Daily Reports from the 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival Various July 2004 Festival Reports Issue 32 • Festival Wrap-Up • Friday 6 August • Thursday 5 August • Wednesday 4 August • Monday 2 August • Sunday 1 August • Thursday 29 July • Tuesday 27 July • Monday 26 July • Saturday 24 July • Friday 23 July • Thursday 22 July * * * Festival Wrap-Up by Adrian Danks 20 Favourite Films (in preferential order) 1. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003) By some way the most profound and philosophical film about cinema in MIFF 2004. Tsai’s film also provided a neat antidote to one of the great curses of this year’s festival – the distracted audience (more needs to be done to curtail mobile-phone use, talking throughout films, etc.) No matter how hard the audience tried – walking out in droves, scurrying round on the floor looking for lost glasses, talking, etc. – it could not short-circuit the bond created between the film and its audience (designed to mirror and reflect such a wandering, distracted audience). A gloriously incorporative and faded vision of what we do and don’t do when we go to the cinema. 2. Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003) 3. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) 4. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004) 5. S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, 2002) 6. Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004) 7. An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson, 2002) 8. The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, 2003) 9. The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, 2004) 10. Infernal Affairs 2 (Andy Lau and Alan Mak, 2003) 11. The Ister (David Barison and Daniel Ross, 2004) 12. Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Robert Stone, 2003) 13. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2003) 14. Several films in the Chang Cheh program, especially The Heroic Ones (1970) and Golden Swallow (1968). 15. Walking Off Court (George Barber, 2003) – short 16. Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette, 2003) 17. Worst-Case Scenario (John Smith, 2003) – short 18. The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003) 19. The Bathers (Johannes Hammel, 2003) – short 20. Creature Comforts: Working Animals (Richard Goleszowski, 2003) 10 Worst Films 1. MIFF trailer 2. It Takes Two to Tango (Luke Shanahan, 2004) – short 3. Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2002) 4. I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead (Mike Hodges, 2003) 5. Rosemarie (Marc Comes, 2003) – short 6. Letters to Ali (Clara Law, 2004) 7. Bemani (Dariush Mehrjui, 2002) 8. Cinema of our Time – Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty (Rafi Pitts, 2003) 9. Palermo: “history standing still” (Janet Merewether, 2004) – short 10. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003) 10 Most Disappointing Films 1. A number of the films listed above, especially The Saddest Music in the World. 2. Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004) 3. Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003) – except for the segments with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, and William Rice and Taylor Mead. 4. Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, 2003) 5. Five (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) – OK within its own limitations, but a relatively redundant and unexciting use of digital video (as well as the long take). Avant-deja-vu. 6. At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003) 7. Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003) – particularly its ill-advised and completely non-kinetic final musical number. 8. Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003) 9. Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons (Gandulf Hennig, 2004) 10. Raja (Jacques Doillon, 2003) Adrian Danks is Head of Cinema Studies at RMIT University, President and co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and editor of CTEQ: Annotations on Film. * by Albert Fung Favourite films (in no particular order and for no specific reasons whatsoever) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003) 15 (Royston Tan, 2003) At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003) My Neighbors the Yamadas (Takahata Isao, 1999) Five (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) Cinema of our Time – Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty (Rafi Pitts, 2003) Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles, 2003) Farmingville (Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, 2003) Uniform (Diao Yinan, 2003) South of the Clouds (Zhu Wen, 2004) Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) Graveyard of Honour (Miike Takashi, 2002) Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004) 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) Albert Fung is the Manager of Senses of Cinema. * by Bill Mousoulis A plenitude of offerings as usual, but with the abiding impression that we were simply receiving “variations on a theme”, as the festival overflowed with new (but lesser) works from known directors. I attended 50-odd sessions, pretty much avoiding anything with an upcoming release, and had a good time overall. Before divulging my top ten films, it’s only fair that I at least list all the others I saw. The awful: Somnambulance (Suley Keedus, 2003), The Adventure of Iron Pussy (Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai, 2003), Josh Jarman (Pip Mushin, 2004), How to Tell When a Relationship is Over (Tony Roche, 2003), Sextasy (Yasemin Samdereli, 2003) and a slough of Australian shorts (the Shortlands, It Takes Two to Tango [Luke Shanahan, 2004], And One Step Back[Mark Robinson, 2003], Everything Goes [Andrew Kotatko, 2004], Heartworm [Ben Chessell, 2004]). The disappointing: Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, 2004), The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, 2004), Letters in the Wind (Alireza Amini, 2002), The Cat Returns (Morita Hiroyuki, 2002), Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette, 2003), Work Hard, Play Hard (Jean-Marc Moutout, 2003), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003), Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004). The okay: The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003), Roads to Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov, 2003), At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003), The Riverside (Alireza Amini, 2003), 15 (Royston Tan, 2003), Cinema Dali (Xavi Figueras, 2004), Film as Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (Paul Cronin, 2003), Creature Comforts (Richard Goleszowski, 2003), Anthem (Tahir Cambis & Helen Newman, 2004), Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story (Kate Fix and Jason Summers, 2004), Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003), Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons (Gandulf Hennig, 2004), We Have Decided Not to Die (Daniel Askill, 2003), Like Twenty Impossibles (Annemarie Jacir, 2003), Cinema of our Time – Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty (Rafi Pitts, 2003), The Ladies’ (Mahnaz Afzali, 2003), Maryam’s Sin (Parisa Shahandeh, 2004), My Neighbors the Yamadas (Takahata Isao, 1999). The good: Pure Shit (Bert Deling, 1975), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004), Persons of Interest (Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse, 2003), Five (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003), Black Man and his Bride: Australian Paintings by Arthur Boyd (Tim Burstall, 1960), Hot Centre of the World (Tim Burstall, 1971), Petersen (Tim Burstall, 1974), Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004), Only Yesterday (Takahata Isao, 1991), Stir (Stephen Wallace, 1980), Orange Love Story (Tom Cowan, 2003), The Widower (Kevin Lucas, 2004), The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, 2003), Mona Lisa (Sotiris Dounoukos, 2004). The jury is out: The Ister (David Barison and Daniel Ross, 2004) because I could only see the first half. And so, the ten highlights of the festival, for me: 10. Hamlet X (James Clayden, 2003) The most radical of the wonderful Australian experimental works programmed in this year’s festival (The Ister, Orange Love Story, The Widower). Fragmented and pacy, making it baffling and unnerving, it is also undeniably fascinating and seductive. 9. Joy of Madness (Hana Makhmalbaf, 2003) With her sister and father losing themselves in lyrical abstractions lately, 15 year old Hana pulls out this barbed, unflinching document (on sister Samira’s questionable directing methods, no less). Reminiscent of the lively Iranian cinema of the ’90s. 8. Bemani (Dariush Mehrjui, 2002) Not as accomplished as Mehrjui’s last couple of films (The Pear Tree, Leila), this is nevertheless a highly enjoyable mosaic of the struggles of several young women in patriarchal Iran. Mehrjui punctuates the drama with a number of quite impure expressionistic flourishes, giving the film an exciting feel. 7. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) A failure, but a mightily ambitious one. The film’s pay-offs are beautiful, but few and far between. The film connects everyday tenderness with primal mysticism, but Weerasethakul isn’t able to fully integrate them. Almost a great film. 6. Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004) Coming right after the sublime Éloge de l’amour, this film confirms Godard’s current trajectory – his last works will be clear-headed, inventive and surprisingly light (given his conclusions) ruminations on life, the universe and everything. 5. Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) Not as beautiful as The Isle or as exciting as Bad Guy, this film is nevertheless a wonderful concoction from its talented director. Its treatise on innocence, sacrifice and repulsion is fascinating, and the way it resolves these elements in the narrative is highly moving. 4. