Traps and Tribulations in the Oscar Game By Robert Koehler

in 17th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

More than any other festival, Palm Springs provides a useful study in what can be an extreme difference between curatorial programming and the judgment calls made by nationally-sanctioned film boards – specifically, boards trying to guess which film from their countries will appeal to the few hundred members of the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ foreign-language Oscar film committee. Palm Springs has become primarily known, somewhat unfairly, as the festival that spotlights the field of submissions from dozens of countries (48 in the festival, out of this year’s total submission field of 54). This reputation tends to cloud the fact that Palm Springs has developed into one of North America’s best programmed festivals, designed as an exposition of much of the best recent world cinema – or, as Toronto used to call itself, a “Festival of Festivals.” Yet it’s precisely this bifurcated identity that serves up a day-by-day case of critical viewing, in which it’s possible to see Country X’s ‘official’ film and one of Country X’s other films that, for a host of reasons obscured by local industry biases and, even worse, political and even personal factors, failed to make the cut with Country X’s committee (Just as Palm Springs has become a festival of festivals, so the Oscar group can be seen as a committee of committees).

To be sure, the festival itself has created these fascinating conditions by dint of geography and its position on the calendar – almost exactly 120 miles from the Beverly Hills doorstep of the Academy headquarters, Palm Springs is virtually a second home to many who work or have worked in Hollywood, as well as to a significant number of Academy members (It’s worth noting that this is the home of such thoroughfares as Bob Hope Drive). By running in early January, Palm Springs predates the deadline for Oscar nomination balloting, thus arriving at a time when the foreign language committee is nearly done with its two-months-plus of screenings but can still consider the wider field before narrowing the list to five nominees. It’s arguable that the festival screenings of the submission films actually has any impact at all on Oscar committee voting, since most members have seen the relevant films at the Academy’s official screening in Los Angeles. But some have not, and besides – except in cases of blatant hucksterism which sadly plays out every year and which Academy members tend to abhor – additional screenings of films, particularly those from countries with small film industries and represented by cash-poor production companies and sales firms, can’t really hurt.

As Palm Springs has booked more and more Oscar submissions, paradoxically its general world cinema programming has become matured and refined. It’s now at a point where, as the joke now regularly goes, this is a festival better known in Paris than it is in Los Angeles, where the film community – if it pays attention to any festival at all – is obsessed in January with Sundance, opening just after Palm Springs concludes. And with this steadily superb curating by an exceptionally strong programming team led by Carl Spence comes the interesting dilemma: The supposed Oscar ‘losers’ from many countries are better than the “winners.”

I counted ten notable cases of such a split in this year’s group (Brazil, China, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Taiwan and Thailand). Among these are some fair works, such as Reza Mirkarimi’s involving if over-extended So Close, So Far (Kheili Dour, Kheili Nazdik) from Iran and Cristina Comencini’s thoughtful if conventional Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore) from Italy – respectable films that nevertheless are nowhere near the best from each respective country’s year in film as shown in the festival; for example: Niki Karimi’s brilliant Iranian debut, One Night (Yek Sha), or Antonio Capuano’s deeply involving Mario’s War (La Guerra Di Mario) from Italy). Two others from Iberia (Spain’s rather inert Obaba by Montxo Armendariz and Portugal’s modestly noirish In the Darkness of The Night (Noite Oscura) from Joao Canijo) also fall short of what an ambitious Palm Springs viewer could see from each country, whether it’s the border-crossing Sud Express or grand master Manoel de Oliveira’s deliciously absurd Magic Mirror (Espelho Magico). More distressingly, it’s hard to imagine what was going on in the heads of Thailand’s circle of experts when they opted for the naively sentimental and verbose The Tin Mine (Maha’lai meung rae) over the sheer mad joys of Wisit Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog (Ma Nakorn).

Three, though, call out for deeper questioning, even if one of them – Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun) – has some lusty support among a host of critics along with equally strong opponents; indeed, few films since Berlin 2005 (when the Tsai premiered) have divided the room like this one. Count me among the opponents, a painful position to take since I have long loved Tsai’s body of work, and have exhaustedly argued for such “extreme” films of his such as his apocalyptic musical, The Hole. But it’s exactly why The Hole is such a landmark in the recent movement of world cinema musicals that The Wayward Cloud is, sadly, such an arid disappointment (this movement has been properly examined by only one critic who I’m aware of, the ever-adventurous Adrian Martin, who, it should also be noted, is a supporter of Tsai’s latest).

