Sunday, October 03, 2010

Cold Fever

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Iceland) / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 89 of 100

Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase) is holding down a soulless corporate job in Tokyo, wasting his evenings watching trashy TV in his shoebox apartment and counting down the days till his golfing holiday in Hawaii. Then his grandfather reminds him of his filial obligation to conduct a ritual of remembrance at the place of this parents’ death.

His parents died in Iceland.

On arrival, he is immediately shepherded onto a coach which takes him, not to Reykjavik as per his itinerary, but to a spa called the Blue Lagoon. It’s the first – and certainly least surreal – of a series of misadventures which take Hirata across Iceland to the remote riverside spot where his parents met their untimely end. His trip from the Blue Lagoon to Reykjavik is made courtesy of a taxi driver who makes a detour to participate in a farmyard nativity, and a lift in a Scania truck whose payload appears to be a male voice choir.

On his first night in Reykjavik, Hirata meets a woman who tells him they have a strong psychic connection and proceeds to sell him her car, insisting that it has the right “aura” for a cross-country trip. Personally, I’ve never driven a Citroen DS so I can’t speak for its karmic qualities, but our first glimpse of it doesn’t bode well.

Against his better judgement, Hirata buys the car and sets out on an epic drive armed with a map he can barely read while the Citroen’s radio malfunctions almost immediately, sticking on the most annoying radio station in Iceland. Freezing from the cold, acutely conscious of the language barrier (Iceland’s almost nationwide second language is English, of which Hirata speaks only a little), his journey is variously helped and hindered by Laura (Laura Hughes), an English woman who “collects” funerals; Jack (Fisher Stevens) and Jill (Lili Taylor), a bickering American couple who use sock puppets to talk to each other when their rows reach a certain point; a strange Icelandic girl who may be a ghost and who can scream at a banshee-like pitch capable of shattering ice caps; a hotel full of Icelandic cowboys participating in a ram competition (yes, that’s right: a competition to determine who has the best male sheep); and Siggi (Gísli Halldórsson), a hard-drinking pragmatist who helps Hirata to complete his journey, the final stages undertaken by horse and an on-foot crossing of a distinctly unsafe bridge.

Made a few years before ‘The Straight Story’, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s quirky road movie has a similar good-natured quirkiness to David Lynch’s odyssey-by-tractor masterpiece. Hirata is a sanguine and likeable hero (even his occasional badly-aimed kick at the recalcitrant Citroen is comedic rather than petulant). He’s an affable everyman, an innocent abroad, a stranger in a strange land. And Fridriksson’s Iceland is definitely strange. There’s also a hint of Jim Jarmusch, probably in the influence of Jim Stark, producer of several Jarmusch movies, who co-wrote the screenplay.

Ari Kristinsson’s cinematography is a marvel, capturing the stark natural beauty of Iceland, an aesthetic Fridriksson reinforces by having the opening Tokyo scenes shot in 1:33 ratio in fairly tight and clustered compositions, then expanding the screen to 2:35 as Hirata’s flight descends over Iceland and the vast landscape which will define his journey stretches out in snowy solitude beneath him. It’s a breathtaking moment, brilliantly executed, and the film becomes stranger and visually more beautiful as it progresses.

The final sequence, Siggi’s selfless assistance bringing Hirata to the river, is profound, low-key and sensitively done. It’s the point at which ‘Cold Fever’ becomes more than just another entertainingly quirky indie film, and achieves something spiritual and meaningful.

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