Hotbeds and Hinterlands

A fistful of discoveries, comebacks, and consolidations

For those of us who get to go to film festivals, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing great filmmakers doing what they do best—and this year at Cannes there was plenty of that. But there’s a different kind of satisfaction afforded by the revelation of an unforeseen knockout from an unfamiliar quarter. The treasure hunt for new discoveries always leads to the festival’s sidebars (Un Certain Regard and, at least in previous years, Critics’ Week) and satellite events (Directors’ Fortnight). This year’s two top finds were Cristi Puiu’s hilarious and horrifying Certain Regard prize-winner The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, from Romania, and Vimukhti Jayasundara’s Camera d’Or–winning debut, The Forsaken Land, from Sri Lanka.

From its opening images of a bare landscape and a dilapidated house, The Forsaken Land is unmistakably the work of someone in complete control of his material. Set in the hinterlands, Jayasundara’s film is a spare, poetically fragmented, and haunting look at life in the uneasy post-traumatic aftermath of decades of civil war. The main character is a Home Guardsman who lives with his young wife and older sister at a lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere. Apart from a little girl who takes the daily bus to school, everyone is stuck in a kind of enervated limbo, barely disrupted by the occasional passing tank or truckload of soldiers. The film’s pervasive sense of hopelessness and disconnection, with its pointless brutality, desperate sexual interludes, and semi-verbal domestic tensions, firmly conveys the way in which war blights the lives of all involved long after the fighting ends. What’s particularly striking is the way in which Jayasundara is able to fashion images—an arm protruding from a shallow pond, a blood-soaked patch of grass—that continually surprise and resonate long after the film is over, hovering just this side of the symbolic. On the basis of this first effort, great things can be expected of Jayasundara, who is only 27. And his film is a triumphant vindication of Cannes’s Cinéfondation program, of which the director is an alumnus.

Shane Black’s directorial debut may not be a revelation of the same magnitude as The Forsaken Land (and I have a feeling he passed up the Cinéfondation residency), but his engaging if exhausting Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang deserves its due. Famously ambivalent about his success as the screenwriter of action flicks like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black, as his film’s self-deprecating title promises, serves up a self-parodic riff on his signature combination of hardboiled whodunit, state-of-the-art overkill, and ultra-cynical dialogue. As a New York thief on the run who finds himself accidentally cast in a movie and then stumbles into a murder mystery, the normally insufferable Robert Downey Jr. has finally found a role he was born to play, with strong support from Val Kilmer as a gay Hollywood shamus and Michelle Monaghan as Downey’s childhood sweetheart turned aspiring actress. Clearly embracing the post–Fight Club vogue for narrative interruptus and subversive voiceover, Black jams the film into fast-forward and pushes the often hilarious non-stop Hollywood-plays-with-itself dialogue past the point of no return and beyond. Ultimately, though, the film is self-defeatingly manic—you get the feeling that you’re watching a nervous breakdown rather than a movie.

A Tale of Cinema

Throughout the festival, South Korean cinema was out in force, with half a dozen titles representing virtually the entire spectrum of the country’s filmmaking output. Hong Sang-soo returned to his playful structural games with A Tale of Cinema, a Competition highlight. Adopting the same gambit as Kira Muratova’s The Aesthenic Syndrome, Hong pulls the rug out from under the viewer at midpoint by abruptly disclosing that the narrative we’ve been following thus far is a film within a film. The main character makes his entrance as he exits a movie theater and starts tailing the film’s lead actress, who happens to be in the audience. If you blinked and missed this twist, you’d soon be completely lost, because there’s no aesthetic difference between Hong’s movie and his movie-within-movie (they share the same slightly mannered use of intrusive zoom-ins). Ever inventive, Hong continues to find new ways to play out the deadpan deflation of moral impasse and male narcissism—here with a protagonist who claims that the suicidal character in the film he’s just seen is based on him.

When it comes to Korean art cinema, Hong is the real thing—and then there’s the indefatigable Kim Ki-duk. I know what you’re going to say: I’ve drunk Kim debunker Tony Rayns’s Kool-Aid. But before you do, watch The Bow. I can’t wait to see how the director’s fans will defend this unmitigated fiasco, in which a Zen archer lives with an orphaned girl on his isolated boat anchored on the high seas. He spends most of his time and energyguarding her from the lascivious attentions of the recreational fishermen he hires the rigout to, and countsthe days until she comes of age so that he can marry and deflower her. Like the last several Kim films, his two main characters never speak—an indication that the director has now entered his “pure cinema” phase? Or simply that his material has become so facile that a pantomime aesthetic now suffices? Kim’s strained attempt to marry heavy-handed symbolism, playful slapstick, and ersatzsoulfulness has never been more jaw-droppingly ludicrous than it is here. The Bow was the laughingstock of the festival. Cannes has finally picked up on Kim just as he’s hit rock bottom.

