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One sings, one doesn’t

By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 10, 2008

A powerful documentary can justify almost any film festival. But if there’s one here, I didn’t get to see it. Denice Ann Evans’s THE SPITTING GAME: THE COLLEGE HOOKUP CULTURE (September 13 at 3 pm) has about 28 minutes of substance in its 82-minute length. And Jenny Alexander’s compelling DETAINED (September 16 at 5:30 pm), about an immigration raid on a New Bedford in 2007, is only 28 minutes long.

Well, how about the “Festival” part? There are the usual parties, but is there anything to celebrate? Maybe it’s my own perverse taste, but I found Boaz Yakin’s DEATH IN LOVE (September 16 at 7:45 pm), nutty as it is, a treat. I had admired Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies (1998), but in the decade since he’s been making mainstream movies like Remember the Titans (2000). He seems to have been stockpiling numerous weird, indie ideas in the meantime; now he’s put them all together in this extravaganza.

The film opens with an elfin concentration-camp inmate walking down a corridor to the lair of a Dr. Mengele–like character whose recent experiments on similar-looking women decorate the cells along the way like outtakes from Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. Of course they fall in love, and decades later (the ’90s, I presume), the woman has grown into the ultimate Philip Roth castrating mother (played by Jacqueline Bisset — maybe the good doctor injected her with a youth serum). The elder of her sons (Josh Lucas) is a sado-masochistic self-loathing nihilist who works at a scam modeling agency; the younger one (Lucas Haas) is an obsessive-compulsive self-loathing recluse who plays the piano and prepares finicky meals. Needless to say, they masturbate a lot. So we’ve got The Night Porter and Portnoy’s Complaint and we haven’t even started on Marathon Man yet.

Death in Love aside, those looking for intriguing non-cineplex fare in Cambridge might do better at the Harvard Film Archive, which will be hosting “The Taiwan Stories of Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen” September 13-21. Yang died in 2007 at the age of 59, but not before completing his masterpiece, YI YI (2000; September 14 at 3 pm), a rich-textured tapestry of the assorted lives in modern-day Taipei that won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture award in 2001. But his films and those of his screenwriting collaborator, Wu Nien-jen, seldom screen in these parts. A pity, since they provide one of the most profound explorations of the link between experience and cinematic expression.

Yang’s first film, THAT DAY AT THE BEACH [HAI TAN DE YI TIAN] (1983; September 15 at 7 pm, with screenwriter Wu present), showcases his genius at an early, inchoate stage. Unlike Yi Yi, which weaves together its broad cast of characters within a narrow time frame, Beach takes a few characters through their entire lives. It opens with a concert pianist (Ming Hsu) on tour in Tokyo and taking time out to have lunch with Jia-li (Sylvia Chang), the sister of her first love. The focus switches to Jia-li’s story, about how she rebelled against her family by marrying the unpromising De-wei (David Mao) and the toll his successful business career took on their marriage up to the events that occurred on the day of the title.

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