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Everyone's a Critic
Are you a fan of the Star Wars movies? Discuss prequels, sequels, and everything in between in a special film conference in Post & Riposte.

Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 1999

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

Fire and Ice

  Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri

The Lovers of the Arctic Circle is the kind of pretty love story that makes critics abandon their faculties and go all gooey. Without a doubt the movie is elegiac in tone and gorgeous to look at, but in the service of a wool-gathering romanticism so daffy that by the time it's over you may be scratching your head and wondering what all that lyricism was for. Ana and Otto (played by assorted decorative Spanish actors at different ages) meet as eight-year-olds when each is reeling from disaster: her father has died, his parents are separated. A series of preposterous coincidences turn them into brother and sister and then, inevitably, lovers. Switching back and forth between the two points of view, Spanish director Julio Medem piles his movie high with more adversity than any actors can reasonably be expected to suffer without dying of laughter. Ana and Otto's relationship grows on a seedbed of tragedy and an inexplicable mutual interest in the farther reaches of Finland, which is where, after a suitable period of estrangement, the two are fated to reunite. Dark eyes meet at languorous intervals against a background of stunning landscapes. When Ana announces, "I'm waiting for the coincidence of my life," one suspects that something lofty has been said about the intersection of chance and romantic destiny. One is damned if one knows what it is.

A Lost Generation

Lu Lu in Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl  

In Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, a first feature film from actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Heaven and Earth), a tailor's young daughter growing up in the last days of Mao's Cultural Revolution is abruptly "sent down" to the countryside in 1975 to learn horse-herding, with the promise that when she returns she will lead her own all-girl cavalry unit. Little does she know that the Revolution is on its last legs and the unit has long since been disbanded. Billeted in a ragged tent with a taciturn Tibetan herder, the naive Xiu Xiu (played by the beautiful sixteen-year-old Chinese actress Lu Lu) pines for home, indifferent both to her lovely natural surroundings and to the quiet integrity of her host (played by Tibetan actor Lopsang, a former accountant), a castrate who loves his young charge with a hopeless love and tries to save her from repeated exploitation by men who promise her a passage home in return for sexual favors. Adapted by Chen and the Chinese writer Yan Geling from Yan's novella, Xiu Xiu is a tribute to the martyrs of Chen's generation, the last to come of age under Mao's perversion of socialism. For all itits subtled dialogue and local setting (Lu Yue, cinematographer to acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, shot the movie along the border between Sichuan and Tibet, without the permission of the Chinese government), the movie owes little to the aesthetic of Asian film. Conventionally Western in pacing, dialogue, and narrative, this modestly charming fable carries a very American message about the triumph of individual love over collective adversity.

Playing with Matches

  Lazar Ristovski and
  Dragon Nikolic

Understandably, the preferred mode of current films about the former Yugoslavia is the cinema of the absurd. Set on a single night in Belgrade, which is laboring under a repressive regime and is cut off from the outside world by an embargo, The Powder Keg opens with a cabaret artist warning his audience, "You're in for it." So we are: though far from any scenes of battle, the city is infected with the mad anarchy of the Balkan war. Adapted from a play by the young Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski, the movie tracks a group of ordinary people, linked to one another in the manner of la ronde as they negotiate their way through a night of arbitrary violence and shocking brutality, interspersed with (all too few) moments of unexpected kindness. After an upsetting confession from his best friend, an aging boxer kills the friend, and then terrorizes a helpless woman on a train. A former professor from Sarajevo, who refuses to demean himself by working for the local mob, drives a bus; his bus is hijacked, and a young woman passenger is sexually harassed. She escapes to apparent safety with her boyfriend, whereupon the two are promptly kidnapped. Meanwhile, a man returns from abroad with a full-dress symphony orchestra to win back the woman he earlier abandoned. Like his colleague Emir Kusturica (Underground), Serbian-born director Goran Paskaljevic chooses to filter the Balkan tragedy through black comedy. Though The Powder Keg is fluidly directed and visually striking, it seems to have little purpose beyond an obsessive and rather gloating need to rub our noses in a circus of ill will.

Everyone's a Critic
Are you a fan of the Star Wars movies? Discuss prequels, sequels, and everything in between in a special film conference in Post & Riposte.
Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- The Lovers of the Arctic Circle: Fine Line Features. The Powder Keg: Paramount Classics. Xiu-Xiu: The Sent Down Girl: Stratosphere Entertainment L.L.C.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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