The 43rd New York Film Festival 2005

| September 12, 2005

Every late September and early October like clockwork, The New York Film Festival descends upon Lincoln Center, bringing a great variety of films and filmmakers, both celebrated and obscure, Hollywood and global. The festival this year runs from September 23 through October 9. Although recently the upstart Tribeca Film Festival has offered potent competition (with a slate stronger by the year), and while I often wish the festival would concentrate on more films without distribution, since there are many such films that too often fall by the wayside, the New York Film Festival benefits from being much more concentrated and selective. This causes fewer headaches caused by conflicting film schedules. According to Richard Pena, the festival selection committee chairman (quoted in the press release), “The New York Film festival has always placed a premium on works of strong personal vision and on filmmakers who are willing to offer their own perspectives on issues, events, and ideas no matter how unsettling or controversial they might be. Images of striking beauty and shocking violence often co-exist in these films. These are filmmakers who are not interested in offering pat answers to the contradictions of the past or of those they see around them today.” A number of this year’s festival offerings would seem to prove Pena right.
The opening night film, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck revisits the famous confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. Filmed in black-and-white, Clooney seeks a similar meticulous recreation of 50s television in much the same way he achieved his remarkably detailed evocation of 70s game shows in his previous film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Featuring an impressive ensemble cast including the great David Straithairn as Murrow, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Clooney himself as producer Fred W. Friendly, this has the makings of a fascinating, and timely film.
The festival centerpiece is Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, based on a novel by Patrick McCabe, who also wrote The Butcher Boy, also filmed by Jordan, and which was his finest film to date. The prospect of Jordan essaying another McCabe novel is definitely promising. Also, the presence of Cillian Murphy (so impressive in 28 Days Later, Batman Begins, and Red Eye) as a transvestite cabaret singer will definitely be an intriguing thing to watch.
Michael Haneke’s Hidden, the closing night film, is another arrow in the heart of bourgeois complacency, his specialty in such films as Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Code Unknown, among others. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a couple tormented by anonymous surveillance videotapes delivered to their doorstep. Their hypocrisy and racism is slowly peeled away as events progress.
Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has a most intriguing premise: the slow deterioration of the title character being taken from one hospital to another in search of care. Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes, this one of the films I’m most curious to see. Incidentally, by chance I was able to speak to Philip Lopate, a member of this year’s selection committee, and he especially recommended this film.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant (The Child), for which they won their second Palme D’Or at Cannes (after 1999’s Rosetta), will no doubt prove one of the festival highlights. Beginning with their breakthrough film La Promesse, and continuing through their last film, the extraordinary The Son, the Dardennes have created visceral and incredibly tactile films informed by their previous experience directing documentaries that are quite remarkable in the way they express their characters’ psychology through physical action. L’Enfant looks to be no exception.
Two festival films take on the seemingly never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict (now in its new phase with the recent evacuation and destruction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank), one by Jewish filmmaker Avi Mograbi, and the other by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. Mograbi’s documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes provocatively connects the famous Masada incident, in which over 900 Jews committed mass suicide to resist the Romans, and the Palestinian intifadas. Hany Abu-Assad’s fiction feature Paradise Now follows two Palestinian suicide bombers on a mission in Tel Aviv.
Steven Soderbergh puts aside his glossy Hollywood spectacles and big stars with Bubble, a murder mystery set in an Ohio doll factory, featuring a non-professional cast. American indie director Noah Baumbach (a sometime collaborator with young wunderkind Wes Anderson) is present with his third feature The Squid and the Whale, an autobiographical family comedy-drama set in 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn. Bennett Miller’s Capote, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, revisits the circumstances surrounding Capote’s In Cold Blood, focusing on the ambiguous moral choices involved on Capote’s part in using this family murder to gain fame and notoriety.
Much ink as been spilled lately on one particular phenomenon of world cinema culture: the remarkable rise of South Korean cinema. For a festival that prides itself on being the ultra-selective cream-of-the-crop event of the New York film world, no better indication of the status of this cinema can be found than the fact that this year there are no less than three selections from Korea, from three of the most provocative and interesting directors from that country, all three with distinct cinematic styles and artistic strategies. Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, a massive hit upon its release in Korea this past July, is the third chapter in his so-called “revenge trilogy,” after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy. This time, Park features a female protagonist (Lee Young-ae, from Park’s Joint Security Area) as the revenge-seeker, framed and sent to prison for 14 years for child murder. Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema is the latest by this uncompromising modernist filmmaker, who excels in exposing painful and funny (often at the same time) truths about relationships between men and women. Im Sang-soo’s last film, the astonishing A Good Lawyer’s Wife, exposed the hypocrisy hidden by the public face of the stable, upstanding family. This time, in The President’s Last Bang, he extends his penetrating examination of South Korean society by taking on a historical taboo subject: the 1979 assassination of dictatorial president Park Chung-hee. The portrayal of Park as a carousing, womanizing wild man drew considerable ire and controversy in its home country, not the least from Park’s children, who sued to keep documentary footage out of the film.
Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-hsien, one of the finest directors currently working, is represented with his portmanteau film Three Times, three short films set in 1911, 1966, and the present day, featuring the same actors, the exquisite Shu Qi (Hou’s Millennium Mambo, So Close) and Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2046). This new film promises to bridge his earlier historical epics (The Puppetmaster, City of Sadness) and his latter-day contemporary films (Goodbye South, Goodbye, Millennium Mambo).
Michael Winterbottom, one of the most eclectic filmmakers around, offers his meta-cinematic Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, an adaptation of the unadaptable Laurence Sterne Classic novel. Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov, who advances cinema art with almost every new project, last brought to the festival the single-shot revelation Russian Ark, and he returns with The Sun, the third in a series of films about world dictators (after Moloch and Taurus), this time examining Japanese emperor Hirohito in the final days before his surrender to the Allies.
As usual for this festival, the special and retrospective screenings look to contain some of the most fascinating selections. “The Beauty of the Everyday: Japan Shochiku Company at 110” is a major 45-film retrospective of the famous Japanese studio. Besides films by such acknowledged masters such as Ozu, Naruse, Oshima, and Mizoguchi, the revelations of the series will be films by lesser-known figures such as Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Shimazu, and Heinosuke Gosho, whose films have rarely, if ever, screened in the U.S. Other notable special programs include the 30th anniversary re-release of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances, opposite the bewitching Maria Schneider. Graham Greene’s contributions to film will be discussed in “Greeneland: Graham Greene and the Cinema,” featuring a presentation by film scholar Adrian Wootton, and a screening of a film scripted by Greene, William Cameron Menzies’ quota quickie The Green Cockatoo. Sam Wood’s 1922 silent melodrama, Beyond the Rocks, long though lost, is notable for being the only screen pairing of silent film icons Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. Japanese cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto will receive a midnight screening of his concise, digitally-shot chiller, Haze.
There will be a number of live discussions with a number of filmmakers associated with the festival films, including directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Neil Jordan, Michael Winterbottom, Patrice Chereau (at the festival with his latest, the costume drama Gabrielle), Noah Baumbach, and British comic actor Steve Coogan, appearing in Tristram Shandy.
In all, there is plenty to keep a hardy cinephile busy. This year may prove to be one of stronger festival slates. I will be updating with reports on the films as I see them, and some of the more notable moments of the press conferences and Q&A sessions.
The Films
Beyond the Rocks (Sam Wood, 1922, US)
This recently rediscovered silent melodrama, found in a private collection by the Nederlands Filmmuseum, after having been considered lost for many decades, displays the special glow of nitrate film. Beyond the Rocks was the only screen pairing of silent film giants Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Swanson exhibits the florid, outsize gestures of silent stars of her caliber, while Valentino, by comparison, is much more restrained. Based on a novel by once popular author Elinor Glyn, Beyond the Rocks was directed with stately grace by Sam Wood, who would go on to create a number of notable Hollywood films, such as A Night at the Opera (1935) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942). This film is a fascinating hybrid of American and European styles of filmmaking. Other American films directed by European émigrés such as Victor Sjostrom (The Wind) and F.W. Murnau (Sunrise) are the pinnacles of this silent film style. The forbidden love affair of Theodora (Swanson) and Lord Bracondale (Valentino) are given life with the luminous nitrate images, and beautifully enhanced by the impressive score and ambient sound design created by Henny Vrienten. Beyond the Rocks is being handled by Milestone Films, a company which has championed and promoted silent cinema. This new print, which will be traveling the country this fall and spring, includes an introduction by Martin Scorsese. This film transports you to another world, making this American film as exotic as any number of foreign films, and it is a major discovery.