It isn’t just that Tsai adopts the same structural strategy here as The Hole, in which scenes of private isolation and attempts at emotional connection are interlaced with purely fantasy musical numbers, often pivoting on nostalgia for pop songs past. Tsai has made it a signature of his work to frequently revisit his obsessions, from rain and leaking water, to identical family groups, to sexual relationships which far exceed social norms; if any major voice today reaffirms the notion that most artists continue to make the same work over again, it is Tsai.

The Wayward Cloud, though, suggests that he’s reached a creative cul-de-sac: his central couple (played by regulars Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi) simply resist any real comprehension; she, in essence, watches while he, as a professional porn actor, fucks his co-star. The fascination – unlike the endless voyeuristic possibilities explored in, say, Vive l’amour – quickly run thin. The film’s running gag is that rain and water have effectively been replaced with watermelon, and the effort applied by Tsai to seek variations on this visual joke evinces sweatiness, a sheer desperation for cinematic irony that’s a new and somewhat distressing development. Tsai has always flirted with disaster in his daring hyper-minimalist mise-en-scene, which has always been inherent in the excitement of watching his films. Just as Keaton’s and Tati’s first audiences might have asked, so too Tsai’s: Will he fall this time? Tsai has always seemed to find previously undiscovered combinations of modern existential dread and hilarity while denying himself many of moviemaking’s usual resources and forcing his shots to hypnotic length-a driving force in his visual comedy. Near-emptiness before, though, becomes true emptiness this time, though it’s not always easy to measure exactly how. Perhaps the sturdiest proof is in how the musical dances, an interruptus to coitus if there ever could be, repeat many of the same routines – delightful as many of them are – from tune to tune. Note this in contrast to The Hole’s extraordinary range of musical interludes, which out-do Dennis Potter at his own game of revealing a character’s buried identities via a ruptured song cycle.

Given his rightful position as one of the world’s great living filmmakers, and given that his Three Times (Zuihaode Shiguang) is an ideally executed summa of aspects of his oeuvre, Hou Hsiao-hsien should certainly have been Taiwan’s Oscar man this time. Perhaps it seems beside the point that Three Times wasn’t even supposed to happen the way it did; how, for example, Hou was originally supposed to make only one of the three pieces comprising the whole triptych, much as Wong Kar-wai made one part (with Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh) of Eros. Yet this only illustrates the director’s seemingly endless reservoir of creative invention and his ability, like a great jazz musician, to respond to what the moment serves up. A minor aside between larger works (following his sublime Ozu-athon Cafe Lumiere) became, as his partners fell out, one of his most fully realised achievements. Each section, set in distinct and non-chronologically arranged time frames (from the silent era to what looks like this morning), more than cites a previous Hou film – already cited ad nauseam in criticism of Three Times. Like his masterpiece The Puppetmaster, a grand history is being told as in an unfolding illustrated scroll, framed by Hou’s perennial tension between his deep, personal scepticism for modernity and his radical quest for a modern cinematic poetics. Part of the lasting beauty of Hou’s film is his insistence on refusing to resolve this tension, and the refusal has never quite felt so gnawing as when Three Times ends in the noisy chill of the present tense.

Part of the Oscar game that’s played by country film committees is speculating on what the Americans in the Academy will like – and proceeding to give them something close to that perception (give ’em a movie with cultural exotica or children, the argument goes, and the Academy will eat it up). But this is a trap, one that both China and Mexico fall into with a distinctive thud.

China’s case is a sadly predictable one. With Chen Kaige’s The Promise (Wu ji) (briefly titled in a shortened version as Master of the Crimson Armor by the Weinstein Company as part of their U.S. distribution strategy to sell it as an action film, before the Weinstein’s gave up distribution rights) being China’s most expensive film to date, the urge to submit it as the official Oscar entry was surely irresistible. Complicating matters at Palm Springs was the fact that the screened version of Chen’s action-fantasy was presented under the now-defunct title and in a version nearly twenty minutes shorter than that screened officially to the Academy – a version that itself has played widely only in China and selected parts of Asia, and is not set to show elsewhere in the world, including a non-competition slot at Berlin. In either version, the film is nonsensically overwrought and shamelessly willing to steal from numerous better martial arts films, from Wong’s Ashes of Time to Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Chen’s epic depicts a princess condemned to a life of riches but no love, with escape possible only by going back in time. Suffice to say that if she meets up with the right guy and plays her cards right, she can get her love and 24-hour clock back in running order. The viewer will be excused if he or she begins to view The Promise as akin to an extended play on Groundhog Day, in which a set of characters literally run back and forth from palace to forest for a set of near-miss rescues and bad-luck encounters. Put simply, Chen knows better.

