With the rain tipping down and London snuggling down into post-christmas blues, with underground trains delayed due to suicides on the line and a surfeit of sociability, it’s the perfect moment to catch up on cinema. You can’t beat those moments of pure escapism in front of the big screen. So this last week I’ve really indulged, enjoying vicarious travel to Afghanistan (The Kite Runner), Shanghai (Lust, Caution), the American south in the 1930s (The Great Debaters) and Rumania (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days). The week before it was a quick hop to Mexico in the mesmerising Silent Light.
There’s no common thread in them other than the out-of-London one, but there was something so strong and soulful about each film that it’d be hard to say which was the most compelling. The Kite Runner was a fantastically touching book, and somehow the film managed to do the same. Unusually for an American film, it included dialogue in the language of the location – giving it far more authenticity and avoidimg incongruous American accents. There was a delicacy and truth in the acting (the boys were local untrained actors), while the suitably arid, dusty, magnificent setting (filmed in China, around Kashgar) propelled me back to Kabul in the late 1970s. I even spotted the odd hippie wandering down Chicken Street, the travellers’ hub of the time. Then the film leapt forward in time to the 1990s with haunting, horrific scenes of the Taliban and the social tragedies they engendered. And of course it ended as per the book on a bitter-sweet note, a kite drawn by the wind being the catalyst for the rehabilitation of a traumatised boy.
Then to China, pre-and during WWII, in Lust, Caution, a sado-masochistic tale of passion (and some love?) and betrayal. Wartime politics are the motives as a group of disingenuous young resistance fighters plot their path from Shanghai to Hong Kong and back. The main protagonist, played by the beautiful newcomer, Tang Wei, is totally credible as she swings from an intelligent, determined woman to erotic tigress. More subtle is her male target, a ruthless though vulnerable Japanese collaborator played by the masterful Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love gave him a similar role of unrequited love). I did wonder if Shanghai under Japanese occupation would have looked quite so pristine and quite so luxurious (Parisian-style cafés, jewellery shops, women in stunning high fashion etc) . But maybe I’m wrong. I’m sure Ang Lee did his homework. It was a little too air-brushed, and the sex scenes have been massively over-hyped, but it nonetheless left some potent images.
The Great Debaters is a typically slick, over-sentimental American film based on a true story, yet the underlying issue, and even the very idea of making a film about college debates, is a worthy one. In the 1930s, civil rights were just gathering momentum, and the film shows how an understanding of their lowly status galvanised intelligent young blacks. It was produced and masterly directed by Denzel Washington, who also plays a major role of inspirational teacher. The everyday racism endured by black youths is shocking and there’s even a harrowing scene of a lynching. Great acting by the ‘boys’ and one ‘girl’, though far too much syrupy soundtrack and stereotyped characterisation with lack of depth. That’s perhaps allayed by the stunning scenery of the south – all swamps and verdant forests. And a happy ending – of course. It did make me think of Obama – good timing?
Then we come to Europe – the eastern side in the 1980s, before the wall came down. Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days actually won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Fest. It’s a sad, monochrome vision of communist bureaucracy and of two girls at college. The abortion that one of them seeks (at the late stage of 4 weeks etc of the title) is the subject. Seeringly poignant in a soviet-realist kind of way, it shows her shacked up in a soulless hotel room being ‘treated’ by a mercenary male abortionist (Mr Bebe) between faltering conversations and his demands. Her friend gets more screen space and plays out some equally stark scenes. In its completely pared down way, it’s quite the opposite of the Great Debaters. The film ends with the girls at table, abortion over (successfully), sharing a symbolic meal.
The previous week’s film (ok it’s been a complete bonanza of cinematic indulgence) was Silent Light, directed by the brilliant Carlos Reygadas. This one is filmed in agonising slow-motion that you eventually adjust to, giving you time to take in every moment of this tale of a Mennonite community in northern Mexico. Life’s big questions are treated with incredible tact and all the dialogue is in antiquated Low-German, giving it an edge of un-reality. Again emotions are bitter-sweet with a naturalness played out by real members of this isolated community. Once more it’s proof that Mexican culture is on the up – Reygadas’ last film, Japon, became a cult movie. Reygadas certainly feels like the early 21st century equivalent of Werner Herzog, some say Tarkovsky. Ironically, given the curious, outdated customs of this community, Silent Night is the only one of my quintet to be set in the present.