The Other Half

27 September-12 October 2007

The renewal of cinema sometimes comes from unexpected places. Who would have believed, a few years ago, in a Romanian cinema Renaissance? And yet, since Cristi Puíu’s Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005) won Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and hit the international screens, since Corneliu Porumboíu’s A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest, 2006) was awarded the Caméra d’Or – we have been forced to notice. And, even for those of us who make a point not to fetishise the Palme d’Or, the fact that it was awarded in 2007 to the second feature of a relatively unknown young director, shot cinema verité style (long takes, camera movements following the characters), for less than 600,000 euros and without stars, is exhilarating. It is even more exhilarating to discover Cristian Mungiu’s rigorous mise en scène in 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007) – which, combined with the intimate care with which the characters are portrayed, brings to mind the excitement that must have been experienced at the beginning of the French New Wave or at the time of the Prague Spring.

Going to Vancouver – a festival whose eclectic taste is seriously slanted towards innovation – always lift my spirits. So did my discovery of 4 Months. Mungiu has stated in many interviews that a female friend of his had told him the original story – something that happened to her during the Ceausescu regime. It is the combination of these two elements – personal experience, and the not-so-distant memories of the communist dictatorship – that makes the film so engaging. Born in 1968, Mungiu was 21 during the Romanian Revolution of 1989; as a teenager, as a student, he or any of his friends could have gotten a girl pregnant and face terrible consequences caused by a repressive society, and the two young women in the film are his contemporaries. There is, therefore, the implicit project of drawing the portrait of a generation – not as it is now, but how it was shaped by history. Yet, instead of telling his story – with the possible risk of solipsism or self-serving stance – Mungiu stages the experience of a young woman, not the one having the abortion, but the witness, the friend, the facilitator. Realistic depictions of friendship among women are few and far-between, and the story of 4 Months abounds in small touches that show an intimate knowledge of the texture of the lives of two protagonists – from their body language, to the way they talk and relate to each other. The film is, ultimately, not about abortion (as some unimaginative copy-editors have termed it) but about female friendship, and about the toll taken on the life of a young woman in her drive to remain faithful to this friendship while everything around her – society, the pressure put by male desire – would conspire against it. Like love, friendship can’t be justified by the choice of a “good object”, but by the desire of the subject. We don’t love somebody because we think he/she is good for us – but because we want to love him/her. A number of reviewers have noticed that Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is no price package; she lies about the dates of her pregnancy, is unable to contact the abortionist or to book a hotel room by herself, keeps messing up, forgets to bring an essential prop (a plastic table-cloth), and then, at the end, quietly “pigs out” in the hotel restaurant, as if oblivious of the stress and dangers she has caused her friend. Some reviewers have even, hideously, hinted that, by making the mother “not likeable”, Mungiu was making an anti-abortion film (as if only “good people” had the narrative right to get rid of an unwanted foetus).

In its first part, 4 Months unfolds as a thriller, or an obstacle race. We don’t know the object of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca)’s quest, but are painstakingly exposed to what she must overcome. And, in Ceausescu’s regime, these obstacles have to do with the paucity of consumer goods (such as Kent cigarettes) that can become objects of exchange and therefore insure your mobility – as well as with the bureaucratic protocol pertaining to renting a hotel room. A major fact is left off-diegesis: when finally, in the second part of the film, it is revealed that it is about an abortion, nothing is explained about the cause, or the author, of Gabita’s condition. To borrow an expression used by many young women in similar plights, the man is “out of the picture.”

