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Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman is not only a tour of Iranian womanhood but also a quick survey of Iranian cinema and society. It travels from naturalism to surrealism and from timeless and rural to contemporary and urban. Although nowhere nearly as harrowing a portrait of the state of women in Iran as Jafar Panahi’s upcoming The Circle, it is a richly nuanced and remarkably accomplished directorial debut.
Meshkini doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere. She’s the wife of leading Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who already helped his daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, become a filmmaker with The Apple and Blackboards. As he did for The Apple, Makhmalbaf devised the basic scenario but left details and dialogue to the director. Meshkini, who had worked as assistant director on both her husband’s and her daughter’s films, then made the film without Makhmalbaf’s supervision.
The Day I Became a Woman is constructed as three individual stories, in part because government approval is not required to make short films. By the time the movie concludes, however, narrative overlaps have joined thematic congruences to demonstrate that this is indeed a single work. As is characteristic of recent Iranian art cinema, the stories are open-ended; two minor characters from the second episode even appear in the third one, disagreeing about how the tale is resolved.
The first narrative works a small but powerful variation on the sort of film that originally brought contemporary Iranian directors to international attention: It’s the story of a child, whose activities, like those of the prepubescent heroes of films such as Where Is My Friend’s House? and Bashu, the Little Stranger, are unlikely to concern censors. This time, however, the story is about a girl, and one who’s on the verge of becoming a problem: Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar) is about to turn 9, the age at which girls are considered to become women in many Iranian rural regions, including Havva’s home, the island of Kish off the southern coast.
Far from the snowy mountains in which many Iranian movies about rural life are set, Kish is a warm, lush place with a polyglot population; Havva’s best friend, Hassan (Hassan Nabehan), is clearly of sub-Saharan origin. The rules are no less strict in this rustic paradise, however: Havva (whose name is the Iranian equivalent of “Eve”) is told that she must start wearing a chador and stop playing with boys. Since she was born at noon, Havva successfully argues, she won’t be a woman until the sun is directly overhead. She runs off to enjoy her last hour of freedom by the sea, celebrating with a series of gestures that may seem offhand but are in fact symbolicincluding one that Iranian censors initially protested as too erotic.
The second part of the film introduces a new stage of womanhoodand of conflict between tradition and modernity. Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui) is racing other women bicyclists on a path overlooking the sea. All are wearing chadors, but that’s not enough for Ahoo’s husband (Cyrus Kahouri Nejad), who demands that his wife abandon her bike and return home. When she refuses, the husband recruits various family members and then the imam who married them to help persuade her. The family crisis is played out entirely in motion, with Ahoo (whose name means “gazelle”) and her fellow racers on modern hybrid bikes and her husband and his helpers on horseback. This chapter is both a simple, striking illustration of cultural breaches in today’s Iran and a boldly kineticand quite lovelyvariation on the road movie.
The third episode reveals that Kish is a tourist mecca with ornate shopping malls as well as the modest homes of people like Havva. Elderly Houra (Azizeh Seddighi) arrives with two assets the younger protagonists lack: money and the freedom that comes from no longer being seen as a potential temptress. Having received an inheritance, she decides to buy all the material things she’s coveted, including major appliances and large pieces of furniture. With the help of local boys who work as luggage carriers at the airport, she buys all this stuff and then arrays it on the beach to admire it. This Felliniesque moment is a mildly satirical vision of consumer satiety, tempered by an undertone of regret: There was one more thing that Houra wanted, but she can’t remember what it is.
Like the films of Meshkini’s husband and his best-known peer, Abbas Kiarostami, The Day I Became a Woman is deceptively simple and profoundly evocative. The film’s tone is certainly not incendiary; its protagonists “are chained in their houses not because they are hated, but because they are loved,” the director writes. Western observers may consider that too benign a view of Iran’s theocratic misogyny, but Meshkini’s mix of rue, wonder, and gentle subversion is as interesting a response as The Circle’s cold anger.
China has absorbed Hong Kongand has stated loudly and often its intention of swallowing Taiwan as well. Cinematically, however, Hong Kong and Taiwan have claimed China. As the mainland’s Sixth Generation filmmakersnow in their mid-30sturn to urban, contemporary locations and themes, they follow the examples of Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Wong Kar-wai. It doesn’t take long for Suzhou River to establish which of these three filmmakers is director Lou Ye’s model.
Set on and along the retaining walls of the canal that runs through central Shanghai, Suzhou River is soy-sauce-noir, cloaked in smoke and rain, and dappled with neon light. Like Wong’s Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, it tells whimsical stories of young outsiders, yet its real text is the city itself. The waterway may be a metaphor for the endless dance of change and continuity, but chiefly it’s a perversely photogenic location, a bit of degraded nature in the urban landscape the film contemplates. It’s “the filthiest river,” admits the narrator, who of course lives in an apartment that overlooks it.
The narrator is never seen, but his viewpoint is. He’s a freelance videographer whose fidgety footagewith its jump cuts and fast pans and zoomsprovides the disorienting opening sequence. The videographer (whom Lou calls simply “I”) doesn’t work much, perhaps because there’s little demand for his services, or perhaps because of his attitude. “Don’t blame me if you don’t like what you see,” he warns potential clientsa puckish caution to Suzhou River viewers as well.
