What do you want to get out of your movie-watching? Laughs? Thrills? Hopefully some truth? Me, I long to be destroyed. While I'm a fool for well-written romantic anguish, any manufactured tragedy or fictional woe can have its way with me. Unfortunately, the traditional pre-holiday drought of affecting films has left me totally cold, but I crossed my fingers that new pieces by a couple of contemporary cinema's most accomplished filmmakers would drain my tear ducts.
André Téchiné's Changing Times features two Gallic legends --- Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu --- in a layered look at relationships between French and Moroccans in modern-day Tangiers. Depardieu plays Antoine, a construction site manager who has finagled assignment to Morocco for the express purpose of wooing Cécile (Deneuve), an old flame he hasn't seen in more than 30 years. Now a radio host married to a philandering doctor, Cécile is also contending with the return of her lawyer son Sami and his addict girlfriend Nadia, whom he abandons to tryst with Bilal, his working-class Moroccan lover.
Depardieu and Deneuve are of course splendid, him a weary hulk of a man made bold by love (or at least delusions of it), her a faded beauty trying to resist the chance to recapture lost youth. While Antoine resorts to North African voodoo in an effort to win back Cecile, Téchiné also examines the colonial culture clash via the interactions between Cecile and her Moroccan husband, Bilal and Sami (himself half Moroccan/half French), and, in the most compelling subplot, Nadia and her devout Muslim twin.
Though well into his fourth decade of filmmaking, Téchiné has only been getting stateside release since his breakthrough film, 1994's Wild Reeds. In the intervening decade he's been an arthouse staple, with movies like Les Voleurs and Ma Saison Préférée showcasing his urgent handheld style and his unwillingness to simplify the complicated. At the end of Changing Times, however, the wheels seemed to fall off, as Téchiné resorted to sudsy plot contrivances and ultra-tidy wrap-ups, all salient points about race and creed nearly lost to an unnecessarily fairy-tale ending.
Zhang Yimou is one of China's better-known filmmakers, debuting in 1987 with Red Sorghum and, with movies like 1991's sublime Raise the Red Lantern all the way through 2004's bombastic House of Flying Daggers, maintaining a level of quality and success matched by very few peers. Zhang's latest film is Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, a lovely meditation on fathers, sons, and the importance of communication, even if people speak different tongues.
When a reticent Japanese fisherman named Takata (veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura) learns his long-estranged son has cancer, he embarks on a trip to China to film a performance of one of his son's beloved Chinese folk operas in hopes of reconciliation. Cue red tape, language barriers, and another fractured father-son relationship, and Takata finds his trip has become a journey, his original focus shifting as he decides to locate the young boy of the despondent opera singer he believes to be so vital to his film.
There's nothing subtle about the growing bond between Takata and 8-year-old Yang Yang, and a more jaded person (i.e., not me) might resent any heavy-handedness involving a gruff curmudgeon and a cute kid. Luckily, Takakura's unsentimental performance and Yimou's elegant imagery elevate Riding Alone above garden-variety melodrama, resulting in a movingly satisfying film.
Zhang takes these slice-of-life breaks after spells making intricate period drama; following 1994's To Live and 1995's Shanghai Triad he finished out the '90s with the realism of The Road Home and Not One Less. In a matter of weeks, however, another of his costumed epics, Curse of the Golden Flower, hits American screens, reuniting Zhang with Gong Li (their celebrated romantic and professional partnership ended on Shanghai Triad) and reacquainting American audiences with the awesome Chow Yun-Fat. Zhang's first martial arts extravaganza, the devastating (and devastatingly beautiful) Hero, left me in tatters for much of 2004. But this is nothing new.
Changing Times (NR), directed by André Téchiné, shows Friday, November 24, 8 p.m., and Saturday, November 25, 5 p.m., at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre | Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles (NR), directed by Zhang Yimou, opens Friday, December 1, at the Little Theatres.