Zhang Lu, the Chinese-Korean director who garnered international attention with 2005's impressive Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear), has developed one of the most distinctive styles in world cinema, formalist almost to a fault, obtaining its effects via the internal development of autonomous, highly organized shots. His second feature, Hyazgar (Desert Dream), premiered at Berlin 2007 and received a mixed response on the festival circuit. It's a bit demanding on one level, in that its story - of an idealistic environmentalist (Osor Bat-Ulzii), tirelessly planting trees on the steppes of Mongolia, whose journeying family is replaced by a refugee North Korean widow (Seo Jung) and her son (Shin Dongho) - is more ambient than eventful, and necessarily light on dialogue, as the main characters do not speak the same language. And yet Desert Dream is highly eventful from a formal point of view: barely a shot goes by without springing on the viewer an interesting surprise, a visitation of the uncanny out of the stillness of the Mongolian landscape. Typically Zhang uses sound or offscreen space to create an alternate focus for our attention, then pans repeatedly to create a dialectical tension within the visual field. He is so stubborn about refusing to follow action with his pans, even when the material begs for it, that his formalism can sometimes seem mannered. But there is nothing academic about the intricate balance of comedy and bleakness in Zhang's work: comedy from his quantization of events and his deadpan revelations of the unexpected; and bleakness from the way that his characters inevitably find the solitude and emptiness that the compositions have been promising since frame one.
Desert Dream will be at MOMA for the rest of the week: Friday, April 17 at 7 pm; Saturday, April 18 at 2 pm; Sunday, April 19 at 4 pm; and Monday, April 20 at 6 pm. For those of you who become Zhang fans (I rate only Jia higher among mainland China filmmakers), the Walter Reade will show his two most recent features, both made in 2008, as part of its upcoming China on the Edge series: Chongqing on Friday, April 24 at 6:45 pm; and Iri on Sunday, April 26 at 8:45 pm.