Syndromes and a Century

29 September–15 October 2006

For 44 years we’ve been accused of being demanding, inflexible and insanely selective…. Remarkably like our audience.

– Voiceover from 44th New York Film Festival trailer

So it has come to this: the New York Film Festival has declared itself the official destination for film snobs the world over. As dedicated readers of past Senses of Cinema NYFF reports know, the festival has routinely been criticised for having too narrow a programming focus in a cinematic universe whose wonders grow exponentially diverse with each year. As I opined in last year’s report, I have no problem with a festival that screens only a couple dozen films it considers the very best, leaving its audience to argue the merits of each selection. For me it is a revitalising annual ritual that triggers a concentrated assessment of where world cinema is going. What’s significant about this year’s trailer is how it suggests that the NYFF feels a tinge of anxiety to justify its mission, one that the trailer muddles even as it tries to state it.

Undoubtedly the trailer is informed by the emerging springtime spectre of the Tribeca Film Festival, which in the space of four years and supported by a gazillion dollars from American Express, now rivals the NYFF’s as the most important film festival in New York City. Tribeca has put itself on the map by doing everything that NYFF doesn’t – it programs over ten times as many films and aggressively promotes itself to all audiences of all demographics. There is also the Toronto fest, which, running two weeks ahead of NYFF, hosts the North American premiere of about half the films on the NYFF program. But NYFF need not worry excessively about these competitors, because it fulfils a unique and worthy niche as the annual harvest of the best films from the international festival circuit. The challenge then is how to market the festival as such, which brings us back to the trailer.

The trailer recites a litany of directors (mostly white male) that becomes increasingly overloaded and incomprehensible, if only that the onslaught of indistinct names seems to contradict the message of the festival’s exclusivity. Again the problem is that it doesn’t specify what’s so special about all these directors in the first place (other than the tautological fact that they have all had films programmed at the festival). Something about the NYFF congratulating its own unaccounted good taste and trying to pass it off as that of its audience rubs me the wrong way, because it seems to circle the wagons, that this is a festival for elitists who don’t have to account for what they love. This is not the best message to get out at a time when I think cinema culture needs to be fostered and encouraged among more people. This is something that Tribeca and Toronto get right. NYFF may position itself as an elite festival, but it has to do more to sell its own sense of passionate discernment to a broader audience, instead of being content with being a solitary bastion for film snobbery. Otherwise, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts who it thinks I am as members.

Selective Oscar Fodder

Issues of elitism and values happen to be at stake in the NYFF’s opening night selection, Stephen Frears’ The Queen. (1) An account of the British royal family’s response (or lack thereof) to the death of ex-Princess Diana, the film makes for enjoyably light fare, offering the heartening, thoughtful argument that celebrity worship is something that all of us, including the Queen of England, should succumb to lest we be seen as unhip. The monarchy gets a gentle drubbing while the media mania that stirred the mass frenzy of Diana’s mourning is relatively left uncriticised. Frears’ workmanlike directing gives ample room for his pedigreed ensemble to flex their thespian muscles in a characteristically British display of dignified stoicism, and they oblige, with Helen Mirren leading the procession as Elizabeth II. She does a great job showing the gradual shifting of registers in her regard towards her ex-daughter in law’s death as well as the grief of the public.

While The Queen portrays Elizabeth as capitulating to public opinion and softening her image as an accessible monarch, the NYFF is branding itself ever more assertively as an ultra-elite festival. It’s worth noting how this effort dovetails with another trend I have noticed with NYFF, exemplified by The Queen’s inclusion in the lineup: its emerging position as an early outpost for Oscar contenders. Presumably as another tactic to distinguish itself against Tribeca, NYFF is leveraging its placement in the festival calendar, right at the cusp of Oscar season. Since 2002 (Tribeca’s inaugural year), NYFF has opened or closed with a film that went on to contend for the Best Picture Oscar, (2) and last year it showcased two nominees, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. Along with The Queen, the other NYFF Oscar contender this year is Little Children, the second feature from Todd Field, whose muted but powerful debut In the Bedroom was a surprise contender five years ago.

