“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” is a cinematic double entendre. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary traces through surviving footage, crew interviews, and dramatic recreations the history of Clouzot’s 1964 project “Inferno.” But the title also references the inescapable emotional pressures that prevented Clouzot’s completing the film. The viewer must decide whether “Inferno” would have been a masterpiece or whether an unlimited production budget and competition from the French New Wave doomed the project from the start.
It’s unsurprising Teddy Chen’s “Bodyguards And Assassins” earned the Runner-Up spot in the SFIFF Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. This Hong Kong/China co-production manages to strike an incredible balance between political drama and astounding action sequences to create one of those rare spectacles that pleases both the mind and the heart.
The setting is 1906 Hong Kong, an urban pressure cooker of political conflicts. The British occupation brings both resentment and such new ideas as democracy. The Qing Dynasty provides home rule, political corruption, and wholesale rejection of Western ideas. Visiting Hong Kong is famed revolutionary and Chinese democracy advocate Sun Yat-sen. The Dowager Empress learns of Sun’s visit and orders the “traitor”’s assassination. Sun’s fellow revolutionaries, led by Lin Yutang (Wang Xueqi), are equally determined to ensure their leader completes his mission and leaves Hong Kong safely.
Chen makes the importance of the revolutionaries’ fight for democracy more than an abstract belief. The political assassination that opens the film shows both the Qing Dynasty’s ruthlessness and just how far the revolutionaries need to go for success. Those political tensions are also matched by the establishment in the film’s first half of what various characters are prepared to personally sacrifice for their beliefs.
But the first half of the film does far more than set out the characters and gradually position them. It also cranks up the emotional tension by making the revolutionaries’ task of protecting Sun Yat-sen seem more and more impossible. The assassins outnumber the revolutionaries and have seemingly limitless resources to draw upon. Even when the film offers a shred of hope, it still feels like a very unlikely gamble.
The second half of the film, which is basically all action, takes the first half’s buildup and shoots off the accumulated dramatic tensions like a row of fireworks. The variety of action sequences never feel like calculated roller coaster hills but build naturally from the story’s developments. One particular highlight is an astounding duel between Donnie Yen and Cun Le.
American viewers may think “Bodyguards and Assassins” borrows heavily from the action thriller “16 Blocks.” But the Asian film is actually a bigger budgeted and more elaborately choreographed remake of a film made by producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s father. What ultimately matters more is that Chen shows CGI matters less than a beating melodramatic heart.
The Argentine documentary “The Peddler” is an endearing cinematic ode to both the joy of movie-making and community building.
Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, and Adriana Yurcovich follow one Daniel Burmeister, the titular peddler. Burmeister travels from rural Argentine town to rural Argentine town to sell the dream of communal film-making. In exchange for room and meals, the man will take a month to make a film starring the people of the village. At the end of the month, the film will be screened to the interested villagers. The documentary follows Burmeister during the making of “Let’s Kill Uncle,” a comedy involving debt collectors, a haunted graveyard, and a wedding.
Burmeister himself is an endearing individualist well suited for his odd profession. He’s not a big fan of formal schooling and lives to let his imagination run riot. His travels are accomplished via a car that sports visible cracks on its body and in its motor.
It’s hard not to cheer Burmeister on as he keeps his production moving forward despite day-to-day problems. A priest who disappears before his scene is filmed gets replaced by a villager willing to play a priest, for example. If the needed cast members aren’t available in one village, Burmeister asks around at a neighboring village. Such a visit yields both an ambulance service and a wedding procession, the latter added just because every film needs a wedding.
Professional technical prowess is probably not the main draw of Burmeister’s films. What makes them memorable, if “Let’s Kill Uncle” is a benchmark, is that these films allow their non-actor casts to throw themselves wholeheartedly into what eventually become communal projects. As one villager notes, working on the film helped him establish a connection with a neighbor. Even villagers who become mere background characters can cherish their sense of having contributed to the project. That sense of
rekindled town pride explains in part why some viewers of Burmeister’s films buy DVD copies to send to friends.
“The Peddler” limits its noticeable display of visual metaphor to the shots of Burmeister’s initial arrival and final departure from the village. The color of the sky in each sequence nicely captures the emotions attendant on the DIY filmmaker’s presence in relation to the village. Otherwise, visual flash is eschewed in favor of quiet observation of Burmeister’s filmmaking process.
“Ratatouille”’s motto was “Anybody can cook.” If “The Peddler” had a motto, it would probably be “Anybody can be in a film.” But doing so takes joy and a willingness to experiment.
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary “Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work” closed out SFIFF 53. It’s an entertaining warts and all portrait of a very eventful year in the legendary comedian’s life. She’s turning 75 and struggles to keep working despite competition from younger and hotter comedians. Regardless of one’s feelings about Rivers’ comedy and personality, one leaves the film admiring her drive to find new ways to thrive in a very competitive industry.
(“Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work” is scheduled for national theatrical and cable release on June 11, 2010.)