Pulp and Circumstance

Samurai slaughter and political journeys collide at a cinemaniacs' annual playground date

For the fifth year in a row, the staff of America's leading—make that only—non-academic magazine about movies reassembles its favorite festival movies from the recent past. As erratic as the judgments emitted from any locked roomful of cinemaniacs, "Film Comment Selects" is distinguished by its unflagging movie love—the only criterion is that someone's socks were somehow knocked off.

Often, the series revisits films that have slipped through the carelessly flung distribution fishnet, but this year half of the choices are slated for release. These include three of the most heavily heralded Korean films of the last few years: Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003), simultaneously a fascinating dissection of murder mystery tropes and a tragic portrait of the nation under the Chun regime, as well as the two latest films from Park Chan-wook. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is a pulpishly poetic morality tale— scrambling emotional gravity with outlandish plotting as only Korean films can—in which a tumble of organ-trafficking dominoes sets a new bar for what Americans can stomach in their noir melodramas. That is, until Oldboy(2003), in which schemes of methodical revenge cross and crisscross until you're left with something akin to a reconstituted Tod Browning gothic scoured of delicacy by Takashi Miike.

Park's films will also be rescreened at a BAM retro in March, but Miike's own Izo (2004) will likely be forgotten amid the filmmaker's own spuming output. It's a ludicrous samurai deconstruction that has its indestructible protagonist literally falling from one era and dimension to the next as if in a glitch-ridden computer game, slaughtering hordes of enemies while living out an abstracted idea of anti-authoritarian resistance. Miike's overabundant shortcut ideas and visual jokes can be tiring, but Izo could be read as an almost Sadean statement of uncompromising social sedition.

As purposefully cognoscitive as Miike's film is brutely impulsive, David Barison and Daniel Ross's The Ister (2004) is a three-hour-long document of a journey up the Danube interspersed with philosophical interviews and hunks of Heidegger, transforming the river's forward motion into a running argument on time and history as they are defined and redefined by mass culture. A brethren road trip through geopolitics and its discontents that sees The Ister and raises it two hours, Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi's Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (2004) takes its name from the 1947 U.N. Resolution 181, which proposed the two-nation border that never happened. Traveling north along an often evasive line in the sand, the two documentarians (one Jewish, one Arab) interview history-rewriting Zionists, settlement-resistant Arabs, tree-planting tourists, schoolkids, bigoted storekeepers, splenetic museum guides, and Palestinian youths looking to get out, asking them all about the Arab homes that were once here and are now gone. The dialogue between the humiliated oppressed and the rationalizing oppressor finds its own imbalance.

Christophe Honoré's Ma Mère (2004), from the memoir-fiction by Georges Bataille, is an odd, claustrophobically shot psychocomedy about a teenager (Philippe Garrel's son Louis) tempted into incest by his hedonistic mother (Isabelle Huppert), a scenario that dawdles with "shocking" ideas of casual fucking and bisexual experimentation in a way that seems both prudish and sophomoric. Huppert also shows up in Werner Schroeter's infantile, Ed Wood-ian Deux(2002), part of the series' sub-tribute to Bulle Ogier, who appears as the mother of grown twins (Huppert) in a stagnant hodgepodge of '80s-music-video surrealism, camp dress-up non sequiturs, and faux-arch dialogue. Both actresses should show greater care with their middle years.

Lisandro Alonso's lovely, remarkably eloquent Los Muertos (2004) is in another world, where an aging convict is released in rural Argentina and heads upriver to find his daughter and grandson. Exposition is all but absent; the focus is on the moment, the soothing re-establishment of intimacy with nature, performed and captured in astonishing single takes. Similarly, the veracity of real places and recordable actions is held close to Bahman Ghobadi's heart, and his new film, Turtles Can Fly(2004), set in a Kurdish outland where industry has been reduced to the excavation and sale of old land mines, comes close to being a visionary epic. The Iraq war literally looms; satellite dishes are frantically brokered; limb-deprived war orphans are parceled out to clean farmland of explosives. Full of realist personality and the mad lyricism of war residue, Ghobadi's film is flush with the heat of experience, and surely one of the world-beaters we'll see this year.

 
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