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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Behind the Haystacks, Under the Fig Trees,...

Screen Grabs: Behind the Haystacks, Under the Fig Trees, and Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Mother Nature rules the roost in three international Oscar submissions—and in experimental wonder 'Last Things'

Mother Nature is a leading player in a quartet of new features from around the globe. Whether hailing from Vietnam, Tunisia, Greece or the mineral sphere, these new releases at local theaters and to streaming platforms offer perspectives very much attuned to humanity’s relation within a larger ecology—though in one case, our species is scarcely a blip on a timeline that greatly preceded and will no doubt greatly outlast us.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell won a debut-film prize at Cannes last year—the first Vietnamese production to do so since Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya three decades earlier—as well as numerous awards elsewhere along the festival circuit. Opening at the Roxie this Friday, it will provide a nice complement to that venue’s ongoing Tarkovsky retrospective, as it belongs to much the same questing, slowly paced vein of transcendental cinema. Pham Thien An’s feature is a full three hours long, but restorative rather than taxing. You sink into its lush, poetical ambiguities as you would a fragrant warm bath.

A six-minute opening shot—not an especially extravagant length here—tracks from a Saigon soccer field mid-game to an adjacent outdoor cafe, where several young men are talking about their futures, none too seriously. The others are puzzled that Thien (Le Phong Vu) intends to leave the city, returning to his village from some sort of vague spiritual need that urban life has left unfulfilled. (Saigon also doesn’t seem to have fulfilled anyone’s hopes of gainful employment.) As a shower breaks out, the camera continues on its way to a nearby intersection, where two motorcycles have just collided. This accident turns out to further impact Thien’s plans: His sister-in-law has been killed in the mishap, and his brother’s whereabouts are unknown. So now he’s not just going home, he’s taking her body there for burial, while in charge of kindergarten-aged nephew Dao (Nguyen Thinh).

The siblings’ parents moved to the US some time ago; his connections to this sleepy, verdant hometown are tenuous. The past surfaces in various forms, including an elderly man’s memories of fighting in the Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s known there). Thien discovers that erstwhile girlfriend Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), for whom he moved to Saigon in hopes of establishing a career that would win her parents’ approval, is now a nun. Eventually our protagonist deposits his nephew at the school where she teaches, taking to the road in an attempt to find his elusive brother. Like much else here, this effort is both troubling and oddly tranquil—Thien sometimes seems to come close to arriving at a goal, only for the viewer as well as himself to realize it’s just a phantasmal dream, flashback, or speculative path-not-taken.

Though less overtly magical-realist than Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, this has a similar lyrical opacity, meditative pace, and slippery relationship towards present-tense reality. Reflecting the verdant, frequently rain-dampened surroundings, the imagery here is lush but not ornate; the overall sensibility subtle yet enveloping. I couldn’t tell you exactly where Yellow Cocoon Shell’s cryptic story finally takes us, but the journey is hypnotic.

Contrastingly modest in scope—limited just to a working day in one outdoor location—is another debut feature, Erige Sehiri’s Under the Fig Trees. Its script apparently developed semi-improvisationally with the nonprofessional (but very good) actors, this is the kind of casual-seeming ensemble piece in which “nothing happens,” yet by the end you feel quite a lot has.

A pickup carries workers to a fig orchard for a hot summer day’s picking in the northwestern Tunisian countryside. Only young Fide (Fide Fdhili) gets to ride up front with the driver, feigning indifference to gossip in the truckbed behind about their apparent romance. Her comparatively shy sister Feten (Feten Fdhili) turns bold when it turns out that present today will be adorable Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti), on whom she once pinned her own hopes for love. Between these flirtatious entanglements and other, sometimes unasked-for ones, it seems at times little harvesting gets done among the more youthful laborers here.

Meanwhile the older ones, laden with a lifetime of cares (and debts this low-paying gig won’t relieve), grouse at one another—none louder than an elderly man who complains about having to monitor the entire sprawling, unfenced property for any unauthorized pickers. High spirits remain the terrain of the young here; it is suggested that hard experience will quash their hopes all too soon. Tears are shed, arguments break out. Still, life goes on.

