Friday, April 8, 2011

Crossing the Cultural Himalayas

Matt Whelan and Michelle Ang.
Cross-cultural dramas and comedies have probably become increasingly popular because people are increasingly migrating to other places where they can be safer, better off and happier.

In the case of The Names of Love we are in France, where a dry zoological scientist, whose job it is to monitor possible outbreaks of bird flu, tries to hide his Jewish roots, whereas a gamine woman flaunts her Arabic ones - and her body.

This is because she was abused as a child by her French piano teacher and has become so scatty that she forgets to get dressed one fine day and walks naked down the road - she conveniently has shoes on - talking on her cellphone.

She would, of course, end up sitting opposite a strictly covered-up Muslim couple, burqa and all, on the train. After this episode, however, she is never absent-minded again.

Anyway, the film takes a while to get going as the two leads introduce their pasts to us, sometimes talking directly to camera, and the present and younger versions of themselves interacting with each other.

The school pupil Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) makes a very good and possibly very Jewish point - his name is deliberately neutral - that maybe Jews don’t want to be commemorated on plaques for just the most miserable moments of their lives. Why not the happiest times?

Bahia Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) also makes the point that not all Muslims are exactly the same, but it is her father who comes across as the more convincing character. Zinedine Soualem, who resembles a younger Cat Stevens, plays a man who has heaps of artistic talent but is more obsessed with doing any odd job to pay the rent. It didn’t help much seeing and sketching his grandfather being shot dead by French troops in Algeria.

Equally moving is Arthur in one of those anti-bacterial suits, standing in a dam with a dead white swan in his hands, getting a phone call and being told by his emotionless father that his mother has died.

If the film doesn’t all quite hang together at times, and even becomes a little didactic politically, it is at least a light, intelligent look at a somewhat heavy problem.

More of the same can be found in the ultimately charming local film, My Wedding and Other Secrets.

Here the conflict lies in the highly ambitious Emily Chu (Michelle Ang) falling in love – horror of horrors – with a white New Zealand boy, a Pakeha. This won’t do as far as her strict Chinese father is concerned, or at least so she thinks.

If she marries a whitey she'll be disowned. This leads to all kinds of complications, including never being able to sleep over at James's, even after they have secretly married.

But there’s another big and rather touching visual difference between them. James (Matt Whelan) is a tall, Edmund Hillary-like beanpole and Emily is vertically challenged. In short, short. If she is clearly an alter ego of her writer/director/producer, whose steely and possibly migrant determination shines through in more ways than one, then he is a dreamy computer games designer with two goofy mates one wishes were evident in Love Birds.

In fact, the characters all round are superbly drawn and Liang makes a feast of sending up Chinese kitsch – including kung fu movies - without once being patronising. If also a tad slow initially, it is still a satisfying romcom that is deservedly doing good business at the box office and bodes well for Ms Liang’s cinematic future.

Neil Sonnekus

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