IN A STRANGE LAND : Yella, A Mighty Heart, Death Proof, Syndromes and a Century : [for Tribune]


Germany 2007

Starring : Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schonemann
Director : Christian Petzold
A Mighty Heart
UK/US 2007

Starring : Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman
Director : Michael Winterbottom
Death Proof
US 2007

Starring : Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson
Director : Quentin Tarantino
Syndromes and a Century
Thailand 2006

Starring : Nantarat Sawaddikul, Jaruchai Iamaram
Director : Apichatpong Weerasethakul
all are released in the UK on Friday, 21st September 2007

BESSER spät als nie! – that's "better late than never" in German, a phrase which is eminently appropriate in the week that existential/psychological drama-cum-thriller Yella is released in the UK. This is, astonishingly and shamefully, the first time that a film by Christian Petzold has obtained commercial distribution in this country – despite the fact that, with works such as The State I Am In (2000), Something To Remind Me (2002) and Ghosts (2005), the Berlin-based Petzold quickly established himself as one of Europe's most talented, imaginative and consistently fascinating writer-directors. The State I Am In is even credited with igniting a whole movement of stripped-down, quietly-spoken but bluntly-forceful cinema – known in France as the Nouvelle Vague Allemande ('New German Wave') and in Germany itself as the Berliner Schule ("Berlin School.")

Now 47, Petzold has – perhaps inevitably – grown beyond the confines of any particular 'movement', 'wave' or 'school': his latest is an absorbing psychological-drama/thriller with Hitchcockian undertones, which also manages to speak volumes about modern-day Germany – and thus the entire continent. Our eponymous heroine (Hoss) is an accountant from the rural east, who lands a well-paid job in Hanover. But her journey westward is interrupted – by a traumatic encounter with volatile ex-husband Ben (Schönemann), and then via a fortuitous meeting with ambitious young businessman Philipp (Striesow). Yella and Philipp's ad-hoc professional relationship soon deepens into something more intimate – but there's trouble brewing…

A textbook example of narrative concealment, Yella eventually reveals itself as belonging to a venerable sub-genre of movies (and literature) – one which can, when handled incorrectly, prove frustrating for viewers (and readers), although to identify which sub-genre would be to ruin this meticulously-crafted narrative structure. Petzold, however, manages to "get away with it" – and then some - thanks to the crystalline directness of his style, his story's grounding in all-too-believable real-world settings (anonymous corporatised zones of business-parks and blandly opulent chain-hotels) and by the way he coolly explores his heroine's complex psychology in a manner that's consistently engrossing, revealing and, once we're finally privy to the full facts, entirely appropriate.

THE advance word on A Mighty Heart has tended to dwell on the Oscar chances of its star Angelina Jolie – but that does something of a disservice to a film which manages the tricky feat of presenting tragic, fresh-from-the-headlines events in a manner that's both suspenseful and respectful. The 2002 kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is dramatised with the kind of jagged, intense, near-documentary verisimilitude that the seemingly-tireless director Winterbottom previously deployed and honed on the likes of In This World and The Road to Guantanamo.

His focus is once again on Middle-Eastern politics, with pretty much all the action taking place within Pakistan – specifically the teeming megalopolis of Karachi, where Pearl lived with his French wife Mariane (Jolie), and which is shown as a key site for radical Islamic activity. After the abduction (which takes place off-camera), the film divides its focus between the heavily-pregnant Mariane, and the efforts by the Pakistani authorities to find out who has taken her husband – specifically, where they are and what they want. Working in conjunction with editor Peter Christelis (who brings the picture in at a lean 108 minutes) Winterbottom keeps the pace moving quickly along, chopping the action – and John Orloff's screenplay, based on Mariane Pearl's (rather blandly-titled) memoir – into short scenes that parcel out information in rapid bursts.

Jolie doesn't dominate proceedings as much as you might expect (A Mighty Heart becomes more of an ensemble piece as it goes along), but this is a turn which will come as a surprise to the glamorous actress's critics: it's very much a "proper" performance in a "proper" film. Tense and engrossing stuff, making its points with clarity and a minimum of fuss, building up to a very powerful climax. Just a pity that the over-conventional, mildly-intrusive score (by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman) is allowed to disrupt the convincing realism which Winterbottom and his team have otherwise worked so hard to create and maintain.