Much of Field’s cold, controlled directorial approach resurfaces in Little Children, but here it feels so overwrought in its self-seriousness, working with perhaps more material than it can handle, that it creaks under its own weight. Among this year’s NYFF selections, Little Children is the most prominent example of the recent wave of multi-character poly-narrative cinema, a trend that is all too susceptible to the pretentiousness that accompanies such sprawl. Aided by a gratingly ponderous narrative voiceover that does too much work explaining the inner thoughts of the characters, Field tackles such suburban afflictions as adultery, pornography, paedophilia and men’s amateur football leagues, and the net result feels both phony and inept, like an Oscar-baiting hybrid of Todd Solondz and Sam Mendes.


Restrained, low-stakes prestige pictures and over-cooked multi-character narratives may be the order of the day, but The Queen and Little Children wouldn’t leave as much to be desired if the festival hadn’t hosted a 25th anniversary screening of Warren Beatty’s Oscar-winning epic Reds. Why does no one talk about this marvellous film today? Its bravado and scope are stunning, boldly exploring a heady period of Communism in both U.S. and Russia and an ideology that now seems thoroughly discredited, yet whose base concerns for social and economic equality are more relevant than ever. Regardless of the political content, the film was groundbreaking in its time and still feels fresh in its seamless blend of documentary interviews with actual historical witnesses, intelligently written dialogues performed by a power ensemble, and an epic, three-act structure that feels like a lost art in the face of so many contemporary fragmented narratives. While classical in form, Reds has more to say about radicalism as a way of life than any contemporary Oscar film. Made at the start of the Regan administration, it seemed like liberal Hollywood’s last gasp. Today it looks like an exhortation to what intrepid, purpose-driven filmmakers could do today while still gunning for a gold statue.

Global Reclamation Efforts

If the anniversary screening of Reds can be seen as a throwback to the better angels of Hollywood’s prestige picture heritage, other films at NYFF were making similar attempts for reclaiming their respective endangered cultures, doing so by utilising innovations in storytelling form and technology. Abdherrahme Sissako’s Bamako brilliantly stages a mock trial of the World Bank, the IMF and other international financiers for economic crimes against the people of Africa, within a bustling residential courtyard in the titlular city. The patiently observant, often non-narrative qualities of Sissako’s cinema focus on routines and idle conversations among villagers: a woman getting dressed; men talking of job prospects that always exist where they aren’t; a young man quietly wasting away in his bed. These lovely jewels of moments entwine with the trail sections of the film, in which Malians take turns testifying on how the exploitive policies towards their government have left their society worse off than before. Most stirring of all is an untranslated diatribe sung by a village elder – raw, incomprehensible to Western ears save for the rage and sorrow in the man’s voice, this moment drives the point that this is a culture fighting to be understood and aided on its own terms.

A similar negotiating with Western civilisation occurs in From the Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Zacharias Kunuk’s follow-up to his breakthrough Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. The title itself calls attention to the issue of narrative ownership: while the story is based on historical accounts by the Norwegian explorer Rasmussen of his encounters with the Inuit people in the 1920s, the film is resolutely told in an Inuit cinematic idiom that Kunuk has practically invented through is short films and features, almost all of them shot on video. The narrative veers into Lynchian experimental territory as sequences enter characters’ dreams and illustrate shamanistic concepts of shape-shifting and communing with the dead. Much of this is disorienting for the first half without prior contextual understanding of traditional Inuit culture and beliefs, but it is also what makes the film exciting, innovative and purposeful. By midway through the film there emerges a sense of what’s at stake, as a rival group of Christianised Inuits attempt to convert the shamanists by withholding food from them until they renounce their faith. It is a harrowing sequence, set against a windswept, Arctic blankness, scored to a chorus of grief-stricken cries and moans mourning the loss of centuries-old traditions. And yet, the capturing of these historical moments makes Journals a cause for celebration.