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, 2004) A music documentary literally bursting at the seams. The live footage of the band features scorching performances, and the story that emerges from the interviews with band members is quite incredible. 3. Whisper of the Heart (Kondo Yoshifumi, 1995) The best of the Studio Ghibli animations on offer (from the upcoming seasons at the Nova and Astor): sprightly, funny and joyous. A hobby horse of mine is to look for a certain kind of light, tender, life-affirming vision in cinema. I rarely find it, but Ghibli films give it to me occasionally. 2. Aurévélateur (La Révélateur, Philippe Garrel, 1968 & live score by Philip Brophy, 2004) A magical combination of sound and image. From its Joy Division-inspired opening, through to its appropriation of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, the score is charged with emotion and filled with mythic and poetic grandeur. Which suits Philippe Garrel’s original film – with its strange, beautiful, “performance art” images – down to a tee. 1. Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003) An existential horror film, essaying the brutality of the fragility of masculinity. Its vision of man as primal entity (superbly embodied in the act of the screaming orgasm) applies not only to the crazy American rednecks at the end, but to its “cool”, Euro-savvy film director (anti)hero all throughout. A brilliant film, with acting and direction that make every other film at this year’s festival look fake. Bill Mousoulis is a Melbourne-based independent filmmaker, and founding editor of Senses of Cinema. * by Boris Trbic Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, 2004) Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004) Hidden Hero: The Films of Chang Cheh program Graveyard of Honour (Miike Takashi, 2002) Documentaries: Oil (Murad Ibragimbekov, 2003) and The Noon Gun (Anthony Stern, 2003) Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2004) Life is a Miracle (Emir Kusturica, 2004) Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003) Boris Trbic is a Melbourne writer and film critic. * by Mike Walsh My festival top ten (in no particular order): Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004) Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968) South of the Clouds (Zhu Wen, 2004) Only Yesterday (Takahata Isao, 1991) Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003) Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, 2002) Ramblers (Yamashita Nobuhiro, 2003) 20:30:40 (Sylvia Chang, 2004) Mike Walsh teaches in the Screen Studies Department at Flinders University in Adelaide and is a programmer for the Adelaide Film Festival. * by Hamish Wright It’s better for you and easier for me if I write about the MIFF movies that I gave a shit about, as flawed as some of them might have been, rather than walking you through my top tens. I like top tens as much as the next guy, but if anything this year at MIFF reinforced for me there’s no objective criteria to rating and ranking films. (Unless you reckon your opinion is higher and more privileged than Joe Average sitting out there, of course…) So let’s proceed. Somersault (2004) is the most important Australian film in years. Cate Shortland has wrestled something heartfelt and real out of the story of Heidi (Abbie Cornish), a young girl who, after some domestic strife, finds herself in the wintry town of Jindabyne. Cornish is fantastic, and so is Sam Worthington, in a real return to form since the mini-slump of Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002) and Gettin’ Square (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2003). But the real star of the film is writer/director Shortland, who side-steps about a hundred potential cliches of the teen self-discovery genre to find something that remains unexpected and truthful right up to the end. Only some slack editorial decisions through the middle, with a lot of self-consciously artsy shots of autumn leaves and Heidi rambling around on the shore of Lake Jindabyne, loosens the film’s hold. Somersault is the first film to have come through the Aurora script development program, and it shows. It’s a beautifully developed script. I couldn’t say the same for the three other Australian films I saw during the festival, Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 2004), Human Touch (Paul Cox, 2004) and Josh Jarman (Pip Mushin, 2004). The two sessions of Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003) were MIFF sell-outs. I really enjoyed this crazy mish-mash of a film, but I struggle to write much more than: see it. From what I’ve seen of Maddin’s earlier work this has a stronger narrative pulse through it (courtesy of the script presence of Kazuo “Remains of the Day” Ishiguro – how odd is that!?) and is probably his most accessible work. Maddin throws so much at his audience, with frenetic cutting and shifting of moods, you’re likely to come out of this feeling like you’ve been slapped about, but in a good way. Kim Ki-duk is on some kind of crest right now. Of his two films at MIFF, Samaritan Girl (2004) is strong in its own right but Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a major work. The seasons of the title form the chapters of the movie, with time lapses that take us through the growth of a monk from young child to old man. The story is simplicity itself, played out with the purest of visual drama. And it looks absolutely gorgeous. Some will love Old Boy (2004). I actively disliked it. Park Chan-wook reckons he’s telling a better story than he’s actually got, and skates by for some time on confidence before the melodrama takes over. Park reaches for situations that hit us where we hurt, and there’s no denying he has a talent for it. But don’t be surprised if the octopus, the dental work, and the meeting of scissors and tongue is pretty much all anyone will remember of this over-praised film. In the shadow of the Bush administration and the Iraq war lots of partisan documentaries preached to the converted. Almost all of these sessions played out to very vocal crowds, more akin to American multiplex audiences where the call-and-response between screen and audience is more common. Probably the strongest of these was Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2003), telling the story of Arab cable station Al-Jazeera during their coverage of the Iraq war. Wall (Simone Bitton, 2004) is about the building of a security fence between Israel and the Palestinian territories. It managed the tough feat of mounting a balanced argument while advancing the thesis that this wall is against a basic urge of humanity, to connect. Incredibly, while the Israelis have decided to build this fence, Israeli labourers have refused to work on it. It’s Palestinian workers who have taken up the slack. The program of Pen-ek Ratanaruang films was one of the hidden treasures of MIFF 2004. I didn’t know about this Thai filmmaker’s work before a couple of months ago, but now I’m intrigued at what comes next from him, one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today. His first film Mon-Rak Transistor (2001) is a charming piece of work that, while going off the rails from midway, is confidently mounted and bursting with imagination. 6ixtynin9 (1999) is a more straightforward but less satisfying piece that proceeds out from a Tropfest-style set-up: what would you do if a suitcase full of money turned up outside your front door? Various murderous hijinks ensue. Ratanaruang basically disavowed his first two films in his introductions, apologising for their “shallow” and “obvious” nature. Clearly he feels closest to the feel of his latest film, Last Life in the Universe (2003). The story of two awkward souls drifting close, a Japanese boy and a Thai girl, it unfolds at a more deliberate pace. I guess you could say it’s a more mature work, but to me it feels like Ratanaruang has bought himself the right to make a more personal film. I missed the start of this sell-out session and it took me some time to find the line of the film, but when I did I was gripped. Crucially, Ratanaruang tells this story right to the end, rather than the limp way in which his first two films concluded. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2003) is a great documentary, and probably the most insightful thing I’ve seen about a group’s creative process in a long time. With the troubled heavy metal band enlisting therapist Phil Towle in essence as a band member, it is also painfully funny. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, the key personnel of Metallica, look extremely foolish at times, but it’s to their credit that they allowed the cameras to capture these moments. At the other end of the spectrum, Jandek on Cornwood (Chad Freidrichs, 2003) is a documentary about a reclusive eccentric who makes records as Jandek. The film concerns itself mostly with speculations about who this Jandek might be, as his bizarre output of over thirty albums over three decades has offered numerous clues but no definitive answers. Disappointingly Jandek doesn’t appear in this movie, but we do hear his voice via a telephone interview. What to say about Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)? Here’s a film that makes a virtue of the way in which halfway through it completely shrugs off one narrative and adopts another. As the audience watched, and realised that we were being taken off somewhere completely different without hope of return, the thud of seats being exited began. The fourth of my movies that day, I remained seated and let it take me. While I can’t claim to have any idea of what the end of this film actually meant, it resonated. Hamish Wright is a Melbourne-based screenwriter. * * * Friday 6 August Comments by Boris Trbic Hidden Hero: The Films of Chang Cheh This program of Chang Cheh films is one of the most important events at this year’s MIFF. The festival’s long-term commitment to South East Asian cinema has in the past four years evolved into an