Monday, April 26, 2010

Tribeca 2010: Dream Home and The White Meadows

Since my latest Tribeca review for The House Next Door, covering Andrew Paquin's Open House, can only be classified, like my first two pieces for that publication, as an out-and-out pan, I wanted to take a little time to briefly discuss two films that I'm not covering for any other outlet, but which I liked considerably more than the films I've written about so far. Like any festival, Tribeca's a mixed-bag - especially when compared to that higher profile and much smaller (in terms of cinematic quantity) festival taking place uptown each fall at Lincoln Center. If Tribeca's still struggling, as the saying goes, to find its identity, it should be noted that in recent year's it's produced such masterpieces as Still Life, Still Walking and (this year) Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows, which I discuss below. Which is all to say that Tribeca 2010 is anything but a lost cause and there are no doubt many more films than I was able to see that are well worth the ticket-buyer's attention.

Dream Home

While I can't label Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home an unqualified success, it makes for a productive comparison - and serves as an instructive counter-example - to Open House, one of the festival's weakest entries. Like Andrew Paquin's film, Dream Home is a gory slasher flick about (a) character(s) who commit(s) crimes in order to fulfill his/her otherwise unachievable real-estate dreams. (Note the "house"/"home" in both films' titles). But whereas Paquin's movie is a dull mixture of tensionless plot mechanics and unimaginative slayings that leaves the characters' sense of economic discontent unexplored in favor of a stale psycho-sexual dynamic, Pang's work fully embraces its relation to the world around it, particularly the difficult real estate climate and rapid urban development of its Hong Kong setting - as well as showing a bloodily vivid imagination light years beyond the Open House director's dim reckoning.

Starring Josie Ho as Chen Lai-sheung, a young woman lusting after the dream apartment of the title, a modern complex occupying the once-impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, Pang's film follows its hero as she works multiple jobs to save up for her new digs. Finding the apartment still out of reach, she begins brutally slaying the building's bourgie inhabitants, driving down the desirability (and price) of the location. While Nicole Holofcener's Please Give (another Tribeca 2010 entry) pats yuppies on the back and tells them not to feel guilty about how they acquire their wealth, Dream Home makes members of that same class the victims of hilariously brutal slayings, while painting its biggest real-estate obsessive as a psychotic mass murderer. While the film relies too heavily on elaborately art-directed killings for my taste, I found myself reluctantly admiring the cleverness of their staging (chuckling while one disemboweled man tried to take a last hit from his joint only to find it no longer lit), and, less reluctantly, the level of the critique with which they're charged.

The White Meadows

I suppose when living in a country like Iran, where citizens are subject to seemingly random punishments from a totalitarian government, it helps to have a well-established sense of the absurd. Arrested a month and a half before the Tribeca festival along with fellow director Jafar Panahi, Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof builds his latest film The White Meadows out of a catalogue of images of incomprehensible ritual and absurd acts of punishment. (As of this writing, Rasoulof has been released on bail, but is unallowed to leave the country; Panahi, who edited the film, remains imprisoned). When, late in Meadows, we see a shot of a painter trapped up to his neck in sand because he stubbornly claims that the sea is red and refuses to paint it any other color, it's impossible not to read the scene as a commentary on the Iranian government's treatment of "subversive" artists. But while The White Meadows is certainly a political film, it should not be taken as a basic allegory, a simple matter of easy correspondences.

At once too abstract and too richly expressive for reductive interpretation, Rasoulof's film follows an aging man who paddles his boat from island to island in a salt-filled Iranian sea, landing on tiny masses of land to extract tears from the islands' inhabitants which he then collects in a glass jar. The meaning of the ritual is never explained and it's always accompanied by a ceremony specific to each island. While some of these ceremonies (as one where the participants symbolically place their troubles in a cloth bag) seem designed for healing, most have sinister overtones. In an image composed in equal measure of beauty and horror (neither of which are in short supply in Rasoulof's film), the inhabitants of one island send a young girl adrift on the sea to which she is to be "married". Pushed off on atop a makeshift bed, she floats past countless pans of fire also drifting in the water, the smoke forming an irrepressible black smudge at the top of the screen. Later, our intractable painter is forced to climb a three-rung ladder suspended in the middle of the sea and stare into the sun, an absurdist image of impossible striving and forceable blinding that stands at the heart of a film in which ritual - with its potentially positive connotations of tradition and wholeness - gives way to the palpably ridiculous which, in Rasoulof's vision, becomes not only an apt approximation of life under an oppressive regime, but of life in general in a world not designed for our ready comprehension.

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