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Yet two men enter the frame – invited by the women, but with the intent of bargaining for more than what they were offered at first. The first one is Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean), a perfectly nice boy, clean-cut, apparently very much in love, but intent on having his girlfriend come to celebrate his mother’s birthday with him. The second is the abortionist, Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), an unattractive middle-aged man living with his feeble-minded mother – a sad example of how, in some men, sexual childishness turns into sexual ugliness. In a repressive regime, risking a long jail term and maybe more, why does Mr Bebe perform illegal abortions for girls who can’t even raise the totality of the money they promised him? Because that’s the only way for him to get laid… And, having finally understood the rules of the game, having to barter their young bodies (as, a few hours before, the Kent cigarettes) to get what they want – Otilia, then Gabita, simultaneously discover sexual disgust, the sadness of sex, commodification as an almost-inescapable trope of the female condition, but also an aspect of masculine sexual misery and predatory neediness that they never suspected, but may never forget.

Mungiu mercifully keeps the sex off-screen, showing instead what happens aftermath – Otilia rushing into the bathtub, Gabita in tears. Bebe’s ministrations are shown, partially, as a casual operation generating small talk between the three participants – Otilia bringing tools and props. Then the man leaves – forgetting his ID card at the reception desk, a fact that keeps hovering as a potential menace but is never resolved – but Otilia has now to confront Adi (she’s late, and she’s forgotten to buy flowers) and his family.

More than anything that preceded it, the birthday party shows Mungiu’s sure hand as a director, and Marinca’s achievement as an actress. On the surface, we are treated to a gently satirical portrayal of the upper class in a communist regime. These people have money, education, probably power (even though they all pretend to only be interested in intellectual pursuits) and they are intent to have a good time, while being moderately curious about the girl brought by the son of the family. Otilia is amongst the guests, exchanging small talk with them – mostly listening – but her mind is in the hotel room where her friend, a catheter in her belly, is waiting to eject the foetus, at the risk of bleeding to death. Orchestrated around this tension between the visible and the invisible, the scene focuses on Otilia as a split subject, and gradually reveals different kinds of splits: the social gap between her and Adi’s family, the cracks introduced by the awkwardness of the moment in the relationship of the young couple. The situation also allows Otilia to progress in her understanding of the position as a woman in society: if she marries Adi – or any other young man – she will have to be on display at in-laws’ family gatherings, treated with a mixture of mild interest and condescendence, forced to hide her thoughts, concerns and opinions.

So, when she finally walks out – to Adi’s dismay – we experience this as a liberation: she has regained her agency. Mungiu does not hide the sordid aspects of the task she has to finish to dispose of the foetus according to Mr Bebe’s instructions – the long treks from the party to the hotel, from the hotel to the garbage disposal of a remote apartment building, and then back to the hotel – as the night settles in a Bucharest almost entirely devoid of street lights and with scarce public transportation. Otilia’s future is hovering – she may or may not stay with Adi, she may or may not remain friends with Gabita. Yet, it is on this fateful day that the young Polytechnic student has discovered that being a woman involves a very specific way of treading the path between the inside and the outside that all speaking subjects journey on. The repression imposed upon “the inside” and the way society moulds and consumes your public image (and your body) is not the same for both genders. It is the privilege of gifted filmmakers to explore this dark zone.

* * *

Another place fertile in good surprises has been Malaysia – to the point it is no longer far-fetched to talk about a New Wave – and Vancouver was one of the first festivals to notice its existence when Tony Rayns programmed Amir Muhammad’s The Big Durian (2003) and Ho Yuhang’s Min (2003) in its 2004 edition. With a few exceptions, the movement is still largely digital – making the use of long takes and in-synch recording of ambient sound even more prominent. However, the aesthetics are not entirely dependent on the medium – as proven by Ho’s switch to 35mm with his third feature, Taiyang Yu (Rain Dogs 2006, VIFF 2006); a lot of filmmakers acknowledge the influence of Tsai Ming-liang, who, after years of living and working in Taiwan, not only returned to his birthplace a few years ago, but finally directed his first shot-in-Malaysia feature, the astonishing He Yan Quan (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, 2006). Other voices keep appearing – such as James Lee, a prolific auteurYou Fang Chu Zu (Room to Let, 2002); Mei Li de Si Yi Ji (The Beautiful Washing Machine, 2004); Before We Fall In Love Again (2006); Things We Do When We Fall In Love (2007) – who also produces or shoots the work of his colleagues, such as Amir Muhammad (who, in turn, produces his).

