Beyond the Multiplex

A Kazakh "Rebel Without a Cause"; a ruthless mockumentary about a mail-order bride; and the sleeper documentary hit "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

By Andrew O'Hehir
March 18, 2005 2:00AM (UTC)
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"Schizo": Meet the James Dean of Central Asia
If you can imagine "Rebel Without a Cause" transported to the desolate Central Asian steppes of the former Soviet Union, that movie would be "Schizo," the impressive debut feature from Kazakh director Guka Omarova. This is probably the first film from Kazakhstan to get anything like mainstream distribution in the United States (and I know, regular readers, that this column has been specializing in these sorts of "firsts") but no history or geography is required. Although it's told in a more elliptical manner than your typical Hollywood actioner, "Schizo" is in its way a taut and exciting thriller, featuring gunplay and violence, a beautiful girl, a posse of ominous thugs and a Mercedes won in a midnight bare-knuckle boxing match.

It's also a tender and tough-minded coming-of-age tale, featuring 15-year-old Olzhas Nusuppaev (winner of the best actor award at the Tokyo Film Festival) as Mustafa, a teenager believed to have some kind of mental disability -- never specified -- that earns him the nickname Schizo. (In Russian, the language of urban Kazakhstan, it sounds like "SHEE-zah.") Nusuppaev is an orphan whom Omarova found working in a car repair shop in Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan, and it's easy to see why she was smitten. He's a gangly, beautiful boy with copper skin and unreadable eyes, and he broods through this film like a sullen angel, with something of the menace and vulnerability that made James Dean so magnetic.

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Like most good movies, "Schizo" offers an almost archetypal tale. Badly in need of a father figure, Mustafa goes to work for his mom's charismatic leather-jacketed boyfriend (Eduard Tabyschev), who recruits unemployed local men to fight each other in late-night gladiatorial spectacles run by the mob. When a man who's suffered a lethal beating entrusts Mustafa with a wad of money to deliver to his beautiful girlfriend Zina (Olga Landina) -- and when Mustafa recruits his own uncle, a legendary rural tough guy, for one important bout -- the kid is inevitably dragged into a cycle of violence that can't have a good outcome.

Still, despite its dark human drama and the destitution it depicts in the Kazakh countryside, where men strip electrical wire off the poles to sell for scrap (since it hasn't carried a current in years), "Schizo" is a spectacular visual experience, and fundamentally a story of survival and even love. As director Omarova explains when I meet her in her New York hotel room on a sleety winter night (which seemed perfectly pleasant to her), the half-sexual, half-maternal relationship that develops between Mustafa and the older, more experienced Zina is not exactly true romance, but more like the affection that grows from mutual dependence, gratitude and trust.

On one hand, I was surprised that a movie that so ruthlessly depicts a boy's painful struggle to become a man had been directed by a woman. But on the other, as I say to Omarova, the film's hardheaded view of its central love affair, and its heartbreaking depiction of Mustafa's desire for family life -- he may care about Sanzhik, Zina's toddler son, at least as much as he does about her -- might reflect a distinctly female sensibility.

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She laughs, describing the end of the film (which I won't divulge) as "really female stuff." But writing and directing a boy's story, she says, was just a matter of translating her own experience. "Basically, I think it was about myself. I was growing up with him too, with the character and also with the boy" -- here she smiles at Nusuppaev, who has crept almost silently into the room, wearing two rhinestone studs in his ears and and what look like brand new blue jeans. "My experience has also been about betrayal and friendship, people who abandoned me when I was a child," she says.

Omarova entered the film business back in the Soviet era as an actress for famed director Sergey Bodrov Sr. (who produced and co-wrote "Schizo"). She's a petite, composed and strikingly lovely woman whose age would be almost impossible to guess from her features (she's 36). As she explains, she's a Russian speaker of Eurasian heritage, or, in the derogatory phrase of rural Kazakh-language speakers, an "asphalt Kazakh." She also speaks charming English, even serving as a translator for Nusuppaev. He is just as grave as Schizo is in the film; the only smile I get from him is if I ask whether he'd rather stay in the U.S. or go back home. "He really, really, really wants to live in New York," Omarova says, laughing. (She herself now lives in Rotterdam.)

