Sundance is and always will be about American films. Case in point: the paltry attendance at the festival's press-and-industry international screenings. With so many films to see, journalists and industryites prioritize, just about always picking the low-budget thriller, Bruce Willis "indie" or star-anchored mother-in-distress melodrama over the latest film from Brazil's Andrucha Waddington or a little gem from the Philippines. That's just the way it is at Sundance - and the U.S. market, in general.
But there was some good news: Many of the public screenings for foreign films were packed. Who would have expected a line stretching around the back of the Egyptian theater for the Singaporean crime headscratcher "One Last Dance" or a nearly full house for a 9AM showing of "Little Red Flowers," a Chinese drama about a kindergarten boarding school?
While many movers and shakers fled Utah by mid-week, the waning days of the fest showcased a couple of pleasant surprises for those few paying attention to the program's foreign selections. Two of Sundance's genuine international discoveries premiered on Thursday, late into the festival.
Claudia Llosa, niece of famed magical realist Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, brings a strange and unsettling perspective to her auspicious feature debut "Madeinusa" (which post-Sundance will travel to Rotterdam and Miami). Set during a small Andrean town's "Holy Week," the story revolves around 14-year-old Madeinusa (yes, that's pronounced "made in USA") Machuca, a mayor's daughter who is crowned the virgin of the year. But this Holy Week is not what you'd expect: "God is dead," the pretty Madeinusa explains to a young man from Lima who has stumbled into this mysterious setting. "There are no sins during Holy Week." Using a lush color palette and complicating stereotypes about Indian religion and rural life, Llosa paints a portrait of innocence that isn't exactly lost, but was never there in the first place.
Auraeus Solito's Filipino debut "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" is another surprising take on innocence lost. A favorite at the Montreal World festival and heading next to Berlin's Kinderfest, "Maximo" concerns a 12-year-old girly-boy named Maxi, who we first see sashaying down the impoverished streets of his hood like a fashion diva. Except for one disparaging remark from a rival and a brief scene involving a couple of bullies, Maxi's feminine identity is fully accepted by his community, as well as his loving family: a criminal father and two tough older brothers (the mother has long since died). When Maxi falls for a new cop in town, he finds himself pulled between family loyalty and his newfound crush. The young actor who plays Maxi is better at exuding natural innocence than forcing sniffles and tears, but Solito has such an affection for the character that it's difficult to resist his charms. An early scene involving a staged Miss Universe pageant among a few cross-dressing boys is a delight, more than making up for the film's eventually melodramatic turns.
In the higher profile independent film dramatic competition, the Korean-language "In Between Days," another coming-of-age story full of promise, traveled so far under the radar of attendees, it could have played alongside the world films. Directed by So Yong Kim and written with Bradley Rust Gray ("Salt"), "In Between Days" is the delicately observed story of Aimie, a Korean girl living in Canada who develops a crush on her friend. As the film intimately captures the teasing, innuendo and sexual confusion of youth, snapshots of cold open spaces punctuate Aimie's sense of loss and loneliness.
In the Spectrum sidebar, Australian newcomer Tony Krawitz's 1-hour featurette "Jewboy" also reflects a director-to-watch. Set in Sydney's Orthodox Jewish community, the film follows Yuri, a young rabbinical student (played with Ed Norton-like intensity by Ewen Leslie) who rebels against his religion and his family after returning home to bury his father. Krawitz has a striking visual sense. If only the story were as expressive or unique: The script overuses the Orthodox taboo that forbids touching between men and women and predictably follows Yuri back into the hands of his babushka.
A number of veteran directors in the world cinema program produced films second to their previous efforts. Talented young Chinese director Zhang Yuan's kindergarten-set political allegory "Little Red Flowers" starts off charmingly, with promises of an anti-totalitarian "Zero de Conduit," but then loses it way along with its central metaphor. Likewise, Japanese auteur Ryuichi Hiroki's "It's Only Talk" is a dry and sorrowful portrait of a manic depressive 35-year-old woman that overstays its 2-hour-plus running time. And Madrid social-realist Fernando Leon de Aranoa's "Princesas" is a competent, but unremarkable tale of two prostitutes, featuring a strong central performance by Candela Pena.
The final days of Sundance also unveiled two very different documentaries worth catching. Sandhya Suri's "I for India," arguably the best film in the program, starts off slowly - remarkably similar to another world doc "Dear Pyongyang" - in its telling of a family's separation. In the 1960s, the filmmaker's father Yash Pal Suri moved his family from India to England to seek out a better life and career, and used super 8 cameras and reel-to-reel sound recorders to communicate with his beloved parents and family back home. Much of the film consists merely of this home movie footage. But "I for India" soon turns emotionally gripping, as the movies that are sent back and forth between the families reveal deep scars of abandonment and the profound pains of assimilation and discrimination. Smartly crafted and affecting, the film builds to a final passage that is as beautifully apt as it is telling about the inevitable fracture of families.
On the lighter side, Italian comedienne Sabina Guzzanti's "Roger and Me"-style "Viva Zapatero!" chronicles the cancellation of her own public TV show, which skewered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his near total control over the Italian media. (The country is ranked 53rd in freedom of information by one media watchdog group.) The strong-willed and quick-witted Guzzanti corners media execs and politicians in the street, forcing them to explain the reasons for axing the show. A breezy 75-minute muckraking assault on Italian politics and censorship, "Viva Zapatero!" doesn't apply much to the U.S.'s multi-channel satire-filled universe of Jon Stewart and Adult Swim -- at least not for the moment.. Enjoy clips from a French TV show's rendition of "We are the world" sung by a French-accented George Bush, Sr. muppet with the new and telling refrain, "We fucked the world."
[Get the latest from the Sundance Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE's special Park City '06 section.]