The Sun directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, written by Yuri Arabov, with Issei Ogata, Robert Dawson and Kaori Mamoi. A Films We Like release. 115 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 10) at Cinematheque Ontario. See Indie and Rep Films for details. Rating: NNNN
Salt written and directed by Bradley Rust Grey, with Brynja Thóra Gudnadóttir, Davíd Örn Halldórsson and Melkorka Huldudóttir. A Vagrant Films release. 86 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 10) at the Carlton. See Indie and Rep Films for details. Rating: NN Rating: NNNN
If you believe the New York Times, companies that distribute foreign films in the U.S. are now overjoyed when films make $500,000 in theatrical grosses.
The threshold for joy used to be a lot higher, especially considering it costs around $100,000 to do a proper theatrical release of a foreign-language film in New York.
I suspect that Bradley Rust Grey's Salt won't be among those to hit the magic number, in part because, as far as I can tell, it has no American distribution. I'm still puzzling over why Vagrant Films picked it up for Canada.
I can't figure out who the audience might be for an Icelandic film that's not officially Dogme 95 but has all the earmarks of that tribe. The thin script, with a lot of improvisation, was shot, occasionally by the cast themselves, on hand-held digital video. So along with the occasional breathtaking Icelandic landscape, Salt has a lot of extreme shakycam moments.
It's about a 20-ish young woman who works in a fish plant and goes camping with her friends. The camera's so jittery that you expect them to be pursued by the Icelandic equivalent of the Blair Witch. Salt's been in limbo for about three years since premiering at Berlin. No reason it shouldn't stay there.
Meanwhile, Arnaud Desplechin's astonishing and humane masterpiece, Kings And Queen, gets no theatrical release in English Canada. If offshore friends hadn't recommended it to me, I'd probably have missed it, and it's the best film I saw last year. Since it's already on DVD in the U.S., it's almost guaranteed not to be screened here. Order it from your favourite online source or check the import section at downtown video boutiques like Suspect or Queen Video.
Back to films actually getting a theatrical release, Cinematheque Ontario screens Aleksandr Sokurov's trilogy of films on power this week, biographical studies of Hitler (Moloch), Lenin (Taurus) and Hirohito (The Sun).
Some see Sokurov as the reincarnation of Andrei Tarkovsky, others not so much. He did score an improbable art house hit in 2003 with Russian Ark, his single-take perambulation through the Hermitage and pre-Revolutionary Russian history. It made over $3 million in North America alone.
The only thing that's predictable about Sokurov is that he's unpredictable. I intensely disliked Moloch (or as I like to think of it, Springtime For Hitler), so I skipped Taurus at Cannes and hit The Sun with serious reservations. Of course, The Sun is not like Moloch, and this shouldn't have surprised me.
Like Moloch, it starts very slowly and very underlit, as if the corridors of power were enormous, shabby Eastern European hotels. What it turns into, however, is an almost droll study of a man who's less a godlike embodiment of power - the Japanese did consider the emperor a divine being, and not in the John Waters sense - than an empty signifier.
In Sokurov's trio of films, Hirohito is the odd man out. Lenin and Hitler seized power and had very specific plans for what to do with it. Hirohito ruled by divine right. He had no career choices - his father and grandfather were emperors before him.
One of the subjects of The Sun is the empty charade that continues after the loss of power. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, during the onset of the American occupation, Hirohito has no control over the nation at all.
While his servants cluster tightly around him, doing what they've done for decades, the emperor serves at the pleasure of General Douglas MacArthur and the Americans.
In a very peculiar way, it's a comedy of manners in a world where manners are very important. Issei Ogata inhabits Hirohito as a man who's grown old in his job and increasingly uncomfortable in his own skin. (I'm assuming that Ogata's decision to play Hirohito with a slight stammer and a lisp has a historical basis.)
The puppet ruler, who lost much of his power when the military came to dominate wartime Japan, is losing the ability to pretend he's in charge.
The scenes between the emperor and MacArthur (Richard Dawson) are fascinating. Deprived of his shell of retainers and buffers, Hirohito simply retreats into his impeccable manners.
I do wish Sokurov would give us a little more light. I'm not saying his movies should look like mid-70s sitcoms, but there's something plain depressing about sitting through a two- hour film that seems to have been lit entirely with 40-watt bulbs.
For your viewing information, Moloch is available on DVD; Taurus has no other North American distribution, so the Cinematheque is the only place to see it; and The Sun moves to the Varsity VIP rooms for a theatrical run following its Cinematheque premiere.