I went international with my movie-viewing this weekend. I viewed films, all made between 2001 and 2010, from Iran, France, Thailand and Korea. All of these are available to stream instantly on Netflix, and though, I have reservations about two of them, I recommend them all anyway. Following are my caspule reviews:
Baran (2001, Iran, Majid Majidi) **** A love story between a hot-headed Kurdish teenager (Hossein Abedini) and an illegal Afghan immigrant (Zahra Bahranmi) disguised as a boy. They meet on a construction site, bustling with illegal immigrants, in an unnamed city (could be Tehran according to the notes, but it’s never named in the film and it’s not a travelog. Could be any city.). It’s a kind of fable in which the boy transforms from a selfish hoarder of money to a selfless protector of his love object. It was made before 9-11; the Afghanis in the film are fleeing the Taliban, not the Americans. Nevertheless, the politics are extremely subtle–though there is one image toward the very end that took my breath away with its potency. An interesting, thought-provoking little movie with some enticing views of Iranian village life. It may take a while to warm up to Abedini, an awkward actor who looks a little like Robbie Benson in his peach fuzz stage, but he’s quite charming in the end. (This superb essay confirms that there’s much more to the film than meets the eye. I recommend reading it after viewing the movie.)
Love Crime (2010, France, Alain Corneau) *** I was disappointed with this film, frankly. I first read about it last summer, upon its American release. AO Scott was impressed enough to do a Times video on it, so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it offered for instant viewing on Netflix. For a while, the film was living up to Scott’s praise. The lead-up to the film’s central event is a wicked dead-on satire of corporate culture, and the performances by the leads are mesmerizing. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a vicious CEO who serves her venom with a smile, and Ludivine Sagnier is her (apparently) smitten protege. They come to blows, literally, over a man (Patrick Mille) and, a common corporate bugaboo, credit for ideas. But the film trips over the clever plot machinations for the last third or so, reminding me of a less adept Le Doulos. If you enjoy crime stories, you may not be quite so bothered by its left turn as I was.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2009, Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ****½ A lot of people believe this film (winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes) is a masterpiece. It’s unusual to say the least. Some of it is ravishingly beautiful: the opening images, for example, of a buffalo, escaped from a farm, sauntering tentatively through the jungle at twilight or dawn, watched by a dark ape-like creature with glowing red eyes (a “monkey ghost,” it turns out). It’s a strange mixture of the commonplace and the fantastic. The main story (based on a novel from the 1980s) is about a late middle-aged plantation owner (Thanapat Saisaymar) dying of kidney failure, which he believes is karmic justice for his killing of communists during war and insects on his tamarind trees. He is visited by a sister, a young cousin, and the ghosts of his wife and son, the latter of whom disappeared in the jungle years before. The “plot” such as it is, takes an unexplained detour in the middle to tell the story of a disfigured princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) and a randy catfish spirit. In places, the dialogue is wonderfully relaxed and natural, almost documentary. In others it’s stiff and perfunctory–presumably according to Weerasethakul’s intentions. It’s definitely worth viewing, I think more than once, though the director said at a press conference at Cannes that he thinks once is enough. He wants it to stay in the memory like a dream, I think.
Castaway on the Moon (2009, Korea, Lee Hae-jun) *** I had low expectations for this comedy, which may be why it drew me in almost immediately. It’s about a yuppie (delightfully played, for the most part, by Jeong Jae-yeong), up to his ears in debt and rejected by his girlfriend, who jumps into the Han River (presumably in Seoul?) to kill himself. He winds up on an island in the middle of the city from which, as someone who never learned to swim, he’s unable to escape. He learns bit by bit that he’s being watched by someone, a young agoraphobe (Jeong Ryeo-won) with a powerful telephoto lens that she uses to photograph the moon, who hasn’t left her room in three years. I thought the film was brilliant for the first hour or so–startling and fresh, wonderfully composed, and often very funny. Unfortunately, it becomes irritatingly maudlin, putting itself in the running to join cult movies like King of Hearts and Harold and Maude. So disappointing! But it’s worth watching for that first hour. And if you like precious little “gems” like those aforementioned films, you’ll probably love this one.