Movie Reviews: Topical dramas rule the day at Asian-American film fest
May 15, 2008 8:00 AM
Nurgul Yesilcay, left, is Ayten and Patrycia Ziolkowska portrays Lotte in "The Edge of Heaven."
The beauty of a film festival that spans 10 days and more than two dozen movies is that if you miss a movie during the first week, you may get another chance during the second week. Here are capsule reviews of a sampling of movies playing during the final weekend of the Silk Screen festival.
Two mother-daughter sets and one father-son pair share the cross-cultural constellation and elliptical orbits of Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven," a powerful drama of great originality and pristine construction by a German-born Turkish director renowned for his explorations of those two nervously coexisting nationalities.
It opens with the men: Hamburg University professor Nejat (Baki Davrak) lectures -- boringly -- on Goethe but takes time out to visit his frisky father, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), in Bremen. "Getting old is completely pointless," says hard-drinking Ali, a regular patron of Bremen's hookers. One of them is tough-cookie Yeter (Nursel Kose), a Turk like Ali himself. He's so smitten that he asks her to move in with him and, after appropriate negotiations, she agrees.
Upright educator Nejat disapproves at first but bonds with Yeter after learning she sends money home to her daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) in Turkey for college.
The father-son bond, however, is shattered by Yeter's sudden death. At that point, Nejat and the story shift to Istanbul, where he buys a bookshop and looks for Ayten, who turns out to be -- well, a "Young Turk" radical activist. In fact, she has fled Turkey for (where else?) Hamburg. There, she's befriended by student Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who invites her to live in her home, to the chagrin of her stolid mom, Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).
When Ayten is arrested, deported and imprisoned in Turkey, Lotte follows -- so does tragedy.
Akin's story is laden with coincidence but fine-tuned and filmed with precision. Two opposite-direction coffin shots at an airport, for example, are chillingly perfect brackets to the tale. Akin's intimate familiarity with both Turkish and German culture manifests itself throughout, enhanced by the fine cinematography of Rainer Klausmann ("Downfall").
Above all is the emotional resonance of the six leads' superb performances. Schygulla, in particular -- looking as dowdy as they could make her -- provides low-key gravitas and the redemptive glow for what is an ultimately uplifting tragedy of biblical proportions.
Less heavenly is the film's English title. Its actual title is "Auf der anderen Seite" ("From the Other Side"). The dummkopf who came up with that meaningless "translation" should be beaten about the head and shoulders with a German dictionary.
In the Oscar-winning "The Departed," Vera Farmiga was a psychiatrist torn between two men who suggested "honesty is not synonymous with the truth."
Farmiga finds herself in somewhat of a similar situation, but this time, she's Sophie, an upscale homemaker whose Korean-American husband (David McInnis) has just lost his father and is spiraling into depression. When he attempts suicide, Sophie redoubles her efforts to get pregnant -- by seeking out a Korean immigrant (Jung-woo Ha) she spied at a sperm bank.
She makes him a business proposition: "I would like to speak to you about a job." Sophie offers him $300 for every time they have sex and $30,000 if she conceives. But it's impossible to keep emotions out of such intimate encounters, and her plan backfires in cataclysmic and life-shifting ways.
Some (but not all) of what happens to Sophie seems inevitable, but Farmiga and her male co-stars make for an incendiary, intriguing trio. When she strikes a match to her scheme, there's no turning back, and in a season of movies about immigrants and their plights, this one stands alone.
When a 12-year-old American boy named Hector (Jacob Kiron Shalov) loses his single mother in an apparent car accident, he is sent to the Philippines to live with the grandmother he has never met. She speaks no English, he no Tagalog.
Would anyone deciding custody in this case make that choice? Writer-director Ron Morales leap-frogs over that logical question to transport Hector and moviegoers to the Manila district of Santa Mesa, a railroad shanty town.
With no mention of school or lessons in the local language, Hector falls in with a gang of street thieves who, in turn, lead him to the home of a photographer who befriends him after a break-in. Hector moves in and out of the lives of strangers and newfound friends as he tries to adjust to this foreign city that increasingly becomes home.
Writer-director Ron Morales drew upon his own experience as a Filipino-American, but even at 82 minutes the movie feels slightly padded and contrived. It vividly, authentically explores Manila but hits home when Hector and his grandmother get past their differences -- generation, culture, language -- and find their common ground.
"Option 3," San Francisco filmmaker Richard Wong's putative thriller, is a long night's journey into the idiosyncratic genre parodies of the day.
Ken (Preston Conner) and Jessica (Theresa Navarro) are on the verge of a breakup; Ken himself, of a crackup. He flees to the bathroom for a while, returning to find Jessica's cell phone -- but not Jessica. Suddenly it rings, for the first of many times. He answers. "If you want to see Jessica again...," says the voice, Ken must carefully follow instructions.
His instructions are to race around the dark streets of San Francisco and locate keys, each of which opens a crucial door -- to nowhere. Ken does so, running madly up one set of dark staircases and down another (to maximize the Expressionist angles).
The only thing worse than constant running, in my opinion, is SLOW-MOTION running. We get both here. But we get only about 15 words from Ken, which is about a dozen too many in view of Conner's acting abilities. Suffice to say, he's no Sean Penn.
In lieu of a story, we get long silences and, eventually, an insanely goofy fight between Ken and somebody called "The Mysterious Phobos." It's a faux Hong Kong martial-arts match for two, rather than seven, spaghetti-western samurais. Then, for an ending, we get tragic ambiguity.
Midway, Conner favors us with a song -- actually, a well-crooned ballad during which his backup musicians magically appear one by one. It's about Emily Dickinson. Then there's the carousel scene: Been there, done that with Fellini.
All in all, "Option 3" is a kind of atmospheric academic exercise in image, lighting and mood -- beyond the valley of pretentious. If Wong's non-narrative nightmare is the cutting edge of Asian-American filmmaking, give me the dull side of the blade.
After the sixth or seventh "Wanna see Jessica again?" phone call, the answer is no. There's nothing behind all those doors and curtains -- not even a dinette set.