attempt to inform and educate the audiences about the most significant aspects of the regional film history. A number of films at this year’s MIFF directly derive from Chang’s wuxia pian legacy. His swordplay extravaganzas evoke Leone’s epics, the narrative rhythms of Kurosawa, and ultimately, the ethical concerns of John Ford. The Blood Brothers (1973) is one of the four Chang’s films featuring John Woo as the First Assistant Director. For those still unfamiliar with Chang’s oeuvre, some quotes from The Heroic Ones: a father’s warning to his son: “Ching-szu, you are disembowelled!” and a casual conversation between brothers after the fight with the enemy forces: “We’ll change clothes.” “Pick those with less blood stains” Life is a Miracle (Emir Kusturica, 2004) Emir Kusturica’s Life is a Miracle is another attempt to deal with the legacy of the Balkan war. Kusturica again places more emphasis on his characters stranded in the midst of the Balkan chaos, than on the dramaturgical aspects of his narrative. He has immense understanding for his heroes, their passions, dilemmas, fears and frustrations, in the midst of the mayhem and squalor of the war, but no perceptible empathy for the forces (both domestic and international) that contributed to their misfortune. In a number of interviews after this film, Kusturica expressed his desire to write a novel. Could it be another story about a magical relationship between the inexplicably linked strangers? Remember Slavko Stimac who appears in the role of engineer Luka? Yes, he played the unhappy Zookeeper in Kusturica’s Underground (1995). He also played a blond-haired, big-eyed boy-soldier, in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977). Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004) Hong Sang-soo is an innovative and groundbreaking director. He revisits his themes of departure, separation and reunion in a lyrical film about people confused by their past and haunted by loneliness and uncertainty. The logical, methodical world of a university lecturer has turned upside down after his friend’s return from America, and their reunion with their former girlfriend. A powerful, moving, visually stunning dissection of a friendship/relationship. It reminded me of the epistolary novel of Amos Oz, Black Box. Boris Trbic is a Melbourne writer and film critic. * * * Thursday 5 August Comments by Paul Jeffery Talking with Angels (Yousaf Ali Khan, 2003) Some experiences are unique to film festivals – such as walking into a session where you didn’t even realise there was a short programmed and being treated to eighteen minutes of pure gold. The set-up is simple enough. Northern England, early ’70s, working-class neighbourhood. A woman, suffering schizophrenia, gathers her four infants (apparently from different fathers) to journey down to the local clinic for treatment. Her eldest son, no more than 10 or 11, is clearly the adult of the house, forcing a coat on his mother (she’s clad only in a curtain) as they leave. On their walk the family is teased by local kids. When they arrive at the clinic they are met with patronising, pitying stares from the staff. Then they go home. So much for plot. What sets the film apart is a dazzling display of cinematic eloquence, most notably a sustained use of close-up that is completely breathtaking – and not the long-lensed, image-flattening variety so favoured by commercials and music videos. Khan gets his camera so close you can almost see their breath on the lens – the faces fairly leap off the screen. You think of Dreyer or Bergman, obviously, but with the way it’s cut together, it’s closer to Kuleshov and his school of Soviet silents – By the Law (1926), especially. To be honest, I don’t remember By the Law all that well and the comparison may not stand up in court but it certainly felt the same: that overwhelming sense of dread, of an explosion waiting to happen. The kid who plays the eldest son (Stephen Buckley) is amazing. Khan has the sense to know that when working with children, you can’t ask them to do what’s beyond them. Minimal dialogue, no psychologising, just simple motivations – I love this, I hate this – and let your cutting do the rest. The kid has a frown that says everything that needs to be said. I could go on – the use of the subjective camera (startling), the use of colour (I don’t remember any other than brown and grey), the particularity of time and place, the ending (which I won’t give away) that just makes you shake your head in awe. I can only hope that the grand poo-bahs of international cinema throw bucketloads of money at Yousaf Ali Khan (this does, at least, look like it was funded to the max and he was apparently BAFTA nominated for it, as well as his previous short Skin Deep ). All power to him. Hotel (Jessica Hausner, 2004) So, from the sublime to the ridiculous in one session. This film tries so hard to be eerie, to build a sense of foreboding and I tried so hard to like it – but, in the end, it was too stunningly vacuous. A young woman gets a job in a provincial hotel. Her predecessor mysteriously vanished. The woman wanders around basement corridors, down ludicrously dark hallways, swims laps in the hotel pool without turning the lights on and ventures repeatedly into the creepy forest out the back. There’s certainly potential in that set-up for all manner of hi-jinks but none of it is realised. The characters, especially the lead, are all too vaguely drawn to elicit interest, the performances aim for David Lynch-style deadpan but miss by a long way – there’s a world of difference between a controlled performance and a non-performance – the story meanders without purpose or interest, the soundscape is used hesitantly, the cinematography is murky. Ah, well. In Your Hands (Annette K. Olesen, 2004) Any film that so blatantly invites the spectre of Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955) to float above it deserves points for sheer chutzpah. That it can spend its entire running time promising us a bona fide miracle and then not deliver is a piece of perverseness that I can only admire. Plot involves a pregnant priest newly appointed to a women’s prison, a prisoner with supernatural powers, a guard with the hots for aforementioned prisoner and the usual assortment of junkies, victims, whores that you find in all prison films (there’s some cliches even the Dogme Manifesto wouldn’t dare forbid). There seems to be very little middle-ground with Dogme films – people either love them or hate them, and if you weren’t converted by Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) then you never will be so you may as well read no further. For those who do speak the language, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Outstanding performances, energy to burn and, most importantly, situations that force the characters to make impossible decisions, accompanied by a director who’s prepared to look them in the eye while they do it. Some of the plot is a little too contrived – for example, the discovery of the secret affair. If two characters are having an affair and it needs to be discovered, make it a character choice – guilt causes a confession, misplaced trust causes someone to confide when they shouldn’t – rather than having a character just happen upon the pair. Olesen needs to do some self-flagellation for that. But all complaints about this film fade away in the face of the impossibly serene Trine Dyrholm (she was the waitress in Festen). If ever there was a character in cinema who could plausibly perform miracles, she is it. An incredible piece of acting in an incredible film. There was one thing about the screening which was unacceptable. Not that I wanna harp on about aspect ratios, but Dogme 95 stipulates that films be shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1 – they published it in a manifesto. Even if the projectionists are unaware of this, surely they can look at the screen and notice that the frame line is cutting across people’s eyebrows, for God’s sake. Filmmakers (even Dogme filmmakers) generally agonise quite a bit about how to compose and frame their images. In a film like In Your Hands, which is so heavily dependent on its characters’ emotions, as expressed on their faces, slicing off chunks of their heads is unforgivable. How often does this happen around the world, and how much does it contribute to the myth that Dogme filmmakers are “amateurish” or somehow technically inept? Regardless of all that, audiences deserve better. Well, that’s my daily rant out of the way. Paul Jeffery’s second DV feature, In the Moment, screened to 50 people at MUFF this year and looks set to vanish without a trace. * * * Wednesday 4 August Comments by Paul Jeffery Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004) What to say about a filmmaker who uses the structure of Cassavetes, the timing of Rivette, the dialogue of Rohmer, the unblinking stare of Bergman, and the sheer aching humanity of Ozu? Best to shut up and let the films speak for themselves. Only, I have to mention the weather. I was going to say that Hong uses snow in this film the way Kurosawa uses rain but that doesn’t do him justice. He uses weather like no one else I can think of – not only as a symbol or metaphor for characters’ emotional states but to actually generate them in the audience. The snow starts falling and your heart feels like it’s gonna break. Like the thunderstorm at the end of Turning Gate (2002) (which, like the snow, feels real and thus more beautiful – and even if they’re just special effects it shows he cares enough to make his effects indistinguishable from reality), it shows a filmmaker in complete control of all aspects of their art. As for his obsession with romantic triangles – three films in a row centred around a two-men-and-one-woman affair (and, alright, in Turning Gate it was only the first half of the film…but it still counts) – I’ll leave that up to the real critics to explain to me. 