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Letter From an Unknown Woman (2004)

“The dead no longer want anything.”

I’ll admit that I am not a die-hard fan of Chinese cinema. That said some of Zhang Yimou’s  films stand out in my mind–those that star the exquisite Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, Shanghai Triad, Ju Dou). I arrived at the Chinese film Letter From an Unknown Woman (Yi Ge Mo Sheng Nu Ren de Lai Xin) from writer/director Jinglei Xu because it is based on the Stefan Zweig novella of the same name. For those who don’t know, I have a film-book fascination, and I am drawn to watching film adaptations of books. I am fascinated by the changes made from one medium to another–how characters are dropped or minimized while the visual is accentuated. But enough of that. Back to the film.

The film, which reminds me a bit of Zhang Yimou’s loving style, begins in 1948 Peking with a famous writer sitting at home and reading letters. The camera lingers on golden-hued shots of the letters and their elegant Chinese characters. These letters are piled in front of the writer as he eats his meal, and then one letter catches his attention. This is, of course, the letter from the unknown woman. The writer becomes transfixed by the story that unfolds, and then this segues into the rest of the film.

It’s now 1930s Peking and a young girl and her widowed mother live in poverty. The girl (Yuan Lin) is perhaps 13 or 14 when a famous writer (Wen Jiang) moves in across the courtyard. He hosts endless noisy parties, and a veritable caravan of gorgeous, expensively clad  women rotate through the writer’s life. Always in the background, the young girl quietly watches, and gradually she falls in love with the much older, worldly man.

I’m not going to add too much description here of the plot because that would spoil it, I think, for those who may come to this film for the first time. But I will say that over the course of nearly two decades the girl and the writer meet for a total of three times, and each meeting has a great significance for the girl–although much less so for the writer.

This film is basically a romance–doomed at that–not my forte, but at the same time, this is a visually stunning film, and the cinematographer’s languid shots–often full of golds and reds–seem to lovingly caress the subject. I was particular caught by the repetitive shot of the rickshaw as it progresses through an alley to the writer’s home in the snow.

As for the story itself–it says more about the nature of obsession than anything else, and from a modern perspective it’s perhaps difficult to swallow the woman’s role or her obsession with the writer. On the negative side, the writer seems a little unlikely cause of such complete devotion, love and obsession. The Chinese civil war and later WWII rumble distantly in the background, but there’s almost zero political content here. In fact the wars and unrest exist as excuses for the writer’s ignoble exits more than anything else.

The film’s plot explores one of my favourite themes: the inequity of relationships. In Letter From an Unknown Woman, the inequity occurs not just in the social positions between the two characters (this is not rare in film or books), but in the amount each character means to the other. To the writer, the girl is one of many, but to the girl, the writer is everything.  The writer occupies a vast space in the girl’s life, while to the writer the girl hardly even exists–she’s not even a memory. 

 Now I’m looking forward to the 1948 Max Ophuls version.

On a final note, the film made me think of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, a story which delves into a man’s role in a woman’s downfall.

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Change My Life (2001)

 Fanny Ardant is an incredibly talented and versatile French actress, and the drama Change My Life (Change Moi Ma Vie) gives her a role that allows her to display that talent. Ardant plays Nina, a neurotic, pill-popping has-been actress who’s just returned to Paris from years in Russia. Nina gave up a promising acting career to troop off to Russia with her lover, and now that romance is long gone, Nina is back in Paris, hoping to pick up her acting career. In the meantime, since the phone isn’t ringing off the hook with acting jobs, Nina has taken a job in an art gallery owned by her friend, Nadine (Fanny Cottenon).

change-my-life1When the film begins, Nina is floating around Paris. The term ‘floating’ refers to her chemical state. Agitated, needy and neurotic, Nina is already popping pills when in one great scene she sits down in a cafe and proceeds to harass a male customer sitting at the next table. This incredible scene focuses on Nina–her paranoia, tension and hysteria, and unable to contain her deep need for human contact on any level, she initiates conversation with a man who has the misfortune to be sitting at the next table. As a viewer I felt as uncomfortable as the poor sod trying to eat his meal in peace. Nina is neurotic, but even she senses on some level how she must appear to the customer in the restaurant. Further humiliation leads to more pills, and finally she collapses in the street and comes to the attention of a strapping young Algerian runner named Sami (Roschdy Zem).

