September 2006


Imagine this scenario. You’re working at a man’s house when you overhear him talking about a chance to make a lot of money, but he sounds unsure of himself. A couple days later, the man dies of a drug overdose and a mysterious letter addressed to him falls into your hands. The letter includes a train ticket, a hotel reservation, and nothing more. You didn’t know this man at all, and you have no idea what’s involved. What would you do with that letter?

If you were Sebastian (George Babluani), the protagonist in the new French film 13 (Tzameti), you would get on that train and go to that hotel room and wait for what happens next. What does happen next can’t be described without ruining the movie. The first 40 minutes depend upon the audience being in the same position as Sebastian, totally unaware of what’s going on. The tension builds as he gets closer to his destination and as the men he meets seem more and more ominous.

I can tell you that the eventual situation involves rich and poor men betting for very high stakes. The movie is reminiscent of Intacto, a Spanish film I saw three years ago. In that film, a man is trying to find the luckiest person in the world so that he might beat the casino (a personal grudge is at stake). He sets up bizarre betting rituals–such as blindfolding a group of people and sending them hurtling through a forest, the person who makes it to the other side without slamming into a tree is the lucky one–and wagers things of enormous importance (a person’s house, a man’s finger). The difference is that “Intacto” was thematically about luck and chance from the beginning, and its visual and character motifs signaled its roots in magical realism.

13 (Tzameti), on the other hand, is a crime story. We can grasp that in the first five minutes as mysterious men dressed in leather jackets and black hats wander through the neighborhood. We’re not sure what’s going down, but we know something is and that our naive hero is going to be involved whether he wants to or not. The sense of foreboding is amplified by the gloomy score and ominous reaction shots. That atmosphere is so powerful that I gladly went with the movie’s flow though I had no sense of what was going on for the entire first act. I just figured that a director who could handle tone this well was worth following.

A key element of that tone is Tariel Meliava’s incredible black-and-white cinematography (the above photo doesn’t begin to do it justice). The film’s opening twenty minutes are a cinephile’s dream with striking diagonal long shots, high contrast lighting, and compositions of people and buildings against cloudy skies. But even casual moviegoers will notice the sleek coolness on display. Director Gela Babluani (the lead actor’s brother), in his feature debut, arranges his compositions for maximum effect, with almost every scene a standout.

That unfortunately changes when the betting begins. With everything inside a non-descript house, there aren’t many opportunities for fantastic visuals, and so your interest will depend on how compelling you find the story once the secret’s been revealed. I was a bit underwhelmed, to be frank. The stakes seem too high, the characters’ motivations too low for what transpires. It almost feels like there must be an allegory at work, with the rich and poor standing in for the global economy, but any insights are too facile to take seriously.

Though 13 (Tzameti) is a crime story, it’s not all that interested in whether the crime is solved. True, there’s an interrogation scene where Sebastian has to decide how much of the truth he can tell. I was thrilled when the betting sequence was done–not because it was bad (Babluani certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension) but because I was interested in where the movie would take us next. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t take us anywhere. And the payoff is anti-climactic to say the least, a hollow joke on the audience that makes the rest of the movie a stylish but empty genre exercise. Still, I was never bored, and fans of European crime dramas will find much to enjoy. And the next time a mysterious letter falls into your hands, I suggest you run it through the shredder.


I mentioned to my friend Garth last week how much simpler it is to write reviews of films you loathe than of ones you love. Sarcasm and nasty criticism make for deliciously easy writing. Rave reviews, on the other hand, are much, much harder. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to sound like a gushing teenager describing his favorite band. All that to say, please excuse me if I slip into gushdom over the latest film by Singapore director Eric Khoo.

Be with Me is one of those rare films that’s both rigorous and deeply moving. It’s based on the real-life story of Theresa Chan, a 61-year-old deaf and blind woman who appears as herself in the movie. If you’ve been fortunate enough to catch Werner Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (which played in Chicago this summer), think of Fini Straubinger. Theresa is just as much a force of nature and an utterly compelling screen presence.

This film is not a documentary, however. Instead Khoo and co-writer Wong Kim Hoh surround Theresa’s tale with several fictional stories. A teen girl falls in love with a girl she meets online. An overweight security guard obsesses over a gorgeous professional he sees every day. An old shopkeeper struggles with his wife’s absence. The shopkeeper’s son works as a social worker, assisting the poor and needy. Through it all, Theresa makes her way through the day while writing her autobiography, which is also a treatise on love, both earthly and heavenly.

Featuring little dialogue (though a fair amount of on-screen text), Be with Me constructs its stories from careful observation, gorgeous widescreen compositions, and a beautiful mix of music and ambient sound. Khoo combines close ups of faces and food with long shots of people in an urban setting. He also uses clever visual rhymes and sharp editing. In back-to-back scenes, the shopkeeper and Theresa are linked by how they sit. The teen girl, who’s been spurned by her girlfriend, is isolated in a telephone booth just as the security guard is isolated in his workspace.

The script also embodies this sense of isolation through its soundtrack, which is quiet and minimalist. Much of the “dialogue” occurs without talking: the girls chatting online and text messaging, the social worker talking to Theresa through her hand, the security guard trying to write a love letter. The most innovative example is how Khoo displays sections of Theresa’s autobiography in subtitles, while we see her teaching other blind students or we watch various characters trying to connect. So many directors would’ve used a voiceover, but the silent subtitles are that much more effective and unobtrusive. A gorgeous melancholy piano playing in the background undergirds the soundtrack, except in key moments when Khoo lets the silence speak for itself.

Theresa’s story becomes more prominent as the film goes on, and I wish Be with Me could’ve achieved a better balance. But Khoo is in total control of everything else, never allowing his emotional narratives to slip into sentimentality. And by keeping such control, he makes the themes of communication and love (both gained and lost) so much more powerful. This reaches its climax in a finale that left me in tears.

I don’t usually like to quote other critics, but filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s thoughts on the film are perfect: “Through Eric Khoo’s camera lens, we can see his mission: finding a way out in a lonely metropolis for the downtrodden, the fragile, and the defeated, who are both among us and like us. Watching the old man’s face and his embrace with the blind lady, I am deeply moved.” Or as Theresa Chan writes, “Be with me, my beloved love, that my smile may not fade.” theresa07-resized.jpg

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