A tacked-on melancholy shoulders, for the most part, the dramatic weight present in C.B. Yi’s carefully composed and frequently arresting first feature. Moneyboys, as its titular plurality suggests, calls into focus not just personal biography, of which its half-decade account is largely constituted, but also a broader demographic experience contextualized within China’s geographic milieu. With both prostitution and homosexuality illegal, this experience suffers doubly under the stigma established by tradition and enforced by law; curiously, the former vice appears less as a perversion of the mainland’s virulently capitalist dogma, but rather as a necessary condition to negotiating a decently fulfilling life within it. And so begins Yi’s visually captivating but thematically trite film with a tracking shot on a river, the lens trained on its rippling surface, teasing a tranquil vision of nature and freedom. This vision quickly fizzles out, its duality separated into opposing choices, mutually exclusive and sometimes denied jointly: the choice of rural simplicity, with little economic opportunity, or that of comparative affluence, but fettered to the forced rhythms of urban employment and exploitation.
The latter choice befalls Fei, a fair and Adonic young man who leaves his village to work in the big city as a gay hustler, or moneyboy; implied to have been estranged from his family, and having missed his mother’s funeral back home, Fei industriously forges a future in his line of work, servicing clients with the requisite sensuality but affording, and hence exchanging, little intimacy. “I have a client later” he states, gently announcing his refusal to ejaculate. “You’re the star of the show. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” His hard-headed determination lands him, against the wishes of one of his dearer customers, in the hands of another, whose physical abuse results in an avengement that cripples and imprisons his lover, separating their lifelong paths. Five years later, having relocated from Yiwu to an even busier Shenzhen, Fei — now living in modest luxury, an apartment to his name — continues his hustle among an informal network of moneyboys until a sting operation forces his return back home. Facing a family disgraced by his “perverted” ways and haunted by the abandonment of his beau, he struggles to make amends where possible; and where not, to come to terms with the derogatory label permanently affixed to his identity.
Yet, while earnest in its testimonial fidelity and sympathetic to the indignant persecutions endured by its subjects at the ruthless hands of state and society, Moneyboys evinces an undeniable superficiality in its social commentary. To an outsider, its swiveling pans and long-takes proffer microcosms of cultural divide, expressing in each cogent shot oppressive realities refreshing to liberal Western eyes; peer beyond Yi’s meticulous flair for color contrasts and calculated pacing, however, and the film’s blinkered gaze comes somewhat undone, as a psychologically lightweight if also sequentially ponderous array of formulaic melodrama, only nominally specific to its modernized Chinese setting. An especially grating wedding set-up acquires a soap-operatic quality in its talking-point condensation and unwarranted pantomiming, not quite affiliated with either steely realism or trenchant metaphor. Suffused with brittle loneliness and drenched in a moody, rainy palette (for select sequences), Moneyboys looks good to the eye but sees nothing new, regurgitating — no matter how adamant its emulation — the more inspired reveries of erotic ennui that directors like Tsai Ming-liang effortlessly dream up, conscious not of doling out inquiries, but of finding the fragile existence of aching, human desire within.
Writer: Morris Yang
A Radiant Girl
The Holocaust has provided the backdrop for so many films that it’s a rather bracing experience to discover one that handles the subject and setting in a way that’s unique. That’s certainly the case with A Radiant Girl, the debut feature by actress Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon, Life of Riley), which follows Irene (Rebecca Marder), a young Jewish student living in occupied Paris during the summer of 1942. Irene dreams of becoming an actress, and her days are filled with rehearsals, read-throughs, and daydreaming with her fellow students — and one in particular, Jacques (Cyril Metzger), a potential love interest with whom she begins an innocent flirtation.
It is an idyllic existence, seemingly unaffected and unaware of the Nazi occupation that surrounds it. In fact, A Radiant Girl never acknowledges Nazis by name or even the invasion at all; but we begin to see its effects in often understated ways. Jews, we hear, will soon be forced to list their religion on their ID papers. Jewish families see radios removed from their homes to disconnect them with the outside world (“They better return these eventually,” Irene sniffs, indignantly). It isn’t until the very last frame of the film that the full extent of creeping fascism is finally felt, and it’s a remarkable gut punch. Kiberlain portrays the rising tide of antisemitism like a dripping faucet, and it isn’t until it’s too late that her protagonist understands the flood that has upset her world. It’s this careful, measured build-up that makes A Radiant Girl such a powerful film: for much of its runtime, it plays like the summer exploits of a young woman, a coming-of-age tale about an aspiring actress, full of budding romance and unfulfilled promise — a fact that makes its ultimate trajectory all the more tragic.
