Week One of the 24th Chicago International Film Festival: A Day-by-Day Guide | Festival | Chicago Reader

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Week One of the 24th Chicago International Film Festival: A Day-by-Day Guide

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Monday October 24

Burning Secret

The first feature film of Andrew Birkin (the brother of Jane Birkin), who worked on the script for The Name of the Rose and costarred with his sister (playing her husband) in Jacques Doillon's La pirate. Set in Austria shortly after World War I, and filmed largely in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, Burning Secret was adapted by Birkin from a Stefan Zweig story, previously the source of a German film directed by Robert Siodmak in 1933 (which featured a largely Jewish cast and was banned by the Nazis after its premiere). The film focuses mainly on three characters: the wife of an American diplomat in Vienna (Faye Dunaway), her asthmatic son (David Eberts), and a baron and war veteran (Klaus Maria Brandauer) whom the mother and son meet at a mountain spa. Ian Richardson costars as the diplomat. (JR) (Chicago Theatre, 7:00)

Tuesday October 25

Little Vera

Vassili Pitchul's Soviet film Malinkaia Vera, starring newcomer Natalia Niegoda as the eponymous lead, involves a series of semicomic family feuds and has been compared to certain Czech films from the 60s. (Biograph, 6:00)

Obsessed

A thriller that might be regarded as a Canadian Death Wish with a female protagonist, Robin Spry's new feature, written by Douglas Bowie, deals with a mother (Kerrie Keane) whose son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Learning that the culprit is a New York businessman (Saul Rubinek) and that he can't be returned to Canada because hit-and-run isn't an extraditable offense, she decides to take justice into her own hands. Daniel Pilon plays her estranged lawyer husband, an others in the cast include Alan Thicke, Colleen Dewhurst, and Lynne Griffin. (Music Box, 6:00)

Laserman

A last minute replacement for We Think the World of You, this new American comedy directed by and starring Peter Wang is set in New York in the near future and features a multiethnic cast. (Music Box, 8:00)

The Day You Love Me

Sergio Dow's Colombian feature El dia que me quieras is set in Caracas in 1935. Dramatizing the plight of a country living under a dictatorship, the story involves the arrival in town of a popular singer and musician who cheers up the oppressed populace. (Biograph, 8:30)

Daughter of the Nile

The latest feature of Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, Dust in the Wind) is full of life and energy around the edges, but comes across as rather blurry and undefined at its center. The title of this film from Taiwan refers to a popular Asian comic strip about an American girl named Carol who is in love with King Memphis of Egypt (who died at age 22 in 900 BC), and the plot largely concerns the relationship between Lin Hsiao-yang (played by Yang Lin, Taiwan's most popular singer) and her brother Lin Hsiao-fang (Kao Jai), who is involved with a group of petty gangsters. On the level of plot, Hsiao-hsien has edited his film pretty much against the grain, emphasizing various family relationships and leaving many aspects of the story relatively vague. (This also leads to some continuity problems: one family pet, for instance, disappears without explanation, and is later replaced by another.) The director's Ozu-like sense of framing, which makes full use of domestic interiors, remains striking, and the film has many interesting moments, but it's difficult to shake off an overall sense that this is hackwork by a very talented filmmaker who deserves to be working with better material. (JR) (Music Box, 10:00)

Liberty Street Blues

A feature-length French Canadian documentary by Andre Gladu about the roots and history of New Orleans jazz. On the same program, a short American documentary feature by George T. Nierenberg (No Maps on My Taps), That Rhythm, Those Blues, about Ruth Brown, one of the first black rhythm-and-blues singers, who toured extensively in the south in the 40s and made a lot of money for others, but was systematically exploited in the process. (Biograph, 10:15)

Wednesday October 26

Little Dorrit (part one)

