Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part Two)

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it became apparent from a recent film course that I taught, Key Filmmakers of Our Time, that outside of North America, excepting, perhaps for France, too many important foreign language films were not readily available on DVD. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses,Three Brothers) and  the lateTaiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day). (Key Canadian films, such as Rejeanne Padovani, Joshua Then and Now and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould were also either never put out on DVD or are now out of print.) And of those foreign films that did get put out on disc, a lot of them fell through the cracks or were ignored because most DVD reviewers were more interested in promoting the big Hollywood blockbusters. In that light of rectifying a wrong, here are a few more foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.

The Kingdom/The Kingdom 2 (1995/1997)

Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier followed his serious political drama Zentropa (aka Europa) with a distinct change of pace, a funny horror romp through a haunted Copenhagen hospital nicknamed The Kingdom. His large cast of characters includes a Swedish surgeon who hates Danes and periodically goes to the hospital roof to rail against "Danish scum," another physician who falls in love with a female colleague but then decides she is a ghost, a befuddled chief of staff who hides when a health ministry inspection team visits his facility, and a little girl who's haunting the premises. It seems she was murdered years ago in The Kingdom but, unable to find eternal rest, wanders the halls, scaring people with her presence.

If The Kingdom, which Von Trier created and which he co-wrote with Morten Arnfred, sounds more than a little deranged, it is. Imagine TV's ER as directed by David Lynch (or, better yet, Tales of the Gimli Hospital's Guy Maddin) and you’ll have some idea of what Von Trier is up to. Its sepia tinting adding to the creepy atmospherics, The Kingdom is fast-moving and highly involving. Shown in two parts, (and four sections, each ending on a gruesome, B-movie note), the film, belies its nearly five-hour running length. It's never dull; whether it's meaningful is another matter. There are jibes at hospital bureaucracy, medical profession arrogance and even horror-genre conventions, but The Kingdom's main goal is to entertain. Any doubts about that are erased by the movie's delicious show-closing punch- line, which is Von Trier's acknowledgment that he's not taking any of this too seriously. The Kingdom 2 picked up right where The Kingdom left off, offering up more thrills, chills and black comedy but the planned third installment of the series never materialized due to the death of five of its cast members. 

Election/Election 2 (2005/2006)

Less two separate movies than one enticing epic split in half, Johnnie To's Election and Election 2 blend in a political subtext that, like Panahi’s Crimson Gold,  is nothing short of courageous. At first, the tapestry of Election seems like that of any Hong Kong gangster movie, as it follows two triad members, the calm deliberate Lok (Louis Koo) and the hair-trigger personality Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who both covet the position of chief of the Wo Sing clan, a post that is decided by democratic elections every two years. Their respective campaigns are complicated when the symbol of the clan, the Dragon's Head Baton, goes missing, a sign that the traditional ways are moving in an uncertain direction. Election 2, also known as Triad Election, takes place two years later, but this time it's businessman/gangster Jimmy (Louis Koo) who wants to run the show. But there's a new boss in China, and he's the one who's really pulling the strings.

Once one realizes that To's movies are a bold attack on China's political interference in post-1997 Hong Kong, after the territory was handed over to the mainland, what at first seemed rather superficial begins to take on a more complex hue. Big D, who comes across as an excessive cartoon in the first movie, can now be viewed as an effective representation of Hong Kong's somewhat corrupt and messy democracy. By contrast, the more subtle Jimmy, hiding behind an “honest” capitalist facade in Election 2, is the apt puppet of the sinister Chinese state apparatus. Even the Hong Kong police, so ubiquitous a presence in Election, where they are determined to keep public order, have receded into the background in Election 2 as they recognize the new reality. Guided by To's elegant camera moves, less visceral than most Hong Kong filmmakers, the Election movies put a fresh, intriguing spin on the usual cinematic gangster motifs.

Nowhere in Africa (2001)

Stephanie Zweig's popular novel about her family's Africa experiences during the Holocaust has been turned into a strong drama that tells a different story about Jewish survival than we're used to seeing on screen. Zweig is Regina Redlich in the film, a young girl (Lea Kurka) whose life is turned upside-down when her lawyer father Walter (Merab Ninidze), already settled in British-colonized Kenya, manages to bring her and her mother Jettel (Juliane Kohler) safely out of Germany as well. However, even as Regina and her parents settle uneasily into their new home, with Walter forced to work as a farm hand, the lives of their relatives are under dire threat from the Nazis. Caroline Link's direction is a little flat but the Redlichs' story, of people adjusting to difficult and wrenching circumstances, bolstered by the cast's consistently fine performances,  is a genuinely moving and gripping one.

City of God  (2002)

City of God was actually something of a foreign language hit when it first came out but I haven't read much about it in recent years, which may say something about the short attention span of many film critics. That's also why I am including it in this blog. Based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, City of God is a thrilling drama about the rise and fall of gangsters and drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro's slums or favellas. That many of them are children, ranging in age from nine to 14, is just one of the many shocking aspects of this movie, which, like The Sopranos, manages to strike notes of black comedy amidst the horror. Turning on a dime from drama to humor is never easy, and rare in the movies, but director Fernando Meirelles displays so much technical control that he pulls off virtually anything he sets his mind to.
Divided into chapters and spanning two decades from the '60s to the '80s, the film has a nominal "hero," the honest Rocket (Alexandro Rodrigues), a budding photojournalist who's avoided the criminal life but is connected, in various ways, to many of the hoodlums who reside, like him, in the slum known sarcastically as the City of God. He's the link between the movie's opening and closing but, if there's a stand-out character in City of God, it's the 14-year-old killer Little Ze (Leandro Firmino de Hora). A vicious murderer who hates almost everyone, this frightening killing machine, as rendered in de Hora's intense personification, is the stuff that nightmares are made of. 

Uncompromising in its realism--many of the actors were non-professionals, recruited from Rio's slums--and offering no quarter to anyone, including the cops, who are all depicted as uncaring and corrupt, City of God is, nonetheless, exhilarating movie-making. It's in love with life even as so many of its protagonists die. The film eventually runs out of steam -with so much energy expended on screen, how could it not? -but it never fails to impress. It's a remarkable achievement.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

No comments:

Post a Comment