Faces of the World

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The Historic Auditorium of the Michigan Theater has played host to some of the most unforgettable facial images in the history of film over the last few months, as part of its World Cinema Film Series. The difference between TV and theater screenings of movies might be most pronounced in the emotion and detail that is communicated in facial closeups.

These faces have included the heartbreaking disappointment of the young boy in The Bicycle Thief; the stoic sadness of the mother in Pather Panchali; and the peaceful joy of Victor Sjöström at the end of Wild Strawberries.

And on April 12, 2010, I added two more unforgettable faces to my collection of movie memories in the Michigan’s showing of the 1993 Chinese film Farewell My Concubine. There was the perfectly applied mask of makeup on the face of an opera star (played by Leslie Cheung), which hid the mysteries and passions of his life.

And then there were several powerful, indelible images of the beautiful Gong Li. Her cool beauty balanced out the more aggressive, masculine emotions of the movie. Then, towards the end, the stunning look on her face when she is betrayed, filtered through the flickering flame of a fire. And then a little while later, her last, lost glance at one of the other characters in the film before she goes off to her final fate.

I first saw Farewell My Concubine at the Detroit Film Theatre in October 1993, and the turning of calendar into 2010 and a new decade has made me start to feel nostalgic for some things in the 1990s. Farewell My Concubine came out during what now looks like a Golden Age for Chinese films, when almost every year brought a new movie starring Gong Li and directed by Zhang Yimou, including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Shanghai Triad.

Modern Classic

Watching Farewell My Concubine at the Michigan Theater felt like the viewing of a film that has earned the right to be called a classic as much as any of the older films in the series. At first I was reluctant to spend 171 minutes in a movie house on a Monday night watching this movie, but a review of the movie in Videohound’s World Cinema: The Adventurer’s Guide to Movie Watching, by Detroit Film Theatre curator Elliott Wilhelm, helped convince me to make the effort.

Michigan Director of Sales/Marketing Consultant Drew Waller opened the evening with a short introduction of Farewell My Concubine. His attempt at a pronunciation of the Chinese name of the movie was aided by someone in the audience. Drew noted that Farewell My Concubine was sponsored by two organizations at the University of Michigan—the Center for Chinese Studies and Confucius Institute at the University of Michigan.

The World Cinema Film Series has been a pleasant, thought-provoking way to start the workweek. Looking forward to these movies has helped take the edge off of Monday.

Promotional material for this series included a punch card that rewarded faithful visitors with such treats as soft drinks, popcorn, and movie tickets. Advertising material included a creative standup cardboard display that showed a map of the world, with callout lines connecting different movies to their countries of origin.

Along with China, Michigan moviegoers got to visit Greece (Z), Italy (8 1/2 and The Bicycle Thief), Japan (Seven Samurai), Brazil (Black Orpheus), India (Pather Panchali), England (The 39 Steps), Sweden (Wild Strawberries), and France (Rules of the Game). The series concludes on April 19 with Knife in the Water, from Poland.

This series of films, which stretched from the deep cold of winter to the blossoms of spring, left some powerful impressions on me. Z showed how film could be used as a political tool. Watching Pather Panchali connected me more with the people from India with whom I work both directly and remotely.

Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game appeared during a memorable eight-day span of several movies at the Detroit Movie Palaces by great directors, including Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) at the Redford Theatre, and Federico Fellini (8 1/2) and Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon) at the Detroit Film Theatre.

One country not visited by the World Cinema Film Series was Germany, but the Michigan has more than made up for that with recent showings of the mysterious The White Ribbon and the heart-pounding North Face.

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Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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