It’s also heartening that the Festival revived a film by the late Lino Brocka, considered the finest filmmaker to have come from the Philippines. Insiang was the first Filipino film to premiere at Cannes, back in 1976. It’s a brutal, unflinching account of infidelity – not so much between an opportunistic young man who cheats both the older woman he shacks up with and his daughter whom he rapes, but the lack of devotion and trust between mother and daughter that sets the path towards domestic destruction in the first place. According to Phillipine film critic Noel Vera, the film was a slap in the face to the twin myths of sanctity of motherhood and family held dear in Filipino cinema even as its real life reflection was crumbling under modernisation. Brocka sets it off with cool efficiency worthy of Fassbinder – the climactic murder that brings the love triangle to a close is most memorable in its disturbing rhythms and the unremorseful expression of one of the characters.

Men and Woman on the Breach

Insiang broke taboos of gender decorum in its home country 30 years ago, something that Jafar Panahi is attempting in Iran today. Unfortunately, the not unpredictable outcome has been the routine censorship of Panahi’s features in his home country. Now he has made Offside, an unqualified bid for a bona fide crowd-and-censor pleaser. It has soccer! It has exuberant teenagers! It’s got a happy ending! Oh yeah, and it shows girls being locked up by soldiers for trying to have the same rights as boys by going to a World Cup soccer game to cheer on their national team. Oops.


Panahi’s film unfolds in near-real time as several girls caught sneaking into the stadium by impersonating men beg their captors for freedom, or at least a trip to the bathroom. The stadium effectively becomes a microcosm of Iranian public space and women’s virtually non-existent role within it. Perhaps the issues of gender double standards are made to the point of redundancy, with every character playing a thickly defined role in this cinematic civics lesson. What isn’t simple are Panahi’s technical skills, here at an all-time high. He seamlessly incorporates scenes shot at an actual national game and weaves several characters through the narrative, each giving a different shade to the situation; the perspective shifts even within a scene. And the performances he elicits from his non-professional cast are vibrant, ebullient and totally natural. For these merits I consider it a career highpoint for this consistently accomplished artist; let’s hope that his countrymen finally get the opportunity to see for themselves.

A teenage girl riding on horseback through a throng of noisy cars in Cairo: this is the bracingly defiant image that opens Tahani Rached’s hour-long documentary These Girls, about Egyptian girls who choose to live on the street. Rached achieves unbelievably intimate access to these girls who are either orphaned or have escaped oppressive parents. These girls are boisterous, not afraid to talk back to men, sniff glue, pop pills and trade sex for favours with the local boys, not uncommonly leading to more homeless children entering the world. They often act like boys in order to assert freedoms that are otherwise prohibited to girls, leading to the key question: are these girls forced on the street because of Islamic morality is not being practiced to its ideals, or precisely because it is?

Both Panahi’s and Tached’s portraits of resilient young women strike me as more refreshing than Fallen, the latest by Austrian ubercineaste Barbara Albert, which charts a 24 hour period between five high school friends now grown up and at various stations in their lives. Reunited at a funeral, they wend their way to a friend’s wedding and revel in near non-stop drinking, dancing and other debauchery mixed in with an occasional heart-to-heart, cat fight or nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, Albert doesn’t quite achieve the sense of organic unfolding of events that the timeline of her story requires; as in her more successful ensemble piece Free Radicals (2003), she relies on revelations and sudden turns to punch up the drama.

