Saturday, March 21, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009 Review Round-up #2

The Shaft (Zhang Chi)

Recycled stylistic and cinematic tropes rear their ugly heads once again in The Shaft, which separately details the lives of three members of a family in a bleak mining town in western China. Not to be confused with Li Yang’s far superior film Blind Shaft, The Shaft seems to follow every rule in the playbook for cinematic depictions of present-day China. The film’s very structure of refracted perspectives of a single family is identical to yet another much more artistically successful Chinese film, Gu Changwei’s Peacock. In the first story, Jingshui (Zheng Louqian) a safety monitor at the town’s mine, is forced to leave her job when vicious rumors spread about her supposed affair with a superior, ruining her relationship with her boyfriend Daming (Li Chen). The second story follows Jingshui’s brother Jingsheng (Huang Xuan), who vows not to become like their father Baogen (Luo Deyuan), working his whole life at the mine until it kills him, either through an accident or through slow attrition from failing health. Jingsheng entertains dreams of traveling to Beijing to become a pop star and pursues various schemes to achieve this end. The results bring to mind the saying that if you want to make the fates laugh, tell them your plans. The film concludes with Baogen’s story, as he searches for his wife who had left many years before, and whom we learn he had actually bought. Time is short for him, as his lungs are practically shot from decades of working in the mine. The Shaft misses no opportunity to indulge in the familiar long-shot landscapes and the artful arrangement of actors in the sort of scenes so familiar from recent Chinese films, to such an extent that almost no shot composition (especially in the arrangements of characters in the frame) looks the least bit natural, and we are always painfully aware of the self-conscious auteur behind the scenes. All this pseudo-art does little to mask a scenario that is banal and shallow in the extreme. (April 1, 2)

Mid-August Lunch (Gianni Di Gregorio)

This delightful Italian comedy goes down as smoothly as the wine that freely flows in the film. Di Gregorio, a major screenwriter in Italy (he most recently co-wrote Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah), essays the main role here, as Gianni, a middle-aged man who lives with his widowed mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in a condominium and whose life consists of caring for his mother and consuming wine and beer and shooting the breeze with his pals to make his monotonous existence a bit more bearable. Months behind on his rent and on the verge of being evicted, the building manager proposes that Gianni look after his mother while he goes away for the mid-August bank holiday, promising to forgive Gianni’s debt. Although Gianni’s mother is a handful on her own, this is the proverbial offer he can’t refuse, and he reluctantly agrees. However, the manager also foists his aunt on Gianni, and later his doctor friend asks Gianni to take care of his mother as well. Now saddled with four old women to care for, Gianni is run ragged trying to negotiate each of their needs, especially the hilariously elaborate diet the doctor has put his mother on. Much of the film takes place in the rather small condo apartment, and Di Gregorio fluidly moves his camera in this space with great skill. All four women are played by nonprofessional actors, and their performances brim with life, making the film a tribute to women such as themselves, who are not revered for their wisdom, but are treated as nuisances to be fobbed off on others at the first opportunity. Mid-August Lunch is a great example of a uniquely Italian approach to depicting families, and Di Gregorio enhances the charm of his film by not imposing a plot, but letting his characters determine the flow of events. (April 3, 4)

Home (Ursula Meier)

Initially comforting domesticity gradually takes more disturbing and sinister tones in Home. Featuring outstanding turns by principal actors Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet and Adelaide Leroux, and equally outstanding cinematography by Agnes Godard, Meier’s film is both an intense chamber drama and a potent satire on modern construction’s assault on the environment. The family in this film lives on an abandoned stretch of highway in virtual isolation from the rest of society. They have constructed their own quiet little world, playing hockey on the road and other games at home; the eldest daughter (Leroux) spends her days sunning herself by the road and listening to death metal. It is mentioned that they live here due to the mother’s fragile health, but the exact nature of her illness remains unspecified. But the bad old industrial world intrudes in a big way: the long promised extension of the highway, which runs right in front the family’s house, is finally realized, and soon the thunderous sounds of passing traffic invade every inch of their existence. The fissures that have been kept underground by their previous idyllic life come roaring to the surface. The simple act of crossing the road now becomes a potentially deadly activity, the younger daughter becomes obsessed with the pollution from the cars’ exhaust tanks, and the eldest daughter defiantly continues her sunbathing, despite now giving practically the whole country a free show. These new changes impact most dramatically on the mother who, unable to bear the noise, begins a radical process of soundproofing the house that turns the home into a prison. Meier deftly controls the film’s tone so that it doesn’t veer too far in the direction of overwrought melodrama or silly farce. As the family attempts to maintain its separation from society, the psychological states of the family members are drawn with an astute attention to detail and a perceptive sense of naturalism. Meier and Godard deliver a number of indelible scenes, including a massive traffic jam which becomes an elegant tip of the hat to Godard’s Weekend. (April 2, 4)

You can view the trailer for Home here.

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