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Screening Room

Sometimes, the World Gets in the Way

Hou Hsiao-hsien's films look at history's impact on the lives of the Taiwanese.

March 01, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the last decade, the Taiwanese cinema has emerged as one of the most provocative and challenging in the world, yet its films don't receive regular U.S. theatrical release, with the recent "Yi Yi" a rare exception. This is what makes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "A Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective" so important. Hou is the most renowned of Taiwan's top filmmakers, and LACMA is providing a unique opportunity to see seven of his films, starting Friday at 7:30 p.m. with his semiautobiographical "A Time to Live and a Time to Die" (1985), a beautiful account of a boy, Ah-ha-gu (You An-shun), coming of age in a small town in Taiwan in the late '50s and early '60s.

Ah-ha-gu's father, an educator, had always thought he would return to mainland China. The Communist Revolution changed the family's plans, as it did for countless others. Although the film is permeated with a sense of displacement, its key focus is on how family ties are tested by the untimely deaths of the parents of Ah-ha-gu, who has an older brother and sister and two younger brothers and an elderly grandmother. The death of one parent threatens the family with disintegration; the second brings it together, just as Ah-ha-gu is drifting into gang activity. Even so, Hou conveys a sense that his leisurely account is an elegy to the passing of a traditional family solidarity that allows its members moments of happiness and pleasure despite hardship and loss.

In "The Puppetmaster" (1993), which screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Hou evokes the turbulent history of Taiwan through the life of puppet master Li Tien-lu (1909-1998), who endured both a harsh family life under an abusive stepmother and the vicissitudes of Japanese occupation and its censorship policies to carry on his family tradition to such acclaim that, by the time of his death, Li had been declared a national treasure and had toured the world. Hou's dramatization of the life of Li, who serves as the film's narrator and is seen on camera briefly, is vivid, but "The Puppetmaster" is not nearly as accessible--nor as consistently subtitled in English--as "A Time to Live and a Time to Die." LACMA, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6010.

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The American Cinematheque's annual Recent Spanish Cinema series continues Thursday at the Egyptian, with its ongoing tribute to Catalan director Ventura Pons represented by "Actresses" (1997), which the Cinematheque first screened in 1998 and is presenting again tonight at 9:30.

Pons' stylish, theatrical--in the best sense--film offers tour de force portrayals by four vibrant Barcelona actresses. A young actress (Merce Pons), up for a role in a play about a legendary actress, interviews three middle-aged women who studied with her. One (Nuria Espert) is a grande dame of the theater, another is a popular TV comedian (Rosa Maria Sarda) and the third (Anna Lizaran) is a respected film and TV dubbing actress-director. "Actresses" delves deep into what it is to be a woman as well as an actress, as Pons gradually uncovers how an incident in the three women's student days affected their entire lives.

Unavailable for preview but arriving with good advance notice are Jose Luis Carci's "You're the One--A Story of the Past" (Friday at 7 p.m.), a homage to '40s Hollywood melodrama, and Mariano Barroso's "Kasbah" (Friday at 9:30 p.m.), a road movie thriller set in Morocco. Daniel Calparsoro, whose "Jump Into the Void" was a highlight of the 1996 series, returns with "Asfalto" (Saturday at 8:30 p.m.), which also stars the memorably intense Najwa Nimri as a thrill-seeker caught up in sex and crime with a pair of petty thieves. (323) 466-FILM.

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The Laemmle Theaters' current Documentary Days cycle continues with "The Charcoal People," an eloquent expose of the plight of the impoverished men and women in Brazil who spend their lives laying waste to forests for the wood to convert into charcoal needed for the manufacturing of pig iron. Through a combination of economic and geographic shifts over the years, this hard labor has become increasingly low-paying, at the same time forcing families to become permanent migrants in search of work.

Oscar-winning director Nigel Noble and writer-producer Jose Padilha have proceeded imaginatively, chronicling ecological catastrophes as well as the futile existence of the illiterate workers who know no other trade. In the course of the picture, the filmmakers introduce us to a lean, wiry 76-year-old man, a hard worker still but on the verge of quitting after a lifetime's work, trusting in God to take care of him. We then meet a longtime maker of kilns and a young family man forced to pull up stakes, fired simply because he dared to ask for a raise, and a 9-year-old boy who earns $2 a day covering two large kilns with clay.

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