PIFF at 38: One dud, one hit, one gem

piff38What do China, Croatia and Cuba have in common?

Well, sure, all three countries have been ruled by Socialists or Communists.

But all three countries also produced films that I saw during this month’s Portland International Film Festival.

If PIFF were a Super Bowl, this year would be number XXXVIII – an event with 97 full-length features and 60 shorts screened at seven venues over 16 days. I didn’t make it to any of last year’s films, so I was glad to catch three this time around – even if it made for a busy month, what with the Oscars just a few days away.

So how did these three rate? Let’s say one dud, one hit and one gem.

A quick review:

Black_Coal,_Thin_Ice_Poster“Black Coal, Thin Ice” (China) was billed as film noir – a “surreal mix of Western pulp fiction and Eastern philosophical ruminations.”

This one was a dud. It’s about a former cop who’s retired to a mining town in northern China to drink his past away. But a string of murders make him recall a botched police investigation a few years earlier.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the story. One minute the ex-cop is doing surveillance at a corner laundry, then following the female clerk who works there. At some point, he crosses over from detective to stalker, forcing himself upon her sexually, while a fellow cop gets slashed and stabbed to death with a pair of ice skates, and then chopped into pieces with said skates.

Next thing I know, fireworks are exploding on a rooftop. Then the screen goes black and the credits come up.

Huh?

I always enjoy exploring different cultures. But sometimes things are lost in translation and, sadly, this was one of those times.

cowboys-poster“Cowboys” (Croatia) easily made up for the Chinese clunker. This one was a hit.

A big-city director named Sasa is offered an opportunity to restart the neglected community theater in his hometown, so he returns to the dull industrial town of his youth.

A call for auditions yields not a single experienced actor, leaving Sasa with a cast of eight socially awkward misfits who’ve never acted before and the certainty that he’s headed for a disastrous production. They’re so bad they’re funny. They agree to perform a Hollywood Western but this means they must overcome their petty rivalries and personal insecurities – a daunting challenge.

When Sasa becomes ill just before opening night, the cast of underdogs find themselves all on their own. Can they pull it off?

conducta_02-500x400“Conducta” (Cuba) was a gem.

With the recent reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, I was eager to see this film, described as “a sensitive, unembellished look at contemporary life in Cuba.”

“Conducta” means “Behavior.” It’s the story of an 11-year-old boy, Chala, who gets into trouble at school and with the police for fighting dogs, and who has to deal with an alcoholic, drug-abusing mother who spends her nights hustling in Havana.

School administrators and social workers want to send him to “re-education” school, but his teacher, Carmela, sees the basic goodness and potential in Chala and fights against the system to keep him in her class. Carmela is the only person who believes in Chala but even with her best efforts — coming after a heart attack and in the face of an indifferent bureaucracy — he’s at risk of falling through the cracks.

The cinematography is excellent and the young actor playing Chala is wonderful in conveying the street smarts and underlying humanity of a kid forced to fend for himself and support his mother. He’s resilient, loyal to his friends, and bold enough to act on his feelings for Yeni, a smart and pretty classmate who, along with her dad, faces issues of her own in fighting to stay in school.

It’s a compelling film set against a crumbling Havana cityscape. Chala and Carmela make for a likable team and the aging teacher serves as a moral compass not just for her students but for the adults around her. Her principled behavior silences her critics and reminds us of the importance of doing the right thing in hopes of overcoming a perceived wrong.

When the stakes are high, when the future of a bright, lower-class kid is at issue, we should all embrace our inner Carmela.

Read a review of “Conducta” by a Cuban writer, Miriam Celaya: “More Chalas Than Carmelas”

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