Director Pedro González-Rubio’s debut film Alamar is nothing short of a contemporary masterpiece. Deceptively simple in structure, its story woven around a Mexican father and his half-Italian son embarking on a trip to the coral reefs of Banco Chinchorro ahead of their impending separation, the work is infused with a delightful authenticity edging on neo-realist themes thanks to González-Rubio’s ethnographic film making approach. The discerning viewer, however, will be sure to identify in the picture a rich subtext built around the motifs of man’s relationship with nature and the ongoing struggle between prevailing traditionalism and the impermanence of modernity.
As if to reaffirm the nascent uptrend in Eastern European cinema, Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev’s 2009 Academy Award nominee The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner arrives on the heels of Ilmar Raag’s excellent feature Klass (2007) and Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Centered around the themes of immigration and associated cultural dislocation, the subject matter of Komandarev’s film is evidently less sexy than hot topics like high school violence or abortion, which explains the muted critical response and limited distribution that have plagued this title, unheard of among international audiences.
Beautifully photographed and uniquely atmospheric, Aleksei Popogrebsky’s new film How I Ended This Summer is the latest entry in an emerging Russian art house trend. Crafted in the traditions of such critically acclaimed works as The Return (2003), Kukushka (2002) and Popogrebsky’s own junior effort Roads to Koktebel (2003), this leisurely-paced offering envelops its audience in an eerily surrealistic world where characters are but fragile toys caught playing by the majestic forces of nature. Popogrebsky delivers a deceptively simple picture, slow-moving yet deliberately structured, which leaves a lasting impression.
From Japan’s Hiroshi Nishitani comes the meticulously crafted suspense feature Suspect X, the story of an impromptu psychological match fought between two brilliant academics and set in the context of a murder inquiry. Convoluted to say the least, the film is fast-paced and intellectually stimulating as it consistently keeps its audience guessing with endless twists and turns reminiscent of other recent Japanese productions, most notably G@me (2003) and Death Note (2006). Suspect X is dream material for those less artsy types who can appreciate a unique and challenging cinematic perspective while also enjoying a good old rush of adrenaline.
Part of the nascent renaissance in Bulgarian cinema, exemplified most prominently by Stephan Komandarev’s Oscar contender The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (2008), Kamen Kalev’s new film Eastern Plays offers a much-needed fresh take on the modern Eastern European experience. In its subtle examination of the nature of nationalist and racist sentiment arising from post-Communist stagnation and threatening to pollute disoriented young minds, the film manages to go well beyond its localized context and will strike a chord with anyone who has ever found themselves in a dead end job or felt swayed by the opinions of others.
From Boratland comes Akan Satayev’s bold new supernatural thriller Strayed, an eerie, atmospherically rich effort of unprecedented quality for Central Asian productions in the genre. Building on the well-explored house-in-the-woods formula, the film infuses its dark tale of one man’s gradual descent into madness with uniquely Kazakh cultural imagery and psychological intricacy, making it all the more satisfying and unfamiliar to the international audience. In addition to delivering pure shock value, Strayed also pays homage to the modern mind-bending psycho-thriller trend popularized in such well-known recent works as Shutter Island (2010) and Inception (2010).
Raw, bold and frenetically charged, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s French drama Johnny Mad Dog is a film about child soldiers fighting a civil war in an unnamed African country one would likely have high hopes for. Shockingly brutal even by Third World standards, and featuring a cast of unknown actors, the work appears to have all the makings of such modern genre classics as City of God (2002), Tropa de Elite (2007) and Jerusalema (2008). So it is surprising to see just how large a gap remains between the director’s no doubt noble intentions and his film’s actual delivery.