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In a Strange Land
by Becky Tan

In this age of globalization it is not surprising that a number of films deal with displaced persons in a strange land. Some have moved voluntarily; some are fleeing impossible circumstances. Some live in cultural ghettos; some are for the short haul (drug couriers). Some reunite families. Some adjust well, and many are torn between two cultures. For example Triple Agent is about Fiodor, who fled the Tsar’s Russia to Paris in 1936. He is accompanied by his Greek wife, Arsinoé. They live in comfortable but mysterious circumstances. One day Fiodor and another Russian disappear. The story has been adapted from a true story by old master Eric Rohmer. It moves slowly. He is “used to people comparing his films to watching paint dry.” The costumes of 1936 were beautiful; many were originals from that period. The crime which involved espionage was never solved and the real wife died in a French prison for being an accomplice, although she knew nothing.

Ken Loach from Great Britain is a pleasant director. I was impressed with his calm demeanor and fine suggestions at the panel discussion on how to live with film critics (click here for that article). He’s been in the film business for 40 years and had such successes as KES, Raining Stones, Ladybird, My Name is Joe, Bread and Roses, and Sweet Sixteen. Therefore it is not surprising that his film Ae Fond Kiss is also pleasant, although the problem is serious. Casim is the only son of a Pakistani family in Glasgow. He must endure long discussions with his Muslim parents about their plans for his wedding with his cousin. His own problems (his love for Scottish Roisin) prevent him from standing by his younger sister who wants to move away to college. His older sister’s wedding to the man of everyone’s choice is endangered if Casim dishonors his family. Roisin teaches in a parochial school where she must follow church dogma. She argues with a bigoted Catholic priest and is soon without a job. In the end Loach sends his multicultural couple off into the sunset to live happily ever after together. This is a wonderfully made, humorous film with human interest, and I’m not surprised that it won the first prize given by the Ecumenical Jury. However, experience tells me this is too optimistic. I thought of Romeo and Juliet, who, if both had lived, would be arguing over the TV controls. A foreign critic asked me for the German meaning of “fond” and I said liebevoll, or at least more than nett. Do you agree? I had to look up ae in the dictionary and it means one. Nobody had a problem with kiss.

In Beautiful Country, a G.I. returns to the U.S. after the only mark he made during a stay in Viet Nam are memories of his big feet and an Eurasian child, which is “less than dust” in that country. The child, now a young man named Binh (Damien Nguyen), moves away from his aunt’s rural home to seek his mother in the city. We suffer with him as he goes from work as a gardener for rich Vietnamese who down trod their own people, to a refugee camp, to the hold of a ship carrying illegal refugees. He loses his new-found mother and brother and is hungry most of the time. On the positive side, he receives help from a beautiful prostitute; he helps engineer a reversal of power in the ship, and he finds the long-lost father living in a trailer on a lonely ranch. We are left in the assumption that he will dedicate his life to his father, who, so far, does not recognize this new roommate because he is blind. Perhaps we should think that the former soldier is as much a victim as the son. The idea behind the film is a good one, considering that is it very true in many ways, but it should have been shorter. Although it was almost a “medieval odyssey” as the Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland said, we didn’t need to know every detail. Nguyen is an excellent actor, but not Eurasian. Think Tiger Woods or Keanu Reeves. He could never convince anyone that he had a drop of Caucasian blood, which he doesn’t.

Moland visited Viet Nam in 1993 and loved it so much that he returned with his family. During the press conference, Chinese actress Bai Ling was confronted by a journalist speaking Chinese very quickly. The simultaneous translators were stymied. We thought we were listening to a political harangue. In the end Ling translated for us, saying that the journalist liked her performance and was happy to know that her career was progressing outside of China, from where she had more or less been ostracized after appearing in Red Corner with Richard Gere and also in The Crow.

