FILM / Reaching for freedom of the sky

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You don't need to be a fully paid-up Sinophile to enjoy The Blue Kite, although it offers an unusually detailed and absorbing insight into life during the most violent social ructions of modern Chinese history. The story spans 14 years, a period which sees Mao's anti-Rightist campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and transforms its protagonist, Tietou, from a moon-faced, adorable toddler into an angry adolescent.

Tietou sees his extended but close-knit family dispersed. His father goes to a labour camp, an early victim of the anti-Rightist campaign. His first stepfather dies of a liver complaint. His uncle's girlfriend is imprisoned for mysterious 'counter-revolutionary' crimes (she refused to sleep with Party mandarins). His second stepfather falls foul of the Red Guards. But, while Tietou's blue kite is always getting torn, or caught in trees, he can easily make a new one, just as the characters keep dusting themselves down with dogged resilience.

The Blue Kite uses a linking device similar to Farewell My Concubine: where, in that film, the opera of the title was repeated throughout the story, seeming to mean something different under each new political regime, here the leitmotiv is a children's nursery rhyme which recurs, in changing keys, at crucial moments. The Blue Kite doesn't aspire to grand epic spectacle (although it's a very good-looking film); it's a miniaturist piece, and the director, Tian Zhuangzhuang (interviewed opposite) tells his story directly and unfussily.

Even if you don't follow all the speedy political U-turns that form the backdrop, the film vividly and touchingly conveys the insecurity, fear and confusion of the family. It's like a mini-Heimat in suggesting how much, and how little, political cataclysms have an impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Jack Be Nimble (18), a rum little number from New Zealand, steams off in fine High Gothic style. A mother has a nervous breakdown, resulting in her children being adopted into two different homes. Dora (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) goes to a genteel, middle-aged couple; Jack (Alexis Arquette) ends up being flayed with barbed wire in a spooky farmstead.

The film manages to wring some grotesque, black humour out of these scenes. Jack designs an electric generator with hypnotic powers and mesmerises his step-parents into topping themselves. And his step-sisters plan their fearful revenge.

After this promising start, it all disintegrates. Characters become blind for no reason; or pop up long after you thought they were dead; the Grand Guignol (admittedly the hardest of film tones to sustain successfully) falters.

Bodies, Rest and Motion (15) begins with a pretentious quote from Newton's First Law of Motion: 'A body at rest will remain in that state unless acted upon by an outside force.' That's a fancy gloss on what is, in effect, a hoary old plotline: three twentysomethings are in a rut. Then an outside force arrives to kick them out of it. You don't need a Nobel Prize to dream that one up.

The film's epigraph turned out to have an unfortunate aptness: I fell asleep (a rare event, I hasten to add) and there was little in the way of outside forces to wake me up. I don't feel too bad because at least two neighbours did the same. The characters were just so dull: no need to waste space describing them, except to say that they're played by Eric Stoltz, Brigitte Fonda, Phoebe Cates and Tim Roth. This is a strong cast, and it's not that they give bad performances (although Roth is on the manic side: when Stoltz tells him to 'act normal' the audience raised an approving cheer), just that the quartet they play are such indecisive, self-absorbed losers. Billed as a comedy, it's mighty short on laughs.

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (18) was one of the big films of the late 1960s. Jean Louis Trintignant embraces Fascism (the film is set in the 1930s) in order to blend in: he has felt 'different from everyone else' since being seduced by a handsome, jackbooted chauffeur as a boy. The film posits a direct link between sexual 'deviance' and political extremism: a slightly reductive concept of sexual politics that was very much of its time and now lends The Conformist a slightly dated feel.

But there is so much else to enjoy: the superb, subtle craftsmanship, the elegant dovetailing of past and present, and memorable setpieces.