Natural realism has been the holy grail of animation since the 1920s, when Winsor McCay established the art of character animation with his groundbreaking Gertie the Dinosaur cartoons, and the 1930s, when Walt Disney elevated it to a new level with the supple, emotionally precise character movement of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The quest lives on in the age of 3-D digital animation, when motion-capture technology offers a new frontier in creating hyperrealistic characters. Social realism is another matter—with all those paychecks to sign, animation producers inevitably gravitate toward more bankable fantasy and sci-fi stories. But over the next two weeks Gene Siskel Film Center will present two new animation features that offer startling glimpses of modern life in strange lands: Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo, which explores the sexual underground in Iran, and Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day, a gritty film noir about hopeless losers crushed by China’s ruthless market economy.
Tehran Taboo, opening for a one-week run on February 23, is the more impressive of the two because it not only excels as social realism, it tells the story of a society so warped by Islamic fundamentalism that it’s unable to process reality. Soozandeh was born and raised in Iran but wrote and directed his film from the safe remove of Germany, where he’s lived since 1995; like no Iranian movie I’ve seen, Tehran Taboo reveals the routine hypocrisy of people who observe and even enforce a strict religious code but secretly indulge in the pleasures of the flesh. In the opening scene, a cabdriver picks up a streetwalker who goes down on him in the front seat as her preschool-aged son stares out the side window in back; this sordid transaction doesn’t bother the cabbie, but when they happen to pass his grown daughter holding hands with a man as she walks down the sidewalk, he goes ballistic.
In press notes Soozandeh explains that he chose animation to tell his story because it would enable him to show real locations inside Iran, and he settled on the rotoscoping technique, in which animators work from motion picture footage, because it “allows us to feel the characters realistically despite the animation.” Luckily for him, he has three strong actresses playing the trio of women who drive his story. Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), the hooker from the opening scene, desperately needs a divorce from her incarcerated, drug-addicted husband, but her only recourse is a judge who demands sexual favors in return. As they ride together in a cab, two young men on motorcycles roll up, and through the open window one asks the judge, “Imagine if I accidentally fell on top of your sister and I somehow penetrated her. Would we be related?” The judge replies, “No, my son. We would be even. My regards to your sister.” Pari snorts at this but, as a woman, must conceal her amusement while the men roar with laughter.
The judge installs Pari and her son, Elias, in a high-rise apartment, where the boy (who silently observes all) can drop water balloons off the balcony onto unsuspecting neighbors many floors below. From an adjoining balcony Elias can hear trippy dance tracks made with an accordion and a delay pedal by Babak (Arash Marandi), a hip young musician with a poster of Miles Davis on his wall. Babak performs at an underground dance club where women shed their chadors to groove in slinky dresses. After a quickie in the bathroom with Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), he discovers that he has deflowered her and must pay to have her hymen repaired so the man she’s engaged to marry won’t learn of their tryst and murder Babak. The illicit lovers meet in a public park, sitting on different benches like spies, while police cruisers roll up and down the paths, the cops monitoring pedestrians for illegal displays of affection. “I’m getting married in a week” tells Babak. “I need to be a virgin again by then.”
Closer to home, Pari strikes up a friendship with Sara (Zara Amir Ebrahimi), her shy next-door neighbor, who’s expecting a child after two miscarriages and who fruitlessly petitions her fundamentalist husband, Mohsen (Alireza Bayram), for permission to get a job. Though Pari passes herself off as a nurse, her more liberated perspective infects the other woman, and the couple’s marriage drifts toward the rocks. No one should be too surprised when Pari, working a shift at a brothel, welcomes her next trick into the room and discovers that it’s Mohsen. The two recoil from each other, burned by the moment in which their two lies have accidentally converged. The entire movie seems to take place in a world where people refuse to concede their own human impulses.
Have a Nice Day, which opens Friday for a one-week run, springs from the same documentary impulse as Tehran Taboo. The plot is typical noir stuff: in a small town in southern China, Xiao Zhang, a driver for an organized crime ring, makes off with a bag containing one million yuan in order to finance his girlfriend’s plastic surgery. Meanwhile the canny mob boss, Uncle Liu, brutally interrogates Yuanjun, a fine artist who’s been sneaking around with the gangster’s wife. Yet director Liu Jian plays all this out against a detailed physical, social, and economic landscape. “The trends of rapid urbanization and industrialization in the country change a small town like this in vivid as well as in subtle ways,” Liu explains in press notes. “I am fascinated by all of these changes and the people whose lives are affected by these dynamics.”
While most of the action of Tehran Taboo happens in the foreground with the actors, Have a Nice Day is all about the backgrounds. Liu opens with a long shot of an industrial site on the edge of town, a wall cutting a horizon across the frame, behind it a twisting ribbon of black smoke, a pounding jackhammer, and clusters of gray high-rises in the distance. These outskirts of town are a hodgepodge of the modern and the ancient, every horizon bisected by a construction crane, every cement-hued building covered with stenciled lettering. The chase after the stolen money unfolds against highly detailed streetscapes of tacky signage, cluttered storefronts, and cold, solid institutional buildings. Even the interiors have a cheap, smacked-together quality, with functional mass-produced furniture, peeling walls, and posters of Western entertainment (Rocky, The Fast and the Furious). The town is just plain ugly, and it makes the characters ugly too.
In this desolate environment, people are enthralled with entrepreneurism. After Xiao Zhang doses off at an Internet cafe, a diner owner named Yellow Eye relieves him of the stolen cash, which he wants to use to realize his dream of being an inventor. “Today God has opened his eyes and sent an authentic package of start-up capital,” he exults to his wife. Later Liu gives us a couple of two-bit hoods discussing their prospects for the future. “What’s the point of studying anyway?” asks one. “It’s Harvard dropouts like Gates and Zuckerberg who make big money. . . . Let’s drop out of school and start our own business. Something useful in today’s society. But that will follow future trends of industry development.” The philosophical centerpiece of Have a Nice Day is a conversation between two low-level hoods lounging in a restaurant, one of whom explains that there are three different kinds of freedom: farmers’ market freedom, supermarket freedom, and the most prized of all, online shopping freedom.
Tehran Taboo takes place in a society where morality is a kind of shared illusion; in Have a Nice Day money has the power to create illusions and just as easily destroy them. Numerous scenes focus on the chilling Uncle Liu as he questions his lifelong friend Yuanjun, now tied to a chair half naked and bleeding from a severe beatdown. “Three fucking years ago you were still a broke-ass bum,” Liu points out. “Who bought your first painting? Who rented this studio for you? And who the fuck kept on raising the placards at auctions to raise the price of your bids?” The next time Yuanjun turns up again, he’s lying hogtied in the trunk of a car, huffing through a gag in his mouth, while Liu and his deputy stand over him. “We all have dreams,” Liu remarks. “Didn’t Steve Jobs say that?” We’ve all seen enough scenes like this to know it’s all over for Yuanjun. Animators can spend endless hours studying realistic body movement, but no one appreciates reality like a man locked in the trunk of a car. v