Some people have heard me insist that writers should watch foreign films, not just American films, to get a more well-rounded view of storytelling. The best classroom for that this week was in Palm Springs. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, wrapping up this weekend, boasts that it screened 180 films from 60 countries this year, including 40 of the 80 foreign language entries for this year’s Academy Awards®. Judging by conversations overheard during the patience-testing amount of time waiting in line for screenings, the shuttle, the bathroom or for a beverage, festival goers really take advantage of the opportunity to see films from and about countries that they wouldn’t normally see in their local theaters.
As one woman noted as we were filing out of a screening of “Mountains May Depart,” she doesn’t normally get to see many Chinese films. I had to agree. I love foreign films and yet I admit to watching very few Chinese films. “Mountains May Depart,” which premiered at the Cannes film festival last year, takes place in China and Australia over the course of several decades, starting in the past and going into the future (lots of handy gadgets, yet vinyl prevails!).
Focused on a woman named Tao, the story begins with her choosing between two strikingly different suitors: one blue collar buddy who adores her and one wealthy proprietor who wants her probably because everyone else does, like some kind of prize. The story continues with the consequences of her decision, leading up to her adult son’s estrangement from her and from their heritage and language. It’s a film that’s longer than it needs to be, but the time-jumping structure is interesting, because it forces the audience to make some assumptions about what’s transpired.
A more traditional narrative structure plays out in the Venezuela-set “Liz in September.” The title character is a beautiful model attempting to hide her terminal cancer. Liz, played by the luminous Patricia Velasquez (remember Marta in “Arrested Development?”), is a lesbian on what seems like an endless vacation in a secluded resort with a cadre of her lesbian friends, which includes at least one jilted ex-girlfriend. When car trouble sends a fresh-faced young woman—straight and married—their way, Liz makes a bet with her gal pals that she can woo the straight woman into her bed. That the bet doesn’t come back to bite Liz is a little frustrating, but it is refreshing to see a woman in the role of the chest-pumping, challenge-taking man.
The director, Fina Torres, who adapted the script from a play, told the audience that making a film about lesbians in Venezuela was a challenge. The Venezuelan audience, she said, assumes that an actress playing a lesbian must really be a lesbian. This was going to present a casting challenge, Torres thought, but she was pleasantly surprised at the actresses’ willingness to take on the parts. She noted of all the actresses, only Velasquez is a lesbian in real life, and is only recently out. Torres said that when her film first screened in Venezuela, some audience members stormed out, aghast at the scenes depicting a woman kissing another woman. The scenes are arguably “tame” and Torres even pointed out she wasn’t setting out to make a Venezuelan version of the risque “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Lesbian love scenes aside, “Liz in September” is a beautifully shot film that could double as a promotional campaign for visiting Venezuela. It’s one of many stops on the global story-telling tour that departs from within the cinemas in Palm Springs in January.