Tue, 07 Nov 2000

Good storytellers never go out of style

By Dini Djalal

JAKARTA (JP): What makes a good story? Everyone from Shakespeare to Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, would give this simple answer: the storyteller.

That is proven in Wonderland, an unpretentious new film by Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo), as well as in the Czechoslovakian production Return of the Idiot. Both films are part of JiFFest's "Youth in Frame" category.

The films revolve around the lives of ordinary people we could easily find next door, or even at home. No one discovers a toxic waste site or the cure for AIDS, merely a lover's betrayal or a career defeat. But in these common failures, audiences can see themselves and their personal struggles, and feel less alone, less small in the world. Cinema, at its best, is not only escape, but therapy and catharsis.

Wonderland, which will be screened on Friday at Jakarta Theater at 7:45 p.m., tells the story of a typical British family, in many ways no more dysfunctional than any other. The parents have an unhappy marriage, a daughter is struggling as a single mother, while another looks for a mate through the personals. The plot would be spare in another person's hands, but Winterbottom weaves a poignant, multilayered tale.

Unlike other directors, who often lay out and exaggerate a narrative's every nuance, Winterbottom holds back, revealing details slowly, subtly, surprisingly. He knows that most of the time, no one has all the answers, so why would a film? Like you or me, the characters in Wonderland often keep their thoughts to themselves. Winterbottom's shaky, handheld camera follows them regardless, even when they are at a loss for words. The result is a bright, believable and compelling slice of life, played by a solid ensemble cast.

But top billing goes to London, the chaotic but intimate metropolitan through which these characters traverse spellbound. Forget Hugh Grant's Notting Hill; this is London at its most honest, offering its citizens confidence without judgment. Wonderland is a wonderful portrait of a wonderful city, and filled this former resident with great longing. See it if you are homesick.

Return of the Idiot is a lot like Wonderland. It too tells its ordinary tale in whispers and glances. Lovers kiss and quarrel, as siblings do, too. When you reach the ending, the story's simplicity becomes clear, but director Sasa Gedeon does not want to present the narrative on a plate. Neither do I -- suffice it to say that it is a love story centered around Frantisek, a bumbling character modeled after Dostoevsky's The Idiot. The rest is your pleasure to discover.

Take note: the film has a sleepy, drowsy start. It does not help that it is a tale of a small town with silent, snow-strewn streets. There is no dialog for the first 10 minutes. This is a quiet, contemplative film that demands patience.

But 29-year-old Gedeon, voted by the Sundance Film Festival as one of 10 most promising young directors, is a master at storytelling. Only the very skilled, like himself and Winterbottom, can let the film rest on a series of chance encounters rather than a clear outline, and still have everything eventually fall into place. The film challenges the audience to fill in the blanks leading to the denouement. This is a director's film, although the performances are top-notch, though subdued.

A film that is even more quiet is Tuvalu, also in the "Youth in Frame" category. Set in Bulgaria, but directed by German Veit Helmer, Tuvalu is a brilliant tale of a young man living in fantasy -- convinced that the family business, a dilapidated swimming pool, will not be demolished.

Like Return of the Idiot, Tuvalu has vignettes verging on magic realism, garnering it the FIPRESCI prize at the Flanders International Film Festival last year. Like the fairy tales they weave, good storytellers like Helmer, Gedeon and Winterbottom never go out of style.