How best to go about staging this fall’s 250th-birthday party for the boy-genius composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)? Why, by hiring a boy-genius party planner, of course. Thus, in 2004, the Los Angeles–based opera director Peter Sellars (noted for his vanguard productions of Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni) was invited by the Austrian government to begin organizing just such a fete. Two years later, to no one’s surprise, Sellars has taken anything but a conventional approach: Called New Crowned Hope, Sellars’ Mozart festival will take place in Vienna from November 14 to December 13, and instead of dwelling on the composer’s past, it is an act of future-thinking. Most of the work on display will be new, conceived by some of the world’s leading composers, dancers, architects and visual artists (including a new John Adams opera), loosely inspired by the ideas and emotional themes of the major compositions from the last year of Mozart’s life: the operas The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, and the unfinished choral work Requiem.
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with movies, it’s that the New Crowned Hope project also includes a series of films commissioned expressly for the occasion and made by filmmakers of varying experience from countries in the developing world. In advance of their Vienna premieres, the films screened together for the first time during the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (September 7–16). At first glance, these six features and one short could hardly seem less like Mozart, or one another, ranging from the classically narrative Daratt, to the starkly minimalistic Hamaca Paraguaya and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (which contain scarcely a line of spoken dialogue between them), to the boldly experimental Syndromes and a Century. But on closer inspection, they reveal surprising interconnections, particularly in their recurring notions of war and remembrance, mourning and forgiveness, and the basic human yearning for the company of other humans. Wherever in the world you dwell at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems, reckoning and requiem are the order of the day.
Those sentiments are especially strong in Daratt, the third film by West African director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun. Set in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, it follows a 16-year-old boy, Atim, who travels from the rugged countryside to the bustling city in search of the man responsible for killing Atim’s father. The civil war has ended, and a general amnesty has been imposed, absolving war criminals of their crimes. But spurred on by his blind grandfather, Atim has resolved to take justice into his own hands. Until, that is, he meets his intended victim, the baker Nassara, who fails to recognize the boy and so takes him under his wing as an apprentice, in turn becoming a kind of second father to him. From there, Daratt transforms a potentially simplistic moral fable into an agonized contemplation of the value of a single life, and that is no small thing coming at a time when so many lives are taken with so little sense of consequence.
A different armed conflict, the 1930s Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, rages far from the characters in director Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya. Here, an elderly married couple living in a jungle recess go about their daily business — washing clothes, gathering wood, hanging the titular hammock and often just waiting, feeling the time pass, as they ponder the fate of their son, who has gone off to fight. As a series of striking, static compositions play across the screen, a voice-over narration that switches from the man to the woman and back again takes us into the characters’ shared past, until, after scarcely more than an hour of screen time, we’re left with a rich sense of these unremarkable people and their innate dignity. Admittedly, little else happens in Encina’s debut feature, but like all of the New Crowned Hope films, it opens a window onto a faraway place rarely seen in movies — indeed, this is the first Paraguayan film ever selected for screening in a major international festival — and the lives of those who live there. It is a sad irony that these films will be largely ignored by the mass media and moviegoers alike in the same year when so much attention will be lavished on the self-important “internationalism” of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s forthcoming Babel.
But the appeal of the New Crowned Hope films is hardly ethnographic, or cheaply exotic. The masterful Chinese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, for example, would be an achingly beautiful dream of human togetherness no matter where it took place (though its setting of choice — a massive, abandoned building in downtown Kuala Lumpur — does end up serving as a ghostly totem to the bottoming-out of so many Asian economies). Rather, these seven filmmakers are of a piece in their desire to tell stories at once local and universal, ancient and modern, in a language that has no words for the clearly defined heroes and villains and tidy resolutions of the Hollywood factory.
Which brings me to my two favorite films in the series: Syndromes and a Century, the latest romantic mind-bender from the young Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Opera Jawa, a visually and musically stunning opera from Indonesia’s Garin Nugroho. Like his earlier Blissfully Yours (fondly remembered for an opening-credits sequence that started 45 minutes into the movie) and Tropical Malady (about the homosexual love affair between a farmer and a soldier who, in the movie’s second half, turns into a tiger), Syndromes is another Weerasethakul diptych that feels like two asymmetrical half-movies regarding each other through a wonderfully distorted looking glass. In the first, a young lady doctor at a rural Thai hospital interviews an army doctor who has just reported for work, examines an elderly monk who believes his dreams are haunted by the spirits of the chickens he has eaten, and flashes back on a long-ago romance with a handsome botanist. Then, about an hour into the movie, the lady doctor is again interviewing the army doctor, only this time the camera angles and costumes are different, and the jungle surrounding the hospital is more urban than tropical.
