Three Tickets to Xanadu

FLIFF goes to places far, far away

These reviews are part of our continuing coverage of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

American Visa. For all of the modern travel conveniences, the distance between two continents can seem as unbridgeable nowadays as it was during the 16th-century Age of Exploration. Bolivian director Juan Carlos Valdivia's American Visa tells the story of Mario, a teacher who's ready to throw away everything he has — his career, his relationship with the woman who loves him, his status as a law-abiding citizen — for a shot at the distant land of Dirty Harry, whose dialogue Mario studies scrupulously in preparation for a sojourn in Miami. Mario, played by Demián Bichir with a charming, loosey-goosey sense of his own cool, a little like Snoopy as the World War I Ace, says he just needs to reunite with his son, who's in the States on a student visa. But it's much more than that. For Mario, America represents an escape from Third World pessimism. It's the same golden dream it has been for a century and a half, only it's less accessible than ever. Mario encounters a post-9/11 slammed door at the American Embassy in La Paz, corrupt American bureaucrats, and an assortment of sleazy Bolivian operators, offering "solutions." He also finds Blanca (Kate del Castillo), a dancehall girl with unyieldingly needy eyes, smart enough to see all the frazzled edges of the dream. Mario resorts to — no surprise — an ill-conceived criminal scheme involving a blackjack, a storefront gold trader, and some scary thugs. A few of Valdivia's plot turns (the director is also the co-screenwriter) will leave you in the dust, but the two leads (both from Mexico) are excellent. So is Valdivia's depiction of La Paz, no longer the ineffably exotic mountain capital but a weirdly modern city with strip clubs, computer stores, malls, Indian women in derbies, and hulking brown mountains, like mounds of cocoa powder, stripped bare of every last bit of greenery. (Sunday, October 28, 9:30 p.m., Regal Cypress Creek.) Edmund Newton

Tuya's Marriage. It's tempting to recommend this uneven but frequently memorable Mongolian movie simply because it's from Mongolia. After all, how often do we get a window into that remote, exotic world? It turns out, however, that the picture has plenty of traditional elements to recommend it: the lovely photography, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival this year; a spare, haunting score; exceptionally crisp sound recording (especially if the sounds involve liquids); and fine performances by a cast of faces utterly unfamiliar in the Western world. Tuya's simple story is that of a hard-working, camel-riding shepherdess, mother of two impish young children, who reluctantly decides to divorce her invalid husband and remarry someone better-situated to support not only her and the kids but the ex-husband as well. A series of suitors make the pilgrimage to her isolated home on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, and a bumbling neighbor trying to divorce his wild woman of a wife also applies. There are moments both lyrical and comical, but what the film succeeds best at is painting a vivid portrait of a hard life in a harsh environment and the enormous physical labor such a life entails. Filmmaker Wang Quan'an has said he wanted to capture this lifestyle before it disappears forever, and in that, he succeeds beautifully, although the movie doesn't so much come to a conclusion as it grinds to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying halt. (96 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Saturday, October 27, 5 p.m., Regal Cypress Creek, and Sunday, October 28, 7 p.m., Regal Cypress Creek.) Michael Mills

The Banquet is a reimagining of Hamlet, set in China in 900 C.E., near the end of the Tang Dynasty's final dissolution at the hands of Taizu. But neither Taizu nor the emperor he deposed, Emperor Ai, feature in The Banquet, which uses historic China as little more than a treasure trove of aesthetic wisdom to be raided as needed. Maybe that sounds callous, but I suspect it makes good film. And "suspect" is all that can be done, because any movie that deals in Shakespeare, no matter how loosely translated, is less than fully appreciated when filtered through subtitles. Those who don't know Mandarin will just have to hope that what's being said onscreen is beautiful and trust the indirect evidence to back up their optimism — that evidence being that the subtitles here, unlike those in other Chinese flicks that went on to become blockbusters, aren't overwhelmingly hackneyed (I'm looking at you, Crouching Tiger). They're actually quite elegant, and their elegance is enhanced by equally elegant performances from principals Xun Zhou, Daniel Wu, and especially Ziyi Zhang and You Ge. You Ge is our King Claudius, in this instance "Emperor Li," recently ascended to the throne after felling the rightful emperor with poison (applied via the ear). Ziyi Zhang is The Banquet's Gertrude, the empress, married now to her late husband's murderer. Daniel Wu is our Hamlet, called "Wu Luan." The Banquet has no corollary for Hamlet's ghost — the film's mysticism is limited to the gravity-defying martial arts tricks we know from House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, though it uses them with a great deal more restraint. That's because Hamlet's a great story, and those pyrotechnics aren't really needed — all director Xiaogang Feng had to do was tell the story and make it pretty. Feng did more than that: Casting what might be Western lit's greatest story in the most jaw-droppingly opulent of Eastern settings, he made it beautiful in ways none of us has seen before. (Sunday, October 28, 9 p.m., Regal Cypress Creek.) Brandon K. Thorp

 
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