EDINBURGH 2007 : page five (Wed 22 Aug) : ‘Blind Mountain’, ‘Mala Noche’
BLIND MOUNTAIN : [9/10] : Mang shan : Chi (Chi-HK/Ger) 07 : LI Yang : 97m (approx): seen CW 22.8 (public – paid £6.36)
China, the present. College-educated Bai Xuemei (Lu Huang) is struggling to find work, so is delighted when a friend informs her of well-paid employment selling medicinal herbs. She travels from her home to another town, where an agent of the herb company provides transport to a remote mountainous village. The next day, Xuemei wakes up to find that she has been "sold" to be the bride for a fortyish bachelor whose parents have become increasingly worried about his inability to find a wife. Outraged and horrified, Xuemei immediately tries to flee – but soon realises that escape will be difficult, perhaps even impossible…
Four years ago, documentarian Li made a promising – if somewhat overpraised – fiction debut with Blind Shaft, a stark indictment of safety-standards in rural Chinese coal-mines. "The film is so-so as a con-artist thriller," [I noted at the time] "OK as a character-study morality-tale, but is most effective as a depressing expose of a society that seems to combine the very worst aspects of capitalism among communism's shattered remnants." Li now revisits similar thematic terrain with his follow-up, which again chronicles grim goings-on in China's rural backwaters. But Blind Mountain represents a major leap beyond Blind Shaft – one that catapults writer-director Li to the very front rank of his nation's impressive body of film-making talent.
It's on one level an absolutely cracking psychological thriller – a claustrophobic nightmare of confinement playing on universal fears. On another level, it's a piercingly specific portrait of a deeply dysfunctional society, one which will hopefully bring international attention to a particularly shocking practice which surely has no place in any modern nation worthy of the name.
Nearly all of the adults with whom Xuemei comes into contact seem to care about one thing only: money. Even when, in a fit of desperation, she slits her wrists, the rudimentary A+E department at the nearest "hospital" won't begin treatment until her "family" have handed over banknotes. "Barbaric" is the word Xuemei uses on more than one occasion to describe her new "relatives" and their fellow villagers, and using the most direct and simple means Li places the viewer four-square in the shoes of his hapless heroine.
He doesn't need to spell out the socio-economic background which has led to the villagers' shocking wife-buying activities: a single scene in which a baby girl is found drowned in the local pond is sufficient to point the finger of blame at the national one-child policy, or rather the way such a policy has inadvertently led to a country with a large excess of adult males – some of whom cross the line into inhumanity in their search for a spouse.
Blind Mountain is gripping from start to finish, often unbearably tense – and, on occasion, audacious in its touches of black humour – as we watch Xuemei in her various resourceful attempts to escape. Shot (in conventional, measured style) among some incongruously beautiful and spectacular terrain, it's an exercise in the deferment – perhaps an indefinite deferment - of hope, an analysis of human resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming despair. And the superbly, shockingly abrupt ending will leave you reeling.
—– from Hollywood Reporter review (by Ray Bennett):
Massive applause broke out at the end of the first press screening of Li Yang's extraordinary film "Blind Mountain," and it was as much for its final act as for the quality of the picture. The film screened in Un Certain Regard. Even though Chinese authorities forced the director to make many cuts before it could be shown in Cannes, the movie retains enormous political impact as well as being a moving story.
MALA NOCHE : [8/10] : full title Mala Noche – "Bad Night" : US 1985 : Gus Van Sant : 78m : seen CW 22.8 (public – paid £5.20)
Twenty-and-a-bit years after Mala Noche's virtually non-existent "release", we all know what's become of its feature-debutant director Gus Van Sant. But what on earth can have happened to its star, Tim Streeter, whose wonderfully laid-back, charismatic, scruffily genial charm is as least as impressive and promising as anything Van Sant – or his excellent cinematographer John J Campbell – contributes to the enterprise?
According to the IMDb, the only other screen appearance for Streeter (who looks-wise is a sort of cross between Andrew McCarthy and Kevin Corrigan) is a 1990 episode of 21 Jump Street – and his character's name isn't even listed. It's a cinema-history mystery to rank alongside the disappearance from view of Michael Sacks after 1984 – and hopefully one which may be resolved by the attention surrounding Mala Noche's recent, belated reappearance on the film-festival circuit.
Streeter is the twentyish protagonist/narrator Walt – the script is based on an autobiographical book* by Walt Curtis - who inhabits an area of Portland, Oregon that's either Skid Row or the next best/worst thing. A slacker avant la lettre, Walt by day he works in a neighbourhood liquor-store-cum-general-dealer's, and by night he haunts the kind of bars where the patrons are referred to as "denizens" rather than customers.
All the while he lusts after Mexican teenager Johnny Alonzo, an amour fou which is greeted with bemused tolerance by Johnny and his muchachos. Plot is minimal – Johnny goes to visit relatives in Idaho, and later returns; Walt deals with Johnny's absence and presence. Instead, Mala Noche is all about moods, locations and characters, Campbell's 16mm cinematography capturing the smudgy interface of idealistic desire and grimy reality. Portland is a palpable presence here, the lived-in faces of the denizens/residents in contrast to the coltish energy of Johnny and Walt's freewheelingly lyrical view of life.
The seeds of Van Sant's later work – especially Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, but also Good Will Hunting and perhaps even Elephant – are all discernible here, but Mala Noche is more than just a promising sketchbook of images and ideas. The rough-edged aesthetic on display (including the eclectic, punk-to-mariachi soundtrack) is entirely of a piece with the characters and their environment. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of movie Walt himself - a post-Kerouackish, self-romanticising sort who nevertheless manages to keep both feet on the ground - would have made.
And it's perhaps easy, in 2007, to overlook just how radical a protagonist Walt – completely "straight-acting" but unashamedly and unmistakeably gay – must have seemed back in 1985/6. If, that is, audiences had been given much of a chance to see the movie at all, back in the day.
TITLE : rating : country / year : director : running time : where seen (press or public show; ticket price if public show)
* all timings are hand-timed unless stated otherwise
* cinemas : FH = Filmhouse; CM = Cameo; CW = Cineworld
Jigsaw Lounge Edinburgh 2007 index page
An underground literary legend associated with Ken Kesey, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, Curtis has been called Portland, Oregon's, unofficial street poet. "Mala Noche" first appeared in 1977 as a chapbook and was later made into an award-winning film by Gus Van Sant. It is a vividly homoerotic account of Curtis's passionate and mostly unrequited love for several Mexican street youths who come to Oregon seeking jobs and money. The powerful imagery is reminiscent of Jean Genet and of other Beat Generation writers. There is great sadness in the lives of these lost young men but also great beauty and dignity, which Curtis effectively captures. Illustrated with the author's photos and drawings and accompanied by several essays and poems, this book deserves a place in both Hispanic and gay literature collections, though libraries should beware of the graphic language and situations.