October 01, 2005

Princess Raccoon / Manderlay

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Four years after Pistol Opera, Seijun Suzuki raises the bizarro bar once again with the Japanese opera/Greek tragedy/French New Wave pastiche Princess Raccoon. Its costumes are primarily kimonos. The sets alternate between expressionist stages, naturalistic exteriors and ink-painting superimposed blue screen. Like a continuity editor’s worst nightmare, the costumes and sets often change inexplicably within the same scene. There are the Godard zooms and freeze frames that make the film seem more frantic. Then the music ranges from lush Michel Legrand-esque orchestral numbers to rock and even rap. In other words, the film is like a Japanese Romeo and Juliet meets The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tripping on acid. And this is actually a good thing! The film manages to strike an emotional chord in spite of its unconventional methods. What’s more, it stars Zhang Ziyi. After proving her acting prowess in 2046, the crouching flying vixen here hones her geisha skills. Those who think she’s miscast in the upcoming Rob Marshall film might as well shut up now.

Lars von Trier’s Manderlay isn’t as big a disappointment as some critics made it out to be. To be sure, Bryce Dallas Howard is no Nicole Kidman, and she occasionally gets upstaged. The film also takes a while to reach the devastating effect of Dogville. But let’s face it, Manderlay is every bit the politically relevant hell-raiser that its predecessor was. The Danish provocateur revisited many of his favourite elements with Dogville. Even if the bare-soundstage shtick is wearing a little thin this time, Manderlay is thematically original. Set in a 1930s Alabama plantation where slavery still exists in secret, Howard’s Grace liberates the slaves and then enforces democracy with the help of her father’s armed henchmen. The allegory obviously recalls the current situation in Iraq, but it also comments on the institutionalized racism and the complacency among racial minorities that are still prevalent in today’s society.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.