Friday, March 19, 2010

Lie! Lie! My Darling!

How expedient is it to tell a lie?
  • Will a little white lie save face? Buy you some time? Make you feel better?
  • Will a whopping big lie (like weapons of mass destruction) deflect all the unwanted attention that is currently focused on you? Even if it victimizes someone else?
  • Will a lie told in a desperate attempt to save someone's life prove useless in the end?
The quality of a lie -- its intensity, convenience, glibness, and effectiveness -- lies at the core of three complex dramas. The fact that lies can cause obfuscation does not make them any easier to understand.

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A new film by André Téchiné entitled The Girl on the Train was inspired by a controversial event that took place in France in 2004. At the time, a young woman's lie (claiming that she had been attacked on a train by a group of Arab youths who thought she was Jewish) was picked up by the media and quickly blown out of proportion until it became part of France's heated conversation about racism and antisemitism.

Using the woman's lie as the starting point for his plot, Téchené tries to develop two subplots involving the young woman at the center of his film. In each case, her tendency to lie causes problems for those who know her. Yet she shows little concern for the consequences of her actions.

The film begins as the camera looks out from the front of a commuter train racing through a tunnel. Soon, we see Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) rollerblading through the streets of Paris. An attractive young skater tries to catch up with her and grasps her hand in a playful, flirting gesture.

Annoyed, and somewhat frightened, Jeanne ducks into a luggage shop hoping to avoid him. However, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) soon follows her into the shop. As Jeanne feigns interest in a small piece of luggage, Franck uses his brains and brawn to intimidate the shop owner into lowering the price so he can buy the pretty pink roll-away suitcase for her. Having reluctantly given Franck her email address, Jeanne soon finds herself engaged in a near-erotic video chat session. They agree to meet for another skating date.

Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) chats with Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle)

When Franck brings Jeanne back to his apartment, his roommate pretends that they share everything -- including their women -- until Franck stops the joke and the roommate leaves. Soon Franck is aggressively trying to win over Jeanne's mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve), and insisting that he would be a good husband for her daughter.

Louise runs a small childcare business in her home. While combing through the want ads for jobs that might appeal to her daughter, she notices an opening at the law office of Samuel Bleistein (a man she knew many years ago). Jeanne, however, is only taking a half-hearted approach to seeking employment. When she shows up at Bleistein's office for an interview, Bleistein's daughter, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz) is less than impressed.

Neither woman knows about Bleistein's past relationship with Louise. As it turns out, Bleistein (Michel Blanc) was a close friend of Louise's husband when the two men served together in the Army. He also had a major crush on Louise when he was younger. Now a wealthy lawyer who is politically connected and close to retirement, he is far more interested in collecting African art than getting further involved in business or politics.

His family, however, is in a state of turmoil. Although Judith and her ex-husband, Alex (Mathieu Demy) have been separated for quite a while, Alex has arrived in Paris for their son Nathan's upcoming bar-mitzvah. While Alex would like to spend more time with Nathan, and perhaps even take the boy on a vacation to Venice, Judith (the control freak from hell and a spiteful ex-lover) is not about to let that happen.

Soon, Jeanne has moved in with Franck (who has been hired by the owner of an electronics warehouse to live on the premises and guard everything while he is away). Although Franck gets suspicious about some of Jeanne's little lies, he's hiding something from her as well.

Something big.

Franck knows that the warehouse is a front for a drug operation. When he has an unpleasant run in with one of the owner's clients, Franck ends up getting stabbed in the stomach and left on the floor, bleeding profusely from his wound. Soon after Franck's admission to the hospital, his relationship with Jeanne disintegrates.

The police questioning Jeanne find it hard to believe that she knows nothing of the drug operation. When the wounded Franck rejects her from his hospital bed, and tells her not to see him again, she returns home angry and confused.

She then gets a strange inspiration.

After drawing three swastikas on her body with a magic marker, she uses a knife to cut herself in various places. The next time she sees the police, she tells them that she was attacked by a group of Arab kids who thought she was Jewish.

There's just one problem. Jeanne is not a Jew. When the story hits the news, her distressed mother turns to Bleistein for help. He invites Jeanne and Louise to his house on the lake for the weekend so they can figure out how best to handle the situation.

Louise is pretty sure that her daughter is lying. Bleistein's 13-year-old grandson, Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), immediately sees through Jeanne's act and tells her so.

Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) and Louise (Catherine Deneueve)

What follows is a rather schizophrenic weekend as the situation intensifies due to extensive media coverage while Jeanne tries to evade responsibility for her actions. Nathan, however, plays a curious role as a protective soul and catalyst. The next morning, Bleistein helps Jeanne draft a confession and, upon her return to Paris, she surrenders to the police.

While The Girl on the Train is fun to watch, it's not a very satisfying film (even for devoted fans of Catherine Deneuve). One of its biggest problems is that, other than 13-year-old Nathan, none of the characters evoke much sympathy. Not only did I find myself unable to care about them, as I sat watching Jeanne's casual disregard for the mess she had created, I kept thinking: "Funny, you don't look shrewish." Here's the trailer:

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Two films recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival dealt with the fall of Nanking. Each is intensely plotted and, in each film, calculated untruths prove critical to the action. One, however, stands head and shoulders above the other, in ways I could not have anticipated.

