Protagonist (Director: Jessica Yu, USA, 2007): I am SO tired right now, but I’m also glad that I made the effort to see this film. This was my third film of the day, and I had a gap of about three hours before it which made it very tempting for me to just go home and miss this. I’m very glad I didn’t.
Protagonist grew out of a meeting director Jessica Yu had with the two producers, who wanted her to make a film about the Greek playwright Euripedes. Intrigued by the idea, but not quite sure how to bring it to life, Yu read all of Euripedes’ plays over a summer, and came up with the idea of relating a recurring story arc through the telling of four modern-day real stories. She chose four men from different backgrounds who seemingly have nothing in common, and then as their stories unspool, she weaves them together with some dialogue from the plays, acted by specially-made puppets and using the original Greek language (with subtitles of course), and some innovative animated intertitles. If it sounds daring, it certainly is, but it works completely.
The four men are all “formers”: a former terrorist from Germany, a former kung fu fanatic, a former bank robber, and a gay former evangelist. Though I found myself wondering why she picked these particular men, they are all excellent storytellers, and as the film progresses, we see that their stories are all exploring common themes.
In each of the men’s stories, there was an effort to overcome their fragility as human beings in order to transcend what they considered their weakness. They aimed to be saints or supermen, and in all cases, they failed. The idealistic young political activist became involved in a botched terrorist operation that killed three people. The evangelist had himself convinced that his gay thoughts were gone forever. The abused child who took revenge on his father liked the feeling of power so much that he began to terrorize others. And the kid everyone picked on became powerful by following a martial arts teacher who taught violence by demonstration.
At some point, each of the men realized they were on the wrong path, and that their real selves had been fragmented or suppressed in some way. Despite their thrill-seeking behaviour, they had not transcended themselves, but only lost themselves. Each had to learn what manhood really meant, and in all cases, it meant humbling themselves and admitting that their previously-held certainty was a lie.
This was a somewhat challenging viewing experience, and trying to put all the threads together demands some work from the audience. It requires one to use a few parts of the brain that average documentaries don’t reach. You could say it’s a very artistic film, and I was impressed at how Jessica Yu is pushing the documentary form into new shapes, all the while maintaining the core value of telling interesting stories in an interesting way. Protagonist has been the high point of the whole festival for me, so far.
Here is the Q&A with director Jessica Yu from after the screening:
UPDATE (11/4/07): There is a trailer posted now on Apple’s site. As well, the film has a distributor (IFC Films) and a new poster (below). It opens on November 30th in some cities.