Don't be put off by the six-hour length of Little Dorrit (being shown in two parts)--you won't notice once the film begins. This British production, directed by Parisian-born Christine Edzard, differs strikingly from previous film or television adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Filmmakers have tended to drastically condense Dickens's rich and rambling plots, changing the emphasis to suit a conventional dramatic structure. They often perceive the novels as quaint stories full of flamboyant caricatures and stagy dialogues--all icing and no cake. Edzard's Little Dorrit is a beautifully serious and totally engrossing narrative told twice from different points of view. For the first time the filmic possibilities of Dickens's fiction are realized in a manner that does justice to his powers as a storyteller. Edzard lets the story happen in the observation of marvelous detail and at an unforced pace. The first half is from the point of view of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), a sadly out of place gentleman recently returned to London after 20 years in China. Clennam's disconnection from his own past leads to an interest in and ultimately an obsession with the gentle, self-effacing young seamstress Amy Dorrit, who was born in the Marshalsea debtors prison and resides there yet with her family. Clennam's view is that of a man preoccupied with himself, who comes to idealize his new companions from a strange world--Amy, and especially her father (Alec Guinness), who never tires of playing the suffering patriarch. The second half of the film is from Amy's point of view. Suddenly the film opens up to a life of emotions. Ambitions, petty intrigues, and misguided alliances of those around the quiet Amy burst forth in profusion. Fortunes reverse and reverse again, and Edzard's low-key yet adventurous approach to narrative gives the film an affecting depth that makes every minute worthwhile. (BS) (Biograph, 6:00)

Nobody Listened

This exhaustive two-hour documentary records the testimonials of some 30 survivors of Fidel Castro's prisons. It was directed by Jorge Ulla and Oscar-winning cinematographer (Days of Heaven) Nestor Almendros, renowned for his frequent collaborations with Truffaut and Rohmer. Almendros was born into a loyalist family in Barcelona; his father exiled himself from Franco's Spain in 1939 and settled in Cuba. Almendros followed, and at first was a supporter of the revolution, then distanced himself from it. In 1984, after he had gained international acclaim as one of his generation's most gifted cinematographers, he codirected Improper Conduct, an account of the persecution of minorities in Cuba. Nobody Listened is structured in an obliquely chronological narrative. The opening sequence, which shows Ulla phoning Havana, vainly requesting cooperation from the Cuban minister of justice, contains elements of black comedy. What follows is a litany of horrors recounted by workers, farmers, lawyers, schoolteachers, and former comrades of Castro. There is a remarkable interview with Hilda Felipe, who, with her husband Arnaldo Escalona, was one of the founders of Cuba's old Communist party. These militant Marxists spent years in Castro's jails. The makers of Nobody Listened never raise their voices; their film is all the more eloquent for their restraint. It's obviously not objective, but it can, however, be viewed objectively, and listened to sympathetically, without the observer having any truck with Reaganite imperialism. (ES) (Music Box, 6:00)

The Chocolate War

Vaguely autobiographical at heart, actor Keith Gordon's second venture into filmmaking attempts to generalize a story set in an all-boys Catholic high school into a treatise about the corrupt mechanisms of power inherent in rigid social environments. To achieve this end, Gordon reduces each character to a two-dimensional pawn, each one interesting only in terms of his ability to control other individuals or groups. No one in The Chocolate War has an effectively described background; no one--including the main victim--evokes much sympathy. The story line, which involves a fund-raising chocolate sale, is deliberately sketchy, punctuated only with creepy power games that serve as premises in Gordon's line of reasoning. However, the conclusion never becomes strong or palpable, obfuscated throughout by jittery sequences of crisp, uncluttered images that try to pass for cinematic style. In the end, The Chocolate War amounts to an impassive, alienating tale that offers little more than large doses of hatred and contempt toward everything and everyone it touches: the church, the school, the students, and the social structures. Although a few of Gordon's observations on the abusive potential of efficacy are right on target, their mild intellectual appeal comes nowhere close to offsetting the film's muddled core. (ZB) (Music Box, 8:00)

