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Maria Maggenti’s debut feature comes even more heavily loaded than its title suggests. The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love recounts not merely a high-school same-sex romance, but one that crosses race and class lines. Perhaps the writer/director has a special gift for overcoming categories—in a recent Village Voice confessional, she explained that “I am a lesbian and I have a male lover”—because her triply transgressive film is notable principally for its blithe spirit.
That’s not to say that Maggenti’s semi-autobiographical tale portrays a lesbian paradise. Nearly everyone disapproves of the budding relationship between slacker tomboy Randy (Laurel Holloman), who has a schoolyard-gossip reputation as “a total diesel dyke,” and elegant, college-bound Evie (Nicole Parker), who’s just broken up with her earnest boyfriend. Evie’s friends (and, later, her mother) see both Randy and lesbianism as unacceptable, while Randy’s legal guardians, her aunt and her female lover, are almost equally unsupportive. They think Randy, who’s failing math, should concentrate on her homework instead of Evie.
Though the film’s D.C. connection is principally evident in the riot-grrrlish soundtrack—which includes Velocity Girl, Lois, Scrawl, and Heavens to Betsy—Maggenti reportedly endured her high-school rites of passage in suburban Maryland. That might explain why her characterizations of Randy (a white woman who likes pot, rock, and working on cars) and Evie (a black woman who prefers wine, classical, and academics) don’t feel contrived. On paper the oppositions between the two seem schematic, but on film Randy and Evie come naturally to life, atypical but not outlandish Montgomery County kids.
This is due principally to Holloman and Parker’s performances, which convincingly balance adolescent instincts for caution and passion, and Girls‘ overall exuberance. Neither the film’s sense of style nor its scenario is distinctive; if Randy were male, this would closely resemble a conventional coming-of-age flick’s match between an earthy, charismatic downscale rebel and a naive, prosperous “momma’s perfect little girl,” as Evie’s mother describes her. (“Unshelter me,” is Evie’s request of Randy.) The film’s running-gag line is “nice car,” the eminently suburban middle-class compliment that people keep paying to Evie’s Range Rover.
Low budgets and the quest for lesbian true romance aside, Girls has little in common with the arty, black-and-white, subcultural world of Go Fish. Though Randy’s aunt and her lover thank “the goddess” before beginning dinner, the only “homo” text Randy and Evie can find to share is a copy of Leaves of Grass. In having to discover the basics of adulthood for themselves, Randy and Evie are typical teen-flick protagonists, and the film ends, quite satisfyingly, with them as a teen-couple apotheosis: holed up in a motel room, convinced that their love will shelter them from the world and last forever. Though no cinematic radical, Maggenti’s a little more sly than that. She undercuts Randy and Evie’s final embrace with a dedication to her first girlfriend—in the grown-up hope that they can finally get over each other.
It’s not clear which of the days depicted in Hong Kong writer/director Yim Ho’s new film is The Day the Sun Turned Cold; mostly set in a snowy region of northeastern China, the film is profoundly evocative of short days, gray skies, and bone-chilling winds. It’s just as cold at its heart, which is the heart of Guan Jian (Tuo Zhong Hua), a stoic 24-year-old welder at an auto factory.
Jian begins the proceedings by appearing at the local police headquarters to report a murder. The victim is his father, he explains, and the murderer is his mother. And the crime occurred 10 years ago.
Learning that Jian is studying criminal law at night, the police captain (Li Hu) tries to explain away the accusation as the fancy of someone who reads too many detective novels. When he checks at the factory, however, he finds that Jian is considered sober and responsible. The captain decides to open an investigation, at which point the film slips into flashback.
Fourteen-year-old Jian (Shu Zhong) is the oldest of three children of a school principal (Ma Jing Wu) and an uneducated woman (Siqin Gowa, the star of Women From the Lake of Scented Souls) who supplements the family income by making bean curd. The marriage is an unhappy one, and after a passing woodsman (Wai Zhi) saves Jian and his mother from a snowdrift, the woodsman becomes a regular visitor. The villagers begin to gossip about the new couple, and one afternoon Jian finds evidence that the gossipers’ assumptions are correct. He attempts to tell his father, who rejects the news on the grounds that it would reflect badly on him, “a paragon of virtue.”
