Monday, December 27, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part One)

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 in Canada. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses, Three Brothers) and the late Taiwanese 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 but that’s a story for another blog.) 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 some foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.

Crimson Gold (2003)
A damaged man driven to the brink of despair commits a terrible but understandable crime in the fourth film from Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon). If most Iranian films evoke the masters of Italian neo-realism, Crimson Gold, which is based on a true story, is, unusually, more along the lines of Martin Scorsese's visceral Taxi Driver. The laconic Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin) has medical problems, brought on from serving in the Iran-Iraq war, and is stuck in a dead-end job as a pizza deliveryman. A slight by a jewelry store owner weighs on him, as do the temptations of the rich life, which he glimpses in the homes of his customers while making his rounds. Eventually it all becomes too much for him to handle and he explodes in a shocking act of violence.

Unique in that it deals straightforwardly with class divisions in Iranian society and, even more significantly, refers to the freedoms of life before the Islamic Revolution, Crimson Gold packs a subtle emotional punch. Sadly, Panahi has just been sentenced to six years in prison for political reasons, and barred from making movies for another 20 years. Of all his films, which also include Offside and The Circle, Crimson Gold offers the firmest evidence of his courage in assailing the deep flaws and injustices manifest in Iran's fundamentalist regime. 

Fireworks (HANA-BI) (1997)
An odd mixture of lyrical drama and violent action, Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks, which deservedly won the Best Picture award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival, is one of the high points of a filmmaker whose career has been distinctly uneven.

Kitano, who usually stars in his films (Boiling Point (1989), Violent Cop (1990)) as a suave but rough sort seems to be playing the same sort of guy here, but Nishi, his character, is carrying a hard burden: a dying wife (Kayako Kashimoto), whom he loyally visits whenever possible. While he is on one of his visits, the detective's best friend and partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi) is gunned down by a criminal and paralyzed for life. That sad reality, his debts to a vicious loan shark and his own innate violent nature push Nishi, who has been suspended from the force for shooting a corpse, to new actions on the other side of the law.

Kitano, who is almost painterly in his direction, lets his story unfold gently. Just as important as what's happening at the centre of his story are the small but often overlooked details, the sunsets and other beautiful aspects of life, which both Nishi and even Horibe learn to appreciate. That these thoughtful ruminations are often punctured by bloody bouts of gore and destruction only bolsters Kitano's skills as a filmmaker. The former and the latter make sense being brought together (which is no mean feat).

As Nishi, Kitano, who also wrote and edited the movie, offers his typical deadpan performance, but the domestic difficulties of Nishi's life enrich his character. You can sense the pain behind the cool facade and sunglasses. Despite its title, Fireworks never explodes in any overt way, but its emotional impact is, nevertheless, lasting.

The Band’s Visit (2007)
Told as a fable, The Band’s Visit is the sweet, touching story of an Egyptian police band on its way to perform at an Arab Cultural Center in one of Israel’s largest cities when, because of a spelling mistake, it ends up instead in an Israeli backwater. There, the band interacts with the mostly accepting, friendly Israeli townsfolk, even as they try to find a way to make it back to their original destination. 
Eran Kolirin’s uncommonly assured directorial debut hinges on its characters, and in Ronit Elkabetz, as Dina, the forthright, sensual but emotionally lost waitress, and Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq, the dignified but troubled head of the orchestra, he strikes cinematic gold. Their tentative rapprochement and growing attraction is a marvel of subtle, underplayed emotion and deeply moving, all the more so when weighed against the realities of the cold peace that currently exists between Israel
 and Egypt

The Band’s Visit may come across as oddly apolitical, which is the point as it’s about the common humanity of former enemies and the rest of the cast, except for the troupe’s suave ladies’ man, Haled (Saleh Bakri), who takes it upon himself to educate a callow Israeli youth in the ways of women, aren’t sketched in as well as they might have been. But if the movie isn’t fully formed, it’s perfectly pitched and always likeable and charming, attributes that are in short supply in today’s cinema. 

Portraits Chinois (1996)
A group of artistically inclined French friends fall in love and out of love in the traditional romantic manner, but Portraits Chinois (Shadow Play) makes everything old feel new again. Set in Paris (of course), Portraits Chinois is as intricately developed and lovingly crafted as the photos to which its title refers. It begins with a couple, English fashion designer Ada (Helena Bonham Carter) and screenwriter Paul (Jean Philippe Ecoffey) moving into a new home. They've been together for a while, but they're not really happy or communicating their dissatisfaction to each other. Guido (Sergio Castellito), Paul's writing partner, is having severe relationship problems but can only mope around Ada and Paul's kitchen. Enter Lise (Romane Bohringer), an up-and-coming fashion designer who ends up in the middle of Ada and Paul's marriage.

Though Portraits Chinois sounds like a glib Woody Allen film, it cuts much deeper. Director/co-writer Martine Dugowson (Mina Tannenbaum) follows these four artists and their friends as they laugh, bicker and lie to each other--in short, as they live their lives of not-so-quiet desperation. She even allows the audience to hear her characters' thoughts, an effective device in that it allows the filmmaker to contradict the words that are coming from their mouths.
Her whole cast is excellent, but standouts are Bonham Carter (who, impressively, speaks fluent French for her role) as the somewhat cold Ada and Castellito as the hilariously hapless Guido. Jean-Claude Brialy as Sandre, Ada's domineering fashion mentor, is also fine. With a sublime soundtrack (including the ubiquitous Leonard Cohen tune), Portraits Chinois contrasts romantic musical stereotypes with the less-than-flattering reality of people's ordinary love lives. But the movie allows for a smart happy ending that nicely twists the fiction/reality conundrum of the cinema. Happiest of all should be those movie buffs who venture out to rent this unheralded gem.

-- 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.

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