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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   House of Sand and Fog  


House of Sand and Fog

Reviewed by 1. Soh Yun-Huei 2. Sinnerman

Director: Vadim Perelman
Writing Credits: Andre Dubus III, Vadim Perelman, Shawn Lawrence Otto
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, Navi Rawat
Genre: Drama
Country: USA
Language; English
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 126 min

1. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: *** ½ (out of four stars)

What happens when you need to destroy someone else’s dreams to fulfill your own? House of Sand and Fog explores this question, and is all the more controversial because it pits Americans against immigrants. Adapted from Andre Dubus III’s novel of the same name, writer-director Vadim Perelman has managed to create a powerful film augmented by excellent performances from the cast, all the more surprising because this is Perelman’s debut feature.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a young woman who does not have a steady job, has a history of addictions and has recently been dumped by her husband because he didn’t share her views on having children. The only asset she has left in the world is the house she’s staying in, inherited from her father. However, due to an administrative error, she is evicted from her house due to the nonpayment of a business tax she doesn’t really owe.

Before she knows it, the property had already been auctioned off for a fraction of its market price, to an immigrant Iranian colonel, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), who fled Iran with his family when the Shah was deposed. Fallen from grace, Massoud now works two menial jobs to support his family and to keep up appearances. However, when Kathy realizes that all Massoud wants is to make a profit off her house by selling it at market value, she tries ways and means to reclaim the house for her own. Massoud feels he has done no wrong – after all, the house is already legally his, but Kathy feels victimized by the incident. She turns to police officer Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard) for solace, who tries to resolve the issue by harassing and threatening Massoud and his family, but this only makes matter worse, and sets the stage for an eventual showdown that brings tragedy to all that’s involved.

House of Sand and Fog is a film about the stubbornness in humans – both Kathy and Massoud are not in the wrong, but their strong will and refusal to back down leads them to clash with each other time and again. Even Lester, who is cast as the villain in the film, isn’t doing anything that is particularly evil or abhorrent – after all, put any human being in his position and it’s likely they will respond in the same manner. Perelman pens a smart script that doesn’t force the audience to take sides, but rather helps the audience empathize with everyone who is involved. If anyone is to blame it will be the legal system in America, which takes far too long to admit its mistakes and does far too little to redress such wrongs. This lack of bias could be due to the fact that Perelman himself is a Russian immigrant, because I cannot imagine an American director being so evenhanded in plot and character development.

What truly makes the film memorable, however, are the performances of the entire cast. Jennifer Connelly is excellent as the damaged and fragile Kathy, and it’s a performance that echoes her turn in Requiem For A Dream, and she never descends into histrionics despite having quite a few emotional scenes. Ben Kingsley also gives a great performance as the regal Massoud, whose role can be summarized as a wounded lion – he’s no longer the man he used to be, but it’s impossible to ignore the pride he still harbors inside of him. However, he does give in to histrionics near the denouement, and one scene in particular felt too over the top for my taste. The supporting cast is also uniformly outstanding, in particular Ron Eldard, whose interaction with his wife and with Kathy in several scenes is memorable, and Shoreh Aghdashloo, who plays Massoud’s wife Nadi. Aghdashloo plays a woman who finds it difficult to accept her family’s plight in a new country, and manages to bring her character to life despite only appearing in a handful of scenes and being rather subdued in most of them.

It’s easy to see why House of Sand and Fog may not be for everyone – it’s more than two hours long, and doesn’t offer any easy answers or a fairytale resolution. It’s also politically charged, with a less than subtle socio-political commentary lurking behind the drama that unfolds onscreen. However, the film still has its merits, and is definitely one of the more worthy shows to catch this Oscar season.

Final Word: A film that many will find difficult to accept due to its downbeat nature, House of Sand and Fog is nevertheless an engrossing drama that’s worth a trip to the cinema.


