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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002

Life as seen through her eyes

The Day I Became a Woman

Rating: * * * 1/2
Japanese title: Watashi ga Onna ni Natta Hi
Director: Marzieh Meshkini
Running time: 78 minutes
Language: Farsi
Now showing

Scarlet Diva

Rating: * * *
Director: Asia Argento
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: Italian, English
Now showing

When Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf isn't busy creating films, he's creating filmmakers. In the past few years he's jump-started the career of his daughter Samira, who wowed Cannes with "Blackboards" and "The Apple," and his son Maysen, who's completed a documentary. Next up is his wife Marzieh Meshkini, who has long worked as an assistant director for Mohsen and Samira; she offers up her own vision with "The Day I Became a Woman."

News photo
Shabnam Toloui in "The Day I Became a Woman"
News photo
Asia Argento in "Scarlet Diva"

Despite Meshkini's direction, the Makhmalbaf influence is obvious: Filmed on the Gulf island of Kish, the slightly surreal tableaux set against a backdrop of sun-bleached sand and cobalt skies immediately recall Makhmalbaf's "Door" (part of the "Tales of Kish" omnibus film.) And yes, his influence extends to a screenwriting credit as well, but this exploration of the restrictions facing Iranian women is clearly a subject Meshkini addresses from the heart.

She uses three tales -- of youth, middle and old age -- to portray the concept of femininity under Islam, and how it is formed and enforced. The first story follows a young girl named Hava (Fatemeh Cheran Akhar); it is her 9th birthday, and she is saddened and confused when her mother tells her she can no longer play with her (boy) friend Hassan, because now she is a woman. The arbitrariness of such a delineation -- which includes having to wear a black chador -- is well-conveyed from the child's perspective. Cleverly, Hava points out that she was born at noon, so she squeezes out an hour to go for one last ice-cream with Hassan.

The next segment follows Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), a woman who's entered a bicycle race, chador and all. She's harassed along the way by her husband on horseback, who drags along a mulluh and threatens divorce if she doesn't return home immediately. She's angry enough to say "yes" to the divorce, but that doesn't stop a group of relatives from physically preventing her from going on.

The last tale follows Hoora (Azizeh Sedighi), an elderly woman from the mainland who arrives on Kish to embark on one last shopping spree, for all the things she desired in her youth, from a lacy white formal dress to a luxurious double-bed and wardrobe. In what is an unmistakably Makhmalbafian scene, her possessions are arranged -- like a Magritte painting -- on an empty and remote beach. From there, they're arrayed on rafts made of oil barrels -- with Hava's chador as the sail for one -- and set out to sea.

Meshkini doesn't deviate much from her husband's style -- natural, realist performances intercut with poetic, carefully constructed symbolism. It's striking to watch, and while rather low-key in its impact, it is rewarding for those who can see that the meaning does not merely lie in the dialogue. Fans of Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar" or "Gabbeh" will grasp the style immediately.

*    *    *

Moving from a famous director's wife to a famous director's daughter, we have Asia Argento -- scion of horror maestro Dario -- helming "Scarlet Diva," which eschews poetic allegory for in-your-face debauchery and neurosis. This corrosive look at the excesses of bad-girl superstardom certainly seems autobiographical -- with director Argento also appearing in a lead role modeled loosely on her own public image -- but she claims otherwise, and let's hope she's right, for her sake.

Argento plays Anna Battista, a Goth pop star made for the scandal sheets. When she's not engaging in sleazy anonymous sex, scoring drugs or freeing her equally wild friend Veronica (Vera Gemma) from the bed she's been left tied to for two days (by her "boyfriend"), she's being mobbed by crowds of grasping fans, who eerily resemble the zombies from a Dario Argento production.

"Scarlet Diva" seeks to be a scathing critique of the vampiric relationship between stars and everyone who wants a piece of them: Anna/Asia is preyed upon by a lecherous producer and by some sleazy fashion-mag photographers who date-rape her by drugging her with ketamine. All her own self-destructive tendencies are blamed on -- what else? -- an unhappy childhood.

This is one of those borderline films that never really decides if it wants to be moral or immoral: Like its heroine, we're supposed to be repelled by this predatory and sordid world, while also kind of enjoying our wallow in it. Argento's performance walks a very fine line between the sympathetic and the just plain pathetic. But when Anna's true love turns out to be a Kurt Cobain-esque rock star with whom she has a one-night stand and she decides that she wants to have his baby -- despite never seeing the guy again because he's off "on tour" -- you just want to grab her by the shoulders, shake her and shout: "Will you WAKE UP!"

The contrasts to be drawn between "The Day I Became a Woman" and "Scarlet Diva" are fairly mind-boggling. Hava's enveloping, concealing black chador and Anna's revealing, panty-less black microdress couldn't be farther apart, but ironically, they're equally tied to the same old problem: Men look at women, and it's not just a look. What both Meshkini and Argento recognize, as women directors, is that while human nature isn't going to change anytime soon, their cameras might be able to find a new perspective.

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