How much, I ask, does "Schizo" capture what life is like in Kazakhstan today? "Some people will say it's a little bit exaggerated," she says. "In the city, life is quite OK. But on the other hand, if you go to the countryside -- and we were shooting 60 kilometers outside Almaty -- it's a life like this. There is no electricity, no hot water.

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"If you go by car across Kazakhstan, you will see lots of places where the electrical pole is standing there without wire. People cut it down and sell it for a small amount of money. But then they can buy bread. And also drink, of course." Indeed the characters in "Schizo" consume massive amounts of vodka, a legacy of Kazakhstan's long relationship with Russia. "Kazakh people didn't drink that much," she explains. "It all came from Russia and like all Asian people, Kazakh people had no gene to resist it. Now everybody drinks vodka, it's part of our culture. It makes you feel not so desperate."

When I ask whether the end of communism was a blessing or a curse for Kazakhstan, Omarova says, "I think it's mixed. It's really hard to say whether it was a positive or a negative. Well, there are definitely positives: We got independence, and now I can just choose to fly to the United States! But the first two years were extremely difficult. There was no money, there was terrible inflation."

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The sometimes-fatal midnight boxing matches shown in "Schizo," she explains, are not entirely fictional. She conceived the original idea for the film after meeting a 23-year-old man in an Almaty cafe who looked much older, with swollen hands and a battered face. He told her he had survived a brutal beating, and she says she looked in his eyes and felt guilty. The story of Ali, the character who is beaten to death in "Schizo," is "the story of someone who came from the south of the country looking for a job, and did not succeed, and started to do illegal boxing," she says. "So it's real life, real stuff that sprang up after the Soviet Union collapsed. There were professional boxers and people from the street. Anybody who needed money."

Omarova cites the art-film gods of the '90s, Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-wai, as directors that have influenced her, but she also mentions "Raging Bull" ("That film by Scorsese, with De Niro as the boxer?"), and "Schizo" is flavored by both traditions. Viewers may differ in how they read the final scene, which in the time-honored fashion of Russian drama and literature seems to offer Mustafa the promise of a new life after his ordeal. "We don't want the audience to feel really depressed," Omarova laughs. She admits that the outlook for her native land is not so clear: "I hope Kazakhstan has a great future. But life at this moment -- it's dramatic."

"Schizo" opens March 18 in New York, March 25 in Boston and April 1 in Los Angeles and Washington, with other cities to follow.

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Problems with your "Mail Order Wife"? Seek revenge!
I'm not quite sure what to make of "Mail Order Wife," the new American ultra-indie effort from the writing and directing team of Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. Well, OK, I have thoughts, I just don't know what they add up to. In no particular order, here are 10 of them:

1) These guys get full credit for making a mockumentary (about a sad-sack New York doorman who orders a bride from Burma, with disastrous results) and not trying to trick anybody with an earnest-sounding Web site or misleading press coverage or some bogus "guerrilla marketing" campaign. Inevitably some people will see it and think it's a real documentary, and that'll be funny and weird, but the movie's probably darker and funnier if you get what's going on from the outset. Last year I dutifully covered Zak Penn's "Incident at Loch Ness," a mediocre film that was totally overwhelmed by the prodigious hoax that surrounded it. "Mail Order Wife" stands on its own.

2) The story told in "Mail Order Wife" isn't remotely plausible, and Botko and Gurland have plowed fearlessly deep into territory that some will see as racism and misogyny. I've got the feeling I should furrow my brow and be concerned, but the movie is also well acted, profoundly unhinged and very funny, so who cares? Besides, as art-film god Peter Greenaway once infamously observed, you can't be called a misogynist if you hate everybody equally.