LEAVING asides the tortuous behind-the-scenes shenanigans which have led up to its UK release (the picture was originally one half of a 'Grindhouse' double-bill along with Robert Rodriguez's zombie schlocker Planet Terror, until American audiences rejected the ambitious concept), Death Proof – announced rather pompously as "The 5th Film by Quentin Tarantino" is also by some measure the superstar writer-director's least satisfactory effort to date. Providing further evidence that this once-glittering career is heading downhill with the brakes off, it's a tongue-in-cheek homage to early-seventies exploitation cinema which takes forever to get going. Indeed, the action proper only really kicks in at the 90 minute mark – but Tarantino then delivers a rather terrific car-chase climax that narrowly (but only narrowly) outweighs the longueurs of what's gone before. When it's good, then, Death Proof is indeed rather good – but when it's bad, it's dire.

The story is both flimsy and broken-backed: a psychotic stuntman (Russell) uses his super-modified stunt-car to cause all manner of murderous mayhem – but he eventually meets his match in the form of three women whose sassy attitude is exceeded only by their daredevil driving skills. The first hour or so features an unconscionable amount of padding: painfully over-extended conversations which come across like rather unfunny and indulgent self-parodies of Tarantino's signature scriptwriting style. The picture is also all over the place stylistically – that first half features all manner of rough-splicing, dialogue jumps and other "homages" to old-style cheapo moviemaking; the second half, erm, doesn't.

Problems seems to have arisen when Death Proof was expanded from the original 90 minute 'Grindhouse' version into a 23-minute longer edit which – on the strength of Tarantino's name alone – somehow sneaked into competition at Cannes. If anything, Tarantino and his editor Sally Menke might have instead gone the other way, slicing and dicing the picture down to its 67 best minutes: including the picture's wonderfully abrupt ending and credits winningly scored to April March's delightfully faux-Francais track 'Chick Habit.'

"I WANT to be a normal person, but I'm in the grip of a mysterious force that keeps me in these saffron robes I can't abandon" – so says a monk during a typically gnomic exchange in Syndromes and a Century, ranked by many of the world's critics as one of the top films made in the last couple of years. It's confirmed writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who, thankfully, prefers to be known as "Joe") as one of the names to drop when discussing the state of auteur cinema after the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni – though he's still only 37, several of his films have already won acclaim and prizes at Cannes, most notably Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004).

Perhaps predictably, Weerasethakul's international profile has been greeted with jeers rather than cheers by his own government – a military junta operating under restrictive monarchical auspices. The state censors took particular objection to Syndromes, which dramatises, in exceedingly onlique fashion, the meeting and subsequent romance of Weerasethakul's parents – in the film, medics in a rural hospital. "The scenes involving doctors are inappropriate," commented one official. "Drinking whisky in a hospital is not proper conduct by medical professionals… Doctors can kiss their girlfriends – doing that at home is all right, but doing it in a hospital is inappropriate."

This reaction led, in effect, to the film being banned in Thailand – which causes a major furore among the film's many, vociferous supporters around the world. A petition was circulated which I was happy to sign – but not because I believe Syndromes and a Century is a great work of art, or anything like it. Indeed, I think it's actually a pretty lousy film – pretentious, punishingly slow, and relentlessly obfuscatory – the kind of thing which gives "serious" cinema a bad name in so many quarters*. But even I wouldn't dream of preventing the picture from being shown, and from being shown in the specific form the director himself would wish it to be seen.

Neil Young
written for the next issue of Tribune magazine

reviews adapted from film-festival-report originals:
Edinburgh : Yella; A Mighty Heart; Death Proof
Rotterdam : Syndromes and a Century

* I much prefer the two other films (neither of them feature-length) which I've seen by Weerasethakul: the 42-minute video-piece Worldly Desires and the short Luminous People, the latter being the opening section and flat-out highlight of the Portuguese-produced compendium entitled The State of the World.