Unlike 52 years ago, when the Melbourne International Film Festival first began, the moving image today has become so decentralised and all pervasive that one really has to question what the role of a film festival should now be. It’s difficult to fully escape the bombardment of the moving image and communication technologies in contemporary industrial society. These images, which can be narrative or non-narrative, fictional or non-fictional, are designed to inform, to seduce, to occasionally question, but mostly to sell and to indoctrinate. They set the standard for moving image consumption, and the standard has become lightening-paced, colourful, superficial and just a little wacky. We can see this at the megaplex, the arthouse cinema, on television, even on the mega-screens present on any metropolis corner near you. If we have an interest in cinema, this is easily accessible too – we can buy, see and learn almost anything we want by way of the Internet. Not to mention a new film festival of one sort or another every other week. It is no wonder many film festivals (and MIFF is not alone) are having identity crises.
MIFF has established itself as the pre-eminent film festival – no, make that film event – in Australia. It proudly purports to be one of the largest in the southern hemisphere and, with over 400 films this year, this is no exaggeration. Impressive, sure, but where to from here? Every year the program appears to be bigger and longer in duration and surely this must plateau in the near future. However if the Festival continues in this way, won’t its programming methodology become merely a matter of filling in the template every year (if it is not already)?
Having said this, I am more than aware of the festival-goers right to pick and choose what he or she sees and so rather than going on about the negative points (which have been well covered here), I’d like to devote pixel space to some works that did excite me at this year’s MIFF, which bore the theme “world citizen”.
One of the few films that seemed to be unanimously liked by all who saw it, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s third feature Uzak (2003) is a deceptively simple exploration of the effect that proximity between two men has on each of them. Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) lives a cosmopolitan, comfortable life as a photographer in urban Istanbul. An old friend from his hometown, Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak, who sadly died shortly after filming), comes to town, on the premise that he can stay with Mahmut until he finds work. Through ongoing instances of subtle mutual aggravation, simple things – like Yusuf leaving his smelly shoes in Mahmut’s beloved den – reveal much about the two characters and about human nature in general. Far from being misanthropic (in fact one of the most un-misanthropic films to have screened at the Festival), Uzak presents the familiar situation of the house guest (usually an old friend) who outstays his/her welcome. Such a situation, though it should be simple, imbues the subject-protagonist with mixed feelings – of enervation and frustration but also of sadness and guilt over a dying friendship with a (perhaps) once-close mate.
Ceylan allows central personal feelings and issues to permeate through this simple premise. We see that Mahmut is not the happy man his arty, comfortable middle-class existence would suggest. He is silently agonising over his ex-wife and her imminent permanent departure from his life. He must care for a sick mother in his old village. He is silently questioning the value of art, most directly, in a lively conversation with his intellectual peers but also in a hilarious sequence where he watches a Tarkovsky video as his uncultured country cousin watches it over his shoulder, asking annoying questions. When Mahmut is finally left alone, he switches the channel over to the local porn site (and then quickly switches back to Tarkovsky when Yusuf walks back in). All of these feelings and messages are transmitted nonverbally, not an easy thing to do. It is difficult to miss the autobiographical tone of the film – Ceylan himself is also a photographer living in Istanbul. The film has been compared to Bergman (the meditative nature of a middle aged intellectual/artist) and Antonioni (the languid long takes, “empty” shots and l’ennui of the middle class) but Ceylan clearly has a visual, almost painterly style all of his own. Yusuf in the end must leave and one wonders where can he go? The film contrasts (or does it compare?) the coldness of the environment (natural, urban) to the plight of the human condition.
Though speckled with moments of humour and frustration, Uzak is full of ponderous, rhetorical questions regarding the value of art in a middle class existence. This is an autumnal film, both visually (with its warm/cold browns and greys) and thematically.
