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A youth quake; a continental shift

From one end of Asia to the other, younger filmmakers are providing raw, realistic looks at their societies.

August 22, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Munich — The landscape of "Schizo," a new film from Kazakhstan, is streaked with stark plains and rust as if Edward Hopper had painted a country haunted by spiritual decay and the lingering disillusionments of post-Communist ruin.

The sky is vast, almost swallowing, but the grain silos are empty. Doctor bills are paid in chicken eggs and trains moan through dying wheat fields. Idle men are recruited among the slag heaps to fight bare-fisted in a ring at the edge of town, where bets are yelped and the winner's prize is a secondhand Mercedes. The bruised and dead are dragged away to the sound of a sloshing mop.

"This is how I see my country," Guka Omarova, "Schizo's" diminutive director, said at the Munich International Film Festival this year. "There are no jobs in the villages. Our sheep were eaten in the 'difficult years,' and their flocks have not been replenished. I used real fighters, real criminals in this movie.... I never want to be sentimental. To me, sentimentality is vulgar."

Few would accuse Omarova of playing the heartstrings; one would be more likely to reach for a Prozac than a tissue during "Schizo."

The 35-year-old director was one of 10 filmmakers the festival highlighted in its New Asian Cinema series. The films offered unsparing glimpses into cities and hinterlands stretching across Japan, Malaysia and western China's fringe with former Soviet republics. Several were straightforward narratives with sparse dialogue populated with nonprofessional actors -- including an orphan and a monk.

Their disparate images were at once poetic and erratic. Shot in Tokyo's Shibuya district, "Peep TV Show," directed by Tsuchiya Yutaka, mixes post-Sept. 11 stress and girls dressed up like pornographic French chambermaids to focus on youths caught in the claustrophobia and numbing addiction of technology. Shift thousands of miles away to China's Shanxi province, where first-time director Ning Hao tracks the spiritual corruption of a rural monk seeking money to rebuild a collapsed statue of Buddha.

"There's an interesting phenomenon going on worldwide in cinema," said Klaus Eder, secretary general of the International Federation of Film Critics, who selected the movies in the Asian series. "Everywhere, young people are taking over. It's very significant. They're not only making their own films, but they're going to festivals to promote them.

"You see this especially in mainland China. Many of the young filmmakers don't care about the rules of cinema. They don't care how their grandfathers made movies."

'We look for simple stories'

"Incense" is a case in point. The 27-year-old Hao, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, shot his independently produced movie with a Sony PD-150. "I wanted to tell the story of the common people," said Hao, an admirer of Stanley Kubrick who understands the sensitive terrain between artistic freedom and government censorship. "The interests for young Chinese filmmakers are not economic or political. We look for simple stories that get away from the historical national epics."

"Incense" is a movie of compressed shots. The protagonist monk pedals his broken bicycle through the fog and encounters prostitutes, gruff policemen and uncaring government officials as he begs for money. Their rejection turns him cynical, and his spirit -- which Hao uses as a metaphor for the economic transformation rippling across rural China -- succumbs to deviousness and greed. He rebuilds the Buddha statue with ill-gotten gains. In the end, his penance is a morality lesson: Highway engineers inform him that his temple will be demolished to make room for a new road.

"I wanted to limit the use of landscape," Hao said. "I wanted people-to-people relationships. I was afraid the rural landscape would make the audience focus on the beauty and not on what I was saying."

The landscape of "Peep TV Show" is refracted through the video lens of a character named Hasegawa, a voyeuristic high-tech vagabond. He peeks into apartments, women's bathrooms and even films himself torturing a cat. A wispy-haired waif in ripped jeans, Hasegawa is the nasty side of reality TV. Little is sacred in his webcam eavesdropping. All things private become public when his images are broadcast on an Internet site. The film -- with fast cuts and sharp edits -- is an intriguing statement on how information technologies can deaden the senses.

The movie is threaded with a countdown to the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, which in Hasegawa's mind is the ultimate world-unifying electronic image. His partner in video invasion, Moe, dresses up in crinoline and lace and is confused about her identity. While staring at video of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, Moe suggests that the couple visit ground zero.

Hasegawa gazes at the images and technology around him and answers: "This is our ground zero. We can't escape it."

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