31 October 2008

Far North

Disturbingly Beautiful Far North

By Kristin Battestella

Sure I get knocked for my liking of Sean Bean, but he wasn’t the only reason for my purchase of Far North. This beautiful, yet creepy and tragic 2007 film based on a story from Sara Maitland’s collection Far North and Other Dark Tales will have you awing and grimacing at the screen.

Saiva (Michelle Yeoh) was cursed as a child and cast from her village. Once she finds happiness with a neighboring tribe, tragedy follows her again. She rescues Anja (Michelle Krusiec) and raises her into the ravages of the artic, away from society and all its evils. One day, however, Saiva helps Loki (Sean Bean), a freezing soldier lost in the artic wilderness. Saiva warns Anja not to be charmed by the first man she’s met. Both women, however, fall for Loki, and disaster follows.

Folks who’ve read my reviews know I don’t like to spoil a film experience, but where Far North is concerned, I really can’t tell you anything else about the story. My husband thought the obvious of oft villain Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Goldeneye), “He kills them, right?” I countered with, “No, they have threeways.” Both are plausible scenarios to the modern viewer, but the things you expect most in Far North aren’t the things that happen. BAFTA winning director Asif Kapadia (The Return) and co screenwriter Tim Miller (The Warrior) have taken Maitland’s tiny story and stretched into a philosophical and disturbing little statement. The film rises and falls upon Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Tomorrow Never Dies) and she is up to the task as the tormented Saiva. Some of the flashbacks trying to make her look younger seem out of place, but Yeoh’s silent looks and stilted dialogue are perfection. It’s a shame most Americans don’t get to see most of her work; I’ve enjoyed every film in which I’ve seen Yeoh. She can act. We believe Saiva is a tough woman who can brave this horrid landscape, and yet we know she is capable of compassion. There isn’t a lot of dialogue among the three leads, Far North feels more like a play. Camera angles and expressions sell the story, and when words are spoken, they are forceful and take on more than face value meanings. Newcomer Michelle Krusiec (Dirty Sexy Money) steps up to the plate as Anja. She’s young, disenchanted with this rugged lifestyle. Anja’s been aged by the artic yet is still very young and juvenile in comparison with the outside word. And of course there’s Sean Bean. I often wish he had more to do in some of his smaller roles, (NBC’s recent Crusoe especially) but here, Sean Bean gives us just enough to like Loki, wonder about him, and question his feelings towards both ladies.

Despite fine performances all around, the incredible artic location is what makes Far North. The ice, cold water, white snow; Norway is the picture of beauty and the face of danger. Hypothermia, jagged rock cliffs, falling ice; Any number of natural disasters-or the viles of people-could harm you and there’s no escape, no help for hundred of miles. I wouldn’t say it is as exceptional as Platoon, but Far North reminds me of Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning Vietnam Epic. It’s so visually horrifying and disturbing that you don’t really want to watch it again, but you can’t look away either. Folks who are sensitive to animal plights might want to skip a few scenes in Far North. Seeing women kill dogs and seals is very upsetting to a lot of people, but we must remember in the arctic, this is a way of life.

As realistic as Far North’s unforgiving locations are-and the behind the scenes documentary on the DVD tells us exactly how difficult it was for the cast and crew-there’s also something very ambiguous about the story. It’s only ninety minutes, but it seems longer, and has a very questionable but not unsatisfying ending. Far North reads like a fable; a tale told to children warning of consequences and humanity. Loki is the Norse God of mischief. Is he even real? In this far away place at the edge of the world, has Saiva somehow crossed to another realm? One is not even sure when Far North actually takes place. Russian soldiers are persecuting native tribes, but is their presence meant to be taken as an historical marker or are they representative of the evils of society?

Not that he is a particularly glamorous actor, but Sean Bean plays perhaps his least pretty role here. He’s hypothermic and bundled up for most of the film, and when he strips down, it’s not his usual action hero form. Sharpe fans and Sean Bean Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ladies will joke that it’s that because Sean Bean has entered these women’s lives that causes all the trouble. But it’s more than that. It’s the mere fact that a man, such a mysterious man, any man really could cause such catastrophe for these two women. Even if you don’t know about the shape shifting promiscuous Norse Loki, Far North doesn’t give easy answers. On my first viewing, I was so horrified by Far North, I didn’t even realize Sean Bean was in the buff. In the Artic? I was too busy screaming at the television screen. It’s not something I normally do, and after my father heard me, I sent him into a viewing of Far North cold turkey. His verdict? “Horrible film. I liked it!”

Unfortunately, not a lot of people have seen Far North. It’s done well in the festival circuit, and even the making of documentary had garnered accolades, but Far North has yet to see even a limited release or theater distribution. The DVD is available online, and Far North even opened the first annual Philadelphia Asian-American Film Festival. Far North is not exclusively an ethnic film, nor am I certain it is merely an art house picture as its history would seem. Is Far North a horror movie? Quite possibly. It definitely gave me the chills and had me screaming. When was the last time a real horror film did that?

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