Jafar Panahi’s highly anticipated Crimson Gold (2003) could be called a “tragedy” but apart from tragic events presented in the first scene the tone throughout is anything but. The film’s denouement – the pizza deliverer protagonist Hussein’s attempted robbery of a jewellery store and his subsequent shooting of the manager and then himself – would suggest a tear-jerker, innocent-citizen-done-wrong-by-society type plot trajectory. However throughout the film one never knows what is around the corner. After a rather woody first 15 minutes (consisting, after the robbery, of a loop back to “where the trouble began”), one’s attention is piqued as Panahi’s once again idiosyncratic formal considerations come to the fore. Crimson Gold is rather stiff in parts; I’m not sure if it was due to the acting (a very different style to that in Panahi’s previous, The Circle) or the script, but it only added to the mystery of the impetus behind the central incident. Much of the film’s last two thirds consists of two very long scenes. The first occurs outside an apartment block where an all night party is being held. Downstairs, the local city police are waiting and nabbing these free and easy types emerging from the apartment. Anyone else approaching the building (including Hussein, innocently delivering pizzas) is also apprehended. The scene resembles a heist and the effect is certainly one of unease, as one doesn’t know to what end this situation will come. The other scene involves Hussein’s adventures in an expensive townhouse. Both scenes are humanist and slightly playful and send the viewer on a search for links between them and what is to come. Crimson Gold also features some of the most relatively explicit portrayals of women as objects of (sexual and financial) attraction to men yet seen in Iranian cinema.
Oui Non (Jon Jost, 2002) featured one of the best uses of digital video I encountered at the Festival. It would not be the same work if it were shot on film. A ruminating poem on that most over-examined of subjects – young love – Oui Non used split screen, simultaneous dialogue, layered imagery and offscreen interviewing to follow the blundering first stages of two young people meeting and traversing from cafe-casual conversation into something more. The actual love affair is not really shown but the awkwardness in the lead-up is marvellously depicted through inner monologue, embarrassed smiles and gesture. The film annoyed many and I can see why – its main characters (who are of course artists) constantly philosophise about themselves in Parisian cafes whilst a voice from above cogitates over them and abstract associative imagery weaves in and out of this set up. However this die-hard romantic completely fell for it. Jost is a very serious artist. There is no tongue in cheek cleverness or winking at the camera. Just a generous amount of melancholy, unknowing beauty, coffee-scented poetry and artistic commitment brought to an everyday situation.
François Ozon has the rare gift of offering deep insight into the human condition whilst keeping his protagonists coolly distant psychologically. His latest balancing act tells the story of Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a starchy British mystery writer sent by her publisher to his holiday house in the French provinces in order for her to concentrate on writing her new bestseller. Unsuspectingly, the publisher’s precocious, sexually carefree French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) gatecrashes the soirée for one and both women animate deep-seated insecurities and diabolical motivations in the other. Two thirds of the way through Swimming Pool (2003) a pivotal incident transports this contained psychological study into something different altogether and my reaction here was conflicting: (i) disappointment at having the film thrown into a (possibly implausible) direction I did not want it to go; and (ii) beguiled intrigue. Though the story does not even become particularly suspenseful at this point, a more transformative element creeps in and it is in the viewer’s best interest to relax and trust in the director. After seeing so many films which put everything up there for the audience to passively consume (much less see), I welcomed this opportunity to engage with the playful medium. Ozon is a very skilled “classical” director, a wonderful director of women, and Swimming Pool is a great comeback after the rather dull Under the Sand (2001) and the kitsch 8 Women (2002).
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002) was certainly one of the most sensuous celluloid experiences of the Festival. It really sets up a situation rather than telling a story but what this two-hour film offers is a private glimpse into the world of Roong and her Burmese lover Min. The first scene presents Min’s future in Thailand as somewhat precarious, as he feigns muteness in a medical check up in order not to be detected as an illegal immigrant and sent back to his homeland. There is also an older lady, Orn, present in this relationship, but we are not sure if she is a neighbour, a co-worker or simply a friend. Roong takes a day off work to have an afternoon picnic with Min in the sumptuous jungle region that borders Thailand and Burma. The structure of the film is somewhat unusual. After 45 minutes, well after the story has begun, the credits burst onto the screen (complemented by a jaunty Thai-bossa nova pop theme song). Most unheard of, practically nothing happens in the last third of the film, save for the two lovers dozing. Between these two points however little insights are peppered into the story to round out the scenario, including the re-emergence of Orn.
The sound is particularly affective – the trickle of the water, the sound of the birds, the buzzing flies – coupled with the mottled landscape with the sun poking through the tall trees. The wider context of the relationship too emerges insidiously and is rendered through a child’s drawing onto the mise en scène. The context was not an overly happy one but what seems to count most is just the two characters lying there next to each other. In opposition to most films (which start with a story) Blissfully Yours employs the mood as the foundation and then sprinkles the story on top of that (and I do mean sprinkled – if you get too lulled into the slumberous tone you could miss important elements of the story in an instant). It all amounted to an unforgettable experience and a real Festival stand out.