Male relationships got their fair share of screen time as well. Marc Recha’s August Days, clearly within the Kiarostami / Van Sant / Lisandro Alonso vein of low-dialogue, picturesque travelogue, recounts a rural journey taken by the director and his brother, as played by themselves. While meandering at times, the film featured some of the most stunning cinematography of the festival, including a number of striking still photo montages set to ambient sounds of nature. Emmanuel Boudier’s Poison Friends is a deftly written character study, ostensibly about the varying fates of post-graduate aspiring writers, but more deeply about the limits of collegiate idealism, loyalty and friendship and the painful reshuffling of hierarchies and values that occurs when graduates face the real world. While essentially a literary story, Boudier keeps the action lithe with great performances and staging, and establishes himself as a young writer-director to watch.

Splitting the difference between men and women is Hong Sang-soo, whose Woman on the Beach is by most counts his least rigidly formalistic and most accessible feature to date. For those reasons some Hong afficionados have taken objection to what they perceive as the film’s overall lack of focus; they miss the obsessive concentration on moments and interactions seen in his film Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) and Turning Gate (2002). I see it as a more open and progressive Hong, someone who is more willing to let life breathe in his films and who has certainly become more receptive to the humour to be found within people’s endless search for love and fulfillment. A hilarious scene in which the title character draws a diagram to explain the philosophical underpinnings behind his dissatisfaction with his lover ranks as one of Hong’s most emblematic moments. Perhaps the most major advancement to be found in this film is an unprecedented equanimity towards the fairer sex – instead of being projections of male hang-ups as we’ve seen perhaps too often in previous Hong films, the two female romantic interests have a considerable degree of their own agency, and one of them literally drives away with the movie at the end, a gesture of hope and independence that feels like a refreshing breeze to the entire Hong catalog of male auto-fixation and flagellation.

Visionary Showdown

Inland Empire

Sometime after Mulholland Dr. (2001), David Lynch started playing with a prosumer quality digital camcorder to produce videos for his website, and since then he has sworn never to shoot on film again. An improvisational video piece with Laura Dern has germinated into Inland Empire, his first full-length video feature, a three hour opus, three years in the making, that is perhaps his most complicated and borderline incomprehensible work to date.

I won’t even attempt to describe the plot, whatever there is of it. Something about an intrigue that emerges during the making of a movie, cutting into what might be dream sequences involving L.A. hookers, mysterious Polish people, and a stage set of a living room inhabited by humanoid rabbits. For me, it can best be seen as a referendum on his entire career to date and the start of a new chapter. It’s an unapologetic refutation of old conventions such as film as a medium of choice and three-act storytelling, and a headlong embrace of the opportunities that video affords him; more impulsive, intuitive shooting approaches, more improvisation with actors, and the discoveries of the rugged visual beauties to be found within digital video.

There’s much that’s good and bad about all of this. Laura Dern comes off best with this project, having the opportunity to play what are either several characters or several variations of a character in a constant process of evolution. There’s something exciting about this, but also something kind of amateurish, like watching a child learn to walk or reinvent the wheel. Lynch achieves some harrowing effects in post-production, but his shooting leaves something to be desired. He’s overly dependent on extreme close-ups, and with the often banal, oddly arrhythmic line readings and overly portentous synth soundtrack, it often feels like a parody of a Lynch movie, straining really hard for effect.

I certainly miss the sexy fluidity of his earlier films, which in all likelihood was courtesy of his longtime editor/lover and now estranged wife Mary Sweeney. This is the first film in years that Lynch has edited himself, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Time will tell whether this marks the beginning of a bold new direction in Lynch’s career, or the start of a downward slide into excessive self-indulgence.

What David Lynch promises in Inland Empire, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century delivers. Again, it is a film that defies easy summarisation; basically it is another A.W. diptych, the two halves comparing life and love in a rural and urban hospital. The film manages to be both inscrutable and hypnotic, enigmatic yet ravishingly beautiful in its handling of visuals, rhythms and human interactions. It manages to occupy a number of contradictions at once: terrifying in its environmental creepiness yet funny in the shaggy, laid back behaviour of his characters, schematic yet spontaneous, natural and realistic yet self-conscious as an act of filmmaking, concerned about the conflicts between modernisation and the environment and the physical and spiritual well-being of the people around him, and yet the film is never pushy or preachy, just always watching and listening. His camera almost always seems to place itself in a non-assuming position, whether in close up or long shot – quite a few times his characters’ backs are turned away or they’re talking off-screen. He’s making the rules up as he goes, just going with what feels right, and having a blast doing it. I’ve rarely encountered a film with a filmmaker so innately in tune with his intuition.

