FILM OF THE DAY
Leonard Retel Helmrich's Shape of the Moon
All films seen on Monday 24th October in Vienna during the Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival)
Dam Street : [5/10]
Hong Yan : China 2004 : LI Yu : 93m (feature) : seen at Metro cinema
Smalltown drama has several redeeming features (notably the limpid cinematography and strong performances) but is let down by melodramatic, soap-operatic story. A 1983-set prologue tells of how a schoolgirl fell pregnant by her boyfriend; the child was then given up for adoption to avoid her family losing all-important "face".
A decade later, the schoolgirl – Yun (Liu Yi) – is now a singer in a local bar, living with her mother Su (Li Kechun), a teacher, one of whose pupils is wayward 10-year-old Xiao Yong (compellingly believable little Huang Xingrao). As Yun gets to know Xiao, she comes to realise that his facial features seem strangely familiar…
Thanks for Wang Wei's widescreen cinematography, Dam Street is a consistently good-looking picture which makes particularly effective use of titular location: a footway across the top of the small dam on the river that divides the town. Characters are forever passing back and forth across this somewhat precarious path, and the film even begins (strikingly) with the young Yun lying down mid-stream in a faint echo of Virginia Woolf.
Her story is seemingly fictional, but two key events aren't shown and – in a rather odd structural decision – are instead described using dry on-screen text as if they really occurred. This gives the enterprise a halting, broken-backed feel: watchable enough on a scene-by-scene basis, but the cumulative impact fatally muted by the predictability of the plot as it rehashes over-familiar domestic-drama material.
Dong Wei and Liu Sijun's hand-me-down bittersweet score doesn't help much, either, and viewers of a sensitive disposition may well be disturbed (even outraged) by the exceedingly rough Kim Ki-Duk-style treatment meted out to what are clearly real live fish.
Occupation : Dreamland : [5/10]
USA 2005 : Garrett SCOTT & Ian OLDS : 78 mins (documentary) : seen at Gartenbaukino cinema
So-so "embedded" documentary about seven US infantry soldiers over the course of several months as they serve in the Iraqi town of Falluja. Shortly after the timeframe covered by the film, this area hit the worldwide headlines when it became the target of an exceptionally brutal American rout of "insurgents". The soldiers' division had, just before the film begins, suffered the traumatic loss of one of their number – so what we have, then, is a relatively uneventful spell between two periods of intense drama. This gives proceedings a becalmed, somewhat torpid feel: like the soldiers themselves, we wait impatiently for the next "excitement" – as one of them says, he doesn't mind being shot at, as if nothing else it breaks the tedium of his daily life.
The basic theme is "Why the f*ck are we in Iraq?!", presented via a predictable format of tense patrol-footage interspersed with talking-head interviews. The film essentially covers exceedingly similar turf to Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace from last year, albeit with some significant variations: we hear much more from Iraqis this time; there's none of that movie's grating voice-over; African-Americans aren't much in evidence (rap gave Gunner Palace much of its flavour); the soldiers are a bit older, mostly in their late-20s – which might explain why the pace is slower and more contemplative. If you haven't seen the Tucker/Epperlein documentary, Occupation: Dreamland may be worth a look – but even so, unless you've been paying scant attention to recent middle-eastern events, there's probably very little here that you didn't already know or couldn't already have guessed.
Shape of the Moon : [5+/10]
aka Stand van de Maan : Leonard RETEL HELMRICH : Netherlands (Neth/Indo) 2004 : 92m : seen at Urania cinema
I was suffering from a bad case of Festival Fatigue – compounded by a fast-encroaching, energy-sapping cold virus – while watching Shape of the Moon, and struggled to stay awake through what is a very nicely-shot impressionistic-collage anthropological study of an ordinary Indonesian family. If anything, the picture is too nicely-shot, the digital-video camerawork is often virtuouso to an offputting, intrusive degree: time after time, you find yourself wondering "how on earth did they get that angle?"
The most notable example of this is a breathtaking, vertigo-inducing sequence in which a man walks across the narrow edge of a railway bridge suspended high above a river. It's a remarkable achievement by both walker and director, but the trouble is you end up concentrating on the technical aspects of Helmrich's feat, rather than teasing out its symbolic function – the scene comes just after a man is seen pondering whether or not he should 'cross over' from Christianity to Islam, and the film itself rather windily announces that the family we see are trying to build "a bridge between hope and faith".
The religious aspects of Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim nation – is the main focus of Shape of the Moon, the second part of a projected trilogy (after The Eye of the Day). The title refers (among other things) to the 'sickle moon' found on the flags of many Muslim countries – though the original Dutch moniker bemused many foreign journalists at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year, when they speculated it might translate as 'stand by your man' and anticipated Tammy Wynette-flavoured excitements.
No such luck - instead Helmrich gets up close and personal with the family concerned (grandmother, her sons and grand-daughter), his technique being to pretend that the camera doesn't exist. His presence is never acknowledged, but must have made a significant difference in several of the sequences. These factors gives the project a somewhat distractingly artificial air that, like that attention-seeking camerawork and the heavily symbolic nature of pretty much everything we're shown, ends up counterproductive to our really appreciating the full impact of his analysis.
But in the post-screening Q+A Helmrich was sufficiently articulate and quietly intelligent to suggest that Shape of the Moon is worthy of a second view. Audiences should be aware, however, that among the abundance of footage focussing, Terrence Malick style, on Indonesian fauna (including some intimate insect material), Helmrich includes distressing sequences in which men are shown betting on the outcome of fights between cocks, and – even more upsetting, this – rams. Moon in Aries, if you like…
reviews initially written 25th October; updated and expanded 30th October
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or HERE for full A-Z of all films seen and Jigsaw Lounge's Vienna/Viennale overview