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The thing about documentaries is they are what they are. It's not fair to critique the narrative because that can turn into passing judgment on its subject. You could discuss the filmmaker's technique, but there's usually not much to say about filming a true story. And that's why this review of Tarnation was so hard, since the subject is the filmmaker.

Jonathan Caouette borrowed a video camera and began documenting his life at the age of 11. He also turned the lens on his mother Renee, a former child model who, after a fall that resulted in temporary paralysis, received shock treatments two times a week for two years. Caouette experienced abuse and neglect in foster care while his mother went in and out of mental hospitals for her schizophrenia. He eventually found a home with his maternal grandparents, found a family within Houston's gay community, and found a voice through filmmaking.

Tarnation opens with a phone call informing Caouette of his mother's near-fatal lithium overdose, and what follows focuses on Caouette's relationship with his mother over the years. The line between filmmaker and subject is nonexistent here, and there's one scene toward the end featuring the brain-damaged Renee that went on a little long and became really uncomfortable. At what point do you drop the camera and get involved?

If you're going to make a visual diary, it certainly helps to be blessed with the kind of staggering beauty that can only evolve from a fish-eyed little boy. The charismatic Caouette seems to love being in front of the camera as much as enjoys being behind it, and the camera returns his affection. One of his earlier clips shows him improvising as a battered woman, all honey drawl and nervous tics, which would have been remarkable even if he weren't 11 years old at the time.

But this winds up nagging at you as the film unspools: Caouette can act, and he's trying to put together a film. It's hard not to wonder if we're being manipulated at times.

It's not too early to call Caouette a talented filmmaker. He is obviously resourceful, having made Tarnation for a reported $218.32 using the iMovie software that came with his Mac. His soundtrack selections --- including Iron & Wine and Low --- are choice, and any filmmaker that uses Mark Kozelek automatically gets praise from me.

He could use a little discipline, however, as his frenetic, Warhol-inspired visuals detract somewhat from the already compelling story. But I really should wait to tell someone how to make a film until I've made one. Or at least until next week.

Tarnation (NR) opens at the Little Theatre on Friday, December 17.

--- Dayna Papaleo

With the last vestiges of Marxism eroding from the cultural and political makeup of mainland China, previously unknown freedoms are slowly becoming a way of life. In addition to dabbling in a market economy and partaking in consumerism, the Chinese have also begun to explore the world of creative cinema.

A victim of the artistic oppression suffered at the hands of Chinese authorities, director Tian Zhuangzhuang was banned from making any films for nine years (though the film that prompted the ban, The Blue Kite, was smuggled out of the country for editing and release). His film Springtime in a Small Town is an example of all the artistic potential that exists in this land of 1.2 billion people.

Set in an obscure village in post World War II China, Zhuangzhuang's remake of the 1948 film Spring in a Small Town by Fei Mu focuses on a love triangle, not unlike that seen in David Lean's Dr. Zhivago. While the scope and theme of Lean's film are obviously much larger, the simplicity of this painful, even tragic, story is no less moving.

Within the confines of a suffocating estate, Li-yan and his wife Yu Wan barely exist among the living. As Li-yan mopes around the complex, Yu Wan learns to make herself quietly content. Resigned to a life of care taking and embroidery, Yu Wan is jolted from her solitary confinement with the arrival of Zhang Zhi-chen, a charmingly confident doctor, who happens to be an old friend of Li-yan. Unbeknownst to Li-yan, his old friend is also his wife's former love, before studies and arranged marriage interfered with their relationship.

Li-Yan suffers from an unnamed illness, and his somewhat unconvincing irritability adds to the gloomy nature of a film already brimming with despair. The oppressive mood is further enhanced by Zhuangzhuang's use of numerous long takes. Zhuangzhuang clearly understands the power of panning and dolly shots, as he uses this technique, with some redundancy, to convey a deep sense of lethargic loneliness, particularly for Yu Wan.

Even with the arrival of the passionate Zhi-chen, the temper of the movie and the performances of the actors remain restrained. Zhuangzhuang does not allow the film to disintegrate into the erotic escapade of former lovers. Cinematographer Lee Ping-Bin, whose work includes Wong Kar Wai's mesmerizing In the Mood for Love, continues his technique of slowing the pace and lengthening the shots, creating a piece which showcases the strengths of this new wave in Chinese filmmaking.

Springtime in a Small Town screens Friday, December 17, in the Dryden Theatre.

--- Christopher Nakis and Katie Papas

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