On a weekend featuring what must be one of the most bland Oscar races in history, it's cheering to see two vibrant cinematic visions grace the big screen.
While Hollywood celebrates with pumped-up pomp and circumstance, largely in support of conventional movies featuring predictable story lines and characters we've seen before (literally, in the case of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, J.M. Barrie and Alfred Kinsey), the movies "Head-On" and "Nobody Knows" will introduce filmgoers to stories, people and artistic sensibilities that seem entirely new.
In Germany's "Head-On," Cahit ends up marrying Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) at her request.
Fatih Akin and Hirokazu Kore-eda, the films' directors, aren't by any stretch newcomers, but their films represent talents that are just emerging in the United States, and are well worth noting and tracking in the future.
Akin, a German filmmaker of Turkish descent, has been making films in Hamburg for 10 years; his last movie to be released in the United States was the 2000 comedy "In July." Fans of that unabashedly romantic road picture are in for something entirely different with "Head-On," a far grittier take on the earlier film's themes of love, fate and travel.
Here, Birol Unel plays Cahit, a scruffy, alcoholic headbanger who during a binge tries to take his own life. After a psychiatrist suggests that he "do something useful" with his life and try to help people, Cahit does: He's persuaded by a fellow patient named Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) to marry her, so that she may escape her traditional Turkish family.
Can this marriage be saved? "Head-On" takes its tortured souls in directions that will appear familiar to some viewers, especially those who saw Nick Cassavetes's "She's So Lovely." It's only a matter of time before the hard-bitten Cahit finally really falls for the lovely Sibel, and given Akin's preoccupation with the tensions of immigrant identity, it's inevitable that the story will wind up in Turkey.
But "Head-On" still has its share of surprises, especially in the performances of its two main players. Unel proves himself to be an improbably magnetic leading man, the kind of scarred, glowering bad boy who manages to hold his sex appeal even when he undergoes something of a makeover (and he does clean up nicely). Even more of a revelation is Kekilli, who was discovered by a casting agent in a Cologne shopping center. Although "Head-On" purports to be Cahit's story, it actually winds up centering on Sibel, whose wildly dramatic physical and emotional changes Kekilli pulls off with remarkable confidence and style.
Akin proves himself to be adept at moving things along at a brisk but absorbing pace; in "Head-On" he periodically comments on the action by dropping in performances by a Romany band singing love ballads in front of a sweeping Istanbul skyline. But more than good storytelling, Akin demonstrates a far more important talent -- that of making otherwise self-destructive, narcissistic characters sympathetic. "Head-On" finally takes Cahit and Sibel -- and filmgoers -- in wholly unexpected directions, by which time it's worked its magic: They might be marginal, they might misfits, but we actually care about those two crazy kids.
The kids in "Nobody Knows" are most decidedly not crazy, and we come to care for them to an almost excruciating degree. Based on true events that became headline news in Japan in 1988, the film tells the story of four siblings who, after being abandoned by their mother, shift for themselves for a year in a cramped apartment, without ever being discovered.
As he has done since making his feature debut with "Mabarosi" in 1995, Kore-eda takes his time to let events unfold, rarely taking viewers out of the three-room apartment and thus creating a vivid, indelible portrait of his characters' physical and inner lives. We meet 12-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya) as he is just moving into a new apartment with his mother, a cheerful, feckless woman named Keiko.
It turns out that Keiko and Akira have stashed two of his younger siblings in a couple of suitcases, and another sister -- a sensitive, artistic girl named Kyoko -- is waiting to sneak in under cover of darkness. (Akira's siblings are played, in descending chronological order, by Kitaura Ayu, Kimura Hiei and Shimizu Momoko. Each delivers a highly accomplished performance.) Although never stated explicitly, it's clear that Tokyo landlords aren't crazy about renting to single mothers with more than one child. That night, Keiko reminds her children of the rules, which include no screaming, no loud games and no going outside.
This already precarious situation veers into chaos when Keiko impulsively leaves to take up with her latest boyfriend; although she returns, the stage has been set for the deeper abandonment that is to come. The next time she goes she doesn't come back, and Akira is forced to become the head of a household that, officially at least, doesn't exist.
"Nobody Knows" takes place over a year in which Akira keeps his family's life functioning with admirable resolve. Indeed, at the outset all of the children show an amazing capacity for retaining order and discipline, keeping the apartment clean and keeping to their home-school studies.
Eventually, however, even Akira's veneer of unruffled control can't keep reality at bay, and the lives of the children gradually descend into a kind of quietly desperate extremis. Turning the conventional fantasy narrative of the absent parent on its head, "Nobody Knows" portrays both the freedom and joys of the children creating their own world as well as the darker ramifications of parental neglect.
In a style reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-eda lingers contemplatively on his subjects as well as a side of Tokyo rarely seen on screen, where cherry blossoms provide scant relief from an otherwise dreary concrete jungle. Here, nothing is lost in translation as Akira and his siblings eke out a hand-to-mouth existence; the shops and arcades of the city are shorn of any neon-tinged romance, instead providing a cold, uncaring backdrop to the internal squalor of the children's largely invisible lives. (One of the movie's climactic moments comes when Akira reaches the wrenching decision to steal.)
Throughout "Nobody Knows" Kore-eda balances a visually gritty realism -- the film itself has an almost palpably grainy look -- with unexpected lyrical notes; the delicate, unobtrusive musical score provides an especially graceful juxtaposition to the tribulations being played out on screen.
And, as Akira's year wears on, his family's trials multiply, finally coming to a grief so profound that it is almost unfathomable.
In a final, crowning irony, it's revealed in the closing credits of "Nobody Knows" that the mother who so heedlessly breaks faith with her children is played by You. That happens to be the full name of the young actress who makes her promising debut in this haunting film, but its admonitory double meaning couldn't be clearer, or more distressingly apt.
Head-On (118 minutes, in German and Turkish with subtitles, at the Avalon) is not rated. It contains profanity, nudity, graphic sexuality and drug use.
Nobody Knows (141 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for mature themes and some sexual references.