Rollicking ensemble comedies both, the Yugoslav Black Cat, White Cat and the Japanese Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald partake of the carnival spirit that, in current American movies, is pretty much a teenage thing. The anarchy, however, is controlled from the top. Writer-directors Emir Kusturica and Koki Mitani are tyrannical masters of fun, orchestrating revels that suggest some sort of hoochie-koochie striptease--the ultimate revelation being an amiable contempt for the audience.
The word "manic" is barely adequate to characterize Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat (which was first shown here at the last New York Film Festival). Bravura moviemaking by any objective standard, this vehicle for the director's lowdown magic-realist fantasies about Romany gangsters has a velocity that belies
its jerry-built mise-en-scène. Kusturica's extravagantly coarse burlesque is a careening contraption fueled by a high-octane combination of Balkan craziness, blatant stereotyping, and disco-thump hysteria. (No previous Kusturica film has made the 45-year-old filmmaker's rock 'n' roll yearnings more apparent.)
Personnel oscillates between A Thousand Clowns and Ten Thousand Maniacs as a throng of volatile hustlers, smugglers, and schemers plot, strut, and zorba their way toward the grand climax of the world's most mondo gypsy wedding. Coming after Kusturica's controversial Serbian allegory Underground, Black Cat, White Cat is actually something of a light romantic comedy. It's also a bit of a menagerie. The title creatures are much in evidence while, over the course of the movie, a pig devours a derelict car and flocks of geese storm across the screen at every opportunity. Nor does Kusturica neglect his humanoids.
While the younger performers are largely experienced actors, many of the most colorful roles are filled by grinning local personalities--most notably the wizened godfather Uncle Grga (Sabri Sulejmani, the retired proprietor of a "shoeshine salon," with no previous acting experience). Tattooed, with a mouth full of gold teeth and a matching Mogen David moon-and-star pendant, Grga is "elegant as a vampire," in the words of his long-lost buddy, Zarije (Zabit Memedov, a goofball veteran of Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies). Grga is also sentimental; he watches the end of Casablanca over and over, and like all of the movie's more sympathetic characters wears his heart on his sleeve.
This is a film without a single quiet moment. A gypsy band squeezes itself into a hospital ward to escort the ailing Zarije. ("Music! Aggression!" he cries, at least according to the subtitles, as he dances out.) Set mainly in a Dogpatch resort on the banks of the Danube, Black Cat, White Cat is largely a succession of stunts. In the most exuberantly grotesque of these, a Wagnerian tango singer with a lacquered pompadour demonstrates the strength and precision of her sphincter muscles by parking her ample posterior against a wooden plank and extracting a nail.
The narrative is otherwise predicated on an obscure double cross involving Zarije's feckless son, Matko, and the coked-up "war criminal" Dadan. (As played by Srdan Todorovic, this fiercely glazed character not only steals a trainload of Bulgarian oil but the movie as well--punctuating each of his brainstorms with a frantic burst of pumped-up shadowboxing.) Matko is further tricked into marrying his teenaged son to Dadan's diminutive sister--a "horrible grouchy midget" as one character unsympathetically puts it. The boy, meanwhile, is smitten with an obstreperous, long-limbed barmaid (Branka Katic).
Black Cat, White Cat's raucous first hour is a buildup to the mismatched wedding. But then the narrative trips over an accumulation of unquiet corpses and runaway brides to land, literally, in the shit. Lacking the emotionally charged metaphors that made Underground something more than a virtuoso Saint Vitus dance, Black Cat, White Cat is determined to twist every character into an ideogram for vulgar humanity. Perhaps these gypsies are a screen on which the Bosnian-born director can project his own feelings of ostracism and homelessness. In any case, the scatological closer rebounds unpleasantly on him.
-Koki Mitani's Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, the wacky backstage radio-drama drama currently at Film Forum, is a more genteel sideshow than Black Cat, White Cat--as well as more self-reflexive in its musings.
Having won first prize as the only contestant to enter an amateur script-writing competition, a timorous housewife is having her play performed on the air. But, due to circumstances beyond her control (star egos, sponsor sensitivities, and a series of escalating, irreversible blunders), A Woman of Fate is subjected to numerous last-minute revisions-mutating, in the course of its broadcast, from sappy romance melodrama to outlandish extraterrestrial disaster epic.
The comedy is broad but self-contained, mainly because virtually the entire movie is played out within the confines of the radio station--every so often, Mitani cuts away to the Stetson-wearing trucker who represents the radio audience. As the show's imagined locations fluctuate and its protagonists change their occupations or even identities (the title comes from one actor's postprandial inspiration to rename his character "Donald McDonald"), the producers race to solve the various problems--stalling for time with extra news breaks or prolonged ad-libbing, as they rush to improvise, for example, the sound of one dam breaking.
Mitani likes to move his camera and the film's visual choreography is considerably better than the jokes. The overall cuteness is further accentuated by a syrupy score and the cast's relentlessly overacted overacting. Even more than Black Cat, White Cat, each frame is crammed with a crew of face-pulling hambones playing easily reducible types--the pompous announcer, flighty diva, doltish husband, perky secretary, vain actor, cynical director, flaky assistant, mousy hausfrau.
Here, too, momentum peaks well before the closer--a deus ex machina reinforced by the arrival of the overwrought audience-surrogate in his giant rig. Throughout, Mitani has made much of the radio performers' overidentification with their roles. This is nothing compared to how he imagines their listeners. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald's happy ending is a paean less to the power of make-believe than to the presumed idiocy of the audience.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.