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Posted Saturday 16 August (Festival Wrap-Up)

by Michelle Carey

Ten favourites (in alphabetical order):

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)
Dolls (Takeshi Kitano, 2002)
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
Oui Non (Jon Jost, 2002)
Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, 2003)
Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)

Beholding 60+ films within 18 days is the ultimate cinematic montage experience. It is difficult to recall these 60 films as singular, contained works, rather they materialise as points on a matrix of moving light, sound and affect. They even began talking to each other. The highlight of the Festival was inevitably to be the (very select) selection of Abbas Kiarostami films, not to mention the charming presence of the filmmaker himself. A dominant thematic tendency with the films that I saw involved the suggestion of some impending personal crisis, usually violent, without much consequence, let alone trajectory. Occasionally this succeeded through the sheer atmospheric command of the filmmakers (Trouble Every Day) but most failed to satisfy (The Lover, the appalling Secret Things). All up I have to applaud the MIFF team for delivering with very few hitches and – let’s drop all pretensions of elitism – for genuinely engaging the general Melbourne population. However I would recommend a leaner program for the future. I would particularly like to see resources dedicated towards higher-calibre films (where was Manoel de Oliveira’s The Uncertainty Principle, Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir, Yu Lik-wai’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, Raul Ruiz’s That Day, Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon, Andrew Cheng’s Welcome to Destination Shanghai?) rather than quantity.

* * *

by Adrian Danks

15 best films (in preferential order):

1. All of the films in the Kiarostami retrospective other than ABC Africa
2. Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966)
3. Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
4. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
5. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2002)
6. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002)
7. Domestic Violence 2 (Frederick Wiseman, 2003)
8. Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2003)
9. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2002)
10. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
11. The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000)
12. In the Beginning was the Eye (Bady Minck, 2002)
13. Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
14. Hukkle (György Pálfi, 2002)
15. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003) / The Cuckoo (Alexander Rogozhkin, 2002) / From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002)

3 pleasant surprises:

MC5: A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, 2002)
Doing Time (Sai Yoichi, 2002)
Most of Guy Maddin’s films

10 vastly overrated or disappointing films:

Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)
Harvie Krumpet (Adam Elliot, 2003)
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)
Destino (Dominique Monfery, 2003)
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (Lee Hirsch, 2002)
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2003)
Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002)
Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
Wilbur wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig, 2002)
Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002)

15 worst films or programs (in least preferential order):

1. For Openers: The Art of Film Titles – arguably amongst the worst and most ill advised sessions in the history of MIFF
2. Asakusa Kid (Shinozaki Makoto, 2002)
3. The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002)
4. demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)
5. House of Fools (Andrei Konchalovsky, 2001)
6. The Rage in Placid Lake (Tony McNamara, 2002)
7. Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Jeff Lau, 2002)
8. Ballroom (Patrick Marie Bernard, Pierre Trividic, Xavier Brillat, 2002)
9. Preservation (Sofya Gollan, 2003)
10. Oui Non (Jon Jost, 2002)
11. Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001) – dubbed version
12. La vie nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux, 2002)
13. Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002)
14. Ghost Paintings (James Clayden, 1986-2003)
15. A tie between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002); In America (Jim Sheridan, 2002); The Spanish Apartment (Cédric Klapisch, 2002); Marooned in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi, 2002) – specifically the first half.

A few conclusions. My initial impression is that although MIFF screened more films and offered more choice in 2003, it was generally a pretty disappointing and unproductively gruelling event. It is easy for MIFF to counter any such criticism with accounts of its box office success and widening audience (though most popular accounts restrict this to an expansion of its under-30 audience), but this is only part of the story and of its responsibility (which surely should be to help promote and create an on-going film culture). Helen Razer in her mind-numbingly ordinary and predictable puff-piece in Monday’s The Age celebrated the increased (new?) egalitarian and open nature of the Festival (and, gee-whiz, its attraction to younger audiences), predictably invoking the names of Godard and Brakhage as talismans that one used to need to name-drop in order to survive in the elitist foyer-conversation-world that once defined MIFF. Now I may be missing something, but I’m sick to death of this largely fabricated, anti-intellectual legend of MIFF’s recent past: the only time that one would have heard Brakhage’s or Godard’s name mentioned in the last 15 years at MIFF was last year due to the programming of In Praise of Love and about three years ago when a documentary on Brakhage was screened. The only other time their names would have been mentioned or their works discussed would have been to note their utter absence from the Festival since the late 1980s (and that is now a long time ago). It is time that we recognise that MIFF is not only just starting to reform itself but has been on a particular, explicitly pragmatic path for almost a decade and half (and it might now be time to question some of these practices and focuses and for the Festival to get more adventurous and substantial in certain parts of its programming).