Interestingly, both films share a similar ending, a kind of musical number, but I think the comparative effects are totally different. Lynch is closed, looking inward into his own reservoir of ideas, whereas Jo takes inspiration from the activity bustling in the world around him.

Dispatches from the Asian Mainstream a.k.a. More Material for Inferior Hollywood Remakes

Syndromes and a Century was the most oblique facet of an exceptionally strong turnout of Asian cinema. Along more mainstream lines, Johnnie To continued to deliver the goods with Triad Election, his follow up to Election. To has inherited the mantle of mannerist gangster filmmaking from Jean-Pierre Melville and infused it with a Brian De Palma-like master of highly choreographed action set pieces. But most intriguingly he has emerged as the unlikely chronicler of Hong Kong’s life and times under the spectre of mainland Chinese rule – though of course he does so strictly within genre trappings – with the Triad Trilogy: Election (2005), Triad Election and the recently released Exiled. His stock company has become as familiar and pleasurable to watch as John Ford’s, but on the whole Triad Election is a cold, brutal experience. The moral outcry that emerges by the end seems to have less thought put into it than the elaborate procession of orchestrated deaths that preceded and prompted it.

Anything but mannerist, Japanese animator Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is his most elaborate and free-associative effort to date, and to my mind it’s clearly his masterpiece. The plot involves a psychotherapeutic technology that can control people’s dreams, which of course falls into the wrong hands, leading to some of the most elaborate dream sequences gone awry in the history of cinema, to the point that for long stretches of the narrative dream and reality are completely indistinguishable. If David Cronenberg were to make an animated film, it would probably look like this – though the sleek lines, deep but cluttered compositions and expressive colours and unmistakably Kon’s.

The Host

But top honours – not only among the Asian contingent but the entire lineup – go to Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, simply for working on more levels than any other film in the program. Ostensibly a monster movie, The Host, which is now the highest grossing Korean film of all time, strives and succeeds far beyond the expectations aroused by a horror movie, and points in several directions for Korean cinema to expand in its ongoing rise to prominence on the world circuit. The Host wields as much nail-biting excitement and CGI sophistication as the best Hollywood blockbusters, but what it has that all too many Hollywood movies lack is a genuine regard for its characters. The Host’s ensemble, a dysfunctional family searching for their daughter abducted by the monster, are not placeholders for audience identification shuffled around a digitally contrived spectacle. Bong makes it a point to delve into each character’s sense of bewilderment, their misjudgments, their occasional fits of selfishness and cowardice, to fully develop the range of human emotions in the face of disaster and injustice.

Equally distinctive is the film’s rather unhidden critique of the abuses of American foreign policy and the complicity and negligence of Korean authorities in protecting its citizenry. The monster is created when a US military scientist orders a Korean subordinate to dump toxic chemicals into the Han River, recalling an actual incident that strained US-Korean relations. When the monster emerges, the Korean police and military prove inept at capturing it; instead they impose martial law and detain dozens of civilians suspected of being infected with a virus carried by the monster. That such evocative socio-political critique can exist so transparently suggests a sea change in what mainstream audiences want from their entertainment, and not necessarily only in South Korea. To that score, The Host represents a new standard in commercial filmmaking, one that dares to reach out and satisfy multiple audience demands, each adding to its resonance and depth.

