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What's New in the Arthouse Theaters 
Vertical Ray of the Sun/Together/Innocence
By J. Robert Parks

The end of summer is not normally a happy time for moviegoers. All of the summer blockbusters have run their course, the quality fall releases are still at least a month away, and we're left with offal the studios need to dump. Which is why you've seen commercials for dreck like Rock Star, The Musketeer, and Soul Survivors.

Fortunately, the arthouse theaters don't run on the same cycle. And after a rather disappointing summer for foreign films, things are about to take a turn for the better. September offers two, three or even four impressive films for those willing to look past the cineplex.

One of the best to hit Chicago in several months comes from Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya). Vertical Ray of the Sun is about three sisters who live in Hanoi. The two older ones, Suong and Khanh, are married. Suong has a young son while Khanh, as we learn in the movie's first act, is expecting her first child. The youngest sister, Lien, is 19 years old and lives with her older brother Hai.

The three sisters run a cafe that functions not only as a source of income but also a place to congregate. The movie opens with the three preparing a memorial meal for the anniversary of their mother's passing. They sit out back, telling stories, singing, and chopping up the vegetables. Inside, the two husbands--plant photographer Quoc, who's married to Suong, and writer Kien, who's married to Khanh--joke and chat with Hai and other men of the neighborhood. Though the ostensible reason for gathering is to commemorate a death, it's evident that good fellowship and wonderful food are the real motivations.

We as the audience have the tremendous privilege of joining the festivities. Director and writer Tran Anh Hung uses intimate closeups, a beautiful and lush set design, and an evocative soundtrack to draw us into the story. You can almost taste the various dishes, and the camaraderie is enchanting. When the entire family joins together in song, the camera slowly pans as if we're part of the circle.

Of course, this idyllic world can't last forever, and soon we see the cracks in the various relationships. One of the sisters is having an affair, while one of the husbands has a secret son from a previous relationship. Unlike Hollywood movies, however, these conflicts don't nullify what's come before but instead present a much fuller world. Happiness and pain are both important facets of life. A person can love and deceive, even in the same moment. Character flaws don't cancel out a person's strengths.

The strengths of Vertical Ray of the Sun are magnificent. In a word, the movie is sensual. Not in the sexual sense, though that part of life isn't overlooked. Rather, the film is obsessed with feeling, hearing, tasting, and seeing. Characters touch each other--sometimes in familial ways, other times erotically, and still other times with cold indifference. But those different moments of contact are tangible. The same is true of the other senses. As I watched various scenes unfold, I felt as I were in the humid, beautiful climate of Vietnam, listening to the crickets outside, and sitting down to eat.

Credit for this must go not only to Tran but to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who was also responsible for _In the Mood for Love and Flowers of Shanghai_. His masterful use of color and magic-hour lighting is simply amazing. The cozy cafe scenes are balanced with gorgeous outdoor vistas. Sound engineer Francois Waledish uses water and animal noises to great effect, but even more compelling is his use of claustrophobic silence. The sound contrasts are marvelous.

I would be remiss if I overlooked the actors. Tran's wife and muse, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who's appeared in all his films, is enthralling as the young Lien. Nguyen Nhu Quynh and Le Khanh are striking as her sisters. The men don't have as much to do, but special mention should go to Ngo Qyanq Hai as the brother. His scenes with Tran Nu Yen-Khe in their apartment are just fantastic. In one, they slow dance to an old Velvet Underground song, creating an almost hypnotic state.

If Vertical Ray of the Sun has a flaw, it's that it feels too short, as if 45 minutes were cut at the last minute. Interesting plot threads are either wrapped up too quickly or overlooked altogether. Nonetheless, this is a marvelous film, one that deserves a wide audience. It opens this Friday at the Music Box theater in Chicago. 

Half a world away from Vietnam but evoking the same human spirit is the delightful Swedish film Together. Set in Stockholm in 1975, it focuses on a post-1968 collective of radical socialists. The movie opens with them celebrating the death of Franco (there's a hilarious shot of little kids jumping around a room shouting, "Franco's dead!!"), but the rest of the film focuses on the difficulties of communal life.

Goran and Lena have an open relationship, though Lena is much more interested in sleeping around than Goran is. Erik is an irritable and dogmatic young man who's broken all ties with his family and thinks others should follow his steps. Lasse and his wife Anna have divorced (Anna realized in therapy that she was a lesbian) but both still live in the house with their eight-year-old son Tet. Yes, they named him after the famous Vietcong offensive. It's that sort of house.

Into this wonderfully strange collective comes Goran's sister Elisabeth and her two children--thirteen-year-old Eva and ten-year-old Stefan--who are fleeing her abusive husband, Rolf. Though they have no political leanings, they also have nowhere to go; so they take up residence in a place where washing dishes is considered bourgeois but one woman refuses to give up her room after she's "painted it the colors that I wanted."

Writer and director Lukas Moodysson (whose first film was the fantastic Show Me Love) perfectly captures the inherent difficulties of communal life. What does it mean to share everything when you still have to have a place of your own to sleep? Is protest by itself a worthwhile endeavor? Is simply embracing the opposite of your capitalist neighbors an effective tactic?

Though the film is deeply interested in the viability of left-wing politics, it addresses that issue with a light touch and a fantastically entertaining story. Never reducing his characters to mere ciphers, Moodysson instead treats all of the housemates and even the abusive husband with gentleness and care. These folk may not be perfect, but then who is? 

The moral center of the movie is Eva (played with exquisite awkwardness by newcomer Emma Samuelsson). As she first distances herself from her new housemates, she reflects our own initial bewilderment with this strange world. But as Together goes on, she comes out of her shell, a wonderful transformation.

The other characters also change and grow, with some of that being spurred by Stefan and Tet's growing friendship. There's a scene when the two discover some illicit "war toys" and then use those to invent the game of "Pinochet and Torture," maybe the funniest thing I've seen all year. Later, the boys stage a protest in favor of meat (it's not allowed in the house), thereby turning upside-down the collective's ethos.

The film's set and costume design reminded me that globalization is not a recent phenomenon. The hairstyles, clothes, and furniture of mid-'70s Sweden mimic my own childhood in blue-collar Michigan. This is just a small instance of how Together reminds us of our common humanity. Despite the many differences in cultures and people, we still have much more in common. 

The people in Together slowly realize that as well. As Rolf puts it, "I'd rather eat porridge together than a pork chop alone." Together opens this Friday at the Landmark Theaters in Chicago. 

Innocence, a film from Australia about two people finding each other 50 years after they first fell in love, is a great opportunity for two brilliant actors to shine, and shine is what Charles Tingwell and Julia Blake do. As we see in the first few minutes of the movie, Claire (Blake) and Andreas (Tingwell) were deeply in love as young people, but something unfortunately separated them. Now as they approach the twilight of life, they meet again and struggle with the renewal of old feelings. Caught in the middle is Claire's faithful but stodgy husband John (Terry Norris in a fantastic performance). Director Paul Cox does a great job of blending the contemporary scenes with dreamy flashbacks from 50 years before and, though the ending felt a little too pat for me, this is a wonderful character study and a perceptive look at a time in life so often overlooked in cinema. 


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