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Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

'The Orphanage'/'The Edge of Heaven'

Time to be scared, to be very scared


It's hard to say you're a fan of horror movies these days without people looking at you like you're some drooling feeb in need of institutional help. The genre is so degraded and depraved, it's hard to say what's worse: the numbing repetition of the slasher franchises, or the sick sadism of "Saw" et al., which want you to enjoy the torturer's thrills.

The Orphanage Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Belén Rueda in "The Orphanage" RODAR Y RODAR CINE Y TELEVISION, S.L./TELECINCO CINEMA, S.A., 2006

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: Spanish
Opens Dec. 20, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

So let's forget about "horror" and just say we like films that scare us. Yes, these do exist, and the absolute best in recent years is Juan Antonio Bayona's debut, "The Orphanage" (titled "Eien no Kodomotachi" in Japan). If this flick doesn't scare the living shizzbit out of you, check your pulse.

"The Orphanage" was the biggest hit in Spain since 2001's "The Others," and it actually resembles that film a bit: There's a mother who moves with her sick child into an eerie old house that seems to be haunted. Yet while "The Others" never managed to be more than slightly spooky, "The Orphanage" conjures up a spell of pure terror.

Set in present-day Spain, "The Orphanage" follows adoptive mother Laura (Belen Rueda, "The Sea Inside"), with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and son, Simon (Roger Princep), as she moves back to the remote orphanage where she grew up as a child. Laura plans to turn the old, labyrinthine building into a home for special-needs children, but she hasn't been there long when Simon starts talking about his imaginary friend Tomas. Disturbingly, physical signs of Tomas' presence start to appear, and Laura's fears increase when a strange, threatening social worker (Mabel Rivera) suddenly turns up.

On the day of the orphanage's re-opening party, Simon disappears, and in an absolutely delirious scene, Laura runs around the garden, tearing the masks off the partygoers, to see if any of them are Simon. It's perfectly executed terror by Bayona, with the camera veering left and right, jump-cutting between the masked kids — who suddenly seem threatening in their anonymity — before finally showing us a glimpse of someone who shouldn't be there: Tomas.

Bayona shapes his film along two strands: One, a mother's grief and the strength and determination she finds to do anything to find her child; the other, a classic haunting story in which dark secrets refuse to remain buried.

The Edge of Heaven Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Hanna Schygulla in "Edge of Heaven"

Director: Fatih Akin
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: German, Turkish, English
Opens Dec. 27, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

It's the strength of the performances, though — particularly by Rueda, and Geraldine Chaplin as a psychic who speaks with the dead — and Bayona's sheer skill in using insinuating sound, well-planned camera-work, and escalating tension to scare the bejeezus out of you, that really set this film apart from the pack. Notably, Bayona eschews gore, but for one quick shocker.

Expertly combining the psychological realism of, "Don't Look Now" (the 1973 classic), for example, with the dread and paranoia of "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "The Orphanage" resurrects the tactics of vintage horror to great effect.

My No. 1 film of 2006 was Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's "Head On," a ferocious, punk love story that veered wildly between hope and despair. After a diversion into Istanbul's music scene with last year's documentary "Crossing The Bridge," Akin again picks up his themes of doomed love and shifting cultural identity in his excellent new film, "The Edge Of Heaven" (titled "Soshite, Watashitachi wa Ai ni Kaeru" in Japan).

Akin employs the currently trendy trope of using disparate characters and storylines and finding the almost coincidental points of connection between them. This is getting a bit overused these days ("Babel," "Crash," etc.), but Akin deftly uses it to explore generations in flux between Istanbul and Germany. Whether running from something, or desperately seeking someone, Akin's characters never just travel, they are driven.

"The Edge Of Heaven" starts in Bremen, where retiree expat Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) visits a Turkish prostitute, Yeter (Nursel Kose). When Yeter is threatened by Muslim fundamentalists in her neighborhood, she accepts Ali's offer to move in with him. Ali's son, a professor named Nejat (Aki Davrak), disapproves, but he becomes close to her when Ali is hospitalized. Ali senses this, and when he returns, he gets drunk and violent one night, and tragedy ensues.

In another strand, we see Yeter's estranged daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay), who's a member of a banned Kurdish political group. When her friends are arrested, she flees to Hamburg, where she's befriended by a college student, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who soon becomes her lover. When Ayten is deported, Lotte goes to Istanbul to find her and bumps into Nejat, who is also looking for Ayten . . .

Politics, passion, generational conflict, migration, loss and redemption . . . Akin, who also penned the script, loads his film with almost more weight than it can bear, but he touches on each subject lightly. As in "Head On," death's shadow looms over the entire film. A couple of the main characters buy it before the last reel; one dies for love, another dies from it.

"The Edge of Heaven" lives up to its title, an elegiac film that reminds us we should make peace with parents and lovers well before we get to the edge where it will be too late for regrets.


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