The Message takes place in Nanking in 1942 following a series of assassination attempts on officials of the Japanese-controlled puppet government. The local Japanese chief of espionage is trying to capture an underground figure known only as "The Phantom," whose coded messages are posted on a community bulletin board. The Phantom, however, has just fallen for a hoax and sent a message to his organization instructing them to initiate another assassination.

In order to trap the Phantom, he invites several suspects (who might know something about the Chinese counter-insurgency) to an elaborate and isolated Gothic mansion under the false pretense that he is fighting a tight deadline in a case that involves code-breaking. Among the people locked in the mansion for what is essentially an overproduced game of Clue with hyperzealous art direction are the following (you can watch video profiles of some of these characters here):
  • Takeda (Huang Xiaoming), the chief of Japanese counter-espionage.
  • Wang Daoxiang (Wang Zhiwen), Takeda's Chinese subordinate.
  • Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu), the Captain of the Commando unit.
  • Jin Shenghuo (Ying Da), the Director of the Military Office.
  • Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun), the Dispatcher of the Headquarters Administration Division
  • Li Ningyu (Li Bingbing), the Chief of the Code and Cypher section.
  • Bai Xiaonian (Su Youpeng), a secretary to Commander Zhang who doesn't know anything but gets tortured to death anyway.
As the scenes unfold, the invited guests slowly realize that one of them is an undercover agent. Meanwhile, hidden away in the basement, is an elaborate torture chamber (as well as a curious little old man who is widely known and intensely feared for his ability to inject various chemicals into people's bodies that can produce untold levels of agony).

A deadly process of elimination begins in the more luxurious rooms upstairs. As the Phantom attempts to keep his identity secret, he must get a crucial message to his followers instructing them to abort the planned assassination or else his entire organization could be destroyed.

Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun) and Li Ningyu (Li Bingbing)

In a curious way, The Message suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Haihang Xiao and Haoyu Yang's elaborate production design is stunning (even if one gets a little tired of everything being drenched in rich shades of green). Jake Pollock's lush cinematography helps to add a definite sense of period and intrigue, aided by Timmy Yip's costume designs. Michiru Oshima's blood-pumping score helps keep the suspense level high.

And yet, surprisingly, The Message can get horribly confusing (even the most devout Agatha Christie fans might be scratching their heads trying to figure out who did what to who). Here's the trailer:

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Unlike the lush coloring of The Message, City of Life and Death is filmed entirely in black and white. A war epic that often feels like a noir movie, this film has several major distinctions:
  • This one of the few World War II films in which a Nazi is one of the more sympathetic characters.
  • The musical scoring for this film is often minimal, sometimes nonexistent.
  • As one watches Chuan Lu's two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, it's hard not to keep thinking of Norma Desmond's classic line from 1950's Sunset Boulevard: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"
City of Life and Death takes place at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It's 1937 and the Imperial Japanese Army has just captured Nanjing (which was then the capital of the Republic of China). In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers (as well as civilians) were brutally slaughtered. Known alternately as the Rape of Nanking (or the Nanking Massacre) this film documents what was essentially World War II's secondary Holocaust, a genocidal wave of violence against the citizens of Nanking.

Unlike Hitler's forces, the Japanese forces overpowering Nanking's citizens did not have a master plan to eliminate a race. The Rape of Nanking was an exercise in macho brutality for the sheer sake of exerting power over a vanquished and humiliated enemy.

The following 10-minute clip offers some wonderful footage from the film which, in addition to capturing the fear and terror in people's eyes, shows the director's wonderful skill at using faces to tell a story. At the 4:35 mark in the clip, you'll see a group of Japanese soldiers practicing a ritual farming dance in anticipation of a victory celebration. Nearly an hour later in the film, as they precede a float carrying some taiko drummers, their dance takes on a ghoulish overtone against the silence of the bombed-out remains of Nanking.

Chuan Lu's epic includes moving cameos from John Paisley as John Rabe (a German businessman who tried to stop the Japanese atrocities and helped to establish the Nanking Safety Zone that saved nearly 200,000 Chinese from slaughter) and Beverly Peckous as Minnie Vautrin (an American missionary who saved the lives of many women at the Ginling Girls College).

But it is the searing portraits by Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa (a Japanese soldier with a conscience), Fan Wei (as John Rabe's secretary, Mr. Tang), Gao Yuanyuan as Jiang Shuyun, (a beloved schoolteacher), Ryu Kohata as Ida (a Chinese prostitute who, in order to stay alive, volunteers to become a comfort woman for Japanese soldiers), Liu Ye as Lu Jianxiong, and Jiang Yiyan as Xiao Jiang that will tear at your heart.

City of Life and Death won the 2009 San Sebastian International Film Festival's prize for best film. It is a staggering achievement in cinema that, because of Chuan Lu's direction and Cao Yu's magnificent cinematography, definitely should not be missed. This is a film that will leave you shaken and stirred, shocked and awed. Here's the trailer.

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