La Vie nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux, 2002) also explored new ways to use sound in cinema. It is a discordant, cacophonous, visually noisy and jarring experience that suggested some sort of apocalypse (past, present or future, it could not be determined). The lack of dialogue was a refreshing change (it would have been even better if the American character did not speak at all) and there was no real story to speak of but a series of “situations”, mostly unpleasant but not uncommon I’m sure. La Vie nouvelle was an ordeal akin to a wild, drug-addled night out: intensely vulnerable and brutal, filled with romantic hope and despair, waiting for and dreading the daylight, which will not bring back sunny day life but expose all the naked ugliness of your existence. If Grandrieux’s last film was Sombre (1998) and this one is introducing “the new life”, what does he next have in store for us?
Much more life affirming (in fact opposite to La Vie nouvelle in every respect) was Doing Time (Sai Yoichi, 2002). The plot does not sound particularly attractive – the film merely follows a group of inmates and their daily lives in prison. But what a lovely existence! Doing Time benefits from a strong script (and was apparently based on the real life prison experience of the director) and speaks to the importance of living life for the moment. The cellmates do not ever consider that they will be confined within the same four walls for a long period of time. In fact the most joyous days of main character Hanawa Kazuichi (loosely based on the director himself) are in solitary confinement. The cellmates take pride in perfectly folding their bedsheets, preparing meals, cleaning their room and working out. An exercise in minimalism, with the characters’ pride, humour, humanism and cheery outlook to guide and comfort them, the film radiated a zen-like quality and truly reminded me of the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu in the cellmates’ cheery storytelling around a low table and of course in their acceptance of “the way things are”.
The Frissons: Uncompromising French Cinema section of the program was dedicated to “the far reaches of the chaos of sexuality, fantasy, neo-libertines and other hidden fringes in contemporary French cinema”. Although I’m still not sure exactly what this section’s subtitle “sexe is cinema” refers to, I eagerly approached most of the films contained within it. I do however feel it is problematic to categorise (and compartmentalise) films as somewhat sexually aberrant, morally provocative or of containing controversial subject matter. Surely it is the role of contemporary cinema to present the myriad of experiences and values without labelling?
From this section, the film I perhaps most looked forward to was Olivier Assayas’ demonlover (2002) as I think Assayas is one of the most intelligent, relevant, stylish and hopeful directors of contemporary cinema. demonlover was a lot of fun and, though not Assayas’ best film, supported the computer-game structured (and populated) story with a chic, savvy visual style. I very much look forward to his next work, Clean (2004), starring Maggie Cheung, and would be eager to see him move back away from genre (which seems to have preoccupied him these last few years). Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002) was a welcome light relief and offered a brave and somewhat self-satirising portal into Breillat’s working methods and attitudes to actors. One cannot see this film and then accuse the filmmaker of being a man-hater. The performances by Grégoire Colin and (particularly) Anne Parillaud as the director’s alter ego were warm, funny and simply wonderful to behold on a rainy Friday night.
In My Skin (2002) is the first feature by regular Ozon collaborator Marina de Van who also stars as Esther, a young woman who begins a seemingly unending fascination with her skin and what she can do to it. An interesting premise but one that was not easily assimilated into any sort of cohesive storyline, as hard as it tried. The scene in which Esther’s arm becomes detached from her at a business dinner is pure farce and confounds the tone of the film. Still, de Van has a striking visual style, and I await her future efforts with interest. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) is a slow burner and a stylish mood piece. Denis is a cinematic director of the highest order; here she is able to fashion something urbane, ambiguous and terrifying out of not much at all. Disappointingly, the Festival was unable to secure a print of Denis’ more recent Friday Night (2002) but hopefully this will appear in next year’s program or on SBS Television. Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002) has to be one of the worst excuses for cinema I have ever seen, and, sadly, wholly symptomatic of what could be said to be a “festival film” in this day and age. In it, two corporate ladder-climbing women use their sexuality to lure men, only to humiliate them once under their female spell. With acting reminiscent of daytime American soap opera, Secret Things offends both the male and female condition through its barely disguised misanthropy and tasteless titillation.