Information on the film’s playdate schedule can be found here:
Haze (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005, Japan)
This baffling 50 minute whatsit, is the latest film by the cult director of such films as Tetsuo the Iron Man (1988) Tokyo Fist (1995), A Snake of June (2002), and Vital (2004). Haze encapsulates the considerable strengths and significant weaknesses of this always fascinating filmmaker. He has continued to refine his distinctive visual style ever since his breakthrough with the Tetsuo films. Tsukamoto’s films are handmade creations that bear his unique stamp. He wears multiple hats in the creation of his films: he writes, directs, photographs, edits, and often stars in his films. However, despite his prodigious cinematic talents, he hasn’t quite succeeded in creating a fully coherent work. He came closest in the two films preceding Haze: A Snake of June, which chronicles the unfolding of a woman’s sexual desires; and Vital, his best film to date, a fascinating study of grief and memory. In Haze, Tsukamoto takes advantage of the flexibility of digital technology to relate the Poe-like tale of a man (Tsukamoto) who awakes to find himself in an enclosed space, and tries to figure out how he got there. He must contend with his confusion and fear, not to mention dismembered cadavers, nerve-wracking sounds, and sharp metal objects appearing out of nowhere. He is not alone, however: he meets a woman (Kaori Fujii) in the space, whom he may have known in the world outside this bizarre confinement. Tsukamoto makes effectively chilling use of off-screen space, and takes an avant-garde approach to his material, which adds intriguing wrinkles to the typical geek-baiting “Asian extreme” violent thrill-films which have become so prevalent in the past few years. In the end, however, Haze seems to be little more than a stopgap, and is somewhat a step backward for Tsukamoto, who with Vital seemed to be moving in the direction of a more mature style, marrying an emotionally moving story with his usual bag of cinema tricks. It will be interesting to see if he will take whatever he has gained from conducting this experiment in audience manipulation and testing of its limits, and use this to create a more fully-developed work.
Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005, South Korea)
Hong’s sixth film is an incredibly witty and playful meditation on the confluence of life and cinema, and is one of the highlights of this year’s festival. Hong has created a unique and fascinating body of work, unabashedly auteurist and boldly inventive. From the start, he has been impatient with the conventional methods of narrative prevalent in most films, and has attempted to solve this problem by experimenting with structure in his films. Recurring patterns of human behavior, mirroring, and repetition run throughout his films. Along with that, he offers funny, painful, awkward, and brutally honest depictions of male and female relationships. This new film adds some new wrinkles to his cinematic strategy: this time, cinema itself becomes his main subject matter. Much like his earlier films (The Power of Kangwon Province [1998], Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors [2000], Turning Gate [2002]), Tale of Cinema makes use of a bifurcated structure with echoes and mirrors in each half. However, while the structures of these other films serve to complicate and deepen our understanding of the characters and their situations, in this film we are invited to reflect on its own status as a cinematic object. To this end, Hong makes use of very unusual (for him) visual elements. Most prominent are the constant zooms in the film. For me, this was quite disorienting, as Hong’s visual style has heretofore consisted of minimal camera movement and practically no optical effects. Also new for Hong is the use of a voiceover and a much more liberal use of non-diegetic music. All of these elements, including quotes from, and echoes of, his earlier films, serve to enhance our awareness that we are indeed watching a film, making what happens to the main character perhaps a cautionary tale.
Tale of Cinema has a loose, improvisational, and comic feel that is quite charming. In the first part of the film, an aimless student (Lee Ki-woo) meets up with a young woman (Uhm Ji-won) he has known in the past, and convinces her to join him in his quest to kill himself. However, things don’t quite go according to plan, as they often do in Hong’s films. In the second half, Tong-su (Kim Sang-kyung), a failed filmmaker, has become convinced that his successful and celebrated film-school classmate has stolen his life story to make one of his films. After watching this film again at a retrospective devoted to the director, he spots the film’s lead actress (Uhm Ji-won again) outside the theater, and begins to doggedly pursue her. I won’t reveal the connection between these two halves, since that would lessen the sense of discovery that is at the heart of this film’s considerable charm. Those familiar with Hong’s previous films will sense a subtle optimism that doesn’t exist in his earlier films. Hong once again elicits engaging performances from his leads, Lee Ki-woo a natural as the childish and self-involved suicidal young man, Kim Sang-kyung (who also starred in Turning Gate) quite funny as the bizarre (and possibly delusional) wannabe director, and especially the strikingly beautiful Uhm Ji-won, who deftly pulls off her tricky dual role. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Tale of Cinema, like his previous films, has yet to land a US distributor, most likely because his films don’t fit into the genre exploitation and violent action modes that seem to attract distributors of Asian cinemas these days. Hopefully in the future someone will be willing to take a chance to allow more viewers in this country to benefit from watching the creations of a true artist of cinema. In the meantime, a simple keyword search will be enough to track down an import DVD in order to judge for yourself.

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