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Discoveries 2002

At the Freer Gallery of Art to Dec. 15

Standing in the

According to a recent Entertainment Weekly item, The Ring producer Roy Lee believes Hollywood is getting more receptive to remaking Japanese, Chinese, and Korean flicks because “Asian movies are improving in quality.” Nice to know that American production execs think the continent that brought us such directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Wong Kar-wai, and Im Kwon-taek is catching up with the industry that produced The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Yet seeing recent Asian films that aren’t facile enough for American remakes is still a challenge, so the Freer’s “Discoveries 2002″—seven 2001 movies from east of Gibraltar and west of Hawaii—is a welcome event, as well as a great precedent for an annual series.

The five previewed films are all by directors whose work has been seen in Washington before, although not always recently. With the possible exception of Seijun Suzuki’s wildly improbable but not unprecedented Pistol Opera, not one of these movies is exactly what might be expected. Egyptian epic-maker Youssef Chahine goes backstage for the agreeably lightweight Silence…We’re Rolling. Santosh Sivan, whose minimalist The Terrorist was set in contemporary Sri Lanka, travels to third-century-BCE India for Asoka. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami explores AIDS-ravaged Uganda in ABC Africa. And Japanese thriller factory Takashi Miike presents a musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, albeit one with a characteristically high body count.

Silence…We’re Rolling (at 7 p.m. Nov. 15) opens with heroine Malak entrancing an auditorium with a song about being a “genuine Egyptian.” Veteran director Chahine is certainly that, but Malak is played by Tunisian singer Latifa, and the movie is heavily indebted to Bollywood—romance, intrigue, and a dash of politics, all interrupted frequently by swirling Indo-Egyptian (and one Latin-reggae) song-and-dance numbers. Malak is adored onstage, but at home things are less congenial: Her loveless marriage is unraveling, her mother is fading, and her daughter wants to marry the leftist son of Mom’s chauffeur. So Malak is susceptible to the flattery of a man who professes to be a doctor who’s abandoned his profession out of love for Malak, as well as for the movie career he’s sure she can arrange for him. Playfully self-conscious, the movie includes animated scenes-within-scenes, homages to old Hollywood, and bathing-suited frolics that would make a hard-line mullah seethe. Silence…We’re Rolling is intentionally slight, but Chahine shows a surprising flair for froth.

Though Asoka (at 2 p.m. Nov. 17) really is a Bollywood musical, it considers a topic not unlike that of Sivan’s previous film, in which a young suicide bomber begins to question her mission. According to legend, Asoka’s title character conquered much of India, only to sicken of bloodshed and become a devout Buddhist. Although the 180-minute movie includes some epic battle scenes, it expresses Asoka’s great dilemma as a tragic romance: One of two contenders to the throne of Magadha, Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan) walks away from the power struggle with his half-brother. While wandering the forest, he meets and soon marries Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) of neighboring Kalinga. Later, informed that Kaurwaki has been murdered by conspirators, Asoka marries a Buddhist (Hrishita Bhatt), who tries to turn her new husband toward peace. When his mother is killed, however, Asoka goes on a bloody rampage, ultimately invading Kalinga—where he encounters Kaurwaki on the battlefield. Sivan plays by the Bollywood rules, shooting with a wide-angle lens, interjecting bits of low comedy, and drenching his female leads glamorously in water and light. The film’s aspirations to transcend the genre, however, are evident from its anti-war theme and unusually spare and rhythmic music.

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Kiarostami’s palette is transformed but his method familiar when he explores Uganda, a country that has already lost 10 percent of its population to AIDS. A break from black-and-tan Iran, the brightly hued ABC Africa (at 7 p.m. Dec. 6) is not a grim film—which may strike some as inappropriate. Even more problematic is the director’s distance from everyday Ugandans: Though he shoots hordes of orphaned (but seemingly happy) children, he seems to talk mostly to his crew members—and to an upscale Austrian couple who have just adopted a Ugandan toddler (wearing an “ABC” T-shirt). And impressionistic digital-video views of a coffin-building shop and a UN-sponsored small-sum lending program are given the same emphasis as a stunning—but not exactly on-topic—sequence of a lightning storm shot from a blacked-out hotel. Still, if ABC Africa is questionable as a social-issue documentary, it is humane, beautiful, and altogether Kiarostamian.

