Elite Squad Misses Mark, Plus Kirschblüten, Sparrow, United Red ArmyMonday begun with a promising change of pace: Elite Squad, the first feature film by Bus 174 director Jose Padilha, which has become a blockbuster sensation in its native Brazil. A hard-boiled tale of corrupt cops and ruthless drug dealers in the favelas of Rio, it's meant as a no-nonsense version of City of God, in which a black-uniformed military police cracks down on both sides of an ongoing war.
Shot in a quasi-documentary style, Padilha's roots as a non-fiction filmmaker are evident everywhere, but he fares far less well with the elements that call for the eye of a storyteller. Plot and characterization are delivered via trite voice-over, and in a misguided effort to show an objective reality, he asks us to sympathize with torturing fascists who think nothing of beating student protestors, sodomizing suspects with broomsticks, and delivering justice with a shotgun blast to the face.
On the other hand, a few more shotgun blasts might have been just what Doris Dörrie's new film needed. Kirschblueten - Hanami, screening in competition, tells the overly familiar story of one man's late awakening to the possibilities of life. Elmar Wepper and Hannelore Elsner play Rudi and Trudi, a couple from a small Bavarian village who, closer to death than they know, set out on a voyage to visit their children in Berlin and Tokyo. Gentle comedy and emphatic tragedy blend well in the early parts of the film, a conscious homage to Ozu's Tokyo Story. Once the story moves to Japan, though, Doerrie heaps on clichés and symbols that slip into the saccharine. Butoh, nursery rhymes, Mt. Fuji, and the titular cherry blossoms are all enlisted while the film strains to tell us what we already know.
The light touch and playful beauty of Johnny To's Sparrow was a welcome relief from the heavy hands of Padilha and Doerrie. In a departure from his usual gun-heavy gangster fare, the new film from the master of Hong Kong action follows a quartet of pickpockets who are contacted by a mysterious woman. Sparrow is scored with playful, allusion-rich music that makes it feel like a lost movie from the early 1960s, and To's customary fluid direction and editing can turn the simple exchange of a cigarette from lip to lip into a rousing scene. The film climaxes in a breathtaking set piece when two gangs of pickpockets face off under a sea of umbrellas in the rain, holding razor blades in their mouths. Nothing else I have seen in Berlin has reached such pure moments of cinematic bliss.
My fourth and final film in a very long day at the movies was Wakamatsu Koji's United Red Army, a 190-minute dramatization of the history of Japan's radical movement. The first hour passes in documentary-style, filling the audience in on how the United Red Army formed out of the various splinter groups of extremist students. In the midsection, the film follows the group's core to a mountain hideout, where they slowly begin to turn on each other in a shocking series of events that makes Battle Royale look like Pokemon.
In the hands of vindictive leaders Nagami and Miro, the practice of "self-criticism" for the purposes of the communist revolution turns into a tool of cultish mind-control and torture. In the claustrophobic setting of the mountain hut, totalitarian terror reaches proportions of all-out inquisition, and (as Film Brain suggested), "I Drink Your Milkshake!" could be joined by United Red Army's equally absurd and terrifying "anti-revolutionary cookie." The revolution does indeed devour its own children, and in the final section of the film, a standoff with a police ends as it must. A jolting, powerful epic about the self-destructive tendencies of any dogmatic group.
Movies in this entry
- Yasukuni. N/R
- Divizionz. N/R
- Asyl. N/R
- Elegy. ***
- Heavy Metal in Baghdad. ***
- Elite Squad. *
- Kirschblueten **
- Sparrow. ****
- United Red Army. ****