2006/Jun/03

Kong Rithdee

The wind certainly shook the barley - as well as the numb torpor of international critics at the 59th Cannes Film Festival. On Sunday May 28, the jury headed by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai awarded the Palme d'Or, the world's most coveted film prize outside the US, to The Wind That Shakes the Barley by British director Ken Loach, in the process upsetting the odds that had tipped in favour of strong runners like Volver from Spain, Babel from Mexico, Marie Antoinette from the US, and Indigene from France.

Loach's film, shown on the second day of the 12-day fest ahead of 18 other titles in the Competition, had somehow slipped through the critical radar of the infamously hard-to-please Cannes regulars. Not that the film is not deserving - in its partisan attitude and old-school fervour, The Wind is rock-solid in its scripting and performances - but it's the typical Cannes syndrome that movies shown on the early days are generally underrated because, in our crazy heads, the critics (who do not hand out awards) always assume that more meaty fare will turn up as the fest progresses.

The Wind stars Cillian Murphy (the reptilian spin-doctor in Batman Begins) and Lium Cunningham as two IRA brothers who rebel against the British occupation of Northern Ireland in the 1920s. The Brits are portrayed as vicious and sadistic, whereas the Irish are nice and familial - the IRA's acts of atrocities, when they happen, are driven by despair. To see the world from the underdogs' point of view and to show the conflicting moral/ideological visions that plague the struggles of the working-class have always been the key elements in Loach's movies, and The Wind blows at its fiercest when the two factions of the IRA turn against each other after a treaty has been signed with the British government.

Loach said that his film is also a critique on the US occupation of Iraq. Like most worthy films with the background of armed conflicts, The Wind That Shakes the Barley shows us that the struggle of a man in the movement is probably greater than the struggle of the movement itself.

War - an unidentifiable, curiously phantasmagorical one - serves as a centrepiece in a film that won the runner-up Grand Prix prize. Bruno Dumont's Flanders goes for a dry, anti-sentimental aesthetic in its first half, then shifts onto a plain of brutal realism when its male characters, all of them farmboys from rural France, fight in a North African war. Yet this is less a war film than a cold philosophising on love, sex, survival and existential brutality - in Dumont's universe, a man has to fight a war no matter where he is. Surprisingly, a Thai distributor who was in Cannes has acquired the rights to Flanders. We will keep you posted on when the film will be released here.

The movie that quickly gathered critical momentum in Cannes (it was shown in the middle of the fest, see what I mean) was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel. The Mexican maverick intends this film to complete his trilogy that started with Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and he took home the best director award from Cannes.

As its title suggests, Babel is the story of miscommunication, with five languages spoken in the film that involves interconnecting stories taking place in North Africa, Japan, Mexico and L.A. There's a sense of philosophical grandiloquence in the film's setup, which toys with the idea that a simple misunderstanding in one corner of the globe can throw cosmic shockwaves felt by people a few thousand miles away.

In this case, two Tunisian shepherds play with their father's newly-acquired rifle, and the results of their naughty act change forever the destinies of an American couple (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a Mexican housekeeper and her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a Japanese deaf-mute girl and her father. Babel, which frankly is not my favourite film, has a dense texture and an emotional tension, but it also feels contrived and almost preachy in the way it designs the fates of its characters with absolute conviction. Because Brad Pitt's in the film, it's likely to get a release in Thailand later in the year.

Every year the Cannes jury usually reserves a Jury Prize (a kind of fourth-tier award) for an edgy film by a lesser known filmmaker; in 2004 it was the Thai film Tropical Malady, and in 2005 a Chinese film Shanghai Dreams. This year, the Jury Prize went to a British movie called Red Road by Andrea Arnold, which became the true discovery of this year's festival. As cold and damp as its Glasgow setting, Red Road follows the darkened journey of Jackie (played with skill and courage by Kate Dickie), a woman who works in a control room of the city surveillance unit, into the convict-infested part of town. We know that Jackie takes an unusual interest in a man she spots in one of her monitors, but only in the film's shocking final 20 minutes - in a story development most unexpected and disturbing - that we learn her true purpose.

Red Road is a sharp thriller that also provides a platform for the unforgettable performance by Kate Dickie. She shows how far an actress can go - just as how far her character, Jackie, can go - in exploiting her own femininity to achieve a desired result. So far there's no sign that Red Road will have a local distributor.

My most favourite movie in Cannes this year definitely won't get a Thai release either. Juventude Em Marcha (or Colossal Youth), a 155-minute beast by Portuguese director Pedro Costa, glows like a brilliant anomaly amid other competition titles. Mixing documentary-style grit with a series of fixed-frame compositions resembling Courbet's portraits of peasants, the movie follows a loose narrative of a man, Ventura, in the slum of Lisbon as he grieves for his wife who's run away from him. Juventude Em Marcha has the quality of a prolonged, dimly-lit dream fuelled by the impoverished setting and the spontaneity of the non-professional actors.

At the screening in Cannes, a large number of the audience left the theatre within 45 minutes, but those who remained gave Pedro Costa a near 10-minute standing ovation. The film didn't get any awards, and now we can only hope that a film festival in Thailand will have the guts to bring this difficult, but rewarding, movie to these shores.

Look out for more reports on the films shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival in later issues of real.time.

Cillian Murphy in Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley", the Palme d'Or winner.
Kate Dickie in "Red Road", the first feature by female director Andrea Arnold.
A scene from Pedro Costa's "Colossal Youth".
Brad Pitt in "Babel", directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

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