Monday, August 2, 2010

Who Knows My Secret?

Guessing games are always fun. Whether playing Charades, Twenty Questions, or Pictionary, each player's cultural literacy is put to the test. In the early days of television, two popular shows were I've Got A Secret and What's My Line? The latter often required its panelists to don blindfolds as they tried to guess the identity of the evening's "mystery guest." In the following video clip, Salvador Dali manages to confuse the evening's panelists with a minimum of effort.

As soon as someone decides to make a piece of vital information a secret, he faces the challenge of being able to keep it a secret. Plots based on mistaken identities and closely-guarded family secrets have been the basis of many successful stories (almost every Gilbert & Sullivan operetta contains one). Consider the following:
Regardless of what the secret may be, it takes a lot of work (sometimes three acts) to keep an audience fooled. A critical secret can provide the dramatic shock that makes a movie infamous. However, in most instances, the audience is aware of the deception and is merely waiting to see how long a key character can keep his secret hidden from others.

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During the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a screening of 1931's A Spray of Plum Blossoms brought a pleasant surprise to audiences in the Castro Theatre. Adapted by Huang Yicuo from William Shakespeare's early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the revised plot reads as follows:
"Hu Luting (Valentine) and Bai Lede (Proteus), two graduates of Shanghai's military academy are best friends. While Hu Luting is sent to the far south to serve under General Shi, Bai remains in Shanghai, falling in love with Hu's sister, Hu Zhilu (Julia). Meanwhile Hu Luting has fallen in love with General Shi's daughter, Shi Luohua (Silvia). When Bai is also sent south, tensions rise as Bai also begins to feel attractions to Luohua."
To put things in perspective:

  • Valentine (Jin Yan) is a righteous young dude who is betrayed by his best friend. When General Shi banishes Valentine from the city, he joins up with a band of outlaws and becomes the Asian version of Robin Hood.
  • Proteus (Wang Cilang), who is supposed to be Valentine's best friend, is basically a horn dog who falls head over heels in love with whoever is standing in front of him. As soon as he sees that Valentine is in love with Sylvia, his testosterone-driven competitiveness lurches into high gear. The fact that he and Julia (Ruan Lingyu) are betrothed becomes an inconvenient truth. After all, Julia's back home in Shanghai.  Or is she?
  • General Shi (Wang Guilin) is the military officer overseeing Valentine and his comrades. The General had hoped to have his daughter marry Tiburio (Gao Zhenfei), but she refuses to do so.
  • Sylvia (Lin Chuchu) is a very liberated young woman who is willing to defy her father in matters of love. Having grown up in a military culture, she's also a talented horseback rider and loves to review the troops. But when Julia arrives and informs her that Proteus (who engineered Valentine's banishment so that he could woo Sylvia) is really Julia's boyfriend, the two women bond in their efforts to rescue Valentine and unmask Proteus's misdeeds.

As directed by Bu WancangA Spray of Plum Blossoms proved to be a delightful surprise (how many Shakespearean plays have a character named Fatty Zhu?). Donald Sosin accompanied the film on the piano with an effective use of Asian motifs (including the traditional Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua).

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A powerful family drama written and directed by Keren Yedaya recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film FestivalJaffa tries to put the racial tensions between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs in human terms.

Reuven Wolf (Moni Moshonov) is an Israeli who owns an auto repair shop. His 21-year-old daughter Mali (Dana Igvy) helps run the business while his Meir (Ro'i Asaf), a lazy spoiled brat, does everything he can to ruin it. The other men who work in the shop are two Palestinian Arabs: Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne) and his son, Toufik (Mahmoud Shalaby).

Family life in the Wolf household is far from peaceful. Reuven's younger wife (Ronit Elkabetz

But Mali has a secret. A very big secret. Mali and Toufik are planning to elope.

Mali (Dana Igvy) and Toufik (Mahmoud Shalaby)

If Meir didn't do such a thorough job of making everybody's life miserable, the young lovers might not have to hide their passion. But Meir hates Arabs and feels it is his duty to humiliate and emasculate Toufik. After a night of heavy drinking, Meir starts acting out in the auto repair shop. When he starts to get physical with Hassan, the young Arab steps in and warns Meir not to touch Toufik's father.

A fight soon escalates between the two young men in which Meir takes a fall that causes irreversible brain damage. After Meir dies, Toufik is sentenced to nine years in prison. Meanwhile, Mali must figure out what to do about the fact that she is pregnant with Toufik's child.

On the day that she is scheduled to have an abortion, Mali decides to keep the child. Although she has told her parents that she is pregnant, she has never informed them that the child's father is the man who killed their son (even though Toufik was acting in self defense).

