Monday, October 25, 2010

SAIFF ’10: Between Two Worlds

Sri Lanka is both a beautiful country and an ugly country. Young, listless Rajith appears to be making it uglier. He is not alone in that respect. Yet, one should not always trust the evidence of their senses in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s reality defying Between Two Worlds, which has its New York premiere this coming Sunday at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival.

We first see Rajith literally falling from the sky into the ocean, but our earliest sense of who he really is comes as we watch him kicking a defenseless man while he is down. We have cut to the city, where there is a riot going on. Rajith is not one of the cooler heads, but for some reason the driver of a white van offers him an escape from the melee. He is all over his fellow passenger, an attractive Chinese woman. Since she was raped by Rajith or a man who looks much like him, she understandably prefers the attentions of their driver, which in turn provokes a violent outburst from Rajith.

Wisely ditched by his companions, Rajith sets out for the remote home of his late brother’s widow, but his violent fantasies persist to the point of intruding on reality. Indeed, notions of time and linearity get a thorough working over in Worlds. This is deliberate art cinema that has earned Jayasundara frequent comparisons to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. However, unlike the Thai auteur’s dark, murky looking Uncle Boonmee, Jayasundara’s images are bold and beautiful, arrestingly lensed by cinematographer Channa Deshapriya. From his rain speckled oceans to his wind-swept verdant hills, it is easy to get caught up in his visual poetry, even while he plays hide and seek with the narrative.

Indeed, he indulges in some serious gamesmanship with Worlds’ circular structure and problematized nature of reality. Yet, sometimes the narrative playfulness is interesting (if a bit obscure), like the strange tale the Zelig-like fisherman has to tell. Still, it is a bit off-putting when Jayasundara completely chucks away any semblance of ostensive reality in the final reel.

Intriguingly, the writer-director throws audiences a bit of a change up with the character of Rajith. We might expect the archetypal young man on a journey with its time honored coming of age and end of innocence themes. However, Rajith is no babe in the woods, even though he might have just fallen out of the sky. He may or may not be many unappealing things, but it is safe to say he is rather self-centered. Thusitha Laknath is quite effective projecting both the petulance and the latent dangerousness of the deeply flawed youthful protagonist. Though her early scenes are somewhat difficult to wholly buy into, Huang Lu is also quite haunting as the fragile unnamed Chinese woman. Still, this is a director and cinematographer’s film much more than an actor’s showcase.

Jayasundara truly has a painter’s eye for visual composition, but his pacing is not exactly zippy. This is definitely a festival film for those seeking an immersive, tactile cinematic experience. Recommended to the adventurous yet patient, Worlds screens during the SAIFF this Sunday (10/31) at the SVA Theater.