New Directors/New Films: Part Two
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Water fills the vast majority of the earth's surface, and the New Directors/New Films series of 27 international pictures isn't shy about diving in. In Part One previewing this 37th annual program curated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (with strong support by HBO Films), we noted the recreational and securing influences of water. "Water Lilies" sets its sensual coming-of-age tale in a Parisian suburban pool. "Jellyfish" locates its satirical slices of Tel Aviv life smack up against the safety of the sea.
Two more new films darken the waters considerably. Both the fictional drama "Wonderful Town" from Thailand and the American documentary "Trouble the Water" turn on natural disasters and their aftermaths experienced by their creators. Both films demonstrate a common theme of testing the endurance and survivability of their major characters. One picture gives us a couple that doesn't make it. The other picture gives us a couple that does.
"Wonderful Town" is set in a coastal area (Takua Pa) in southern Thailand that three years ago bore the brunt of a 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, plus a resulting Tsunami that wiped out over 8,000 lives. The drama was shot last year entirely in the surrounding communities that are inching their way back toward a semblance of normalcy. It's about a polite young interior architect who's come to supervise construction of a luxury oceanside hotel, but chooses to stay in a modest (and empty) inland hotel run by a young woman who's both the desk clerk and the maid. They're each able, quiet and shy, and director Aditya Assarat slowly lets them realize a reluctant attraction to each other...
Though we sense much of the surrounding area may still be in ruins, the film-maker withholds most of the visual information that would confirm this, as his couple begins to see each other. What they don't know is that her brother--and perhaps much of the surviving community--view the urban architect as an interloper, perhaps even an exploiter. The brother finally explains everyone's unspeakable calamity and loss to the architect. Still, we get the impression the genuine growing love of the couple will transcend all the broken lives around them. But it doesn't. "Wonderful Town's" final haunting minutes show us what the film has concealed all too well, and it's beyond anything you might ever have imagined. Assarat's first feature is a jewel box gem from a fully mature artist.
"Trouble The Water" starts in the 9thWard of New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall, and the misery index starts rising almost immediately. This is the first feature out of the Katrina disaster that blends together eye-of-the-storm coverage by a neighborhood couple (Scott and Kimberly Roberts, shooting with her $20 camcorder) with rescue, evacuation and rebuilding footage shot by two documentary pros (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal).
Nothing you've watched on the Weather Channel--all those tornado docs at their swirling worst--prepares you for the gripping horror of Kim's little camcorder watching Katrina's nighttime floodwaters climbing the front steps of their home and then climbing their living room walls as the family hauls emergency rations up into their windowless attic. Kim Roberts is a large woman of indeterminate age, and she narrates their desperate situation in real time with a mix of spontaneous anger, courage and reason. She grabs hold of this movie for dear life, and she never lets go.
As the waters eventually recede, things become even more dire, because all the poor and disenfranchised residents who hadn't the cars or the means (or the government's promised help) to flee the city are really stuck. Kim doesn't stop encouraging and supporting her neighbors. Scott Roberts rents a big truck and the couple start transporting children, women and men out of harm's way to clean, dry homes. Kim transforms herself into a rap artist named "Black Kold Madina," who writes and performs a survival anthem--(I Don't Need You To Tell Me That I'm) "Amazing"--that's a sledgehammer of audacity. But Kim is also a worker-among-workers and she has a humility, too, that brings her to tears when a friend quietly thanks her for all she and her husband have done. Eventually Scott goes to work for a local construction crew rebuilding homes in their neighborhood. Kim starts building herself a singing career on Born Hustler Records. This is a four-star couple no hurricane is ever going to knock down.