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Thursday, May 29, 2008


Cannes: sobriety and great excess

Special to The Japan Times

The Grim and the Glamorous. It sounds like some lost 1950s melodrama by actress Judy Garland's director-husband Vincente Minnelli, but it's actually how many would describe the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

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A sewer-dwelling creature goes on the rampage in Leos Carax's "Merde."

In my 20 years of going to Cannes, rarely has the disparity between what was on screen and what was transpiring at the festival — publicity stunts, chic soirees, yacht parties — been so marked.

There was the jarring nightly sight of stars, berobed in Balenciaga and dripping with Chopard jewels, climbing the festival's red carpet to thumping techno music and the glare of thousands of photographers' flashes to take their plush seat in the Palais to watch . . . well, take your pick: an animated documentary from Israel about the massacre of Palestinians in the Shabra and Shatila camps ("Waltz with Bashir"); an end-of-civilization allegory about sudden mass sightlessness and the animalistic struggle to survive that ensues ("Blindness"); an Argentine film about a prison for women who keep their babies with them behind bars ("Leonora"); a stunningly shot Hungarian work about a sister and brother who are slaughtered by townspeople for living together as a couple ("Delta"); a "sweet" Singapore comedy in which a bloated alcoholic makes his living by eating glass, driving metal rods into his body and being beaten senseless ("My Magic"); or a portrait of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands, which details in unflinching detail police torture, random assassinations and Sands' prolonged death by self-starvation ("Hunger").

"After a harrowing film, one needs a drink," one film executive was quoted as saying about the conflict between the dark, socially conscious films offered this year at Cannes and the frivolity of its social events. (Even a protest by Tibetan monks at a local church had to be led by French singer and actress Jane Birkin and ended with, what else, a swish cocktail.)

Only in Cannes would beautiful young hostesses be dressed in the orange jumpsuits of Japanese sanitation workers to serve drinks and delectables on Majestic Beach, one of the city's swishest sandboxes, more palace than plage. This particular party was given by the production company for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's brooding film "Tokyo Sonata," in which a mid-level manager who finds himself suddenly unemployed as his company outsources its labor to China ends up scrubbing toilets in a Tokyo shopping mall, dressed in one of those orange suits sported by the Cannes hostesses.

That no one would think twice of usurping Kurosawa's bleak social critique to make a cute party theme for an elegant fete at which a trio of masseurs offered full back rubs to "de-stress" the invitees — suggesting that film executives and buyers, stars and directors were somehow as put-upon as the film's desperate protagonist — hints at the contradictions of Cannes.

On screen, blood and feces were everywhere, bodies reduced to their most vulnerable or primitive state, while outside on the Riviera, the beat went on: the Marie Antoinette spectacle of fireworks (for the premiere of "Kung Fu Panda"), rivers of Dom Perignon, and starlets such as Milla Jovovich resplendent in a gown made of mini silver ingots, inducing a kind of surreal callousness. "Can we find out who his dietitian was?" I overheard one critic joke about the Bobby Sands film, whose last half hour offers an agonizing portrayal of Sands' emaciation and martyrdom in the cause of a unified Ireland.

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A couple house-hunting in Michael Gondry's "Interior Design"

"It's been raining a lot; you'd almost think you were in Brittany," Catherine Deneuve wrote in her diary when she headed the Cannes jury in 1994, and the same could be said for this year's edition. The French have a euphemism for everything. "C'est un peu gris," the locals kept murmuring — "It's a little bit gray," which hardly described the cool, overcast and drizzly weather, a perfect mirror to the general atmosphere, in which no major films were sold and every second one had a grim subject. Deneuve returned to Cannes this year in two films: Arnaud Desplechin's "Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale),"one of the most critically acclaimed films in the Competition; the other, "Je Veux Voir," a hotly debated look at Lebanon in the festival's "also-ran" sidebar, Un Certain Regard.

Much was made of the dearth of American films in Cannes after years of "Hollywood creep," a trend decried as betraying the festival's international mission. But three American films did manage to capture much of the festival's attention, never mind "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which had no problem becoming the hottest ticket on the Promenade de la Croisette, filling the massive Grand Thea^tre Lumiere so thoroughly and so early that many film journalists who opted for a lunch after Woody Allen's latest, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," found themselves shut out of the festival's main event.