This year’s selection of Malaysian movies was assumed, for the first time, by Shelly Kracer (also a correspondent for the Venice and Udine Film Festival and the editor of the Chinese Cinema List), who is now sharing curatorial responsibilities for the East Asian selection with Tony Rayns. In addition to Gubra – another addition to Yasmin Ahmad’s ongoing melodramatic saga delicately focusing on the feelings of her heroine, Orked, at various moments of her life – the Festival was showcasing three features by newcomers. I didn’t see Liew Seng Tat’s Flower in the Pocket, but was extremely impressed by the atmospheric melancholia of Woo Ming Jin’s second feature, The Elephant and the Sea, its rich texture and the way it skilfully weaves together the stories of a widowed sailor who finds solace in the local brothel and the young errand-boy who is tempted to sell the girl he loves into prostitution. (Woo had been the cinematographer on Muhammad’s The Big Durian). Produced by Muhammad, shot by Lee and edited by Ho Yuhang, the multiple award-winning (New Currents Award and FIPRESCI Award, Pusan; VPRO Tiger Award, Rotterdam; Golden Digital Award, Hong Kong) Mo Shi Mo Wang (Love Conquers All, 2006) nonetheless bears the very feminine mark of its first-time director, Tan Chui Mui, a former journalist and the author of a couple of successful shorts.

Love Conquers All

Tan’s heroine, Ah Peng (newcomer Coral Ong Li Whei, whose youth and implied innocence gracefully match those of the character) comes from the Northwestern state of Penang to work in Kuala Lumpur in her aunt’s modest restaurant, while taking care of her niece, a vivacious, bespectacled schoolgirl called Mei. Like Otilia, Ah Peng will learn what it means to be a woman, and Love Conquers All is her sentimental education. Yet, uneducated, unsophisticated, barely out of teenagehood, the young woman is implicitly aware that she’ll never amount to anything much, and experience life in the big city with a mixture of remoteness and bewilderment. During her ritual phone calls home to her mother or the boyfriend left behind in Penang, she attracts the attention of a smooth young man, John (Stephen Chua). Love could be a dream, yet John offers her a perfectly programmed nightmare. The film makes a subtle use of repetition and the figure of the double. There are two men in Ah Peng’s life – one is away, the other too close to her. One is emotionally distant, the other follows her, spies on her phone calls, imposes himself in her space, woos her, seduces her, makes emotional demands on her and frightens her with the violence of his apparent desire to marry her. Meanwhile, he explains to her how his cousin Gary is used to seducing girls and slyly makes them slip into prostitution, by asking them to “help” him when he has money problems. The prettiest girls are the easiest to cheat, concludes John. “They are too confident. They think their love can conquer all.”

Tan does not move the narration faster than her heroine’s awareness. The audience understands, as the same time as Ah Peng, that the events unfolding on the screen are a distorted mirror image of the story told by John. Like her, we had chosen to ignore the warning signs, the implicit menace represented by the way her space was constantly violated, the fear experienced during the semi-kidnapping in the car – so the outcome takes us by surprise, and yet, it was predictable. Elegantly, respectfully, movingly, Tan continues to grant agency and interiority to the young woman in the midst of her predicament, framing her face in magnificent (albeit not fetishistic) close-ups in moments of reflection that stop the diegetic flow and anchor our viewership in her point of view – after she’s been deflowered; when embraced by her first client; when she silently ponders about the ruins of her romantic dreams…

