Sunday, May 18, 2014

Film Atlas (United Arab Emirates): City of Life

Country: United Arab Emirates
Title: City of Life (2009)
City of Life is three interlocking stories that demonstrate the breadth of Dubai’s population. A Romanian flight attendant reluctantly accepts a modeling gig from a charming British advertising exec, but her newfound love and happiness is built on sand. Two Arabs, heirs of affluent, highly traditional families, squander their advantages on racing and brawling, but gradually awaken to a larger sense of responsibility. An ambitious taxi driver exploits his physical similarity to a Bollywood pop star to earn extra money, but can’t seem to make ends meet while his luck swings up and down. Opportunity is followed by disappointment and, for most, second chances. The carnival of cultures, careers and possibilities lends itself to dreams and, though these unravel sometimes catastrophically, other nights and other dreams are hot on their heels.

City of Life opens with one of its best sequences: a series of shots taken from the just off the wheel of a bike peddling into the heart of Dubai. It’s a collage of architectural styles, including no shortage of staggering monuments to the country’s ambition of turning an oil economy into a sustainable uber-capitalist business and tourism Mecca. It showcases the central attraction and distraction of City of Life, which is the feverish activity and numbing scale of its central character: the city itself. It's a sort of 21st century take on what yesterday's film, Man with a Movie Camera, sets out to do, but with a self-consciously commercial intent. 

In fact, City of Life sometimes feels like an advertisement, full of product placement and shamelessly tourist-friendly montages, but it’s thankfully never quite as shallow as its least-sympathetic characters. It’s a movie that, like its home, acknowledges its immaturity but doesn’t apologize for enjoying its youth. It relies on energy over introspection, missteps with some out-of-place fight scenes (why does everyone know martial arts?) and wallows in its thematic cycle of dreams-disillusionment-renewal but it’s also smart, sexy and full of life. It’s a film that's trying to seduce you and that can be exciting if you’re into it or creepy if you’re not.

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