I've already mentioned Screen's poll of eight of "the world's leading film critics" (and yes, The Hours is still ahead), but there's another one that's been interesting to follow as well. Der Tagesspiegel has been conducting a similar, though much more complicated poll of leading German critics. Complicated because the critics can give both negative and positive points, and I'm not even going to get into it. But I bring this up because, in both polls, you don't see a broader spread of yays and nays for any other film as you do with Blind Shaft (Mang Jing).
The critic for Die Zeit, for example, has rated it far, far higher than she's rated any other film at the festival, while the stars it's been given in the Screen are all over the place, from one ("poor") to three ("good"; from the Guardian's Derek Malcolm, by the way. For those interested in his viewing habits, he always takes an aisle seat near the door "so I can leave if the film becomes too long or unbearable"; but I've yet to see him walk out on a single film).
Blind Shaft weighs in at the far end of the scale of the films shown here where all the hand-held realist films could be lumped. Supposedly, this would make director Li Yang part of the 6th generation of Chinese filmmakers, the socially critical bunch that has trouble getting their films shown in China, but there has been some talk among the Chinese here about how the tendency to assign filmmakers to these generations or schools does more harm than good. Too, Li Yang is something of an exception in that he studied filmmaking in Germany. When he returned to China, he says he was astounded by how quickly his country was changing and, in many ways, not for the better.
Li Yixiang and director Li Yang
Li Yang began talking to as many different sorts of people as he could meet about their everyday lives and decided to make a documentary - until he ran across an award-winning novel that tells the story of two coal miners who move from mine to mine with a third person in tow that they claim is a relative - a brother, a nephew, whatever. Down in the mines, after working for a few days, they kill this "relative," claim compensation and move on. They use the money for fake IDs for their next victim, for whores and alcohol, and the rest they wire home to their families. "China has a shortage of everything but people," one character says, and these two have come up with a way to exploit that single surplus.
There's only one professional actor, Li Yixiang, in the film but Li Yang has directed his cast of non-professionals basically playing themselves so well that you're not constantly aware of it. There's nothing showy or how-did-they-do-that here. The conditions of the film's making are, Li Yang says, "hard to explain." He and the cast and crew of around 50 were constantly aware of the danger of working underground where no one even thinks of bothering with safety. Too expensive. On the first day of shooting, just as they'd all climbed out of the mine, a shaft collapsed and two were killed. In all, 8000 coal miners a year die in China. Li Yixiang, too, was knocked out for a while when a lump of coal fell on him from overhead.
He plays one of the two scheming miners, the one who's beginning to have moral qualms about what they're up to when their latest victim is a boy of around 17. This is the source of the dramatic tension and, given the ruthless struggle for survival you've been watching down in the mines and out on the streets, you truly don't know how things will turn out.
Li Yang has set out - very successfully, in my opinion - to portray a series of "highly dramatic events but with a Brecht-like distance," avoiding "anything Hollywood." Brecht is an interesting model because Blind Shaft does indeed allow you to watch with both a certain level of objectivity and emotional involvement. "There has been no capitalistic phase in Chinese history," says Li Yang. "We went straight from feudalism to communism. Now, two systems exist side-by-side." For many, as Blind Shaft shows quite powerfully, the transition is hell.
And now for something completely different. From the mines of China, we move to the beds of France. Bruno (Daniel Auteuil) is a Communist, but that's more of a fashion statement than a political statement. The socialist cause may be alive if not well in France, but "Communists have become something of a joke," says director Pascal Bonitzer, an actor himself who's also written three dozen screenplays for the likes of Jacques Rivette.
In the opening sequence, two of Bruno's lovers cross paths and only one is aware of the true identity of the other. When young, naive Nathalie (Ludivine Sagnier) asks Gaëlle (Emmanuelle Devos) how she can still be a Communist "after all that," Gaëlle asks, "After all what?" "Well, the Wall and things." "What things?" "Just things... in general."