Too many films are now rushed to completion to make the Cannes cut, and Steven Soderbergh's much-anticipated "Che," arrived dripping from the editing process and without opening titles or end credits. A would-be epic, "Che" was made as two films, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," meant to be released separately, but it was shown at Cannes all in one go, clocking in at 258 minutes. (Food was thoughtfully supplied at intermission.) It is a perversely remote account of the revolutionary's life that leaves out many of the key events, such as the famous death photograph in Bolivia, and details military strategy instead. That is cold comfort for the investors who, no doubt, envisioned a marketing campaign focused on the Che-besotted youths who sport his iconic image on T-shirts from Boston to Baluchistan.

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A hikkikomori (shut-in) finds Tokyo's streets abandoned in Joon-ho Bong's "Shaking Tokyo" segment of "Tokyo!"

S peaking of marketers' nightmares, the very title of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," with its rarefied literary reference and word play, signals the film's difficulty. Kaufman, writer of several clever brain-twisters, proves himself an able director of actors, fashioning a first half-hour of cerebral gallows humor, as an upstate theater director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) experiences various bodily afflictions and portents of death as his wife (Cathleen Keener) departs for Berlin, daughter in tow. The tone inevitably takes a plunge into the bizarre, and as Hoffman suffers a hellish succession of ills, from facial boils to bleeding gums, malfunctioning irises, and seizures, Kaufman piles on the puzzles and the literary devices until, as unmoored as its central character, the film drifts into a miasma of metaphor.

Contrasting with these audience- testing compatriots, Eastwood offered his brand of flinty, straightforward story- telling in "The Changeling," which became a critics' favorite by sheer dint of its old-fashioned virtues. Set in Los Angeles in 1928, the film begins with a simple premise: A single mother (Angelina Jolie) returns home from work to find her little son gone. Eastwood methodically expands her story into a fresco of the city of angels at its most corrupt.

Critics praised Eastwood's narrative clarity, but the script's cobbling of actual events, including the notorious Chicken Ranch mass murder of little boys, veers toward the simplicities of Victorian melodrama, with its long-suffering heroine (Jolie reduced to massive red lips and cloche hat), glint-teethed villains and creaking edifice of coincidences and incredibilities.

What of Japan at Cannes? After last year's triumph with Naomi Kawase's Grand Prix for "Mogari No Mori (The Mourning Forest)," there was early anticipation that new films by such directors as Hirokazu Kore-eda would make the Cannes cut. But Japanese cinema was shunted to the sidelines, even if Japan's international coproductions made constant news in the trade dailies: a Japanese remake of Alexander Payne's "Sideways"; Wim Wenders' impending adaptation of the novel "Miso Soup"; a headline that asked, "Are edgy Japanese filmmakers being marginalized by a lack of government support?"; and the most extravagant party in Cannes this year, given by the Avex group to salute John Woo's "Red Cliff," a coproduction with China Film Group, which saw sushi and sake, and entertainment by top-flight geisha, and drummer Okura Shonosuke, among others.

"Why wasn't it in Competition?" The perennial Cannes complaint about some film or other in the market or sidebar was most frequently heard this year in regard to Kurosawa's fine, very flawed "Tokyo Sonata," which ended up in the Un Certain Regard. Certainly preferable to many films in Official Competition, "Tokyo Sonata" reveals Kurosawa admirably grasping for a new maturity but failing to achieve it because of traits he can't shake. The first half suggests an update of the shomin-geki: a muted, masterfully controlled portrait of what the director calls "a very ordinary family in modern Japan," whose hidden fissures and banked resentments lead to their disintegration. The opening sequences, in which the hitherto successful father, Sasaki Ryuhei, is replaced by a Chinese man who will work for a third of his salary, are impressively compressed. Shifting from office to home, and from nervous, hand-held camerawork to a more fixed and pristine style for the Sasakis' apartment, "Tokyo Sonata" is no less efficient. Family relations are precisely established when eldest son Takashi returns home and snaps at his mother, Megumi, "I'm going to bed. Don't vacuum."

