Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The first film in the trilogy that established Abbas Kiarostami’s reputation, Where Is My Friend’s House?, is a typical Iranian neo-realist tale of a child’s small quest: A boy discovers that he has a classmate’s notebook and, knowing that his friend will be expelled without it, sets off to return it even though he has only a vague sense of where the other boy lives. The writer-director’s latest film, A Taste of Cherry, returns to the quest format, but this time with a decidedly adultand, by Islamic standards, strictly taboosubject: Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives the dusty roads outside Tehran, looking for someone who will agree to bury his body if his suicide attempt is successful.
It’s best not to reveal more of the slight but resonant story: The less the viewer knows at the beginning, the better. A discussion of the film, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is thus inhibited, but certain themes can be noted without disclosing much of the narrative. (Still, not reading this review until after seeing the movie would be prudent.)
Among other things, A Taste of Cherry is a hymn to earth. As Badii drives past construction sites and gravel pits, seeking the man who will throw a few shovels of soil on his body, he’s surrounded by dirt and dust. Kiarostami portrays Badii’s possible fate with visual wit: In several scenes, dirt and rocks are dumped as if to bury the protagonist, and in one shot a load actually crashes down on the man’s shadow. (Later, when Badii recklessly pulls his Range Rover into traffic, an exasperated fellow driver yells, “Are you in a hurry to die?”)
The film is also a meditation on alienation and exile. The men Badii meets are all aliens in Tehran: a Kurdish conscript, an Afghani seminarian, a Turkish taxidermist. Badii reveals very little about himself, but we see enough of his circumstances to recognize that he’s another sort of Iranian outcast: upscale, educated, not committed to Islamic law.
Kiarostami works simply and cheaply, generally using nonprofessional performers and improvisational techniques. That doesn’t mean the directorwho’s also this film’s producer, writer, and editoris unanalytical; his themes are subtly but fully developed. As is characteristic of Kiarostami’s recent work, A Taste of Cherry sometimes emphasizes its artifice and leaves aspects of its narrative ambiguous; “out of respect for the audience,” the director says, he likes to leave his work open to differing interpretations. His style mingles intimacy and detachment: In a film that consists mostly of revealing conversations between strangers, many of the scenes are long shots. (And it’s no accident that Badii’s pursuit of an accomplice to his suicide initially can be mistaken for a search for anonymous sex.) Kiarostami also tends to shoot in real time, which makes the few jumps in continuity seem startling though they would seem routine in a Hollywood movie.
This story takes place, of course, far from Hollywood. Despite the fact that Badii’s plight seems particular to the Islamic world, however, the film’s real theme is universal. We never learn exactly what has gone wrong in his life, but it gradually becomes clear that what Badii really craves is comradeship, group identity, a sense of belonging. A Taste of Cherry is a suitably elliptical title for this laconically poignant film, but it could just as aptly have been called Where Is My Friend?
Chinese Box is all about loss, but it has a sensuality that’s almost joyous, for which we can credit Hong Kong as much as director Wayne Wang: The richly textured film was shot during the last six months of British rule, and it captures the colony bustling toward the apocalypse. The result is simultaneously frantic and elegiacwhich proves a surprisingly winning combination.
Scripted by venerable French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and Larry Gross (who’s mostly worked with Walter Hill) from a story developed by Carrière, Paul Theroux, and Wang, Chinese Box is not short on either story or metaphor. Each of the three central characters is heavily weighted with import: John (Jeremy Irons) is a English expat writer expected to die of leukemia around the same time that Britain’s Asian empire also comes to an end. Vivian (Gong Li) is the woman he loves, who can’t sacrifice her place in Hong Kong’s Chinese high society by marrying a Westerner, but who will never be truly accepted because she’s an immigrant from the mainland and initially supported herself as a prostitute. The only Hong Kong native of the trio, Jean (Maggie Cheung), is both Chinese street-smart and British-educated, and is still pining for the English-schoolmate lover who abandoned her.
