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November 19th, 2004


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06:12 pm - What Is a Foreign Movie Now?


By A. O. SCOTT
 Tne night during the Toronto film festival earlier this fall, I slippedinto a buzzing multiplex theater decked out with all the amenities of 21st-century moviegoing -- stadium seating, molded plastic cup holders, digital surround sound, decent concession-stand cappuccino. I was there, along with a gratifyingly large number of curious and enthusiastic Canadians, not to catch an early glimpse of possible Oscar contenders but to see a new movie from China called "The World," directed by Jia Zhangke. I'd seen Jia's two previous films, "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures" -- films that have won him a devoted following among critics and festivalgoers.

But his name is unlikely to be widely recognized either in the United States, where his films have received only brief, limited releases, or in his own country, where he has, at least until "The World," worked independently of the official state production system, a decision that has kept his films out of most Chinese cinemas.

Jia is the kind of director who tells small stories with big implications, examining the lives of individuals (usually sullen young women and the sullen young men who tolerate their company) in a way that suggests large, invisible forces pushing them through their passive, melancholy lives. "Platform" (2000), for example, is about a troupe of performers in a provincial Chinese city who start out, just after the Cultural Revolution, as the Peasant Culture Group From Fenyang and evolve, by the end of the 1980's, into something called the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band, a mutation that captures, with a deadpan precision at once mocking and tender, China's awkward post-Maoist embrace of Western-style popular culture.

In "The World," which is set in present-day Beijing, that embrace, long since consummated, has taken on the weary familiarity of a long, loveless marriage. The film's title, provocative in its ambition, is at once literal and layered with metaphor. The young lovers, like the consumer goods they covet and flaunt, are products of globalization, and also of China's transformation into a largely urban, fitfully capitalist and uneasily cosmopolitan society. Without lifting his eyes from their modest, hectic daily lives and inchoate aspirations, Jia embeds these elements of experience in a vast cosmos of similar stories. Tao and her sometime boyfriend, Taisheng, the film's ordinary and unheroic central couple, are stubbornly particular and, at the same time, implicitly universal. They are the world.

They are also, more mundanely, the workers of the World, which is the name of a theme park in Beijing whose main attractions are scaled-down replicas of foreign tourist attractions -- the Arc de Triomphe, the Taj Mahal, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. ("Ours are still standing," one character boasts, in a perverse expression of national pride.) Taisheng is a security guard, while Tao is a dancer, shuffling in and out of various garish pseudo-traditional costumes for tacky song-and-dance routines. To an American viewer, the World, with its monorails and loudspeakers, is like a looking-glass version of one of our homegrown theme parks, and like those places it is at once a free-floating, featureless abstraction of what it represents and the peculiar artifact of a particular cultural situation. If "The World" is partly about the loss of a rooted, traditional identity based on kinship and place, it is also about the stubborn persistence of place in the age of telecommunications and transglobal travel. Though Tao spends her days dashing between simulacra of Paris, London and New York, neither she nor anyone she knows has ever ridden on an airplane or visited a foreign land. When she meets Anna, a Russian woman who briefly comes to work at the park, Tao expresses envy for her new friend's freedom to travel, oblivious to the fact that her globe-trotting is part of a grim international traffic in coerced labor. Not that Anna can understand a word Tao says. Since their relationship is one of the few in this bleak landscape that shows genuine warmth and fellow feeling, their mutual incomprehension is another of Jia's double-edged worldly metaphors. We can appreciate each other even -- or perhaps especially -- when neither one of us has the faintest idea what the other is talking about.

That, at any rate, might describe my own response to Jia Zhangke (whom I know only through his movies) -- a mixture of intuitive understanding and obdurate bafflement.

To me, his world, in its various meanings and dimensions, is at once immediately recognizable and emphatically strange. This paradox is part of the structure of human experience, of course -- other people are necessarily both familiar and mysterious to us -- but in its modern incarnation, it is one that film as a medium seems uniquely empowered to illuminate. Because the camera is a surrogate eye, what it captures is immediately comprehensible, even if it is nothing we have seen before. Filmed images do not require translation; we know what we see. Narratives, of course, are another story; even when they seem to be transparent, they come encrusted with local meanings, idioms and references, some of which will inevitably be lost as they move from one audience to another.