As I have said elsewhere, MIFF prides itself on a smorgasbord approach to film programming that is gained at the expense of insightful and cutting-edge curation (or much real curation at all as far as I could see unless putting on a lot of recent films counts). It also promotes a kind of cultural gluttony that is linked to the broader festival culture in Melbourne rather than an ongoing involvement in film culture (though this is hard to judge, so hopefully I’m mistaken). This is one approach to festival programming but it can often be unsatisfying and lead to a problem of quality control; like last year, MIFF in 2003 suffered from an abundance of poor films, some of which have no place in any film festival of any kind (Asakusa Kid anyone!).

A few other criticisms. Again like last year the use of one of the larger cinemas at Greater Union was not a success; a number of the screenings at this venue suffered technical problems and the projection of 16mm and digital materials was definitely substandard (especially when compared to ACMI). Some of these problems also highlighted another frustration of MIFF in 2003 – an unwillingness to communicate with the audience in a timely and straightforward manner. For example, the first screening of The Grudge was moved to Greater Union with no explanation given either on the bulletin boards or before the actual projection of the ‘film’ (it ended up being projected in poor quality digital format). Similarly, the screening of Shaolin Soccer was only announced as being the shorter and dubbed ‘international’ version seconds before being screened (unfortunately I was pinned into a middle of the row seat making escape fairly difficult and disruptive). And although it was good that a subtitled version of Kiarostami’s Home Work was eventually obtained, it should have been advertised as screening on video (the Festival should now be in a strong enough position to admit and communicate these complications and limitations).

The undoubted lowlight of the Festival (and I don’t think I’m alone here) was the program titled For Openers: The Art of Film Titles – a truly reprehensible curated program (imported from America no less) which was screened on video (or a very muddy digital source) and was bad on just about every level possible: poor visual quality (the titles themselves were often hard to decipher – which kind of defeats the purpose); unrelievedly dull selections; poor source quality (several sequences were in the wrong ratios and seemed to be from old video sources); and a complete lack of any adequate contextualisation (other than a simple title card to introduce each sequence). The lack of curation of such a ‘curated’ program seemed emblematic to me of the whole Festival. The other lowlights for me were: the lack of an adequate retrospective component yet again (it was great to have Kiarostami at the Festival but the selection of films in this component was limited and moved little past what we have seen in the last five years) – please commit to a developed and not piecemeal retrospective focus; the French films (these were almost universally terrible, and the focus on the representation of ‘explicit’ sexuality emerged as an aesthetic and thematic cul-de-sac) – in La vie nouvelle Grandrieux’s once adventurous style founders in search of an appropriate subject, while most of the rest of the films in this ‘spotlight’ were pointlessly nihilistic, boring and often quite ridiculous (Secret Things, Trouble Every Day); the Fu Fighters program (this focus on the martial arts genre was a good idea undermined by a lack of contextualisation, depth, breadth and curatorial vision); the lack of insight and the insistent advertorial-speak of the program guide (let’s just chuck in references to a number of other filmmakers and see what sticks).

Nevertheless, MIFF in 2003 did provide a couple of significant highlights (alongside the best of list above). Despite the problem of the Greater Union venue much of the rest of Festival seemed to run pretty smoothly (though the scheduling was often impossibly tight and initial ticketing problems raised an eyebrow or two). The two most memorable occasions for me at the Festival though occurred outside of the core screening activities. First, it was terrific to see the massive organ at the Town Hall get a work-out in accompaniment to Murnau’s Nosferatu. Second, the panel session with Kiarostami was one of the few occasions when such a discussion has worked (the director talks and panel discussions sit oddly within the gruelling film schedule of the broader Festival). Although, David Stratton and Julie Rigg seemed nervous and much too tentative in their comments, Adrian Martin provided an incisive and poetic reading of Kiarostami’s work. Kiarostami’s response was generous, measured, thoughtful and eloquent. Qualities that we could do with more of at MIFF in the future.

* * *

by Albert Fung

Out of the 40 or so films I saw at this year’s MIFF, this is a list of the films (in no particular order) I most enjoyed watching:

Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
The Afghan Alphabet (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2002)
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1996)
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)
Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman, 2001)
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003)
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2003)
Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Jang Sun-woo, 2002)
Terminal Bar (Stephan Nadelman, 2002)
Long Gone (Jack Cahill & David Eberhardt, 2003)

Special mention goes to some of the music documentaries I saw:

The Studio One Story (Stuart Baker, 2002)
Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied (Morgan Neville, 2002)
Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary (Tracy Flannigan, 2003)
MC5: A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, 2002)
The Howlin’ Wolf (Don McGlynn, 2003)

I include these documentaries not because they are examples of great cinema, but because they document musicians whose music and performances have the power to excite, rouse and inspire; things the Melbourne indie scene is seriously lacking in – them kids just don’t have it going on.