Equally exemplary of its director’s work, Pistol Opera (at 2 p.m. Dec. 7) is Suzuki’s primary-colored reworking of Branded to Kill, the 1967 movie that ended his career as a maker of studio-financed gangster and “sun tribe” (troubled youth) B-pictures. This highly stylized exercise is nominally the tale of lovely hit-woman Stray Cat (Maborosi star Makiko Esumi), the third-ranked member of a Japanese assassin’s guild. Stray Cat competes with such other killers as Hundred Eyes, but the account of this conflict is largely impenetrable and the battles mostly becalmed: Suzuki takes less inspiration from action flicks (including his own) than from such ritualistic theater and dance forms as Kabuki, Noh, and Butoh. Although the action begins with a killer’s getting bumped off atop Tokyo Station, most of the locations are strikingly unpopulated and either industrial or bucolic. A deliriously kinky update of Bushido, the samurai’s death-and-duty code, Pistol Opera doesn’t exactly go anywhere, but every one of its elegantly composed set pieces is a dazzler.

In a sense, Miike is Suzuki’s heir. Making what could be called

V-pictures—direct-to-video flicks—Miike directs six or seven features a year, usually showing a brash disregard for whatever conventions usually apply. The Happiness of the Katakuris (at 2 p.m. Dec. 15) is a remake of a Korean comedy about a family that opens a mountain guesthouse where people occasionally check in but never check out. Worried that news of the inn’s 100 percent mortality rate will damage business, the family removes the corpse of each suicide and heart-attack victim and buries it nearby. Despite their dilemma, the Katakuris periodically break into song, sometimes directly parodying The Sound of Music. There’s even some—because why not?—claymation. Miike tallies more misfires than direct hits, and he seems temperamentally better suited to pushing action flicks to the brink of absurdity than to dealing in plain old campy lunacy. Even in a lesser work such as this, though, the director’s audacity is bracing.

The series’ two unpreviewed entries are Butterfly Smile (at 7 p.m. Nov. 22), a Chinese film about a man who witnesses a hit-and-run crash involving the fashion model he’s been stalking, and Mysterious Object at Noon (at 2 p.m. Nov. 24), a semidocumentary in which a director travels through Thailand, asking people to continue the tale begun in the film’s opening sequence.

In the mid-’60s, when the biggest pop-music stars began advancing their own version of cinema’s auteur theory, there was one notable exception: Motown. Throughout the label’s most successful years, its music was made by an impeccably tooled and largely anonymous machine. Regardless of whose name was on the label, the band was the Funk Brothers, whose members remained unsung until Marvin Gaye listed them individually in the credits to 1971’s What’s Going On. “We were left out of the dream,” keyboardist Joe Hunter recalls in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary adapted from Alan Slutsky’s book of the same name.

Director Paul Justman couldn’t go wrong with the reminiscences of such surviving Brothers (five are now dead) as Hunter, drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, pianist Johnny Griffith, and guitarists Joe Messina (one of the group’s two white guys) and Eddie “Chank” Willis. Comic, good-natured, and evocative, the musicians’ remarks propel the film the way the bass lines—some of them derived from strip-club bump-and-grinds, the band members reveal—used to drive Motown hits. The Hitsville USA veterans laughingly discuss the demands of Motown owner Berry Gordy, who wanted the Brothers working seven days a week in his dirt-floored studio and nowhere else. They remember hiding in a local funeral parlor on Sundays to get a day off and sneaking around to do sessions for non-Motown tracks such as the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.” They also share anecdotes about some of their more eccentric cohorts, such as the late bassist James Jamerson, who used to don pajamas for overnight trips between gigs.

It wouldn’t make much sense to salute the Funk Brothers without letting them play, of course, so the recollections, archival footage, and occasional docudrama simulations are interrupted regularly by numbers from a reunion concert. (In a moving touch, the players are joined onstage by photos of their departed colleagues.) For these songs, the old Motown house band is fronted by such singers as Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Gerald Levert, Ben Harper, and Joan Osborne, with decidedly mixed results. Even Osborne, however, isn’t as awkward as the overwrought narration, delivered by actor Andre Braugher.

When the Brothers are in charge, however, the film is as engaging as its opening bass lick—played, ironically enough, by Brit Pino Palladino, most recently of the Who. CP