Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

The other world

From the world of the rich in New York, with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to the world of the poor in Mexico and China: Samir Farid reviews two the Cannes competition’s highlights

The other world
The other world
Al-Ahram Weekly

This year the official competition at Cannes opened with Amat Escalante’s Heli, the only film from Latin America in the official competition. Perhaps the fact that it complements the competition’s otherwise wholly Western fare was part of the reason for its choice. It is the third full-length fiction film by Escalante following Sangre (screened as part of the Un Certain Regard programme in 2005, winning the FIPRESCI prize) and Los Bastardos, screened in the same programme in 2008. Yet the present film, which has been called the third in a trilogy on contemporary Mexican society, is no great film; and it seems absurd to think of three films as a trilogy simply because they deal with the same subject. This is a minor film with neither a distinctive style nor a profound view of the reality it expresses: that of slum-dwellers in Guanajuato, Mexico. It is the story of the 17-year-old worker Heli (Armando Espitia), who lives with his wife, child, father and sister; they all sleep on two beds in the same room. This life is revealed through a primitive dramatic technique, when a census employee arrives to find out about the number of people and their living space.

The script, written by the director together with Gabriel Reyes, revolves around Heli’s sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), the 12-year-old student who is in a sexual affair with a 17-year-old soldier: an extraordinary love story that defies credibility and has no conceivable purpose beyond affected shock value; it’s as if we are watching creatures from a world other than the human world. Heli is yet another film about violence, poverty and the drug wars in Mexico between the authorities and the mafias, the corruption of the former and the barbaric cruelty of the latter. While a load of cocaine is being burned by the government, the soldier manages to steal a certain amount, hiding it in the house of the child with whom he is engaged in a sexual affair. When Heli finds the cocaine, the life of the miserable family becomes total hell. The viewer follows the transformation without the least attempt at analysing reality, as if it is inescapable fate. Still, the film has a strong beginning, with a long shot of a military boot stepping on the face of a wounded man with a fresh corpse next to him, all on top of a truck speeding ahead as this happens. The camera moves forward to the driver and the navigator, and from there the viewer sees the road – until the truck reaches the small town, where one of the corpses is hanged over a bridge. Such is the extent of the violence, effectively conveyed – but two shots are not enough for this film to compete for the Palme d’Or.

                                                    ***

The Chinese film A Touch of Sin, directed by Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, is a major work of art – also on violence, but this time in China. Zhangke is undoubtedly ont of the masters of world cinema in the last ten years, and this film bears testimony to the fact. Born in 1970, a graduate of the Peking Film Academy, Zhangke made his first film Xiao Wu in 1997; and it was among the discoveries of the Berlinale’s Forum that year. He had since directed five full-length fiction films, all of which were screened in Cannes or Venice, where he earned the Golden Lion in 2006 for Still Life. He also made four full-length documentaries, three of which were also screened in Cannes and Venice; In Public, a short film, won the grand prix at the Marseille Film Festival in 2001. A Touch of Sin is his eleventh film.

Zhangke moves between documentary and fiction film with extreme ease, and is notable for not mixing documentary and fiction techniques in the same film. Neither genre recalls the other; it is the subject and its treatment that determine the film’s genre. In every case he expresses contemporary reality in a purely cinematic style, drawing on national culture and benefiting on intellectual depth and artistic authenticity. It is indeed difficult for an artist living in a one-party state to make his creative statement with the same freedom as his counterpart in a democratic state; talent protects itself from power, neither submitting to nor clashing with it. This is the case with Zhangke and other great film artists in contemporary China.

A Touch of Sin may not be a cinematic gem but it is a landmark in the history of Chinese cinema, being the first to deal with violence in Chinese society today. It is made up of four separate sections on four real-life incidents that took place in the north, the south, the west and the centre of China in the last few years. The film would of course work just as well without the information that these were real-life incidents. What is remarkable rather is the way it expresses the widening gap between rich and poor following the opening up of the Chinese economy in the last three decades. In a way this is a statement on the fact that the law no longer realises justice – each man, in other words, for himself. The violence is so intense it reaches the stage of violence for its own sake or motive-less killing – a fact Zhangke expresses with remarkable force.

The film opens with a truck of tomatoes upended on a main road. We see the poor worker Dahai (Wu Jiang), to whom we are later introduced, standing by the truck and playing with a tomato. On the same road three young men try to rob a motorcyclist who takes out a gun and kills two of them: when the third flees, he is hunted down by the man until he is dead; then we go back to Dahai eating the tomato. Suddenly there is a huge explosion in the background – and the film starts for real. The seen sounds an alarm, physically symbolised by the explosion, against letting society explode in the absence of justice and the prevalence of corruption. Dahai too is fighting corruption in his small town, going so far as to try and send a complaint to Peking, but he fails and is made fun of. Then he turns into a murderer who kills numberless men and women without mercy or hesitation, and always manages to escape. A robber in a different town is not content with stealing a woman’s purse but must shoot her and her husband dead, also managing to escape. A Touch of Sin establishes a new critical realism in Chinese film, and the fact that it is coproduced by the government reflects an openness among the Chinese authorities to widen what margins of freedom are available to the arts to keep up with fast changing reality. Yet credit must go first to artist who impose their position on the authorities, snatching their right to freedom of expression.

 

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