* * *

by Cerise Howard

Highlights from my voyage through a hype-patinated, now thoroughly tattered, MIFF 2003 Festival guide:

Guy Maddin SBS’ Eat Carpet ran a spoiler screening of the magnificent Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary a few weeks before MIFF; rather than sate my Maddin cravings this in fact served to greater whet my appetite for seeing it on the big screen, and projected thereonto it didn’t disappoint. That said, one of its accompanying shorts, the much-heralded Heart of the World (2000) in all its but five minutes achieved for mine an even weightier greatness than did Dracula – and fired synapses in my mind paralleling Maddin’s filmwork with Chris Ware’s extraordinary comics, particularly Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Both artists tell their dizzy tales in a demode visual language uncontestedly wholly their own, each referencing certain aesthetics of the 1920s and ’30s; both also incorporate droll intertitling to break up their extraordinarily dense visual storytelling. I will think about this parallelism some more yet. Next year – how about a full Maddin shorts and feature retrospective, bundling in his new feature The Saddest Music in the World (2003)?

Gozu Delirious stuff from Takashi Miike, managing to balance perfectly measured sequences of po-faced ostensibly conventional narrative with hilarious lunatic vignettes that a prosaic description here will never do justice to. I especially loved the milk dripping through the ceiling, and the film’s ending rivals that of Miike’s Dead or Alive (1999) for sheer gleeful preposterousness. But only the one Miike film at MIFF 2003? I would have loved to have also seen his Kinji Fukasaku remake Graveyard of Honor (2002). More conspicuously missing was sometime recent Miike collaborator and MIFF stalwart Shinya Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June (2002), about which I have heard only tantalising things. Surely next year…?

Trouble Every Day I was astonished by this sinuously devastating film. Béatrice Dalle throws herself wholesale into proceedings and reminded me in her performance’s rapacious intensity of the doe-eyed leads in José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974). Hmmm… Much was made of the French contingent at this year’s MIFF and their heavily and breathily vaunted libertinisms – come on folks – is this not simply ‘credible’ cinema appropriating and dolling up the tropes of exploitation cinema to its own arthouse-approved ends? Cannibal movies are nothing new… but that said, I can’t be at all dismissive of Denis’ film as I can of, say, Assayas’ demonlover (2002). Pulp almost always works better dressed down, and demonlover is a strong case in point. And never mind that its punchline seemed to me a dead giveaway well early on too.

Other notables:

Woodenhead Singular New Zealand feature, not unlike a live-action Svankmajer puppet feature, if that makes sense, which the film almost did. Great stuff.

Broken Wings Greatly moving and, despite the narrative being nought but a succession of woes befalling an already put-upon and diminished family, it was ultimately as full of hope as it was a-glut with painful adolescence/adolescents. Tremendous performances all round, especially from Orli Zilvershtaz-Banay as the woebestricken materfamilias.

Time of the Wolf Serenely beautiful post-apocalyptic drama. Magnificent on the huge Village screen, and tirelessly bleak; what does Michael Haneke do for a laugh? And what will he do for an encore?

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance Chan-wook Park’s terrific follow-up to his excellent Joint Security Area (2000) was a blacker than pitch measured escalation of tangled woes and mishaps, flashing back and forward in time the better to up the grue and horror by degrees such that by the film’s close, it would have been difficult to take much more. Du-na Bae, whom I find an adorable presence on the screen as in Take Care of My Cat (Jae-eun Jeong, 2001), excels in an almost screwball performance.

A Tale of a Naughty Girl A lovely film full of warmth and humour, with terrific cinematography, a satisfying comeuppance for a lead character and an intriguing non-comeuppance for another, and some sterling scenery-chewing from a deliciously mangy tomcat.

American Splendor Terrific piece of meta-cinema, and another film probing in its aesthetic (as in its meta-narrative) the great affinity between the worlds of cinema and comics/graphic novels. There’ll be more of this crossover yet. Oh, and the footage from Letterman was electric.

Abbas Kiarostami For me, a belated introduction to his cinema. I adored The Wind Will Carry Us and enjoyed A Taste of Cherry; both I am still digesting many days after. I also caught Homework, which was fascinating, but the experience was considerably marred by the film’s being projected off a ghastly, fuzzy video tape, and without any announcement beforehand.

Come Drink With Me Fabulously enjoyable, and it put to shame such FX-fu rot as Bichunmoo (Young-jun Kim, 2000), which might have been redeemed had it a lead character with even a tenth of the charisma of the former film’s Cheng Pei-Pei or Hua Yueh.

Undead Splendid fun, and it was great not only to see a full-(CGI-)blooded Aussie genre flick on the big screen before a sizeable audience, but that it should also have such a field day with the Australian vernacular, and will, I believe, be exported with that intact, makes this a really very important Australian film.

