Reviews of Stan Posiadania and Ju Dou
Directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.
Directed by Zhang Yi-mou.
Presented at the Toronto Festival of
Festivals, Sep. 7-16.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
WHILE IT'S NOT POSSIBLE to identify any single film as the "best" film of the Toronto International Film Festival -- since it is unlikely that even the festival programmers have seen all 297 of the films shown -- it is certainly possible to select favorites from the all the films that any one person sees. This year, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi's film Stan posiadania (Inventory) was the one film that stood out over the others. Intimate in scale, Stan posiadania is a quietly powerful masterpiece of filmmaking that returns Zanussi to the chamber-like personal style that characterized many of his early films.
His newest film tells the story of the troubled relationship that develops between a young geography student in Warsaw named Tomek (Artur Zmijewski) and a woman in her mid-thirties, Julia (Krystyna Janda), who is still recovering from a nervous breakdown. Tomek's feelings toward Julia are initially based on concern for her well-being, but after he invites her to stay at his mother's home to recuperate, the two soon begin falling in love. Their relationship becomes strained, however, because Julia still seems somewhat mentally unbalanced, and Tomek's mother Zofia (Maja Komorowska) does not approve of their plans to marry. The story of their relationship continues as Tomek has to go to West Berlin, where his father lives, to earn enough money to buy a house and support Julia and himself.
What makes this film so stunningly accomplished is the impeccable acting by all three main actors, as well as the total believability of the characters. The way they act and react to the moments of conflict, difficulty, and happiness that they encounter in their life is completely realistic and believable. There is not a single false or over-heightened emotion or line in the film, nor is there excessive restraint in presenting the situation Tomek and Julia confront as a couple trying to get on their feet.
Zanussi's script and direction are truly flawless. There are no silly lines or overblown sentiments to ruin this film. The camera shots, the editing, the music, the sets and costumes -- all of these coalesce into a wholly three-dimensional portrait of three fully-defined human characters that a lesser director would be hard-pressed to achieve. The film flows so naturally and believably that viewers are easily drawn in to the story from its promising beginning to its somber yet hopeful conclusion.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Zanussi even manages to merge a political subtext into the film based on Julia's former occupation as a censor. And throughout the story, one always feels the film is a true depiction of the current Polish social and economic milieu. As a result, the film functions as a subtle allegory for the economic, social, and political tensions affecting contemporary Polish society as it struggles to rebuild itself after decades of suppression. To merge these thematic concerns into a character drama, and to do it so flawlessly, is an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment. In these and so many other ways, Stan posiadania comes closest to embodying perfection than any other film in recent memory.
Of course, this is not to say that there weren't other excellent films in the festival. Another film that marks a personal triumph for its director is Ju Dou, a Chinese film from the director of Red Sorghum, Zhang Yi-mou. As was the case with the previous film, the visual elegance of Ju Dou is a pure sumptuous feast. Using brilliant red, gold, and yellow colors, the film spins a story about a young woman named Ju Dou (played by Gong Li, who also starred in Red Sorghum) who is sold to a rich owner of a dye factory named Jin Shan (Li Wei) to bear him some sons. Jin San is an old, impotent man and cannot have a child, but he beats and otherwise abuses Ju Dou for not giving him an heir. Watching all this is Jin San's nephew, Tian-qing (Li Bao-tian). Horrified by the way Ju Dou is being mistreated, he begins intervening on her behalf, and soon the two become lovers.
Eventually, Ju Dou and Tian-qing have a son, Tian-bai (Zhen Ji-an), but the illicit nature of their love affair dictates that they have to pretend Tian-bai is Jin San's son. A few years after Tian-bai is born, however, Jin San suffers an accident (ironically, at the hands of Tian-bai) and is crippled from the waist down. The lovers grow bolder and openly proclaim their love for each other in front of Jin San, but they are still not able to marry. At this point, the film takes a dark turn as it begins to focus on the effects of this confused heritage on young Tian-bai as he grows older and stronger. After brooding for a long time, Tian-bai finally decides to exact a terrifying revenge.
This film marks a significant improvement over Red Sorghum in that the blatant propagandistic elements of that film are absent here. This is a story primarily about an illicit love affair gone awry. The visual style is pure Zhang Yi-mou, with luscious footage of yards and yards of brightly-colored cotton cloth amid large vats of dye in the factory. Some critics have complained that the story should have a much more gritty look, as in famous film noirs. Such criticism is unjustified since Zhang Yi-mou's visuals provide a powerful backdrop for the narrative to act upon. And because Zhang Yi-mou ensures that the visuals are never overbearing, the end result is eminently satisfying.
(Editor's note: More reviews of films shown in the Toronto Festival of Festivals will appear in Tuesday's issue of The Tech.)