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Friday, September 09, 2011
Youth angst in Venice
Venice hosts the world’s oldest movie festival, but what has throbbed and bubbled in the past few days is young angst. It’s a grim world for youths, from the Greek meltdown in ‘Alps’ to the post-tsunami moral anarchy in ‘Himizu’, and the radical romance of the latest adaption of ‘Wuthering Heights’, featuring, for the first time, a black Heathcliff. These Competition titles are hopefuls for the Golden Lion, one of the most respected prizes in world cinema, which will be crowned tomorrow night at the closing ceremony of the lagoon cine-fest.
‘Alps’, by Yorgos Lanthimos, is a dark satire that rides on cold aesthetics. Of its quartet of main characters, one is a teen gymnast, and she joins a band of eccentrics who make a living by re-enacting the lives of dead people to comfort their aggrieved families. It’s a dangerous game for both sides as the various identities assumed by the Alps team – as the quartet call themselves – merge into and consume their real lives. But then again, what is real and what is not – the philosophy that underlies the idea of cinema itself – is separated by an invisible threshold in this smart, mean, relentless movie that knocks you around with its silent punches.
Lanthimos’s film doesn’t allude to the recent debt crisis that has mired the Greek spirit, but the sense of despair and existential void can easily be read as a symptom of a society that’s going through a hard time. On the contrary, Sion Sono’s ‘Himizu’ makes sure you understand the film as an allegory – no, maybe as a literal reflection – of Japan that’s reeling from the shock of the March 11 tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis. And it’s the young people, the film suggest, who’re bearing the biggest brunt in the country that’s beginning to doubt in their own future.
‘Himizu’ opens with an image of rubble left by the devastating tsunami, apparently shot on real location not long after the waves struck. The film, which is physically and emotionally violent, tells the story of Sumida, a high-school boy living by a lake with his dysfunctional mother. Sumida’s father has left the family, though he keeps coming back to ask for money and to beat up the boy while saying harrowing things like ‘I wish you never existed’. Sumida’s female classmate is suffering from a similar fate: Her mother has built a gallows, painted brightly red, in their living room and encourages the girl to hang herself as soon as she’s ready. Count your blessings you’re not Japanese teeangers.
Of course ‘Himizu’ – meaning ‘a mole’ – uses the ploy of dark comedy to get its point across. What’s striking is that the film’s black humour and over-the-top, nearly cartoonish story accumulate their unlikely power and hit you hard in the stomach (and the head too). Sion Sono is a director who doesn’t value subtlety, and in his movies – the 4-hour-long ‘Love Exposure’ and the serial murder saga ‘Cold Fish’ -- he’s always used far-fetched setup and garish details to throw insult at the superstructure of the rigid Japanese society. There will be those who feel that the film is too blunt in its depiction of familial violence. But violence, internal and external, natural and unnatural, is the point here, and ‘Himizu’ is one of the first Japanese films to use the backdrop of the tsunami as a lens to look at the emotional aftershock felt by the country.
Shifting style yet still in the terrain of teen angst, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ has received a new interpretation by Scottish director Andrea Arnold (the dense ‘Red Road’ and the gritty ‘Fish Tank’). Despite the several movie versions, this new one manages to convey the ‘atmospheric tumult’ – as Bronte described the stormy Yorkshire heights in her novel – through a fresh film grammar and stylized misc-en-scene: shot in 4:3 ratio rather than the wider 16:9, the film relies on close-up, hushed exchange, woozy, hand-held camera following the characters on their many runs across the damp fields, and remarkable shots of everyday sensuality, like when young Catherine Earnshaw kisses the bleeding wounds of Heathcliff after he was caned. Director Arnold has given us an interiorized romance, where feeling simmers and obsession boils. In remaking a classic story, Arnold guns for modern aesthetics. And by making Heatfcliff black – in the book he's a gypsy – the film increases the tension between the characters and gives the story’s second half, when Heathcliff returns to the heights as a rich man, a possibly new re-reading.
The film will split the critics, but here’s a ‘Wuthering Heights’ like none you’ve seen before.
The 68th Venice Film Festival will wrap tomorrow.
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