East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Auckland International Film Festival: Sin and juice

Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
Maybe I've been watching the wrong stuff, but no movie I've seen has ever made the erect penis look so beautiful. In the opening montage, in which most of the major characters show us what they have, it's a guy's autofellatio that's absorbing enough to draw a peeping tom. Still, this is the entree; it's at the Shortbus sex club that the parts really start moving. Like all movie orgies, it's also a comment on society, but not only is the commentary witty ("it's just like the Sixties, only with less hope"), the sex is joyous.

Mitchell collaborated on the script with the cast, and their antic verve builds up so much goodwill that'll you'll forgive the creaking emo moments. Though Mitchell is less interested in pussy, requisite puns aside, the most memorable of the fine-looking cast is the straighter woman Sook-Yin Lee, who incidentally pushes the screen representation of Chinese-Canadians a long way forward. She's another never-had-an-orgasm character -- I hope filmmakers realise that many married women do have fulfilled sex lives, though I suppose they're less interesting to an audience. There's also an unconnecting dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish) and a longstanding gay couple with similar names (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy). Our heroes seem to be the only Shortbus customers with hang-ups, using the place for therapy; of course the depiction of the standard patron as a neurosis-free hedonist is a conscious choice.

To avoid sensory overload, Mitchell mostly shoots in a vérité style, though at one crucial moment he throws in colour effects leading home video blended with the second set of cross-cutting climaxes. What he achieves is a communal spirit that isn't unprecented in gay film, but did I mention how much fun this was? Still, as we reach the close, with Madame Justin Bond singing "We all get it in the end" over a marching band, we're also reminded that there are times you need to be alone. Sometimes you just have to get fucked. Other times you have to go fuck yourself.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-Wook)
A slight disappointment: there isn't the wrenching madness of Oldboy, and the Christian overtones don't produce the catharsis inherent in Oldboy's variations on classical tragedy. Lee Yeong-Ae, playing the title character Geum-Ja, and her make-up team are particularly good at switching between teenage innocent and jaded ex-con: in the latter case you can see the weariness spread thinly across her otherwise resplendent face. As the good kind of angel she's dandy; as the avenging kind she's decent but doesn't take as much pleasure in her work as you might expect. The first half of the movie is better, Geum-ja's fellow inmates give narrations that reveal their colours as well as Geum-Ja's contradictions. The picture seems to be building up into a bloody fine caper, but instead it becomes a thinkpiece on the value of vengeance and the extent to which atonement is possible. This is less fun.

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
I'm not convinced by Antonioni in colour -- his famed spatial sense depends on definition, and the loss of this here doesn't seem to be adequated compensated for. Nevertheless, there are merits: Antonioni still knows how to move his camera, and the long take near the end in which he zooms through the bars of a hotel room window is as technically fine as any shot I can think of. Then there's his Jackness, as subdued as he gets -- it's amusing to see him so far behind the 8-ball. Barren as the desert setting at first, the movie gets good once it reaches Barcelona: Antonioni gives Nicholson Maria Schneider to play with while he sightsees some Gaudi buildings.


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