Shown out of competition, A Bittersweet Life, Kim Jee-woon’s follow-up to A Tale of Two Sisters, is another super-stylish genre workout. A self-effacing yet formidable young mob enforcer is ordered to keep tabs on the comings and goings of his gangster boss’s girlfriend. Falling for her, he decides not to expose her infidelity with another man, and when his disloyalty is revealed, he’s marked for death. Cue standard-issue one-man-against-gangster-hordes showdown. There’s nothing going on here, but Kim’s film is unpretentious, reasonably diverting, and proficient. Far more interesting, Im Sang-soo’s idiosyncratic and refreshingly unpredictable The President’s Last Bang premiered over in the Directors’ Fortnight. The film is a satirical account of the 24 hours surrounding the 1979 assassination of President Park Chunghee and his bodyguards by the director of the Korean CIA. Rather delightfully, the film’s conspiracy thriller mise-en-scène and scoring are constantly undercut by its eccentric characterizations and increasingly farcical action. Kim emphasizes petty resentment and inter-service rivalry over politics and presents Park as a feeble old lech surrounded by incompetents. “Load real bullets!” commands a general as he mobilizes the troops, and when the chiefs of staff assemble in the morgue, one of them hastily covers the late President’s genitals with his cap.

Cindy, the Doll Is Mine

As ever, Cannes managed to crowbar a fair number of curiosities and not-quites into its interstices. And so, returning two years after the disastrous Competition premiere of Tiresia, Bertrand Bonello unveiled his 15-minute Cindy, the Doll Is Mine. A ponderous and misconceived homage to the photography of Cindy Sherman, it stars the ubiquitous Asia Argento in a dual performance as artist and model: Asia the Photographer directs Asia the Model as she gropes her way toward the Right Image. For what it’s worth, Argento nails the push-pull of looking and posing, but Bonello evidently conceives of the two Asias as facets of a single psyche in dialogue with itself—Sherman is always the subject of her own photographs, see? But in reinventing Sherman’s process as an entirely fatuous psychodrama, Bonello completely misunderstands her exploration of the construction and contrivance of the photographic image, reinstating the tired old myth of the angst-filled artist and her sadomasochistic empathy with her subject.

There’s always at least one competition film that gets overlooked at Cannes, usually because it doesn’t have sufficient must-see brand-name cachet. This year, just barely pipping Masahiro Kobayashi’s Bashing at the post, the award for Most Undeservedly Unremarked Competition film went to Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams. Wang’s Eighties period piece, which deservedly won the Jury Prize, proved a major return to form for the director whose career has been languishing since his groundbreaking Sixth Generation debut The Days. An exploration of the limits (and betrayals) of authority, Dreams explores the predicament of a generation whose city-born parents resettled in China’s impoverished interior during the Cultural Revolution to help jump-start the country’s industrial march of progress but who now yearn to go home as China begins to take its first steps toward economic liberalization. Wanting a better life for his children, a father repeatedly exhorts his teenage daughter to concentrate on her studies and earn her ticket out of town through university entrance. Just like the killjoy Party ideologues who punish students for wearing bell-­bottoms to school, this forbidding patriarch forces the girl to break off her relationship with her factory-worker sweetheart. Interestingly, his authoritarian actions implicitly expose the class divide between the proletarian locals and the town’s discontented urban exiles, who listen to Voice of America broadcasts to find out what’s going on in the outside world. The film’s acknowledgment of class conflict is startling, and it sets the stage for a quietly devastating final-reel tragedy. Neither melodramatic nor overly detached, Wang’s delicate handling and visual intelligence are exemplary, neatly sidestepping the clichés of Sixth Generation dingy realism while retaining a satisfying sense of milieu and landscape. Though Shanghai Dreams is hardly nostalgic, at times it yields time-capsule pleasures comparable to those in Jia Zhangke’s Platform. In one sequence the daughter reluctantly accompanies her racier best friend to an underground dance party, where a local would-be ­Travolta struts his stuff. The shindig is then broken up by a rumble between gangs from rival factories—the music may be Boney M.’s rendition of “Rivers of Babylon,” but this vivid instance of class consciousness on the dance floor is worthy of the Clash.