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 roadshowwarmup 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 EliaKazan.
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'sMary 'Reilly and AngLee'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
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
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'sFallen Angels (DuoluoTianshi), 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.
Blade (Dao) and He Ping'sSun Valley(Ri GuangXiaGu), 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.
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.
who won this year's Silver Bear for Best Director, is a Hong Konghelmer 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.
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 OchVagrinoStor)nor Andrzej's
tale of Warsaw Ghetto troubles Holy Week (WielkiTydzien)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 Hommeput up another tired-looking
shoot from the genus Comediasexualis 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 Todds – Solondz 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
was an exploration of far-out gay sado-masochism
that had a thousand people at each screening picking up their jaws from the
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.
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
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
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.
APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1996 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.