Other international films I really enjoyed include Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsey, 2002), which leaves a lasting impression but requires repeated viewings (it has since had a theatrical local release). It tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Morton in the title role) fleeing England suddenly with her best friend, after finding her boyfriend mysterious suicided in her flat. Morvern is simultaneously a mundane and fascinating character; she takes her dead boyfriend’s just finished manuscript and replaces his name with hers. Morvern, morally ambiguous and rather selfish, triumphs in the end – or does she? The cinematography is fresh, modern and young, and the film radiates with warm grainy colours. The soundtrack, featuring Can, Stereolab and Broadcast, among others, adds significantly to the mood.
I admired what All the Real Girls (David Gordon Greene, 2002) was trying to do, that being to tackle the sticky subject of adolescent love in a “realistic” way but the dialogue came across too cheesy and embarrassing and this hindered my engagement with the film. However, the truth is this sort of dialogue – for example, “I hope in a million years from now I can still see you up close and still have amazing things to say” – is spoken by teenagers the world over everyday, and it makes more than perfect sense if you are the one saying it, but to hear it as a third party is plain grimace-inducing. Still, the film is one of the better independent young American productions and evokes a lovely, warm, small town atmosphere, with its brown hues and country and western-inflected score. Rage (Karim Dridi, 2002) and Durval Records (Anna Muylaert, 2002), from France and Brazil respectively, were disappointments. The former was predictable and formulaic from the start and the latter began as a classic old-style comedy about a man and his mother who unknowingly kidnap a young girl but suddenly goes very silly in the second half. This one also featured a fantastic soundtrack of 1970s Tropicalia and MPB artists and a cameo by Rita Lee (of Os Mutantes!).
Regional Focus always presents invigorating cinema of the Asia-Pacific region and this year was no exception. Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002), in which three stories of unconditional devotion are offered in an unsentimental but magical way, was incredibly (and unforeseeably) moving. Kitano is masterful in using nonverbal means to convey a particular feeling, thought or message but this is one of his most beautiful films yet. Also from Japan, Bokunchi – My House (Junji Sakamoto, 2002) was a modest, happy film about community and family. Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003) was one of the most riotous films at the Festival. I am fascinated by Miike’s ability to be so prolific (four films this year alone) yet inject each film with a myriad of crazy, hilarious, disturbing, inventive ingredients. He also excels at making the most of inconsequential material as in the scene when Minami (Hideki Sone) visits an American lady who speaks to him in Japanese as her eyes are fixed on a spot above her. As Minami moves over to stand next to her to see what she is looking at, he learns she is in fact reading all of her words of advice (even the answers to his questions) from dialogue cards! As in this scene, the humour at times approaches that of the Flying High or Naked Gun school of absurdist comedy of the 1980s. A welcome return – and the Japanese do it so much better.
Turning Gate (2002) is another flawless effort from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. His is a most idiosyncratic style and already has imitators. Perhaps imitator is a tad harsh but Jealousy is My Middle Name (Park Chan-ok, 2002) was very evocative of Hong’s style (long takes, idling conversations, pregnant silences) and storylines. Much like Hong, Park does not offer a clear-cut delineation between the good guys and bad guys in this story of adultery and jealousy but instead lets the camera stand back to capture the course of events as they unfold. Other highlights from this country were the unforgettable Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002) and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002), an unrelentlessly violent film about revenge begetting revenge and in which nearly every main character meets a horrific end.
Taiwan was represented by two charming films – Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chee-yen, 2002) and The Best of Times (Chang Tso-chi, 2002). Both deal with young teenagers learning about love and life, whether through high school crushes, or small town gang games. Both had simple premises, both were wonderfully executed. However, they were also both disappointingly under-attended. China is one country that is producing underground, politically subversive cinema fast and furiously but unfortunately you would not have thought so if your opinion of Chinese cinema rested upon your MIFF experience. Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003) was the best Chinese film at the Festival. Not only was it an intelligent political statement about the working conditions of miners, it was also an engaging story with an unexpected twist at the end. Zhang Yang’s (Spicy Love Soup, Shower) latest film Quitting (2001) was a letdown. For a self-described “subversive” subject (the travails of a drug-addicted actor), it was very safe and the main character was neither likeable, sympathetic nor interesting.
