Sundance's Global Perspective, From U.K. Zombie Flicks To Chinese Melodramas
by Stephen Garrett and Anthony Kaufman
So you came all the way to the world's most celebrated showcase for American film and all you saw were movies from other countries? The theaters weren't as full, the tickets weren't as hot, but the features that unspooled in World Cinema, Sundance's much-neglected alternative to more glamorous offerings like the Dramatic Competition, were still some of the ripest pickings from all over the globe.
Well-represented with a quintet of movies, Great Britain showed off a truly eclectic and wildly divergent range in cinematic style and content. One of the more anticipated films in the sidebar series was the North American debut of "28 Days Later," Danny Boyle's exuberantly trashy British zombie flick. The DV-shot end-of-days spectacle, another collaboration with screenwriter Alex Garland and producer Andrew Macdonald, not only fitfully revives the long-dormant zombie-flick subgenre but also adds a layer of corrupt human menace to deepen the trauma.
The U.K. also delivered rousing crowd-pleasers with Gurinder Chadha's soccer-girl comedy "Bend It Like Beckham" and Jeremy Wooding's East-West musical hybrid "Bollywood Queen." Both received enthusiastic audience response for their culture-clashing stories of the ongoing friction between Indian and English heritages. And rounding out its yearlong festival-circuit trek was "AKA," Duncan Roy's triple-split-screen gay drama about a working-class boy striving to join the British well-to-do.
From Ireland (actually an Irish/Danish/U.K./Spanish co-production), newcomer Aisling Walsh's world premiere "Song for a Raggy Boy" is a solid, sentimental tale about William Franklin (Aidan Quinn), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who taught at an ultra-strict Irish Catholic reform school in 1939. While the story is relevant, even preachy in its indictment of the church, Walsh skillfully captures the dismal gray hopelessness of the school and some wonderful fresh faces in her young cast -- as well as the hearts of Sundance audiences, who gave the film a standing ovation.
Charming U.S. moviegoers with the same crowd-pleasing elements that won it the audience award at last fall's Toronto Film Festival, Niki Caro's New Zealand entry "Whale Rider," about a Maori tribe's internal struggles, also brought Sundance audiences to their feet.
With an equally unprecedented showing of five films, Danish directors proved there is more to their cinema than just Lars von Trier. In addition to Thomas Vinterberg's spectacular mess "It's All About Love" and Jesper Jargil's Dogme 95 doc "The Purified," Nicolas Winding Refn's "Fear X" and Susanne Bier's "Open Hearts" demonstrated that new talent continues to sprout from the small Scandinavian nation.
A world premiere before heading off to festivals in Goteborg and Rotterdam, Refn's English-language "Fear X" first screened Sunday night to a rapt audience. John Turturro plays a mall security guard in Wisconsin searching for his wife's murderer. Co-written by Hulbert Selby Jr. ("Requiem for a Dream"), mesmerizingly photographed by Larry Smith ("Eyes Wide Shut"), minimally scored by vanguard musician Brian Eno, and reverberating with the eerie tension of David Lynch, "Fear X" is an unnerving mix of its influences, complete with a noirish red-hued hotel of the unconscious mind.
No one is likely to forget the first U.S. screening of Bier's "Open Hearts" either. In the middle of this witty, winning Dogme 95-sanctioned melodrama about infidelity and mourning, the Park City projectionist accidentally screened the film in the wrong order: after the mistake was determined, the audience voted passionately to continue watching and piece together the narrative in their heads. One happy viewer was rumored to comment, "It's just like watching "Memento"."
The North American premiere of Zhang Yuan's "I Love You" also suffered from a projection glitch: during the crucial opening moments where a man and woman declare their devotion to one another, the subtitles were framed off the screen. But for Zhang's excruciating scenes from a dysfunctional marriage, the missing dialogue may not have mattered: as the film later makes clear, such declarations of love are meaningless, manipulative ploys of desperate, despicable people.
Just as schematic (though thankfully not as relentless), Lu Chuan's "The Missing Gun" chronicles another helpless situation in modern day China: borrowing from Akira Kurosawa's classic "Stray Dog," the story follows a likeable rural cop (Jiang Wen) who loses his gun, only to find himself inadvertently responsible for murder. And the conventional but poignant melodrama "Life Show". is director Huo Jainqi's adaptation of an acclaimed Chinese novel about a thirtysomething single woman who runs a nighttime food stand and is the maternal centrifugal force keeping her siblings and cousins together as a family -- all the while yearning for a husband to call her own.
South-of-the-border neighbors in Latin America delivered a pair of winning treats. Karim Ainouz's Brazilian entry "Madame Sata" wrapped up its extensive festival jaunts dating back to the film's Cannes debut last May. And stealing audience's hearts was the Argentine "Historicas Minimas," Carlos Sorin's sweet and sad comic triptych of three characters whose lives tangentially intersect: a businessman making a birthday cake; a poor woman who wins the chance to appear on a TV game show, and an near-blind old man in search of his lost dog. With a deft hand for simultaneously bringing out the fragility and resilience of the human spirit, Sorin weaves some highly satisfying storytelling from seemingly simple lives.
Fellow Latino entry, Fernando Leon de Aranca's "Mondays in the Sun" (which beat out "Talk To Her" as the official Spanish submission for the foreign film Academy Award) delivered a surprisingly conventional but still affecting drama about out-of-work shipyard laborers feeling restless and adrift in a society that no longer has a place for them. Its message of a culture that leaves behind good men has special resonance for a festival sidebar that always seems to stand in the shadow of Sundance's premiere- and competition-driven mentality.