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) Kiarostami gives a ninety minute “lesson” on how to make a Kiarostami film, divided into ten chapters and using his film Ten (2002) as an exemplar (and, coincidentally, setting out very cogent arguments in defence of nine of the ten Dogme 95 commandments). It’s very difficult to argue with anything he says since the man makes great films and his contribution to cinema is enormous – plus he repeatedly reminds us that this is not a lesson in cinema per se, but a lesson in the cinema of Kiarostami, of which he must be considered something of an expert. I do find it problematic that he uses clips from Ten to back up his points – since a filmmaker often can’t be completely objective about their own work. At one point, he shows us a sequence of a non-actor sitting in a car fidgeting and claims that this illustrates the amazing emotional depth that can be achieved by casting real people. While this may have been his intention in casting this woman and shooting this scene, all I see is a woman in a car, fidgeting. He makes an interesting argument but the evidence he provides to substantiate that argument doesn’t actually substantiate it – at least not for anyone who didn’t already agree with him. There are other, similar occurrences. But that’s his business. It’s his film and we don’t all have to agree and art is always gonna be subjective to a degree anyway. So, I’ll stop rambling and let Kiarostami continue in his position as President of the Society to Eradicate Acting from Cinema. But I have one last gripe – the lack of subtitles. The film is instead “translated” by an appallingly sterile American voice-over – the kind you get on television nature documentaries. Kind of strange, given that Kiarostami goes to great lengths to stress the importance of sound in films – inflections in dialogue, tone of voice of the speaker – and we lose this from Kiarostami’s speech. Why? Especially given Kiarostami’s complaints over Hollywood’s monopoly on world cinema, you’d think they could’ve at least avoided putting an American accent over the whole film. Work Hard, Play Hard (Jean-Marc Moutout, 2003) A solid enough film, unpretentious, slightly reminiscent of Laurence Cantet’s Human Resources (1999), examining the crisis of conscience of a man sent to organise mass lay-offs at a provincial factory. It’s well-acted (Jeremie Renier in the lead is especially subtle), intelligently written, sensitively directed, plus its heart is in the right place (left of centre!!). There’s a problem in that it has a tendency to leave the lead character in order to look into the lives of various factory workers – admirable, yet an unnecessary distraction. It has the effect of weakening the spine of the film but, at the same time, we don’t get enough time with any of these subplots to get really involved with them. Perhaps, with an extra hour’s running time, the film might have achieved a Short Cuts-style mosaic (though this is not the intention). As it is, the overall effect is a little emotionally dissipated. Pity, because, otherwise it’s a fine film. Paul Jeffery’s second DV feature, In the Moment, screened to 50 people at MUFF this year and looks set to vanish without a trace. * * * Monday 2 August Comments by Paul Jeffery Bemani (Dariush Merhjui, 2002) The MIFF guide states that Bemani “expertly blurs the line between fiction and documentary” – a claim that could be made for much of Iranian cinema but, sadly, not this film. For though it has a little fun hopping from one side of the imaginary line to the other (stopping characters in the middle of the action to question them about their lives/feelings/motivations), the line itself is always kept pretty clear. Therein lies the problem of the film. It has a distinct lack of grey. The oppositional relationships are established quickly – essentially, the young/hopeful/innocent heroines versus the evil fathers/brothers/husbands who sell them into marriage or stifle their dreams of education or cut off their heads for perceived immorality – then the narrative plays itself out in pretty much straight lines. Some blurring, some ambiguity would’ve been most welcome – the film is at its best during the character “interrogations” but the idea isn’t pursued with any passion or rigour. Like the rest of the film, it’s curiously half-hearted. Notre musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004) I’ll not dream of being so presumptuous as to review this film. All I will say is that we all come from Godard. Whether filmmakers, critics or audiences, we owe him everything and it is a debt that can never be repaid. However, one thing we could at least try to do is project his film in the correct aspect ratio. I did talk with someone who claimed it was framed that way deliberately, citing as evidence the two explicit references in the dialogue to people having their heads cut off – but I’m not convinced. Evil (Mikael Hålström, 2003) Hard to find fault – everyone does their job competently, the story is intelligent, the themes important, the performances earnest, etc., etc. But fascism in a boys’ boarding school? Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (1966) did it better 40 years ago and that was hardly cutting edge for its time. Hålström’s film is enjoyable enough, easy to watch, but not only is it set in the 1950s, it feels as if it was made in the 1950s. Life is a Miracle (Emir Kusturica, 2004) Another glorious mess from Kusturica – not as cringe-inducing as Black Cat, White Cat (1998), not as heartbreaking as Underground (1995) – but as loud, grotesque, excessive and juvenile as you’d expect. And in a Festival fairly drowning in documentary and dreadfully earnest films using “real” people in “real” situations, it’s great to come across something that’s prepared to be larger than life. Like that line from The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) – that truly serious people are never serious (or words to that effect) – Kusturica deals in caricatures, in plots that make little sense, situations straight from cartoons (my favourite: the riot during the soccer match where one man pulls a goalpost out of the ground and proceeds to smack people over the head with it) yet isn’t frivolous. He doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelty and pettiness and viciousness that are (seemingly) as intrinsic to human beings as the generosity and passion that he celebrates with such verve. Life is a Miracle may be a fatuous title but it is certainly not a fatuous film. Raja (Jacques Doillon, 2003) Fred is a wealthy, almost middle-aged Frenchman, hiding out in an estate in Morocco after some sort of breakdown with his wife. He fixates on Raja, a 19-year-old labourer who works in the garden. He wants to get laid, or so it seems. She wants an escape from poverty, but isn’t too sure. They circle round each other, trying to work out what the other really wants and what they themselves really want – a task complicated by the fact that neither has much grasp of the other’s language, and that they are surrounded by characters who each has their own agenda – Raja’s boyfriend and brother, Fred’s elderly kitchen staff. It’s a sweet film, full of rich detail, anchored by Pascal Greggory as Fred who captures the immense sadness and longing of the character, his volatility, and also his sense of humour, evidenced by the wonderful, improvised scenes with his two housemaids – full of innuendo and silliness mixed with genuine affection. Politically, the film is quite complex. The inherent sleaziness of Fred’s pursuit of Raja is made explicit, commented on by all the characters, including Fred himself, but he is undeterred. No attempt is made to justify or rationalise his agenda. The colonialist metaphor here is intriguing – the idea of a Europe fully aware of its exploitative relationship with the Third World, knowing that such a relationship is morally reprehensible, yet unable to control its lust for the unspoiled riches there for the taking. Yet the relationship is not so simple. Fred craves Raja’s youth but when he finally has her in his bed, he rejects her – her youth is no use to him. He tries to rectify damage he has caused by financing the wedding of Raja and her boyfriend – to no avail. Much ebb and flow of the plot ensues leading to a state of comical confusion. The one certainty that can be drawn is that, despite the best intentions, colonialism causes a great deal of mess for everyone concerned. And if we already knew that, it’s at least fun to see it depicted again in such an engaging way. The Far Side of the Moon (Robert Lepage, 2003) The thing that always stands out about Lepage are his transitions – and it’s interesting that such gloriously cinematic touches come from a theatrical conception. Of course, it’s not surprising that someone used to working in a spatially restricted medium would tend to think more creatively in terms of scene transitions, but it is sad that filmmakers often seem to take for granted the means of expression available to them. It’s when you see imaginatively edited sequences that the conventionality of most filmmaking practice is made clear. But there’s so much more to this film than stylistic flourishes. Intelligent and controlled, it explores Big Issues – humanity’s place in the universe, the importance of art and science as vehicles for questioning rather than answering, the need to be loved – yet never loses sight of the details of character, necessary to humanise such nebulous concepts. Lepage’s dual performances (as if directing yourself in one role isn’t hard enough) are both expert. Unique and funny, the film is among the highlights of MIFF so far. Paul Jeffery’s second DV feature, In the Moment, screened to 50 people at MUFF this year and looks set to vanish without a trace. * * * Sunday 1 August Comments by Richard Misek Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) Tropical Malady is a long, boring, baffling, but perversely captivating, film. The first hour passes slowly. Then, in the second hour, the film slows down even more and