Film Threat (September 2019): The Blonde One, Distant Harmony, Out of Omaha, and Send Me to the Clouds

(NOTE: These reviews were all initially written for another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Image courtesy of TLA Releasing.

The Blonde One

*** ½ (out of 4)

In an era when a new sequel comes out just about every week, we like to think that good movies are ones that strive to be as original as possible. In actuality, however, complete originality is not only unattainable, but it’s also not even necessary. Rather than reinvent the wheel, some of this year’s best movies (e.g. The Souvenir) simply took familiar stories and told them with a unique kind of subtlety and expression.

Marco Berger’s The Blonde One is one such film. Set in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, the movie recounts the story of Gabriel (Gaston Re) and Juan (Alfonso Barón), two flatmates who work in the same woodworking shop. Although each of them already has a girlfriend – Juan even invites his (Malena Irusta) over on a regular basis – the two men discover they’re attracted to each other, and they eventually enter into a relationship.

As in many other LGBTQ+ films, the biggest obstacle to Gabriel and Juan’s relationship is homophobia. But don’t expect to find any raging bigots who go on rants about the evils of homosexuality (à la, say, Boy Erased). Rather, the oppressive heteronormativity of Gabriel and Juan’s world is generally conveyed obliquely, whether through casual comments that Juan’s friends make about “hot” female athletes, jokes those same friends tell about tomboys, or the camera’s near-total stillness.

In a sign of their respect for our intelligence, moreover, Re and Barón also resist the temptation to emote. To illustrate their characters’ emotional repression, the two actors instead force us to glean Gabriel and Juan’s emotions from gestures, expressions, and small talk alone. At one point, for instance, we get that Gabriel is agitated by how his eyes dart around while his daughter talks about school. And in another scene, we realize that he’s angry when he simply says he’s “too tired” to stay up and watch some TV with Juan.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Blonde One is its unabashed physicality. Whereas supposedly “revolutionary” films like Brokeback Mountain shied from depicting gay sex – as though they found such intercourse disgusting – Berger wants us to recognize the role that sexual desire plays in LGBTQ+ relationships. Prominently featuring nudity and Berger’s trademark shots of crotches, the film manages to make gay sex seem like something that’s both tantalizingly illicit and refreshingly ordinary.

The Blonde One isn’t necessarily an easy watch. Thanks to its restrained acting and direction, nothing in the film is particularly eye-catching, and if you’re not prepared, you might find the whole thing a bit too long for comfort. Yet a shorter and more dramatic film wouldn’t have accomplished Berger’s main objective, which is to portray how two men haltingly – and at times vainly – try to overcome their emotional and sexual repression. This may not be a film that advertises itself as important, in short, but its sensitivity and perceptiveness will leave a lasting impression.   

Image courtesy of Kino International.

Distant Harmony: Pavarotti in China

*** (out of 4)

In recent years, the relationship between China and the West has become so tense that some would argue that we’ve entered into a “second Cold War.” To Westerners, China is an oppressive, authoritarian state that doesn’t care about things like human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. Conversely, Chinese people view Westerners, particularly Americans, as lazy hypocrites whose talk of “human rights” is simply soft imperialism.

As hard as it might be to believe, however, it wasn’t so long ago that China and the West were eager to learn from each other. In 1986, the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti was invited to Beijing, where – in a textbook-worthy example of cultural exchange – he gave concerts, toured the Forbidden City, and held master classes. American filmmaker DeWitt Sage chronicled the entire trip in Distant Harmony: Pavarotti in China, a documentary that was recently re-released for its 30th anniversary.

Although it nowadays seems like a historical footnote at best, Sage convincingly shows us why Pavarotti’s trip mattered. Occurring just a few years after Deng Xiaoping reopened China up to the world, Pavarotti’s tour symbolized the opportunities for learning and growth that the West and China saw in one another. As one Chinese official notes in the film, moreover, state media broadcast Pavarotti’s performances to some 200 million people, and his singing undoubtedly inspired a considerable number of Chinese kids to pursue a career in music.

Parts of Distant Harmony, to be sure, haven’t aged well, particularly the uneven way it treats its subjects. On the one hand, Sage takes a keen interest in Pavarotti, portraying him as genial, talented, and eager to learn more about China. By contrast, the Chinese people we see are not so much individuals as exoticized symbols, a homogeneous mass of tai chi practitioners, adorable little kids, and enthusiastic spectators who invariably speak in broken English.

At other times, moreover, Distant Harmony plays like the travelogue of an over-eager tourist who’s uninterested in interrogating the things he sees. For instance, the film tries to illustrate the differences between China and the West by contrasting Pavarotti’s Western opera with traditional Beijing opera. In doing so, however, it overlooks that traditional Beijing opera had only recently come back into vogue, having been banned during the Cultural Revolution in favor of so-called “model operas.”

Still, despite its deficiencies, Distant Harmony ends up being a surprisingly poignant experience. To watch it is to open a time capsule and return to a seemingly happier era, when Pavarotti was in his prime, the “first” Cold War was winding down, and people everywhere looked forward to China’s reemergence on the world stage. Nobody on screen knows what’ll happen just three years later in Tiananmen Square – and if you watch the film with that knowledge in mind, you might just find yourself on the verge of tears.

Image courtesy of Imperative Entertainment.

Out of Omaha

*** ½ (out of 4)

If you didn’t know any better, Omaha, Nebraska, could easily come off looking like a synonym for whiteness. As a city in the Great Plains, Omaha is easily associated with so-called “Trump country.” And in popular culture, the city is probably best known for being the setting of Alexander Payne’s Election and About Schmidt, both of which portray the city as a place that’s populated by unhappy white men.

As though to contradict this stereotypical understanding, Clay Tweel’s Out of Omaha depicts Omaha as a racially diverse city that has many of the same problems with segregation as Baltimore and Chicago. Between 2010 and 2017, Tweel followed and filmed Darcell and Darrell Trotter, two African-American twins who hail from Omaha’s predominantly African-American northern section. Tweel then edited his footage down to this 93-minute documentary, which aspires to turn the Trotters’ story into a metaphor for systemic racism in America.

Parts of the film admittedly don’t work as well as Tweel would like. At times, for instance, he includes interview footage of a lawyer who talks about poverty, racism, and the way they affect the black community in Omaha. Persuasive as they are, these parts of the film feel a bit redundant. They use mere words to describe things that are already illustrated by Tweel’s depiction of the Trotters’ daily life.

Generally speaking, however, Out of Omaha is effective because it doesn’t cater to our traditional understanding of what makes someone “deserving.” Likable as the Trotter twins are, after all, they and their family are hardly perfect. The two of them consume and sell weed, while their father is a drug addict who’s spent time in prison. Towards the start of the film, it’s suggested that Darcell doesn’t put effort into his schoolwork, and at one point, Darrell talks about a time when he took a gun and tried to kill somebody.

With determined persistence, Out of Omaha explains why you’d be wrong to hold all of these things against the Trotters. Darcell and Darrell sell weed not because they’re good-for-nothings, but because there’s no other way to make money in their neighborhood. Similarly, drug addiction and attempted murder are undeniably bad things, but they’re bound to occur in an environment where violence and drug dealing are the norm. And while Darcell might seem like a slacker, it’s hard to focus on schoolwork when you constantly have to deal with gangs and family issues back at home.

In today’s political arena, the Trotters would likely be pilloried as “moochers” or “welfare bums.” The power of Out of Omaha, however, is that it punctures these stereotypes. With a level of empathy that recalls Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, Tweel persuasively explains why Darcell and Darrell do things that seem reckless or irrational, and he also shows that the twins’ success in life will depend on factors largely out of their control. This documentary has the kind of nuance and intelligence that our public discourse could sorely use – and ultimately, it’s everyone’s loss that the film is getting next to no attention outside of Nebraska.

Image courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Send Me to the Clouds

** ½ (out of 4)

One of the biggest problems in modern-day China is its sexism – specifically, the centuries-old belief that women should get married rather than pursue a career. In an illustration of just how ingrained this belief is, Chinese officials have even created a special term to denigrate unmarried women who’re older than 27: sheng nu. Literally translated, the term means “leftover woman,” a painfully direct illustration of the subordinate role that women play in traditional Chinese culture.

The story of one such sheng nu is at the center of Send Me to the Clouds, the first film from female director Teng Congcong. Shengnan (Yao Chen) – a name that tellingly means “prosperous man” – is a female journalist who learns that she has ovarian cancer. In an attempt to get money to pay for chemotherapy, she agrees to ghostwrite a biography of an aging painter (Yang Xinming).

Quickly, however, we realize that Shengnan’s cancer is just a physical manifestation of a deeper spiritual malaise. Teng depicts China as a cutthroat environment that suffers from in-your-face materialism and rampant corruption. The only things that most of the secondary characters care about are getting rich and making connections. And as a frustrated writer, Teng can hardly say that she’s had a fulfilling life by comparison.

In general, then, Send Me to the Clouds plays like a more narratively accessible version of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life. Like Jia, Teng meditates on the consequences of China’s rapid economic growth, arguing that such growth has created a merely surface form of prosperity. Teng also shares Jia’s fondness for long takes and slow camera movements, which illustrate how lost Shengnan feels in the face of an illness that could end her life.

At this point, you might be thinking that Send Me to the Clouds is just another cheesy and heavy-handed movie about finding “meaning” in life. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. At times, the film’s ideas feel about as complex as the cliché that we should all strive to become “one with nature.” More specifically, Teng’s characterization of the painter proves quite hackneyed: he’s portrayed as a stereotypical “wise man” who regularly meditates, loves calligraphy, and makes pseudo-profound statements about the emptiness of earthly life.

Still, generally speaking, what’s striking about Send Me to the Clouds is that it avoids taking the predictable or easy way out. Even as it expresses admiration for the painter’s ascetic way of life, the film ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting that Shengnan is unable to discover a surefire way of giving her life “purpose.” As though to skewer the conventional notion that “love solves everything,” moreover, an apparent meet cute between Shengnan and a good-looking photographer (Yuan Hong) ends up going nowhere.

Ultimately, perhaps the most memorable thing about Send Me to the Clouds is its unabashed feminism. In defiance of the stigma around sheng nu, the film highlights the constant discrimination that Teng faces as a woman, be it from a newspaper colleague (Li Jiuxiao), the painter, or the painter’s son (Liang Guanhua). And the second half of the film draws particular attention to Teng’s sexuality, portraying it as something that’s both important and worthy of respect.

Admittedly, Send Me to the Clouds’ treatment of these topics isn’t as subversive as it could be. Plenty of Western films (e.g. Elle, Let the Sunshine In, Gloria) have portrayed female sexuality with greater verve, and compared to the steamy works of other Chinese directors (e.g. Lou Ye), Teng’s film feels quite tame. Still, in a society that coins new terms to belittle professional women, Send Me to the Clouds is hardly insignificant – and when all is said and done, Teng deserves recognition for her willingness to engage in social criticism.