Montreal World Film Festival, 2000
Let me begin by noting the untimely death in June to lung cancer of Michaela Odone, 61, whose efforts to find a treatment for her sons degenerative brain disease, Adrenoleukodystrophy, was chronicled in the the gripping 1992 film, Lorenzos Oil. (She was played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon.) Her husband, Augusto Odone, talked to the Hollywood Reporter about what precipitated Michaelas demise. "It was her sacrifice for Lorenzo, She was with him 16 hours a day, continuously. We did not entertain people. We did not travel. We did not take vacations. It wore her out."
As for Lorenzo, he is now 22 and "holding his own."
Hail Michaela Odone! I doubt that Chinese filmmaker, Sun Zhou, has heard of her; but thats whom I thought about when, at the 24th Montreal World Film Festival in September, Sun spoke admiringly of the heroine of his movie, Breaking the Silence, and said he made the film "to show my respect for all women like her." His Michaela Odone-soulmate protagonist? Sun Liying, a poor single mother in todays urban China, who sacrifices everything so that her deaf son can have the best education and the possibility of a fruitful life. As he sleeps in her arms, she holds his hearing aid in her hand and whispers to him: "Be a good boy...go to school...and high school...and college."
Its a hard road to get there. As the movie opens, Sun has taken her boy out of Deaf School, saying "He wasnt like the other kids," and determines to educate him, without use of sign language, in public school. However, his elocution makes it hard for the teachers to understand him, and the other children taunt him: "Dummy! Deaf and dumb!" When he gets in a fight with them, he accidentally destroys one of his hearing aids. Much of Breaking the Silence shows the mothers valiant efforts to raise money for (by Chinese standards) the enormously expensive second hearing aid, as she assumes a series of low-paying jobs: selling goods in a subway underpass, a difficult paper route, house cleaning for a sexist Chinese yuppie, who tries to rape her.
Sun Liying is played with considerable feeling by Chinas most famous actress, the internationally acclaimed Gong Li, who had starred in Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou. The fact that shes in the movie raises the possibility that this sincere, significant film could find American distribution.
Goo Xin, the talented boy who acts in the movie, is hearing-impaired in real life. "He was very clever and got over many difficulties,"filmmaker Sun said at Montreal, "but still there were difficulties to get him to know what I meant. Sometimes Id draw him a picture. Sometimes Id play the scene for him, and hed imitate."
The boy is a student at the Guangzhou School of the Deaf. Too bad the movie doesnt show us the inside of such an institution in China. Or maybe the vigilant Chinese government wont allow it? And an odd note: the new "free market" China apparently allows vulgar "product placement" in its movies just as in Hollywood movies: again and again, the Sieners hearing-aid box is prominently displayed.
(If there are implant operations in China, they arent mentioned in Breaking the Silence.)
Also at Montreal was a new Japanese film, I Love You, with a different problematic story about a deaf heroine: a young mother, whose husband and daughter both can hear. However, the daughter has become unhappy and withdrawn after bullies in her class made fun of her for having a "signing" mother. How to win the daughter back? Before the terrible day at school, the little girl had been proud of her mother, and had become, as her dad, an expert signer.
The mother comes up with a novel solution: she will form a deaf theater troupe, which makes it necessary (and brazen for any Japanese married woman!) to reach outside her home: "I want to make friend with other hearing-impaired people," she declares. Their ambitious performance, Beauty and the Beast, will bring legitimacy to a deaf way of doing things, and get back the daughters affections. Though performed in sign language, it will go beyond the deaf community: "Our goal is to make a production everyone will enjoy, with both visual and dramatic impact."
We are treated on screen to a gala "signed" theatrical production, and, eventually, the daughter and mother are reunited. The little daughter tells mom: "I should have been deaf. But I hear, and I give my ears to you." At the end, mother and father sign to each other in their bedroom, and the little daughter reads their communication as a shadow play of hands on a wall: theyre saying, without needing words, "I love you."
A sweet film, and one I respect for the many unrushed silent moments in the movie in which the audiences attention is restricted to contemplating characters signing to each other. The direction of I Love You is shared: by veteran Yutaka Osawa and cinema newcomer Akihiro Yonaiyama, born to deaf parents in 1952 who, after touring with the American Deaf Theatre, returned to Japan to form his own deaf theater troupe.
And at Montreal, another compelling, even heroic film about a person with disabilities: the German-produced Gran Paradiso, the inspiring story of a young man, Mark, restricted to a wheel chair in Hamburg after suffering a spinal injury in a motorbiking accident. Combatting depression and self-loathing, he slowly determines to achieve his long-time dream: to climb the slippery ice peak to the top of the Gran Paradiso, a majestic mountain high in the Alps. With the help of his female social worker and a party of rowdy juvenile delinquents, the trek is made, and much of this movie is the arduous step-by-step voyage into the Alps. For the trip, Mark rides in a specially designed lightweight aluminum-titanium wheelchair, which has four long poles and can be carried by a quartet of climbers.
The higher they climb, the more that Mark, anti-social and suicidal, realizes that what really counts is the friendships which he is making along his journey. Reaching out to the human world. "I can live without the mountain," he says at one point, a kind of Zen lesson. Only when the mountain is no longer feverishly important is it the right time to conquer it.
Gran Paradiso ends gorgeously, with our happy troop (and Mark carried willingly on a new friends back) at the peak of Gran Paradiso.
Finally at Montreal: from Spain, I Know Who You Are, a Hitchcockian melodrama-- a male and female on the run from both gangsters and police-- in which one of the couple (think Marnie, Vertigo) is haunted by mental problems. Mario, a patient in an asylum, suffers fatally from Karsakov Syndrome, a severe form of amnesia in which he instantly forgets each thing seconds after it has happened to him. Still, he gets the attention of his new female psychiatrist, who becomes obsessed with putting the pieces together of his story.
Its doubtful that such a movie would be made in America, because of predictable objections (and correct ones) from, among others, the American Psychiatric Association.
The woman psychiatrist acts extraordinarily irresponsibly: she has a sexual relation with Mark, her patient, and she fills him with large doses of amphetamines in order to make him concentrate, as if he were a hyperactive child.
European laissez-faire? I got the queasy feeling that the filmmaker, Patricia Ferreira, had no problems with her heroines totally out-of-line (criminal?) activities. As a female pal says to the woman psychiatrist in the movie: "You slept with him, so what? Hes a charming lunatic."