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.