Movies, in other words, may be universal, but they are universal in radically distinct ways. Some of them we regard as foreign, a word I use with some trepidation. Though my purpose here is to wave the flag for movies from around the world, it is a banner whose slogans make me cringe a little. The phrase "foreign film" is, after all, freighted with connotations of preciousness and snobbery, and too often accompanied by dismissive modifiers like "difficult," "obscure" and "depressing" (all of which I happen to regard as virtues, but never mind). Our own commercial cinema is increasingly devoted to dispensing accessibility, comfort and familiarity -- which can also be virtues. It is not necessary to rank, or to choose. As Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour point out in their introduction to a new collection of essays and interviews called "Subtitles," "Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience somewhere."

In any case, I am most concerned with American audiences, and in particular with the parochialism that results from living in a country with a film industry so powerful and productive, so frank and cheerful in its imperial ambitions, that it threatens to overshadow everything else. It is not just the setting and content of a movie like "The World" that may seem foreign but also its visual strategy and storytelling methods, and above all its unsentimental commitment to the depiction of ordinary life, to a kind of realism that is in some ways more alien to us than the reality it construes. Hollywood studios, as they try to protect their dominant position in the global entertainment market, are ever more heavily invested in fantasy, in conjuring counterfeit worlds rather than engaging the one that exists, and in the technological R &D required to expand the horizons of novelty and sensation. And while we, along with everybody else, often go to the movies to escape from the pressures and difficulties of the actual world, we also sometimes go to discover it.

Whether it takes the form of armchair tourism or of a harrowing, life-altering philosophical quest, such discovery has formed part of the appeal of movies from elsewhere -- a specialized appeal, to be sure, but also a remarkably protean and durable one -- since the beginnings of art-house film culture just after World War II. In the late 1940's, foreign movies began to arrive on our shores unencumbered by the restrictions of the Production Code, promising a frankness and sophistication, especially in sexual matters, far beyond what the studios were allowed.

Even sober works of Italian Neorealism were sold with a nudge and a wink, their print advertisements featuring suggestive line drawings and breathless exclamation points: Shocking! Daring! Uncensored! There was a degree of bait-and-switch in these come-ons, which were partly a way for the independent theater operators who booked the pictures to fill up empty seats, but there was also some inadvertent truth. Moviegoers who ventured to see "The Bicycle Thief" or "La Terra Trema" would encounter shocking glimpses of urban and rural poverty, the daring use of nonprofessional actors and real-world locations and an uncensored critique of European social conditions.

Not that Italian Neorealism was the only outward-looking, far-seeing lens that curious Americans could peer through. And neither were all the vistas bleak and harsh. In any case, the art involved in capturing those images was at least as fascinating, as seductive and as new as the images themselves. Indeed, it was foreign movies that taught Americans to regard film as an art -- and, eventually, to appreciate the art that had been flourishing in American movies all along. It is hardly accidental that we still use a French word -- "auteur" -- to evoke the creative authority a director wields over his work. The film culture that emerged in the shabby art houses and cinema clubs where dubbed and subtitled prints of exotic movies were shown was organized not around the worship of stars, but around the connoisseurship of filmmakers, who became the objects of a sometimes fiercely partisan critical discourse. Were you for Ozu or Kurosawa? Antonioni or Fellini? Could you reconcile a taste for Bergman with an enthusiasm for Godard?

Why did these names have such resonance? What did these auteurs give American movie buffs -- or cinephiles, if you prefer -- that the Hollywood studios, for all their inventiveness and eclecticisim, did not? What, in other words, made the category of "foreign film" something more than a convenient, catch-all phrase? Or, to echo Egoyan and Balfour, what made these films foreign to this audience? I think there are two answers, which suggest the existence of two linked, occasionally antagonistic cinematic impulses, neither of which has quite taken root in the United States.

On one side you find movies mainly concerned with the lives of the rural peasantry or the urban proletariat, movies that emphasize the social situations of their characters and whose mode of representation is realist. On the other are movies about middle class or bohemian city dwellers, or wandering souls in evening dress with time on their hands and no visible means of support. The emphasis is not on social conditions but on psychological states and existential moods, and the narrative and visual style, in order to capture those moods, dispenses with realism in favor of something more expressive and oblique.

