There comes a time in many international auteurs’ careers, often following a recent Oscar nomination and an uptick in global awareness, when Hollywood comes a-calling, beckoning forth their talent for the purpose of soiling it wholesale with some redundant exercise in creative desecration. Over the decades, even the best (Bergman, Wong, countless others) have fallen afoul of the worst the industry can offer them by responding favourably to such a call; better, surely, to keep earning the cred of which these self-serving studio executives have taken notice by continuing along the path that’s led you here, if you’ve been lucky enough to get here at all. And if you can do just that whilst simultaneously expanding your profile, ticking awareness ever upward, then that’s all the better for you!
Enter Ciro Guerra, one of Latin America’s most in-demand yet relatively unsung darlings of cinema among a formidable crop. He’s taken on an English-language script (from novelist J. M. Coetzee, adapting his own work) with foreign investment and marquee names Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson in major roles, yet managed to steer clear of Hollywood involvement in what is, clearly, a step further to the fore of the international cinema stage. Alas, Waiting for the Barbarians is rather more of a side-step for Guerra, neither as tiresomely ponderous as his lesser works nor as bracingly magnetic as his greater works.
A British magistrate at the edge of the empire (time and place are never specified, though it’s depicted as late 19th Century, Central Asia) faces a crisis when confronted with the consequences of his kindness toward a young local as his superiors and inferiors alike turn against him. Coetzee’s ever-complex, ever-tedious white man’s trials are given as pointed an anti-colonial edge as Guerra can manage, lodged precariously in moral grey areas that appear either ambiguous and inadequate or rich with detail and understanding. The burden of untangling this falls upon Mark Rylance, never less than the best thing about everything he’s in, and his ability to express equal amounts naïvety, nobility, pathetic deference to tradition and admirable personal clemency in little more than a brief glance or a single word is an utter marvel. Rylance just understands human behaviour and how to recreate it authentically to an extent that puts all other performers to pitiful shame! It’s features such as his performance as the magistrate, or Gana Bayarsaikhan’s as the injured woman he seeks to aid, or Chris Menges’ beautiful cinematography, or Giampiero Ambrosi’s stirring score, or Carlo Poggioli’s grand costumes – these are the invaluable little details that lift Waiting for the Barbarians, resolve some of its questionable thematic choices and make of it a fine piece of work, all in all.
Rather surer of what it wants to achieve, though less sure of how to achieve it, is Wang Quan’An’s Öndög, the story of a corpse’s 24-hour wait to be retrieved from its place of discovery, remote as can be in the Mongolian steppe, then of the personal life of the woman recruited to guard it. There’s a notion of the support of female autonomy in the sad, distant depiction of the former, then of the intimate, affectionate depiction of the latter, though whether Wang’s abstract stylistic flourishes merely conceal the detail in such a notion or get in its way is only one of the many questions this movie will leave unanswered. Yet what a thrill to be left with so much still to work out by oneself! A movie only exists as you experience it: first on screen, then in your memory, and the best movies reside there to reshape themselves ad infinitum if you allow them to.
Öndög plays like a short series of long, slow queries that trail off midway, coalescing into a statement more on colours, shapes and sounds than anything more substantial; the substance is what you make of those colours, shapes and sounds. A horizon is ruptured vertically by a roving, whirling figure in dance, Elvis Presley and metal over a shrouded cadaver. A camel alternately surrounds and shields a could-be couple by a fire – flames and alcohol turn to functional sexual intercourse and slow-motion slaughter. As Wang turns away from imagery to dialogue and character, the movie paradoxically becomes more abstruse, its focus diluted until an astonishing animal birth sequence captured in a single shot resets things, though this frequently feels like a movie incessantly set to reset mode. If it’s all simply in the pursuit of wantonly idiosyncratic style, I’ll face the bitter cold and take my woolly hat off to Wang – Öndög is idiosyncratic indeed, and just as stylish too.