The recently concluded Seventh edition of the Dubai International Film Festival has had its fair share of highs and lows: A disappointing Arabic fiction competition and a stellar Asian/African sidebar; an exciting showcase of short Arabic films and an insubstantial Mexican tribute.
The “Cinema of the World” selection in particular was rather uneven, offering a mixed bag of American blockbusters (“TRON: Legacy,” “Morning Glory”) alongside Oscar hopefuls (“127 Hours,” “Winter’s Bone”), documentaries (“LennonNYC,” “When You’re Strange”) and European curios (“My Joy,” “Corridor”).
The mix between obscure titles and art-house hits eventually worked and the sense of discovery I sorely missed in other fests was present here in abundance.
The best film I saw in Dubai was — not surprisingly — Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palm d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Arguably the most life-affirming film ever made about death, the Thai maverick’s latest wondrous creation centers on an ailing farmer who starts to have unusual visions as he swiftly drifts towards death.
The titular character is first visited by the ghost of deceased wife, then by his late son, now reincarnated in the form of a neon-red-eyed gorilla. Their unexpected emergence in a cinematically raw form initially feels shocking, jarring even. What Weerasethakul does — and I’m not quite certain how he does it — is making the audience settle in his strange and fantastical world; accepting rules of a place abiding to no human rules.
None of Weerasethakul’s previous films contained tangible plots, and “Uncle Boonmee” is no different. The dinner scene, where Uncle Boonmee reunites with his son and wife, act as a point of departure for a collage of images and fantasies — the most notorious of which is the much-discussed sex scene between a talking catfish and an aging princess — punctuated by long meditative still shots that pushes Weerasethakul’s Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and renewal directly to the forefront.
Nature plays an integral role in Weerasethakul’s work. The fantastical creatures inhabiting the jungle, where the majority of the film takes place, represent the endless mysteries of life and the infinite possibilities for a next one. Life and death are two inseparable elements of a cycle with no end. The ambiance of the film is thus more celebratory and somewhat serene than mournful. Death could be the end of a journey, but it’s also the beginning of new unpredictable one. Fear has no place in this universe of his.
There are a few nods to Thailand’s violent political past, an anomaly threatening to disrupt the order of this world.
Shot in 16 mm, “Uncle Boonmee” is partly a reflection on cinema as a photographic memory. At the very beginning of cinema, film was heralded as a magic lantern destined to defy death. Memories of people, places and feelings will continue to survive, unburdened by the foreboding forces of time.
“Uncle Boonmee” is unquestionably an acquired taste. It’s peculiar, puzzling, multilayered and, like all great films, challenging. Yet it’s also Weerasethakul’s most accessible project to date; an enchanting, minimalistic fairytale brimming with inventiveness and child-like wonder.
Up until his Cannes win in May, Weerasethakul’s name was somewhat anonymous to even fest-goers; another art-house auteur with an unusual, if highly distinctive, body of work. Everything changed for the Thai artist after his deserved Palm d’Or win, and the sold-out screenings of “Uncle Boonmee” in Dubai is a testament to his new-found popularity. Weerasethakul’s last work, “Syndromes and a Century,” is one of the defining films of the new century and, in my opinion, his true masterpiece that I urge everyone to seek.
Back to basics
On the far end of the spectrum is Peter Weir’s “The Way Back,” an old-fashioned survival tale of epic proportions harking to the spectacles of David Lean. Boasting a top-notch cast that includes Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), Weir’s first film since 2003’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is based on Slavomir Rawicz’s international bestseller, “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” about the escape of a group of prisoners from the Siberian gulag in 1940 and their 4,000-mile journey to India.
Weir uses no cinematic trickery or special effects to induce the sense of grandeur inherent within the fundamental nature of the story. This is classic filmmaking to the bone with themes and morals alien to this skeptic, weary world of ours.
The scope of the story is astonishing; the vast, wide-angle landscapes captured on film are magnificent, and the brutality and cruelty of the journey is gut-wrenching. Wier doesn’t airbrush the reality of this story; difficult choices are made as death closely watches these characters until the very end of the journey.
Some may find Weir’s vision irrelevant to the present, naïve in its firm belief in the goodness of man. I personally found it compelling, compassionate and utterly beautiful. “The Way Back” is a hymn to human strength, friendship and love; a singular cinematic feast that must be experienced on a big screen.
A completely different film from both “The Way Back” and “Uncle Boonmee” was Tetsuya Nakashima’s Japanese box-office smash “Confessions.” A twisted psychological thriller, “Confessions” centers on a grieving teacher who decides to exact revenge on two of her students responsible for the death for her young daughter.
Known internationally for his 2006 cross-over hit “Memories of Matsuko,” Nakashima is one of the most exciting Japanese talents working today. His films are darkly comic in tone, combining classic storylines with flamboyant, candy-colored visuals reminiscent of Jacques Demy and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Like Jeunet, his direction is exceedingly kinetic, adhering to a breakneck pace that can feel occasionally overwhelming.
Since Matsuko, his films have grown steadily darker and “Confessions” by far, is his darkest, most cynical, most sinister work to date; a film with a nihilistic world vision enveloped in an irresistibly attractive package. The bright palette of his past work has been replaced by a plain one, composed primarily of blues and blacks. The high voltage tempo is still there, but the narrative is more complex, more sophisticated; replete with twists and turns at every corner.
Like many Japanese filmmakers before him, Nakashima’s view of children is deeply distrustful. The Japanese children culture, as seen by Nakashima, is one of bullying, cruelty and violence. It’s difficult to sympathize with any of these children, to find a justification to their actions. The adult world, in comparison, feels far more benign.
Despite its austerity, “Confessions” is, in fact, a very enjoyable film; an original, intelligent work and easily the most entertaining film I saw in Dubai.
The most elusive work I saw in Dubai was Sophie Fiennes’ documentary “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” Both a film about art and work of art itself, Fiennes’ film is a chronicle of the works of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer and his gigantic installations he constructed in a deserted silk factory at Barjac, in the south of France.
Fiennes avoids the conventional approach used to death in documentaries about art. There are no talking heads in here, no overt explanation of Kiefer’s creative process or the meaning behind his work.
Instead, she adopts a quiet, contemplative style similar to the works of great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovskiy. Her camera leisurely glides over Kiefer’s reconstructed ruins, giving the viewers the space to form their impressions about the work.
The result is a hypnotic, ravishingly beautiful objet d’art liable to countless interpretations. There’s dichotomy between the presence of war ruins and the creative process of recreating them. Perhaps destruction and creation are two inseparable components of life; perhaps both are two sides of the same token.
Perhaps it’s also an attempt by Kiefer to reshape history. The newly-shaped ruins no longer represent the history they stood for in their original form. Perhaps it’s an attempt to challenge the basic notion of history, rendering it in a purely subjective form. Perhaps the film itself is simply an atypical record of the fundamental creative process of art creation.
“Over Your Cities” is an enigmatic, haunting experimental work demanding complete immersion in its method. It’s a difficult movie and, like “Uncle Boonmee” — not for everyone. But its intellectual rigor is highly, admirable; its gratifications for the adventurous viewers are immense.
A scene from "The-Way-Back".
A scene from "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow".