New York’s New Directors/New Films series, which opened yesterday with Blue Caprice and is screening Tower tonight and tomorrow, rolls out three more this evening, all of them screening a second time on Saturday.
Emperor Visits the Hell won the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema in Vancouver in October, and Tony Rayns wrote up the festival’s blurb: “There are surprises every year in China’s embattled indie sector, but few as unexpected as this one. Li Luo has taken three chapters of the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (aka Monkey) and adapted the story of the short-term death of Emperor Li Shimin to the modern China of officials, bureaucrats and gangsters…. Brilliant, straight-faced political satire.”
Richard Scheib notes that the story’s “been filmed numerous times,” and he painstakingly lists nearly 20 examples. Rotterdam screened Emperor earlier this year: “In this modern adaptation, Emperor Li Shimin is a leader with a mysterious government post. When the criminal Dragon King tries to manipulate the weather for a wager and calls down on him the wrath of the heavenly messenger, he intervenes. But he finds himself between the devil and the deep blue sea and is fatally wounded. On his deathbed, he is plagued by the ghost of the Dragon King, a curse that can only be undone by paying a price to the underworld.”
Steve Macfarlane for Slant: “The shakier Li’s aesthetic gets, the more the film shakes in total, its plotline peeling off of its actual form to reveal—and eventually, announce—itself as a low-budget independent film, shot guerilla-style on location. It’s hard to avoid glomming onto the idea of this as a ‘statement,’ but Li’s point is more existential than pedantic. Rather than the customary zillion-dollar period epic (a newfound signature of state-financed Chinese filmmaking), he molds the story down to a collection of petty misadventures around town, throwing special attention to the disparity between fantasy and reality.”
“As frequently artful as it is woefully dour, Küf, the debut feature from Turkish filmmaker Ali Aydin, operates as both character study and elongated funeral procession,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund for Slant. “Its central figure, Basri, played with a unique implosiveness by Ercan Kesal, is an over-the-hill Anatolian widower who’s spent the last 18 years doggedly searching for his son, Seyfi, a young man presumably picked up in Istanbul for anti-government protests…. Kesal, who was recently seen in Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (a film to which this one is bound to be excessively compared), gives a performance that’s unassumingly compelling, at once draped in melancholy and menace. A chain-smoker, hunched over and often clad in a heavy coat, Basri looks like he’s desperate for a hug, but also like he might murder whoever makes the attempt.”
“Like many Turkish films that get around the arthouse and festival circuits, Küf (it translates as Mold, hardly a blockbuster title in English) takes its time telling a story,” notes Howard Feinstein, writing for Filmmaker: “long, long takes, no camera movement, tight compositions.” The approach has failed to win over the Hollywood Reporter‘s Neil Young: “Slim in its narrative and opaquely elusive in its all-too-evident philosophical ambitions, Mold holds a modicum of interest if taken primarily as a character-study of the taciturn, withdrawn Basri and as a showcase for some committedly dour performances.”
But Variety‘s Jay Weissberg finds the film “neither derivative nor slow… Aydin makes no bones of Dostoyevsky’s influence in a key side plot that speaks of guilt, responsibility and tensions inherent in human interaction…. Though not essential to the main story of a father’s dogged insistence on proof of his son’s death, this Raskolnikov-inspired interlude opens up Basri’s character to being more than a grieving father searching for truth from cold authorities. Making him an epileptic ties him even closer to Dostoyevsky, and while some may feel Aydin is grafting too much of the great Russian writer’s themes onto his subject, the sincerity and clarity of the storytelling offer many rewards, right up to the heartbreaking finale.”
In The Color of the Chameleon, a “stylized, lurid, archly literary pastiche of espionage thriller and coming-of-age story, the Bulgarian director Emil Christov imagines the end of Communism as the dramatic replacement of one reality with another,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “Or maybe the collapse of one form of absurdity and the triumph of another. Either way, a handsome, intense young man named Batko (Ruscen Vidinliev) finds himself embroiled in interlocking conspiracies, and the viewer bounces dizzily from satire to suspense to political allegory.”
“This highly original film begins during Batko’s adolescence,” notes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “His aunt complains to a government official about the boy’s compulsive masturbation. The intentionally overplayed scene is a prelude to a recurring comic connection between sex and state; onanism is a leitmotif. The absurdity of that scene sets the tone for this successfully satirical movie.”
“This flawed but generally sharp debut feature by cinematographer Christov sort of starts out like a bureaucratic riff on the old Adrian Pasdar series Profit,” suggests Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope. “Eventually, the genially amoral film mutates into a rather diverting Burn After Reading-lite for the Warsaw Pact set.”
Chris Cabin for Slant: “As the film unrolls its spy-game pastiche, casting a collegiate Batko as a recruited spy for President Mladanov’s Secret Police under a suspicious senior agent, the constant sense that all the characters are at once playing up and playing against their stereotypes amplifies the film’s constant self-analytical undercurrent, but also limits its satirical and metaphysical power.” All in all, The Color of the Chameleon is “an enjoyably self-aware black comedy tinged with all manner of Cold War bric-a-brac and sexualized symbolism, but hampered by its dependency on, rather than its admiration of, its period details and myriad cinematic and literary influences.”
Update, 3/27: Jonathan Robbins interviews Christov for Film Comment.