Modern civilization is shown as a bleakly homogenous superlandscape in the ambitious "Chain," which links narrative fiction filmmaking to avant-garde with vision and authority. Strong word-of-mouth on the fest circuit will link pic to limited specialized theatrical, quality worldwide tube sales and niche homevid life.

Modern civilization is shown as a bleakly homogenous superlandscape in the ambitious “Chain,” which links narrative fiction filmmaking to avant-garde with vision and authority. Pic is an extension of helmer Jem Cohen’s success in creating his self-described “street footage” assemblage films that culminated in docus “Instrument” on Washington, D.C.-based independent art-punk quartet Fugazi, and 2000 musician profile “Benjamin Smoke.” Strong word-of-mouth on the fest circuit will link pic to limited specialized theatrical, quality worldwide tube sales and niche homevid life.

Thirty-one-year-old Tamiko (Miho Nikaido), a globetrotting single businesswoman, is on the road researching “entertainment real estate” (read: amusement parks and shopping malls) for her employer, a struggling Japanese steel concern. She’s taking meetings and gathering information for a proposed complex while she practices her hesitant English and spends listless downtime in cushy business hotels and multi-purpose malls.

Meanwhile, runaway Amanda Timms (Mira Billotte) ekes out a living on the fringes of a huge shopping mall somewhere in rural America. She squats in an abandoned house near the complex and tapes a spooky nocturnal diary for her half-sister with a scrounged video camera. She apparently fled an unhappy home after maxing out her mother’s credit cards, and now wanders tonelessly describing the big box stores and fast food restaurants that dot the landscape.

Tomiko waits in vain for a response from Tokyo to her most recent report, while Amanda is seen on her latest job, sweeping up in front of a department store.

Onto this slim but solid narrative base, Cohen has built a hypnotically involving film based on the genuinely novel idea of stitching together shots taken over a six-year period in 11 American states and six countries. Thus, images of Berlin’s mammoth, ongoing Potsdamer Platz urban redevelopment project flow into scenes taken in and around various suburban U.S. “big box” malls, Warsaw shares time with Saratoga Springs, and so on.

The cumulative effect is profoundly unsettling, but is tempered by Cohen’s effortlessly eye-catching compositions. Unforced but clearly-stated thesis contends human navigation of the evolving global landscape of office parks, construction projects, parking lots and demolition sites will be a dispirited proposition.

Pic isn’t acted in the traditional sense: Characters — who never actually meet — are filmed moving through locations and their stories are recounted in extensive voiceover or, in Amanda’s case, straight to the camera dialogue. Strategy adds to overall feeling of dislocation but retains enough structure to preserve narrative tension.

Nikaido, star of “Tokyo Decadence” and a regular in Hal Hartley’s films, is touching as the timid but wise Tomiko, while Maryland-born newcomer Billotte balances defiance and resolve in equal measure.

Shifting seamlessly from the Super-8 collage aesthetic of his early work to a more burnished and measured 16mm, Cohen mounts a strong tech package. Executive producers Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto are one half of Fugazi; pic is dedicated to British painter-turned-documaker Humphrey Jennings and visionary but secretive French essayist Chris Marker, which helps to position Cohen in the realm of socially responsible film artists.

Chain

U.S. - Germany

Production

A Gravity Hill Films (New York) presentation of a Gravity Hill Films in cooperation with ZDF/arte (Mainz)/Antidote Films (New York) production. (International sales: Antidote Films, New York.) Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Jem Cohen. Executive producers, Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. Directed, written by Jem Cohen.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm), Cohen; editors, Cohen, David Frankel; music, Godspeed You! Black Emperor; sound, Cohen. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 15, 2004. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Miho Nikaido, Mira Billotte.
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