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The Far Side of the World

Idiosyncratic annual sampling ranges from post-Mao China to sleepy Sri Lanka

In its sixth incarnation, the "Film Comment Selects" series serves as something like a film-festival filtering system, scanning last year's global scene and handpicking movies that its editors and writers deem notable, yet are largely too austere, or too wacky, to get stateside distribution. It's a conscientiously idiosyncratic program, and the results can be scattershot, but the intent is pure and the overall level of achievement is only as amazing or tiresome as the art form itself manages to be outside of middle-class marketability.

Certainly, we're in the black if only for the opportunity to see the newest film by Hong Kong heartbreaker Stanley Kwan, who has had only one of his 10 superb features, 2001's Lan Yu, released in this country. Kwan is a woeful Sirk–von Sternberg–Demy inheritor like Wong Kar-wai, and Everlasting Regret is virtually a frieze of iconic melodrama and fetishized beauty. Covering three decades in the life of a Shanghai glamour girl (the Rorschach-like Sammi Cheng), from the postwar Westernization through the Cultural Revolution hangover of the early '80s, Kwan's swoony, off-kilter lyric doesn't portray history so much as, like its heroine, try to ignore it. Instead, the lavishly designed tragedy of the film pours forth from suppressed smiles, failed connections, the inadequacy, finally, of beauty and decorative luxury for rescuing happiness.

Also engaged with the post-Mao era, Wang Xiaoshuai's Shanghai Dreams supplies all the dramatics Kwan elided, focusing on a teenage girl trying to come of age despite her oppressive father, who bitterly resents the decade his family has spent in the country after being relocated. Bursting with cultural-transition details and seductive deep-shadow cinematography (by Wang partner Wu Di), Shanghai Dreams raps out a generational combat overfamiliar to us since the Eisenhower years, and does it repetitively, but expertly summoned sadness waits in the wings. At least it's not "minimalist," a demanding mode I'm beginning to think only masters like Hou and Tsai can handle after seeing the Sri Lankan ode to torpor and landscape The Forsaken Land, in which a nearly mute family in the civil-war-haunted hinterlands wait, sleep, fuck, stare out at glowering skies, and occasionally glimpse a tank or busload of soldiers.

Generational combat: Shanghai Dreams
photo: FSLC
Generational combat: Shanghai Dreams

Yorgos Lanthimos's Greek sleepwalk Kinetta is just as thick with ennui, intersecting with a handful of off-season, uncommunicative hotel loiterers as they work, eat, run around, and occasionally re-enact an unspecified episode of romantic violence. Shinji "Eureka" Aoyama's Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani? at least has ideas and narrative, but they're nonsense: Two "experimental" musicians living in a virally devastated world are asked to help cure the illness with their electronic caterwauling. A relative crowd-pleaser, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is a stirring yet bruising Chinese adventure epic about volunteer troops battling antelope poachers, courageously shot on location in the eponymous highlands.

For completists only, William Eggleston's Stranded in Canton, which samples 30 hours of video the photographer took of Southern misfits in 1974, makes you wonder what the other 28.5 hours were like. More memorable is Michael Glawogger's majestic portrait of shit work Workingman's Death, which moves from Indonesia to Ukraine to Nigeria to Pakistan in harrowing search of the most dangerous ways to earn a meager living in the new globalism. And because it's a featurette, this might be your only chance to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 41-minute digital wonder Worldly Desires, which seems to cross paths with two different film shoots in a Thai jungle by chance (one of them an infectious and absurd pop video), a lackadaisical fugue orchestrated with sly and irrational joy.

 
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