Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Cold Fever is that rare thing--a startlingly original piece of work from an outpost most of us are barely acquainted with that speaks to the world in a language we all understand. It's a little gem that might have fallen over the edge were it not for a nod from this year's Sundance film festival; even with an art-house release, it could get lost in the hype and thunder of the summer blockbusters. Let's hope not.
Writer/director Fridriksson, who earlier hit the festival circuit with Movie Days and Children of Nature, clearly regards his strange native land with great affection. Who wouldn't love a place where the human beings (260,000) are outnumbered by the sheep (census incomplete) and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors and lost children sometimes perform mysterious car repairs on the frozen highways? But this sharp-witted filmmaker also understands the bafflement Iceland's infrequent visitors feel when confronted by its enduring chill (contrasted with its hot volcanic springs), its deep-rooted mysticism or its paralyzing national liquor, which locals call the Black Death. Fridriksson's protagonist, then, is a golf-crazy Japanese yuppie named Atsushi Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase--late of Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train), who really would rather be taking his vacation in Hawaii, playing 36 holes a day. Instead, he comes to ground on the tundra at the behest of his ancient grandfather (Seijun Suzuki). Seven years earlier, we learn, Atsushi's parents died in Iceland; now he's reluctantly returning to the remote mountain site to perform a memorial ritual that will put their spirits at peace.
But first, our reserved, somewhat stone-faced young hero gets some bizarre lessons in Icelandic culture, and he runs into a gallery of comic types worthy of Jarmusch. Atsushi grabs a cab at the Reykjavik airport, but the driver inexplicably stops at a Quonset hut, where he's cast in a golden-lit ceremony straight off a Christmas card, complete with barnyard animals and assorted angels. A woman claiming a "psychic attraction" to the Japanese visitor manages to sell him her ice-encrusted old Citroën for his trek across what looks like the surface of Neptune. He eats unnamable food in the home of an old, odd couple and gives a lift to a single-minded "funeral collector" (Laura Hughes), who takes pictures and records tapes at the funerals of people she never knew. He picks up a pair of bickering Americans, Jack and Jill (Fisher Stevens and Lili Taylor), who communicate with hand puppets and have an unexpectedly rough agenda in mind.
In the end, Atsushi makes the final leg of his odyssey, "to a place that is not on any map," in the company of a bearish, bearded Icelandic "cowboy" named Siggi (Gisli Halldorsson) and learns a lot more about himself than road movies usually teach. If we don't quite discern a fresh glow in the young man's smooth poker face, we feel one coming from within: Life for him in the cramped, regimented Tokyo business world won't be the same when he returns, we suspect.
If there's a dash of Mystery Train's wild wanderlust in Cold Fever--its producer and co-writer is, after all, Jim Stark, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator--this very spooky comedy has a full dose of Luis Bunuel dreaminess, too, the kind of cultivated irrationality that eventually comes to make its own magnificent sense. This is as funny a film as I've seen all year (Flirting With Disaster included), and for the sheer, useful coldness of its glaciers and mountains, it makes Fargo seem like Florida. But Fridriksson has also conjured up a warming meditation on life, death and the possibility of playfulness in the spirit world. If you can find such weighty subjects essayed with such deftness in other movies, have at it. The last time we checked, though, Woody Allen hadn't made reservations for Reykjavik.
Do yourself a favor and catch this icy miracle before it melts away.
Cold Fever. Screenplay by Jim Stark and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. With Masatoshi Nagase, Gisli Halldorsson, Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens.