Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #9

by David Sterritt

September 2, 1995

"Red Rose White Rose," a Hong Kong-Taiwan-China coproduction by Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan, is the most openly intelligent picture I've seen here so far, and in a formalistic sort of way it's also one of the most touching. I know that last statement sounds contradictory, but Kwan's elegant manipulations of image, music, spoken word, and printed word carry a surprisingly strong emotional charge, at once propelling the narrative and investing it with a sense of mystery that deepens its resonance way beyond the crisp ironies of the main story line.

Equally impressive is the film's continual yet unobtrusive oscillation among at least three different levels of meaning - using (a) the experiences of a somewhat Westernized, compulsively "respectable" man to illuminate (b) the everyday regulation of sexuality and exploitation of women in (c) a society that seeks to keep its behaviors and even its thoughts in line by means of a subtle but relentless system of norms and expectations.

The movie is sexy and funny, too. Its setting is Shanghai in the '30s, and the protagonist is Zhen-bao, a bright young fellow who gets involved with two women - first the wife of a friend who gives him a place to live, and then a wife of his own, who's driven to near-insanity by the proper bourgeois life in which she finds herself voluntarily yet desperately trapped. In outline, this story is conventional and unsurprising. As woven by Kwan and screenwriters Edward Lam and Liu Heng, though, it becomes the foundation for a metaphorical look at modern obsessions with social and personal control. These obsessions are most vividly mirrored by Zhen-bao's repeated efforts to contain and compartmentalize his sexual desires, keeping them separate from the other elements of his life, and by his wife's growing inability to interact with the world around her in even the simplest biological ways. Looming behind all this, meanwhile, is the spectre of China itself reaching ambitiously for modernization and internationalism while its people cling to traditional attitudes (notions of male privilege and female inferiority among them) that serve as woefully efficient vehicles for the suffocation of social and psychological health.

Complicated stuff, but rendered most enjoyable to watch by Kwan's imaginatively experimental visual style and also by splendid performances. Joan Chen, Winston Chao, and Veronica Yip head the excellent cast. Additional cheers go to Christopher Doyle for his expressive camera work, Brian Schwegmann for the unpredictable editing, and Johnny Chen for the moody music score.

Not quite so impressive is "Salam Cinema," written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of several Iranian directors (the gifted Jafar Panahi and the great Abbas Kiarostami are others) who have lately been earning a least some of the critical attention they deserve.

The movie's starting point was a different Makhmalbaf project, designed to feature 100 nonprofessional actors and actresses playing various characters. No fewer than 5000 people showed up at the audition, although only 1000 had been expected. A dangerous mob scene, shown at the beginning of "Salam Cinema," quickly developed. Shortly afterward, during the audition process, Makhmalbaf decided to scrap his scenario, instead focusing his film directly on the try-outs of his aspiring movie stars.

"Salam Cinema" had been highly recommended to me, and I certainly had a great time watching much of it. I was bothered by the undertones of Makhmalbaf's audition sessions, though, as the director puts amateur movie-lovers through various tests of their acting ability - demanding that they cry convincingly on cue, for instance, and toying with their misunderstandings of whether they've been accepted into his production or not. Too often Makhmalbaf emerges as the Michael Moore of Iran, eliciting and exploiting the on-camera silliness of ordinary folks who've never learned to project a public image the way professional performers do, or to protect their dignity from the intimate probings of an aggressive director and a clinical camera.

Makhmalbaf's motives may not be bad - neither are Moore's, once you get past his smart-aleck manner, and I think "Roger & Me" contains much fine material - and perhaps this is all meant to be a sardonic commentary on authoritarianism in Iran today, as one of my colleagues suggested to me after I saw the film. I don't detect enough critical distance within the movie to bear this out, though. The festival's program book quotes a pungent remark by Makhmalbaf, originally printed in Liberation, that shows him to be a forthright social critic. Asserting that 50 revolutions could not change Iran's basic culture, he says this is "a cruel and severe culture: parents punish their children, the state punishes the convicted, and women do not have a fundamental role in society." It's ironic, and I think sad, that his own work in "Salam Cinema" does not show the kind of compassion for which his statement seems so admirably to call.

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