Several countries from the developing world and Eastern Europe sent politically relevant films to the recently concluded Cannes festival this year.
Perhaps the best is Good Men, Good Women, by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the most distinctive film artist in Taiwan today. Although it recalls past Hou pictures like "City of Sadness" and "Daughter of the Nile," the new movie breaks fresh ground for him by moving continually among three different narrative lines - one set in the present, as a young woman navigates a difficult period in her emotional life; one set in the recent past, showing her family under great stress; and one set in the more distant past, presented as a film-within-the-film about war and political strife in the 1940s and '50s.
This ever-shifting trajectory is hard to sort out after a single viewing, so I won't venture to call "Good Men, Good Women" a masterpiece quite yet. What can't be questioned is the extraordinary resonance not only of its framings - always superbly expressive in Hou's work - but also its colors, its use of light and shadow, and its melancholy yet engrossing performances. Hou's artistry keeps getting better and better.
Equally ambitious is Waati, directed by Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse, whose "Yeleen" is a major landmark of African cinema. His new film is about a South African girl who leaves her country to escape the horrors of apartheid, travels to other lands - the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Namibia - where she learns about Africa's great heritage, and returns home to find South Africa an improved but still imperfect place.
The film begins with a storyteller recounting an ancient myth, and for a while it appears that Cisse is invoking a similar sense of mythic timelessness, especially since "time" is the translation of the movie's title. But he soon falls prey to cliches, and never justifies his odd strategy of centering the story on a South African woman who's away from her country during all the epochmaking political events that have transpired there. Despite some virtues, including beautiful cinematography and wonderful touches of magic realism, the picture must be called a disappointment.
Ditto for The Senator's Snails, directed by Mircea Daneliuc, the Romanian director who made the memorable "Jacob" a few years ago. That movie combined a disjointed narrative with compelling visual storytelling and disturbingly sharp insights into the emotional tone that characterized Eastern European life in the late 1980s.
Focusing on a small-time politician embroiled in issues of sexism, xenophobia, and other ills, Daneliuc's new picture tries to be a savage parody of manners and mores in the postcommunist era, but never gathers the emotional and intellectual coherence it needs to convey its message to an audience not already familiar with its views. Most spectators at Cannes found it less than impressive.