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CANNES '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Mining for Genre Gems in Cannes

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire May 26, 2007 at 10:53AM

The first thing one notices when looking for genre fare at the Cannes Film Festival is that you won't find it in the Midnight section. Featured as part of the Out of Competition program, Midnight in Cannes 2007 contained two edgy dramas from veteran directors and one light heist flick. But when the strongest thing in the midnight selection is a 3D concert film meticulously directed to perfection by a mainstream Hollywood director (I'm speaking of Mark Pellington's "U2 3D", of course, co-directed Catherine Owens who was supposedly mainly responsible for the onstage visuals), its time to search deep into the festival's sidebars to find the real genre gems.
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The first thing one notices when looking for genre fare at the Cannes Film Festival is that you won't find it in the Midnight section. Featured as part of the Out of Competition program, Midnight in Cannes 2007 contained two edgy dramas from veteran directors and one light heist flick. But when the strongest thing in the midnight selection is a 3D concert film meticulously directed to perfection by a mainstream Hollywood director (I'm speaking of Mark Pellington's "U2 3D", of course, co-directed Catherine Owens who was supposedly mainly responsible for the onstage visuals), its time to search deep into the festival's sidebars to find the real genre gems.

But first, I would be remiss not to pay a little attention to the official "genre" selections. The biggest buzz around the midnight section here - and for good reason - is about the great comeback of Abel Ferrara. Ferrara's latest film, "Go Go Tales", is a kind of seedy rendition of Altman's "Prairie Home Companion", telling the story of one night in a cabaret in which the owner must face the danger of foreclosure, while the desires of the customers are fulfilled on the stage. It's hard to not get lost in the trash -- for better or for worse -- but the real strength of Ferrara's film is in the atmosphere. Seeped in a constant barrage of loud music, nearly every scene is intercut with performances from inside the club, creating the sense of the truly never-ending show. This act must stay afloat at all costs and everyone pitches in to create its lifeblood.

The other film getting a lot of attention is Olivier Assayas' "Boarding Gate", a miscalculated B-movie homage about a torrid S&M affair that goes awry when one of the partners wants out. "Boarding Gate", like "Go Go Tales", stars Asia Argento. The first half of the film wreaks a bad Mike Figgis picture, taking too serious the genre which it is trying to pay tribute to, while still under the haze of Assayas own style - a combination that proves fatal. The second half picks up, cataloging through a series of exotic location while still keeping the melancholy sense of impending danger.

But really, the only genre film in the midnight section itself is the Chinese action omnibus "Triangle". Co-directed by three of Hong Kong's commercial legends, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, "Triangle" follows the misadventures of three down-on-their-luck businessmen who attempt a legendary heist as a way to solve their problems. When things go horribly wrong, a zany cast of characters is used to construct a myriad of elaborate humorous and action set pieces. Each act of the film was helmed by a different director in their particular style. It's no surprise that Tsui Hark successfully makes a mess of the story right off the bat, building an intense onslaught of characters and subplots that, while pleasing to the eye, make very little sense to the viewer - much like Hark's previous films. In this case, however, Lam and To must make up the difference, working double time to both insert their magic and, also, try to make some sense of the otherwise convoluted story that has been placed before them. Lam bears most of the weight, with a passable second act that I would argue is a great return for a director who hasn't produced anything of quality in awhile, but simply hidden under the haze of another's mistakes. By the time we reach To's section, the film is in good enough shape for him to have fun with it and he does it in spades, leaving us with a finale that greatly rewards the patient viewer.

A scene from "Triangle." Photo provided by Festival de Cannes

Still, for all its faults, Triangle plays like a better directed, more sophisticated Steven Soderberg's "Ocean's 11", examining with great dexterity and cinematography the hilarious back stories to all involved in its central caper.

But it's not like there's no genre to be found anywhere. Two horror films worth a look, Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" and Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo's "Inside", were actually two of the most interesting -- and watchable -- films in the International Critics' Week section of the festival. "Orphanage", executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, is a creepy ghost story involving dead children haunting the orphanage which they originally inhabited and how they tear apart the family who dreams of restoring the building. Built to last, at least for a little while, with enough jumps and clever tricks, "Orphanage" plays well to an audience, despite its lack of originality. "Inside," on the other hand, is really only for the bravery viewer. When an expectant mother is terrorized in her home one night by a mysterious woman with a sharp pair of scissors, all hell breaks loose. Maury and Bustillo seem a bit over-concerned with shocking the viewer into being scared. The film comes complete with "Rear Window" references, CGI shots of the baby in trauma from inside the mother's womb and enough fake blood to drown the entire cast. Still, it does deliver the goods, acting as one elaborate chase that rarely gives the viewer a chance to come up for air. While neither film boarders anywhere close to genius, they are both, in their own way, fun rides. Both belong to schools of horror that are consistently coming out of Hollywood these days. "Orphanage" plays like "The Grudge" meets "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Inside" is extremely reminiscent of an extended action sequence from "Scream". However, despite not quite elevating the genre to an more intelligent art form as some of their contemporaries in their own countries have (refer to Nacho Cerda's "The Abandoned" and Alexandre Aja's "High Tension", respectively). Like "Triangle," "Orphanage" and "Inside" still prove to be more worthy of attention than their American counterparts.

But the major prize for originality as far as genre is concerned belongs to a Directors' Fortnight title, Hitoshi Matumoto's "Dai Nipponjin". Adventurous audiences earlier in the week were treated to quite a surprise when they sat down to what was described in the catalog as "a film about human relations" centered around a protagonist "continuing a family tradition". They had no idea what they were in for. It's almost impossible to describe the genius "Dai Nipponjin" is without ruining the experience of it. In fact, those with a healthy curiosity should dispense reading here. Within the first twenty minutes, the film shifts tone from a possible documentary to a laugh-out-loud mockumentary cum superhero film about Dai Sato, a loser by day who grows to fifty times his size and saves Japan from absurd monsters at night. Despite his efforts to contribute to society, Dai Sato remains an outcast, hated even in his larger form. (Public opinion is rated by the response to the TV program documenting his work.) He must navigate through the most basic trials of humanity, wrestling with his heritage, creating relationships, buying groceries.

The detail that sets "Dai Nipponjin" apart from any other mockumentary is its unflinching commitment to treating the subject with seriousness. Even the humor in the film is not executed lightly, as if Matumoto, a famous TV comedian in Japan who also stars in the film, had to actually make himself believe every detail of the insane world that he creates in order portray it properly. The interviews in the mockumentary sequences are carried out with a scientific repetition that suggests Matumoto became Dai Sato during the period of production and asked a renowned documentarian to make a film about him. It is in this that "Dai Nipponjin" takes its toll with the audience, often choosing commitment over entertainment value in an effort to be realistic and making the running time a tad bit tedious. In the end, though, the film has more than a few surprises to offer and a clear directorial vision unlike stronger than almost any other seen in Cannes this year, genre or otherwise.