Slight as the seriocomic material feels, we emerge with a strong feel for cultural differences of generation and gender. And Sehiri handles it all gracefully enough to manage a sudden sense of exhilarating if fragile largess at the fadeout. Under the Fig Trees gets released to On Demand and digital platforms by Film Movement this Fri/26.

Work and its discontents take on a grimmer hue in Asimina Proedrou’s Behind the Haystacks, another Film Movement find that (like both titles above) was submitted by its primary country of origin to the Oscars’ Best International feature competition. Here, geography rather than agriculture is the key element, along with the ever-increasing pressures that “global economics” bear on the individual. Stergios (Stathis Stamoulakatos) is a middle-aged fisherman whose family has lived for generations on the Greek side of the Greece-Macedonia border.

In some senses, little has changed—certainly not the alternately fond and bullying way he treats his fretful, devout wife Maria (Eleni Ouzounidou) and their only child Anastasia (Evgenia Lavda), a trainee nurse. Yet somehow it all keeps getting more difficult, the struggle to escape debt drastically worsening when Stergios finds himself stuck with a punitive tax bill. Eventually he has no choice but to accept the offer of his despised brother-in-law (Paschalis Tsarouhas)—a man whose conscienceless flauntings of the law tend to profit himself while landing others in jail—to ferry illegal immigrants across a lake.

Haystacks begins with local children discovering two drowned bodies in the reeds just off-shore, so you can guess Stergios’ high-risk errand proves ill-fated. The complexly structured script is divided into three sections, providing a Rashomon-like array of perspectives on overlapping events. In the second, we see Maria’s awakening towards both the plight of foreign refugees in a nearby tent camp, and the illicit activities her husband hides from her. The third shows Anastasia, who at home acts the part of the submissive “good girl” (though not without complaints), having a considerably more independent, modern life whenever her conservative parents aren’t watching. Inevitably, these strands and others (mostly involving Dina Milhailidou as a neighbor and Christos Kontogeorgis as her son) will cross to results variously confrontational, melodramatic, and tragic.

While this kind of puzzle-like storytelling has its own fascination, Proedrou’s film already has such a crowded dramatic and thematic agenda, it might’ve been better served by a more straightforward chronological approach. The over-complicated path taken ends up creating a certain amount of confusion, without necessarily deepening our understanding of the characters or their problems. Still, this portrait of a traditional way of life getting battered and dismantled by external forces is compelling in its ambitions. It begins streaming on arthouse platform Film Movement Plus this Fri/26.

The societal changes that seem tumultuous to Stergios & co. are of less than infinitesimal importance to the subjects in Deborah Stratman’s 50-minute Last Things, an experimental documentary showing at the Roxie starting this Sun/30 in a co-presentation with Canyon Cinema (more info here). It provides a history of Earthly matter in which humankind is but a blip. The focus here is on mineral formations, both their origins in “the prehistory of prehistory”—long before any animal or even plant life existed—and in their future after our species is gonesville. (Which, needless to say, might be happening sooner than hitherto anticipated.) The latter perspective is provided via recitations from vintage science-fiction novels and other writings that predict a coming epoch in which rocks once again “take back” the planet, rather than bearing passive witness to shorter-lived residents.

While there are brief visits to the laboratory and bits of direct input from scientists, the Chicago-based filmmaker’s unconventional approach makes this less an educational exercise than an abstract phantasmagoria of stunning images few would be able to easily identify. They come from landscapes around the globe, vistas under the sea, in the microscope and in outer space. These unfamiliar, even psychedelic images reveal worlds of complexity and far greater permanence than our busy, fleeting epoch.

Showing in 35mm, its fittingly avant-garde soundtrack including contributions from Brian Eno, Okkyung Lee and others, Last Things is at once delightful and sobering. Its visual riches come encased in the firm message that even without our currently speeding the extinction process along, this sphere we live on has elements that will endure far beyond those mammals foolish enough to think they rule it.

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