Short takes from SIFF 34: Wonderful Town, Still Life, and Cherry Blossoms: Hanami

A stranger on the shore in Wonderful Town.

The following capsule reviews originally appeared in Northwest Asian Weekly, as part of the paper’s coverage for the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival.

from the June 7 issue:

Wonderful Town (Thailand)

Dreadful, shameful, and deeply confused, writer-director Aditya Assarat’s attempt to address post-tsunami conditions in the rural community of Takua-Pa draws most of its plot cues from bad Hollywood movies. The film begins well enough as a minor key character study. Ton, an ex-pub musician turned low-level architect (he designs lavatories for lavish resorts) checks into a sleepy hotel, a once thriving family business now single-handedly run by Na, a virtuous young woman. A burgeoning attraction leads to romance, and the movie falls back on such American devices as a lachrymose pop ballad on the soundtrack while the lovers enjoy a motorcycle ride through lush, verdant country lanes. If that were all, Wonderful Town would be a forgivable and forgettable try at conventional moviemaking. Assarat, however, forsakes the relationship in favor of contrivances such as giving Na a gangster brother, or having teenage hoodlums terrorize the couple. The film has its share of striking visuals from cinematographer Umpornpol Yugala, who makes even the wringing of wet laundry on a cement floor look beautiful. But given the violent clichés Assarat resorts to, his slow tracking shots across the remnants of property destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami, although haunting, seem like a cheap way to confer importance on his own ill-conceived script.

Cherry Blossoms: Hanami (Germany/Japan)

A half-hour into director Doris Dörrie’s set of variations on Ozu’s Tokyo Story, an elderly German woman, who has largely repressed her passion for traditional Japanese dance in order to be a middle-class hausfrau, spies a woman in white-face, a Butoh performer, walking towards her. It’s actually herself she sees; she smiles at the arrival of this externalized dream, a benevolent Angel of Death come to whisk her away. That’s the highpoint of Dörrie’s exquisitely photographed yet unsatisfying movie. There are heavenly images here to behold, such as white swans swimming in a Tokyo park, their plumage merging with the delicate pink of overhanging cherry blossom boughs. Yet Dörrie, not for the first time in her career, revels in contempt for men, including the widower protagonist who, for reasons only the writer-director can fathom, takes to cross-dressing in his late wife’s attire. Eventually, the man encounters Yu (Aya Irizuki) in the park, a young Butoh practitioner who swirls the long cord of a pink telephone (on which she speaks to her dead mother) around her kimono. I can’t fault Dörrie for failing to create a single likable character (the German couple’s adult children are a worse lot of ingrates than Ozu ever dreamed of), but that the people onscreen are uninteresting as well asks too much of the viewer while giving too little in return.

from May 17:

Still Life (China)

Arriving on the heels of his masterpiece The World, Jia Zhang-ke’s new film registers as something of a disappointment. But even if Still Life fails, it’s an honorable failure, one nonetheless worthy of consideration. Jia interweaves two unrelated searches in the town of Fengjie: A laborer, Sanming, who smashes bricks for a living, longs to reunite with his ex-wife, if he can locate her against the shifting backdrop of the Three Gorges project; at the same time, a nurse struggles to find her missing husband, a businessman who proves unusually elusive. “You’re a nostalgic?” a young worker quizzes Sanming, who replies, “We can’t forget who we are.”

Throughout Still Life, there are visual puns on Jia’s concern for what’s lost as the new eradicates the old. Even when the metaphors are a trifle obvious, Jia’s images are stunning. Strung on a wire across a bare white wall, several wristwatches dangle alongside a gold pocket-watch and a small alarm clock — it’s time suspended, literally. If in The World, Jia’s direction sometimes suggested Ozu on the set of Altman’s The Company, here he consciously evokes the European masters of the 1960s, perhaps especially in the realism with which he depicts the boredom and wistfulness that accompany solitary journeys. — N.P. Thompson