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3) You just don't see American comedies that are this ruthless. That either means that Botko and Gurland have just punched themselves a one-way ticket back to Dubuque or they're going to be the next big thing, and will shortly be signed to direct "Dodgeball 3" or a musical based on the Monica Lewinsky scandal (Christina Ricci, anyone?) or something. I have no idea which.

4) What I mean by "ruthless" is that the characters gradually and subtly escalate to ever more finely calibrated grades of obnoxiousness. Doorman Adrian (Adrian Martinez) is an obese Queens slob who basically wants a domestic slave instead of a wife, and has no hope of getting laid except out of a catalog. His imported bride Lichi (Eugenia Yuan) seems at first like a stereotypically shy and submissive Asian woman, the perfect target for Adrian's victimization, but turns out to have unexpected depths of duplicity and vindictiveness. But those two are only minor assholes, as it turns out.

5) Here's one of the great, if obvious, principles of comedy: Make fun of yourself and you can get away with almost anything. Adrian and Lichi's marriage is funded by a documentary filmmaker named Andrew Gurland (played by, um, Andrew Gurland). Andrew is supposed to be our guide through the sociological train wreck of this arranged marriage, but he turns out to be a self-involved, pretentious and supercilious prick beyond anything hapless Adrian or faux-helpless Lichi could imagine. I shouldn't give anything more away, but when Andrew rides into the marriage like a noble white knight, seeking to rescue Lichi from Adrian's sadistic porn fantasies, the movie goes completely apeshit.

6) At the same time, there's some real subtlety to "Mail Order Wife." As an understated satire of the painful sincerity of documentary filmmaking, especially of the confessional, participant-observer type, it's actually brilliant.

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7) Acting in low-budget indies is almost never this good. Martinez captures the density of Adrian in a way that's real and not condescending. You can't quite hate the shlub, despite what he does to Lichi. He's a dumbass, fueled by primitive instincts -- but hey, he's not as big a creep as Andrew is!

8) Then there's Eugenia Yuan, an Asian-American actress given the impossible task of playing a fresh-off-the-jet arrival who speaks no English and appears, at first, to be a Suzy Wong caricature. There's no way Lichi should be a believable character, but she kind of is. Maybe the performance of the year to date.

9) Then there's the former baseball star who's been in the news a lot lately. Exactly how he wound up playing himself in this movie I don't know. Some bizarre cosmic serendipity was at work, though. And he's pretty good!

10) Basically "Mail Order Wife" is completely deranged, and the portrait it paints of our beloved country depicts a dangerous place full of neurotics and obsessives. But lots of fun, with porn, booze, backyard barbecues and elaborate revenge schemes! It all rings strangely true, folks, and while Botko and Gurland may be cynical human beings doomed to burn in hellfire for all eternity, I hope they make more movies before they go.

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"Mail Order Wife" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens March 25 in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, with other cities to follow.

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill": Love and death in something like paradise
I finally caught up with the sleeper documentary hit of the season, Judy Irving's "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," and came away wondering why I'm such a cynical bastard that I waited so long. Yeah, it starts out like a sweet, dozy tribute to the almost-tropical oddities of my hometown, Sarrazisco (as natives pronounce it), which include both unlikely wildlife and the unlikely human beings obsessed with it. Before long, though, it becomes other things: one of the most beautiful and endearing nature films you've ever seen, despite being filmed almost entirely within a major metropolis, and a love story that will repeatedly reduce you to tears.

Irving's movie is partly about the improbable fact that San Francisco has two different flocks of wild parrots that have completely gone native, subsisting on the local fruits and flowers and breeding new generations of a hybrid urban subspecies. (Actually, Baghdad by the Bay is not unique in this regard; several other American cities have wild parrots, including such frigid burgs as Chicago and New York.) But it's more about Mark Bittner, the onetime hippie-era musician who washed up in North Beach, the city's aging-bohemian ghetto, a quarter of a century ago and gradually became the wild parrots' principal friend and defender.