Eur-old school

NYFF wouldn’t earn its rightful place at Lincoln Center without catering to the geriatric. I don’t like to think of myself as ageist, but I did find the films by the over 60 age bracket to be less than stellar. Just because Manoel de Oliveira is 95 doesn’t give him a free pass – though it’s staggering to think that he was born only 11 years after the late great Luis Buñuel, whose Belle de Jour (1967) provides Oliveira with the basis of his new film. In Belle toujours, the premise, itself an extended meditation on aging and long unfulfilled longings, is mouth-watering: Severine, the lusty ice queen played by Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel’s film, is discovered by her husband’s best friend (Michel Piccoli) decades after the sordid series of events depicted in Buñuel’s masterpiece, and this time the man doggedly pursues her to divulge a secret held from the earlier story. Only this time Severine is played by a petulant Bulle Ogier. Is this actually Oliveira’s remake of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)? There are a handful of scenes with deadly long dialogues dissecting the action of the previous film (taking too literally the implicit notion of this film critiquing its predecessor), discussing the nature of the old man’s desires and desire in general.

Otar Iosselliani, a sprightly 62, deals with his own aging male issues in Gardens in Autumn, in which a deposed European prime minister finds a new life living in a hovel with immigrants, drinking and carousing to his heart’s delight. There are heavy hints of Tati and comic Godard in this semi-surrealist floating world of people and objects, though its meaning strikes me as being plainer than either of those masters. There are a number of charming moments that poke fun of the petty pomp ceremonies of dignitaries, the shallow self-importance of the bourgeois, and the dissolute lustiness of the working class, but at times it veers on spitefulness and the main points of this carnival seem less than the sum of its parts. Women are generally depicted here as being fickle and shrewish, not the least being the prime minister’s ex-wife. In fact the most charismatic female performance is given by Michel Piccoli in drag, playing the minister’s mother.

Winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 84 year-old Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places feels boldly experimental in its structure yet unassumingly conventional in its story. Based on the play of the same title by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, it’s another one of these fashionable ensemble pieces about lonely middle-class characters seeking love and fulfillment, though thankfully it’s less pretentious and more lively than Todd Field’s Little Children. Resnais shifts the story between seven different characters each connected to another, forming a kind of circle that the narrative wheels through, alternating scenes with one or two of them at a time. The scenes themselves are connected by dissolves into an endless snowstorm that gives the film a pervasive sensation of chilliness, against which Resnais presents his affectionate depictions of these lonely hearts with a grandfatherly blend of affection and detachment. There are a couple of gorgeous sets, shot with a frosted lighting that oddly recalls ‘80s Spielberg movies. It breezes by with a blend of quirkiness, human sexual dysfunction and loneliness that suggests a European version of a Sundance indie. It’s light and nowhere near his greatest work, but has its own fascinations.

Of the seven new films I missed, I am most eager to catch up with NYFF darling Almodovar’s latest Volver as well as doc filmmaker Nicholas Geyrhalter’s probe into the food industry, Our Daily Bread. Then there was the sidebar celebration of Janus Films’ 50th anniversary, with a 30-film line up that played like a twentieth century festival programmer’s dream: The Rules of the Game, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal, The Seven Samurai and so forth. Anyone who is reading this article probably doesn’t need an introduction to these titles and I, having seen nearly all of them before, didn’t catch any of them despite the allure of enjoying freshly minted 35 mm prints of immortal classics. The Janus retro may not have opened people’s eyes to as many undiscovered gems as last year’s astounding Shochiku sidebar, though I am sure it attracted many neophytes eager to experience canonical masterpieces for the first time. The Janus program may very well have done more to attest to the high standards of the NYFF than that silly trailer, as well as fulfill the mission of instilling an appreciation and enthusiasm for great cinema to a broader audience, a mission I hope to see fully realised within the main program.


  1. From 1997–2001, only one NYFF-selected film has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).
  2. One can presume that issues of snobbery and elitism could be found in the other NYFF film of a monarch, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which, after the enduring trauma of Lost in Translation, I respectfully deferred from seeing.