Call it love in the time of nativism. Darkly comic and fretfully relevant, Bulgarian writer-director Ivaylo Hristov’s Fear (Film Movement, $24.95 DVD) exists on a pitch-black nexus between satire and documentary.
It’s set in a seaside village along the Turkish border, where the locals are bracing for a brutal winter. Signs of life are scant, as fog blankets skeletal trees, weeds invade the cemetery, and the crumbling school, where the widowed Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva) had taught, is shut down by the municipality. Nothing suggests a hospitable place to live: Svetla regularly slaps down unwanted sexual advances from Ivan (Ivan Savov), a government official, and she sleeps with a knife under her pillow. The only action in this stillborn town is the occasional caravan of refugees, en route to Germany from Middle Eastern war zones, intercepted by border agents and housed in the now-derelict school to the clucking disapproval of the locals, for whom “Bulgaria is for Bulgarians.”
Into the hostile environment appears Bamba (Michael Flemming), a Malian immigrant, medical doctor and English speaker whose dark skin is by itself an affront to a populace conditioned to fear it. Svetlana discovers him on a rabbit hunt; he too is attempting to cross into Germany for save haven. Like a persistent stray, he won’t seem to go away. Immigration enforcement doesn’t have room for him either, leaving Svetlana little choice but to take him in, first in her semiattached woodshed, then into the house proper. The longer he hangs around, the more utility he expresses, from chopping wood to tending to a neighbor’s health condition. He even picks up some of the language. None of which satisfies Svetlana’s xenophobic neighbors, who ostracize Svetlana—and worse—while continuing to trot out anti-immigrant zombie lies “How do we know they’re not hiding terrorists?”
It’s to Hristov’s nimble credit that Fear never becomes a moralistic soapbox, in part because the movie is so consistently, and yet surprisingly, funny. In the spirit of deadpan maestri like Aki Kaurismaki, it disarms its audience as often as Bamba disarms the clueless bigots scheming around him. There is humor in the danger, and vice versa.
Fear was nominated as Bulgaria’s Academy Award selection for Best International Feature Film this year, and it’s easy to see why. Its “Bulgaria First” poison rhymes with the tribalist politics we’re seeing across the globe. Hristov filmed Fear in a pitiless monochrome, and indeed, the movie would be unimaginable in color. Too many of us, after all, still see the world in black and white.
* * *
Still among the underrated vanguard of 1990s art-house cinema, Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (Film Movement, $39.95 BD, $29.95 DVD) has finally received the ravishing Blu-ray transfer it has long deserved. It depicts three characters in a radically urbanizing Taiwan, each operating on the fringes of legality and/or propriety as they fumble through changing times.
May Lin (Yang Kuei-Mei) sells multimillion-dollar real estate while living modestly, and on a sexual diet of apparent one-night stands. One day, in a wordless encounter at the mall, she meets Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), who makes a living hawking clothes illegally on the street, and they sleep together in one of May Lin’s lavish and sprawling duplexes. Unbeknownst to them, a troubled columbaria salesman, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) has already pilfered a key to the property, taking up residence — and occasionally cutting himself — in one of its exorbitant, sheetless beds and marble bathrooms.
These are three young people who have yet to find their place, all orbiting around an apartment none can afford, and colliding there only on occasion. May Lin and Hsiao-kang develop an occasional sexual relationship, and Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung form a friendship as co-conspirators in the stealth art of apartment squatting. Vive L’Amour is a love triangle of mostly vicarious pleasures. But much of Tsai’s film, which he shot without a complete script, consists of their everyday solo interactions, loneliness being the characters’ common denominator.
One of the joys of Tsai’s patient approach to filmmaking is that much of this information, down to how each character makes a living, is withheld from his audience for up to an hour of screen time. By refusing to telegraph anything, and by depriving us of a score to cue us emotionally, he lets us figure things out alongside his characters. It’s usually liberating.
Yang Kuei-Mei, the only experienced actor Tsai cast in the movie, reportedly was frustrated during filming because Tsai could not provide her with a complete script. She knew nothing of her character’s backstory or psychology, and had to live purely in each moment. To say the result bears fruit is an understatement; Vive L’Amour is evidence of just how overrated these actorly crutches can be.
As in his other great films, Tsai lingers on poetic gestures and introduces sly humor when appropriate. There’s one comic mise-en-scene that rivals Jacques Tati in its compositional wit.
Only toward the end of Vive L’Amour does the movie’s micro approach snowball into a sum that’s more aching than its individual parts. For all of its shocking and sticky scenes — Ah-jung participates in an intimate sort of congress with a watermelon — this is a movie about repressed, unfulfilled longing. It reveals facets of the human condition too often buried under the veneer of polite society.
When the dam bursts, as it were, in the movie’s famous and epic final shot, we are gifted with a moment of raw, messy vulnerability seldom presented before or since — a landmark conclusion to a landmark film.