Cold Fever

Only stupid people believe in things they can see and touch.

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in The Guardian about Tilda Swinton spending the summer dragging a 37-tonne mobile cinema across the Scottish highlands to bring her love of eclectic cinema to anyone willing to join the party. Highlights of their programme included two films I hadn’t heard of: Bag Of Rice, about a young girl’s journey across Tehran (which I’ve been unable to locate) and Cold Fever, a 1995 road movie from Iceland which I managed to obtain on DVD.

We watched it last night;  it’s very much in the tradition of quirky movies such as Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and no doubt it reminded me of that film since the lead actor, Masatoshi Nagase, starred in that film and the writer, Jim Stark, produced that and several other Jarmusch films, including my favourite, Night on Earth, which has the same mood as Cold Fever.The film was directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson.

I thought the best part of the film was towards the end when Hirata finally makes it to an inn where the locals are having a cowboy night and he meets Siggi who tells him that the road to the river where his parents died is closed for the winter. Feeling he has failed, he drowns his sorrows with Siggi’s drink – Black Death. However, the old man later thinks he can help Hirata reach his destination.

In the morning the two embark on their journey by jeep and then by horse. They stay in a cabin near the place where Hirata’s parents died. The two men talk about fairies and ghosts. The old man believes that Hirata is doing an honourable thing. In the morning, he tells Hirata that he must finish the journey alone. The place where Hirata must go is spiritual place in his own mind, not just a physical location. When Hirata reaches the spot in the river where his parents died, he prepares the memorial ritual and finally grieves for the loss of his parents. By enduring the journey he has made restitution for his neglect of his parents and learned something about life and death.

The review of the film by Roger Ebert sums up the film very well:

It is an ancient Japanese tradition to pay homage to one’s ancestors. It is a modern Japanese tradition to fly to Hawaii for golf. The hero of  Cold Fever, a Tokyo businessman named Atsushi, is preparing for a golf holiday in the islands when he is shamed by a relative into changing his plans. Instead, he will fly to Iceland, where his parents were drowned in a river some years before.

So begins an odd and beautiful film about a pilgrimage to a desolate land, gripped by winter and inhabited by people whose customs are a mystery not only to the visitor from Japan, but to us. Early in the film, Atsushi (Masatoshi Nagase) is in an airport cab that stops so the driver can visit an isolated farmhouse. The visitor waits in the cab as long as he can bear it, and then peeks inside, where a roomful of Icelanders are performing a ritual with sheep and weird musical instruments. What are they doing? We do not have the slightest idea.

Atsushi presses on. He is ill-prepared for a journey in this frigid land, where the sun is a brief finger drawn between the dawn and the dusk. He comes into the possession of a dubious car, an exhausted Citroen, and sets off down roads with alarming signs asking, ‘Does anyone know you are going this way?’  Why his parents chose this landscape as a holiday destination is a question not answered.

But the film finds humour and beauty in its odyssey. It takes the classic form of the road movie and populates it with improbable wanderers in the snow. A woman, for example, who collects funerals, and photographs them all over the world. An American couple (Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens) who hitchhike with him, and continue the quarrel their marriage seems to be based on. And an Icelander who repairs cars by singing at them.

The Icelanders sing a lot in this movie, maybe to keep their spirits up, maybe to keep warm. One scene involves a group of barflies who sing American country and western songs and drink the national beverage, which they helpfully explain is called  Black Death, while consuming steaming platters of sheep testicles.

What the movie achieves, almost as a side effect, is to portray Iceland as a haunting and beautiful land, where the snow in the moonlight creates such an ethereal landscape that when the spirit of a child appears to guide Atsushi we are almost not surprised.

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