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Expressions International
by Marinell Haegelin

When another journalist complained about the film Hanezu, citing the actors’ minimalist facial expressions as the cause, I was taken aback: intrinsically films are culturally diverse, reflecting their global base, just as are actors’ portrayal of a character. The pace of European films is deliberate, whereas American films tend to be action-packed, with Mid-Eastern and Australian films straddling the middle, while India’s Bollywood is a genre unto itself. My interest piqued, I began comparing the films I screened.

Director Naomi Kawase has an ancient soul in a contemporary body; the Nara Prefecture (Region) where Hanezu was filmed, formerly the Asuka region, is the birthplace both of Japan and Kawase. In ancient times, personal fulfillment came through waiting, and people believed three small mountains there, expressions of human karma, to be inhabited by gods. Against this backdrop, yet living in the present, Kayoko (Hako Oshima) dyes her scarves by rote, attends to her husband, prays at a Shrine; only the wood-carver artist Takumi (Tohta Komizu) seems to bring out emotionality in her. Both are not good at waiting though, and neither know what they want until fate allows no recourse. Kawase says, “… (Nara) nurture(s) me. There are traditions and culture that I want the children of the next generation to inherit”, perhaps clarifying that Hanezu is shrouded in metaphoric mystery. Japan’s culture dates back to 30,000 BC, today it has the world’s tenth largest population, crammed onto the world’s 62nd ranked land area. Not hard then to understand why Japanese are renowned for being reticent, polite, vague, calm, and communicating in a subtle way, most confusing for westerners. 

On the other hand, China is a more emotive society—outgoing, inquisitive, generous and genuine, as well as shy and suspicious—as demonstrated in Piano in a Factory. Musician Chen’s small band plays anywhere, at any time, as he strives to make ends meet. Distraught when his estranged wife shows up demanding both a divorce and custody of their young daughter, with an obviously rich boyfriend to boot, Chen turns to his friends for support. He is convinced a piano is the key to keeping his musical daughter; when he and his motley crew are not able to steal one, he fixates on and involves them with building one. Morals modify along the way, whereby Chen graciously acquiesces to life’s evident equilibrium. Writer / director Zhang Meng bases his screenplay on having seen such a piano in a factory his father took him to when a boy; the film is poignant and funny, with an uplifting score. The Los Angeles Times once quoted a Warner Brothers Sinologist: “Chinese people are very verbal, have vivid imaginations”; conversely the New York Times quoted Taiwan-raised American director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan with, “The Chinese are not very expressive. We don’t tend to say, ‘I love you,’ even to our families, and we’re not physically affectionate.” Go figure.

Americans are demonstrative, brash, easygoing, fair, open-minded, ruthless, and loud—ask anyone from any other country. Abandoned by his parents, 15-year-old Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is fat, friendless, and, unapologetically wears pajamas to school, accepts being the brunt of jokes, adores popular Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) from afar, and, takes care of his sick uncle with whom he lives. Unexpectedly, boisterous Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the vice-principal, takes him under his wing; waiting in his office he gets to better know fellow misfit Chad (Bridger Zadina). Yet however hard Terri tries, at anything, something seems to backfire. Puberty, high school: in Terri, director Azazel Jacobs’ character-driven, pragmatically paced film manages to mingle the best and worst of this growing-up phase, demonstrating humanity’s ability to offend and empathize, nurture and amuse.

Director Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower seems more like an American film than a Canadian / German co-production. Perhaps it is because she studied filmmaking in New York City, and now lives in Los Angeles. “As a Ukrainian, it was important to me to tell the story of trafficking, but what I had no idea was just how broad the crime was.” Until Kondracki read about Kathy Bolkovac: the screenplay she co-wrote with Eilis Kirwan is based on the revolting reality Kathy Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a Nebraska cop, encounters after accepting work in 1999 as a United Nations peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Bolkovac’s courageous exposure of internal UN corruption had far-reaching consequences internationally for social and legal policies, and for human rights. Kondracki’s fast-paced, nail-biting, expressive feature-directing debut has known limited release in the USA other than at film festivals—ironical considering the international press surrounding the affair, and public attention in Europe. 

