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Mê thao - Thoi vang bong (2002)
A tale from Vietnam
Early 20th century, North Vietnam. Nguyen, a westernised nobleman and landowner, befriends Tam, a "dan day" (three-stringed instrument) player. When the latter is accused of murder, Nguyen hides him in his estate, making him a supervisor and a confident, but Tam is forced to leave his lover, the singer To. Later, Nguyen plans to marry a city girl. On her way to see him, she dies in an accident, in the same car that he gave her as a present. Grief-stricken, Nguyen then turns his back on everything modern, burning his own Western furniture and clothes, and forcing his villagers to destroy their few modern possessions, including tools, books and toys. Tam, seeing the land sliding into misery and his master retreating into madness, tries to help him and his people. Meanwhile, the French colonists want to build a train line right through Nguyen's land.
Vietnamese cinema is, for Westerners, one of the last terra incognito of Asian film-making. While Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai movies have become almost mainstream for Western film-goers, Vietnamese films are a rarity on European and American screens. In fact, several of the successful Vietnamese films shown in the West are from French-Vietnamese directors such as Tran Anh Hung (Scent of the Green Papaya) or American-Vietnamese ones such as Tony Bui (Three seasons), and while those are very good movies, their point of view remained an expatriate's one, not unlike Scorsese or Coppola directing a Italian movie.
Mê Thao (The glorious time of Mê Thao) is a purely Vietnamese movie and is as such already interesting for what it tells us about Vietnamese culture and Vietnam's perception of itself. There are many themes in this movie: the conflict between modernity and tradition seen from inside (some of the autodafe scenes echo Tsui Hark's Wong Fei Hung movies where the hero has also a love-hate relationship with the West), the complexity, rigidity, and violence of traditional class relations, the ambiguous role of the colonists (both seen as oppressors and as liberators), and a repressed sexuality. The main melodrama is perhaps the less interesting part of the movie: the love stories that are central to it are too idealised and mostly take place before the movie's time frame so it's not easy to empathise with the characters. Of course, this may appear different to someone who speaks Vietnamese and can understand the subtleties of the original version.
There are many impressive scenes in this movie: a group of westernised Vietnamese bourgeois forced to disrobe and put on traditional garments to please the master of the land, a man so lovesick that he ends up carving a wooden statue of his fiancée and making love to it, a mute servant trying to make herself prettier by rouging her cheeks with betel juice, a colourful travelling show about and old man and his young wife, and the beautiful one where dozens of giant paper lampoons are lit and set free in the night sky, a tradition re-invented for the movie by the director Viet Linh. Also remarkable is the "cat tru" chamber music, a thousand-year old art that plays a decisive role in the movie, and that sounds like a Vietnamese version of the Blues, as harsh, plaintive and moving as its American counterpart.
Kaena: La prophétie (2003)
Classic plot, beautifully rendered
Presented as the first full-length 3D-generated animated movie from France, Kaena was first an idea for a video game that was expanded into a `real' movie. A fantasy/sci-fi tale, it takes place on of flying forest made of gigantic vines inhabited by a tribe of humans, who, in order to appease their gods, must harvest the sap of the vines. Trouble is, the harvest is no longer what it was and the gods are somewhat angry. A young woman, Kaena, who looks like a cross between Lara Croft and Princess Mononoke, understands that the gods are up to no good, and fights them with the help of unexpected allies and funny sidekicks. The plot follows the well-used pattern where a young misfit must save the world from dark forces, battle monsters and unearth world-shattering secrets, and the script borrows from many previous ones (fans of French sci-fi comics will recognise bits of the `Adventures of Alef-Thau', written in the 80s by Alexandro Jodorowski, who is also credited on Kaena). The script is also certainly quite European in spirit, with more overt sexuality and a indictment of religion probably unimaginable in a mainstream US-made cartoon.
While a little lacking in plot, Kaena mostly succeeds as pure eye-candy. Since the representation of realistic humans is still out of reach for computer graphics (Cf. the mixed results in Final Fantasy), the authors have chosen a half-comic-book style (like in Ice Age) which is quite pleasant, at least if you like people with really big eyes. The movie creatures are quite nice, particularly the talkative worms with their tired faces and their walking and flying devices. But it's the sets which are the most beautiful, with a particular attention to lighting, colouring and texturing: many scenes are shot in a golden light, slightly overexposed with lens flares and other atmospheric effects. The mixture of quasi-photorealism and more traditional CG style works quite well. The vine forest, the village and the spaceship scenes are exceptionally rendered, and among the most beautiful seen in a CG-rendered movie so far. The world of the gods, by contrast, has a dark, liquid and sticky feel (the gods themselves are liquid, gigeresque creatures) with bright shining reflections, and is truly original. Sometimes, there's a little too much of everything, as if the movie was a demo for CG effects (hair, particle systems, volumetrics.), not unlike the first Technicolor movies where everything had to be brightly coloured. But that doesn't detract from the WOW! Factor of the movie.
