By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2004  Send This Review to a Friend

The spring rush of new films is traditionally highlighted by the New Directors/New Films series, which is sponsored jointly by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. The recent international collection offered several that were particularly worthwhile, a few already going into commercial release.

The Korean import "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and…Spring," directed by Kim Ki-duk, is an incredibly beautiful film with sensitivity and spectacular cinematography. It is already before the general public (Click on Film on the home page to scroll to a full review, or click on Search.).

"The Story of the Weeping Camel" is absolutely unique. Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, the story is set in Mongolia and involves an entire village trying to get a camel to feed its new offspring when the camel refuses to do so. The viewer is made privy to the lives of nomadic shepherds, whose way of life is disappearing.

The challenge is to change the camel's mind, otherwise the newborn will die. A ritual involving music is ultimately invoked. The utter simplicity of the story and the atmosphere of the village, its inhabitants and their culture add up to a special movie-going experience. "The Story of the Weeping Camel" is due for release shortly.

In this year of the Olympics, the film "Strong Shoulders," directed by Ursula Meier, is particularly appropriate. In this Swiss-France-Belgium co-production, we follow the experiences of 15-year-old Sabine, who focuses completely on training to be a runner. Her entire life revolves around this aspiration and her rigorous training.

It's not enough for Sabine to merely compete. She wants to compete against men, but tradition is stacked against her. Sabine is played by Louise Szpindel, who is pleasingly credible in the demanding role. She approaches the part in a low key, sparing us histrionics in favor of quiet realism.

Sabine's problem is that her one-track existence is robbing her of human qualities, and when she gets into a relationship with a young man, she is a turn-off because she winds up wanting to use him in a bizarre way in line with something she has read. "Strong Shoulders" is an impressive debut for its director.

An effective American film among the selections was "Everyday People," a warm, character-revealing drama by writer-director Jim McKay. Set in Brooklyn, the film deals with the traumatic events set in motion by the decision to sell a popular restaurant, sort of a gloried coffee shop named Raskins, which also has an adjacent bar. Jordon Gelber plays a Jewish owner who decides to sell the failing enterprise to a developer.

For the employees it means being suddenly out of work, and class conflict and ethnic divides come into play. Stephen Henderson gives a strong performance as the restaurant's maitre 'd, who has been there a long time and is given the task of trying to soft-soap the employees into understanding the pressures on the boss. The various characters reflect the fabric of life in the neighborhood. Ron Butler is sharply effective as a real estate developer, who is an African-American trying to rise in his business world without regard to the fate of fellow African-Americans.

Although there are some formula aspects about "Everyday People," the film has an abundance of heart and one walks away remembering the various types, the situations depicted and the effectiveness of the dialogue. The setting also looks convincingly realistic.

I was less impressed by "Berlin Blues," which takes us into life in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin shortly before the wall between East and West came tumbling down. Directed by Leander Haussmann, the film attempts to show the life of the assortment of knockabouts trying to get by but beset by problems of fitting in and dealing with their various situations. The atmosphere is seedy, the action blending in accordingly.

The characters populating Haussmann's drama are neither very interesting nor sympathetic, which makes it difficult to get involved beyond soaking up the atmosphere of the city and the lifestyles.

I did enjoy "Untold Scandal," an exotic South Korean film inspired by the renowned French work "Les Liaisons dangereuse." This time the tale of sexual intrigue, written and directed by E. J-Yong, is set in 18th Century Korea. The chief connivers are the aristocratic Cho-Won, played by Bae Yong-Jun and his cousin Lady Cho, portrayed by Lee Mi-Sook, and the two of them find thrills in their games involving sexual manipulation of others.

The specific target is Lady Chung, a young widow charmingly played by Jeon Do-Yeon, whom Cho-Won must seduce. The instigators also have each other as targets. What makes the film absorbing is the atmosphere depicted, in which all of the conventions of outward decorum and taboos work against explicit sexuality and courting ploys. In that sense, it is sexier than the French film because of all the traditional obstacles that must be surmounted. This also makes the consequences even more dire.

"Untold Scandal" goes on too long, but it is gorgeous to look at and one gets caught up in the machinations.

There were numerous other films included in the potpourri, but the above provides an idea of the kind of exploration that the selectors do in trying to mine films that reflect what is going on in the world of cinema. This year the showings were at the Walter Reade Theater, Alice Tully Hall and the Gramercy Theater on East 23rd Street, the latter being the venue MoMA has been using pending the re-opening of its regular mid-town facilities that have been undergoing extensive renovation.


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