The European equivalent of The Whistleblower is Press, also based on a very real 1990’s situation, when besieged journalists struggled for world-awareness of the continual human rights violations occurring as Kurdish guerillas doggedly competed with the Turkish government for control. At the Free Agenda newspaper office Firat (Aram Dildar) is the go-for, fixer-of-anything-mechanical, and as the night watchman, lives there. A smart kid liked by the staff of veterans, under their tutelage he teaches himself grammar, to type, and journalistic skills. As violence escalates, he takes on more duties. With their lives on the line, and their focus on publishing the facts, he provides daring, and dedication to his friends and the profession. Writer / director Sedat Yilmaz tempers his spellbinding story with excellent production values and exceptional acting. Turkish people internalize both the East and West, i.e. are resplendently contradictory, strongly traditional, and family loyalty is extremely important; they are very animated when communicating yet temperate, reliable, and natural. Turkey is caught in a rapid modernization process, (supposedly) relinquishing aspects of their traditionalism in their ambition to become a member of the European Union. If you get the opportunity, see this film.

The Other Side of Sleep, an Ireland/ Netherlands/ Hungary production, is deliberately paced and the performances are infinitely understated. Arlene (Antonia Campbell Hughes) lives alone and works in a factory in her small rural hometown. A sleepwalker since childhood, when she wakes up next to a corpse in the countryside, and with her sense of reality obscured, she deliberately befriends the grieving family to learn the truth. Concentrating on the dead girl’s sister, and her boyfriend who the wary community have under scrutiny, Arlene is unaware she too is being scrutinized. Her determination to save herself shifts the configuration. Rebecca Daly, under the auspices of the Cannes Cinéfondation Résidence du Festival, co-wrote the screenplay with Glenn Montgomery and directs. Any disconnect is not with the Arlene character, but that Daly’s debut feature film is somewhat ponderous and puzzling.

And then there is Australia. A Pacific Rim country, Australia combines all afore mentioned characteristics plus those of the indigenous Australians. Australia, like New Zealand, has a reputation for making unique films from distinct perspectives. In Sleeping Beauty Lucy (Emily Browning) funds her university studies, and her alcoholic mum, through menial jobs, moving through life—interaction with her roommates, employers, fellow students, and flip-of-the-coin determined sex partners—passively detached and patiently uncomplaining. She gets a very well paid job as a Silver Service Waitress; Clara (Rachael Blake) hires Lucy and repeatedly warns, with hints of personal wisdom that Lucy should work hard, save money and move on. Instead, Lucy moves up; “You will go to sleep: you will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed.” Wealthy old men act out their fantasies or try to recapture vanished sensations as Lucy lay in induced submissiveness in the Sleep Chamber. They react to her unique beauty; she is consumed with knowing what happens during the hours she sleeps. Julia Leigh’s brave directorial debut is sensual, with voyeuristic tendencies, while exposing a mysterious world’s dirty little secrets. Director Jane Campion calls Sleeping Beauty a contemporary piece of existential cinema, and the film will surely evoke strong emotions in audiences. But rather than erotic, the film is thoughtfully disturbing as it probes complex issues—the mindset of manipulators being controlled, personal disengagement, sexual amorality—with long takes that editor Nick Meyers cuts with mesmeric precision. Leigh skillfully massages a range of emotive manifestations from her cast (kudos to Browning), contrasting that with minimum dialogue and background music, setting herself up as a director to keep an eye on.

Admittedly all the cultural diversities I have mentioned are but generalized preconceptions, or visa-versa. With high-speed Internet, television, increased immigration, and globalization, the global community’s ethnicities shall also blur. But, will it ever reach the point where movie fans cannot recognize a Japanese film from one shot in Europe —that is the question.