by Roderick Conway Morris

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Day-to-Day Dominates at Venice Film Festival

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 3 September 1997


While major global threats, such as the invasion of the planet by hostile aliens, rampaging born-again dinosaurs and so on, are taken care of by the big studios with the big bucks, more day-to-day concerns such as unrequited love, adultery, sickness, death and bereavement - some of the main themes that provide the impetus for the mixed bag of in-competition films shown at Venice so far - presently seem the preserve of the lower-budget productions.

Zhang Yimou's eagerly-anticipated 'Keep Cool' was finally screened at the Venice Festival (which continues until September 6), after failing to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles in time for Cannes. It begins racily with Xiao Shuai (Jiang Wen), a muscular book-dealer with a speech impediment in love-sick, hot pursuit of the leggy, chic, An Hong (Qu Ying), who, however, turns out to have more of a walk-off than walk-on part. An Hong has some shady friends in the entertainment business who overreact to her complaints that her admirer is pestering her and beat him up on the street. During the affray the bookseller grabs the portable computer bag of the harmless, bespectacled passer-by Lao Zhang (Li Baotian), to belabor his attackers. The hapless pedestrian's subsequent embroilment in Xiao Shuai's ensuing vendetta provides the mainspring of the farcical events that follow. There some amusing moments, but Zhang Yimou's anxieties that this brand of Chinese humor might not be fully appreciated elsewhere were well founded, and the noisy, pop-video-style sound track and relentlessly-jerky, hand-held camera work becomes tiresome and repetitive.

The Russian writer-director Pavel Chukrai's 'Vor' (The Thief), is more traditional in form and more substantial in content. Chukrai was born in Moscow in 1946 and sets out to depict through an idiosyncratic story the world he grew up in, a world of communal apartments, where, with the devastation of the second world war and Stalin's ever-present gulags, men were in short supply and tens of thousands of children were being raised by single women.

The war widow Katya is on a train with her small son, Sanya, when she encounters and is seduced by an handsome army officer, Tolyan, who in reality is a conman, card-sharp and thief. Soon hopelessly in love with this scoundrel, Katya, remains with him, despite her disgust at his activities and terror of the consequences, and the trio rove around Russia, taking rooms in apartment houses and fleeing after Tolyan has befriended and robbed the neighbors. Despite his obvious villainy, Sanya finds in Tolyan a substitute for the father he never knew, and learns from him how to survive in a hard world, in which before long he will find himself utterly alone. The story, superbly shot and infused with a bitter-sweet humor and pathos conveys a vivid picture of a little-known Russia now fading into semi-recorded history. Eight-year-old Masha Philipchuk gives a wonderful performance as the child Sanya, and Vladimir Mashkov and Ekaterina Rednikova are no less convincing as Tolyan and Katya.

Although tackling adultery and Aids, Mike Figgis's 'One Night Stand' is essentially a comedy of modern manners, and none the worse for that. Max (Wesley Snipes) is a successful advertising executive, who briefly returns to New York from LA, where he has married and settled, and ends up, through a series of wholly unpredictable circumstances, spending a night with the also married Karen (Nastassja Kinski). Returning a year later to see his dying gay friend Charlie (Robert Downey, Jr), Max is again confronted with the consequences of his brief encounter. Some of the zaniest scenes take place by Charles's death bed (in which Downey triumphs over a face covered by an oxygen mask that reduces him to acting with his eyes and eloquent eyebrows). Wesley Snipes brings dignity and depth of character to Max, and Ming-Na Wen is memorably awful as his lissome, low-fat, crashingly-boring, culture-free Californian wife Karen.

Marcy, credibly played by Robin Tunney, in Bob Gosse's 'Niagara, Niagara', suffers from the rare Tourette's Syndrome, which afflicts the sufferer with severe physical tics, and can intermittently cause them to blurt out involuntary verbal obscenities. She falls in with an incompetent young shoplifter, Seth (Henry Thomas), whom she persuades to set out with her on a journey from New York State to Niagara. The couple commit a series of crimes along the way, but lack the viciousness and hardware of Oliver Stone's preposterous 'Natural Born Killers'. Solidly in the road movie tradition, 'Niagara, Niagara' has the requisite 'alternative' aura. Yet the unintentional moral seems to be that, if you do suffer from Tourette's Syndrome, keep taking the prescribed medication, and don't on any account try to substitute it with lashings of Jack Daniels.

Admirers of Alan Rickman's acting may find his first excursion into directing, in Sharman MacDonald's 'The Winter Guest', less satisfying. The film, set in a wintry Scottish coastal village, stars Emma Thompson as the recently-widowed Frances and her real-life mother Phyllida Law. A day the fictional mother and daughter spend together is paralleled by those of France's teenage son Alex and the girl that has taken a fancy to him, two younger boys who are bunking off school and a pair of old biddies, who fill their empty hours attending funerals. The pace is slow, the feel often irritatingly stagy and the script ultimately insubstantial.

Lighter and with fewer pretensions is Philip Saville's 'Metroland', premiered at Venice in the out-of-competition British Renaissance section. Based on Julian Barne's novel, the film, which could be subtitled 'Born Free, But Everywhere in Trains', is the tale of Chris (Christian Bale), who has settled down with Marion (Emily Watson) in north-west London's super-staid commuter belt, and whose placid life is disrupted by the reappearance after several years of Chris's old school chum and onetime fellow '60's rebel Toni (Lee Ross), who is still living out the anti-establishment, bohemian aspirations of their younger days, and seems determined to lay temptation in Chris's way and break up the happy home. Both casting and performances are good, and the flavor and language of the English 60's and 70's, well caught in Adrian Hodge's script.

Grittier, more contemporary, but tinged with an old-fashioned idealism that recalls 'To Sir, With Love', is Shane Meadows' first feature 'TwentyFourSeven'. In this 'No Weddings and a Funeral', set in run-down, working-class Midlands England, shot in black and white, and introducing some raw new talent, Bob Hoskins plays a local oddball, Darcy, who starts a boxing club to get the aimless, chain-smoking local lads off the street.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023