Sebastian took me to my first film festival last weekend - TriBeCa, in New York. It's a trip we've planned since last year, so it was fantastic to finally get to go. We only watched two films because frantic amounts of homework were being done by all, but it was definitely a pause in the chaos that I needed and am grateful for now. Train re-routings meant we spent an afternoon getting lost instead of eating macarons at the Laduree location that recently opened near Central Park, but we did find a great little Italian hole-in-the-wall on the edge of Harlem (of all places!) and ended up with macarons from a Japanese bakery instead. And let me tell you, folks, if you've not had a cherry blossom macaron, you're missing out. (Passionfruit was also excellent.)
The films we watched were Trishna and High Tech, Low Life. The first one was an adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles to modern-day India, and I have mixed feelings about it, largely because I know the story in the original book. The second is a documentary on citizen bloggers in China, and I liked it better. Sebastian thought High Tech, Low Life was good but too long and with less dramatic dialogue, and that Trishna had more well-crafted script moments (actually, he used some other film-review-ish term I've forgotten). I pointed out that Trishna had, y'know, a script. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
In Trishna, "Tess" from the original book is renamed into the title character, a rural girl forced to look for work when her father falls asleep at the wheel of their rented truck while it's carrying vegetables to market -- a nice transplant of the original story, which has the family's horse-drawn wagon getting in an road accident that ends up killing the horse. The characters of Angel ("the good guy") and Alec ("the bad guy") in the original novel are rolled into one character in the movie: Jay, who runs several businesses of his family's empire, including the hotel where Trishna goes to work. The acting is good, the cinematography well done (Sebastian may disagree, but I love disorientingly rapid cuts during montage scenes), and the story unfolds well in the beginning; Trishna works at the hotel Jay runs, they find themselves drawn to each other, and end up making love one night after a party (consensually, instead of the rape scene between Alec and Tess in the original book). Trishna is overwhelmed and runs away back home shortly thereafter, only to realize she's pregnant; her family forces her to get an abortion, then sends her to a factory in the city, where she labors until Jay shows up again; he's been looking for her ever since she ran away. So far, so good; the merger of Angel and Alec into the character of Jay is done in a way that makes sense.
Jay asks Trishna to move to Mumbai with him; she accepts, and they live together in the city, very much in love. (I think.) Jay is clearly channeling the character of Angel from the original book; he's a good guy, genuinely seems to care for her, and so forth. Cute and funny moments abound in montage scenes here! He even promises Trishna he'll tell his family about her - which prompts her to confess the pregnancy and subsequent abortion right before Jay leaves for home. The revelation shocks Jay; when he returns, he's turned into a ticking timebomb of an asshole -- effectively metamorphing from "Angel" to "Alec." The metamorphosis is unconvincing and awkward now, and (in my opinion) ruins the movie; as Sebastian put it, "the film goes downhill along with their relationship." The script attempts to justify the deteriorating romance by reassigning Jay and Trishna to yet another of his family's hotels: he as the manager, she as a worker. Presumably, once they stop living together, the differences in their social strata cause strain (which I buy) and this strain turns Jay from a caring, sensitive guy into a cruel, abusive jerk within a few months (which I don't buy) Finally, desperate to end the movie, Trishna stabs him, then herself (her suicide scene intercut with her cute little brother and sister dramatically reciting the Our Father in school as TENSE MUSIC BUILDS!) But it was quite good up 'till the "honey, I got an abortion -- you can turn into an asshole now!" part.
I liked High Tech, Low Life better; it's a documentary on citizen journalism in China, following two bloggers over four years as they skirt the edge of Chinese law to get news past the censorship blockades. The main characters are a study in contrast. One is "Tiger Temple," an older man with a quiet steadiness and a heart that aches for the people whose stories he covers -- a young woman murdered in broad daylight, a farm village devastated by toxic waste dumped into their water supply -- once he starts interviewing the local homeless population, he's motivated to raise money to buy a place for them to live. Then there's "Zola," a young man who bristles with overconfidence the same way his pockets bristle with gadgets and emergency supplies. He's a vegetable seller, but wants to become famous -- so he sets off to get attention on the internet by covering news that would otherwise be covered-up, always featuring a picture of himself grinning by the location. He does become famous, of course; he's invited to speak at a blogging conference overseas, only to have the government block his exit from China. At times, his excitement at the increased notoriety this "injustice" is bringing him seems to overshadow his disappointment at the injustice itself.
Perhaps the reason I thought the documentary was a better film was because it stirred up all sorts of aches inside me as I watched, conflict and guilt and hope and rage, simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity... all these feelings from a whole different universe that I deliberately ignore and place halfway across the world. My family history includes (1) China and (2) participation in journalism that got us in big trouble in the past; Sebastian's doesn't, so maybe the film was less immediate to him -- not sure. But it was good, to step into the stories of other people for a short, defined while -- they're on a screen, they start, they run an hour or two, they stop, you walk away and think and talk and eat falafel sandwiches and ginger ale. And then you go back to school and work and work and work again.
Film festival braindump done! Now to close out this semester, so that I can... work on the backlog of non-academic work that's built up in the meantime.