starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman
screenplay by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers
directed by Christian Petzold
starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan
screenplay by Li Wei & Zhang Yimou
directed by Zhang Yimou
by Bill Chambers If Christian Petzold's previous film, Phoenix, felt like a joke reverse-engineered with the slightest of pretexts to get us to a killer payoff, Transit feels more like his version of "The Aristocrats!", a shaggy-dog story intoxicated with its own brutal rambling--here almost literalized by third-person narration from a bartender (Matthias Brandt), who paraphrases conversations he had with our hero that are comically steeped in minutiae--on its way to a glib punchline. In Paris during the Occupation, Georg (Franz Rogowski, a downmarket Joaquin Phoenix) is entrusted with delivering two pieces of mail to a renowned novelist squirrelled away in a hotel: a letter from the man's estranged wife, and papers that will help him escape to freedom. The writer, alas, is but a stain when Georg gets there, and soon after he agrees to smuggle a dying man (Grégoire Monsaingeon) into Marseilles, where he can kill two birds with one stone by taking care of the author's unfinished business. Transit generates a moment of real frisson when Georg hops off the train in Marseilles: everything is modern, or at least postwar, including the melting-pot citizenry. I'm sure there's a definitive answer as to whether this is WWII as modern-dress Shakespeare, but for the rest of the movie, whenever something as benign as a contemporary bus advertisement appears, the film briefly and instantly becomes a "Man in the High Castle"-esque work of speculative fiction that curdles the blood, given how frighteningly close we are to resurrecting Hitler with the rise of nationalism on the world stage. One might ask why the characters are still dealing with "letters of transit" like they're in Casablanca (i.e., where are the computers?), but I took that as commentary on the dinosaur ideals of fascism itself. If fascism does one thing well, it's "rolling back" progress, currently the Republican party's favourite pastime.
Perhaps an even bigger test of patience, Shadow, Zhang Yimou's return to the wuxia territory of his mainstream breakouts Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, sadly continues the diminishing returns of that trilogy. In ancient China, we're told, three kingdoms battled for control of the walled city of Jing. Pei's bratty King (Zheng Kai) scored a tenuous victory he aims to protect in an upcoming siege and enlists his military commander (Deng Chao) to strategize. The Commander has somehow cultivated a "shadow" (Deng again)--or is it the other way around?--whose lack of grooming and hygiene give him a slightly monstrous appearance that reflects Jung's definition of the shadow as the undesirable aspects of a person's being. The Shadow spends his days sending weird vibes from behind a trapdoor inside the palace, but without him the Commander doesn't appear to be a whole person for his wife (Sun Li), the King's sister. I'll be completely honestly with you, reader, I still had no idea what the fuck the Shadow had to do with anything even after a solid hour of exposition, during which the stark, depopulated sets take on a direct-to-video patina that's beneath Yimou despite the obvious artistry that's gone into desaturating the production organically. Then come the umbrellas made of machetes. They're a ridiculous and ungainly weapon and I loved every second they were on screen, especially the overhead tableau of dozens of umbrella-wielding soldiers getting slingshot towards the enemy and spinning in circles in the mud like turtles skidding on ice. For spectacle, the climax rivals anything in Hero or House of Flying Daggers (there's also a great, unique spin on the Trojan horse), and it reoriented me to the political dynamics enough to enjoy the Tarantino-esque bloodbath that caps the film. I'm sure a second viewing would be clarifying, though at the moment I'm not enticed. Those first two thirds aren't just sluggish--they're, for Yimou, soulless. Programmes: Transit - Masters; Shadow - Gala Presentations