slips from semi-coherence into a kind of visual equivalent of speaking in tongues. At this point, you’re faced with two alternatives – either you walk out (which numerous people did, in a steady stream throughout the film) or you stop asking even such basic questions as “Who am I watching?” and “What is he doing?” and just go with it. For many of those who stayed with it, reaching the end was an exhilarating experience. Coming out of the cinema, there was a real buzz of excitement. Not only because the film was finally over, but (perhaps) because of the feeling of having seen something completely unique, of having had the quintessential “What was that?” festival experience. It’s an impossible film to summarise, at least in words. But here goes anyway. The first part of the film is a documentary-style meander through contemporary Thai life, in the company of two constantly grinning men who appear to be in love with each other. Then the film moves into the jungle and follows a soldier tracking a tiger that’s been killing livestock in a village. But the tiger’s not a tiger, it’s a man, or perhaps it’s a tiger in a man’s body, or vice versa, or perhaps the soldier himself becomes a tiger, or perhaps there are no tigers at all, though there is the ghost of a cow. Days turn into night and night into day, and still the soldier (though at some point, there seem to be two soldiers – or perhaps it’s just the tiger turning into a soldier) continues to wander through the jungle. Perhaps it’s all a hallucination on the part of the soldier – perhaps he’s suffering a tropical malady. Or maybe it’s the tiger that’s imagined it all up, and when it wakes up the next morning, it’ll think “What a strange dream…” Or perhaps the director went into the jungle wanting to make an anthropological hunt film, and then suffered a tropical malady himself and ended up making this. One thing seems certain – the monkey knows what’s going on. Unfortunately, he’s not telling. Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2003) Head-On is also a long film, but every moment is used to further the plot, to deepen character, and/or to heighten the viewer’s understanding of its juxtaposed German and Turkish social environments. Cahit, a middle-aged, hard-drinking, Turkish descended, empties-collector at a nightclub who looks a bit like Nick Cave except without the charisma, drives his car into a wall. While recovering he meets Sibel, a younger woman also of Turkish descent who’s recently attempted suicide. She wants to get married to someone (anyone) so she can escape her family. So they marry and carry on with their own self-destructive lives, indifferent to each other. But as time passes, inevitably, their relationship changes. Though the film presents its audience with a lot of pretty unpalatable details (e.g. a close-up of a wound getting sutured), it’s also completely unsensational. When Cahit gets punched in the face, he washes the blood out with a can of beer because that’s what’s in his hand. It’s not an easy experience watching two people make so many mistakes, but slowly they adjust to each other, they mature a bit, make some more mistakes, and sometimes even do each other some good. Though they’re no Romeo and Juliet, there’s something quite beautiful about their relationship, and the film’s direction is appropriately low-key. There are no hyper-kinetic, techno-backed, drug-taking montages. Sometimes the camerawork and editing is rough and edgy, but sometimes (as in an excruciating scene where Cahit and his ‘uncle’ visit Sibel’s parents to ask for her hand) it slows down into almost Ozu-esque classicism. The first German film to win the Golden Bear at Berlin for 30 years, Head-On comes with a lot of expectations to fulfil. For me, at least, it fulfilled them. This is not another example of the Goodbye Lenin phenomenon (critics so stunned to see a halfway decent German film that they laud it as a masterpiece and create expectations that the film can never fulfil, so further reinforcing the view that German cinema is dead). A beautiful, harrowing, life-affirming car-crash of a film, Head-On is the real thing. Richard Misek is a filmmaker, editor and cineaste. He is currently a PhD candidate at Melbourne University. * * * Posted Thursday 29 July Comments by Bill Mousoulis Hamlet X (James Clayden, 2003) In the crowd filing out after this film, one punter labelled Clayden’s latest opus “masturbation”. As stupid as this description is (for Clayden clearly loves the screen – and the spectator), it indicates the kind of hardline attitude the film evinces. Its juxtaposition of charged poetry with fragmented visuals is audaciously inscrutable – and all conventional dramatic and emotive power is taken from the lap of the viewer. It would be easy to simply label this daring mosaic “experimental narrative” and move on…to the next safe cinema experience, be it Iranian or Hollywood. But we, as citizens of cinema (and life!), need to question and grow – as little “pleasure” as Hamlet X actually affords, it is artists like Clayden who help us reconfigure the tired domain of representation. We all know there are only (pardon the pun) x number of stories out there – but how many ways of representing those stories are there? Hamlet X smashes its characters (not to mention Shakespeare) into many jagged little pieces – there is no “cathartic drama” to be played out here, with a set beginning, middle and end, only shards of personality, ghosts of identity, and a disorientation that, yes, the viewer feels. In the context of Australian cinema, this is indeed a truly “X” film, as it fires a negating salvo to the morass of conventional works out there. One could even compare Clayden to Godard on the style of this film. Kudos to MIFF for programming it. Bill Mousoulis is a Melbourne-based independent filmmaker, and founding editor of Senses of Cinema. * * * Posted Tuesday 27 July Comments by Boris Trbic Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) Similar to the vast majority of Kim Ki-duk’s films, this film deals with the consequences of the Korean economic miracle; the alienation and fragmentation of the individual living in a highly technologised post industrial society and the deterioration of traditional (family) values, the pillars of Korean society. For those familiar with European film of the 1960 and 1970s, KKD’s films look like desperate attempts to imitate the German directors’ mapping of the society ravaged by fascist past and burgeoning post-war economy. Unfortunately, KKD is not Fassbinder. His films, melancholic and old-fashioned (there is nothing wrong with being old fashioned as long as it is interesting), lack the critical insight of the 1960s German filmmakers. They often lack the vibrant, innovative energy of the present-day Korean cinema. I am eagerly awaiting Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man. Mon-Rak Transistor (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2001) This film reminded me of Emir Kusturica’s cinematic debut, now forgotten, Dolly Bell (1981). The serio-comic musical sequences worked well with the audience. Similar to Kusturica, the director places more emphasis on the character development and less on the dramaturgical structure of his narrative. Mon-Rak is a rudimentary homage to Thai folk music (as the director said, half-jokingly, introducing his film) that owes most of its charm to its simple form. Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003) Those who love Wong Kar-wai movies are bound to look for the artistic signatures of Christopher Doyle in the Thai and Chinese films shown at the MIFF. The wuxia pian scenes in Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) are so reminiscent of Ashes of Time (1994). The romantic interiors in Last Life in the Universe have so much in common with the isolated sources of lighting and intriguing camera placements in Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000). In Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s film subtext is everything. Past is all pervasive, future is unpredictable, and slow, poetic dialogues evoke a sense of nostalgia and temps perdu. Boris Trbic is a Melbourne writer and film critic. * Comments by Jim Knox Monster Road (Brett Ingram, 2004) Frank Zappa’s avant-rock stylings were hopelessly compromised by his puerile lyrics and sophomore humour, but paired to the delirious visual reveries of subterranean plasticine auteur, Bruce Bickford (together at their best on the short feature Baby Snakes, 1979), made for a stunning faux-lysergic derangement of the senses. Eliding that synergy, this documentary provides a study of Bickford family dynamics: perhaps aspiring to something akin to the effect of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994). In consequence, Monster Road is substantially a portrait of Bruce’s father, George – a gentle, melancholic oldster; the film is sensitive to privilege his gracious lucidity, merely intimating at his Alzheimer’s decline. Holding forth with pained wisdom, George is a charming subject, and the film achieves a considerable pathos through his character. I’m not sure that the filmmakers’ actually essay any meaningful explication for Bruce’s salient against-the-grain strangeness. His preferred exercise: climbing trees (lambent avidity for arboreal elevation in marked contrast to an undisguised discomfort at the more conventional ground level). An habitual outsider, his harmlessly eccentric view of the world (distant neighbour Bill Gates – beautifully counterpointed during Millennial festivities – has “no awareness”: Bruce disingenuously speculates on a Gates mansion adapted to house a hundred animation studios, because, “You know, man, animation is the most important thing in the world”) echoes the wounded innocence of Bickford senior. Bickford the animator is an obsessive autodidact, isolated to a small corner of Seattle but amply compensated by the extravagant riches of his mental landscape. His vision is compulsive, organic, casually violent