2. Review by Sinnerman
Rating: **** (out of four stars)

The melodramatic plot or contentional histrionics in this flick mattered not to me. But the all-round powerhouse performances, morally balanced character studies and thematic resonance do. As such, I willingly hail House of Sand and Fog as one of the best family dramas I have ever seen.

Here is a movie universe that's populated with supposed archetypes. Its people initially appeared one-dimensional, detached and cocooned in their own myopic behavioral spheres. But like the best of Ozu's films, our eventual peeling of this tale of (very simply put) two parties fighting over a house, quickly revealed layers and depths surrounding the film's universal themes of emotional vampirism, familial responsibilities, the depths of love and the ambiguity of sacrifice.* I hence gasped when I started to realize that I would be watching an astoundingly intuitive and yet exponentially moving film.

With nuanced social/cultural logic and distinct sensibilities imbued into the characters of House's universe, my focus was quickly shifted from the film's overt plot machination, to the emotionally truthful actions/re-actions of these people. For however histrionic or misguided they might appear in parts, a lucid and consistent reflection of each character's moral caliber surfaced by film's midpoint. The humanity, frailty and undeniable decency of these people were so forcefully articulated, my immersion in their lives took a life of its own. I shared in their flitting joys and crushing despair. I understood their hopes, fears and motivations. I know things about them which only loved ones would be privy to, and then some. But whatever it is, I can only be a passive observer like all audiences do. For I watched with sadness the increasingly blinded "false" moves made by these mortal souls. Despite knowing more than anyone in this universe, I could only gnaw at my seat. I was unable to reach in and stop the cruel fluttering of those butterfly wings. For like a muted participant, I helplessly witnessed the brewing of this film's stormily tragic denouement.

At this point in my take, I do so need to bring to all's attention, Ben Kingsley's stupendous performance, especially in this film's closing chapters. Without revealing major spoilers, his take could be described as one which possesses either contentious histrionics or heart wrenching openness, depending on who reviews this film. For an approximated dramatic comparison (in terms of its intensity, not plot details), let's just say it would have been a blend of Halle Berry's "hospital window banging outburst" and that infamous "make me feel good..." scene, but only much much better. I kid you not. If you ask me, I will say that Kingsley pulled it off convincingly. With a painstakingly constructed and realized profile of assured calm and wise stoicism throughout the film, Kingsley's vivid work was impressive enough already. It thus took tremendous confidence and sheer talent on his part to go for broke. He completely remolded our impression of him in those stunning moments of complete implosion. I hence willingly submitted myself to the overt manipulation of this no holds barred performance, for I instinctively responded to its viscerally human honesty. This tour-de-force is indeed a testament to Sir Ben's status as one of the finest thespians of our time.
Yes, House of Sand and Fog may be charged by some for the abovementioned over the top theatrics. But it is this Sinnerman’s opinion that said film earned its right to be so explosively emotive. One needs to remember that this film too carried introspective scenes of quiet throughout its running time. It only gradually notched up its compounding waves, culminating into an unbearably moving conclusion. What's not to like about that? The purposeful yet unrelenting courage in telling this devastating tale hence meant people like me will respond to it with rampaging disregard for critical faculties. People like me will be wildly abandoned in our attempts to establish connection with this affecting human drama. So if you people are like me, go see the flick and be sucked in by its magic. You will bound to find some meaning in it and be grateful you did. If not, thank you for reading.

In closing, I will like to take stock here. If the quieter moments in this film reminded me of Ozu's bests, then those arguably over the top ones (as may be charged by some critics) bore striking similarities with the wildly operatic high-lows of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. Being compared alongside such fine company is no mean feat. House of Sand and Fog hence exceeded all my expectations. Similar to another film critic’s proclamation, this humbling tale’s place in my heart is soaring.

It is now my Most Favorite English Language Film of 2003.

* If time permits, I may do an individual character take like what I did for Nowhere in Africa, for House of Sand and Fog has my vote for the year's best ensemble performances. Each character thus deserves a paragraph or two of my slobbering saliva......