Life in 1982 America for 12-year-old newcomer Ellie is a parade of wonders and loneliness.
"In America, there are three television stations. ... On Tuesdays, people throw out expensive things like furniture and stuff like that. ... In America, they use a machine to sharpen their pencils."
These are among the dispatches Ellie sends to her bestie back in Israel as she navigates sixth grade barely speaking or reading any English and without the buffer of a good friend.
That starts to change when she observes Thuy, a Vietnamese classmate with her nose usually buried in a book, and reaches out to her. They're outsiders dealing with the shame of poverty or the sting of hurtful comments by mean girls and, on the flip side, first crushes on boys, ice skating, dancing, sleepovers and the silliest of prank calls.
"Foreign Letters," based on the experiences of filmmaker Ela Thier whose family moved from Israel to the States in 1982, is a little too long at 100 minutes. However, Ms. Thier captures the depth of feeling possible by tweens, the tyranny of having to eat lunch alone or being excluded from a birthday party.
The young leads -- Noa Rotstein as Ellie, Dalena Le as Thuy -- seem like real, unmannered girls transported from another time. In a world where movies are made by, aimed at or star men or boys, "Foreign Letters" is a small, bittersweet reminder about how the other half lives or lived, with further proof during the credits where you can see the real pals.
In English, Hebrew and Vietnamese with some English subtitles.
A suicidal, failing actor takes identity theft to a whole new level in this Japanese comedy.
It starts innocently enough when Takeshi Sakurai (Masato Sakai) visits a public bathhouse at the same time as a hitman, Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa), who takes a spectacular spill and is hustled away by ambulance.
In the resulting confusion, Kondo's locker keys are kicked to Sakurai, who finds and accepts the keys to a new life, complete with ready cash, a tony apartment and stash of IDs and disguises, along with a gun used in the commission of his job.
Poor Kondo, still suffering from memory loss, lands in messy, rundown digs, with remnants of the stranger's failed suicide attempt and signs of his acting aspirations. On the bright side, he is befriended by a woman on a mission to marry, which is just one of the many (perhaps too many) strands woven together here.
"Key of Life," nominated for four Awards of the Japanese Academy, applies a light touch to questions about acting, getting into and under another person's skin, the ways in which someone can disappear and how, as one character says, "Life never works out as we expect it to."
And, neither, sometimes do movies, which in this case proves to be a good thing.
You'll be more so if you see "Parizod," the first film from Uzbekistan ever to be featured at the Silk Screen festival -- and a strangely fascinating one. When a country doctor on his motorcycle breaks down on a remote mountain road, a beautiful woman -- the title character -- appears from a mirage-like misty cloud.
What to do?
What any well-bred young man would do: He takes her home to his mother. Mama and the neighbors in their small village task themselves with finding a husband for this mysterious stranger, who seems to have magical powers. "She's alien to us -- beautiful as a fairy -- but God deprived her of happiness."
On the other hand, He endowed her with virtue and strict observance of Muslim rituals. The doctor, who has a shrewish fiancee, wants to do the right thing. (Everybody here does!) But when her veil slips, he can't resist a stolen glance at her face. In this culture, that's like sneaking a look at her naked -- almost akin to the sex act itself.
Uzbekistan's film industry dates back 80 years to its development in the early Bolshevik period, but -- deprived of government subsidies -- it has withered in the post-Soviet era. Director Ayub Shahobiddinov soulfully recaptures the village life and barren Uzbek landscapes. Fairy tale or allegory?
Either way, it's an immersive insight onto a little-known culture. I was there once -- served tea in the desert, on the outskirts of Samarkand, next to a 20-foot-high pyramid of melons. The big tourist attraction is Gur-e Amir, Tamerlane's magnificent 14th century mausoleum.
Wonder if they have a space left for his infamous namesake or if there's a space left in Western hearts for Parizod's kinder, gentler Uzbek people.
American televidiots of a certain age will recall that "Cathy adores the minuet and crepes Suzette," while "Patty loves to rock 'n' roll, a hot dog makes her lose control." Those identical-twin cousins of ABC's "Patty Duke Show" had far fewer hormonal and interpersonal issues than their counterparts in "Cha Cha for Twins," a poorly titled dramedy about the loves and identity crises of twin sisters on a high school basketball team in Taiwan.
Mini and Poni (both played by Peijia Huang) are struggling to become their separate selves, but most people can't be bothered to tell them apart -- including their boyfriends. Dreamy Mini's dreamboat dude is "Yogurt," a slick-talking star of the debate team who gets tongue-tied when wooing. Poni -- the more rebellious sister -- is romanced by polite "Ping." (Ping's brothers Pong and Pang, from "Turandot," are MIA).
Taipei high-school life is as squeaky clean and wholesome as Wichita's circa 1970. And there's no Hayley Mills' "Parent Trap" business of twins on a quest to reunite split parents. Neither father nor mother knows best here -- or gets much involved at all.
Based loosely on the experiences of co-director Yang Yi-Chien and her twin sister, "Cha Cha for Twins" eschews cute hijinks in favor of sisterly bickering and boy-squabbling. There's one birth-control discussion, and a basketball game finale that could be dedicated to Kim Jong Un, in an otherwise sentimental Chinese chick flick.
The moral: "Be true to yourself." This is always good -- if not exactly new -- advice. As the late great Soupy Sales taught us (around the same time as the "Patty Duke Show"): "Be true to your teeth, or they'll be false to you."
The Thais have a more pessimistic, violent cinematic agenda than the Taiwanese, judging by "Headshot." This neo-noir existential thriller, by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, opens with ex-cop Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) taking a bullet wound to the head. After a three-month coma, he wakes up to find his world turned upside down.
Literally. Tul's vision has been inverted -- a serious occupational hazard in his new job as professional assassin, pursuing (and pursued by) Dr. Demon, the vigilante mad-scientist author of "Gene Pool Parasites and Justice." Talk about "publish or perish." Seems Tul was framed and jailed by one set of crooks, then freed to work for another. No wonder he's now a kind of dirty hybrid Harry, with shades of Bruce Lee, Bruce Willis -- and Richard Nixon. "I may kill people," he says, "but I'm not a crook."
But Tul's journey through the criminal underworld, you'll be relieved to know, takes him "toward the path of enlightenment," with a little detour through some softcore porn. Thailand's entry for the 2012 best foreign film Oscar, "Headshot" is slick, atmospheric and utterly ridiculous. It aims to be a mesmerizing statement on Thai social corruption but is buried under its own artsy-ponderous pretensions.
All the mayhem resulting from his upside-down vision could have been avoided if some creative physical therapist had just taught him how to walk on his hands.