Jiang Lu has worked as a filmmaker for about the same time span (roughly four years) that it took Chen from making Together to finally completing The Promise. All that Jiang has done during this phase is make a stunning debut, the SARS-themed Tang Poetry, and followed with what is instantly one of the great masterpieces of Chinese cinema in the new century, Grain in Ear (Mang Zhong). Involved with a community of folks this time rather than the isolated individuals of Tang Poetry, Jiang’s astonishingly precise camera is ingeniously able to observe both objectively and empathetically in a way that most directly recalls Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform. A young mother and her slightly unruly son, both of the Chinese-Korean minority, try to eke out a living along suburban Beijing railway tracks, with a circle of hookers as neighbours. In just two films, Jiang’s storytelling has developed an extraordinary sense of ellipsis – so clever and refined that it’s bound to send audiences scrambling afterwards to piece certain parts together – but his characters seem bound to encounter death in one form or another. Here, it takes the form of a revenge that can’t possibly be expected before it happens, and her flight from the hellish world by the rails seems less a release than the start of another troubling journey. Better the empty bliss at the end of The Promise , the film mavens of China’s committee seem to suggest, than the uncertainty of Grain in Ear.

Mexico’s committee has long displayed a dubious talent for picking poor films for the Oscars (The Crime of Padre Amaro, it seems, is far preferable to the visionary Japon), but it set a new abysmal standard this year with the highly erratic and instantly dismissible To the Other Side (Al Otro Lado). Writer-director Gustavo Loza’s three-story narrative uneasily alternates among tales of kids in three countries (Mexico, Cuba, Morocco) seeking to cross real and imaginary borders – an emotionally pregnant notion in the Mexican consciousness, where national boundaries (particularly with El Norte) carry enormous cultural and psychological weight. Loza juggles tones and styles with the indecision of an artist searching for a focus, a centre, and finding little to hold onto. Unaccountably, his Mexican section, telling of a boy’s encounter with Erindira, a mythical lady-in-the-lake, is simply embarrassing in its faux-magic realism sentimentality. The melodramatic Cuban section, about a Havana boy’s wish to see his dad, lacks any conviction about the specific Cuban context. In Morocco, a girl’s own quest for her dad finally indicates small signs of Loza’s capacity to depict genuine human drama, and suggests that his heart belongs to a contemporary form of neo-realism.

But against Loza’s awkward straining and affectations, Ricardo Benet’s commanding debut film, News From Afar (Noticias Lejanas), announces a stunning new talent in the same way that Japon announced Carlos Reygadas. The Palm Springs viewer scouting new Mexican cinema was forced to conclude that while many in the country’s new generation (Benet, Reygadas, Amat Escalante of Sangre , Eugenio Pogolvsky of Tropic of Cancer) are in the midst of revolutionising what it means to be a Mexican film artist, the official bureaucrats in charge of Mexico’s export to the Oscars are in the midst of a counter-revolution. Like Loza, Benet also attacks the subject of border crossing and what it does to families, but his saga pulsates with truth and aesthetic rigor. His screenplay, about a young man who grows up in a remote community with no real name, identity or even basic utilities and journeys to Mexico City, speaks to the deep schism between country and city that’s informed Mexican literature for over a century. Where the family – especially the boy’s mother, whose tragedies send her into a near-comatose state – seems stuck in this nowhere land, Benet’s camera expresses complete freedom, moving across space and time with quiet ferocity and balletic grace. News From Afar denies an escape for the viewer; rather, it observes how a community dies, while containing the essence of how life recycles and renews itself. This strange dance of death and life carries the whiff of danger about it – much too dangerous, it seems, for film officials and gatekeepers, but very much the stuff of committed festival programmers.