The story’s premise seems a little too schematic, as are the scene of Vivian watching Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair and the shot of a disemboweled fish, its heart still beating. Yet the film is much less pat than its narrative and thematic outlines. No doubt influenced by Wong Kar Wai, Wang sent cinematographer Vilko Filac out to get documentary footage, and he shot the film in sequence so that unforeseen developments could be incorporated. (The director cites Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, filmed during the 1968 Democratic Convention, as a precedent; another is Volker Schlondörff’s Circle of Deceit, which was shot amidst the Lebanese civil warand co-written by Carrière.) Wang’s approach opens the story to serendipitous events, unscripted asides, and curiosities both mundane and exotic.
Indeed, the characters themselves are drawn to images and suspicious of narrative: John abandons his writing and plunges into the teeming city with a video camera to try to take a measure of the times. That’s how he meets Jean, an aggressive, badly scarred street vendor who consents to be interviewed on camera for a price (about $200)and then offers a growing-up-underclass life story that’s too bad to be true. John even has a roommate (Rubén Blades), the easygoing Latin-American foil to his Anglo uptightness, who’s a news photographer.
An authority on Hong Kong’s high-finance, private-club society, John becomes aware of places he has never really noticed before: brothels, slums, and slaughterhouses, as well as an absurdly opulent Japanese-style strip club. He discovers Vivian’s and Jean’s real stories, but also learns much more about the city where big-band jazz, Cantonese hip-hop, Tibetan chanting, Club 69’s “Let Me Be Your Underwear,” and (of course) Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Hong Kong” provide a representative soundtrack.
There are six million locations in this naked city”there’s a maximum concentration of everything,” says Filacyet Chinese Box shares a few with such other recent outsider-in-Hong Kong movies as Pillow Book. (It’s hard to resist a shot of planes hurtling into the tiny downtown airport.) But this is as much an insider as an outsider film. Hong Kong is the American-based director’s hometown, and in exploring its neon-jumbled streets Wang is really searching his own heart.
Was gifted 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi raped as a teenager by her painting teacher (and father’s artistic rival) Agostino Tassi? The historical record says she was; Artemisia testified against Tassi at his trial. Agnès Merlet’s Artemisia, however, has an alternative thesis: The relationship between Artemisia and Tassi was true love, at least on the part of the film’s title character.
Given the complex issues raised by Artemisia’s life and workthe best-known example of which is her fierce “Judith Beheading Holofernes”this approach seems insipid. Merlet says her film is “neither a documentary nor a historical epic,” but apparently the only other possibility that occurred to her is a bodice-ripper romance. Artfully photographed (by Benoit Delhomme) and peopled with attractive young performers in various stages of undress, Artemisia is quite pretty. But you have to suppose that Merlet (who scripted with Christine Miller and Patrick Amos) has beautified the story to better match the art direction.
The daughter of respected provincial painter Orazio (Michel Serrault), Artemisia (The Portrait of a Lady’s Valentina Cervi) is a skilled artist frustrated by her ignorance of anatomy. (“The Pope forbids” women to draw the human form, she’s told.) Like the ripe young heroine of a soft-core porn flick, Artemisia finds sex blossoming all around her; while walking near the beach, she spies a couple making love, and after the lovers leave she lies rapturously in the woman’s impression in the sand. When Artemisia’s kisses seduce a childhood friend, however, he removes his clothing only to find that she just wants to sketch him.
Soon Artemisia is following the lead of the arrogant Tassi (Underground’s Miki Manojlovic), who knows more about perspective than his peers and actually paints outside”like a peasant,” Orazio sniffs. The young woman becomes Tassi’s pupil, fascinated as much by his taste for orgies at the local brothel as by his techniques. They begin an affair, which lasts for a yearuntil the professionally jealous Orazio accuses Tassi of raping his daughter. Tassi is a bit of cad, but when Artemisia is tortured to elicit a confession, the painter may have to admit to a rape we know he didn’t commit.
That is, we know the film’s Tassi is not a rapist. About the real one, we can understand little, since no one except Artemisia’s costumers and set designers seems to have taken the film’s early-1600s setting seriously. The period seems more like the 1950s, when teen sex was still taboo but the consequences of being found out weren’t so dire. (This would also explain why Tassi sounds like a 20th-century painter, offering Artemisia such modernist tips as, “Don’t keep on doing what you know.”) Merlet’s account of the Artemisia-Tassi scandal is picturesque, but it leaves a lingering suspicion that the real story is more interesting.CP