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Shades of Mozart in 7 Sellars picks

June 23, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Seven films featured as part of last year's New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth will be shown next week as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival. The six features and a short were commissioned by Peter Sellars, the Vienna festival's artistic director, who sought international filmmakers who would deal in highly personal ways with such Mozartian themes as transformation, forgiveness and recognition of the dead.

Presented by the UCLA Film Archive as "Mozart's Visionary Cinema," the seven works are truly visionary, several of them dazzlers made by well-known filmmakers acclaimed for their daring and originality. All invite the viewer to look and listen closely with an open heart and mind, and reward such effort richly.

They are of the cinema of acute, penetrating observation and nuance rather than explicit exposition. They allow the viewer to discover meanings and connections for him or herself; they never tell the viewer how he or she should feel about any individual, situation and development. Yet, as boldly venturesome cinema goes, these seven are pretty accessible as well as captivating.

For more than a decade, Tsai Ming-Liang has been at the forefront of the younger generation of Taiwanese filmmakers. He's a master at evoking loneliness and longing in modern-day Taipei. For his superb "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," Tsai returns to his native Malaysia to tell of a Chinese laborer (Lee Kang-Sheng) stranded in Kuala Lumpur after a building boom goes bust. Beaten and left to die, he is rescued by another stranded foreign worker (Norman Atun), who lovingly cares for him in his makeshift shelter in a vast unfinished skyscraper. An edgy, erotic triangle develops when Lee's character attracts an uninhibited waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi). Tsai's celebration of loving tenderness -- Lee also plays a paralyzed youth cared for by his mother -- unfolds amid a bold play of light and shadow and the utmost striking imagery.

With his recent "Tropical Malady," Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul revealed that he could persuasively transport a love story between a country youth and a soldier into a breathtaking romantic fantasy. With "Syndromes and a Century" he accomplishes something arguably tougher, drawing upon the memories of his parents and their everyday lives as doctors before they fell in love and married. Like Tsai's film, "Syndromes" is suffused with the value of kindness and civility. What Weerasethakul achieves in leisurely, elegant depictions of routine events is to elicit a sense of an eternal world of the spirit existing beyond them.

Indonesia's Garin Nugroho has taken a tale from the Hindu epic the "Ramayana" and set it in the present for his opulent, eye-popping "Opera Jawa," which incorporates Javanese dance drama with a singing declamatory narration, both ancient theatrical traditions. The beautiful young wife (Artika Sari Devi) of an impoverished potter (Martinus Miroto) is coveted by a powerful local thug (an electrifying Eko Supriyanto) who will stop at nothing to possess her. The veteran Nugroho blends performance art techniques, operatic flourishes, breathtaking imagery, romantic tragedy and social criticism into a stunningly cinematic experience.

Kurdish Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi achieved worldwide acclaim with his debut film "A Time for Drunken Horses" (2000), which told of two children caught up in the perilous business of Kurds attempting to cross the border between Iran and Iraq. This is what the hero of Ghobadi's even more ambitious "Half Moon" is also attempting. He is an elderly, much revered singer (Ismail Ghaffari) who is determined to return to Iraq after a 37-year exile to perform at a concert celebrating the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The dangers of such a journey, fraught with checkpoints manned by brutal Iraqi guards, make it a virtual mission impossible, which enables Ghobadi to embrace a transcendent magical realism that expresses the impassioned plight of the Kurds.

Set in the aftermath of Chad's 40-year war and following a government declaration of amnesty for all war criminals, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "Dry Season" tells of a 16-year-old village youth (Ali Bacha Barkai) ordered by his blind grandfather to travel to the city to assassinate his father's killer -- who turns out to be a tormented, wounded, deeply conflicted man (Youssouf Djaoro) who offers the youth shelter and a chance to learn a trade as a baker. What ensues unfolds with a simplicity and rigor of much power and a comment on the ravages of war.

South African filmmaker Teboho Mahlatsi's 20-minute "Meokgo and the Stickfighter" is a lush, economical tale of magical realism that looks as if it could be taking place in a Yosemite winter a century ago. Paz Encina's "Paraguayan Hammock" evokes the anguish of an aging peasant couple coming to terms with the loss of their son in a 1935 war with Bolivia.


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