Indulging Cult Film Passions

Indulging Cult Film Passions

Film Comment festival presents a wide range of obscure offerings

“FILM COMMENT selects”

Walter Reade Theater

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Through Feb. 28

John Lynch as Dan and Essie Davis as Orla in Irish director Billy O’Brien’s “ Isolation,” 2005, which sets itself apart from other recent horror fare by drawing on the gooey monsters of Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg.

If the New York Film Festival usually offers known quantities, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series allows the organization to indulge more cultish passions. Japanese art/horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has only made it into the NYFF once, but with “Loft” he makes his third appearance in “Film Comment Selects.” Chilean-French director Raul Ruiz has fallen in and out of fashion on the festival circuit several times; after his Proust adaptation “Time Regained” became a minor art house hit in the U.S in 2000, we’ve had few opportunities to see his films. This year, the series includes three of them.

There are some odd omissions, however, including two of the best films I saw at the Toronto Film Festival last year—Takeshi Kitano’s “Takeshis,“ and Nobuhiro Suwa’s “A Perfect Couple,” as well as Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud,” which was well-received in Canada.

Strangely, not a single film from the “Terra Incognita” section of the latest Film Comment—in which critics around the world stump for obscure favorites—made the cut. It’s nice to have a chance to see Elaine May’s undeservedly accursed “Ishtar” on the big screen, but why does the opportunity to see her introduce it bring the ticket price to $85, insuring that no curious, casual spectators will be likely to catch it?

The last Ruiz film selected by the New York Film Festival, “The Comedy of Innocence,” was an oddly bland riff on “The Sixth Sense.” It wound up coming out straight to DVD in the U.S. The only one of this program’s three Ruiz films I was able to preview, “The Lost Domain,” is the kind of middlebrow European fare that usually brings American distributors calling. Set in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘70s—with Romania standing in for both Chile and England—it traces the lifelong impact of pilot Antoine (François Cluzet) on Max (Grégoire Colin, with his father Christian plays him as a middle-aged man). Ruiz’s films of the ‘80s spun wild fables, full of surrealist humor, stories-within-stories, and bizarre camera angles. While handsomely shot and well acted, “The Lost Domain” doesn’t seem like the work of the same director. Its leaps through time—even a recreation of the 1973 Chilean coup that sent him into French exile—have little resonance, and it feels painfully constrained.

For better and worse, the program of three Asian shorts produced by the Korean Jeonju International Film Festival offers plenty of mystery. In Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Worldly Desires” that may be unintentional. Reprising certain themes and images from “Blissfully Yours” and “Tropical Malady,” it details a film crew in a forest shooting a romance during the day and music videos at night. Seemingly simple, it’s actually a great deal more confusing than the mystical leaps taken by “Tropical Malady,” not least because the camera is so distant from the actors that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Haze,” shown in a slightly longer version at last year’s New York Film Festival, is a far more rewarding leap into the unknown. A man wakes up, covered in blood, in a confined space and desperately searches for an explanation or way out. With little dialogue, it’s a triumph of disorienting camerawork—especially tight close-ups of faces—and editing. Intriguing but not wholly satisfying, Song Il-gon’s “Magicians(s)” starts off in relatively straightforward fashion, with old friends who used to play in a rock band reminiscing in a bar, but it too grows weird quickly, conflating dream and reality and past and present.

Lately, most horror films have fallen into one of two traps—PG-13 retreads of “The Ring” or ultra-sadistic torture-porn. Irish director Billy O’Brien’s “Isolation” isn’t exactly innovative, but it sets itself apart by drawing on the gooey monsters of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and David Cronenberg’s “They Came From Within” and “Rabid.” While there’s relatively little graphic violence, the film is filled with images designed to make the audience squirm, from a woman sticking her fist in a cow’s vagina to a man drawing blood from his own arm. The ick factor goes through the roof. Like Cronenberg’s early films, the horror here is biologically driven: a genetic experiment to make cattle more fertile gone horribly awry. Despite plenty of murky atmosphere, memorable use of a decrepit farm, and canny exploitation of fears about mad cow disease and STDs, “Isolation” is marred by a tendency to value slime over storytelling and doesn’t quite succeed in either distinguishing itself from its forefathers or becoming an enjoyable ‘70s throwback. Even so, if Lions Gate—whose logo appears on the print—has any interest in releasing it in the U.S., it would liven up our multiplexes far more than drivel like “Saw” and “Hostel.”

Take Cronenberg’s “Crash.” Subtract everything substantial it had to say about sex, voyeurism, technology, or any other subject. Triple the level of arty posturing. You’ve got Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinetta,” which centers around a trio whose hobby is reenacting crime scenes. Lanthimos is talented enough to create evocative images of a wintry, wind-swept Greece, but he accomplishes little else. If “Worldly Pleasures” suggested a self-parody of the Asian art film, “Kinetta”—with its long stretches of silence and sudden bursts of dizzying handheld camera—does the same for its European counterparts.

By far the highlight of the films in the series I was able to catch, Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara’s “The Forsaken Land” is beautiful and poetic, but without the serene connotations those adjectives usually imply. Its first half is slow and practically non-narrative, but it communicates a mood of barely suppressed violence, rather than peaceful contemplation. Just when one gets used to the lack of action, a diffuse, disconnected story kicks in. To an American spectator unfamiliar with Sri Lanka’s lengthy civil war, its politics may seem oblique, but the film generated libelous criticisms and censorship at home, so much so that Jayasundara has emigrated to France.

“The Forsaken Land” will be released by New Yorker Films this summer. Apart from Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle In Heaven,” which has already opened, Austrian director Michael Glawogger’s documentary “Workingman’s Death,” and Chinese director Lu Chuan’s “Kekexili” are the only other films in this series with American distributors.