Wednesday, March 26, 2008


This 2007 documentary from director Jessica Yu follows an unusual yet enthralling path: the stories of 4 men whose lives in their teens and early 30s played out like a ancient Greek tragedy, and who, in the course of being interviewed by Yu, have their stories slotted accordingly: “catharsis”, “redemption” etc. None of the 4 men have anything to do with each other. One was a German left-wing terrorist in the 70s who hid from the government during the Baader-Meinhof days; another is a gay man who lived a large chunk of his life as an “ex-gay” evangelist; a third is China expert Mark Bowden, who became over-obsessed with martial arts as a teen; and the fourth (and best) story concerns a bank robber/bad-ass who learned redemption after years of suffering for his own father’s sins. Here’s what EW’s Lisa Schwartzbaum (a great underrated film critic) had to say about it:
A former German terrorist once in cahoots with Carlos the Jackal, a gay Christian evangelical who, during his avowedly ''ex-gay'' period, preaches that Jesus has cured his ''homosexual problem,'' a bank robber, and a martial-arts devotee don't walk into a bar in Protagonist. They do, however, form the four male pillars of Jessica Yu's intricate, novel, and altogether fascinating art-piece documentary. The filmmaker incorporates ancient components of drama — including the universal appeal of puppetry — to explore the shaping of character in the crucible of fanaticism. And she relates her subjects' odysseys to principles of Greek tragedy, pausing to explain such concepts as ''provocation'' and ''catharsis.'' (Those puppets? They form a Greek chorus.)

If all this sounds awfully classroom-bound, it isn't — far from it. Each man's story as he tells it is riveting, truly stranger than fiction, and awesome, too, in the way of unfathomable humans. And Yu (who made In the Realms of the Unreal, about ''outsider'' artist Henry Darger) fits her inventive artistic choices to a rigorous, well-thought-out thesis about the tragedy of the extremist — and what makes a man a man.

Truly, this is a very male-oriented film, all the more remarkable having been made by a woman. I personally liked the intertwining of Greek Tragedy themes and the quick pacing of the documentary, though honestly, just when each story got riveting, Yu cuts to those puppets again – almost every 7-8 minutes. That got to be more than a little annoying. That said, “PROTAGONIST” is an inventive and thrilling take on the nature of male personal growth, and I recommend it highly, agreeing with Schwartzbaum’s take of B+.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B+

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a pretty great movie. I saw it at a fest and got a limited edition flip book??!!! Her previous film, "In The Realms of the Unreal: They Mystery of Henry Darger" is well worth checking out as well. She knows how to make films.