Taking a welcome break from J-horror and fantasy and courting new respect, Kurosawa is clearly uninterested in the subgenre of the Japanese satire of family life — think "Ajia no gyakusha (The Crazy Family)," "Kazoku Ge^mu (The Family Game)," or "Shitoyakana Kedamono (Elegant Beast)" — and more in the tradition of the disintegrating family as emblem of a wider societal breakdown. Developing a theme of deception, of subterranean emotion and adult life as play-acting, Kurosawa shows Ryuhei becoming one of Japan's secretly unemployed, maintaining a fiction with his family by spending his days (in business suit and with briefcase) in parks, libraries and useless job-hunting queues. Already rigid and tightly battened, he marshals what little self- respect he has by intimidating his smiling wife (wonderfully played by Kyoko Koizumi) and his two sons. The boys rebel, the eldest by enlisting in the Self-Defense Forces and going to Iraq, the younger, Kenji, by secretly signing up for piano lessons, violently denied him by his authoritarian father.

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Kyoko Koizumi, Kai Inowaka, Teruyuki Kagawa and Haruki Igawa in a scene from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata."

Alas, much goes awry in the second hour. Kurosawa's impeccable control inexplicably succumbs to overstatement, narrative overloading, schematic symbolism and sheer improbability.

F rench-funded but Japanese- produced, "Tokyo!" added a note of hilarity and controversy to the early days of Cannes. A three-part anthology of portraits of Tokyo by a trio of outsiders — American Michel Gondry, Frenchman Leos Carax and South Korean Joon-ho Bong — the film is the latest in the recently revived genre of the omnibus film, which collect several minifilms on a given theme by various directors. Common during the Italian and French cinema boom of the 1960s, the omnibus has inexplicably taken on new life, most recently with "Paris, Je t'aime." "Tokyo!" couldn't exactly be called, "Tokyo, I Hate You," but the three aliens who look at the city see a place of diminished opportunities, circumscribed lives, of earthquakes, isolation, and rampant xenophobia. I asked the Japanese producer Yoshitake Michiko how she though the film might subsequently be received in Japan. Her long, thoughtful reply began with the premise, "How are we seen by others?" She feels that Japanese viewers might feel discomfort but will recognize that it is an outsider's view of their country and will enjoy its humor.

Gondry, known for fey, brainy films such as "The Science of Sleep" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," turns in a surprisingly tender opening half-hour, titled "Interior Design." A young filmmaker and his girlfriend try to find their bearings in the megalopolis, moving in with a friend while they go on a dispiriting search through Tokyo's squalid, "reasonably priced" real estate. Gondry manages the shift from gentle observation to strange fantasy as the young, aimless woman morphs into a chair, her chest a lattice of spokes, her legs ungainly wooden appendages, as she learns to "live between the buildings with the ghosts." Despite a harshly funny episode in which a man deadpans that his boss is a "cavity" and should have died of pneumonia, Gondry's tale segues into sweet, sad surrealism, a soft preparation for the blast of bitterness called "Merde (Shit)" that follows.

The poisonous middle of "Tokyo!" made by middle-age bad boy Carax, "Merde" seems determined to skewer the Japanese for their every social and political foible, from the Rape of Nanjing to the cruelly capricious system of capital punishment; from mass conformity to xenophobia. Carax regular Denis Lavant, costumed as some psychotic leprechaun, with wild red hair and beard skewing sideways, deep-green suit and one bulging, milky eye, crawls out of the sewer and, in an extremely long, virtuoso take, terrorizes Tokyo streets by snatching cell phones, knocking crutches out from under people, grabbing money, etc. "Tokyo is very afraid," intones a catatonic television news announcer after bowing deeply, and indeed it should be. The sewer-dweller indiscriminately kills by tossing leftover World War II grenades he discovers in his lair. More than a scurrying Id, he is a frightening Return of the Repressed, going so far as to criticize Japanese for living too long and for their eyes, shaped, he says, "like women's sex. It's disgusting." Little wonder that Carax's contribution was called everything from "offensive burlesque" to an "odd, angry little curio." Carax perhaps pulls his final punch by declaring a sequel of "Merde" will be made in New York, but one can't quite imagine the same ferocity being unleashed on Manhattanites.

After Carax's bile, Joon-ho Bong, who knows all about creatures from the deep (see "The Host"), offers the lovely "Shaking Tokyo," about a hikikomori (shut-in) who has not left his apartment in a decade. When a beautiful young woman delivering a pizza to him faints during an earthquake, his life of hermetic isolation is forced to an end. Elegant editing and cinematography, however, cannot disguise the need for Bong's slow-burn aesthetic to develop this sketch into something more substantial than this "strange love story," as the director calls it.

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