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By James Wegg | January 4, 2008

If variety is the spice of life, then there’s no better place to be January 3-14 than in Palm Springs for the 19th annual edition of the ever-popular international extravaganza of the state-of-the-art in worldwide filmmaking.

With over 230 productions from 65 countries, the notion of “something for everyone” takes on new meaning.

This year’s line-up features a vast array of subject matter. After reviewing the complete list—and apart from the structured programs, including the inaugural run of “New Israeli Cinema: L’Chaim!” (Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufor”t is getting the early buzz), the ever-popular showcases such as “Cine Latino” (from Brazil’s “Baptism of Blood” to Spain’s “Solitary Fragments”) and the ground-breaking “World Cinema Now” (where Canadian entries span the topics of sexual obsession—”The Three Little Pigs”—to the horrors of war: Roger Spottiswoode’s “Shake Hands With the Devil”)—many of the wide-ranging offerings easily slip into the categories of detectives, dilemmas and disabilities.
U.S. sleuthing can be found in Jieho Lee’s quartet of Chinese proverbial tales, “The Air I Breathe; Taxi to the Dark Side,” from Alex Gibney (no-holds-barred director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room); Paul Soter’s “Watching the Detectives” and—with an investigation of self—Sam Zalutsky’s “You Belong to Me.” From Europe the pursuit of criminals comes in many styles and languages: Spain offers a queer-crime comedy, Juan Flahn’s “Boystown” and a trio of private dicks in Icíar Bollaín’s “Mataharis;” Fanny Ardant stars as a crime writer in French director Claude le Loch’s “Roman de Gare;” Shaky González’s perfectly named “Pistoleros” is one of two Danish films and brings new meaning to “Show me the money!”; Bulgaria brings a murder mystery where the only female inspector on the Sofia force must do better than the men in Iglika Trifonova ‘s “Razsledvane (Investigation);” Russia figures in the title of the Georgian serial-killer flick, “Rusuli samkuthedi (The Russian Triangle)” and from Russia itself comes Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” with more than a passing resemblance to Reginald Rose’s (writer)/Sidney Lumet’s (director) classic “12 Angry Men.” Heroin and the fine art of the double-cross can be found in the Asian cop-under-cover, as Hong Kong’s Derek Yee’s latest, “Munto (Protégé)” is screened.

Moral, political and ethical conundrums have provided fodder for the big screen since its invention. This time the situations span an impressive range of emotional and geographical territory. Set in 1920s Vietnam is Charlie Nguyen’s tale of impossible love, “Doung Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel).” In Johnnie To’s “Exiled (Fongchuk),” a quintet of aging gangsters attempt to thin their own ranks as their bullet-based partnership winds down. Religious belief and the mores of the modern world come under Turkish filmmaker Özer Kiziltan’s “Tavka – A Man’s Fear of God.” How far would you go to let your son get the life-saving operation he so desperately requires? The Serbian response will be found in Srdan Golubovic’s “Klopka (The Trap).” Denmark weighs in on the still-too-common reality of child abuse (Peter Schønau Fog’s “The Art of Crying”), while neighbour Finland delves into the brave new world of a laid-off labourer who reinvents himself as a male escort (Aleksi Salmenperä’s “A Man’s Job”). Family matters in Daniele Lucchetti’s “Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother Is an Only Child)” and from a gay perspective in Canadian Laurie Lynd’s charming “Breakfast With Scot.” From the French part of “True North Strong and Free” comes François Delisle’s take on abandoning husband and child for a fling with a musician (Toi, a.k.a. You). Finally, Helen Hunt finds her seat in the director’s chair with the opening night feature, “Then She Found Me.” Also starring Hunt, it’s the “What else could possibly go wrong?” tale of midlife crisis plus. Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Colin Firth provide the angst and, hopefully, the salvation.

With all of that drama, thank goodness for “Hairspray,” which will also be served up in an outdoor sing-along with the stars (should the presenters of “Come Sing Messiah” feel threatened?).

Global maturing can be witnessed by the ever-growing body of work inspired, incited or imbued with the countless stories that were formerly hidden away from the triumphant majority of normal. From Acquired Brain Injury (so often invisible that reprehensible assumptions are made unhampered by fact) to the far too obvious impairments manifested by missing limbs or paralysis, thank goodness filmmakers are showing the world the incredibly diverse, heroic and life-loving community of those formerly known as handicapped.

Italy leads the way with Cristiano Bortone’s tender study of blindness in a ten-year-old boy (“Rosso Come il Cielo” a.k.a., “Red Like the Sun”) and a gay couple’s struggle when one of them falls into coma (Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Saturno contro,” a.k.a. “Saturn in Opposition”). In “Jagdhunde (Hounds)” German filmmaker Ann-Kristin Reyels studies the positive effect a mute young girl can have on a family that’s on the verge of disintegration. Chemical-induced deformities set on the stage of the Iran-Iraq war raise many issues that have confounded power mongers since the invention of gun powder in Rasoul Mollgholipoor’s “Mim Mesle Madar (M for Mother).” One of two films from China follows a woman who abandons her disabled husband, but perhaps too soon in Wang Quanan’s “Tuyade Hunshi (Tuya’s Marriage).” Couldn’t happen here. Those who imagine seeking a transgender operation as a disability would be well advised to take a peek at Canadian Gwen Haworth’s “She’s a Boy I Knew.” The physical human condition is explored from two points-of-view by American filmmakers: paralysis due to a soldier’s bullet in Phil Donohue’s, Ellen Spiro’s “Body of War”—repeated daily in war zones around the globe; the institutionalization of those living with disabilities is chronicled in the short documentary “Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy”—hopefully long enough to make its point to the anonymous owners or upper management of so many long-term care facilities where commerce trumps care.

With so much new, the PSIFF brain trust wisely remembers its roots. Two special presentations, (Frank Borzage’s silent film marvel, “Seventh Heaven” (1927)—complete with a live performance by Paul Gilman of his original score and Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece, “Crime and Punishment”) will serve to remind both seasoned viewers and today’s current crop of filmmakers that new doesn’t always equate with better.

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