Saturday, June 05, 2010
Watched this for free on www.mubi.com, and was riveted by the images I saw.
A Turkish woman embarks on a romantic journey as war breaks out in Iraq , in the tough, engaging road movie My Marlon And Brando. Billed as being 'based on a true story', the film derives its distinctive immediacy from the fact that its lead characters - star/co-writer Ayça Damgaci and Kurdish actor Hama Ali Kahn - are effectively playing themselves.
The emotionally involving love quest, a quasi-documentary element of current-affairs reportage, plus Damgaci's charismatic central turn should all make Hüseyin Karabey's film a strong contender for moderate sales straddling the art-house niche and more mainstream buyers, with TV and DVD prospects looking equally healthy. On the festival circuit, the film - receiving its world premiere in Rotterdam - should flourish, especially at events angled towards women's cinema, politics and human rights.
We first meet Damgaci when she is acting on a film shoot in the west of Turkey, where she has met Hama Ali (Kahn), a Kurdish actor. The two have fallen for each and hope to get together soon, tensions in the area allowing; the period is the run-up to the war in Iraq. Back home in Istanbul, Ayça rehearses her role in a ramshackle agit-prop stage play, and takes part in anti-Bush demonstrations. She waits eagerly for letters from her beloved, which eventually come in the form of ebullient, passionate and intermittently amusing videos, featuring Hama Ali's home-made Superman spoofs.
Because Hama Ali is prevented from travelling westwards, the only way the pair can meet is if Ayça makes the difficult trek to his home in Sülemaniye in Northern Iraq. Seeking contacts in Istanbul 's Kurdish community - and discovering how tough it is for immigrants - Ayça sets out on her journey. First she has trouble getting across the Turkish-Iraqi border, then has to make a detour into Iran, where she is disturbed to find herself hassled on the street and obliged to cover her head. Her determination never flags, although she starts to wonder whether Hama Ali shares it. That he does is revealed in a final video letter from him, ending the film on an abrupt, dramatic note that leaves us to speculate whether a happy ending is really in store for the pair.
The film's romantic content, despite its undoubted sincerity and confessional edge, is perhaps its weakest spot. The lovers communicate with each other in English, and Ayça's effusive poetic ramblings to Hama Ali take some swallowing (they are the source of the film's ungainly English title, which could profitably be changed). The duo's bond, however, comes across all the more strongly because of their separation throughout. In no way conventional screen lovers, the couple are bracingly approachable in their ordinariness. Kahn is bald, middle-aged, cheerfully buffoonish, while Damgaci is bulky, unkempt and altogether abrasive in personality - but the very embodiment of 'feisty', her determination carrying her through as a character, as it presumably did in the real events on which the film is based.
Shot on location in Turkey, Iran and northern Iraq, the film follows Ayça's travels with documentary urgency, setting her personal mission against a background of refugee migrations at the outbreak of the Iraq war. We get to see Iranian society from an angle we're not used to - from that of a Westernised woman outsider, herself from a largely Muslim culture - and Ayça's experience also imparts a sense of current Turkish idenitity, divided between Western and Eastern traditions. The DV shooting is rough and urgent, the travelogue sections featuring unvarnished and often magnificent landscape shots. The counterpoint between personal drama, and the turbulent and very tangible real-world background, make the film as level-headed and forceful as its protagonist.
Ken Takakura can probably be a one-man hall of fame in Japan. Western audience will remember him most as the introvert detective of impeccable integrity who teams up with Michael Douglas in Black Rain (1989). Asian audience will remember him in his more recent work Poppoya (1999), where his portray of a dedicated railroader and a remorseful father does not leave a single pair of dry eyes in each and every screening. At the age of 75, he came out of retirement and went to China to make a picture (which he's never done before) that does not have one single professional actor besides himself. What enticed him to this folly? Zhang Yimou must be an important reason, if not the only reason.
Many hail "Riding alone for a thousand miles" as Zhang's return to his true self after making "Heroes" which is technically flashy but somewhat lacking in content, followed by "House of flying daggers" which is technically flashy and completely devoid of any meaningful content whatsoever. I welcome the Zhang in "Riding" but do not think it's really the same director that we used to know. The clock simply cannot be turned back and the times are changing. In "Riding" Zhang has brought us something new. It remains to be debated if this new film, which has been very successful in both China and Japan, is as honest as his earlier ones before the two disasters.
The story is simple. In a beautiful but lonely coastal village lives Takada (Ken Takakura), a fisherman who had deserted the city and not been in communication with his son for ten years. A call from his considerate daughter-in-law brings him to the hospital, only to find his son in sick bed refusing to see him. She gives him a video tape containing his son's TV program shot in Yunnan, to ease his disappointment. When the diagnosis of terminal cancer comes, Takada decides to go to Yunnan to finish shooting the performance of a Chinese opera singer, something that his son did not have time to do on the last expedition. The story is mainly on what he encounters in Yunnan on this quest. Zhang touches on several things in this contemporary story.
First of all, the main theme is clearly father-and-son, explored in not just one, but two stories. True to his old form, Zhang take a minimalized approach, which suits Takakura well. The other story is about the Chinese opera singer and his eight-year-old son. The interesting thing is that in the movie, we never see either pair of father and son together, but instead interaction between Takada and the little boy culminating in a touching parting scene.
There is good depth in the relationship between Takada and his son although the only communication we see in the movie is through his daughter-in-law. We are not told details of what led to the alienation between father and son but get a general understanding that the problem is rooted in both being stubbornly unwilling to reveal their feelings. When Takada finally goes to Yunnan, he finds out from people that his son was very much a loner there, being isolated by cultural and language barriers. It's by going through the same experience of loneliness that he finally feels being close to his son. On the other hand, when the son hears that his father is in Yunnan, it's not only just the appreciation of what is being done, but also (maybe even more importantly) the realization that his father is experiencing the same loneliness he once experienced before. He finally wants to see his father.
There are other things that Zhang has touched on. He is trying to show a modernized China, not so much on the material plane, but more on the mind set of the common people in the remote province. The obstacles Takada encounters initially are, although bureaucratic, not that unreasonable, and due a lot to just language barrier. People are genuinely kind and helpful, particularly after they have heard his tragic story. It's interesting that all the other actors use their real names in the movie, and probably play their real-life roles: tour company translator, local tour guide, government officials, village elders, probably even the prisoners! The cultural and language barrier here are portrayed as nothing more than a natural situation which can be easily overcome - e.g. finding a rooftop (probably the only one) in the remote village which gets cell phone signals so that Takada can call the tourist company translator for help in instant translation. To the ordinary people in the remote village in Yunnan, the arrival of a Japanese visitor is a great honour and the entire village is out to welcome him in a big feast.
Zhang has brought us something very different from anything we've seen from him before. Other than the tragic nature of the main story and the sad father-son alienation in the two story lines, this is an unabashed feel good movie. Let others be skeptical and cynical about it. Personally, I see nothing wrong with it.