* * *

For years now, China has been a major pole in the renewal of cinema, and, every time one worries of a possible co-optation of former underground or independent filmmakers into the mainstream, new voices emerge. Vancouver presented a strong selection of exceptional Chinese films this year, including Robin Wen’s Jin Bi Hui Huang (Fujian Blues – winner of the Dragons and Tigers Award), Zhao Ye’s Mu Wu Jia, Diao Yi’nan’s Ye Che (Night Train), Yu Guangyi’s Mu Bang (Timber Gang), as well as two new documentaries by masters, Wang Bing’s He Feng Ming (Fengming: A Chinese Memoir), and Jia Zhang-ke’s Wuyong (Useless). I will discuss Night Train in my review of the AFI Film Festival, and, rather than tiring the readers with too long a text, will concentrate here on three films dealing with the condition of women in contemporary China.

Li Yu’s third and controversial feature, Ping Guo (Lost in Beijing), sassily displays its director’s unique combination of baroque plot line and verité concerns. A young TV anchor turned documentary filmmaker, Li switched career again with Jinnian xiatian (Fish and Elephant, 2001), about the relationship of two women in love, shot underground in 16mm. Her next film, Hong Yan (Dam Street, 2005) was produced by Fang Li’s Laurel Films Company, which got into trouble for having brought Lou Ye’s Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace, 2006) to Cannes without an export visa. The Film Bureau, not amused, turned its wrath against Lost in Beijing, and ordered all the sex scenes to be cut – which is unfortunate, as sex is the narrative drive of the film. Thanks to Fang’s foresight, an international version is kept outside China, and this is the one that was shown in Vancouver. While the film’s trouble with censorship gathered sympathy, international critical reception was sometimes lukewarm – as if Lost in Beijing failed to meet expectations for a realistic depiction of the lives of the have nots. Yet, Li has always used realism as a labyrinthine path to enter her characters’ minds, and, even in her most documentary film, Fish and Elephant, sprinkles it with disturbing, hyper-realist or expressionist elements. The “primal scene” of Lost in Beijing is indeed rather unlikely: while hanging on the side of a tall building, a young window-washer sees his wife, half-drunk, having sex with her boss on the other side of the glass – yet it struck a chord with me. As Beijing developers keep erecting steel-and-glass structures throughout the city, construction workers who sleep on building sites and live with less than the equivalent of five US dollars a day watch the patrons of chic bars drink their 5-dollar cappuccinos or their 20-dollar cocktails.

Lost in Beijing

Lost in Beijing is an incisive parable on the class divide in major Chinese urban centres, at a time of globalisation. It sets up two couples against each other – nouveaux riches entrepreneurs from Guanzhou, Lin Dong and Wang Mei, played by Tony Leung Kar-fai and the always wonderful, yet underrated, Elaine Jin – and newlyweds freshly arrived from the countryside, Liu Pingguo (Fan Bingbing) and An Kun (Tong Dawei), whose sensual puppy love won’t resist the dark shock waves created by the situation. An Kun’s smouldering rage is not so much the disappointment of a deceived lover than the wounded pride of a “little guy” whose only possession (his wife) has been tampered with. What follows is a reshuffling of the relationship between the four characters, with An Kun more and more bent on making money out of the situation, selling a baby who may be his or Lin Dong’s (he’s the only one to know), then getting revenge by helping Wang Mei get hers, in a truculent way (“my husband slept with your wife; why not sleep with his?”)

As one of the elements that really irritated the Film Bureau, the older woman-younger man relationship was excised so Chinese spectators may have a hard time following the plot, for it is a crucial moment. Elaine Jin’s character is the one who understands, before anybody else, what is at stake. Men, rich and poor, will go to extremes to keep control over their women folk – and, while their social positions are miles apart, while male domination sets them as rivals, her fate may not be so different than that of Liu Pingguo.

Like 4 Months, Lost in Beijing can be analysed at two levels – and most commentators have stressed the societal angle (a reflection on a recent communist past for the first film; a critique of the growing social inequalities in post-socialist China for the second) – while neglecting the gender angle. The case for such an approach, though, seems obvious, and is particularly easy to make for Lost in Beijing, considering the track record of the filmmaker and the delicate, heartfelt way in which she stages a fleeting moment of bonding between the two female protagonists – before allowing Liu Pingguo to walk away from sexual and economic dependency, free at last.

