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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Slices of life don't quite hit the spot



At Five in the Afternoon

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Persian
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Take Care of My Cat

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jeong Jae Eun
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Korean
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

One of the most common pitfalls in film criticism arises when one admires a film more in theory than in what you see on the screen. This is especially true of films with a socio-political edge, where admiring the politics on display often precludes taking a sharp look at how the film actually plays.

News photo
Agheleh Rezaie in "At Five in the Afternoon" (above); Lee Yo Won in "Take Care of My Cat."
News photo

A perfect example of this is "At Five in the Afternoon," which took the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It's directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, a headstrong young woman director in conservative, patriarchal Iran, hence A Good Thing. Her film is a cinema verite look at the plight of women in contemporary Afghanistan, which is politically correct by the standards of anyone who's watching movies, not burning them. Her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is one of Iran's most revered filmmakers, and Samira is his most precocious protege.

Her films -- "The Apple," "Blackboards" and "At Five," her latest -- focus on marginalized individuals who struggle to survive amid political, cultural and religious repression. Like many Iranian films, all her works are shot on location, using local people she scouts for the roles (or browbeats; see her sister Hana's making-of documentary, "Joy of Madness," for examples of her technique). While this approach definitely allows her to capture some of the reality of lives not often portrayed on the big screen, she has an oblique, poetic sensibility, dancing away from any overt big statements to find her voice in poignant details.

"At Five in The Afternoon" finds Samira filming in Kabul, not long after the U.S. offensive that brought down the Taliban regime. She focuses on a 20-year-old Afghan girl, Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie), who's living with her elderly father (Abdolghani Yusef-zay) and sister-in-law, Leylomah (Marzieh Amiri), in a deserted shell of a building. All await the return of Noqreh's brother, who's off working as a truck driver, but it's not clear he's still alive.

Noqreh attends a liberal school for women, keeping this secret from her father, a religious conservative who still turns his face in shame when unveiled women walk by. In a civics class, Noqreh -- inspired by the example of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- expresses her goal of becoming president of Afghanistan. This idealism stands in stark contrast to the day-to-day reality in which she's struggling to survive, hauling buckets of water from wells, or trying to find new shelter after their home is invaded by refugees (who swarm through this film like plagues of locusts.)

As a model of burgeoning female emancipation in this most repressive of societies, Noqreh is irresistible, but "At Five In The Afternoon" suffers from poor pacing, incongruent editing and some truly heavy-handed symbolism. When we see Noqreh deliberately change into a pair of white, heeled "Western" shoes before entering school, it's a nice touch. But by the third time she does this -- an interminable shot of her pacing around an abandoned building as her heels go clack-clack -- it's clear that the director's poetic touch has become ponderous.

The disregard of plot is just as frustrating, with Noqreh seemingly more concerned with the mock election at her school than with the fact Leylomah's baby is dying from starvation.

There's a faint inscrutability to the characters as well. Noqreh seems to have been based on the actress herself, but it's a timid performance, and the director never really gets us too deep into what she's about. (Unsurprising, for an actress who'd never seen a film and a society in which appearing before a camera is still regarded as shameful.) Samira does give us some interesting insights into the lot of Afghan women and the obstacles they face in seeking to gain some freedoms, but her laconic pace and utter lack of narrative drive makes this film pale in comparison to "Osama," which tackled similar issues with much more of an impact. Ultimately, Hana's accompanying documentary, "Joy of Madness," which addresses both the difficulties of filming in Kabul and Samira's single-minded determination in getting what she wants, is a far more fascinating film.

"Take Care of my Cat," the first full-length feature from Korean director Jeong Jae Eun, is also a film that goes nowhere fast. Rather, it explores what Gilbert Hernandez, coauthor of "Love & Rockets," once coined as "human diastrophism": the almost elemental process through which accumulated tensions cause people to drift apart gradually.

Filming in Inchon, Jeong follows five high-school friends from the moment of graduation, showing how the everyday bonds of school quickly give way to the pressures of work, commuting and getting by. Hae Joo (Lee Yo Won), as manipulative as she is pretty, has her eyes set on working as an OL, landing a prosperous hubby, and having plenty of disposable income to spend shopping. Ji Young (Ok Ji Young) is her temperamental opposite, dour and directionless, stuck at home with her grandparents, vaguely wishing to study overseas but lacking the resources to do so. Tae Hee (Bae Doo Na) falls somewhere in-between, good-naturedly trying to negotiate a path between her two friends. There are also a pair of twins, canny street vendors, who mostly turn up for comic relief.

Jeong has succeeded in capturing a portrait of an Asian teen girl, with her cell phone, karaoke and eye-widening cosmetic surgery. Her most brilliant move is to have half the dialogue occurring in text-messaging, which is flashed across the screen. One pivotal conversation occurs with the screen quartered, as all the girls -- physically separate -- try to work out their problems on their cell phones, a panacea for dislocated friendships. When Tae Hee can't reach Ji Young on her phone for several days, she gets worried and decides to visit her. She's surprised when she discovers Ji Young living in a slum, and we're surprised to see that she hadn't visited her best friend's home even once.

"Take Care of my Cat" delicately traces the thin strands of connection in modern, urban society. It's slow, incidental pace will appeal to fans of Edward Yang or Hou Hsiaohsien, but the film's observations may seem mundane to those who've been living their own lives with their eyes open.



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