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Berlinale Journal, Day 2

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Berlinale Journal, Day 2

Anchalee Saisoontorn in "Wonderful Town"

Berlin International Film Festival

Awed by Thai film Wonderful Town, Underwhelmed By Chinese In Love With Trust

Next on my own bulging schedule was Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town, the Thai film that just won the top prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival. The film opens with a prolonged shot of breaking waves, and the recent tsunami looms large, even though it's only mentioned once. Set in a small town in the south of Thailand, with ragged, lush mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, Wonderful Town tells the halting love story between Ton (Supphasit Kansen), an architect who arrives from Bangkok to supervise the reconstruction of a beach resort, and Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), the beautiful woman who works at her father's hotel.

Shot in stately compositions that frequently frame the human characters before two-dimensional patterns created from architectural details or rows of palm trees, Wonderful Town moves at a languid pace. Ton likes to sing in the shower and Na dreams of waves, and their gentle, halting courtship is affecting. He helps her take the laundry off the clothes line and brings her oranges from Phuket. She accepts them without an outward emotion, but when he's left, she holds them close and smiles.

Once love finds our characters, the camera grows more animated as well, but the title of Wonderful Town is at least half-ironic. Early in the film, Ton strays from his construction site to investigate what's left of neighboring house, emptied by the tsunami. He picks up a sodden comic book and swings a few coat hangers in the empty closet. His coworkers tell him the house is haunted, but of course that's only half the story: the entire town is haunted, and everybody here has a past they can't leave behind.

With two movies sacrificed to overdue sleep and one to the whims of the Rolling Stones, it turned out that Filmbrain was right about the opening day being somewhat light. Today is a different story. Early this morning, I saw the competition drama Zuo You (In Love We Trust), my first film on the gigantic screen at the Berlinale Palast.

The melodramatic tale begins when five-year old Hehe is diagnosed with leukemia (not always what you want to see right after a hurried breakfast). To survive, child needs a bone marrow transplant, and the mother (Zhang Jia-yi) eventually decides that her only hope is to conceive a little brother or sister who could serve as a donor. Problem is, both parents are happily remarried....

Over the next 115 minutes, four hearts break in slow motion among a bleak urban landscape of a rapidly growing China. The maudlin film manages to stage its series of painful domestic conversations inventively, but long takes that cleverly shift focus were not enough to distract me from the obviousness with which the melodramatic gears are turning. The film's true highlight is Zhang Jia-yi's empathetic performance. Director Xiaoshuai Wang must have been disappointed at the news that jury members Susanne Bier and Sandrine Bonnaire had to withdraw -- perhaps Bier's own taste for soapy melodrama (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire) might have voted for Zuo You.

I also had my first Berlinale walkout: Leo, a Swedish revenge drama, lost me after the opening minutes, when a birthday party is ruined by two murderous rapists. Instead, I am now looking forward to the Finnish film Black Ice -- the poster is enough to stoke expectations --, Auge um Auge, an investigation of German film history, an Egyptian movie about an abortionist who likes fish called The Aquarium, and the Spanish horror film Shiver.

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