What is admirable about Ling Yiban (The Other Half), also a multiple-award winner, is how elegantly it blends its two elements: gender politics and the critique of post-socialist dysfunctions. It may be because the film results from a true collaboration between director Ling Yang and his girlfriend/producer Peng Shang, who co-wrote the screenplay with him – as was the case for the couple’s first feature, Bei Yazi de Nanhai (Taking Father Home, 2005). In Mao Zedong’s famous saying, women hold the other half of the sky, and the film explores how they manage to do this – if at all – through the travails of Xiaofen (Zeng Xiaofei), a legal secretary in the industrial town of Zigong (Sichuan Province).

In the short course of one year, Ling and Peng have made giant strides stylistically. The film is shot in DV, with a limited crew (Ling shares the camerawork with his usual DP, records the sound with Peng and edits the film himself) – but displays an elegant mastery in the mixture of documentary and fiction, the fractured narrative mode, the use of frontal shots, and the casting of non-professionals. The Other Half starts powerfully on a static shot of Zeng Xiaofei (playing more or less herself: a friend of Peng Shang, she is, in real life, a legal secretary) as is interviewed by an unseen lawyer – a figure of authority, her future boss. During the rest of the film, Xiaofen’s employers, all men, mostly remain as off-screen voices, except in situations of crisis (when one of them has to consult a colleague about a tricky legal question; when the office has to be evacuated due to a harshly polluting industrial explosion). In front of them, with our heroine taking notes, a motley collection of potential clients, mostly women, come to detail their woes and seek help in matters ranging from divorce to aggravated assaults to domestic trouble to being expelled from school for being pregnant. Like Xiaofen, they are framed, portrait-style, in static medium shots (and most of these “stories” are actually inspired by the lives of the non-professional performers). The unbalance of power is clear. After telling an officer’s wife that no law firm can help her divorce her husband, for the army is off-bound, the lawyer reassures an industrialist that he has nothing to fear from his workers’ complaints about being exposed to conditions dangerous to their health.

Ling and Peng inject highly stylised and ironic elements in the story that sometimes makes us question the reality of what we have seen and heard – such as the fate of a little wedding dress shop, burglarised, burnt and then turned into a mahjong parlour, which is dealt with in a few enigmatic “tableau” shots, without reverse angle, as if an invisible and omniscient spectator had programmed all of this. And the plot thickens – interweaving the heroine’s relationship with her no-good drinking-and-gambling boyfriend, Deng Gang; the constant interference of her mother who wants her to marry the owner of a pig feed factory; the ambiguous (and maybe imaginary) return of her long-gone father; the longing of a young policeman for her; the death of her best girlfriend; and finally a tale of greed, local corruption and ecological catastrophe. Meanwhile, the off-screen voices of two TV or radio announcers (one male, one female) alternate like choruses commenting the action, and pointing at its most poignant aspects (the list of the missing people after the chemical explosion).

The minimal, ambiguous ending, in which Xiaofen literally disappears from the image, suggests that she may not even have been “present” in her own story. The fate of “ordinary” Chinese people is decided by those above them. And it’s the voice of a missing man, Deng Gang (mysteriously disappeared after a murder), that comments upon the last images, those of the “Buddy Mahjong Parlour”, unfolding in reverse (and in black-and-white), as if to capture the time that has gone, or to intimate that the story we have just witnessed could have been told differently.