Shouf Shouf Habibi! by director Albert ter Heerdt was a big hit in the Netherlands. Abdullah and his friends are young Moroccans in Holland. They have no goals other than getting rich quick (robbing a bank or becoming American film stars) and sex, which is mostly imaginary since they have so far resisted arranged marriages. They waste time making big plans in their cars or on the phone. None of them will ever amount to anything nor will they accept responsibility for themselves, although they feel called upon to judge others. Abdullah’s brother has a respectable job as a policeman and a Moroccan wife. He endangers the marriage by falling in love with his female colleague. Abdullah’s sister drops out of an upstairs window to meet her Dutch boyfriend who is willing to be an accomplice in divesting her of an unwanted virginity. The comedy is fast-paced with throwaway lines, but it’s all been said before in East is East or Bend It Like Beckham or aforementioned film Ae Fond Kiss.

Twenty-five degrees is hot for a winter’s day in Belgium and unusual things can happen. In 25 Degres en Hiver (25º in Winter) we share this day with Spanish immigrant Miguel and his small daughter Laura. He is a courier for his brother’s travel agency. He is lucky to live in an era of mobile phones, because every time his brother calls for a progress report, he is certainly just delivering the tickets to the customer. Naturally, he’s not. Instead he picks up a Ukranian woman named Sonia who has fled from the airport immigrant holding center and runs into his mother (Carmen Maura) who reports that his daughter is in the hospital. Soon all four are seeking Sonia’s husband, whom she planned to meet. There are episodes in an apartment, a senior citizens’ home, the travel office, and on the beach. Sonia finds her husband, who was not expecting her and has been living with a Belgian woman for years. As a parallel, Laura is homesick for her mother who moved to the U.S. and never sends for them. It was fun to see Carmen Maura again, that actress well-known from Almodovar films. French director Stéphane Vuillet said he always wanted to film in this familiar Belgian neighborhood. He considers Spain his real country, which explains the flamenco soundtrack. Although the film is quick and light-hearted, the topic of displaced persons is serious. (Becky Tan)

In 1919 the Red Army invaded Odessa, an historical reference for Trilogia: To Livadi Pou Dakrisi (Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow), the first of three films by director Theo Angelopoulos, which begins with a large group of Greek refugees huddled in mud flats surrounded by still water. They are all well-dressed in their finest black and carry large travel cases. At the front stands a middle-aged couple with two small children, a boy called Alexis (Nikos Poursanids) and a little girl, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini). Eleni was found by the family alone and crying in exile, so they took her with them.

The refugees build a new village on the flat, barren land, mooring their small wooden boats nearby along the river. Alexis’ mother dies and his father continues to raise the two children. As they grow up together, Alexis and Eleni fall in love. Eleni becomes pregnant. She is sent away by the village women to give birth to twin boys. Alexis’ father plans to marry Eleni but she conspires with Alexis to run away on the day of the wedding. Some musicians help the young couple leave the village and Alexis finds occasional work playing the accordion. Together they find their sons and take care of them from time to time. They return to their old village for the funeral of Alexis’ father. As Alexis, Eleni and their two boys sit in the empty house, villagers throw rocks through the windows. Night falls and the river waters rise. Alexis screams for a boat to save his children. Someone leaves a boat which they use to leave the drowning village forever. They return to the port city of Thessaloniki from which Alexis eventually leaves for America to tour with other musicians. He writes, promising to bring Eleni and the boys to America as soon as he can. Eleni, however, is imprisoned for supporting opponents to the current regime. The Second World War breaks out, and Alexis sees that his only chance of reuniting his family is to enlist in the American army. This is the beginning of tragic losses for Eleni.

Dialogue is brief throughout this three-hour film. Often just music and lingering looks suffice. But the real beauty of the story lies in the composition: the landscape, houses, boats, and moving music combined with the suffering etched into the faces of the refugees. Every frame is a vision of astonishing beauty, whether it depicts the funeral procession of boats gliding silently with hardly a ripple on the surface of the lake or reveals the brutality of war with brothers dead on the wet shores.