I have admittedly focused on international features. It is impossible to discuss all of the films screened at the Festival and I did see some fantastic documentaries – Afghan Alphabet (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2002), From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002), A Constructive Madness (Tom Ball, Brian Neff and Jeffrey Kipnis, 2003) and My Architect (Nathanial Kahn, 2002) among them. The Guy Maddin shorts and his feature dance-piece Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) were visually beautiful. The François Ozon shorts were mostly a lot of fun. The experimental shorts program was very disappointing and confirms my suspicion that anything can be considered experimental by some if it cannot be categorised any other way. Many Argentinean films – A Lucky Day (Sandra Gugliotta, 2001), Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven (Daniel Burman, 2002), Balnearios (Mariano Llinás, 2002), Suddenly (Diego Lerman, 2002) – were screened this year to great reception and this national cinema could itself constitute a striking spotlight program in future years. I did not see many Australian films as most were getting a theatrical release in the ensuing weeks.
One of the highly anticipated elements of MIFF is the special spotlight. Many of us had our fingers and toes crossed that this year’s Festival would celebrate the centenary of a certain Japanese director of unequalled style. This was not to be but we were not disappointed with the announcement that Abbas Kiarostami, the most loved of Iranian directors, was to be the Festival’s special guest. It was exciting to have the director present to introduce his films and partake in a fertile Q and A session. The films screened – a collection of six of his shorts from the 1970s and early 1980s, Homework (1989), Close Up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), ABC Africa (2001) and Ten (2002) – were all good examples of what makes Kiarostami’s cinema so important (his documentary and educational influences, his humanism and love for people young and old, his unique formal style and implicating of off-screen space and sound). But MIFF should have seized this opportunity to present a more comprehensive selection of Kiarostami’s work – Report (1977), Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), And Life Goes on… (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994) were all conspicuously absent – so as to offer a more thorough and complete tribute to the man’s art.
Many of the European films screened – La Vie nouvelle, Trouble Every Day, Time of the Wolf, demonlover, even perhaps Morvern Callar – shared a similar sombre mood, and so pervasive was this mood one could almost call it an overarching thematic. This theme involved the suggestion of some impending catastrophe, whether at the individual or societal level. In most cases the catastrophe never manifested and was not the focal point in itself. Instead the films blurred the boundaries between content and form to express some vague feeling of fear and dread. Of course, this crop of films (save perhaps Trouble Every Day) would have been the first lot in MIFF’s history to have emerged from the post September 2001 world and as such express the ambiguity and fear felt in the people of the contemporary western world. Tellingly, however, they do not explicitly speak of what the object of that fear is. Is this the plight of today’s “world citizen”?
The best example of this (and one of the best films of the entire Festival) was Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003). A grey, foggy film featuring some sharply unpleasant occurrences such as the real killing of a horse and a traumatising suicide of a young girl, Time of the Wolf was rather dreamlike but in a gritty, desolate way (like the nightmares you cannot escape) rather than like the otherworldly, beautiful dreamscapes of David Lynch. The film appears to be leading nowhere except inwards, and necessarily so. I was reminded of the Baudrillard quotation, “What is there left to do if not to bring things back to their enigmatic zero point?”
Overall, I would like to have seen more of a curatorial imperative present at MIFF 2003. Not only did the Festival feel a little too fragmentary, there was a lack of truly formally innovative work, in any format. Strangely enough given the rise of digital work, there was very little program space devoted to experimental digital currents developing in the US, Austria, Latin America and the UK. Surely MIFF has come so far and is now at the point where it can be more daring and still get a crowd. It has now built up such a dedicated audience who are evidentially hungry for audacious cinema (the packed houses at Time of the Wolf and From the Other Side are testimony to this fact) and so it can afford to do more with less (rather than the current practice of doing less with more). In fact it is the Festival’s role and responsibility to champion this cause. Still, I am certain there are other factors (advertisers, distributors, funding bodies, sponsors) that indirectly influence what is programmed so I should not presume that my thoughts above have not been considered by the MIFF programming team. Pragmatically, MIFF should really also cut down its program’s duration and quantity of films screened. Even the most ardent festival patron suffers MIFF-tigue after 12 days and sadly this makes it easier to forgo seeing much of the latter half of the Festival.
MIFF seems to be trying to be all things to all people and if this is its aim then it is successful. It is in this way very symptomatic of Melbourne “screen culture” 2003 – populist, escapist, fun and lacking a voice. However if it truly wants to stand out and be an international film festival of the highest order (and it has a duty to do this, given it is perhaps the only opportunity Melbournians can experience such a broad variety of exemplary contemporary cinema), it needs to trim the fat and truly think about curating a program and subsections with meaning rather than merely filling in the template.