Is it a dream? Have we flashed forward in time? You will not find those answers in Syndromes and a Century any sooner than you would in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But those who can free their minds of such narrative prisons, as Weerasethakul so clearly wants us to, will find here a playful, funny and touching study in time and transformation — a Dalí-like Magic Flute — and a city boy’s gentle lament for the loss of the Garden.
Adapted from the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana, Opera Jawa tells a story within a story, about the poor potter Setio, his wife, Siti, and the powerful trader, Ludiro, who emerges as a rival for Siti’s affections. The two men and the woman are all former dancers, and as their drama plays out, it comes to parallel the one in The Abduction of Sinta, an ancient Javanese myth they once performed together. Eventually, Setio and Ludiro come to compete for Siti’s hand in increasingly ostentatious, visually ravishing fashion: At one point, Setio attempts to turn his wife into a living clay sculpture (a scene a good deal more erotic than Ghost’s famed pottery-wheel pas de deux); at another, Ludiro literally drapes the Earth in a brilliant red carpet. Sung through from beginning to end, danced by dancers who can transform their majestic bodies — on a dime — from children climbing back into their mothers’ wombs to dry leaves withering on the ground, and sporting an eye-popping production design that represents the collaborative work of several Indonesian installation artists, Opera Jawa is that rare film that can accurately be said to be unlike anything you have ever seen or heard before. Like the New Crowned Hope festival itself, it incorporates nearly every known form of art and storytelling: painting, dance, puppetry, song, sculpture. And it is, finally, a requiem too, for a nation that recovered from decades of man-made strife just in time to incur nature’s own fury.
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So, perhaps I have managed to convince you that the New Crowned Hope films are a major event, and hope for the future of movies. Now the only question is which of our local screening venues will endeavor to show them.
Mozart was elsewhere to be found at Toronto in 2006, in a Kenneth Branagh–directed adaptation of The Magic Flute (translated into English and transposed to the trenches of World War I) and even in Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s Woman on the Beach, where a filmmaker’s latest idea for a movie concerns a man who keeps hearing the same piece of Mozart music everywhere he goes. Though he’s hardly a household name, even among the art-film cognoscenti, Hong has earned a small but devoted following among moviegoers drawn to his knowing, soju-scented musings on the awkward (and often humiliating) courtship rituals between emotionally immature men and the women who don’t so much love as tolerate them. His seventh feature, Woman may also be Hong’s most accessible, in that it is his warmest, his most linear (minus the sometimes-confusing flashback schemes of his earlier films) and the one graced by the lightest brush strokes. In other words, it could become the first of Hong’s films to secure a proper U.S. release.
Set in a Korean beach town during the off-season, it is about the aforementioned director, his flunky assistant, the beautiful woman (the extraordinary Ko Hyeon-Gang) who comes between them, and a second woman (Song Seon-Mi) who resembles the first in a way that proves fatally tempting. For his brainy, wordy exchanges on love and lust, and for the uncluttered elegance of his camera style, Hong has frequently earned comparisons to the French director Eric Rohmer. But so sharp are Hong’s insights into the age-old battle of the sexes that it seems a disservice to compare him to anyone. Here, he builds to a scene that is almost impossible to describe, in which the director’s highly creative approach to wriggling out of an argument (by way of a hand-drawn illustration) also serves as a dazzlingly astute reading of male-female relationships. And like nearly everything else in a Hong film, it feels private and lived-in and true. Hong, who titled one of his previous features Woman is the Future of Man, isn’t exactly a feminist, but his love, awe and exaltation of the fairer sex are rare at the movies (especially those directed by men) these days. Back when Rohmer and Truffaut and Paul Mazursky commanded an audience that seemed to crave sophisticated adult relationship comedies, Hong might have been a phenomenon. Today, when Sex and the City is what passed for sophistication, he is a marginal figure, but an important one, ever firm in his belief that woman is indeed the future, and man is lagging very far behind.
For additional coverage of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, go to blogs.laweekly.com/foundas.