Monday, March 26, 2007

On the New Mexican Cinema; On the New Tawainese Cinema

One of the ubiquitous cinematic stories of 2006 which was particularly unavoidable during the long buildup to the Oscars was the achievement of Mexican directors Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuaron who each contributed a critically acclaimed picture to the Oscar race. Gonzalez Inarritu’s dreadful Babel received a nomination for Best Picture, while del Toro’s vastly over-hyped fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth was among the most universally lauded films of the year. Only Cuaron’s film, Children of Men, was worthy of adulation, largely due to two spectacular set pieces and an assured visual style.

These three films are being heralded as the cornerstones of a new Mexican cinema despite the fact that only one of the three features Spanish as its primary language, while the other two are mostly or entirely in English and all three are at least partly American productions. Perhaps one of the reasons for the films’ popularity with American audiences is that all three films, but most especially Babel, partake of an over-the-top, maximal style of filmmaking which tries to overwhelm the viewer with visual information while insisting on its own significance, not dissimilar to Hollywood’s prestige films of recent years. Pan’s Labyrinth, which may be the most restrained of the three, nevertheless balances its inventive fantasy sequences with a by-the-numbers tale of post-Spanish Civil War oppression, complete with unredeemable villain. Babel, though, takes maximal filmmaking one step beyond. Gonzalez Inarritu keeps his camera constantly moving, instructs his actors to move about frantically and maximizes the contrivances of Guillermo Arriaga’s script. The film allows the audience to feel they are watching a work of great import, while not having to think too much about it. Not only is the significance spelled out for the viewer, but, as in last year’s Oscar winner Crash, the film, for all its bluster, offers no great insights into human nature or the state of modern society. Even Children of Men’s efforts to seem politically relevant, such as a series of images of detainees meant to recall Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, comes off as rather insistent and contrived. Interestingly enough, the year's best film made by a Mexican director is by neither Gonzalez Inarritu, del Toro, nor Cuaron, but by the relatively unheralded Carlos Reygadas, whose Battle in Heaven is far more challenging (and provocative) then the work of the more celebrated trio.

Compare these three Mexican filmmakers with Taiwan’s brilliant trio of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang. Unconcerned with approval in the West, the Taiwanese directors would have little chance of mainstream success with their restrained storytelling, static camerawork, deliberate pace, and astonishingly beautiful images. Hou’s Three Times was one of the best movies of 2006, but, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, received neither an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film nor any coverage in the mainstream press. Hou's treatment of alienated youth in the film's final segment is far more sensitive than the ludicrous Japanese subplot in Babel, in which a confused young woman (Rinko Kikuchi) repeatedly exposes her genitalia to anyone who will look. Tsai has two movies showing this year, The Wayward Cloud which had a brief run at the Anthology Film Archives in March and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone which opens at the IFC Center in May, but neither seems to have attracted or is likely to attract any attention outside of small cinephile circles. Edward Yang, though currently at work on his next project, has not released anything since 2000’s Yi Yi, but with that film and 1991’s A Brighter Summer Day, his status as an elite filmmaker seems assured. Without insisting on it, the works of these three filmmakers tell us more about the way we live in the world, or even in America, today than the overwrought, Americanized efforts of the heralded Mexican trio.

1 comment:

ginalandi said...

your dissection of the much-heralded mexican cinema is so trenchant and persuasive that i wouldn't touch these films with a ten-foot pole! (they didn't look to be my cup of tea anyway)