July 22, 2005


Directed by Sally Potter Starring Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With a one-woman Greek chorus, emblematic protagonists known simply as She and He, dialogue written entirely in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, colour-coordinated designs and Philip Glass's composition, Yes puts the art back in arthouse cinema. Its thematic concern is just as ambitious - a post-9/11 exploration on love and war between clashing genders, ethnicities, classes, religions and ideologies. Regardless of whether the film delivers on its premise, writer/director Sally Potter has imagined the most radical, challenging and provocative artistic endeavor in recent memory.

Joan Allen's She is an Irish-American molecular scientist trapped in a loveless marriage to British politician Anthony (Sam Neill). Simon Abkarian (Ararat) plays He, a Lebanese exile surgeon-turned-chef living in London. She is distraught over Anthony's extramarital indiscretion until He comes along. “A woman left alone ... if it was me …/I wouldn’t – wouldn’t what?/Let such a beauty/Out of my sight. Not for one moment. No.” “And let me add: I’d like to steal/You from the man who cannot see/That you’re a queen. When are you free?” The pair's initial erotic sparks and amusing cultural exchanges soon come to a halt, as He struggles to endure coworkers' taunts before eventually losing his temper and his job while She tries to overcome an estranged relationship with her gravely-ill aunt in Belfast. Frustrations and misunderstandings soon escalate to a heated confrontation in which they trade rancid insults like "Terrorist!" and "Bitch!"

Gender politics have been the running theme throughout Potter's body of work. Because of that preoccupation, she neglected the multicultural aspect of the central relationship in The Tango Lesson - the 1997 film failed to flesh out the romance beyond a generic colonialist portrayal despite a gender reversal: To the director’s credit, at least it has the Brit woman fetishizing the Argentinean man instead of the conventional WASP men doing it to women of other ethnicities. But with Yes, Potter fully realizes the curiosity, fascination, prejudice, objectification and resentment of an interracial relationship from both sides of the spectrum, and uses it as a metaphor for all power struggles in the world today.

Reminiscent of 1980s works by director Peter Greenaway, the film is stylistically outré. Sometimes we hear the characters' inner voices before or after they speak, and thoughts ramble on even if people choose not to express them. After main characters exit the scenes, random janitresses in the background will suddenly stop and knowingly gaze into the camera. Omnipresent taken-for-granted conveniences such as maids (at times not seen but only heard through vacuum-cleaner noise), cell phones and close-circuit monitors cryptically represent middle-class complacency that fosters ignorance. Potter's avant-garde touches may be difficult for mainsteam moviegoers to overcome, but the film's substantive thesis certainly requires and rewards a careful contemplation.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.