The film remains rather low-key for most of the runtime, keeping its focus tight and intimate as it explores Irene’s world. In fact, it’s such a notably laid- back affair that one almost forgets it’s a Holocaust film at all, so subtle are the textures here, be they the period trappings or the depictions of antisemitic action. You can feel Kiberlain’s characters convincing themselves that what’s happening is something that’s only happening “over there,” that other Jews are only being targeted because they’re Polish, but history testifies to the tragic fallacy of such thinking, and the experience of watching the film bears the viscerality of a slow-motion car crash.
A Radiant Girl lacks many of the signifiers that often accompany Holocaust films, and Kiberlain, displaying uncanny confidence in her first film as a director, does a lovely job of making the action feel contemporary (one is almost even reminded of Christian Petzold’s Transit), and the instances of anti-Jewish hatred seem somehow minuscule, rendered as the kinds of things that might have passed by unnoticed by the characters, but which will impactfully land with an audience. We know exactly where this is heading, but they do not, and it paints an often-haunting portrait of the devastating effects of simmering, unchecked hatred, the incrementalism of which reflects the old parable of the frog in boiling water — it doesn’t even notice the water is heating up until it’s already cooked. It may meander a little in its middle section, but that’s part-and-parcel to its mode and a reason why it works so well — A Radiant Girl offers a chilling look at fascism’s accumulating evil in a way that lulls its audience into a sense of complacency — a pointed mirroring — and then pierces right straight through the heart when it’s least expected.
Writer: Mattie Lucas
Set in an alternate Brazil where evangelical conservatism has all but annexed its inhabitants under a state of lulling conformity, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s unabashedly satirical Medusa is itself fraught with a moralistic excess that, luckily, finds its contrapuntal partner in a measured yet keenly articulated visual landscape. Soaked in futuristic neon and serenaded by an otherworldly unease, her second feature sordidly envisions the restoration of a patriarchy whose theological mandate follows its circular lines of reasoning to their logical conclusions: casual sex is outlawed, women are essentialized under a Madonna/whore complex — either betrothed to one man for life, or slut-shamed and brutally beaten into submission — to be prized for their virginal, God-given beauty, while an unbridled masculinity manifests in both the sanctums of religious authority and physical virility. A hypnotic solo dance, set to a wave of electro-synth abandon, opens the film as its headstrong motif of feminist emancipation, which is almost immediately delineated as fantasy: a young woman watches this sequence on her phone, and right after, finds herself the latest victim of a masked group of female vigilantes, who force her to recant her loose morals, gleefully filming her confession as well.
This vigilante troupe are performers by day: a squad of virgins dressed in puritanical white, christened Michele and the Treasures of the Lord. Led by its assertive title-holder (Lara Tremouroux) and flanked by her loyal second-in-command, Mariana (Mariana Oliveira), they hymn His praises at church to a hungry, faith-seeking audience, functioning as agents of cultural influence alongside their covert moral policing — a job already undertaken in full view by their male counterparts, whose army of neighborhood muscle watchdogs menacingly over matters of sexual immodesty. A new initiate to a girls’ home in the vicinity engages much of the troupe’s spare time, as they induct her out of vice and into virtue, whereas Michele and Mariana find themselves preoccupied by the mysterious disappearance, many years prior, of a once-popular actress disfigured by a fire lit in God’s righteous name. Getting a nursing job in a hospital’s coma ward, out of the limelight after an unfortunate facial injury, Mariana soon stumbles onto a mysterious opening in her otherwise air-tight bubble of chastity; a potent discovery that threatens to upend lifetimes of ideological repression and unpeel the literal layers of make-up under which endure the raw wounds of state-sanctioned domestic abuse.