Later, Nina contacts Sami to thank him for his help and then she discovers that Sami works as a transvestite prostitute. At first shocked and horrified, Nina eventually becomes part of the transvestite community, finding acceptance and friendship among the disenfranchised Algerians.

Oddly enough, Nina and Sami have a great deal in common. While Nina struggles to recapture her acting career, Sami dreams of becoming an Olympic level runner again. In this relationship between two damaged souls, somehow they provide a fragile stability for each other and reawaken hope for their lost dreams.

While the film touches on the broader social problem of Algerians without papers struggling to survive in France, the plot largely ignores the social and political aspects of the film, concentrating on the relationship between Nina and Sami. Sami is part of a silent, invisible French underclass–one of many young Algerian males–the flotsam and jetsam of French colonialism–who wash up in Paris. As Sami suffers through humiliating and sometimes brutal encounters with Parisians, the irony is that Algeria was screwed by the France, and the film illustrates how Algerians are still being screwed–literally in this case–by French citizens as they sell they only thing they have–their bodies. Change My Life is not Fanny Ardant’s best film (see Colonel Chabert) but it’s certainly worth catching. From director Liria Begeja

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Priceless (2006)

 “It seems a man like you can’t be bought, even by me.”

pricelessIn Priceless (Hors de Prix) Irene (Audrey Tatou) is a svelte gold digger who haunts the playgrounds of the stinking rich looking for her next victim. Irene gets herself picked up by solitary, wealthy men, and then she milks the new relationship for all it’s worth before she moves on and latches onto the next sucker. One night she spies Jean (Gad Elmaleh) a waiter in the swanky hotel bar. She mistakes Jean for a wealthy millionaire, and he doesn’t bother to correct her mistake.

Fast forward to another encounter, and Irene and Jean find themselves in hot water. Irene reverts to her profession of choice, and Jean, well Jean picks up some lessons along the way.

Priceless, with its 30s madcap comedy feel, is from director Pierre Salvadori, and it’s a much more polished film than his earlier comedy, Apres Vous, a film that never quite managed to maintain the laughs–in spite of the talents of seasoned actor Daniel Auteuil. Priceless is…well, priceless, slick while seemingly almost guileless, this highly polished film manages to pass off some very awkward moments delightfully.

Irene is essentially a hooker, picking up customers and bleeding them for hotel stays, clothes and expensive jewelry. The film doesn’t tackle the idea of sexual favours traded for stuff  head-on, but neither is the story a preposterous Cinderella tale (the very silly Pretty Woman springs to mind). While Priceless glosses over the seedier aspects of Irene’s manipulative ways, nonetheless the plot does address the sex-for-hire aspect–lightly and with humor. Plus a few plot surprises keep us guessing, and ultimately the plot works. Jean finds himself broke and homeless, and once he’s in this vulnerable position, he finds out first hand how it feels to be Irene. It would have been a horrible mistake for the film to emphasize this point and create a heavy moral point in the middle of the laughs, but instead the plot makes its point and then continues on. The next point the film makes is that the lifestyles of the rich and famous can be addictive….

Wealthy socialite Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) is a marvelous addition to the film, and when she enters the picture, the comedy ramps up a notch. Jean and Irene are ultimately people who do some sleazy things to maintain their lifestyles, but the film never once dips into that sleaze. Yet at the same time it’s not too sticky sweet, and this is achieved partly through meeting the ‘victims’ who are played here as not very nice people who know what they want and are perfectly willing to pay for it.

Tatou is an actress who has been criminally underutilized and it’s great to see her here, showing her claws and playing a whole range of emotions as she steps away from the ingénue role. If you like frothy French romantic comedy, well it doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended

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The Edge of Heaven (2007)

 “I’m a lady of easy virtue.”

Lives intersect and create permanent changes in the wonderful film The Edge of Heaven (Auf Der Anderen Seite) from writer/director Fatih Akin. Akin was born in Germany but is of Turkish descent, so his films provide a unique cross-cultural view of the lives of Turks living in Germany.

Edge of Heaven DVDThe film begins in Germany with elderly Turkish widower immigrant Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) visiting the red light district of Bremen and selecting prostitute Yeter (Nursel Kose). With her vinyl mini-dress and blonde wig, Yeter doesn’t seem the cozy type, but Ali is drawn to her. After a few encounters he suggests that she move in with him, and she accepts. She has few other choices at this point–she can’t stay in the red light area as she’s been identified and threatened by fellow Turks, so she moves in with Ali.