Dana Igvy as Mali

Nine years pass. The Wolf family has moved to a different neighborhood to start their lives over. Mali now has a beautiful young daughter named Shiran (Lili Igvy) whose grandparents dote on her. 

One day, their lawyer calls to inform them that Toufik has been released from prison. When he calls Mali, she tries to avoid seeing him. Eventually, she weakens, meets with him, and informs Toufik that they have a daughter.

Unable to conceal her secret any longer, Mali leaves a note for her parents explaining the bitter truth. She then takes Shiran to a relative's apartment. When Reuven and Ossi arrive, determined to take Shiran home with them, they realize that Mali has already decided to reunite with Toufik. They leave in disgust after Reuven informs Mali that she is no longer a part of their family.

Like many Jewish parents, Reuven and Ossi demand to know "How could you do this to us?" As Keren Yedaya in her director's notes:
"I felt the need to do a political film about Israel and Palestine. But I was searching for a much wider audience than the one usually attracted to these 'political films.' This desire came out of a genuine belief that you can create a piece of subversive art that doesn’t give up on that wide audience. This search naturally led me to the popular Egyptian cinema on which I was raised. When I was a child, Israeli television aired Egyptian films every Friday. This point of reference became a fascinating basis to work from, both politically and aesthetically.
 Meir (Ro'i Asaf) confronts Toufik (Mahmoud Shalaby)
In my mind, Meir's parents are as responsible for his death as Toufik is. And my belief is that Meir's death is like a  suicide. I regard him as a terrorist of sorts: he's violent and he's about to explode all the time. He's the only one who shouts, the only one who reveals that the family has serious problems. He's like the black sheep of the family but he is, in fact, only their mirror. That is the reason for the relief they feel when he dies. Now, nobody will force them to face the truth. They can continue to live in their lies."
Jaffa is a taut drama that benefits from an extremely strong cast. Dana Igvy gives a poignant portrayal of Mali while Ro'i Asaf's characterization of her brother, Meir, is so obnoxious that few will mourn his death. The film also benefits from the evocative original score by Shushan. Here's the trailer:

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Long before anything resembling a transgender rights movement existed, people were toying with the concept of gender identity. Certain species have the ability to metamorphose from one gender to another. In some primitive religions, a gifted person can alternate the polarity of his body's energy in such a way that he can change gender at will.

While Native Americans embrace the "Two Spirit People" and homosexuality was no big deal in early Hawaiian culture, physically changing one's anatomy requires a good surgeon, a good magician, or a gifted writer. In her 1928 novel entitled Orlando: A BiographyVirginia Woolf tells the story of a young man born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who, at her suggestion, decided to never grow old. Unlike the rambunctious Peter Pan, Orlando is a fairly complex young man with a rare androgynous beauty.

As time rushes by, viewers see Orlando remain eternally young, beautiful, curious, and curiously attractive over the course of four centuries. At one point in his life, he finds himself engaged in a political ally's war and realizes that he has no desire to kill or be killed. Orlando goes to sleep that night as a man and awakens the next morning as a woman.

Poof! No more penis.
Poof! No more military obligations.
Poof! No more privilege in society.

What Orlando soon discovers is that, as a woman, he has far fewer rights to property and wealth than he enjoyed as a man. As someone who always lived by his own rules, that doesn't prove to be as big an obstacle as to Orlando as it might be to others. Orlando goes on to give birth to a daughter and publish an astonishing biography.

When Sally Potter's film adaptation of Orlando premiered in 1992, I had a lot of trouble following the protagonist's exploits as Orlando managed to outlive and outwit one person after another. I was, however, entranced by Tilda Swinton's performance in the title role and the casting of gay icon Quentin Crisp as the aging and decrepit Queen Elizabeth.

Sony Classics is re-releasing Orlando this month. Another look at Potter's film reveals that while it can still be confusing, it is far more entertaining than I remembered. Beautiful performances in supporting roles are delivered by Billy Zane (Shelmerline), Lothaire Bluteau (The Khan), Charlotte Valandrey (Sasha) and Andrew Watts (a countertenor). What one also realizes after a viewing Orlando anew is that:
  • The growing strength of the transgender movement and films such as 2005's Transamerica helps modern audiences enjoy Woolf's tale with a much greater understanding of gender roles in society.
  • Tilda Swinton started off strong and has only continued to grow as an actress of uncommon beauty and artistic depth.
  • Orlando is a film that should not be missed by anyone with an interest in period costume design.
Sally Potter's Orlando is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the intellect (and that's not something you can say about a whole lot of films these days). Here's the trailer:

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