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Palm Springs: Why a Secret Haven for Cinephiles Is Hiding in the Desert During Oscar Season

Hint: It has to do with the foreign language Oscar race.

Samal Esljamova in Ayka

Samal Esljamova in “Ayka”

Even in the streaming age, some movies travel slowly. For every “Bird Box,” which debuted on Netflix a month after its world premiere at AFI Fest, there are dozens of films like “Donbass,” “Ayka,” and “Asako I & II,” all of which just screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival nearly a year after first debuting elsewhere and have yet to receive stateside distribution. That such festival-circuit deep cuts would receive pride of place in the California desert may come as a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the awards-season fest, which is best known for toasting soon-to-be Oscar nominees and winners; this year’s honorees included Glenn Close, Rami Malek, and Timothée Chalamet.

For world cinema–inclined cinephiles, however, Palm Springs’ status as an Academy-adjacent affair has a worthwhile side benefit: 43 of the 87 official submissions for the Foreign Language prize made their way into the lineup, including all nine of the shortlisted titles announced by the Academy last month. AFI Fest remains the premier showcase for world cinema in nearby Los Angeles, but not even it managed to program the likes of Christian Petzold’s “Transit” or Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow.”

So it is that Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka,” for which Samal Esljamova was named Best Actress at Cannes last year, made its North American premiere in Palm Springs after being overlooked by more high-profile festivals. It finds the “Tulpan” director and star reuniting 10 years later for what at first glance appears to be a familiar descent into slice-of-life miserablism before gradually turning into something richer and deeper. Esljamova plays a Kyrgyz emigre living in Moscow whom we meet as she slips out a bathroom window moments after giving birth to an unplanned — and unwanted — child.

Desperate and destitute, Ayka owes money to people she never would have gotten involved with if she’d had any other choice and is on a seemingly endless search for literally any job as her situation grows increasingly fraught. Taking place over a few snowbound days, Dvortsevoy’s social-realist drama serves to remind that merely surviving is a victory of sorts, but it’s also a struggle.

“Donbass”

A similar sense of urgency is present throughout each loosely connected vignette of “Donbass,” Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa’s latest attempt to make sense of what’s befallen his country in recent years. There’s no main character or central plot line, but all 13 segments lean toward entropy — the center is not holding, and those caught within it are left to their own devices. The stories range from the absurd (a wedding that no one appears to be taking seriously) to the horrific (a finale that circles back to the beginning in brutal fashion), but most land somewhere in between: This situation is untenable, but so many of the men, women, and children living through it have become inured to their circumstances that it risks becoming the norm. For Loznitsa, that may be the worst outcome of all.

Ryūsuke Hamaguchi came to international attention for his five-hour-long “Happy Hour,” for which his four lead actresses shared Best Actress laurels at Locarno in 2015. His follow-up runs a comparatively brisk 119 minutes, but it’s elusive in its own right: About a woman who falls in love with two men who bear a striking resemblance to one another (and are in fact played by the same actor) but are otherwise completely different, it’s not unlike the identity-merging dramas of Hong Sang-soo.

It’s also not entirely like them, or most other movies for that matter — occasionally veering into rom-com territory but carrying a foreboding air even during its lighter moments, it’s the rare film that keeps you genuinely guessing as to its ultimate resolution. Hamaguchi’s direction is sly to the point of being playful, which is to say that he’s having fun with his audience the way a cat has fun with its prey. Loyalties and romantic entanglements are constantly shifting, but his control over the material is not — it remains steadfast throughout.

These under-the-radar offerings were complemented by relative heavyweights ranging from “Burning” and “Cold War” to “Shoplifters” and “Dogman,” all of which played for an audience that skews older and less industry-oriented than most festivals. One gets the sense while waiting in line at PSIFF that the lion’s share of attendees aren’t auteurists desperate to see Lee Chang-dong’s first movie in eight years but cultural omnivores pleased that movies that began their journey at Cannes and hope to end it at the Academy Awards stopped in Palm Springs on the way. It’s also a worthwhile pilgrimage from L.A., of course, and not just for industry insiders and Oscar hopefuls — the likes of “Ayka” and “Donbass” more than justified a two-hour drive.

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