Add Ali’s son Nejat (Baki Dvarat) to the picture–he’s a university professor of German, and no doubt while he’s a success by cultural and societal markers, there’s something wrong…we see a scene of Nejat sitting in his messy office. Is he bored out of his mind or just contemplative? Another scene shows him listlessly lecturing students, so without explicit narrative or plot development, it seems clear that Nejat has ‘succeeded’ in German society, but he’s not thrilled about it.

Nejat doesn’t object to his father’s new housemate–in fact Yeter and Nejat have an excellent relationship. And this is in contrast to Ali’s relationship with Yeter. While he couldn’t wait for her to move in and promised to pay her, things quickly turn sour.

Circumstances take Nejat to Turkey and he begins a search for Yeter’s missing daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay). The film takes us through Ayten’s story and activities in a revolutionary group. Seeking asylum in Germany, Ayten becomes involved with a German girl, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and Lotte’s mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

The Edge of Heaven is a wonderful film, and if I’ve managed to make it sound confusing, it really isn’t. The story threads are very well woven, and although the characters are connected, the viewer retains the knowledge of those connections–we have knowledge of those relationships that eludes the characters.

Watching The Edge of Heaven, I was reminded of Ozpetek’s wonderful film Haman (Steam: The Turkish Bath)–a film that also shows the exoticism and the dangers of Istanbul. Just as the main character in Steam, Francesco, is beguiled by Istanbul, Nejat is similarly entranced. There’s one scene where he walks into–of all things–a German book shop. There it is, apparently waiting for him. He steps inside and with a sense of quiet wonder he scans the shelves and silently logs the titles….

There’s a lot happening in this film–cultural identity, loss, redemption and the relationships between parents and their children who learn to accept loss and forgive errors and crimes. This is the best Akin film I’ve seen to date (In July, Head-On, and The Edge of Heaven).

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Gambling With Souls (1936)

“You filthy operator of a sex exchange.”

Strict censorship rules of the Hays Code spawned the production of many sexploitation films–films that were presented as exposes of the lurid charms of various human vices. These films took a strong moral stance against these vices and illustrated the inevitable consequences of sin while indulging the audience with an excuse for puerile voyeurism.

In Gambling with Souls, Mae Miller (Martha Chapin) is married to a doctor (Robert Frazer). He’s devoted to his career, and she’s left to her own devices for long periods of time. She becomes friends with Molly Murdock (Vera Steadman) who quickly introduces her to gambling. Gambling is just the first step into luring Mae into prostitution to pay off the money she owes to gambling club owner, Lucky Wilder (Wheeler Oakman).

Gambling with Souls from director Elmer Clifton contains a strong strain of Victorian melodrama (“you who thrive in the slime of life”)–with the righteous husband appearing (“women are not always to blame for their downfall”), and the wicked, repentant wife sobbing her way through a confession of her life of sin.

For camp fans, there’s a mild degree of entertainment here. Some of the lines are very funny, and there’s one scene in a club that shows a girl dancing, but she’s more of a contortionist than a dancer. She gets up on top of one of the tables, and hikes her skirt up, displaying her undies as she performs contortionist acts. It’s supposed to be sexy–at least that’s the impression I get from the men in the audience drooling as they watch her performance. There’s another scene with a chorus line, and the camera focuses on the girls’ bottoms for an inordinate amount of time. One scene (reminiscent of Hylas and the Nymphs) shows a country bumpkin lured off to a bedroom by a gang of pushy prostitutes. My favourite scene shows Mae returning from a drunken night out. She strips in her bedroom, and even her underwear has become fancier as her sins increase. Those moments provide a vague amusement, but that’s about all. The moralizing is too heavy handed and the characters serve to fill their stock roles only.

The Alpha Video print isn’t that great–there’s some skipping and crackling, but it is watchable.

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The Flesh Merchant (1956)

  “The guys are here to have a ball–not a ball and chain.”