Though frequently overt in its commentary on sexist double-standards and the insidious complicity by women in perpetuating them, Medusa imbues its cosmetic designs with an immersive world-building assured in both form and function: fixing its gaze largely on Mariana, the camera follows her gradual awakening with humor instead of hurry (its runtime-to-rundown ratio recalls Nicolas Winding Refn; its blunt one-liners occasionally veer into self-satisfaction but never miss), pointedly assuming the moral high-ground one tends to adopt when considering the similarly feverish zeal of its cultish setting. Like Gabriel Mascaro with Divine Love, also foreboding in its dystopian realization of a nation swept away by reactionary fear-mongering, da Silveira surveys a particular symbiosis between dollars and the divine; the former’s techno-bureaucratic leanings find a knowing accomplice in Medusa’s frightening currency. Young evangelists vlog about smutty and saintly Instagram filters, while the donation-hungry church minister collapses right after claiming his prayer will cast demons aside. As with the titular Gorgon, the film enthralls precisely through its symbolic visage.
Writer: Morris Yang
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
If Are You Lonesome Tonight? makes your memory stray to A Brighter Summer Day, that’s intentional. Save for taking their titles from the same Elvis song, the two films have very little in common. That doesn’t stop Wen Shipei from forcing the comparison, repeatedly playing the song and making obvious visual reference to Cat’s performances in Yang’s film. But recalling A Brighter Summer Day neither does the film any favors by comparison nor establishes a link between the two. Instead, like the film’s original title, Tropical Memories (almost certainly a reference to Apichatpong Weerasethakul), it’s endemic of portentous festival film trappings hoisted onto a middle-of-the-road thriller that can’t support the weight of its director’s pretensions.
Eddie Peng plays Xue Ming, an air conditioner repairman who kills a man in a hit-and-run accident and, looking to make amends, insinuates himself into his widow’s (Sylvia Chang) life. But there’s more to the accident than what is initially apparent, and soon Xue Ming finds himself embroiled in your standard neo-noir crime story collision course. The narrative Wen is weaving is a familiar and fairly shallow one involving a hazily-remembered night, a bag of money, and some gangsters out to collect, and, in individual scenes, Wen hits the right notes competently if unexceptionally. Trouble is, he’s chosen to tell this story with fractured chronology and a sad-sack voice-over delivered by Xue Ming from prison. It adds about as much as the constant refrain of the title song, which is to say almost nothing save for applying an artsy sheen to the labored endeavor. At first, the nonlinear approach seems poised to lend the film the fractal quality of memory, as if the lead recalling the events would naturally remember the story out of order, but as the thriller plot begins to kick in, the technique is largely used only to superficially complicate the action and show off the simplistic web being constructed. The result is a back-half that gets bogged down in the actions of barely-defined bit players at the expense of the relationship between Xue Ming and Liang Ma. Worse, a few moments in which characters reveal vital information to one another are robbed of any dramatic impact that Wen intends because we have already seen the future here. If Are You Lonesome Tonight? were told conventionally, would it still play Cannes? Maybe not but, freed of its heavy-handed strides toward art, it likely would have been a better movie.
Writer: Chris Mello
A breathless, even primal, survival thriller, Haider Rashid’s Europa works like gangbusters as a propulsive bit of genre filmmaking, but less so as the empathetic portrait of asylum seekers it tries to shoehorn in as a framing device. Beginning with title cards imparting information as to the plight of illegal immigrants at the Turkey-Bulgaria border, the narrative proper opens in the dead of night with a group of people being led by a coyote, who then begins extorting more money from his desperate charges. It’s a volatile situation, and things get worse as the group is immediately detected at a border crossing by government agents and state-sanctioned militias. Chaos ensues, and one young man escapes into the neighboring forest. We will eventually learn that his name is Kamal, and that he has made a long, treacherous journey seeking new life in this unwelcoming country, but otherwise there is virtually no backstory or traditional character development present. Instead, Europa operates as a visceral chase picture, a distaff The Most Dangerous Game, as Kamal flees armed pursuers and tries making his way through dense, foreboding forest.
