Who better than Paul Verhoeven to slaughter the sacred cow that is the World War II drama? Working in his native Holland for the first time since 1983’s The Fourth Man, the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls purges the genre of middlebrow sanctimony, recasting it as—what else—an erotic thriller. In the final months of the war, a young Jewish woman (Carice van Houten, in a star-making performance) survives the massacre of her family, joins the resistance, infiltrates the Nazis, and falls for a kindly Gestapo officer. At once brash and nuanced, Black Book rejects any comfortable notions of heroism and victimhood. It’s a work of surprising moral complexity, built on the productive tension between Verhoeven’s typically in-your-face direction (flesh-wound close-ups, a pubic dye job, a ritual humiliation involving a vat of feces) and the screenplay’s numerous ethical subtleties.
As in his previous feature, The World, set in a Beijing theme park filled with scale replicas of global tourist attractions, Jia Zhangke sets a prosaic human drama against a stunning location with great surrealist value and metaphorical import—this time Fengjie, a small town by the Yangtze, progressively undergoing demolition and soon to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Shot in unnervingly crisp hi-def video, this winner of the Golden Lion at Venice is, like Jia’s other films, a stoic, empathetic portrait of those left behind by a rapidly modernizing society’s blind lunge toward free markets. It’s also equal parts documentary and science fiction (with playful special effects emphasizing the landscape’s alien quality). Jia was also in Toronto with Still Life‘s companion piece, the powerfully strange documentary diptych Dong, which focuses on the painter Liu Xiao-dong and is split evenly between two groups of Liu’s subjects: male laborers in Fengjie and female sex workers in Bangkok.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone
One of six features commissioned by the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna to mark Mozart’s 250th birthday, Tsai Ming-liang’s new film further refines and rarefies this obsessive filmmaker’s established themes. The Taiwan-based director returns to Malaysia, where he was born, and gravitates to the social and economic fringes of the capital Kuala Lumpur, where half-built skyscrapers and a community of migrant workers are, respectively, the visible and invisible legacies of the economic boom and bust of the 1990s. Much of the film takes place in and around a concrete shell of a building with an ominously stagnant pool of dark water in its bowels. As usual, Tsai’s near-mute characters slowly give in to an animal hunger for human contact. The film culminates with a transcendent vision of doomsday love. Even by Tsai’s elevated standards, the final shot is one of otherworldly beauty.
Reginald Harkema’s comedy ponders the practical realities of fighting the Man at an age when you no longer have the energy and in an age when the Man would appear to have conclusively won. Pushing 40, a pair of former anarchists (Canadian film stalwarts Don McKellar and Tracy Wright) live off the grid, scavenging for a living, as penance for an activist past gone awry; a young pot dealer and would-be revolutionary (Nadia Litz) awakens old tendencies in the bickering couple. Tart and wistful, Monkey Warfare is the rare film about radicalism that blunts its nostalgia with cold, hard, present-day truths, and it features what might be a career-best performance from McKellar (who recently won a Tony Award for co-writing The Drowsy Chaperone). The film’s vinyl soundtrack album (with the Fugs’ “Kill for Peace” and Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War”) and “I FUCK THE MAN” T-shirt were also the festival’s best promotional items.