by Harlan Kennedy



Someone had rearranged Berlin while I wasn't looking. The festival screening center had returned to the cavernous and beloved Zoo-Palast from the faraway World Culture House, that hat-shaped building just this side of the North Pole where we have frolicked since the early Nineties. Horst Benzrath, the archangel of press officers, now hung his halo at the centrally located Intercontinental Hotel, across from a coffee lounge bustling with festival celebs. ("Sir Ian, do you know Andrzej from Poland? And this is young Quentin who has just arrived from Hollywood!") And unlike some parts of town where the Arctic weather leaked through windows – my hotel, for instance, with its wall-sampler reading "Strength Through Cold" – the festival had turned its own temperature up to red hot. The Hollywood presence alone suggested that fest boss Moritz De Hadeln saw Berlin '96 as a roadshow warmup for the Oscars.

Glittering through the city were Travolta, Tarantino, Thompson, DeVito, Julia Roberts, Oliver Stone, Sally Field, plus two retrospective grandees in Jack Lemmon and Elia Kazan. This double act, soon fondly known as Die Grumpischen Old Menschen Part Drei, charmed Berlin. William Wyler had an even larger retrospective, but for reasons needing no elaboration could not attend.

The other major presences were Far East modernism and British costumery. The first crowned, the second commenced, the main Competition. Since we expect an orgy of screen Bardism this year, Richard III served warning. Too much ducking, weaving, and updating around a text the film seemed to apologize for rather than rejoice in. The next day, two of Dick 3's stars, Ian McKellen and Robert Downey Jr., reappeared in Restoration. And when Home for the Holidays pushed Downey at us yet again, we wondered if every film would star some permutation of the English knight and the overgrown Brat-Packer.

Mercifully Stephen Frears's Mary 'Reilly and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, which won the Golden Bear for Best Film, each proved a Downey/McKellen-free area. Though there were few other mercies in Frears's riff on the Jekyll-Hyde story, with maidservant Julia Roberts suffering amorous whiplash as her gaze oscillates between John Malkovich with beard (the doc) and J.M. with long hair (the beast). Lee's Sinn and Sinnlichkeit (Germ. tit.) was another matter. Thanks to a Taiwaner who began his rise here when The Wedding Banquet won the 1993 Golden Bear – he's the only filmmaker to have won the grizzly twice – we saw how much British theatricalism can benefit from a dose of Oriental enigma.

We are not sure that the proposition is reversible. Early scenes of Edward Yang's superb Taiwanese comedy MahJongg – unjustly left out of prizes – are all but scuttled by the gauchely played English/European characters who try to match business scams with a group of young Taipei gangsters. Once they recede, the film becomes a razor-fine satire on mercantilism versus morality. Yang used to be an Eastern Antonioni, portraying anomie among the highrises. Now he has found the fun in emotional disorientation. There is the young hoodlum with scalped coiffure who insists that gang members share their girlfriends, but runs screaming if a girl kisses him ("It's bad luck! Bad luck!"). There is the rich woman's bewildered toyboy who is stuffed with takeaway food before each love session: "Once I hit the road, I don't stop for gas," she declaims. And everywhere there is a picture of Taipei as a gorging consumer heaven (or hell): a Chinese takeaway being readied for Chinese takeover.

Yang has turned from a dirge-master into a Taiwanese Wong Kar-Wai: witty and modern, though without the Wongky visuals. We get those in WKW's Fallen Angels (Duoluo Tianshi), which is Chungking Express Part Two in all but name. Hitmen, prostitutes, and lovers parade for the extreme-wide-angle lens and for the MTV games Wong plays with color, pixilated movement, and random editing. On this evidence Wong may be making the same film into the next century. According to taste, he can he seen as a Mondrian perfecting his art or a smart lad cashing in on a good gimmick.