Best Wishes

It's been about 13 years since Brazilian filmmaker Tereza Trautman's first feature, The Men I Loved, a film that was banned in Brazil for eight years. (In the interim, she's been making films for television, working in the women's movement, and supporting structural changes in the Brazilian film-funding and production industry.) Her second feature, the first that I've seen, is an ambitious account of a family reunion held at the family's opulent mansion just before their estate is sold off, interweaving the activities of all three generations. The results are a little bit like Altman's A Wedding without the sarcasm, well crafted but lacking much of an edge. As a multifaceted reflection of Brazilian upper-class history, the film has pretty much to say, particularly about the women in the family, yet the viewer may emerge at the end wishing the various strands in the plot had been wound together a bit more tightly. With Tonia Carrero, Louise Cardosa, Marieta Severo, Zeze Motta, and Xuxa Lopes. (JR) (Biograph, 9:30)

Martha Jellneck

The eponymous heroine of Kai Wessel's West German feature is a solitary old woman--played by Heidemary Hatheyer, a famous actress during the Nazi period who is appearing for the first time on screen since the 60s--who invites a former Nazi official to lunch. As it happens, the officer has the same name as her late brother, who witnessed the same officer murdering a child and was himself killed during the war. (Music Box, 10:00)

Little Dorrit (part two)

The second half of Christine Edzard's six-hour British feature adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. For a review of the film as a whole, see the listing under Wednesday, October 26. (Biograph, 6:00)

Robinson's Garden

A rambling, sometimes hallucinatory back-to-nature urban fable from experimental Japanese director Masashi Yamamoto (Carnival of the Night). Kumiko Ohta plays a drug dealer and street hustler who finds an abandoned building and decides to move in. With the assistance of a book called Even Morons Can Grow Vegetables she cultivates the surrounding land using a customized scooter as a plow. Disillusioned by modern Japanese society she feverishly retreats into decorating her own world, only to be periodically tormented by old friends, ancestral ghosts, and an amoral little girl prone to violence and childish acts of aggression. Yamamoto delivers darkly comic sketches of a Tokyo subculture and a bleak prediction for the future of Japan. The title is derived from the lead character's Robinson Crusoe existence. The impressive visuals were shot by Jim Jarmusch's cameraman Tom Dicillo. (DP) (Music Box, 6:00)

Landscape in the Mist

Of all the indisputably major European directors, Theo Angelopoulos is probably the least known in this country. Outside of the occasional Greek film festival, where most of the other offerings discourage all but the most intrepid, his work remains virtually unseen in the U.S. Happily, Landscape in the Mist is not only vintage Angelopoulos, it's also one of his most accessible films. Two children (a boy around 6 and his older sister who's about 12) whose importune questions about their paternity have been answered by a myth about a father in Germany show up every day at the train station for his hoped-for arrival. Then one day they board a train bound for Germany, embarking on an odyssey of discovery. Thrown off the myriad trains they board, repudiated by an uncle, and brutalized by a truck driver, they take temporary refuge with a bedraggled troupe of wandering players, tattered remnants of too many Greek tragedies, whose herald, a handsome young man on a motorcycle, befriends them. But the voyage is destined to be theirs alone. Through their adventures--sometimes shared, sometimes not--they are alternately protected and exploited (their one encounter with officialdom, in the form of the police, is mystically thwarted by a sudden snowfall); and their consciousnesses evolve, both separately and in tandem. Although the children are bound by a fierce, protective love, the difference in their ages and, increasingly, their sexual awareness creates a shifting matrix of vision through which the beauty and terror of the world are heightened. Light years away from any wide-eyed, idealized Spielbergian awe at the wonder of childhood, Angelopoulos's young protagonists provide an unblinking look at a social reality that is neither oversimplified nor magically transformed--yet is withal more truly mythical. Effortlessly translating symbol into story, Landscape in the Mist is that rare, but by no means nonexistent, avis these days--a great film. (RS) (Univ. of Chicago, 6:00)