For argument's sake, we can call the first kind of filmmaking humanist, the second modernist. Humanism's great prewar exponent was Jean Renoir, whose example and personal tutelage informed several Neorealists and also the Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Ray's "Apu" trilogy, with its meticulous attention to the details and rhythms of traditional Indian life and its quiet but unstinting concern with poverty and injustice, may well represent the apotheosis of cinematic humanism. Informed by a mild, melancholy form of Marxism, Ray's films are sad without slipping into pessimism or depression. The director and the audience, though not always the characters, are inoculated from despair by faith in the incremental but ultimately benevolent progress of history. This kind of filmmaking is fundamentally concerned with dramatizing, through close observation of individual lives, the process of historical change. Its subjects are at once dauntingly abstract -- the shift from agriculture to industry, the coming and going of colonial powers, the advent and aftermath of wars and revolutions -- and intimately concrete: a family, a child, a village.

In Europe, modernist cinema emerged in the wake of this humanism, and partly in reaction to it. The economic rejuvenation that followed the scarcity and anxiety of the immediate postwar years and the emergence of a generation of younger filmmakers with their own brand of restless cosmopolitanism produced a creative ferment. From the mid-50's to the mid-60s, American audiences witnessed the rise of an extraordinary collection of world-class filmmakers -- including Bergman, Kurosawa, the critics-turned-auteurs of the French New Wave, new Italian maestros like Antonioni, Fellini and Pasolini -- who seemed, with each new film, to expand the formal and expressive possibilities of the medium. Their predecessors' emphasis on social realities could feel a little restrictive when there were other possibilities -- sexual, psychological and aesthetic -- to explore. Like modernist literature, modernist cinema reveled in self-consciousness and reflexivity. Each new film was not just a new window on the world but also, at least potentially, a world of style, sensibility and invention unto itself, with its own rules, its own language, its own syntax. To see a movie like "L'Avventura," say, with its oblique, highly charged eroticism and its gorgeous vistas of alienation, was not to bear witness or to experience empathy -- the ethical and emotional bases of humanism -- but to immerse yourself in a state of altered perception.

Of course, not every foreign film fits neatly into the humanist-modernist schema. Plenty of directors -- Fellini and Visconti, for example -- moved easily from one to the other, and many beloved foreign movies -- costume dramas, action, crime and horror movies, star-heavy international co-productions -- don't fit comfortably within either one. But humanism and modernism together account for the foreignness of foreign films, for the sense of strangeness and discovery that kept both diehard cultists and idle curiosity-seekers lining up at the art house doors through the 70's, when VCR's began to shut the art houses down.

The aftershocks of that golden moment continue to ripple through the world of film appreciation, not least because a number of the old masters, including Bergman and Godard, are still around making movies. But like the period in which it is embedded, and like the Hollywood new wave that followed on its heels, that heady moment in the history of world cinema -- the moment at which it became possible to use a phrase like "world cinema" in conversation -- has become encrusted with legend and nostalgia. Those who witnessed it firsthand look with pity on those who came too late and had to catch it all on DVD instead of at the New Yorker or the Thalia. We can never know an equivalent exhilaration of discovery, the frisson of seeing "L'Avventura" or "Persona" for the first time and trembling in awe and recognition.

Except that we can, if only we will seek it out. The modernist and humanist impulses are both alive and well, flourishing and cross-pollinating on every continent and in new, transnational formations. The world is, if anything, much bigger than it was 40 years ago, even if the audience has shrunk and dispersed. What happened to that audience -- Did it age? Did its attention migrate toward homegrown "independent" cinema? Is it alive and well on the Internet or in the burgeoning DVD culture? -- is a topic of endless concern. But my point is that wherever the audience is, the movies are out there, trickling across our borders in numbers that only begin to suggest the volume and diversity of global film production today.

This may come as news, since the cinematic story that is told again and again is one of Hollywood triumphalism, of a blockbuster globalism dissolving all vestiges of the local, the particular and the strange.

The decline of state-subsidized film industries was supposed to accelerate this trend, but predictions of a cinematic Pax Americana have proved premature, to say the least, since they have failed to take account of the continued vitality of the world's largest popular movie industry -- India's -- or the emergence (and resurgence) of vibrant commercial moviemaking in countries like South Korea, China and Mexico. While it is true that, on a given Friday, most of the world's multiplexes will be playing franchise products from American studios, it is not hard to imagine a future in which an American suburban marquee will boast a Chinese martial-arts picture, a Korean action thriller, a Mexican cop drama and a French romantic comedy.