All in all, Kaena is a very recommendable movie, and one can hope that the authors will follow with a bolder script.
La vérité si je mens! 2 (2001)
The "Truth" is out there...
In this sequel to the huge hit "La vérité si je mens", we're back to the little Jewish community of the Sentier, a Parisian district specialised in textiles. While the first movie focussed on the sentimental and comedic adventures of Eddie (a goy trying to pass for a Jew though totally ignorant of Jewish traditions), the sequel is more about Eddie's friends, a colorful bunch of fast-talking, hot-tempered entrepreneurs who love nothing more than fast cars, fast women, glittering watches and flashy clothes. For the millions of people who saw the first episode, there's little new here : the same (or almost) characters return to their well-oiled roles and punchlines. Still, it's a better sequel than most. First, it has a story that is appropriate to our times: the little Davids of the Sentier are fighting a giant Goliath - a big supermarket chain, and their final vengeance is fun and inventive. Second, there's more room for detail and character definition. Particularly, José Garcia as Serge, the mythomaniac, pathetic loser of the team, is given a lot of screen time and makes a memorable impression (and, like Ben Stiller, he has a lot of hard time "Meeting the parents" !). Third, it's fast-paced and quite funny. In some way, it's hard to describe such a movie to non-French people as the community presented here cannot be found elsewhere. It is also close to impossible to translate, too, as most of the fun is in the "typical" slang (like the title itself). Here's a comparison that comes to mind : take the comedic moments of Italo-American gangster sagas (like Goodfellas or the Sopranos), keep the colorful language but replace handguns by yarmulkes !
US or European movies about non-US, non-European people are usually faulty, even when they mean well : often, they need to use some bland occidental character (think Brad Pitt in "7 years in Tibet"), or the non-occidental people are actually occidental people with make-up and funny accents, or everybody speaks English but the bad guys, or everybody behaves like a bunch of Californian housewives or New York traders. So I was a little apprehensive about "Himalaya". Fortunately, French director Eric Valli knows the Himalayan (Dolpo) people he's filming, he has been living with them for years and speaks their language. So what we got here is a true movie, with true cinematic characters, a true plot and no condescending stuff. It's actually amazing to behold a story where the people have problems so remote from the ones someone from Paris, France can have (like having to set up a 2-weeks cattle drive across Himalaya to trade salt against barley), and however these problems and emotions are made more real than, say, a comedy about bourgeoisie with sex trouble. Not that the plot is truly original : it deals, in a rather classic way and not unlike some war movies, with the essence of leadership (the original French title is "Himalaya, the youth of a chief"). What makes a leader, and how and why can leadership be challenged ? Why people do follow some leaders and not other ? From what we see in the film, these are questions that people who live in such extreme conditions find of extreme importance. Add a magnificent scenery (no need for filters for clear blue lakes there) and talented actors who literally inhabit their complex roles (partly because they've been in situations like this or know people who have), and here is one impressive adventure movie.
Haut les coeurs! (1999)
A private war against cancer
Though serious illnesses are commonplace plot enhancers (and easy tearjerkers) in many dramas and melodramas, there are actually few movies that deal with the disease condition itself. In "Philadelphia", for instance, the hero fought against the system more than against AIDS. In "E.R.", we suffer a lot with the patients but the doctors are still the heroes. "Haut les coeurs!" (that could roughly be translated as "Be brave!") tells the story of Emma, a young woman who learns at (almost) the same time that she is pregnant and that she is suffering from an advanced breast cancer. We follow her, and the people around her, during her private war against the disease. We share her hopes, doubts (will she be able to keep her baby), and terrors. It's hard to say that such a movie is "pleasant" and the subject is not of the popular kind. There are many reasons why one would want to see it, though. The first is the documentary aspect : it is largely autobiographical, and rarely we have seen on movie such a detailed account, both at technical level (how the war is fought) and psychological (how people react, doctors, friends, lover, brother). This not an abstract disease, but a real one, and a strong reminder that there's not romanticism in fatal sickness. In one funny, though terrible, scene, Emma's tells what she thinks about Nature's sadistic ways of killing people to a "natural health" supporter. The other reason is that it's not a documentary, but a fiction, and an efficient, even suspensful one, with lighter moments. Like any good fiction, it also works at a more symbolic level. How can we cope with impending death ? How can we help our loved ones ? Karin Viard's portrayal of Emma is unforgettable and put her definitely on the top of the contemporary actresses.
