By Ashley Fantz
OCTOBER 11, 1999: Penny is a hooker.
She's been hooking for quite a while in New York City, and it's just wearing on her. Her best friend is a shallow, skinny gossip who wears almost as much charcoal makeup as Penny. She pines away for the day when she can shimmy out of her animal print Lycra dresses, swab a swimming pool amount of makeup remover over her face, and move to the country where she can try to forget all the psychotic lonely Joes she's banged.
Penny's got an address in her hands. 7B, Imperial Hotel. There are a lot of freaks in that hotel, she's heard. But, there's no change in her pocket. The world hates her.
She closes her eyes.
When she opens them, she sees conjoined twins, wearing two brown suits sewn together, offering a piece of chocolate birthday cake. Penny runs, just as many people might. Strangely, the soft-spoken brothers are the most well-adjusted people in Twin Falls Idaho. They are at ease with who they are, the twins, Blake and Francis, say. When one gets sick, the other takes care of him. When one sleeps, the other is awake. They know each other like they are the same person. Neither has felt loneliness. No matter how much two other people might love each other or know each other, they can never be as intimate as Blake and Francis. That notion of complete intimacy and understanding is more alien to Penny than two people sharing the same organs. Call it a maternal urge to care for something that society rejects or side-show fascination, but Penny becomes the siblings' third wheel, intent on sheltering them from an unaccepting world.
Writers and directors Michael and Mark Polish, who star as the twins, have said that they wanted their odd tale to go beyond its opening David Lynch setting. A dank hotel bathed in green-and-orange light, a darkened street corner, a greasy diner, a Halloween costume party are shot with increasing light to show not only Penny's acceptance of the twins but also her willingness to have a sexual relationship with one. Most of the symbolism in Twin Falls Idaho is blatant. The more time Penny spends with Francis and Blake, the more she physically stands out from her seedy world. Her makeup lightens, the color of her clothes changes from darker hued, weighty fabrics to gauzy, almost angelic wraps. In one scene, Penny pauses while she splits chopsticks. Another scene, facing a chain-link fence, shows the twins on a park bench, being gawked at as though they were zoo animals.
Model Michelle Hicks portrays Penny's vulnerability and strengths with convincing ardor, an accomplishment that deserves an Oscar just because of its improbable odds. The combination of her naivete and cynicism plays well off the twins, who have a surprisingly wry sense of humor about their birth, weaving a circus-like story about how they, as fetuses, grew too large for their mother's womb and were transplanted into the abdomen of a cow. When the cow gave birth to them, they ran around the pasture, yelling "moooother, moooother." When Blake and Francis are in the hospital -- Francis suffering from a weak heart -- Blake tells Penny that their relationship would never work out. "Maybe I'll call you when I'm single," he says. Twin Falls Idaho is packed with similarly quirky, semi-witty lines.
Supporting characters include Penny's pimp, a mildly sleazy man wearing the expected polyester and a fuzzy caterpillar mustache. He sees the twins as walking dollar-bills for side-show shtick and talkshow appearances. A black preacher named Jesus who asks Blake and Francis to speak to his congregation because, "Oh, Lawd! You two are the epitome of friendship and harmony, physical oneness! Hot God! Divorce ain't even an option for you guys!" In fact, the film is a virtual grab bag of Christian themes. Lesley Ann Warren plays the twins' mother, a nun who rejected them years ago because she thought they were the devil's offspring. The peephole to 7B at the Imperial Hotel looks like a confession box.
For first-time directors, the Polish brothers have taken a tabloid topic of Siamese twins and turned it into a mature look at human companionship and sibling bond. Even though Blake and Francis are physically joined, both yearn for their own personalities and their own lives separate from each other. Many siblings can relate to that. However, this story belongs to Penny. Her thoughts and actions are the most telling about what society decides is normal or abominable.
There are some annoying stereotypes in Twin Falls Idaho that may bother a discerning viewer: "the hooker with a heart of gold," "the scheming pimp," "the Jackie Childs-esque God-praising zealot." If the directors wanted us to humanize the conjoined twins, they undermined their honesty by scripting a flaming gay photographer who hosts a Halloween party at which people assume Blake and Francis are in costume. But freshman filmmakers can get away with that. Their upcoming projects North Fork -- named after a small American town -- and Jackpot, after Jackpot, Nevada, will hopefully be more than mirror images of the brother's first celluloid baby.
Xiu Xiu, directed and co-written by actress Joan Chen, is filled with small gestures that have larger meanings -- the braiding of hair signals a return to dignity, the burning of a shoe a tiny display of defiance and, at the same time, great respect.
Xiu Xiu is set during the Chinese Cultural Youth Revolution, between 1967 and 1976, when nearly 8 million of China's young were sent to remote corners of the country for specialized training. The movement fell apart and many of the participants never returned home. The story of the fictional Xiu Xiu (played with a sweet innocence by LuLu) is told through the narration of a boy who loved her, in the way that boys love when they are 15 or 16 years old. He pieces together her story through reports and rumors.
In the beginning, the headstrong Xiu Xiu is ready for the adventure and the comradery of the movement. She rides horses and joins her fellows for Saturday night movies. The only hint of trouble comes when one of her companions disappears after causing a minor ruckus. Xiu Xiu doesn't even consider the disappearance until much later, and even then, she doesn't come to terms with the place and the situation she's in.
Xiu Xiu starts to have an inkling when she's sent deep into the countryside to learn how to take care of horses. Her teacher is Lao Jin (Lopsang), a solitary man who's rumored to have been castrated. Together, living in one tent, they learn to tolerate and respect each other. After six months, Xiu Xiu dresses up neatly and waits to be picked up by party members as promised. And then she waits the next day and the next until the peddler comes.
The peddler's arrival marks a drastic change. It's an indictment of the movement, one for which Chen was fined by the Chinese government and banned for working in the county for a year. Xiu Xiu is a brave and sad and tender film. -- Susan Ellis
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