Monday, January 07, 2008

Palm Springs International Film Festival: Day 2

Another day, another two movies...

In the Arms of My Enemy

That's the name provided in all the festival materials for this French revenge thriller, but the film itself included the title The Horse Thieves (Voleurs de chevaux), which strikes me as more accurate and appropriate. Set in an unnamed country in "The East" in 1810, the film jumps between two sets of brothers set on a collision course.

The first set, Jakub (Adrien Jolivet) and Vladimir (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), join the Cossack army and endure much hardship during their training. The second set, Roman (Grégoire Colin) and Elias (François-René Dupont), are the titular horse thieves, and the film opens with them pulling a daring heist against Jakub and Vladimir. These events will lead to a good deal of bloody conflict, and will take up the remainder of the film's running time.

Writer/director Micha Wald and his crew have realized the period with a stunning level of vivid detail. Attention has been paid to even the smallest aspects of these characters lives - how they would dress, where they would live, how they would heal their wounds, what they would drink, when they would be covered and shit and when they'd clean themselves up, etc. (In one scene, Roman locks Elias in a cabin, and you actually get a reasonable understanding of the design on the intricate wood and rope "lock" he uses on the door!)

Unfortunately, the characters and their stories have not apparently been given this level of attention. I didn't like Wald's technique of telling Jakub and Vladimir's story and then jumping back in time to follow Roman and Elias - cutting back and forth between them would have likely given the film a quicker pace and set up more dramatic tension between these two sets of brothers. As well, Wald has obviously made the two pairs mirror images of one another - both Roman and Jakub are the strong-willed tough guys, while their younger brothers are kindly weaklings who require constant supervision - and this gives the film a really repetitive sameness throughout. (The characters really are essentially interchangeable. Many of the more senior audience members actually seemed to confuse them with one another).

In fact, everyone in the universe of The Horse Thieves could be described as either a brute or a gentle soul. I wanted to get as much insight into the people populating Wald's film as I did into the engineering and interior design practices of the time, but alas, it was not to be.


Sergei Bodrov's Mongol follows the early life of Genghis Khan, from his boyhood to his first major military triumph. Though the film strikes me as essentially accurate history, relating true events in the life of the man then known as Temudjin, it has the feeling of an epic myth, almost like Mongolian Braveheart. Genghis Khan, a legendary figure, is treated as such by the movie - a real man, but also larger than life, someone who was understood as significant and mythic in his own time.

The glossy, sweeping cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov is reminiscent in ways of Lord of the Rings; the heroes navigate harsh but beautiful and ever-changing landscapes en route to one another or to their enemies, and we get a genuine sense for the setting of Upper Mongolia in the late 12th and early 13th centures almost immediately.

The very contemporary editing style of Valdís Óskarsdóttir and Zach Staenberg give the movie the feel of a modern, buzzy action movie. Battle scenes, infused with a generous amount of grit and blood spray, whip by, not giving the audience a clear idea about Temudjin's specific strategies so much as expressing the feeling of being a Mongol riding into war.

Mongol sees Khan's legacy as bringing law and order to Mongolia, and the theme of obeying or ignoring ancient customs runs underneath most of the central action. As the film opens, 9-year-old Temudjin is brought to a village to select a wife. His father is meant to bring him to a rival clan to select a bride, thus ending a decades-long rivalry, but the headstrong boy instead chooses the precocious Borte from a friendly clan nearby. This one fateful decision, a choice based on personal preference and not the strict guidelines for Mongol behavior, sets all the hardships of the remainder of the film in motion.

After growing up in exile, the older Temudjin (now played by Japanese star Tadanobu Asano) returns to find Borte and, along with old friend Jamukha (Honglei Sun), to fight the villains who forced him to leave his family years ago. This leads to even more struggles for power and violence that will eventually lead the young warrior to realize that his people will find peace only if they are united under a code of laws. (One that he alone can provide).

This narrative jumps around, sometimes chaotically, and many of the connecting details between incidents are ignored in favor of scenic vistas or the enhancement of the central love story between Tamudjin and Borte. This is not necessarily a bad thing, merely an artistic choice, and the key relationships do benefit from the added screen time they would not normally get in a period action film of this scope. However, some of the specific decisions made by Bodrov are questionable, particularly skipping what may be the most significant aspect of this story - how Tamudjin actually managed to unite all the warring, disparate clans of Mongols. We get no insight into his political machinations whatsoever - instead, we hear that he has done this in voice-over.

A nitpick, perhaps, but I was only bothered by the film's narrative gaps because I found it otherwise so compelling. This is just really BIG moviemaking pulled off with grace, sophistication and panache. If it ever opens Stateside theatrically, it's one to see in a movie theater with an audience.

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