Tsui Hark's The Blade (Dao) and He Ping's Sun Valley (Ri Guang Xia Gu), both Hong Kong-China co-productions, also revamp the familiar. Buffing up the silverware of the martial arts movie, both give us vengeance, talismanic swordware, and two men fighting over one woman. Stylewise, though, they are stark opposites. Tsui Hark treats the screen as a total madness zone, where wild camerawork and editing slash plot coherence to shreds. Very Dadaist: especially for the first Chinese flick ever allowed to be distributed throughout the People's Republic by its own studio. He Ping's film, by contrast, is a broad-canvas oater about rival lovers whose enmity is catalyzed by a magic sword. Lots of space, horses, and Virgil Thomson-goes-east music. But whenever He, who made the estimable Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, lights the action fuse there are fireworks aplenty.

Yim Ho's The Sun Has Ears (Tai Yang You Er) came closest to greatness among Eastern movies. All the more frustrating that dodgy structure fights fabulous detailing. The screenplay, co-authored by Red Sorghum's Mo Yan, gives us a strife-torn 1920s China and a three-way passion involving a young warlord, a village wife, and the jealous older husband forced to lend her to him for ten days of droit de seigneur. Across a land burning with history's devastations, the three characters go through every vicissitude you can name, from disgrace to army promotion to pregnancy to near-hanging to (in one case) horrible death.

Yim, who won this year's Silver Bear for Best Director, is a Hong Kong helmer who scored a hit last year with his psychodrama The Day the Sun Turned Cold. He specializes in an eerily brilliant use of objects. Domestic props – a large, creaking wooden noodle strainer, a candle whose guttering wax has fallen into writhing intestinal patterns – provide a sardonic commentary on the scenes of love, grief, or anger. And in one "black-and-white" flashback shot, the single detail of a horse's rein tugged through one character's hand by another's is picked out in red, as if to highlight the lovers' wrestling with their doomed passion during a riding trip.

Since the camerawork is also by a Zhang Yimou veteran, Raise the Red Lantern's Zhao Fei, The Sun Has Ears has a vivid inventiveness of color, chiaroscuro, and expressionist distortion. But unlike Zhang's films, the plot-shaping never quite finds that perfect inevitability whereby humanity's quest for the infinite, in love or glory, is crucified on the cross of the finite.


Hollywood fought back nobly at Berlin with Get Shorty (Schnappt Shorty), Toy Story (Die Toys Sind Los), and Nixon (Nixon). Meanwhile, Dead Man Walking won Sean Penn the Best Actor prize. But the global spaces between far East and far West – i.e., Europe – were a big dustbowl. The Continent seems to have forgotten how to rotate the crops. Veterans like Wajda and Widerberg were wheelbarrowed into view again, with neither Bo's sexual-awakening saga All Is Fair (Lust Och Vagrino Stor) nor Andrzej's tale of Warsaw Ghetto troubles Holy Week (Wielki Tydzien) flowering into exciting life; however, the salable blandness of the former won it a Special Jury Prize to go with its Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Bertrand Blier in Mon Homme put up another tired-looking shoot from the genus Comedia sexualis buñueliensa. And elsewhere hope-for-the-best hybrids ran riot.

In this class, Michael Verhoeven's German-British tale from the Hungarian occupation A Mother's Courage was marginally preferable – thanks to Pauline Collins excelling even through German dubbing as a Ma Courage narrowly dodging deportation to Auschwitz – to Italy-France's Strangled Lives, a Ricky Tognazzi high-finance thriller, and France-Belgium-Tunisia's pastoral parable sans point, A Summer in La Goulette.

Outside the Competition, it was high summer for American independents. Two ToddsSolondz and Verow – dazzled their counterculture audiences with low-budget hits from opposite ends of the spectrum. Solondz's Sundance Grand Jury winner Welcome to the Dollhouse introduced Europeans to a species they never knew existed: the plain American high school girl (they thought all U.S. girls of teachable age looked like Alicia Silverstone). And Verow's Frisk was an exploration of far-out gay sado-masochism that had a thousand people at each screening picking up their jaws from the floor.

Did any previous film allowed into an international festival ever present sexually motivated torture, murder, and evisceration as reasonable movie topics? Frisk is not quite a good film: it stutters like a home movie from tableau to tableau, with a few bits of showoff montage between. But it won friends for its barefaced cheek (in all possible senses) and for lobbing a few searing moral heresies into the age of Pat Buchanan.