and grotesque. His most recent work is often inconsistent & repetitious, but still achieves dazzling telescopic shifts in perspective (reminding this viewer of the Eames’ Power of Ten, 1977) and a fevered mutability. There are flaws within this gem: recording studio verite of session rock “wizardry” (while the baffled Bruce mopes from the margins) seem wholly gratuitous, and the stoner odd-job-man who sets about George with supercilious candour alienated many audience sympathies. Otherwise, Monster Road is many times deeply moving. Ingram’s documentary is a generous testament to the Bickford family, and an axiomatic instance of American folk art traditions. Some accessory considerations: playing from video (my guess would be Digital Betacam), this film looked and sounded far in advance of anything I’ve ever seen projected from DVD at MIFF. Filmmakers, distributors and screen curators, nota bene: DVD is perfectly fine for the diminished forum of most home viewing, but noticeably deficient for theatrical purposes unless you apply the most generous data compression… Outsider animation is well-represented at this year’s MIFF through this documentary, and the Charlie Bowers’ survey, but the rigours of the shorts and documentary programming are conspicuously absent in the feature selection. Other writers – to their considerable credit, in The Age – have lamented the redundancy of including 60 films which have already been picked up for commercial release (there has been some contention over this figure, but it’s a considerable number by any estimation… about 39 of the features screened at MIFF will unspool at a commercial cinema). Personally, I am neither a fan of vogue du jour kung foolery – I’m making shortly for the cinephile paradise of Brisbane, where retrospectives of Jean Cocteau and the dark sides of the Czech new wave keep company with the latest from Raul Ruiz and Chantal Akerman (and words on same for this site…). Jim Knox coordinates the activities of the Lumpen Intelligentsia Film Society (next public event – outdoor cinema for the Meredith Music Festival, year’s end), is a sessional lecturer in animation at VCA, a freelance producer for ABC Radio National, a composer and an animator. * * * Posted Monday 26 July Comments by Paul Jeffery Men Suddenly in Black (Pang Ho Cheung, 2003) Funny enough to get you interested but not quite funny enough to keep you interested. Some clever parody, some nice gags, a surprising structural choice about half way through which sees the four lead characters abandoned so we can see what their wives are up to (a nod to Faces , perhaps? The Cassavetes influence is everywhere…) – but it all soon grows a little tiresome, particularly at 11 am on a Saturday. Tries to say something about marriage and infidelity, but it’s not exactly clear what. Lightweight (Jean-Pierre Ameris, 2003) I only know Ameris through Bad Company (1999) a quite astounding film that screened at MIFF four or five years ago. This one doesn’t reach the same heights but showcases the same filmmaking strengths – basically, script and performance, with a perverse joy in painting his characters into a corner and watching them squirm. Our hero, Antoine (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is an orphaned amateur boxer in the process of emotionally unravelling. Being a boxer he (of course) responds to stress with his fists, so we see him beat up on his boss, his training partner, his new girlfriend’s brother, and his sister’s new husband (at their wedding reception). The startling thing is the choice of Duvauchelle (certainly the prettiest boxer I’ve ever seen) who plays the character with almost no hint of violence or danger – just a kind of ingenuous sadness. He misses his mum and dad, poor thing. He thinks his girlfriend too beautiful for him. Ameris gives his actors time and space to breathe, feel and react to each other and they respond with wonderful performances. Duvauchelle’s scenes with his sister (Sophie Quinton) are full of tenderness, ditto those with his girlfriend (Mai Anh Le). And there’s one truly heartbreaking scene, where Antoine makes a drunken pass at the middle-aged ex-lover of his coach, so emotionally layered yet handled with deftness and subtlety. Technically, it’s one of the better looking DV films I’ve seen – lots of sun-drenched exteriors, but Ameris also lights the buggery out of the interiors, as well as having the sense to keep the camera nice and close. His cutting is maybe a little pragmatic – the format allows such luxury in the editing that it’s hard not to be disappointed at the lack of virtuosity. Apart from the boxing sequences and a little mucking around at the final birthday lunch, there’s little to get too excited about in this area. But then, like Kurt Vonnegut said, if a picture has value it’s because of its humanness, not because of its “pictureness”. Paul Jeffery’s second DV feature, In the Moment, screened to 50 people at MUFF this year and looks set to vanish without a trace. * Comments by Boris Trbic Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, 2004) Rohmer’s film Triple Agent has certainly been the highlight of the Festival so far. Rohmer uses a spy intrigue to tell a story about 1930s Europe, its conflicts, contrasts, betrayals and shifting allegiances, focusing on a critical period in a life of a married couple, Fiodor (Serge Renko), a former White Russian general and his sensitive, elegant, Greek born wife (Arsinoe Katerina Didaskalou). The story ostensibly narrows down to the central question: whom does Fiodor work for? However, in its closing stages, it becomes clear that Rohmer’s narrative is far more concerned with the fate of his wife, a victim of small, relatively insignificant spy game at the onset of World War Two. The effective end of the film literally reminds the viewer about the fragility of human life in a turbulent political era. Rohmer intertwines archival material with equally intriguing fragments of the domestic life of his two central characters. As always in Rohmer’s films, everything is in the subtext, political, historical and not least, artistic. His precise dialogue is often in contrast to the body language of his characters, the long, telling pauses in their speech that convey far more to the audience than their verbal exchanges. The director reminds the viewer that the critical 1930s were the period when the system we are living in today seemed already dead and one had to choose between two emerging ideological opposites: communism and fascism. This choice impacts on the social life and the cultural and aesthetic identities of his characters who discuss Kandinsky, Malevitch and Picasso with a sense of political engagement and in a no less passionate manner than when speaking of Stalin, Trotsky or Hitler. The film captures the sense of frustration and hopelessness in the 1930s. Its political subtext emerges as intelligent and intriguing, in the time when, in a disturbing trend, investigative documentaries bereft of complexity or historical or philosophical perspective take centre stage at film festivals around the world. Boris Trbic is a Melbourne writer and film critic. * Comments by Mark Freeman The Five Venoms (Chang Cheh, 1978) Chang Cheh’s The Five Venoms demonstrates a refreshing narrative economy, launching the hero and his quest within the first couple of minutes, and wrapping things up with a quick word along the lines of “mission accomplished”. In between this brazen thumping down of plot points are some moderately amusing episodes as we follow Yang’s quest to uncover and disband The Five Venoms. Tarantino’s debt to Chech in Kill Bill is on full display in this film, from the five individuals on the list down to the deadly two-fingered strike of the The Snake. The film’s a bit like watching Pokemon or one of the latter day superhero cartoons – each of the Venoms have extraordinary powers but are also equipped with a fatal flaw that can bring them undone. Chech treats the narrative lightly (except for a rather lengthy and ponderous trial/torture sequence) and focuses on the extraordinary fight scenes. The print is pretty dreadful, and the subtitles seem to operate independently of when things are being said. But the sound effects – like a pinball machine on speed – make it worthwhile. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang 2003) A film where we look at a screen to see people looking at a screen, Goodbye Dragon Inn is a bit like one of Macbeth’s apparitions – a line of mirrors reflecting the same image further and further into space. Virtually dialogue and event-free, the film concentrates our attentions – it wants us not to just look, but to look intently. A person’s gaze, transfixed on an image of screen, flickering with changing light finds itself also looked at – by us, but also by other patrons of the cinema where the film is set. Goodbye Dragon Inn employs wry comedy and aural repetition in equal doses – the thumping gait of the disabled usher as she climbs up and down stairs is set against the futile search for sex by one of the patrons. For all of its cleverness, its perfect use of sound and image, I came out admiring the film a lot, respecting what Tsai was doing, appreciating his skill, but not really thinking of it beyond the most academic of terms. The film is a series of ticks against any number of boxes, sure, but beyond that, I’m not quite so convinced. Cold Light (Hilmar Oddson, 2004) My favourite of the festival so far. This film from Iceland sets itself up as a bit of a mystery, one of those cathartic release-the-trauma-and-be-free scenarios. This makes it sound formulaic, and it is to some degree. But a number of factors make the fairly obvious narrative of the film work. Central is the careful spinning of the narrative, the intertwined narratives between the child and adult Grimur – one closed, afraid, depressive, the other open to art, magic and relationships. In Australia we sometimes identify landscape as a defining feature of our cinema, yet Cold Light shows