Also mentionable: Becoming Julia, Just a Woman, The Grudge, Infernal Affairs, Intacto, Sister Helen.

Unmentionable: Yesterday.

* * *

Jim Knox

So much about this year’s MIFF was embodied in the dutiful, desultory applause that greeted the end of Jon Jost’s Oui Non – a Pavlovian gesture prompted by a forgettable and minor work. This was a mediocre festival, lacking in either lamentable ill-inclusions or anything so fine that it excited breathless celebration.

What was lamentable was an all-too consistent failure of technical apparatus. To be honest, I don’t much like to mention this – I have a considerable sympathy for anyone on bio-box duties – but these people are meant to be professionals, dammit: we’ve happily parted with dollars to sit through those mechanical deficiencies. Unparalleled nadir – equal to the worst I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen stinkers) in any para-cinema context – was For Openers: The Art of Film Titles. A travesty, and something that never should have screened theatrically. This program seemed to provide highlights from a larger retrospective, but one designed strictly for gallery exhibition: ACMI’s screen gallery offered a perfect local forum. Digital formats are not unsuitable for cinema projection per se but to see Saul Bass’ titles for Vertigo (for example; originally rendered in 70mm Technicolour) reduced to a web-based streaming format – and lacking in any of the detail, contrast, depth of field, chromatic range (something that even a DVD with more generous data compression rates might have approached) of film – inspired a universal bewilderment among its audience. Worst of all, because the image definition was so low, you couldn’t even read the titles. Significantly, the cinema ushers didn’t provide ballot papers to the audience leaving this screening.

Glad I was to see a program of Guy Maddin’s shorts (again, there were horrible shortcomings in the quality of the works screened: Fancy Being Rich [2002] looked “like” a lousy off-air VHS dub). However… Brisbane’s Film Festival beat MIFF to a screening of Maddin’s Heart of the World by two years (just as it anticipated MIFF’s Buñuel and Suzuki retrospectives – the latter by a full decade)… and even SBS pre-empted MIFF, by screening Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002) back in May. This is a paradoxical reversal of the functions that we normally expect of our film festival and public broadcaster, but sadly MIFF seems unable to provide adventuresome or visionary programming: instead, they make a conservative poaching from the programming of the larger international festivals. Melbourne hardly enjoys a world-class film culture if the best our Festival audiences can hope for is a bowdlerised version of the Rotterdam Festival’s own Maddin retrospective.

Two initiatives of the Festival that do deserve celebration, and elaboration into the future, were projects involving local artists: Eaglehawk, and the Lycette Brothers’ Encyclopedia of Miniature Automata. If Eaglehawk was merely a teched-up variety of familiar sophomore gothic, the Lycette Brothers apply an extraordinary visual imagination in the service of their wry humour; this on-line work was a charming parallel history of a curious historical figure. James Clayden’s Ghost Paintings also found its worthy inclusion in the Festival program, tho’ the sensuous abstraction of that work gave me a wistful longing for his crypto-punk noir, With Time to Kill (1987). With the reduced powers of the Australian Film Institute to promote Australian cinema, MIFF does well to adopt the orphaned works of local filmmakers, and bring them to a larger audience through its promotional apparatus.

Otherwise: La Vie Nouvelle owes a considerable debt to David Lynch and Jack Smith (that gorgeous infra-red sequence is pure “orgy/earthquake” from Flaming Creatures), but it’s remarkable for providing a feature-length linear narrative which illustrates its story in the absence of characterisation, dialogue, and other devices inherited from a literary tradition. In My Skin was narcissistic vanity-filmmaking at its worst, with some diminished reminders of Polanski’s Repulsion and Franju’s Therese Desqueryoux. Most everything else I saw will likely find a commercial release. Within a broader retrospective of that belaureled filmmaker’s work, the Kiarostami shorts were my small and solitary revelation (of these – more in a future issue of Senses). Given their conflicting schedules, next year I’ll be headed for the festival in Brisbane.

* * *

George Papadopoulos

My favourite films at MIFF 2003:

1. Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2002)
2. Summer Dress (short film by François Ozon, 1996)
3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)
4. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)
5. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002)
6. Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
7. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
8. Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
9. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
10. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

* * *

by Boris Trbic

This is the list of my favourite films screened at this year’s MIFF:

1. Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
2. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
3. Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceyan, 2003)
4. Dolls (Takeshi Kitano, 2002)
5. Marooneed in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi, 2002)

The retrospective of Abbas Kiarostami and the Regional Focus were the two most impressive programmes at the Festival.

* * *

by Fiona A. Villella

My favourite films at MIFF 2003 (in no particular order):

Osama (Siddiq Barmak, 2003)
Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
Oui Non (Jon Jost, 2002)
The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami, 2001)
The short films of Abbas Kiarostami
Trouble Every Day
(Claire Denis, 2002)
Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966)