You may have heard some unsettling talk about Russia lately: the oppression, the censorship, the banning of gay marriage, the banning of being gay in general (unofficially, of course), Pussy Riot's ordeal, Vladimir Putin being the longest-serving Prime Minister since Josef Stalin, etc. Russia, one might argue, is a less-than-lovely place to be right now, unless you happen to be Vladimir Putin, who more closely resembles an Alan Moore character with each passing day. It's really, truly scary that a large, ostensibly edified country can devolve into government-officiated bigotry at a time when gay marriage is making vast strides in New Jersey -- the state that made The Situation a cultural icon! -- and cell phones can start cars from miles away.
Agnieszka Holland, the brilliant, award-winning Polish filmmaker, doesn't like oppression and bigotry. In fact, it makes her very angry -- or so her newest film strongly insinuates. Burning Bush, a three-part, four-hour Czech film screening in the New York Film Festival, chronicles the real-life story of Jan Polach's self-immolation in protest of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969. Jan's death -- a vicarious murder, not a suicide, his supporters maintain -- engenders a social uprising that slowly, over the course of two long decades, with pamphlets and letters and mimeographed fliers glued to brick, helps erode the Russian stranglehold. The image of Jan's burning body running through the street with horrid screams and flaming, flailing arms stirs the Czechs from their willful ignorance.
Life in Czechoslovakia circa 1969 resembles life in modern-day Russia: The government censors news sources and ruins the lives of those who don't fall in line. The Czech officials, acting as fleshy puppets laced-up and controlled by the Russians, are slowly eroding civil liberties and hopes as the city streets erupt into violence, tanks slowly rolling past apartments and college students going toe-to-toe with armed forces. The government has even started to purged that insidious parasite known as western pop-culture from Czech minds: Listening to the Rolling Stones is a jailable offense. (Maybe they're Beatles fans?)
After Jan's death, an invidious politician tells a crowded room, full of reporters that Jan was insane, an extremist right-winger, part of a crazy collective of self-immolating students (probably that damn rock 'n' roll music, corrupting the youth). The politician, Vilem Novy (Martin Huba, conveying layers of emotion with stoic glares and forced smiles), is a former journalist -- a good one, we're told -- who was sent to the UK to cover The War, and who subsequently became a scape goat and had a rope dangled around his neck until he agreed to cooperate with the KGB. Novy is now a collaborator, a powerful politician who throws parties with high-ranking military persons, and he acts as a cipher for the Russians. Jan's mother (Jaroslava Pokorna) and brother (Petr Stach) read his libelous remarks in the paper and get brilliant young lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova) to help them sue Novy. Of course their lives are consequently pervaded by enigmatic strangers in dark coats, giving Jan's mother photos of her son's charred corpse, arranging for Dagmar's doctor husband to lose his job, making silent phone calls throughout the night and sitting in black sedans in front of houses. They even dig Jan's body out of his grave and cremate it without telling his family. And of course, the trial is un-winnable, even though Dagmar puts together an air-tight case. The fingers of the government are long and sticky, picking through everyone's mind, maneuvering people like pawns.
Burning Bush is an important, earnest film about real issues -- censorship, oppression, tyranny, violence as catalyst for social uprising. It never feels like it's profiteering, or capitalizing on hot topics. The film's depiction of social atrocities and insidious government encroachment draws uncomfortable but important parallels to Putin's Russia, yet it doesn't veer into preachiness or self-righteousness. It is, first and foremost, cinema (despite having been produced for HBO Europe), and it's riveting, intense, sublimely devastating -- a modern-day dystopia in gray and brown. The social criticism is potent because it's woven throughout the narrative with deft precision, seeping into every scene without screaming at you.
Unlike the NYFF's opening-night centerpiece, Captain Phillips, Burning Bush is suffused with genuine tension and suspense even though we know the outcome. It's a real story with real emotion. Without resorting to Tarantino-esque manipulation (because Tarantino is arguably the only filmmaker with the talent to back his audacity in turning Hitler's face into bullet-riddled putty), Holland and co. manage to keep fingers clenched and hearts in throats because they create a stirring cast of characters and they keep the pace consistently quick. Tremolo-picked strings and long, sustained whines work in tandem with the visuals, a sort of anti-Hans Zimmer score replete with motifs that help us feel connected and involved without bombarding us; if Zimmer's Dark Knight score sounds like a violin smacking an old couch cushion, Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz's score feels like violin bows sawing away at your spine.