Little Moth

The “discovery” of the year was Xue Chan (Little Moth) which has already started, with great success, its round of film festivals, and, as the first feature by first-time director Peng Tao, marks the arrival of an original new voice in Chinese indies. The female centre of the film is an 11 year-old little girl at the lowest level of society. Bought for 1,000 yuans (the equivalent of US$125.00) from her impoverished peasant family, Xiao E’zi (“Little Moth”) (Zhao Huihui) is affected with a rare infection of the blood that has paralysed her legs. The middle-aged couple of Luo Jiang (Hong Qifa) and his wife Guihua (Han Dequn) plan to use her to beg in the streets and break into “the racket”.

In the statement that accompanies the film, Peng Tao states that he “wanted to show the unique status of people living at the bottom of the Chinese social ladder”. For this, he spent weeks in the mountains of Hubei province, selecting non-professional actors from whom he extracts sober, masterful performances. His restrained style suggests more than showing, and unfolds the complexity of characters that may be “rough” and “uncouth” yet far from being one-dimensional. They don’t speak much, but communicate through daily gestures (cooking, sharing food or drinks, dressing up poor lodgings) shot in a semi-ethnographic way that calls to mind Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first movies. The “exploiters” are themselves disenfranchised, marginalised people who, in their never-ending struggle for survival, don’t have the opportunity to question the ethics of what they are doing. Guihua displays unexpected signs of affection for Xiao E’zi; the boorish Luo shows real emotion when his wife is missing.

Yet, street begging is a trade like any other, with its rules and territories; the “family” runs afoul of some local thugs and has to move. In a near-by town, Luo meets another “boss”, Yang, who exploits a 13 year-boy with only one-arm, Xiao Chun (Zhang Lei). To placate him, he invites him to dinner, and the children take advantage of the men’s drunkenness to escape, Xiao Chun carrying Xiao E’zi on his back.

Under Peng’s direction, the children are splendid – neither “cute” nor obnoxious – often silent because they don’t have a say about their own fate – yet the mise en scène makes us share their vision of the world. For a few days, Xiao Chun becomes the knight in armour taking care of the “Little Moth”. Yet he’s just a boy, and the reality of adults is there to defeat him. A rich lady takes a fancy to the girl – as you would to a pretty doll you can play with – brings the children to her home and completely ignores Xiao Chun. The boy’s pain, when he realises he is no longer wanted, is heartbreaking – but he silently slips out of the house, and out of the story. As it turns out, with him Xiao E’zi has lost her last real champion – and, for a haunting moment, we share the gaze of a discarded little girl staring at the off-screen void.

* * *

Secret Sunshine

Thanks to Tony Rayns, Vancouver has long been a place to discover New Korean cinema – and the Festival has shown all of Lee Chang-dong’s four films, since his first one, Chorok Mulgoki (Green Fish, 1997) was awarded the Dragons and Tigers Prize. (1) Miryang (Secret Sunshine) easily ranks among my favourite films of the year – and not only because of the luminous performance of its main actress, Jeon Do-Yeon (who was awarded Best Actress at Cannes). There are no false notes in Lee’s powerful depiction of a woman’s struggle to overcome a double tragedy and the madness that threatens to engulf her. Proceeding through small touches and intimate details, the film starts by drawing a delicate portrait of the small town of Miryang (“Secret Sunshine”) in which Lee Shin-Ae, an attractive young widow, decides to settle – and her interaction with her young son Jun, her new neighbours, the PTA association, the local new-born Christian community and Jong Chan, the nice loser who’s awkwardly in love with her – another great performance by Song Kang-ho, the slacker father in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. When tragedy strikes – a stupid, wicked act – Shin-Ae has to find ways to cope with her excruciating loss. For a while religion seems to be the answer, as she is finally able to scream her pain in church, and find a supportive community, with Jong Chan following her.