I is hired to videotape a seedy riverfront bar’s principal attraction, a woman who swims in a large tank while wearing a mermaid outfit and a long blond wig. This is Meimei (Zhou Xun), who offers I the prelude to modern romance: She gives him her pager number. Soon the two are dating, although because the film offers only I’s viewpoint, Meimei remains a beautiful object of contemplation rather than a full-blown character. Sometimes she gets sad, I notes, and disappears for days, leaving I to watch the bridge near his apartment for her to reappear. She asks him what would happen if she vanished for good, and then, of course, she does.
I is just as concerned, however, with chronicling another couple. Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) is a motorcycle courier with underworld
connections who gets a regular gig transporting a gang boss’s teenage daughter to her aunt’s. This is Moudan (Zhou again, looking younger simply through hairstyle and wardrobe), who develops a schoolgirl crush on her handsome but rather blank chauffeur. Mardar seems to return Moudan’s affection, giving her a blond mermaid doll for her birthday. In his way, though, Mardar is even more passive than I, so he doesn’t have the wherewithal to veto a role in Moudan’s kidnapping. When she’s freed, the disillusioned Moudan plunges into the Suzhou, leaving no trace. After a prison term, Mardar searches obsessively for the girl, ultimately finding a woman who bears an eerie resemblance to herand who lives on a riverboat and works as a mermaid, no less.
Most reviews of Suzhou River mention Vertigo, which Lou says he has seen but didn’t consciously emulate. Certainly his film owes little to the classic Hollywood thriller. Its interlocking stories are brazenly (if playfully) contrived, but Lou is more interested in serendipity than suspense. Shot cheaply with a handheld camera, the film has the improvisational zest and enveloping atmosphere of Wong’s pre-In the Mood for Love films, as well as a breathtaking economy: It conjures an entire world with one camera and two lead actors. Appearances aside, that world is not limited to contemporary China. In blending documentary with romance and locating beauty along a polluted canal, Suzhou River is impeccably modernist. But its evocation of lost love is as poignantly mysterious as any classic Chinese fable of ghostly lovers.
Heroin moviesand we’ve seen a lot of them in the last yearare about loss, emptiness, and alienation. Cocaine movies are about money. Based on the exploits of George Jung, who, for a time, served as the principal U.S. affiliate of Colombian coke lord Pablo Escobar, Blow throws around more greenbacks than Indecent Proposal, the would-you-sleep-with-Robert Redford-for-a-million-bucks melodrama. But easy money is a hard calling, andlike cocainemost people can never get enough of it to truly satisfy.
Adapted by scripters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes from Bruce Porter’s book, Blow glibly grounds George’s career in childhood trauma. “Money isn’t real, George. It doesn’t matter,” young George’s well-meaning, bankrupt father (Ray Liotta), a blue-collar Bostonian, tells the boy early in the film. George knows that isn’t true, however, because his father’s faltering cash flow has embittered his mother (Rachel Griffiths), who frequently runs away. As soon as he grows up, George (Johnny Depp) splits, too, taking his perfect Byrds bowl cut to late-’60s California. There he discovers fun, sun, pot, and stewardess girlfriend Barbara (Run Lola Run star Franka Potente), who can transport suitcases full of marijuana back to the East Coast without being searched. For George and his cohorts, Tuna (Ethan Suplee) and Kevin (Max Perlich), things are greattemporarily.
Kevin begins demanding more product for the lucrative Boston market, and George decides he’s outgrown his original contact, swishy hairdresser Derek (Paul Reubens). George commandeers a plane, flies to Mexico, and starts buying in bulk. By 1972, he and Barbara are living in an Acapulco mansion. Then he gets busted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment; he skips bail to take care of Barbara, who’s dying of cancer, but is eventually caught. In federal prison, George’s cellmate, Diego (Jordi Molla), explains the cocaine business to him. Soon George is paroled and on a plane to Colombia. He takes his haul to Los Angeles, where Derek says it will take a year to sell that much coke. It takes 36 hours. And the disco era hasn’t even begun.
Through Diego, George meets the ruthless Escobar (Cliff Curtis) and becomes a regular on the Panama-Colombia druglord party circuit. He also acquires a wife he ultimately realizes he can’t afford, hotblooded Mirtha (Penélope Cruz, in a smaller role than her above-the-title billing suggests). She becomes the nightmare version of his modestly avaricious mother, and their daughter, Kristina (Emma Roberts), becomes the next Jung to be scarred by parental financial combat, as George is forced into a downward spiral of betrayals and busts.
Perhaps it’s the mythic quality of this family saga that undermines it. At times, Blow evokes a specific person, place, or time, but often it seems so archetypal as to be redundant. Director Ted Demme’s last effort, Monument Ave., stayed not only in Boston but in one working-class Boston neighborhood. With a larger canvas, the director shows he has all the right movesbut they’re mostly other people’s. He’s obviously modeled the film on the swaggering Goodfellas, complete with a relentless parade of classic-rock-song cues: George enjoys his first California toke to Link Wray’s “Rumble,” becomes a coke mogul to Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light,” and freaks out to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell.” The result is skillful, energetic, and overfamiliar. George Jung may be a real person, but Blow makes his story into the rise and fall of Everydealer. CP