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TO DIE LIKE A MAN (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Sony Pictures Classics)

September 25 Ė October 11, 2009

Ghost Town
A Room and a Half
To Die Like a Man 

After the reviews began trickling in following this yearís Cannes and Berlin film festivals, it became highly predictable which films would make the cut for the New York Film Festival: Catherine Breillatís Bluebeard, Pedro Almodůvarís Broken Embraces, and the immediately notorious Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier (all three NYFF perennials). Also receiving more or less glowing notices were the new works of stalwarts Marco Bellocchio, Manoel de Oliveira, Andrzej Wajda, and Alain Resnaisótheir combined age, 339. True, all foreign-language films in the U.S. need all the press and attention they can get, no matter how well known the director. Fortunately (and smartly), the festivalís selection committee has also chosen films by relatively unknown filmmakers, allowing some sense of discovery to take place during the festivalís first week.

KANIKOSEN (Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center)
This is most true for the Japanese film Kanikosen, which had its international premiere at the festival, and stands out for its muscular narrative (in comparison to other films reviewed here). What most notably comes across is director Sabuís love of storytelling. His scene transitions would be the envy of the most efficient of old-school studio directors like Robert Wise or Michael Curtiz.

Its Hollywood pitch would go like this: gritty í30s Warner Brothers proletariat agitprop meets The Sea Wolf crossed with The Caine Mutiny, topped with a Norma Rae-like rabblerousing speech. Sabu, known for his comedies, based his fifth film on a 1929 novel by Takiji Kobayashi, a writer that I have to admit Iíve never heard of. (Kobayashi, a member of the outlawed Japan Communist Party, was arrested and tortured to death in 1933 by the Tokyo police.)

The film is set during the height of Hirohitoís Imperial Japan, confined almost completely within the pistons, cob wheels, and blistering steam of the Kanikosen, a storm-tossed, floating crab cannery-turned-hell hole, where impoverished and malnourished laborers are virtual slaves. They have no power within their grasp, except maybe how they could end their misery, leading to a hilarious and deadpan scene of hapless mass suicide, with visual humor that would make Buster Keaton proud. And in the Hollywood tradition of not letting historical accuracy interfere with good looks, some of the cast sport the biggest and most perfectly placed bed head, rivaling Robert Pattinson.

A ROOM AND A HALF (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Seagull Films)
The antithesis of the stiff, plodding biopic, A Room and a Half is the most persuasive film about a writer and his formative world since Before Night Falls, about Reinaldo Arenas. Thereís no need to be familiar with the poetry of Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Animator and documentarian Andrey Khrzhanovsky makes his feature film debut fluidly and freely visualizing the writerís life through some of the most arresting imagery of the year. The collage of newsreels, animation of many varieties, and nostalgic coming-of-age reenactments overpowers the written word (well, at least to this non-Russian speaker). The fanciful animation gives Khrzhanovsky license to play fast and loose with Brodskyís memories of life in St. Petersburg, I mean Leningrad, where his family lived in a crowded apartment building with the requisite line for the one hallway bathroom.

Although the closing credits disclaim that the film is fiction, it closely adheres to Brodskyís life. He, in fact, briefly appears in a grainy home video, but itís hard to distinguish him apart from the dead ringer actor, Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy, playing him. And unlike so many biopics, A Room and a Half never insists on the importance or uniqueness of its subject. Irreverently and touchingly, itís really about the love between an only child and his parents. Brodsky was kicked out of the Soviet Union in 1972, and never saw his parents again. 

Another international festival premier is the 172-minute, shot-on-video Ghost Town, a diffused and impressionistic look of a dying town lacking a defining moment or sequence. Following the remaining inhabitants of Zhiziluo, director Zhao Dayong enmeshes the viewer in the stark poverty of the region; this is pure Cinema of Abjection. Offering occasional relief is the stark contrast between the deserted, skeletal buildings against the breathtaking, jagged, and snowcapped mountains of Southwest China close to the Myanmar border. The townís scene-stealing animals outnumber the inhabitants; they are less self-conscious in front of the camera.

GHOST TOWN (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Lantern Films)
Zhao turns the viewer into a passive observer, without having the benefit of knowing why the town has been virtually abandoned, making the film somewhat of an endurance test. (Comparisons with Still Life, another somber portrait of a city soon to vanish, are inevitable.) The first, and most compelling, of the filmís three parts follows Pastor John and his hardworking and loyal son. The village was converted by American and British missionaries in the 1920s, and in the 1950s, according to Pastor John, 95 percent of the Christian village was arrested. He was sentenced to a prison work camp for 20 years. Today, the churchís numbers have dwindled. (One notable different between their congregation and its American equivalent: the men and women sit separately, the women only entering the church after the men.)

New to the festival is Jo„o Pedro Rodrigues with his strangely uninvolving To Die Like a Man. Fernando Santos stars as Tonia, short for Antonia (born Antonio), in an exceptionally down-to-earth performance for a character who has made a 20-year living as the blonde drag queen of Lisbon. But the script limits Tonia to that of the sacrificial, self-pitying drag queen in love with a much younger, suicidal junkie, who keeps pressuring Tonia to go all the way and become a woman.

The lovers are more ideas than characters, going through the motions of the doomed and dejected. She nurtures, he lashes out. We know from their first scene together the cause of their impending tragedy, their inability to change. Despite the hothouse atmosphere or the backstage tantrums and a suicide attempt, Rodrigues lowers the temperature with his slow, steady camera for a flabby 138 minutes. The only emotional pull is the Portuguese pop ballads Tonia sings to herself, which arenít likely to resonate with those not familiar with the songs. Occasionally, like in Rodriguesís first film, O Fantasma, thereís a scene or two that pushes the envelope to jolt the audience to attention. But compared to that other, darker, and shorter film, To Die is chaste. Kent Turner
October 1, 2009

2009 NYFF, Part One

2009 NYFF, Part Three

2009 NYFF, Part Four



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