The UCLA Film Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Contemporary Documentary series continues Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Theater with Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson's 1992 "Black Harvest," one of the most impressive documentaries of recent years.
It's a vital, heartbreaking account of an ill-fated alliance. Joe Leahy, a wealthy Papua New Guinea coffee planter born of a native mother and a white Australian father, goes into partnership with a native tribe just as coffee prices fall, destroying the impoverished tribe's dreams.
The handsome, hard-driving Leahy is a man caught between two cultures, just as the tribe, which still resolves disputes with bow and arrow, is caught between past and present. Preceding "Black Harvest" will be Geoffrey O'Connor's "At the Edge of Conquest: The Journey of Chief Wai-Wai" (1992), about a native Brazilian making a massive last-ditch effort to preserve his people's traditional way of life.
The Archive's New Chinese Cinema series continues Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Theater with "Hibiscus Town" (1986), about the ironic fate of a couple who manage to build their own small house in a provincial community. Directed by Xie Jin, China's most prestigious veteran director, it was unavailable for preview.
It will be followed by "Old Well" (1987), directed by Wu Tianming, former head of the ground-breaking Xian Film Studios and now a Los Angeles-area resident. Writer Zheng Yi interweaves two stories to create a claustrophobic sense of the oppression of people straining at the chains of outmoded morality and technology. Zhang Yimou, now one of China's top directors, stars as Wangquan, a husky young man who lives in a remote mountain village where water has been scarce for as long as anyone can remember.
The film curses the cruelty of arranged marriages, just as it urges communities to pull together to solve their problems rather than merely hope that the central government will someday come to their rescue. "Old Well" is stirring and earthy, and it resists a didactic tone in its plea for self-determination both in personal and community life.
In contrast to the socially critical "Old Well," Saturday's 7:30 p.m. double feature reveals a surprising degree of Hollywood influence. Zhou Xiaowen and Shi Chengfeng's "Desperation" (1987) is a classic killer-on-the-run tale, told with both compassion and detachment in regard to its hero (Zhang Jianmin). It is exceedingly well-constructed and edited, made with a subtle eye for detail.
Its almost documentary-like tone is at times so low-key that one's attention threatens to wander, but the film pulls together for a suspenseful finish aboard a train that depicts ordinary citizens behaving heroically in the face of impending danger. The last shot is uncompromising to a degree nearly inconceivable in Hollywood. (In addition to co-directing "Desperation," Shi Chengfeng also co-wrote it with Shi Chengquan.)
No American Western could be any more stylish or witty than He Ping's "The Swordsman in Double-Flag Town" (1991), and it brings to mind Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," his mentor Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns and even Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." Gao Wei stars as a teen-ager, probably no more than 15 and looking even younger swaddled in buckskin, who heads out to the desert wilderness, his destination a small community where he is to claim the bride (Zhao Mana) he has never met.
Like the youthful heroes of universal legend, he must prove himself mightily to be worthy of his maiden's hand. In short, he must defeat a pair of nasty bandits and their gang who hold the town in terror. He does so with kung fu, but this film is steeped with an aura of genuine mysticism rather than the mere fantasy that is a staple of martial-arts movies. "The Swordsman in Double-Flag Town" has all the hip ingredients that could just turn it into a cult film in American theaters.
Information: (310) 206-FILM.