As Irving marvels in her narration, Bittner lives in a garden apartment on Telegraph Hill, a vertical wonderland overlooking North Beach, with no visible means of support. We see him doing his wash at the laundromat and enjoying a latte at Caffé Trieste, the former hangout of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But his only job seems to be to stand on one of the hill's lushly overgrown stairways and feed his flock of squabbling, squalling cherry-headed conures, who will seem to you more like monkeys or small children by the time the movie's over.

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Seriously, it's like watching Jane Goodall with her chimps, except funnier and less expected. Bittner has named almost all of the 45 or 50 parrots he personally encounters; he understands their pair-bonding, he shelters sick or dying birds in his apartment, he grieves their losses and celebrates their new arrivals. So will you, and Bittner himself will transform before your eyes from a washed-up '60s loner into a genuine urban hero (and an amateur ornithologist of some importance).

Eventually Bittner has to move out of his paradisiacal, completely free Telegraph Hill digs and say at least a temporary farewell to his feathered friends. It's a tremendously sad moment, but don't let anyone spoil where the movie goes from there, toward a perfect and astonishing ending you could never script. You have to get past the lovely surface of "Wild Parrots" to appreciate its Zen-like profundity, and the fact that it's a smash hit on the West Coast but has already disappeared in New York tells you that the profound cultural gulf between the coasts has not been closed by Starbucks and Whole Foods. I guess I'm still a crunchy Cali boy at heart; I loved this movie without reservation.

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is now playing in numerous cities, including Baltimore, Berkeley, Calif., Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., and Washington. It opens soon in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Sacramento, Calif., and many other places.

"Intimate Stories": A cake, a dog, a game show and Patagonia
I didn't find Carlos Sorin's "Intimate Stories" to be a life-changing experience or anything; it's more like a beautiful, meditative space where you remind yourself that your job, your car and your constantly beeping Blackberry don't actually matter. Hey, I'll take it. Sorin's Spanish title ("Historias mínimas") really means "small stories," but the distributors probably didn't think that sounded good in English. This is a charming, low-key entry in the burgeoning tradition of travelog indies -- by which I mean feature films that take you to some godforsaken outback you're unlikely to visit personally.

In this case it's Patagonia, the vast and impressive high desert of southern Argentina, where three characters are trying to get from the tiny town of Fitz Roy to the coastal city of San Julián (which we never really get to see). One is a borderline-hapless traveling salesman named Roberto (Javier Lombardo), who carries with him a birthday cake for the child of a young widow he is courting. But wait -- is the child a boy, as he has assumed, or a girl? Should this expensive cream-filled confection be a black-and-white soccer ball, or a two-tone green turtle?

The story of Don Justo (Antonio Benedicti), an aging grocer with a courtly demeanor, is the saddest, sweetest and most successful of the tales in Pablo Solarz's screenplay. He has heard that his long-missing dog has been seen outside the big city, but his voyage, and indeed the vanished pooch, soon assume a larger, almost mythic significance. Treated as a senile buffoon by his son and daughter-in-law, Don Justo is readying himself for a much longer journey than the one to San Julián, and the canine reconciliation he seeks seems more like the final forgiveness of sin.

Least interesting, I'd say, is the mild comic fable of María (Javiera Flores), a young mother who takes her baby along on her long-dreamed-of trek to the set of San Julián's most popular game show, where she hopes to win a "multiprocessor," whatever that may be. For all these characters, and for us, the trip across the spectacularly empty horizontal spaces of Patagonia has to be its own reward. All three suffer losses and ambiguous little victories; all are reminded that human existence sometimes seems like a comical scratching across empty space toward some intangible purpose. But Sorin's vision is fundamentally a generous one, and even in the flat, hard Patagonian light, the struggle seems worth it.

"Intimate Stories" is now playing in New York. A wider release may soon follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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