Thursday, January 2, 2014

Two from the art-house circuit

For those of us who write about film, the holiday season offers a welcome hiatus. While moviegoers are gobbling up (or passing on) the latest releases, critics are taking advantage of a pause in the action to recharge over-taxed batteries and enjoy a life free of crowded preview screenings, deadline demands and the rigors of keeping up with an industry in which quantity has been known to outweigh quality.

On a more optimistic note, I'd add that the period between Christmas and New Year's also offers a chance to reflect on and savor the year's best achievements, particularly in a year that finishes strong -- as 2013 did.

Despite the lull, a couple of movies tend to find their way into view. In Denver, they can be found at the Sie FilmCenter, which also plays home to the Starz Denver Film Festival. If you don't live in Denver or another city with decent art-house representation, each of these movies probably belongs on your DVD wish list for the new year.

Paradise: Hope:

I wasn't a fan of the first two movies in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's woman-centered trilogy. The first movie, Paradise: Love, focused on a portly woman who sought out the pleasures of exploitative sex with young African men during a vacation to Kenya. Paradise: Faith -- the second movie -- explored the perverse regions of religious zealotry by centering on the life of a woman who tried to flagellate her way toward redemption.

Now comes Paradise: Hope -- the best and least dispiriting of Seidl's trilogy.

This time, Seidl introduces us to Melanie (Melanie Lenz), an overweight 13-year-old whose mother sends her to diet camp. Although the camp atmosphere features near-parodic levels of regimentation, the spontaneity of the movie's young cast provides Paradise: Hope with welcome moments of believable humanity.

By its very nature, the film becomes a meditation on the contemporary obsession with perfect bodies, but Paradise: Hope also takes an off-kilter look at adolescent insecurity.

True to Seidl's sensibilities, the movie crosses the line into potentially volatile sexual territory when the virginal Melanie develops a crush on the camp's doctor (Joseph Lorenz), a man who's 40 years older than she. For his part, the doctor struggles with an obvious attraction to this plump, flirtatious teen-ager.

Because youthful desires and teen-age playfulness are set against the rigid camp backdrop, it's reassuring to watch these young people respond more to one another than to the adults who attempt to discipline them into fitness and acceptability.

The young people in Seidl's film make plenty of mistakes, but they're a mostly likable group. At minimum, they make us hope that they won't turn into the adults who are taking responsibility for them.

It adds something to know that Melanie's mother is the main character in Paradise: Love, the woman who joined friends on a sex vacation in Kenya. Melanie's aunt is the religious woman of Paradise: Faith.

You needn't have seen either of those movies to appreciate Paradise: Hope, which charts its own course, creates concern for its characters -- and even a bit of the hope promised by the title.

Having said that, it's necessary to caution unwary viewers that we're talking about emotional involvement within a context of weirdness that will not appeal to everyone.

A Touch of Sin

As 2013 drew to a close, director Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin found its way onto a variety of 10-best lists. I didn't include it on mine, but I certainly understand why others did. A Touch of Sin is courageous and unsparing in its view of life in contemporary China.

Jia divides A Touch of Sin into four loosely related stories, each derived from a real incident.

In the first episode, a man named Dahai (Jiang Wu) stages a personal revolt against a village bureaucracy that has stolen profits that should have belonged to the collective. In his old army coat, Dahai seems to represent the bitter dissatisfactions of those who feel betrayed by China's tilt toward unchecked capitalistic greed.

The second story focuses on Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a young man who arrives in Chongqing, a "modernized" city in the Three Gorges region. Zhou's interest in guns would be right at home in a lot of American movies.

In the movie's third section, we meet Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), a young woman who's having an affair with a married man and whose frustrations turn violent when another man mistakes her for a prostitute.

Jia's final section introduces us to Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young man who flees the factory economy in vain hope of finding a better life. We may think of China as an unstoppable power with a growing economy, but Xia's story makes it clear that a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some even drown.

Although each story has a resolution, the movie's impact is one of cumulative realization as Jia takes us into a world in which prostitutes entertain visitors at a luxury hotel, in which violence never seems far from the surface and in which the feeling is one of disdain for the new capitalism that makes a mockery out of the old bromides.

Don't misread A Touch of Sin as an expression of longing for the restricted days of Maoism, but as a powerful lament for a society that's leaping forward in ways that leave some chocking on the dust of others' so-called "progress."

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