Beginning with Charlie Chaplin's 1917 short The Immigrant, there's an entire genre of immigrant movies. The Godfather II is among them. Eat a Bowl of Tea, Avalon, Vente a Alemania, Pepe, My Beautiful Laundrette, From the Snow, Double Happiness, Moscow on the Hudson, Stranger Than Paradise are all about nationless drifters - people transplanted into strange cultures, seekers, dreamers, and refugees. Immigrant movies are fascinating because they show people without the protection of a government most of us take for granted, individuals adrift between nationalities and at the mercy of overbearing authorities, paper-obsessed bureaucrats, and anal border guards.
Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort
begins with such a confrontation between powerless immigrants and a smug customs official at London's Stansted airport. Just arrived from Moscow with her 10-year-old son, Tanya (Dina Korzun) is stood up by her British fiancé and answers all the questions wrong. It's like watching the Eurostar high speed train crushing a Yugo: Tanya's helplessness galvanizes our sympathies right away, even before we have time to figure out who she is. Instead of returning to Russia, Tanya applies for political asylum so she can find out why her lover was a no-show.
Together with her son Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), she is brought to a "designated holding area" with the poignant name Stonehaven where asylum seekers wait for their cases to be processed. Stonehaven is a deserted seaside resort that's about as dreary as any place in England, and England has more than its share of dreary places. Ryszrd Lenczewski's sharp cinematography wrings maximum moodiness from the bleak cement desert. A sign over the ghostly amusement park that cowers next to the asylants' infernal high rise reads "Dreamland welcomes you." We have to assume it's the British version of the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Dreamland for Tanya and Artiom means barbed wire fences, inedible food, surveillance cameras, and two-hour waits at the only phone booth in town - Stonehaven is purgatory for those without nationality, a limbo between countries much, much worse than the international terminal at JFK. And it's much harder to get out of.
Soon, Artiom is running with the wrong kids, Tanya is giving blood to make some money, and cybersex peddlers are panting to put her into a schoolgirl uniform. But in spite of all the heartbreaking downturns anticipated and actual, the film lives from the warmth of the people it portrays, and from the irresistible performances. Last Resort is understated with British precision. Tanya's quiet toughness meshes wonderfully with the jabbering friendliness of Alfie (Paddy Considine), the good-hearted arcade manager and bingo announcer who falls in the love with the stranded Russian.
Last Resort has convincing characters and an honest, mature story about people whose lives may go bad but never turn melodramatic, and whose happy ends don't always look like happy ends. It's a film about people who are surprisingly resilient, resourceful, and capable of survival. Even the pornographers are nicer than you think. If you've never applied for asylum or a green card, Last Resort will give you a compelling glimpse into the unhinged world of refugees and immigrants. I know that the year is still young, but I don't expect to see a truer or sweeter movie in 2001.
Last Resort is paired with Guy Maddin's short film The Heart of the World, which won high acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival. The superkinetic black-and-white extravaganza looks like outtakes from Fritz Lang movies and Soviet propaganda films edited by an amphetamine-crazed sci-fi geek. I dearly hope that Shooting Gallery can play midwife to the rebirth of the tradition of showing shorts before features - even if they're longer than the 73-minute Last Resort.