The father becomes ill after eating one of his wife’s meals, and after a brief hospitalization, has a relapse when he eats another. Soon he’s dead, and the woodsman is Jian’s new stepfather. The boy attempts to report his suspicions to the local authorities, but is rebuffed. A decade later, he tries again, this time with more success.
Though the basic plot is a peasant Hamlet, Day is derived from a true story, an apparent specialty of Yim’s. (His Buddha’s Lock was based on an account of an American airman who crashed in a remote part of China during World War II and was enslaved by an aboriginal tribe.) Despite the seeming inevitability of the outcome, Yim’s script manages a few satisfying twists; its shifting perceptions mirror those of Jian, who feels a burden of loyalty to his father even though he was always closer to his mother. (As a boy, he preferred helping his mother to going to school, and then depended on his mother to shield him when his father found out.)
By Western standards, Jian’s motivation is opaque, but then Day is full of cues about the inevitabilities of Chinese peasant life. Older women matter-of-factly opine that Jian’s father should have beaten his wife more; “The spoon’s got to hit the bowl sometimes” is the accepted wisdom. For both Jian and the film, there is no catharsis, just the requirements of duty.
Day may lack drama, but not atmosphere. Like so many of his peers, cinematographer Hou Yong works elegantly with natural light, shooting a smoky, shadowy world illuminated by the dim glow of cooking fires and glimmers of refracted sunbeams. (Since the film is set in a gray, wintry village, the color scheme is similar outside.) Only the routinely doleful pseudo-Western music of Japanese composer Otomo Yoshihide interrupts the powerful sense of place that makes Day—geographically, at least—transporting.
As gruesome as its parade of beatings, rapes, and killings is, Bandit Queen never quite lives up to the true story it tells. Director Shekhar Kapur’s film is intense by the standards of India, where Queen has been banned, but viewers in countries with less demure cinematic traditions are unlikely to be scandalized. The real scandal is the life of Phoolan Devi, the title character, whose horrors the film is not fully capable of conveying.
A lower-caste girl in the northern Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan is sold as a bride (for a cow and a decrepit bicycle) when she’s 11. “A daughter is always a burden, and ours is no beauty,” notes her father as he concludes the transaction. The girl (Sunita Bhatt) accepts her low status in her new home, but is unprepared for her husband’s sexual demands; after he rapes her, she flees to her family. As a runaway bride, Phoolan (now played by Seema Biswas) has no protection. For spurning the sexual advances of a member of the upper-caste Thakurs, she’s banished from the village; upon her unauthorized return, she’s sent to prison, where she’s beaten and raped.
Phoolan then falls in with bandits, some of whom treat her no better than did the Thakurs. But she wins the sympathy of one outlaw, Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey), who shoots the gang’s leader as the latter is raping her. Taking control of the bandits, Vikram and Phoolan avoid harming women and children and share their booty with the poor, thus becoming folk heroes in the region. Soon betrayed once again, Phoolan sees many of her cohorts captured and killed, and is herself brutally gang-raped and then paraded naked in the village square. Still, she recruits another raiding party, and re-establishes herself as the scourge of the area’s ravines; after she massacres the male guests at a Thakur wedding, the provincial government collapses. Ultimately, she must capitulate, but she’s able to do so on her own terms. (Phoolan surrendered in 1983, and was released from prison 11 years later; she reportedly plans to run for political office.)
Adapted from Phoolan’s prison diaries (without her consent) by scripter Mala Sen, Queen is an astonishing story but not an astonishing movie. With cannier treatment, it could have been a Hong Kong-style thriller with a powerful feminist kick, or a harrowing theater-of-cruelty piece. (Gang rape, for example, is far more chilling in Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Mâcon than it is here.) But Kapur, an Indian who’s lived much of his life in Britain, doesn’t display the stylistic authority to do either. Perhaps because he takes the milieu for granted, the director does little more than recount the events of Phoolan’s life; larger questions are simply ignored.
How can Hinduism, so benevolent in theory, countenance such casual brutality toward women and the “lower” castes? Queen has no idea. Indeed, Kapur seems as uncomprehending of rural India—and beguiled by its out-of-time character—as any Westerner. Portraying the uneducated Phoolan as Germaine Greer with a bolt-action rifle wouldn’t have been credible, of course, but the film would have benefited from some sort of commentary. As it is, Queen‘s only eloquent element is the music of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which conveys some of the wonder of the region that the film has otherwise reduced to grubby melodrama.