Naive young country girl, Nancy (Joy Reynolds), unexpectedly arrives in Los Angeles to move in with her sister, “fashion model” Paula (Lisa Rack). Nancy thinks that Paula has hit the big time, but Paula’s too ashamed to tell Nancy the awful truth. Paula is working as a prostitute in a string of clubs owned by the sinister “Flesh Merchant” Sogel (Guy Manford). Paula tries to shove Nancy on the first bus back to the country, but bratty Nancy just thinks Paula is afraid of the “competition.” Finding an address of a modeling agency in Paula’s apartment, Nancy heads out to start her career. Within minutes, she’s posing nude for a room full of drooling men, and a few hours later, she’s whisked off to the mysterious “Colony” an exclusive retreat for rich men who want a weekend away from their wives.

fleshNancy puts up a pitiful resistance to the lure of the Flesh trade. After a slap or two and a stern admonition to “cooperate”, Nancy is putty. In spite of dire warnings from fellow Colony girl, oldie-but-goodie, EZ, Nancy is too thrilled with the promise of a mink coat to do anything except slip on her negligee and start “cooperating.”

The Flesh Merchant (also known as: The Wild and Wicked) is a well-paced, well-structured sexploitation film that leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s not completely awful either. There are a few good lines–largely from the men who run the girls at the Colony. One man for example, is told to take care of Nancy as she’s “valuable” He mutters, “when they’re valuable, they’re never very experienced.” There are scenes of guests romping in the pool, and guests dancing with girls, but the naughty bits are largely hinted at more than anything else. The unintended camp effect of the film does yield some laughs, and the best scene is Paula’s speech at the end of the film (“There’s a very dirty word for what you are”). Nancy’s character also adds unintentionally to the fun. She’s so naive and yet utterly corruptible. Playing a naive character requires a great deal of skill–it’s not easy to convey artlessness without appearing a bit dense. Consequently, Nancy is portrayed as a brainless self-serving twit who’s so mesmerized by a bauble or two, she eagerly sinks into debauchery. Ultimately, the film is a cautionary tale that’s too inhibited to capitalize on some of the excellent scenes.

This black and white film from Alpha is acceptable quality. The film skips in just a few places, but is decent overall. Options … play or scene selection.

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King of Thieves (2004)

 “Barbu–King of the Circus!”

The marvelously entertaining Czech film, King of Thieves begins in a small remote Ukrainian village as two village children–Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva) and Barbu (Iakov Kultiasov) entertain the locals with an amateur acrobatic show. But then in the distance, the villagers spot a white Jaguar which they recognize as belonging to the larger than life–Caruso (Lazar Ristovski). Caruso, apparently, periodically appears in the village to recruit children for his European circus, and this is how it works: Caruso spies a likely child, pays the acquiescent parents X number of rubles. He promises fame and fortune, and the child leaves never to return.

kingBarbu’s dream comes true when Caruso selects him, and he confidently talks Caruso into taking his adopted sister too. There’s a horrible sense that something is terribly wrong with this arrangement, but no questions are asked and a tearful Mimma and a triumphant Barbu leave with Caruso.

While it’s fairly obvious that Caruso is up to no good, ten-year-old Barbu is too young to read the signals. Even when he’s separated from Mimma, taken to a dilapidated Big Tent in a walled compound in Germany, and thrown inside a tatty trailer, Barbu still believes that he’ll be “the King of the Circus.” Caruso feeds this idea by sustaining Barbu’s faith with his gregarious demeanor and doing the odd magic trick. He’s teamed up with a tough Albanian boy named Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir) who teaches him the ropes, and soon Barbu is trained to steal from incautious shoppers and tourists. Barbu delights Caruso, and while Caruso’s vicious underlings spot the fact that Barbu is potentially trouble, Caruso has a weakness for the boy. Meanwhile Caruso loses Mimma in a card game to a revolting pimp.

King of Thieves works incredibly well–partially because the audience sniffs that Caruso is an utter rotter from the start, so we follow Barbu’s fate with baited breath, and a sense that we cannot abandon this delightful, bright, and persistent little boy. Also Caruso’s false world of the circus creates a layer of the phantasmagorical that is underscored by the scenes of Caruso’s past as a trapeze artist with his now crippled partner Julie (Katharina Thalbach). Julie–who looks as though she just stepped from Weimar’s Berlin–is also attracted to Barbu’s spirit. And in many ways to the twisted couple (Julie and Caruso), Barbu represents their lost idealism.

The film includes some painful scenes of abuse of the children enslaved by Caruso’s net, but this is a riveting tale, and it deserves a much wider audience. It’s the sort of foreign film that people who don’t like foreign film would find themselves enjoying. The DVD extras include an interview with director Ivan Fila in which he explains the difficulties he had completing the film–as well as the real life incidents behind the story. In German with English subtitles.

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