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CANNES ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | “Secret Sunshine” Lights Up Competition; Akin and Tarr Stumble, and Ko

CANNES '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | "Secret Sunshine" Lights Up Competition; Akin and Tarr Stumble, and Ko

“The fragility of human joy” — the words are spoken in “A Mighty Heart,” but the sentiment runs throughout several Cannes films, as random tragedy or political circumstance dashes characters’ hopes for happiness. In a most trenchant way, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong‘s “Secret Sunshine” — a new frontrunner for major Cannes prizes — focuses on a young widow, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon). After moving from Seoul to the town of Miryang, where her late husband was born, Shin-ae tries to fit into her new smalltown surroundings. But an unexpected event throws her life into further turmoil.

The Host‘s” Song Kang-ho co-stars as Kim Jong-chan, a mechanic who patiently waits for her to come around, and their pas-de-deux helps lighten the heavy proceedings (“you’re more comedy than melodrama,” jokes one friend to Song’s character). But the film ultimately belongs to Jeon, whose blistering performance show a woman in search of consolation, and the desperate attempts she takes to alleviate her pain.

“Secret Sunshine” is not an uber-arty film — like some of the competition’s more pretentious standouts — but in its own sharp, sensitive and fully naturalistic mode, it expresses profound human truths in a fully realized way that has been rare at this year’s festival.

Another tale of loss, forgiveness and lives interrupted, Fatih Akin‘s “The Edge of Heaven” lacks the palpable energy and strong, multi-dimensional characters of his much-admired 2004 Berlin winner “Head-On.” Along the lines of Ulrich Seidls‘ “Import/Export,” Akin tells two intertwining stories of Turks in Germany and Germans in Turkey. But while Akin’s heartfelt political intentions are laudable, the under-developed characters seem to be more at the service of the intricate plot, rather than the other way around. The film is well told, with strong performances across the board, but the story’s coincidences and constructions feel too neat to ring true.

For tugging at the heart, “Persepolis,” co-directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is more successful, a sweet and touching film that also deserves praise for its beautiful black-and-white animation. While not as powerful or complex as the graphic novels on which they’re based, “Persepolis” faithfully retains their essence. The movie adopts the same simple, yet resonant graphic 2-D imagery (a memorable picture shows a classroom of girls made into an indistinguishable blob of chadors). It also stays true to the arc of Satrapi’s story: coming-of-age a female rabble-rouser in Iran during the rise of the oppressive Islamic Revolution. Lovers of the books will miss certain anecdotes, but the film adds a few film-specific flourishes (an amusing musical sequence scored to “Eye of the Tiger”) to liven up the visuals. And if there were any doubts about the movie’s ability to stir up feelings of nostalgia or homesickness, there was an Iranian woman sitting beside me sobbing uncontrollably throughout the screening.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Bela Tarr‘s “The Man from London” adamantly rejects affect. More akin to the absurdist dread of Franz Kafka than the George Simenon crime novel on which it’s based, the film takes place in the dark, alternative universe of Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr’s brain. Without having seen Tarr’s previous work, it’s difficult for this writer to comment on how “The Man from London” ranks in his oeuvre, but the steady stream of walkouts during the world premiere press screening on Tuesday doesn’t make it look good.

Employing the long-take meditative pacing that has made him famous, the minimal plot follows Maloin (Czech actor Miroslav Krobot), a switchman at a coastal railway station who witnesses a murder and ends up retrieving the dead man’s money-filled briefcase. (Thought experiment: Import the Coen Brothers‘s “No Country for Old Men” money-bag into Budapest; export Tarr’s Maloin into the Coen’s Texas adventure.)

Filmed in black-and-white by German-born filmmaker Fred Kelemen, a patina of gloom hovers over the picture, further loaded with the echoes of plaintive accordion and ominous scoring on the soundtrack. Maloin may be wealthy, but he’s definitely not happy. The only emotion exhibited on the actor’s faces, if only occasionally, is fury. A poorly dubbed Tilda Swinton fulminates after her husband Maloin has bought his daughter a fur wrap; in another scene, Maloin yanks his daughter from her job, and a horrid, screaming shopkeeper threatens to sick the “workers’ union” on him. What sort of oppressive world is this place? While Tarr’s miserabilia occasionally reaches occasional poetic heights and builds to a potent finale of loathing and unaccountability, the film doesn’t bear its weightiness in a compelling way.

A scene from Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely.” Photo courtesy of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Next to “The Man from London,” Harmony Korine‘s “Mister Lonely” has got to be the most bizarre entry in Cannes’ official selection. Playing in the festival’s widely uneven Un Certain Regard sidebar (which has seen fans of “La Soledad,” “My Brother is an Only Child,” and Sony Classics pickup “The Band’s Visit“), “Mister Lonely” unfolds like a fairytale for the outcast and alienated. Diego Luna plays a friendless “Michael Jackson” impersonator who meets Samantha Morton‘s “Marilyn Monroe” in Paris at an old-age home where they are both performing. She then whisks him off to a highland castle commune, “a place where everyone’s famous and no one ages.” There, MJ is welcomed with open arms by a brigade of misfits, from the Three Stooges to a foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln to Marilyn Monroe’s husband, a Hitler-esque Charlie Chaplin (played by Denis Lavant). And as is often the case with commune life, jealousy, infighting and failure emerge.

Interspersed with the central story of impersonators wanting to be accepted by others and among themselves, Korine tells a seemingly unrelated vignette about Werner Herzog and his flying nuns. As a Catholic priest in a Latin American country, Herzog leads a band of nuns on an airplane to drop bags of rice on the impoverished below. But one of the nuns accidentally falls out of the plane. To say more would spoil the fun.

Suffice it to say that “Mister Lonely” actually has something meaningful to say about the folly of chasing dreams and miracles and the various paths to self-discovery. But there are too many narrative indulgences and twisted disharmonious scenes to make it gel. (The intentionally god-awful impersonator’s costumes don’t help either.) Surprisingly, the film is more grounded in the emotional truth of Michael Jackson’s predicament than you’d expect, perhaps with the help of Luna’s committed performance. He is presented without mockery, which may be the key to the film’s occasional triumphs. With flashes of awe and absurdity and tenderness, somewhere there is a terrific film in “Mister Lonely.” But it wasn’t in Cannes this year.

The latest from the 2007 Festival de Cannes is available anytime in indieWIRE’s special section.

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