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Tuesday , November 19 2019

Absorbing paradox in ‘3 Faces’

Panahi’s latest focuses on underclass of Iranian womanhood

We are now eight years into the 20-year filmmaking ban imposed on Iranian director Jafar Panahi, for allegedly making propaganda against his country’s regime. “3 Faces” is the fourth film he has made illicitly under conditions a lesser director might find paralyzing. But Panahi’s irrepressible, mischievous storytelling instinct has with tenacious regularity found its way through the cracks and onto the biggest international stages, even though the man himself cannot leave the country.

“This Is Not A Film,” “Closed Curtain,” and Berlin Golden Bear winner “Taxi” were all metafictions that saw him kick against those insupportable restrictions by making them his subject, and it’s been fascinating to watch the rough-and-ready style he developed out of necessity evolve into something of a distinctive aesthetic. That stylistic evolution continues with “3 Faces,” most noticeably with Amin Jafari’s graceful, often bravura handheld camerawork. But the really absorbing paradox here is that by shifting his focus away from his own lack of freedom and onto that of a whole underclass of Iranian womanhood, Panahi has made what feels like his freest film since the ban was imposed, if also his most elusive, earning a best screenplay prize at Cannes that should lend the film an added profile in its travels.

Godard said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun; all Panahi needs is a girl and a noose. “3 Faces” opens with arresting selfie smartphone footage of a young woman, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) apparently driven to suicide by her family’s prohibition against her becoming an actress. Her plaintive appeal is addressed to the successful Mrs. Jafari (well-known Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari, like all the main cast playing a version of herself), and it reaches her via her director friend, Jafar Panahi. Behnaz pivots between agony at the idea that her neglect may have contributed to the girl’s suicide, and a deep suspicion that the footage has been faked and the whole situation is an elaborate ruse. She and Panahi set off for the girl’s remote, Turkish-Azeri-speaking home village to investigate.

That drama could easily power a different film through to its conclusion. But Panahi abruptly “solves” the mystery halfway through, as though cutting the film’s motor, the better to allow the narrative’s looser, more allusive undercurrents to steer it where they will. On their road trip the famous actress and the famous dissident director have several pointedly odd encounters that unfold with almost folk-mythology whimsy. An old woman settles herself into her pre-dug grave, equipping it with a lamp to keep away the snakes who’ll come for her “for the bad I’ve done.” A villager insists Behnaz take tea with him (the famous Iranian hospitality is often depicted less as friendliness and more as yet another unwritten but rigidly enforced ritual), and hands her a small sackcloth containing his adult son’s infant foreskin as a talisman. A large bull with a broken leg blocks a narrow mountain road while its owner explains he cannot destroy it because it is the “bull with the golden balls,” a stud animal who once impregnated 10 cows in a single night. In the moment, these incidents feel like gentle sidetracks, like Panahi observing the quirks of his parents’ home region with a mixture of affection and exasperation. But cumulatively they create the backdrop of pervasive patriarchy and small-town small-mindedness against which the main story can unfold.

Emerges

That story, it gradually emerges, is of three women, all actresses: Marziyeh, Behnaz, and a third, older woman, Shahrazade, who lives as a recluse having been ostracized following years of mistreatment by male directors. There is a deep eloquence in calling your film “3 Faces” and keeping one of those faces invisible, but that’s what Panahi does here: We never see Shahrazade, and so she becomes almost mythically emblematic of the injustices and double standards that Iranian actresses, who can be revered as celebrities and castigated as morally corrupt almost in the same breath, labor under.

Panahi’s own role is markedly less central than in his last three films. Mostly he is the silent observer, with leisurely, Kiarostami-esque long takes, often showing a character’s full journey to the camera from a far-off pathway, contributing to the film’s meditative, pensive rhythm. It makes “3 Faces” less punchily playful than “Taxi,” but more moving and ultimately more valuable. This is Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker with more cause than most to feel victimized, turning a deeply respectful, artful and compassionate eye outward, to the struggles of others, and finding such empathy there that the film amounts to a heartfelt statement of solidarity. He is perhaps becoming resigned to his bondage, even as he’s becoming more adept at working around it, but with “3 Faces,” the caged Panahi is determined to sing someone else’s song, and in times like these, such generosity of spirit is its own quietly fierce act of cinematic defiance.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: In the wake of a government clampdown on financial misdeeds in the film industry, the production team behind Chinese wartime action drama “Unbreakable Spirit,” featuring actor Bruce Willis, has defended the movie from accusations of tax evasion and money laundering.

An unusual public statement signed by the film’s key crew members was released shortly after Chinese authorities issued rules on actors’ pay following revelations of “yin-yang contracts” — double contracts for a single job — used to hide income. The authorities have warned that dubious practices risked undermining “the health and ecology of the film and television industry.”

The statement by “Unbreakable Spirit’s” production team declared that the movie’s budget did not exceed the original estimate, stars were not overpaid and production crew members would not receive a cut of the box office. Among the statement’s signatories was director Xiao Feng.

“Unbreakable Spirit” (called “The Bombing” in Chinese) features an ensemble cast including Willis, Liu Ye, Nicholas Tse, Adrien Brody and Fan Bingbing, China’s most famous actress. The movie tells the story of the Japanese bombing of Chongqing during World War II. It’s set to open in China on Aug. 17.

The film has had a troubled history. According to the public statement released Wednesday, production agreements were signed by four companies in early 2015. But one of the original investors, Shanghai Hehe Film & Television Investment Co., bailed after its parent company, Shanghai Kuailu Investment Group, was caught up in a box-office fraud scandal surrounding “Ip Man 3” in March 2016. Shi Jianxiang, Kuailu’s former chairman and the original producer of “Unbreakable Spirit,” fled the country, and is currently on China’s international wanted list.

The statement said that one of the investors, Beijing-based Yuanhua Pictures Co., agreed to shoulder the costs initially borne by Hehe in order to keep the production going. (RTRS)

Meanwhile, TV host Cui Yongyuan – who earlier this month exposed yin-yang contracts allegedly signed by Fan – has alleged that there were similar contracts worth 750 million yuan ($113 million) relating to actress Huang Shengyi, who also appears in “Unbreakable Spirit.” Cui, a former friend of fugitive Shi, was on board in the early stage of the movie’s production as an advisor.

“Unbreakable Spirit” executive producer Wang Ding told Chinese media that, despite the film’s financial difficulties, the total production cost did not exceed the original estimate of 150 million yuan ($22.6 million), and did not run into billions of yuan as rumored. When the project was unveiled three years ago, sources estimated the budget to be about $90 million.

Wang denied allegations of tax evasion and money laundering during production. “The fact is we have been facing a great deal of difficulties to keep the movie’s production going,” he said.

The production team did not pay overpriced fees to the actors, Wang said. “All the fees paid to the main cast appearing in the final cut of the film were agreed to below the market price….All the cast members were enthusiastic about their participation in this war drama, and no one asked for an exorbitant fee,” he said.

Director Xiao also said that none of the production crew members would have a share of the box office receipts.

But neither he nor Wang responded directly to the allegations of yin-yang contracts. (RTRS)

By Jessica Kiang

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