Deceptively, this religious phase seems to linger a tad too long – as if the narrative was leading toward some “spiritual redemption”. In fact, it mimicks the existential trap into which the heroine has fallen – a prelude for her next ordeal. For everything comes to a halt when Shin-Ae decides to go to jail to tell the murderer that she has forgiven him. In the prison parlour she meets a perfectly composed man, who tells her without missing a beat that “God has forgiven [him]”. Lee’s mise en scène freezes time, as if the world itself had stopped – and this is the moment Shin-Ae starts descending into darkness, fighting demons, now that even God has abandoned her, that she becomes painfully aware of the hypocrisy of the Christian community. When a woman becomes “mad”, her sexual and social behaviour is affected first, and Shin-Ae misbehaves in a number of ways – while Lee’s restrained style keeps focusing on her inner struggle and never slips into melodrama. She even offers Jong Chan to “fuck” – but the unsophisticated mechanic, who desires her, nobly turns her down. He will still be there for her, when she comes out of the mental hospital, for an uncertain future.

* * *

There are still too few female filmmakers in the otherwise critically praised Iranian cinema, and, among them, Mania Akbari occupies a very special place. She gracefully segued onto international screens by embodying the female taxi driver in Ten (2002), in which Abbas Kiarostami experimented with digital camera to shoot ten conversations from the inside of a car. (2) Apart from an exchange with her young son (who is still mad at her for divorcing his father), the back-seat passengers are women – including a prostitute and a young woman having shaved her hair. A first-time actress, Akbari was a painter whose work had been exhibited in Iran and abroad, and had just started working in cinema as a DP and assistant director. Following Ten, she co-directed a documentary (Crystal, 2003) completed a series of highly visual video pieces (Six Video Arts, 2004 and 2005), and plunged into directing her first digital feature, the astonishing 20 Angosht (20 Fingers, 2004, Best Digital Film at the Venice Film Festival) in which she and the film’s producer, Bijan Daneshmand, star as different couples arguing (about virginity, divorce, unfaithfulness, homosexuality) in various moving vehicles.

10 + 4

Also shot digitally, 10 + 4 (In Dah be alaveh Chahar) is a sort of sequel to Ten (the “four” in the title referring to the number of years elapsed between the two films). This time, though, things are different: Akbari is fighting breast cancer, and throughout the film, appears at various stages of the disease – undergoing chemotherapy, at the hospital… Her beautiful hair is gone – and, as a result (much unexpected by the Fundamentalists) she no longer needs to wear the compulsory headscarf (since it is designed to hide women’s hair). As she’s driving, a little cap on her bald head, a threatening man on a motorcycle stops her, irritated: “Are you a man or a woman?” “I feel a woman”, sweetly retorts Akbari. “At least, cover your shoulders”, shouts the man. Yet such societal demands are the least of Akbari’s worries. Some well-meaning friends insinuate that her condition is due to the fact she “changes partners too often.” Sometimes she is too weak to drive, and the camera follows her in different places – such as the gondola in which a major scene of 20 Fingers was taking place.

There, suspended between heaven and earth, Akbari, her head completely naked, shares a moment with another friend undergoing the same plight, similarly bald and uncovered – a striking image that, at first glance, makes you think you’re seeing double. These two women, however, are no mirror image of each other. Yes, they share the similar experience of having lost an intimate part of their bodies – “It’s not there anymore…” Then the friend, in spite of herself, can’t help but spilling out the hard truth: “I can’t see you anymore, Mania. You’re too strong for me… and I am weak…”

Like 10, the film treads a fine line between documentary and fiction; some of the scenes are obviously staged (a re-enactment? a product of the filmmaker’s imagination or fears?), some appear to have been shot on the spot. What is real is Akbari’s presence, the weight of her diseased body, the courage it took to transform such a life-changing experience into a work of art.

Vancouver International Film Festival website: www.viff.org


  1. For the record, I have to say that I was a member of the Dragons and Tigers jury that year – but I cannot take credit for the prize awarded to the film. Lee’s other films are the better-known Bakha Satang (Peppermint Candy, 1999) and Oasis (2002).
  2. See Rolando Caputo, “Five to Ten: Five Reflections on Abbas Kiarostami’s 10Senses of Cinema no. 29, 2003.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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