Kristin Scott-Thomas and director Pascal Bonitzer
That's about the extent and depth of the political awareness in Minor Injuries (Petites couperes), but that's fine; it's part of the overall not quite laugh-out-loud humor of the film which could be seen as a sort of homage to French New Wave; and Bonitzer was, in fact, asked at the press conference if he consciously modelled his film on François Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women. Bonitzer replied that he saw the similarities, but no, there were differences, too; Truffaut's Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his addiction while Bruno is, according to Bonitzer, "deeply unstable and unhappy. He's searching for an encounter which will work out for him."
It might have worked out with Béatrice (Kristin Scott-Thomas), but there are a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead her to say, "We're not in a tragedy. We're in a bedroom farce." Béatrice is a bundle of French quirkiness fans of the New Wave know very well, uttering absolute absurdities she absolutely believes in - for a few minutes at least - and shifting emotional gears at the drop of a hat.
When asked what she thought Béatrice is after, Scott-Thomas replied, "I don't really understand this character, either. I think of her as somebody who can't finish her sentences, can't decide where she wants to get off." It all makes for a light, harmless entertainment that probably won't be a real contender when it comes to handing out the Bears.
The press conference for 25th Hour, Spike Lee's best film in years, got off to a rocky start. How does it feel, someone asked right off the bat, commercially exploiting 9/11? Lee coldly and stiffly replied that he felt that he and his team treated the victims of the tragedy with utmost respect. But the second questioner, too, wanted to know what 9/11 was doing in the film at all. Was there really any relation whatsoever to the story being told?
It's a film set in New York City, Lee continued patiently (though that patience was clearly wearing thin; how many times must he have answered these very same questions ever since the movie came out?), and a film set in present-day NYC cannot ignore the impact of the event on the city. "You'd rather we just pretend it didn't happen?" interjected a clearly peeved Ed Norton. Finally, the subject was put to rest, though it seemed that neither side had convinced the other.
Huge, magnificent portraits of the stars are being shot as they come through town and hung in the Berlinale Palast. Here, we see Barry Pepper, Ed Norton, Rosario Dawson and Spike Lee. We also see that Pepper has learned a new word while in Germany: "Frieden!", he's signed his portrait with: "Peace!"
There followed a series of questions about the story itself, none of which were particularly very smart, frankly, and they left Lee, Norton, Rosario Dawson (who plays Naturelle Rivera, girlfriend of Norton's Monty Brogan; Lee spotted her in Kids and cast her at his first opportunity, which turned out to be the not-so-terrific He Got Game) and Barry Pepper (Monty's friend, Frank; best performance in the film, and one of the best performances of the year, too) to spell out the obvious.
I'm assuming most GreenCiners know the gist of the story: On his last day of freedom before serving out a seven-year prison term, Monty gathers his friends to party and, to move the story along, try to figure out who sold him down the river. But he also faces up to the fact that his own actions have landed him in "hell." There's time in this, probably the most slowly paced Spike Lee film (and for good reason, too), for each of the characters to wrestle with his or her own demons, and of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a genuine pleasure to watch, as always, though he needs to work on steering his career away from more introverted fat guys, and Anna Paquin, too, is very fine, playing a student much younger than her characters in other recent films such as, say, Buffalo Soldiers.
As noted in the news, the conference picked up considerably when it came time to talk about the looming war in Iraq. Besides the comments already widely reported that drew cheers from all present, there were also those by Rosario Dawson who said, "I'm proud of my country, but it's difficult now to even travel." Not so much because she's frightened as much as admitting that she's an American is simply embarrassing. What particularly infuriated Lee was that the world is about to be plunged into war by a president was wasn't even elected.
"Most politicians do their dirty deeds under cover of darkness," Lee fumed. "But that election was rigged. Bush stole it in broad daylight and there's nothing you can do." One thing Lee has done, though, is make a ten-minute film on what can truly be said without overstatement to be the theft of the century, "We Wuz Robbed," part of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet. As for 25th Hour, it's worth noting that it is now a close second in the Screen poll and the clear favorite of the German critics.