Joan of Arc (1999)
The charge of Joan of Arc
This is surely a stunning movie. Like all Besson's movies, it suffers from plot holes and a lack of stylistic balance. The very beginning is cheesy (looks like a shampoo commercial), the ending so-so when compared to the rest of the movie. And yet, it's stunning. The battle scenes of course (think Saving Private Ryan + Braveheart), but not only that. The key is Milla Jovovitch, who has everything one could expect from Joan, and more. If you can't figure out how a 18-year old peasant maiden could lean men to war, just watch Milla take charge, of her warriors, and of the movie. Mel Gibson's William Wallace was good, but this was another cool Mel character. Here, you've got a hero who's truly frightening, the embodiment of willpower. She's a righteous, religious war machine trapped in a young girl's body, and sometimes a young girl trapped in an armor suit, up to the point of utter craziness. Is Joan a saint ? The movie has an original, modern answer, far from the kiddie legend we all know. Milla's Joan is close to some of Shakespeare's heroes or heroines, mad but not quite, sure of her destiny and assailed by doubts. In spite of its flaws, one the most compelling movies of the year, with Milla Jovovitch as the most credible Joan ever.
Fallait pas!... (1996)
Could have been better but saved by its actors
"Fallait pas..." is the third comedy by Gérard Jugnot that tries to deal with a serious theme, but he's less successful here than with his previous "Une époque formidable" and "Casque Bleu". Here the target is the sectarian phenomenon, with a precise reference to the "Solar Temple Order" whose members committed mass suicide in France and Canada. Bernard, an executive for a big company, tries to get home in time for his wedding but is caught in the middle of a mass suicide. He saves a sect member (who then follows him like a puppy), and he's chased by the sect leaders, two over-the-top crooks with bloated egos and a craving for money. The parody of sectarian life and mind-control mechanisms is quite funny, but is unfortunately mixed with more conventional sitcom clichés (Bernard's family). However the actors are very good, particularly Yanne, Lamotte and Lhermite as the various flavours of sect leaders, and the movie is eventually redeemed by their performances.
Une époque formidable... (1991)
Capra with an edge
A fortysomething executive is brutally fired. Before he fully understands what happened to him, he's on the street, and finds himself sharing the plight of a bunch of homeless people : how to find food, how to find shelter, how to beg... It could be dramatic, or even tragic, but it's a comedy. It's not a totally new territory (`Trading places', with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd has been there before, for instance, and we can also think about Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life"), but it's still a rather sensible movie that manages to keep the good balance between the funny situations and the much less funny ones. Also, and very fortunately, it is not too overtly moralistic or sentimental. Life is rough is the street and the social commentary isn't very optimistic. The movie title, "Une époque formidable", can be translated as "It's a wonderful Life", but there's a much bitter edge to it.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Introduction to the New Flesh
Movies in the last years have become more uniform, more streamlined, particularly in the US. As a result, the film market is full of sleek, entertaining movies that the whole world goes to see, but these movies have nothing but harmless baby teeth. Fortunately, people like Lynch or Cronenberg still do movies that may be considered defective by most people, but that bite into the flesh with pointy canines. The Naked Lunch has very sharp teeth indeed. It's supposed to be an adaptation from a William Burrough's book, which doesn't make sense anyway. It starts as the story of a failed writer whose wife becomes addicted to an insecticide powder... It goes downhill after this relatively sane and normal beginning. It's a ride, a drug-induced nightmare full of horribly funny visions (the sort of visions that artists used centuries ago to represent hell). Anuses talk. Aliens sip alcohol in bars. People get impaled. Typewriters turn into bugs. Liquids ooze. You may say it's flawed, or disgusting, or ridiculous, or boring. I saw it with someone who absolutely hated it. But the fact that this person still keeps talking about it 8 years after seeing it says a lot about the Naked Lunch, at a time when we tend to forget blockbusters a few hours after watching them. The Naked Lunch is here - in your mind - to stay.
A masterpiece !
Mortez (Rochefort) is a famous ageing radio game host who spend his life on the road, going from town to town for his show, with his younger sidekick Rivetot (Jugnot). The show is their whole life, until the radio station decides to cancel it... "Tandem" is a tragedy, a comedy, a road-movie and a tale in the same package. The background manages to be both hyperrealistic (it depicts a gloomy provincial life and is inspired by a real game show that still exists today) and fantastic (surreal events abound, like the mysterious red dog Rivetot keeps seeing). Rochefort is simply great as the charming but obsessive Mortez who will never surrender. Jugnot, as the subdued sidekick that has trouble living without his mentor, delivers a strong performance far from his usual slapstick roles. Both make a heartbreaking, unforgettable tandem and the movie is one of the masterpieces of the 80's.