Rashid and cinematographer Jacopo Maria Caramella conjure a propulsive aesthetic somewhere between the Dardenne brothers and Peter Hyam’s recent work on Alone and his Black Summer streaming series. The camera hovers on and around Kamal’s face, catching bits of landscape and the surrounding topography in the periphery of the frame. Occasionally the camera pulls back far enough to situate Kamal in the middle of the image, as he attempts to get the lay of the land or ponders his next move. But we are largely locked into his perspective, seeing and hearing only what he sees and hears. Danger is always close; one early scene finds Kamal hiding in a tree while militia members gun down another man fleeing along the same path as Kamal. Later, he finds brief respite at a creek, only to come across another dead body. Eventually, injured in a tussle with one of the hunters, Kamal struggles to carry on in spite of his wound, trying in vain to climb steep embankments while his arm and shoulder bleed. Stumbling across a road, Kamal is picked up by a car, but as he begs in broken English to be taken to a hospital, the female driver seemingly becomes suspicious of her passenger. In keeping with the film’s insistence on limiting the audience’s knowledge to what Kamal himself can comprehend, the woman’s dialogue is not subtitled, nor is the incessant chatter emanating from the news on the radio. Correctly or not, Kamal senses danger and escapes from the automobile, fleeing back into the forest. The film ends with Kamal in a kind of limbo, barely conscious as he’s being ferried by an older man across a lake in a boat. We don’t know who the man is, nor his intentions, and a long, lingering closeup on Kamal’s face suggests an impossible quandary. Like an existential Schrodinger’s Cat, he’s precariously, simultaneously suspended between salvation and damnation. We will never know his fate.
As Kamal, young British/Libyan actor Adam Ali gives a bold, physical performance; he’s almost always moving — running, climbing, leaping, crouching, diving. The camera studiously observes his face, exhaustion slowly setting in, quiet desperation spreading across his young features. In another context Kamal might very well be a model or pop star, with his chiseled cheekbones and piercing eyes. He’s a visually striking presence, here reduced to an almost animal-like state of harried existence. Rashid clearly wants to use Kamal to make a broader point about the inhumanity directed at immigrants and asylum seekers, and while it’s certainly a noble intention, one wonders if this kind of muscular thriller is the best vehicle for these larger, more fraught considerations. There’s a sort of disconnect between using Kamal as a symbol (i.e., the broad implications of the title) and the little we know about him as a person. In other words, the human seems to get subsumed into the metaphor. Still, at a basic level, an audience cheering for Kamal’s escape from state-sanctioned violence has taken a first step towards embracing a stranger’s innate humanity, tough to begrudge no matter the film’s flaws. In that sense, Rashid might be preaching to the choir, but at least he’s given them a vigorous, uncompromising thriller in the process.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
“Misfortune departs, grace comes in,” says a villager, as she takes a knife to a Kaffan-leaden woman’s hand. In brightly-lit, glossy handheld, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) walks into the sea while dripping blood, a pre-birthing ritual performed in front of her village’s female co-habitants. In Small Body (Piccolo corpo), first-time fiction feature director Laura Samani doesn’t achieve much of anything, presenting a handsome but ceaselessly drab period piece. Out of this opening moment of purity and water comes a scene of pain and fire, as Agata suffers through a difficult birth. The time is 1900, and the place is Italy, but it’s a past so far removed from our conception of reality that this may as well be a fantasy epic.
Agata endures this, but the result is a stillbirth, meaning her baby is stuck in limbo. She hears that a nearby mountain can bring the infant back for a single breath, during which it can be quickly baptized and its soul saved. She sets off with the baby’s body in a rucksack-like box, and on her journey encounters bandits, sinister forces turning the land into industry, and a potential meeting with God Himself. The film possesses the proportions of a Western, but none of the tone. Instead, handheld digital captures the bucolic surroundings and textures of Agata’s journey. Soon, she meets up with Lynx (Ondina Quadri, who is known for androgynous performances), a young boy with some of the most piercing and watery eyes you’ll find in a film this year, who accompanies Agata on her tortuous journey.
This adventure setup has all the ingredients of a high-end romp, but Samani often stifles the characters in order to keep their motivations suppressed. She relies on the film’s vivid locations to shape the viewer’s mood, but as a result, the film begins to feel unmoored. Instead, she allows attention to drift to Agata’s shell-shaped hair bun, which is framed as if in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or else to another shot of an open window that blatantly alludes to L’Avventura. Something must be wrong if we’re playing count the basic art-cinema allusion game, instead of finding anything unique in Samani’s approach to telling this story.
Eventually, the viewer is guided to another traumatic ritual that brings Agata’s character full circle. But at under 90 minutes, Small Body is too brief to really explore its aquatic, rocky, and snowbound environments, and seems disinclined to engage with the questions of gender and technology that its scenario manifests. This grim fairytale is a perfectly well-mounted watch, but it’s likely only to suspend viewers in cinematic limbo.
Writer: Ben Flanagan