As botched-drug-deal tales go, Pusher digs surprisingly deep— its surface clichés give way to an existential despair that finally swallows the movie whole. Tracking a precipitously horrible week in the life of a small-time Copenhagen smack dealer, this first feature by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is a model of a downward spiral. And it doesn’t pause for pop-cult free associations, art-directed trippiness, or smirking wisecracks on the way. When a shotgun goes off in someone’s face, it’s decidedly not a punch line.
Frank (Kim Bodnia), an impassive tough-guy type, orchestrates an elaborate deal that unfortunately involves inflating his already sizable debt to Croatian kingpin Milo (Zlatko Buric). Within days, the transaction has of course fallen apart spectacularly— the cops show, Frank ends up with neither cash nor stash, and Milo, up till now creepily hospitable in a manner that suggests Christopher Walken for the American remake, decides it’s time to collect.
Pusher‘s antihero is an emotional wreck beneath his stoic exterior; though obviously happy to turn on the smut-talk bravado for his hair-trigger skinhead buddy, Frank is incapable of any kind of physical contact with his long-suffering hooker girlfriend. Refn, who was 25 when he made the film, gives Pusher a self-consciously edgy look— it’s shot with available light and handheld jitters— but he doesn’t OD on style. The editing is especially sharp— dynamic and disorienting without resorting to shock cuts.
Abrasive from start to finish, Pusher has something of the headlong inevitability of Matthieu Kassovitz’s Hate, but it is, in some ways, a more thoughtfully configured movie. It begins in free-form, faux-vérité mode, but as Frank’s predicament becomes more dire, the narrative tightens like a noose, culminating in a sequence of events that’s perversely exhilarating in its precision, lucidity, and understatement. Frank’s options fall away, one by one, until his condition has been distilled to one of pure desperation.
Joan Chen’s first movie as director, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, is set in the mid ’70s and concerns the Cultural Revolution practice of packing Chinese youngsters off to the countryside to work and be indoctrinated. Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu), one such “sent down” teenager, is assigned to the remote plains of Tibet, where she is stranded with a castrated herdsman (Lopsang). Still, he turns out to be a decent fellow (and, of course, no sexual threat); they bond, hesitantly and quite poignantly— until government officials show up, and Xiu Xiu accedes to their sexual advances in the hope that she will finally be allowed to return home.
Adapted from a novella, Xiu Xiu plays like an exploitative melodrama. The movie is competently filmed (the steppe landscapes and night skies are in fact gorgeous), but it’s fundamentally misconceived. For a vastly more scrupulous and moving examination of Cultural Revolution fuckups on a young psyche, see The Blue Kite. Chen’s film, which is methodically devastating and yet barely cognizant of the complicated psychology of the situations it hurls its characters into, has one main point to make— “This is tragic”— and knows precisely one way of making it: rub the viewer’s face in the tragedy.