Sundance’s Foreign Voices Struggle To Be Heard; World Cinema Highlights from Park City
by Anthony Kaufman
You can always spot the foreign filmmakers at Sundance: they’re the ones with little to do. After all, everyone knows Sundance is for American independents, despite the festival’s best attempts to reach out to the international community.
This year, world cinema floundered further, because of an expanded interest in documentaries and a stronger than usual American Spectrum section (which included both must-see nonfiction work, such as “The Control Room” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” and highly touted dramatic features, including “Everyday People,” “Lbs.,” “Mean Creek,” “Open Water,” and “Speak”). Add to that the usual furor circling the Premieres and the Dramatic Competition, and something’s got to give.
So while world cinema suffered as a result of stronger American-made features, that doesn’t mean the selection didn’t include a few gems. (It’s also worth noting that some of the best films in the entire festival, Walter Salles‘ “The Motorcycle Diaries” and Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace” were largely in Spanish.)
This year’s Sundance also showcased an unprecedented 19 Canadian films — nine features and 10 shorts — including one of my personal highlights, Guy Maddin’s “The Saddest Music In The World.” Canucks also dominated this year’s World Cinema Audience Awards, which went to Jean-François Pouliot’s crowdpleaser “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” described by one attendee as “Doc Hollywood” in Quebec, and Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s favorite anti-corporate chronicle “The Corporation.”
Outside of a handful of already proven titles with U.S. distribution in place (Sony Pictures Classics‘ “Carandiru,” “Good Bye, Lenin!” and “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring”; Kino’s “The Return”; Newmarket’s “Stander”; and Paramount Classics‘ “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), Sundance’s international sidebar unveiled a number of strong works that fell largely under the radar of most Park City attendees.
A pair of movies, easily confused only in name, Belgian director Benoit Mariage’s “The Missing Half” (“L’Autre”) and Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-Sheng’s “The Missing” exemplified the careful restraint, exquisite cinematography and probing emotion to be found (if anyone was looking) among Sundance’s foreign-lingo programming.
With “The Missing Half,” Mariage, the director of “The Carriers are Waiting,” balances his penchant for minimalist, deadpan reality with a more sensitive story. When a beleaguered couple discovers they have twins, the worried wife decides she will neutralize one of the embryos. (Some audiences visibly shuddered during the scene in which we witness, via ultrasound, the needle penetrating the 12-week-old fetus.) As a symbolic replacement for their aborted child, the couple soon forms a bond with a mentally handicapped boy and the story unfolds in fascinating and unexpected ways. A peculiar, yet enthralling, look into the anxieties of childbearing, “The Missing Half” ends on a gorgeously cryptic last shot that was among the most enduring images on view in Park City.
The other belonged to the culminating frame of “The Missing,” the first directorial effort of Tsai Ming-liang actor Lee Kang-Sheng (“The Hole,” “What Time is It There?”). Without giving away the conclusion, suffice it to say the final sequence is worth the wait of Lee’s languorous takes. The film’s first sounds — water droplets — clue us in further to the Tsai influence, but the twin parallel narratives — about a grandmother who is searching for her grandson, and a grandson who is searching for his grandfather — form a more penetrating psychological sorrow than the abstract ennui of Tsai’s works. Told against the backdrop of SARS and featuring a heartbreaking scene when the grandmother visits her dead husband, “The Missing” takes on a greater sadness about losing (literally) the ones you love.
Inexplicably, “The Missing” played in the Frontier (read: experimental) sidebar, rather than the main World Cinema section, whereas the less narrative “15,” from Singapore’s Royston Tan, probably should have been switched out of the main program and placed into Frontier. If so, I might have been more prepared for Tan’s loosely connected series of Singaporean suicide-obsessed teens doing music video-like gang chants, engaging in video game-inspired street fights, and stuffing large containers of drugs down their throats. Made over two years with real street kids (one of whom is now missing), the true back story and frighteningly verite quality of “15” remains more compelling than the actual film, despite some tender, resonant moments by its end.
Like the seasonal sweet joys and sorrows experienced in Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring,” debuting Italian director Salvatore Mereu’s “Three Step Dancing” (a winner at Venice ’03) is a smart and gentle evocation of life’s passing phases. In four distinct segments, Mereu captures the stages of life with a finely attuned sense of place and character, building from childhood innocence to a farmer’s reluctant romance to a nun’s glimpse at the outside world to a transcendent Fellini-esque conclusion involving an old man’s final hours.
Yugoslav-born Goran Rebic’s sophomore effort, “Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Dunarea” is another tale of multiple generations. A capable melodrama and Balkan travelogue, the film is set on a ferryboat, filled with a handful of damaged Europeans, including a Romanian refugee, a Hungarian woman with a limp, the Serb shipman she loves, a forlorn drug-addicted African Austrian woman, and the ship’s gravelly voiced, anguished captain (“Wings of Desire”‘s Otto Sander), his dead wife and her fresh-faced son. While the film suffers from too much contrived reconciliation, Rebic paints a vivid picture of the new Eastern Europe and its unhealed wounds.
Israeli director Savi Gabizon’s “Nina’s Tragedies” also deals in gaping wounds and the cycles of life. As portrayed by the very appealing Israeli starlet Ayelet Zorer, Nina’s sorrows after her husband dies are piercingly felt. But tempered by subtle absurd moments, a romantic subplot, and the voice-over narration of a young boy with a hopeless crush on poor Nina, the film strikes a delicate balance between grief and affectionate humor.
Aside from audience award winner “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” “Nina’s Tragedies” was the only other World Cinema film to attract modest distributor interest (a deal is forthcoming).
In the two-year-old World Cinema documentary section, I only caught Andrei Nekrasov’s “Disbelief,” which investigates the mystery and anguish around the bombing of a Moscow apartment building in 1999. By focusing on two sisters who lost their mother in the bombing, Nekrasov pulls some heartstrings, but he also unveils a massive conspiracy that suggests Russia’s security service, the FSB, took part in the attacks in order to rally the country to war against Chechnya and set the stage for the presidential victory of Vladimir Putin. Sound familiar?
World Cinema may be overlooked at Sundance, but it’s films like “Disbelief” and “The Missing” that show just how relevant foreign viewpoints can be. As Sundance guru Robert Redford commented during the festival’s opening night remarks, “There is a huge increase in world cinema and a need for those voices to be heard.”