I was hoping my screening today of "The Assassin," that the critics have swooned over, might be the film to blow me away, but I failed to connect with this costume drama of intrigue and sword-fighting from the ninth century by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The costumes were lush and the scenery spectacular, highlighted with an occasional lingering shot of great beauty, but since my mind was still distracted with my hacking case after I discovered a bunch of emails from my drafts file had been erased, I couldn't give this film the full focus it needed, as is generally necessary with Hsiao-Hsien. Ralph had no easier a time of it than I had and couldn't shed any light on my dark.
My day's two other Competition films were much less subtle, though they both had an element of mystery that wasn't fully explained. They were both by young, but established auteurs making an English language film, even though that wasn't their native tongue, and working with high profile actors, making their films much more accessible than "The Assassin."
Tim Roth is a care taker in Mexican Michel Franco's "Chronic." He is very tender and gets quite close to his clients, too close for the liking of some of the relatives of his clients, most of whom are in their final days. When the children of one of his clients discover he has been watching porn with their father they bring suit against him. It may not be the first time it has happened. We learn he has been married and has a daughter in medical school, but he largely remains a mystery. He seems to be a lost soul, much repressed and stoop shouldered, on some sort of a mission but not entirely sure what it is. How he became this way is left for us to speculate.
Gabriel Byrne also has his burdens in "Louder than Bombs" by Joachim Trier of Norway. He lost his wife, Isabelle Huppert, a few years before, to suicide. They had two sons. One is a college professor and the other is a morose teen still in high school, the very same one where Bryne teaches and is having an affair with one of his teachers unbeknownst to his son. That's not the one thing he isn't aware of. He doeant know his mother's death was a suicide and it is about to be revealed in a New York Time piece on an exhibition of his mother's photography. Father and son hardly speak, so it is difficult for Byrne to let him know. The professor son, played with panache by Jesse Eisenberg, whose wife has just had a baby, is back home visiting helping prepare for his mother's exhibition. He offers advice to his younger brother, not all of which he heeds. The film abounds with little plot twists and revelations that aren't pursued but keep one's interest level high. This wasn't a particularly ambitious film, but it had insights and truths, and made for a somewhat nourishing dose of cinema. It could have been another film with an odd name for a newborn, but they name their daughter Isabella after his dead mother.
As so often happens, my films, like the animals marching onto Noah's Ark, come in pairs of some sort or another. I also had a pair of films today on bands of soldiers in rough circumstances. One was rebel soldiers in the thick forests of Colombia and the other was French soldiers manning an outpost in Afghanistan.
It has been a fine year for Colombian cinema. "Embrace of the Serpent" won the best picture award in Directors Fortnight and "Land and Shade" won an award in Critics Weekly. I only saw a handful of films in these sidebars, but was lucky to see both of them. And today along came a Colombian film in Un Certain Regard, "Alias Maria." There have been so many respectable films in this category, this probably won't win an award, but it was still a solid effort featuring a young woman rebel soldier on a mission to deliver a baby to safety. It cries a lot. She finds the best way to calm him is to offer him her breast. Surprisingly she has milk to offer, as it is forbidden for any of the women soldiers to be pregnant. She is ordered to have an abortion, but her maternal instinct is too strong to comply, so she must escape from her rebel battalion.
Trying to find a couple of lost members of a small unit guarding a pass in Afghanistan keeps the tension high in "The Wakhan Front," an award-winner in the Critics weekly. This won as much for its casting and its setting outside a small mountain village as it did for its script. French soldiers, Afghani locals and rebel soldiers all look as if they were plucked from reality. One negotiation session after another threatens to erupt into violence.
I rounded out the day with my first film from India--"Fourth Direction." I was hoping it would have song and dance to keep me awake, but that wasn't necessary. This was the second film in Un Certain Regard with dog cruelty. A family living in a walled compound in the countryside has a dog that barks in the night when a band of rebels patrolling the region makes its rounds. They don't want attention drawn to them and order the owner at gunpoint to do away with his dog. Government soldiers who come by the next day hearing he has been consorting with the rebels are also incensed by the dog and actually take a shot at it. He puts off killing the dog despite a feeble attempt to poison it, until a crucial moment much later. This too was a film that cast an array of authentic-looking people of the region. Even if the film was a bit simple-minded at times, it gave a fine dose of India. If there were an award given for the best set of beards in a movie it would be a strong contender against the Icelandic film "Rams" that played on Day Three.