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Ghosts, spectres and dragons in Nantes

On Saturday the 29th the competition arena of Nantes’ 3 Continents was haunted by the cinematic ghosts of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San) and by the torturing spectres of a dramatic political past in Pakistani Sabiha Sumar’s Silent Waters (Kamosh Pani).

Tsai’s sixth feature, winner of the Fipresci award in Venice, pays homage to cinema and to the magic experience of viewing films in movie theatres. Taking an old theatre bound to permanently shut its doors as his actual protagonist, Tsai “inhabits” it with memories from the history of cinema (the ongoing screening of Hong Kong classic Dragon Inn by King Hu), ectoplasms coming from his peculiar filmic universe, and gay people looking for shelter and company on a pouring night. Despite the always impressive work on image and sound and some memorably conceived sequences (the long shot lingering on the emptied theatre), notwithstanding the coherence of its author to his principles, Goodbye, Dragon Inn feels like a minor opus in Tsai’s brilliant career. Playing sometimes like a divertissement that has been exceedingly stretched to feature length, this is Tsai’s less captivating work and although its reflections over cinema and movie-going experience might be considered as deep and thought provoking, they’re actually no real novelty. The result is a rather innocuous film that is less revealing or provocative than, say, The Hole or The River. The lack of a strong grip over the viewer also risks to make Goodbye, Dragon Inn the hardest seat for those who don’t have any acquaintance with Tsai’s previous work.

Documentary-maker Sabiha Sumar, who’s been widely recognized for her works on female issues in the context of the Islamic society of Pakistan, won Locarno’s Golden Leopard with her début feature Silent Waters. Concentrating on a middle-aged woman’s struggle over two politically-charged fronts, the inner battle against the heavy memories of 1947’s partition of Pakistan from India, and the sadly doomed conflict against her son’s participation to the integralist movements that fomented the Islamization of the country in 1979, Sumar’s film is an interesting case of a picture that wins sincere praise for its good intentions and political correctness, but that never convinces from the perspective of artistic achievement. Filled with noble yet irritating clichés and overly predictable from beginning till the very end, Silent Waters is a demonstrative film that never tries to rely on really cinematic resources to convey its message and always prefers to make things (too) clear and readable, thus becoming dull and un-involving. Silent Waters generates undeniable respect for the narrative material it approaches, but is a total flat-liner from any cinematic parameter.

Better chances to find rejoice were offered by the sublime pictures shown in the retrospective devoted to Chinese cinema. Among these all notable offerings we would like to mention Fei Mu’s undisputable classic Spring in a Small Town (1948), remade last year by Tian Zhuangzhuang, a vibrantly retained melodrama of surprising modernity and subtlety, Shi Dongshan’s Two Stars in the Milky Way (1931), a heart-breaking love story set behind the scenes of cinema’s stardom that closes on a superb ending much similar to and as moving as the finale of Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, and Sun Yu’s irresistible The Wild Rose (1932), a never predictable gem that starts as a hilarious comedy, grows increasingly melodramatic and tragic, and always firmly walks on the verge of the two registers.

Finally, other precious findings could be discovered in the celebrative programme “25 years of great moments and discoveries”. Particularly worth of mention is an almost forgotten masterpiece: Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Night (1975), an uncompromising and powerful portrait of violence, desperation and misery in a Third World metropolis, that stands also as an immortal reminder of the strong-will, generosity and committed inspiration of a politically-engaged filmmaker who overcame economical restraints and censorship to cry to the world his indignation and sadness over the eternal defeat of the pure-hearted.

Paolo Bertolin

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