Films

Escaping the doldrums

Brian D. Johnson August 7 2000
Films

Escaping the doldrums

Brian D. Johnson August 7 2000

Escaping the doldrums

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Seeking shelter from The Perfect Storm? Loath to sink to the depths of What Lies Beneath? Looking for something less patriotic than The Patriot, more exotic than X-Men, smarter than Nutty Professor II: The Klumps? During the summer doldrums of the movie season, there is some relief in sight, at least for those in major cities. This month, three independent films from abroad provide compelling alternatives to Hollywood: England’s Wonderland, China’s Shower and India’s The Terrorist.

Wonderland, an ensemble drama set in working-class South London, unfolds as a symphony of bleak lives. A waitress shops for love in the personals and takes the bus home after a onenight stand. A man fearing commitment fails to buy supermarket flowers for his pregnant girlfriend. A barfly father neglects his son. This is a world of bingo junkies and barking dogs, a film about all the lonely people.

Mining a vein well-worked by compatriots Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, British director Michael Winterbottom {Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo) puts his own spin on redbrick realism. He brings lyrical flair to grainy, hand-held photography, and allows an uplifting score by Michael Nyman to break through the emotional overcast. Spanning a single weekend, the story focuses on three sisters, superbly played by Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Canada’s Molly Parker, who affects a flawless South London accent as a woman about to go into labour. In a childbirth scene to end all childbirth scenes, Parker shows astonishing power and range, delivering a tearful catharsis that makes Wonderland truly worthy of its tide.

Shower offers more whimsical fare. Winning half a dozen awards on the festival circuit—including the international critics’ award in Toronto—it is a sweet, delicate comedy set in a Chinese

bathhouse. The simple story concerns a wealthy young businessman who confronts his working-class roots when he comes home to his old neighbourhood in Beijing. There, his benevolent father and mentally challenged brother run a traditional bathhouse that serves as a male social club for the community.

Showers temperature is set to heartwarming, and the story flows as predictably as water down a drain: the son’s icy contempt for his father’s world gradually thaws in the course of a family crisis, while the bathhouse faces demolition. The movie’s appeal, however, goes beyond its spare plot and tender sentiments. Pooling small moments and dreamlike reflections, it evokes a precious sense of vanishing time and place.

The Terrorist is about a more violent transformation. Fiercely poetic and utterly original, this is pure drama of love and war that is electrifying from beginning to end. Shot in 16 days for just $50,000, it is exquisitely photographed by Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan, who also directed and co-wrote it. Actor John Malkovich saw The Terrorist while on a festival jury in Cairo, and

was so impressed he became its patron —the film is “presented” by him.

Inspired by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the story is set in Sri Lanka and centres on a young Tamil woman who becomes a suicide bomber. At 19, Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) is a veteran fighter, a child of war who is able to kill without hesitation. But as she travels from the jungle to the city to assassinate an unnamed VIP, a dangerous vulnerability threatens her role as “a thinking bomb.”

With huge, devouring eyes, Dharkar is a mesmerizing and largely silent presence. Sivan’s camera, deciphering the jungle with guerrilla stealth, shifts from intense close-ups of her face to luminous images of leaves and water. The politics, meanwhile, are presented without moral judgment as Malli closes in on her assignment. There is a terrible beauty in this film, reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost, which conducts its own poetic search for compassion in the Sri Lankan civil war. Exploding with the thrill of uncompromised art, The Terrorist is the ultimate antidote to death by Hollywood. ESI