Among the harbingers of that future are the domestic box-offices successes of movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Amelie" and last summer's "Hero." Of course, if you count remakes, homages and rip-offs -- retooled versions of Japanese pictures like "The Ring" and "The Grudge," say, or even Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies -- then that future has long since arrived. What we think of as Hollywood is already a hybrid of influences from elsewhere to an extent not seen since the great wave of emigre talent that was European fascism's inadvertent gift to American culture. Anime, J-horror, Bollywood, telenovelas, chopsocky -- whether or not you are familiar with these terms, the visual languages they represent are already part of the movie lexicon.

But at the same time, just as a lingua franca of reciprocal influences takes over the mass audience, the art-movie traditions of humanism and modernism continue to thrive, perhaps with greater urgency, and certainly in greater variety, than ever before. The humanist belief in dramatizing ordinary lives, in fashioning narratives that follow the quotidian rhythms of childhood, work and domesticity, has been the foundation of the extraordinary renaissance in Iranian cinema in the past 15 years, but it also shows remarkable tenacity in its European birthplace. The flowering of Iranian cinema has produced at least two stars of the festival circuit -- Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- but it has also opened Western eyes to a remarkably eclectic national cinema characterized by fierce social criticism and surprising sensual beauty.

Iranian filmmakers have also provided some of the most powerful examples of how to make art that is at once formally innovative and ethically engaged -- movies that alert audiences to the plight of women, the poor, ethnic minorities and refugees without lecturing or preaching, and without denying them worldly pleasures or aesthetic challenges. Similarly, the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("Rosetta" and "La Promesse") and the French director Laurent Cantet ("Time Out") have exposed the sorrows and cruelties of the postindustrial economy, bringing a strange, almost spiritual poignancy to naturalistic studies of work, immigration and other persistent social issues.

Humanism, which is rooted both in human unhappiness and the capacity for hope, is an impulse that is unlikely to fade from screens, and indeed it has been showing up, adapted to local problems and traditions, in places as far-flung as South Africa, Brazil, China and Uzbekistan. The modernist impulse has undergone a simultaneous resurgence, in Iran, in Latin America and especially in the work of Asian filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Kim Ki Duk and Hong Sang Soo. They have explored the drift and loneliness that characterizes the lives of city dwellers, who navigate the gleaming world of modern capitalism in a state of moody perplexity.

In the work of these filmmakers, the strains of modernism and humanism have begun to mingle, as the boundaries between individual melancholy and social misery become harder and harder to trace. The cities they depict -- Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, Hanoi -- are at once teeming and desolate, full of the noise of history, commerce and tradition and at the same time governed by the silence of the emotionally stunted. This impression can be gathered from the fractured, sexually anarchic families in Tsai's movies ("Rebels of the Neon God," "The River") and the superficially more settled household of Yang's "Yi Yi." Whatever held people together -- filial piety, cultural identity, religious practice -- seems to have melted away, and they drift toward one another like downcast atoms, piecing their lives together out of stray bits of feeling.

But are they really alone? A defining modern mood -- one that is often evoked but hasn't adequately been named -- is the anxious, melancholy feeling of being simultaneously connected and adrift. In a recent essay in Salon, the film critic Charles Taylor identified this condition -- "being in a world where the only sense of home is to be found in a state of constant flux" -- as a central motif in movies ranging from "Lost in Translation" to the films of cinephile cult figures like Tsai and Wong Kar-wai. Taylor identifies an unstable blend of anxiety, curiosity and longing as the emotional condition that links the solitary, alienated heroes and heroines of the modern cinema of loneliness, among whom Tao and Taisheng in "The World" surely belong. There may be a measure of comfort in joining the international fraternity of the lost -- at least for audiences. The experience of dwelling in these movies is replicated, and to some extent redeemed, by the experience of watching them, of feeling estrangement and disorientation not only vicariously through the characters but also in relation to them as well. They encounter one another, in strange, indifferent cities, by chance, and their relations are at once affectless and charged with latent emotion -- all of which is just how we encounter them, alone in darkened rooms in the midst of our hectic and decentered lives.


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