Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Promiscuous in Mill Valley


Highlights from the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival, week 2

Hagar Ben Asher as Tamar in The Slut. (Photo: MVFF)
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The final four days of the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival offer a host of opportunities to escape the great American culture bubble, as well as some choice treats inside the bubble, including the new Stevie Nicks doc In Your Dreams, with a guest appearance by the goddess herself, plus nightly performances at Sweetwater Music Hall (Mill Valley) and closing-night films.

The Slut goes from an unusual opening sequence in which a horse bolts its comfortable paddock to a final moment when a God's-eye camera observes a young woman examining the high cost of her own pursuit of erotic freedom. Israeli filmmaker Hagar Ben Asher takes us to a dusty rural chicken farm where a youngish woman, Tamar (Asher), spends every moment that she's not selling eggs or looking after her two school-age girls in a spirited carnal rondo with three hungry local guys. This moveable feast – depicted in an unflinching style comparable to Bernardo Bertolucci's breakthrough four decades ago, Last Tango in Paris – is up-ended when a beautiful, doggedly sincere suitor, the local veterinarian (Ishai Golan, with understated masculinity that will convince many gay men to buy tickets for both shows), convinces Tamar to play house with him. The dude is great with the girls, terrific in bed, everything seems perfect, yet Tamar soon wants her old life back, with drastic consequences for all.

Asher invokes every last metaphor that farm animals are capable of delivering for human erotic freedom. Her approach to this first feature also signals a yet-unnamed "New Wave" of Israeli filmmakers eager to show sides of their frontier society that do not involve the ongoing conflict with their Arab neighbors.

In 1972, Pauline Kael hailed Bertolucci for achieving "realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen," but her hope that Tango would pave the way for a permanent revolution in the way Western filmmakers utilize sexuality to reveal character and the inner self has not come to pass. The Slut, which has apparently secured at least limited US distribution, should not be missed. (Rafael 1, 10/11; Rafael 2, 10/12)

Daniel Henney as Sam in Shanghai Calling. (Photo: MVFF)

Shanghai Calling Close to a century ago, my British-born dad, barely out of his teens, used to make China's largest city a port of call as a ship's purser for the Blue Funnel line. At this time of Chinese humiliation, the city was carved into spheres of influence by the U.S., Britain, France and Japan. Director Daniel Hsia puts this history on speed dial in a super-savvy satire/romantic comedy.

Stanford-educated, American-born corporate lawyer Sam (in the deliciously ironic casting of Korean American Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai by the New York home office to be their resident legal beagle. Sam is a hunk approaching his 30th birthday, witty but distracted, arrogant, and master of neither Mandarin nor Cantonese – the only Chinese word he does know means fart. He trips through a series of cultural pratfalls, alienating potential friends and allies before he wises up.

Director/writer Hsia employs the upside-down birthday-cake logic of East-meets-West in a manner reminiscent of the masters: Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye Lenin and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet. Against the backdrop of an exploding metropolis with enough shiny architectural marvels for several Gothams, Hsia enables his flying-by-the-seat-of-his pants charmer Henney to bluff and bully his way past an attractive supporting cast, including Titanic 's Bill Paxton as Mayor of America Town, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off 's Alan Ruck as an especially slippery American tech magnate. While it would be over-the-top to claim "the Lubitsch touch" for Hsia, this very smart and oddly touching tale is exceptionally entertaining and a useful hedge against election-year China-bashing. (Sequoia 1, 10/13; Rafael 1, 10/14)




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