us that rather than being something special for us, landscape is one of the universals of cinema. The rugged crags of Iceland, and Mt Tindur which casts a pall over Grimur’s community contribute to an imposing sense of expansiveness coupled with an intense claustrophobia. Also incredible are the performances of the children – the faces of the young Grimur and his sister Gottina are like landscapes in themselves. Once you move beyond the basic premise of Cold Light, the excellence of the rest of the film – cinematography, construction, performance – comes to the fore, and the obvious resolution feels less forced than it really should. Persons of Interest (Alison Maclean, Tobias Perse, 2003) Another political documentary which proves that no matter how good the subject, the filmmaking must do it justice. This one doesn’t, really. Focusing on the stories of a dozen or so families whose fathers, husbands, brothers, sons were detained without charge in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Persons of Interest is outrage in a can. The possibility exists for depth, context, political/social/racial exploration, but the film slips fairly superficially over the top of these issues. Placing the interviewees in a stark, austere room, we spend about five minutes with each family. This manages to build a decent sense of the government’s racial profiling, the attacks on democratic processes, but the stories themselves are at the mercy of the storytelling skills of those facing the camera. This means some present a compelling, heartfelt tale that does as I suspect the directors intended – here’s the attack on fundamental rights, here’s the social and racial prejudice of the government. But others stutter and stammer, are uneasy and reticent before the camera, or sniffle their way through the interview with blocked noses and lengthy pauses. Others talk and talk and talk and become repetitive so that the thread of their story becomes lost. This is a film which relies heavily on its subjects, and no matter how worthy their story, no matter how outrageous their treatment at the behest of the government, the documentary falls apart if the communication is not effective. This seems, at this early stage of the festival to be something of a problem with the documentaries I’ve seen so far (others include the awful rehashing of the Patty Hearst story). The story can be fascinating, compelling, filled with intrigue or corruption or abuse. But without digging beyond the basic plot points – this happened, then this happened, and then it was followed by this – you may get a diverting little narrative, but no attempt to expose the origin or the context for these stories. Mark Freeman teaches Cinema Studies at La Trobe University. In between teaching and writing, he is completing a Ph.D on Australian Cinema and the post-national. * * * Posted Saturday 24 July Comments by Jim Knox Topsy-Turvy: The Forgotten Genius of Charlie Bowers Fuck the latest, scope the greatest!!! This misremembered riot of wayback japery is the most turbulent instance of a genuine surrealism at this year’s Festival. Underdog/outsider Bowers works a pataphysical chaos of crypto-mechanisation: typically born of thwarted amour, his uber-Goldberg appliances find their explosive culmination in the charred Bowers framed by apocalyptic wreckage. Uproariously convulsive stuff, marred only by revolting honkytonk scoring – overbearingly jaunty, fluffer/hack piano strides; why not to restore the films with a soundtrack of igneous diegetic audio? (Nothing against Le révelateur but the “hypercacophonic” orchestration of these visuals suggests this might have been a better target for Phil Brophy’s scoring?) Anti-Edison Bowers’ gift for ill-advised invention finds its further evidence in abundant virtuoso animation sequences (his best known work – not screening – is You Auto Lay an Egg [or in its abridged form as Metal Eating Bird] which figured locally on a Festival Records video compile of outsider animation, couple years back). Bowers was principal animator on the Mutt & Jeff cartoon franchise before embarking on the dedicated revolt against reason of these shorts, an insurgent mix of live-action slapstick/caper absurdisms and stop-motion derangement. Explicit concerns are period everyman tropes: unemployment, labour-relations, automation of industry, romantic infatuation, and an inspired embezzlement of police ratiocination. One chum lamented the absence of Freudian depths (move on, buddy!), but there’s some aplenty egg-fixation (like: breakage!) happening here that’s a sure stand-in for multiple orgasms in a sublimated exhibitionist arena (and to say nothing of the furious butt-traumas of the only completely animated work, the unhinged Wild Oysters). Astonishingly, rilly; and mandatory for all with the patience for the era’s erratic narrative pacing and wild continuity shifts (which, in turn, might describe a whole new way of considering narrative trajectory). Jim Knox is a Melbourne-based writer, broadcaster, sound designer, animator, screen curator, and film and DVD distributor. * Comments by Paul Jeffery Graveyard of Honour (Takashi Miike, 2002) Film boasts one very funny sequence involving sour milk and a flight of stairs, one quite beautiful shot of an arterial spray gradually staining the snow red, and a melancholy, rainy-Sunday-afternoon sort of score that comes into it’s own over a montage of the heroes shooting up. Apart from these moments, it’s 125 minutes without a single, recognisable human quality. People are stabbed, shot, beaten with iron bars or ornate ashtrays or just plain, old-fashioned hands and feet. One particularly memorable scene sees the hero’s “wife” (well, she’s a girl he rapes a couple of times who, apparently, grows to enjoy it) kicked senseless. What are we to make of this? There appears to be a vast moral vacuum enveloping much of Japanese (and Korean) cinema – at least as it’s been represented at MIFF over the last few years. And I mean moral in the widest sense, the sense Godard meant when (quoting Luc Moullet) he said that tracking shots are a question of morality. Brutality is unpleasant, casual brutality even more so. Casual brutality without any reason, motivation or justification (even if, as is the case with, say, Tarantino, the motivation was purely aesthetic) is depressingly pointless. Miike is an undeniably brilliant director. Gozu was a standout at last year’s Festival. But he often appears to have nothing to say. His films get by on imagination and audacity (and, yes, those are extremely rare commodities in cinema) but when, as here, those qualities are lacking, the result is just plain nasty. If Miike hates human beings as much as he appears to, why doesn’t he make a film about something else? Giraffes or something. James’ Journey to Jerusalem (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, 2003) Nice little liberal-humanist film, shot on video but without really making any use of the aesthetic. If you thought too hard about it, you could question why the Africans all seem so Simple and Noble and Proud, and why the Israelis are all Greedy and Selfish and Manipulative – but the uncomfortable aspects of the character stereotypes are mitigated a little by the performances. Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe as the titular hero is particularly good – humanising a pretty two-dimensional character and giving the film some humanity. If it’s all a mite pedestrian as cinema, it at least has the courage to wear its heart on its sleeve. Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) It’d be nice if Kim one day made a film that wasn’t about prostitutes. Just for some variety. God I’m sounding like a prude today. Apart from that particular quibble, it’s pretty impressive. The story follows it’s own logic and isn’t predictable, the characters are drawn with subtlety, performances are great. Eol Lee as the father does wonderful work with a complex and ambiguous character. But, as usual, Kim is the star of his own film. It’s the moments that really make it stand out. The unpredictable moments – not just the sudden explosions of violence or the plot twists out of left-field – but the excruciating awkwardness of the mobile call in the hospital, or the sublime moment of the driving lesson. It’s when you know you’re in the presence of a singular filmmaker – and you can just surrender to the experience of watching, knowing that the director knows what they’re doing. Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, 2003) Typically self-indulgent Rohmer. There’s nothing better than a self-indulgent filmmaker – one who gives you the film as they want to make it, without bowing to other people’s ideas of what cinema should be. You know where you are with them. If I choose to see a Rohmer film, it’s because I like Rohmer. Some might argue that he’s ridiculously verbose, but a lot of people like conversation. It would be a dull world if every film was a Rohmer, but it would be an even duller world if no film was. Having said all that…Rohmer on political intrigue doesn’t soar in the same way as Rohmer on love. His use of the camera is always a little rudimentary, so the film doesn’t benefit from being so studio-bound (you miss the sun-drenched exteriors of Claire’s Knee, A Summer’s Tale, An Autumn Tale, et al). The plotting tends towards the obscure, which might annoy some people. The two lead performances are a touch too earnest to really excite. I feel kinda narky being so picky – when it comes down to it, Rohmer’s in his ’80s and I’m just grateful that he’s still making films. Oh, and no one in cinema glows quite like Amanda Langlet. Paul Jeffery’s second DV feature, In the Moment, screened to 50 people at MUFF this year and looks set to vanish without a trace. * Comments by Richard Watts The Graffiti Artist (James Bolton, 2004) Writer/director James Bolton’s The Graffiti Artist is a laconic, flawed, but insightful drama about two young men living outside the parameters of mainstream society. Like