CAPSULE: “MARTIN SCORSESE’S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, VOL. 2”

DIRECTED BY: Lufi O. Akad (Law of the Border), Lino Brocka (Insiang), Mario Peixoto (Limite), Ermek Shinarbaev (Revenge), (Mysterious Object at Noon), Edward Yang (Taipei Story)

FEATURING: Tsai Chin (Taipei Story), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taipei Story), Yilmaz Guney (Law of the Border), Hilda Koronel (Insiang)

PLOT: This box set contains six newly restored art films from across the globe, most of which have never been released separately.

Stil from Limite (1931)
Still from Limite (1931)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “World Cinema Project” is an initiative to preserve films from around the world (especially the third world) which have cultural value as relics of their particular times and places, but which alone lack the commercial appeal necessary for market forces to do the job. While there are some curious obscurities in this second set, none of them are strong enough to demand a separate review, much less contend for a spot among the weirdest films of all time.

COMMENTS: Of the six random entries in the latest installment of the -led film preservation, surprisingly, half of them include elements that might spark the interest of fans of weird cinema. We can deal with the three others quickly enough. 1966’s Law of the Border is a “Turkish Western” about smugglers on the Syrian/Turkish border who try, and fail, to go straight as sharecroppers. A work of social realism, but with action-oriented gunfights, it’s somewhat confusing as narrative and rudimentary as cinema. The Filipino melodrama Insiang (1976), about a pretty but much-abused slum dweller who devises a complicated revenge plot against her embittered mother and a much older seducer, fares better, engaging the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Edward Yang’s Tapei Story (1985) is standard arthouse fare: a stately but not exactly gripping social drama about urban ugliness and alienation, generational clashes and changes, and so on. It may well win over intellectual-minded drama-hounds with its realism and cynicism, but it gave me a distinct “been there, done that—only now in Taiwan” feeling.

The three less conventional entries deserve slightly more attention, although none of them have quite enough weird weight to merit a full review (though if any spark your interest, by all means chase them down). Limite is a legendary Brazilian silent film, long thought lost and even now missing crucial elements, which turns out to be underwhelming. It’s the only film of Mario Peixoto, who was only twenty-one at the time. It’s “poetic” and “meditative,” which is to say, slower and more obscure than it needs to be. Peixoto shows a good deal of talent, with a gripping contextless opening image of a handcuffed woman which could have come from a lost Buñuel/Dalí collaboration and a humorously inventive tracking shot where the camera outpaces its wandering subject, then doubles back to catch up with her as she leans against a post, resting. Mostly, however, it’s composed of a lot of scenes of a scraggly threesome languishing in a lifeboat, with largely dialogue-free flashbacks explaining how they got there. Overlong and unclear, with many superfluous, indulgent camera experiments, it seems more like a first draft of a good movie rather than a completed masterpiece.

In a way ‘s Mysterious Object at Noon is the outlier in the set, since “Joe”‘s fan base is large enough that his 2000 feature debut has long been available on video (although this release marks its first appearance on Region A Blu-ray). It is doubtlessly a strange film, nonetheless, even by Joe’s standards. A narrative/documentary hybrid, the concept is that the director goes on a road trip through rural Thailand, inviting the people he meets to add a new chapter to a story. He films some of these sequences as mini-movies, stages another as a play, and spends a lot of time simply interviewing the participants. Unfortunately, the tale they come up with, about a crippled boy, his live-in teacher, and an alien, is disjointed and absurd in an uninvolving way; Mysterious Object is only interesting on the slightest formal and intellectual level. The experiment is ultimately a failure, though a noteworthy one.

1989’s Revenge, a Kazakhstani effort made during the glasnost period, is the set’s biggest surprise. The movie was made under the old Soviet apparatus but orphaned, with no funds for distribution or promotion, when that empire dissolved only two years later. It’s a sprawling near-epic of a man literally conceived as a tool of revenge for the murder of the sister he never knew, bookended by Buddhist parables. Born to be a poet but fated to be an avenger, mystical occurrences dog the boy’s journey from Korea through China to Russia in pursuit of his sister’s killer. It’s a strange and spiritual plea for poetry above worldliness, lit by outstanding cinematography and draped in vivid period costuming. Had more of the movies in the set been unexpected revelations like this one, this edition of the “World Cinema Project” might have earned a general recommendation.

While each of these films is significant in some way, they aren’t, as a lot, overlooked masterpieces. There’s a reason that none of them were considered commercial enough for a standalone release. (The exceptions, perhaps, are Mysterious Object, which was previously released on DVD, and Limite, which could have been marketed to hardcore cinema historians as a lost cult film). As a purchase, the set is hard to recommend except to the most dedicated film scholars with an overabundance of disposable income. The movies have so little uniting them that even if you were intrigued by three of these titles, that would still leave you paying for another three you had little to no interest in. Highbrow cinephiles may feel obliged to salivate at this buffet, but sadly, the spread elevates diversity above quality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once indispensible and flawed, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2 is best viewed as another fine product from the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, even if the grouping of films remains, as with the first set, little more than incidental.”–Clayton Dillard, Slant

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