Germany (1991)
Dir: Percy Adlon

Cast: k.d lang, Rosel Zech

Set in a moody, gloomy Alaskan town far from anywhere most of us would ever venture, this film is a thoughtful exploration of human searching. lang is well cast as an androgynous, enigmatic and drifting Inuit searching for her roots, while Roswitha quietly and efficiently oversees a not-too-well frequented library at this remote outpost. Little is known about the librarian, she keeps herself at a cool distance, and yet displays touching eccentricies such as hoarding hundreds of years-old jars of jam. Her relationship with Kotzebue starts off problematically at first, as Kotzebue proves herself somewhat troublesome at the little library.

The latter then embarks on a task of emotionally thawing out Roswitha while plodding along on her own personal search to discover her true parenthood. Roswitha, as it emerges, is someone desperate to escape her memories of fleeing the Eastern bloch with her young husband who was tragically shot dead at the Berlin Wall.

The gender ambiguity of Kotzebue comes to a head when she declares her attraction to the older, maternal Roswitha who then gently rebuffs her, but gradually, with further exploration of her own search for resolution, grows to accept Kotzebue. The perenially bleak and harsh landscape here goes well with the movie theme as do lang's haunting vocals and sparse musical arrangements, but ultimately it strikes me as "over-arty", pretentious and even a little self-indulgent.

Rating: 5.5

Saving Private Ryan

USA (1998)
Dir: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Adam Goldberg

Set during the WWII Normandy landings on D-Day, the movie's opening assault on Omaha beach is probably the most realistic and stomach-churning ever filmed. This movie certainly deserves a lot of credit for that. Afterwards, a company led by Captain Miller is sent to look for Private Ryan when it is discovered that all his other brothers had been killed in battle in various parts of the world. This company ventures forth into German-occupied territory and ultimately it also becomes a mission to capture a French town. After the brutal opening scenes, the rest of the movie descended into drippy Hollywood-ish sentimentality - which is a terrible waste although it may explain its huge popularity and commercial success. Way too much flag-waving here for my liking.

Rating: 6.5

The Scent of Green Papaya

Vietnam/France (1994)
Dir: Tran Anh Hung

Cast: Tran Nu, Yen-Khe, Lu Man San, Truong Thi Loc

A slight but charming movie which follows a young servant girl through years of servitude and her gradual blossoming into a mesmerisingly beautiful woman, all the while working for a prominent Saigon household whose son soon becomes enamoured of her. Debussy's thoughtful piano music serves as the moody, romantic backdrop for this deeply ruminative movie.

It is indeed a treat for the senses and does not hang on a complex plot of any kind. Sights, sounds, meditations on leaves, plants and insects all serve to remind us of a lost, half-forgotten and longed-after childhood.

Rating: 7.0

Shall We Dansu?
(Shall We Dance?)

Japan (1996)
Dir: Masayuki Suo

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari

A delightful film that's quite slight on plot but boasts oodles of charm to make up for it. Mr Sugiyama is a typical Japanese accountant who succumbs to the disillusionment of repetitive city life - he commutes, he goes to work, then he goes home. On his way home from work late in the evenings, he spies something going on in a building by the railway track - a woman conducting dance classes - an almost otherworldly vision that may reprieve him from his banal existence. Sugimaya decides to swallow his inhibitions and enrol in this class - in an attempt to inject some meaning to his banal life, and finds something else altogether. Touching and unfailingly human.

Rating: 6.5

Shanghai Triad

China (1995)
Dir: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Gong Li, Wang Xiao Xiao, Li Bao Tian

A beautifully and splendrously shot gangster movie filmed in true Zhang-style, set in Shanghai in the stylish and brutal 1930's. Shui-Sheng is a callow youth brought into the city by his uncle to be employed by the "Boss", a gangland leader - to serve his skittish mistress Xiao Jingbao. Jingbao is your typical cynical gangster moll and her relationship with Shui-Sheng starts off with typical coldness and cruelty. However, the plot thickens as it becomes clear that Jingbao is having an affair, and the Boss becomes embroiled in a violent gang war. The film is often seen through the eyes of Shui-Sheng as he fumbles about trying to please Jingbao, who alternately displays only harshness and contempt for him and later, reveals a touching vulnerability that requires her to pay the ultimate price for her disloyalty.

Rating: 6.5

Shallow Grave

UK (1994)
Dir: Danny Boyle

Cast: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor

Three friends sharing a flat find their new flatmate mysteriously dead in his room, with a huge amount of cash in a suitcase. What do they do? Temptation sets in and they decide to bury him and keep the money.... but whose nerve will break first? A heady psychological thriller which will keep your palms sweaty for quite a while. There are some very dark overtones here.

Rating: 7.0

Smilla's Feeling For Snow

Denmark (1997)
Dir: Billie August

Cast: Julia Ormond, Ona Fletcher, Agga Olsen, Gabriel Byrne

Based on Peter Hoeg's novel, this is supposedly a thriller based in Copenhagen which begins when a small boy dies after falling off a roof of an apartment building. Transplanted Greenlander Smilla, the heroine, instinctively smells foul play when everyone else is keen to dismiss the death as accidental. Her own investigation of the case leads her to her native Greenland as the plot grows increasingly complex.... and incredible. Completely formulaic, predictable and unbelievable. What a terrible yawn!

Rating: 3.0

Springtime In A Small Town

China (2002)
Dir: Tian Zhuangzhuang


Cast: Hu Jingfan, Wu Jun, Xin Bai Qing

A marvellously-crafted meditation on repression and forbidden love. The film focuses on a love triangle between Yuwen, her sickly husband Liyan and his childhood friend Zhichen who one day, arrives unexpectedly to stay at their house and discovers that his friend is now married to his teenage sweetheart. Liyan is only 30 but suffers from vague ailments which one slowly discovers, are probably psychosomatic. They live in a crumbling old house which aptly symbolises the empty core of the marriage and the film mostly takes place within its dark and claustrophobic walls. Zhichen's warm, lively presence quickly thaws the frozen characters of both husband and wife, but not without disastrous consequences. Liyan gradually sees his distant but dutiful wife blossom again in the presence of her old true love, and his grief and ultimate withdrawal is hardest to witness. The film is slow moving, but most exquisite to experience.

Rating: 7.0

The Story of Qui Ju

China (1993)
Dir: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Gong Li

Gong Li plays a pregnant and very feisty peasant woman who seeks compensation from the government authorities after her husband is kicked in the testicles by a donkey. In a hard-headed and ultimate courageous role typical of Zhang Yimou's heroines, she leaves the familiarity of her remote village to venture to the mind-boggling city to combat the innumerable layers of bureaucracy in a naive but heart-warming attempt to find justice.

There are many charming glimpses of rural life here - its simplicity contrasted with the harder edge of the cityfolk - an important social commentary where life is changing so rapidly for millions of rural Chinese.

Rating: 6.5

Steel Magnolias

USA (1989)
Dir: Herbert Ross

Cast: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah

A bit of a women's movie, but one with a real heart. Adapted from a play of the same name, the story revolves around Truvy's Beauty Parlour where all the women hang out and exchange gossip and wisecracks. M'Lynn's daughter Shelby is getting married, and they are abuzz with wedding preparations at the start of the movie. And life goes on in the parlour until tragedy strikes, but with a tragedy, there is also rebirth, regeneration, and this film seeks to portray the steely verve and toughness of Southern women. And it does so very well indeed. Outstanding performances from all the cast prevent this witty and funny movie from sliding into tear-jerking sentimentality.

Rating: 6.5