his first feature, 2001’s Eban and Charley (a non-judgmental study of a relationship between a 29-year old man and a 15-year old boy) The Graffiti Artist is shot on video, with minimal dialogue and a visual style that rests somewhere between meandering and lyrical. The film focuses on the fragile relationship between two teenagers, Nick (Ruben Bansie-Snellman), who sleeps rough on the streets of Portland and steals what he needs to survive, and Jesse (Pepper Fajans), for whom money seems to be no problem. Both are graffiti artists, drawn together by their art and a need for human contact, collaboration and validation. The first 25 minutes of the film are virtually silent, with the camera following Nick as he drifts through the streets, tagging as he goes and planning a major piece of aerosol art whose execution even the police cannot dissuade him from creating. A loner by inclination, eventually Nick discovers the skills and charms, of his fellow “writer” , encountering Jesse first at a skate park in Portland, and then by accident some time later in nearby Seattle. Once our protagonists meet, the stilted performances of the non-actors cast in the lead roles detracts from the sombre mood of the film, but their awkwardness also adds to the air of verisimilitude Bolton has created. Nick and Jesse’s friendship slowly develops into a more urgent attraction, and it is here that the film’s almost wordless storytelling, and the awkward acting of the male leads, combine to best effect. Instead of making just another gay movie, Bolton has convincingly explored the grey area between gay and straight sexualities in his new feature. While its terseness is occasionally laboured, and its script sometimes trite, there is a real heart to this film and an honesty that refreshes the informed viewer. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but The Graffiti Artist is far superior to the crowd-pleasing dross that has passed as contemporary queer film cinema in recent years. Richard Watts is an honorary life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and a member of the Melbourne Film Critics Forum. * * * Posted Friday 23 July Comments by Christos Tsiolkas Chronicle of a Disappearance (Elia Suleiman, 1997) Elia Suleiman’s first feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance, feels very much like a sketch for the more mature and confident Divine Intervention (2002). Divided into three sections – “Personal Diary”, “Political Diary” and a coda called “The Promised Land” – the film uses absurdist black humour to examine the erasion of Palestinian identity in Israel. In Divine Intervention, seemingly random surrealist events build to a panoramic overview of war and occupation. The dazzling and daring play with politics and film language results in a powerfully cathartic jolt for the audience. Chronicles of a Disappearance doesn’t sustain that juggling act of intellect, commitment and humour as successfully. Suleiman’s own performance as the Buster Keatonesque Fool begins to bore, and the middle section of the film, “the political diary”, goes particularly astray. The director’s approach to the politics of Palestinian identity and nationhood seems tentative and confused. Who can blame him for that, but the linkage of terrorism with artistic production is clumsily handled and there are scenes that verge on the pretentious. But Chronicle of a Disappearance confirms for me that Divine Intervention is no fluke. Suleiman is a film artist and the evidence is powerfully clear in his first feature. There’s also something else that is exhilarating about watching Chronicle of a Disappearance. It has to do with an artist giving voice to an experience of intellectual and cultural displacement that the majority of us attending the Melbourne International Film Festival have never experienced, and which we have only glimpsed through the soiled lens of racism and media propaganda. Poetry and music has been crucial to Palestinian resistance (as this film acknowledges beautifully). Suleiman is a filmmaker poet. 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2004) I’ve never been a film student but I have been a student and I would have killed for a lecturer like Abbas Kiarostami. Using his film Ten as a guide, Kiarostami films himself driving through the outskirts of Tehran, guiding us through his philosophy and approach to cinema. His is an impassioned plea for a committed auteurist cinema that can counter the technological and corporate excesses of Hollywood. His approach is existential and realist and there are arguments, of course, to be had with many of his positions and assertions. What matters is that he makes you want to pick up a camera or a brush or a pen or a tool and begin to work. Now that is great teaching. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003) In a crumbling movie theatre, a scattered few patron watch a screening of King Hu’s 1966 historical film, Dragon Inn. The usher is in love with the apparently absent projectionist; a Japanese tourist realises that the cinema is a homosexual beat. Nothing very much happens in Goodbye, Dragon Inn but Tsai Ming-liang’s work is all about finding meaning within time and space. He makes you listen to silence. The film is gorgeously beautiful. But it is also genuinely ludicrous, as if Tsai has retreated into a zone where all he cares about is his formalist experimentation. The humans in Goodbye, Dragon Inn fail to matter. There are two wonderful exceptions: the usher offering the food she has prepared to the oblivious projectionist, and the final exchange between the two old actors. This is obviously a work by a master filmmaker and I’m very glad I saw it on the big screen. But giggling at it is not inappropriate. Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Devil’s Playground (Currency Press, 2002), and the novels Loaded (filmed as Head On) and The Jesus Man. He has also collaborated with Sasha Soldatow on Jump Cuts: An Autobiography, and has worked as a writer in theatre and film. His passions are movies, books, politics and Wayne van der Stelt. * * * Posted Thursday 22 July Comments by Jake Wilson Topsy-Turvy: The Forgotten Genius Of Charley Bowers Despite the limitations of DVD projection, this program was an eye-opening introduction to the extraordinary work of a unique American slapstick surrealist, whose self-produced shorts (some just recently rediscovered) look back to Méliès, forward to Peewee’s Playhouse. MIFF’s selection included four films from Bowers’ relatively brief period as a live-action comedy star: Egged On (Charles L. Bowers, Harold L. Muller & Ted Sears, 1926), He Done His Best (Charles L. Bowers & Harold L. Muller, 1926), Nothing Doing (Charles L. Bowers & Harold L. Muller, 1927) and There It Is (Charles L. Bowers & Harold L. Muller, 1928). Also in the mix was Wild Oysters (Charles L. Bowers, 1940), a later stop-motion animated short made for the Fleischer Brothers. In fact Bowers spent the majority of his career as an animator, and stop-motion sequences were incorporated into all the films shown – along with other technical tricks giving the impression of a truly animated universe, any part of which might spring to life or change nature and form at any moment. Temperamentally, Bowers is a cartoonist, a fantasist and, above all, a bricoleur. Typically he plays a wet-behind-the-ears hero with a gift for Rube Goldberg contraptions: in Egged On, he uses ordinary objects, ranging from a birdcage to a wagon wheel, to build a machine for producing unbreakable eggs (shades of Mr Accident [Yahoo Serious, 1998]!). Bowers shares his mechanical bent with Buster Keaton, and his films include problem-solving gags which Keaton might have been proud of – for example, in There It Is, when he escapes from paying a taxi fare by distracting the driver with the faked sound of a blow-out. But often he takes lateral thinking so far he winds up at a destination all his own: in Nothing Doing, unable to meet the height requirement for the police force, he resolves the situation by shaving a dog and using the hair to construct a beehive wig (the medical examiner duly passes him, after spraying him with flea powder). Maybe Buster could have had the same idea, but I can’t picture it. A childlike figure prone to jumping for joy or weeping bitter tears when thwarted, Bowers is an engaging but not especially distinctive screen presence. Again in contrast to Keaton, he’s also the least Bazinian of film comics. However improbably, Keaton’s trademark stunts are performed before our eyes, adhering to the familiar physical laws of cause and effect. But rather than the improbable, Bowers’ metier is the impossible: his most memorable gags have nothing to do with performance, but involve sudden apparitions or instant metamorphoses from one state to another, determined by purely conceptual associations. Sometimes these are straightforwardly verbal: in one hallucinatory tableau, “Scotland Yard” is visualised as a small patch of ground in the middle of nowhere, with a wire fence enclosing a gaggle of kilted men who peck the ground like chickens. Other gags depend on a fancifully extrapolated notion of causality: after Bowers places a clutch of eggs under the bonnet of a Model-T Ford, he’s disconcerted when they start to hatch, still more so when dozens of baby Fords start rolling out. During the MIFF screening, these leaps of logic somehow put me in mind of another quasi-surrealist comic filmmaker who’s also a bricoleur par excellence – Australia’s own Chris Windmill, profiled at this month’s Melbourne Underground Film Festival. Like any genre but more transparently, comedy relies on formula and routine. But that’s not to excuse the predictability of most of what passes for humour in cinema; it takes mad tinkerers like Bowers or Windmill to show that sticking to a self-devised system of rules, and following out their consequences to the limit, can be the purest form of artistic freedom. Jake Wilson is a Melbourne writer, and co-editor of Senses of Cinema.