The other difficult-human-relationships movie shown and liked outside the Competition was Karl Francis's Streetlife. Made for BBC Wales on a budget that makes El Mariachi seem like Waterworld, its plain, pale style matches the features of its unmarried mother (Helen McCrory) who, after a lover's jilting, kills her newborn baby. Grim, believable, sometimes bleakly funny, this is a Ken Loach film by another signature. But even Loach would have difficulty matching Francis's fiercely focused humanism or coaxing a better performance than McCrory's. With her face of smudgy pain and beauty under suburban-peroxide locks, she could be Marilyn Monroe painted by Egon Schiele.

But we all felt like that at times during this Berlin. Whenever you stepped from your hotel you were drizzled on from ashtray skies or snowed on by blizzards moving in from the Himalayas. Walk west and you could grope through frozen fog towards the Zoo-Palast. But make sure the cry of primates drawing you on comes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and not from the real Zoo a little to the right. People have been trapped there for days, missing presumed eaten. Move east and you find yourself in the Retrospective Zone (cue Rod Serling voice and tinkly music). Here Messrs. Kazan, Lemmon, and Wyler came alive with an iceberg-like cracking sound, thanks to the cryogenics of cinema.

In the warmer world of the prize and hospitality salons, Lemmon grabbed a Golden Bear for career achievement; Kazan grabbed several fur coats for a guest visit to Babelsberg studio; and passing honoree Sally Field, starring in John Schlesinger's Death Wish-meets-The Star Chamber thriller Eye for an Eye, grabbed a "Berlinale Camera" for services as a longtime friend of the festival. This small jeweled sculpture, seemingly fashioned by Albert Speer in collaboration with Carl Faberge, commemorated Field's present and former visits. We particularly remember her dancing atop the Wall in the year of liberation. And this year, when she referred to Berlin in her speech as a"city of dreams;" she gave your reporter a perfect segue to the last-day movie that won this year's Golden Harlan for best film.

Village of Dreams (E No Naka No Boku No Mura) also won a Silver Bear for "outstanding single achievement" although director Yoichi Higashi has made fifteen films before. Perhaps Nikita Mikhalkov's jury, a haggard, heavily coated bunch resembling refugees from a Jean-Pierre Melville film, was too exhausted to factor in a late Japanese movie, let alone look at its maker's filmography.

Two picturebook writers who are also identical twins recall in feature-length flashback their childhood. The adults, played by actors, are based on two real artist/authors. The kids, played by two spindly, stark-eyed charmers, romp across the screen bringing the spirit of Huck Finn to the world of Bokusai.

Fishing scenes, school scenes, truancy scenes, eel-catching scenes. All are presented not with some sentimental or moralizing agenda à la Hollywood, but with the purest primitive pantheism. Village of Dreams unfurls like the picture scroll the adult twins are seen working on in the prologue. The film's magic is that there is no center, and no sense of gravity, either. Now we're underwater as one swimming boy chases a sun-hat fallen in the river. Now we pad across a midnight courtyard as a piece of linen fallen from a washing-line dances surreally in the wind. Later still we crane into the branches of a giant tree where perch three black-dressed old ladies, who turn out to be Higashi's witch chorus commenting on the action.

Yet the movie seems naturalistic to its core. The nearest it gets to a special effect is providing ideogram-subtitles for a brief scene of talking fishes. Even here, such is the tone of Zen serenity that carps who mutter "You can't catch me" seem no odder as part of a boy's experience than do chaos in the classroom, bossy older sisters ("Get dressed or the thunder god will steal your penis"), or tonsillectomy: all the rites of passage that Higashi wittily, beatifically pushes us through.

Village of Dreams shows that not every Eastern movie miracle today happens in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Or, for that matter, in Cannes or Venice. Berlin may be the coldest frontline festival in Europe. But the mark of good movies is that they can be spread straight from the freezer and may even be fresher that way. Strength Through Cold, meinen damen and herren.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.