You can see traces of Holland's work on AMC's infuriatingly underrated The Killing laced throughout Burning Bush. She sustains a mood that's tinged with justified paranoia, and she keeps the camera moving, bringing us in for sordid close ups of hands reaching for phones, eyes gazing fearfully, documents about to be inexplicably snatched by indiscernible entities. We see people through reflections --a man bursting into flames via the gleaming glass of a guard's booth, a mother mourning her son and her sanity through a streaky mirror -- and through panes of glass, as if watching a zoo exhibit with which we can't interfere or interact, but which is unfurling in real time, in real life, just beyond our grasp. But unlike The Killing, with its ridiculous (and ridiculously gripping) twists and turns and double-pump-fake reversals, Burning Bush eschews melodrama. Reality provides more than enough drama for a four-hour film, and Holland wisely allows the real-life tragedy to speak for itself. The climax involves the secret cremation of a body, not a car chase down a runway. Burning Bush is arguably the scariest film of the New York Film Festival, if only because it vindicates Fox Mulder: sometimes they really are out to get you.
With A Touch of Sin, the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke has, like Agnieszka Holland, created a ballsy, modern vivisection of current social nastiness. Jia's least static film, A Touch of Sin asks us to ruminate on why small, seemingly inconsequential incidents in China so often lead to rage and bloodshed. The film is at once tranquil and unsettled, like the stoic glare of someone who is about to punch you in the face.Jia gives us balmy skies lingering above snow-veiled mountains, and villagers walking down dirt roads with faces hanging low, before his film ruptures with sudden, elongated moments of violence. A man beats his horse, a boy jumps to his death, a woman slashes an aggressive customer with an apple-peeling knife. The violence is never trivial or silly or frivolous: it's always rooted in something and it's always consequential. Violence is effect and cause, consequence and catalyst -- it's a conduit in an endless circuit.
Though half the length of Burning Bush, Touch of Sin is replete with just as many characters story lines (though it moves, paradoxically, at half the pace). In the first of four semi-entangled narratives, Jiang Wu plays a disgruntled ex-miner who is fed-up with the corruption of his local government, of the cats who got fat and greedy on the blood and sweat of entire villages. He tries talking to them, writing letters, gathering supporters, but that just leads to him being smacked in the face with a shovel. So he gets his shotgun, drapes a tiger blanket over it, and blows away some local officials. The film is slow and steady for twenty minutes or so, following Wu's ex-miner as he fruitlessly tries to file a complaint against his village leaders, before veering into scenes of spaghetti Western violence. The first death is startling, ending with a shot of a man's pulped face, but the second death, of a woman running in to see what all the noise was about, is even worse, her body tumbling through a glass door and sprawling on the ground outside.
The other stories involve a man who only finds serenity in the bang of a gun, a young boy chewed-up and spit-out by the Chinese class system, and a young woman struggling to stay afloat in the writhing sea of patriarchy. (Westerners, take note: the more-or-less enlightened New York is not representative of the world; the blatant sexism Jia's characters have to deal with is as startling as the loud thump of bullets throwing bodies into walls.) Only one of these stories really ends, and that's only because that particular story resolves with failure -- with quitting. The violent responses to social injustice don't solve anything outright, but they suggest and spur the embryos of change.
The stories are somewhat uneven, with three of the four feeling slightly more enthralling and one feeling less politically astute, vaguer and more opaque, and the deliberate pace may leave less patient viewers zoned out. But A Touch of Sin is the kind of film that blossoms in your brain hours later, with scenes lucidly replaying and themes materializing that you hadn't noticed before. Jia plies scenes of violence with clean, stark visuals. He shows how violence can help lead to change, but that change isn't inherent, and violence can be mindless: some scenes are wreathed with pensive stares, some are abrupt; some have effects, a means to an end, and some simply are the end.
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.