Rouge of the North

For aficionados who have discovered Taiwanese cinema through Hou Hsiao-hsien's impressionistic family melodramas or Edward Yang's cool, elegant tales of urban despair, Rouge of the North may come as a slight disappointment. Friends from Taiwan told me that Fred Tan is an important voice in their national cinema (having started as an influential film critic and directed two features before Rouge of the North), and indeed, the film-based on a beautifully written screenplay--is ambitious, but the quality is not as high as Western viewers of Taiwanese films will expect. Starting in Shanghai in 1910, the story spans 20 years in the life of a woman, Ying-ti (Shia Wen-shih)--from her forced marriage to a blind cripple to her later days as a domineering, opium-smoking matriarch. Beautifully shot in studio, the film unfolds in three separate locations: the heroine's family home, where her beauty provokes the unwelcome attention of lusty neighbors as she silently pines for a young chemist too poor to propose to her; her husband's family mansion, where she cohabits with a quarrelsome bunch of brothers- and sisters-in-law; and finally, the house she inherits after her husband's death, where she rules her no-good son's conjugal life with an iron hand.

The best aspect of the film is its subtle shifts of point of view. At the beginning, we identify with the heroine's suffering, but later our perception is significantly altered. Ying-ti's life is a good case study of Freud's contention that sexual repression can transform an alluring young lady into a sadistic harridan. We watch the hardships imposed upon her destroy her seductive, feminine grace. During her married years, her maliciousness is addressed to her (unbearable) husband, but she finds a way to express her youth and sexuality through a doomed romance with one of her brothers-in-law. Later, when, most of her inheritance has been ripped off by the family elders, and her unlikely lover has proven an irresponsible womanizer, Ying-ti grows bitter and ruthless, and treats her two daughters-in-law (her son's first and second wives) with incredible callousness, keeping her charming and philandering son firmly under her thumb.

The subject matter is fascinating, and Fred Tan is a talented filmmaker whose work will be worth following in years to come. Rouge of the North, however, is not entirely successful. Something is missing, a je ne sais quoi that would restore some color to Ying-ti's pallid face, give the movie a sense of the "real life" longed for by the heroine, and establish the vulnerability of the woman behind the mask of the character. (BR) (Music Box, 8:00)

The Chocolate War

A new American feature about gang warfare with John Glover, Adam Baldwin, and Bud Cort. For a review, see the listing under Wednesday, October 26. (Univ. of Chicago, 8:30)

Laserman

A last minute replacement for We Think the World of You, this new American comedy directed by and starring Peter Wang is set in New York in the near future and features a multiethnic cast. (Biograph, 9:30)

The Ice Palace

Mood matters more than pacing in The Ice Palace, a strange and powerful production from Norway. Filled with crisply composed images of painterly beauty, but edited according to some dream logic, the film seems considerably longer than its 78 minutes. Set in the frozen north, the film establishes a relationship between two 11-year-olds, Siss and Unn. Unn, a pale Botticelli blond, is troubled by a secret she cannot reveal. An orphan living with her grim-looking aunt, she is isolated in this small country community. Siss, a classmate, is her only friend; the intensity of their relationship is conveyed in a mesmerizing scene in which the girls play a disrobing game.

One day, instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore a frozen waterfall. Wandering farther and farther into its icy chambers, she becomes lost and tired. Eventually she freezes to death. The entire community turns out to look for her, but her body is never found. Haunted by her last visit with Unn and her disappearance, Siss falls ill and becomes prey to disturbing nightmares. Unable to comfort her, her family must wait for the healing power of the spring thaw. With delicate and mature performances from its two young stars, The Ice Palace captures the essence of childhood fears and longings. It is not a children's film, nor is it a conventional narrative, but for the patient, the mysterious world director Per Blom creates is worth experiencing. (AS) (Music Box, 10:00)

Nobody Listened

Jorge Ulla and Nestor Almendros's documentary about former political prisoners in Cuba. For a review, see the listing under Wednesday, October 26. (Univ. of Chicago, 10:15)

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