Through all of its ups and downs, the Tribeca Film Festival has always been a reliable forum for brave and challenging foreign films -- between all of the glitzy red carpet events and the in-your-face parade of corporate sponsorships, the fest has both preserved and deepened its commitment to showcasing the kind of risky international cinema that otherwise might never have the opportunity to be seen by such a broad audience (and sometimes that’s for the best).
Allowing American audiences to catch up with the global standouts from the previous year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the Tribeca lineup tends to catch the stuff that might fall through the cracks -- fiercely idiosyncratic movies from all corners of the globe that might not have the prestige required for Cannes, but nevertheless tell urgent stories of distant lives. From patient and penetrating dramas like Turkey’s Beyond the Hill to ass-kicking action like France’s incredible Sleepless Night, the Tribeca Film Fest has never enjoyed such a rich roster of movies from around the world. Here’s a closer look at some of the more exciting examples, because at the end of the day only 95% of festival movies can be quirky American comedies about how hard it is to be in your twenties.
Chicken With Plums (directed by Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Marjane Satrapi is a wildly talented graphic novelist, her gift for memoir beautifully dovetailing with her sense of visual whimsy to create Persepolis, a moving and revelatory look at family life during Iran’s turbulent recent history. In 2007, Satrapi partnered with Vincent Paronnaud to bring Persepolis to the screen, and their massively satisfying collaboration seems to have stuck, as their back with their second feature, Chicken with Plums. Quietly screened at a few major festivals last year, Chicken With Plums is an almost inevitable follow-up project for Paronnaud and Satrapi, but one that involves a number of new challenges for the duo despite how familiar the film ultimately feels. Like Persepolis, Chicken With Plums was adapted from one of Satrapi’s pre-existing graphic novels, and similarly lifts many of its compositions directly from the pages of Satrapi’s book. The major difference here is that Chicken With Plums is live-action.
Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali, a talented French-speaking musician living in Iran with his wife (Pulp Fiction’s Maria de Medeiros) and their two children. One day, in the wake of a heated argument, Nasser-Ali’s wife destroys his most prized violin and the man resigns himself to death in eight days time. The film punctuates those eight days with title cards, in between hopping around the pivotal moments from earlier in Nasser-Ali’s life to slowly (and in a very roundabout fashion) exploring the various loves of his life, including his torrid affections for the one who got away: A woman named (wait for it), Iran.
A beautiful film that unfolds like fidgety folklore, Chicken With Plums is touched by several moments of rare beauty, Paronnaud and Satrapi’s shared sense of whimsy keeping things light and visually dynamic despite a massive undercurrent of pain. Unfortunately, the narrative is so needlessly fractured, the means by which the story is being told sometimes overwhelming the pathos contain therein -- the film resolves with a beautiful moment that you know isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should be. Nevertheless, as a broad, fable-like eulogy for a beautiful past overrun by needless conflict, Chicken With Plums is a wistful effort from a filmmaking duo who seem to be just warming up.
Headshot (directed by Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is among the elite Thai filmmakers whose work consistently finds a global audience -- if Apichatpong Weerasethakul efforts like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives court the arthouse audience, Pen-Ek’s stuff tends to steer a similarly introspective tone in a more accessible direction (read: his films include blood, bullets, and strippers, sometimes all together in the same scene). His 2003 flick Last Life in the Universe is among the most bracing and transcendent romantic dramas I can remember, and his 1999 thriller 6ixtynin9 managed to find some fans despite being saddled with a title chosen by an adolescent boy who doesn’t entirely understand how words work.
Pen-Ek is a visually gifted filmmaker, and Headshot gives him a neat gimmick to explore with his camera. The crime noir follows the twisted story of Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), a hitman in contemporary Bangkok who botches a job and takes a bullet to the skull. When Tul wakes up a few months later, he quickly sees that his world has literally been turned upside down. He looks up and sees the ground, he looks down and sees the ceiling, he flips his TV over so that he can watch it in comfort -- this is Tul’s new normal. Through an elegantly fractured narrative, Pen-Ek depicts Tul’s life from a bunch of different angles: We see his pre-trauma days as a narc, his stint in prison, the loss of his one true love (a prostitute, natch), and even his time as a Buddhist monk.
Despite being gorgeously shot, Headshot fails to transcend its pleasure as particularly vivid travel porn because it seems to be afraid of embracing its central gimmick. The moments during which we’re treated to Tul’s flipped POV are sporadic and oddly unmotivated, as if Pen-Ek is reluctant to explore the only thing that might elevate this standard revenge story into something new. The film’s fluid sense of morality makes Tul a compelling protagonist despite the fact that he seems too damaged to really emote, and individual sequences (such as Tul’s escape from an interrogation) serve as clever reminders as to Pen-Ek’s gifts as a visual storyteller, but the director’s commitment to a pedestrian plot force Headshot into being a tired action film when it obviously wanted to be so much more.
Beyond the Hill (Directed by Emin Alper)
Strap yourselves in, we may have a new wave on our hands. Aesthetically indebted to the work of fellow Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Emin Alper’s first feature Beyond the Hill is a doozy of a drama, a measured and penetrating portrait of family heritage and its buried violence. Alper’s remarkable visual command is apparent from the very first shot, as an unseen man walks through a property deep in the heart of Turkey’s countryside, crushes the small trees in his path. The land belongs to Faik, a retired farmer whose son and grandchildren are coming for a visit. The way Faik son sees things, his father is kicking back and enjoying his retirement, but Faik argues that he’s engaged in a full-time struggle to maintain ownership of their land, locked in a passive-aggressive battle with a band of local nomads (well, I guess you wouldn’t think it’s passive-aggressive if you were one of the goats that got killed in the process). The story takes shape around an inter-generational night of camping out beneath the stars, the only problem being that there are just a few loaded rifles too many for anyone to get comfortable. The bandits pepper the yellow landscape like ghosts, menacing Faik and his clan from distant hilltops, surrounding them like a noose.
Alper exhibits a mastery of his craft that’s rare in people who’ve been directing features for years, his every frame is gorgeously composed and brimming with dread. The tensions between Faik, his family, and the ominous forces on the periphery smolder into the sinews of every moment, and then the men with the real guns show up and violence seems nigh. A fire is lit, and a family reunion is soon revealed to be something of an ambush. Beyond the Hill may not a “thriller” as our pop culture dictionaries define it, but this is family drama that’ll leave you breathless.