Director Theo Angelopoulos has been making movies for over thirty years. His films are always explorations of historical and existential subjects. You may recognize bits of Oedipus Rex and Seven against Thebes throughout the relationship between Alexis and Eleni. While shooting the film on location in Greece, two villages were built from scratch. One of about 100 houses, including a church and school, was built in the dry bottom of Lake Kerkini. This village was swept away as the water returned in winter, leaving barely enough time to shoot the last scene. The shots of the exodus of the villagers are stunning. Only a tree they planted remains standing tall in the middle of the lake. The second village of almost 200 dwellings was constructed like a terrace in the port town of Thessanloniki. Overall, they are grand sets for a masterpiece of tragedy. (Mary Nyiri)

Competition entry Country of My Skull is an adaptation of South African writer Antjie Krog’s award-winning novel about South Africa’s attempt to put its past behind it using a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) instead of regular trials or war crimes tribunals. In a large departure from the book, the film’s story is told from the perspective of an American journalist (played by Samuel L. Jackson) sent to South Africa to cover the hearings. While there, he meets an Afrikaans poet (played by Juliette Binoche) who is covering the hearings for radio. Their struggles to understand one another mirror the larger struggle of the country, which is trying to recover from the horrors of apartheid and somehow find healing by confronting perpetrators with their victims.

Director John Boorman faced a lot of challenges with the film, both beforehand in securing the financing and afterward from critics who didn’t like the addition of an American character or the romance that is also a large part of the screenplay. However, from the viewpoint of someone who knew very little about the TRC, I felt that the film did a good job of showing the viewpoints and emotions involved in rebuilding South Africa and finding a constructive way to confront the violence of the past. Although the romantic elements seemed a bit forced at times, they did add another dimension to the themes of understanding and reconciliation. Overall, I thought the film was rather inspirational, with great music and lessons that everyone, from casual moviegoers to national leaders, should take to heart.

Hamburg-born director M. X. Oberg presents The Stratosphere Girl, the story of Angela (Chloé Winkel), an 18-year-old European blonde whose passion for drawing manga-style comics isn’t going to get her a job after graduation. On a whim, she decides to take the advice of Yamamoto, a Japanese DJ she meets at her graduation party, and go to Tokyo to find work. Once there, she is quickly drawn into a strange and disorienting world, where young European women live five to an apartment and scratch out meager livings as hostesses, competing against one another for tips. Even scarier, though, are Angela’s comics, which spring to life and become animes in which she is the heroine. Soon, she must finish sketching the story in order to find out whether she will triumph . . . or possibly lose her life.

While the visual style of Girl was very interesting and imaginative, and the idea for the story was very interesting, overall the film didn’t quite achieve its purpose. The melding of reality and comics was difficult to understand, and the ending really didn’t make sense. Perhaps the director went overboard on the feelings of disorientation – the audience certainly experienced it with the main character, but we never recovered.

Finally, in a story of prejudices and their consequences, Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Lalecet al Hamaim (Walk on Water) follows Mossad agent Eyal (top Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi) in his attempts to find an elusive Nazi criminal. Posing as a tour guide, Eyal accompanies the German’s grandson Axel (Knut Berger) on a trip through Israel where he visits his sister Pia (Caroline Peters), who is living on a kibbutz. Eventually, Eyal’s search takes him to Berlin, where he not only learns more about the Germans he has grown up despising, but more about himself.

Lalecet does a good job of demon-strating the role the past still plays in the lives of young Israelis and Germans, for better or for worse. The film not only touches on Israelis’ feelings about Germans and vice versa, but also explores how the strained Israeli and Palestinian relations may have grown out of reactions to the Holocaust. Although the film’s ending is a bit over-the-top (and generated several questions at the press conference after the film’s screening), the acting is good, the scenery is interesting, and the themes are universal. (Kirsten Greco)