Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (2008), aka This Film Makes Us See with New Eyes

For whatever reason, at some point in their careers, many writers stop reading other people's books. There are too many books in the world. They don't want to be influenced or contaminated by other writers.

This is also the case with filmmakers. At a certain point, many filmmakers stop watching other people's films, especially new films.

I'm not like this. I no longer read nearly as much as I did or should, but I continue to actively watch new films, devouring them when given the opportunity, and not just "quality" films. Despite being, for a lack of a better term, a film snob, I watch many different types of movies and have no qualms about watching what many would dismiss as junk (eg. YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN, MADE OF HONOR, HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO...)

Why do I not discriminate so?

Because most movies, whether they are branded mainstream or independent arthouse, are bad. I know not to expect otherwise.

To see a truly good film is a rare event. That's why I am so pleased to write this post.

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (2008), whose German title is AUF DER ANDEREN SEITE (lit. On the Other Side) and was written and directed by Fatih Akin, has startled me with its masterfulness.

I should have checked out this director earlier as one of his previous films, GEGEN DIE WAND (2004), a.k.a. HEAD-ON, was talked up quite a bit a few years back in NY. I passed on seeing that film then, but will soon remedy this.

This young German director of Turkish descent has created a stunning film in THE EDGE OF HEAVEN. It's no surprise that the film has received critical acclaim at prestigious international film festivals, including Best Screenplay at Cannes, and is on many film critics' TOP 10 FILMS of 2008 lists.

Instead of a clunky description of the story, I will point out two examples of masterful filmmaking from the film.

Example #1: The iconic German actress Hanna Schygulla plays the aged mother of one of the main characters. Her daughter, a German university student with an idealistic streak, brings a Turkish woman whom she has just met, to stay in their house. The daughter wants to help the Turkish woman, who is homeless and an illegal immigrant. The mother seems to project quiet disapproval and warns the daughter about harboring an illegal alien. In this manner, the film makes the viewer think he or she is seeing a contrast between the staid mother and the bohemian rebellious daughter.

Later, however, the film reveals that this staid mother is not who the viewer has come to think she is. In her youth, she was also a free spirit and a bit of a bohemian who hitchhiked to India. She shows herself to be someone so different than who she seemed to be.

Thus, the viewer's very perception is challenged and this character is revealed to be complex and truly human and not the "type" that the viewer has pegged her to be. In other words, the film challenges and undermines the viewers' perception to provide true insight.

Example #2: The opening scene of the film is of a car driving into a gas station in rural Turkey. A man gets out of the car, asks the gas station attendant to fill it up, then goes inside to the little convenience store, where he buys some snacks and exchanges small talk with the shopkeeper about a song that is playing on the radio. The shopkeeper says the singer is from the region but died of cancer due to fallout from Chernobyl that's only revealing itself to the public now. The man pays for his stuff and the scene ends. It's a two-minute scene. No tension. No conflict. No nothing. Completely mundane. Something that could happen to anyone.

Ninety-minutes of the film later, the same scene is replayed in exactly the same form. No changes. But the film has revealed the events that have led up to this man's setting foot in that gas station. It's the same scene. The same two minutes. But now, it's filled with tension, true pathos, and an abundance of meaning.

Again, this is an example where the film shows us something, makes us think we see it, only to reveal that what we think we're seeing is not so. It challenges the expectations and perception of the viewer. It makes us see with new eyes.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg for this remarkable film. This film is a wonder to behold. The performances are superb. The storytelling is quietly confident even as it takes the viewer on an emotional journey. It is a drama of the best kind. A must see.

As for Year-End Best lists, many of which contain this film, many people dislike such lists and dismiss them outright. Although I often think these lists contain egregiously bad films, I find that such lists can sometimes help bring attention to deserving films.

Many excellent films peter out without seeing the light of day because they don't register on people's radar. Even people who haven't seen QUANTUM OF SOLACE will have heard of it because of the ridiculous amount of money used to market this piece of junk, but this is just not so with even THE EDGE OF HEAVEN or even smaller films without the marketing dollars to promote them.

The Goethe Institute in Hong Kong is promoting a screening of this film in March 2009 that will take place at the Hong Kong Film Archive. For more info, please click on the title of this post.