, interacting like strangers. Mom is having an affair with a porn salesman, Dad is cruising for anonymous sex in gay saunas and teenage son Hsiao-kang is, well, trying to find his way to adulthood by blundering into absurd situations.
In one hilarious scene that serves as the film’s central emblem, he’s hired as an extra by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. His role? A corpse, floating in the murky waters of a local river. Afterward, he warms up with a quick sexual tryst in a hotel room with one of the production assistants. But his luck is short-lived. He soon develops a pain in his neck which may or may not be a result of his dead man’s float. It gets worse and worse, even more so after a motorcycle accident that sends his neck even further out of joint and leads his mother and father on ever-escalating searches for a cure. And we, the audience, are there with them as life gets reorganized around the mysterious ailment. Soon the physical universe falls prey to maladies, too. The apartment ceiling begins to leak, occasioning another round of investigations. While his father constructs ineffective barriers and his mother performs heroic acts to stanch the flow, Hsiao-kang suffers, and suffers some more. Existentialist to the core, but never without a perverse sense of humor, The River is a minimalist masterpiece.
Admittedly, this plot summary is far more coherent than the film itself. In fact, I was halfway through the film before I realized that this was a family, before I understood that the father and mother were in fact a couple, or that the pain in Hsiao-kang’s neck is not simply metaphorical, or suggestive, or a joke, but a veritable cosmology guiding the film. By the time the father and son show up, with characteristic abruptness, at the same pitch-dark gay sauna, we, the audience, thoroughly retrained by Tsai to be simultaneously saturated with anticipation and detached from narrative expectation, are ready for anything, even a terribly transgressive rewrite of the Oedipal myth.
The River ends with a spectacular rejection of film logic: We never do learn what’s wrong with the poor boy’s neck.