By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain,” Jirafa Films/Charivari/Peter Rommel Productions, 2008]
It’s a week into the Rotterdam Film Festival, and the one title that keeps popping out of the mouths of inebriated critics is “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain,” a world premiere Chilean film directed by José Luis Torres Leiva. Part of the main Tiger competition for first and second time filmmakers, and by far the best of the bunch, Leiva’s contemplative debut captures the misty beauty of Valdivia, an isolated island town 1,000 miles south of Santiago. Blanketed in fog and constantly beset by rain, it’s a fetid landscape of soggy stumps, weighted down apple trees and placid swamps you can almost smell the decay. Shot luminously on 35mm, the location is the star, but Ana is the solitary young woman who navigates these dense, dripping spaces. She takes care of her ailing mother and pays the bills by working as a maid for a local recluse, Toro. Her fraught relationship with him provides the main action, as they quietly circle each other in their own pockets of alienation. Their words are blunted and opaque, their emotions flashing in quick bursts before they return to the day’s chores.
Leiva and his DP, Inti Briones, told me the film was five years in the making, with most of the actors involved during that entire process, forging a tight bond. After discovering the area around Valdivia, Leiva re-wrote the script to fit its scenery, emphasizing its importance as a character. They selected locations surrounding Valdivia and into Bolivia to create a composite town that only exists in the hazy netherworld of the film. Ana does the ambulating through this fictional space, and Leiva captures these movements with long, elegant tracking shots, often holding the take even after Ana leaves the frame. This emphasizes the impassive grandeur of her environment, and sets up a secondary character’s impulse to annihilate herself in nature. Her death-drive haunts the rest of the small cast the hypnotic nothingness of the landscape preferable to the daily grinds of civilization. Impeccably composed and edited, with oft-overwhelming sound design, “The Sky” is the major discovery of the festival.
Another Tiger entry with a strong sense of place is the lovely “Wonderful Town,” from Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat. Set in the tsunami-ravaged Takua Pa area on the southern coast of Thailand, the film adapts Western genre tropes to examine the psyche of a small village recovering from tragedy, while also managing to be a convincingly tender romance. A Bangkok architect, the civilized outsider, comes to town to work on rebuilding a beachside hotel. He stays at an out-of-the-way motel where he is soon besotted with Na, the local virginal beauty. Her brother is the heavy, suspicious of the outsider and resentful of his incursion into this makeshift frontier. Beginning and ending with placid shots of the ocean that belie its monstrous force, the tender love story slowly shifts into a tale of class resentment that escalates into an act of shocking violence. The tonal shift is rather jarring, but it carries an ambiguous force and acts as an effective allegory about the psychic scars still remaining from the tsunami of 2004.
Another work concerned with a city’s spirit following disaster is Garin Nugroho’s “Teak Leaves at the Temples.” His producer, a jazz aficionado, persuaded Nugroho to throw a Nordic free jazz trio together with Indonesian folk groups, and had them perform improvisations in front of ancient Hindu temples at Borubudur and Prambanan, as well as at a Yogyakarta arts center after an earthquake hit the city. These concerts, experiments in controlled chaos shot in one take, are intercut with profiles of local artists and their communities, making this playful documentary more than just a multi-cultural gimmick. A follow-up to Nugroho’s epic Javanese musical “Opera Jawa,” “Teak Leaves” shows him examining similar themes in a lighter mood. Both films delve into issues of national mourning and Indonesia’s cultural history, using local art forms to investigate modern problems. “Jawa” used gamelan music and shadow puppetry, while this film utilizes stone sculpture, contrapuntal drumming, and ancient architecture. And at a sprightly 70 minutes, it gave me plenty of time to sprint to the next theater.
For those still harboring romantic thoughts of the Soviet Russian regime, Alexei Balabanov has some vitriol to send your way in the form of “Cargo 200.” The title refers to the caskets being sent back from the 1980s war in Afghanistan, but Balabanov is concerned with the horrors at home. Set in 1983, it’s a pitch black comedy featuring the most sadistic commie in film history. Moscow is filmed as an apocalyptic pigsty in washed-out greys and browns, presaging the moral degradation to come. Filmed with barely repressed rage, “Cargo 200” is often revolting in the depths of its violence, but it is also unforgettable, seared by authentic outrage at nostalgia for the old USSR.
To cleanse my palate, I took in Serge Bozon’s “La France,” an utterly unique WW1 film that contains four musical numbers. A group of French deserters are wandering through an endless no man’s land when Sylvie Testud, dressed as a boy, joins up with them to search for her husband. Shot in soft blues and highly diffused light, the image is ethereal and delicate, appropriate for the ghostlike visages of the male group. In the midst of their epic wanderings, they pause and sing a few songs, whipping out handmade instruments and crooning ’60s style psych-pop. Honoring the tunes that used to flood American genre pictures like “Rio Bravo,” Bozon’s bold and deeply romantic film risks looking foolish in order to reach for the sublime, and it succeeds beautifully.
#1: Enigmas and Insanity From Japan and Thailand Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy” is dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown, while Matsumoto Hitoshi’s faux-documentary “Dai-Nipponjin” is brilliantly eccentric.
[Additional photos: “Wonderful Town,” Pop Pictures Co. Ltd., 2008; “Cargo 200,” CTB Film Company, 2008]