Daily Reports from the 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival Various July 2003 Festival Reports Issue 27 Posted Saturday 16 August (Festival Wrap-Up) Posted Thursday 7 August (A Cold Summer, Resurrection of the Little Match Girl) Posted Sunday 3 August (Blind Shaft) Posted Saturday 2 August (Osama) Posted Friday 1 August (Blissfully yours, Ghost Paintings, Cabin Fever) Posted Tuesday 29 July (Morvern Callar, Love Liza, Taste of Cherry) Posted Monday 28 July (All the Real Girls, House of 1000 Corpses, Ten, demonlover) Posted Sunday 27 July (Springtime in a Small Town, Dolls) Posted Friday 25 July (Oasis, Japanese Story, Crimson Gold) * * * Posted Thursday 7 August Comments by Christine Croyden A Cold Summer (Paul Middleditch, 2002) In Paul Middleditch’s introduction to his film Cold Summer, he said that the three actors had been prepared to do things that he could never have anticipated to make the film work. That said if you had any reservations about the rough ride the film promises to take you on, ample warning to leave the cinema is given during the first shot. An angry young woman marauds the underside of a freeway in Sydney, screeching expletives as she plunders forward looking for her stolen bag and mobile phone. While she is foraging through rubbish bins a drunken young man joins her and within five minutes they have found an iron stairwell where they engage in fast, brutal sex. After the act, senseless and stunned but quickly back on deck to perpetuate the damage in their lives. After a chance meeting at a bus stop an introverted young woman enters the story and the ensemble is complete. Actor, Susan Prior, within her first moments on screen reveals a disturbed and fragile individual in a truly memorable characterisation. And, although the idea of sex and drugs to numb emotional pain is familiar territory, the film’s exploration of the theme is a fresh one. The struggle for connection between the three characters is continually thwarted by their self-destructive habits until Tia and Phaedra – their beautiful names echo their true spirits – start to communicate. This happens following an exchange of lies and descriptions of sex acts that Tia has recently performed (or, ones she would like to have a go at), that shock and hurt her friend. The bleak rawness of naked bodies slapping together in futile attempts to connect or drinking in pursuit of nothingness is juxtaposed with lonely personal rituals but balanced by unexpected humour. And the feel of a moist, green Sydney that never warms up and improves only as autumn approaches is beautifully captured. Cold Summer is testament to the enduring power of strong, character driven local stories that depict a slice of reality. * Comments by Daniel Yencken Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Jan Sun-woo, 2002) Here’s another tag which would have been great for this year’s hypey Festival program – “Ultraviolent Korean Harry Potter”; I draw the (maybe far-fetched) Potter parallel because The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl really does seem to aim for a teenage male audience, centring on a seemingly ordinary teenage boy, Joo, who manages to overcome his ordinariness, kick some ass and win over the film’s central, female (non)character, the Little Match Girl. The film has an unusual plot: Joo has to win a computer game whose main objective is not to save the Little Match Girl, but to let her die from hunger and cold, and then make her fall in love with him as she lies dying in a butane-induced drug haze. The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl boasts some interesting, sometimes silly, action sequences, including the customary Matrix bullet dodging. The film seemed to surpass the indiscriminate violence threshold of many audience members, laughter dying as the film wore on. One of the most enjoyable moments of the film, however, was precisely when the Little Match Girl resurrected to take revenge on the world around her, indiscriminately. And while The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl could have been a relatively easy way to pass two hours of Festival time, the spurious attitudes towards poverty, homelessness, and most of all women, suggested by the film’s plot were more than a bit of a turn-off. * Posted Sunday 3 August Comments by Albert Fung Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2002) Blind Shaft follows the troubling exploits of two men who cash-in on worker compensation payouts from working in coal mines. Li’s film contains the standard dramatic devices of villainous characters, a contrived “happy” ending, all filmed in verité-style – but I’ll leave the stylistic and textual analyses to the educated ones and offer comments based on my immediate feelings. What struck me about the film is its reference to the current social-economic situation in China. For decades now, China has been facing a crisis where a large population is living in poverty. Blind Shaft presents the appalling situation of China’s poor and the sheer desperation of its unemployed. I found some moments in the film a heart-rending experience as they hit too close to home for me. The young Feng Ming who places his trust with the two con-men in an environment where naivety has no place is especially heart-breaking to watch. Verité or not, those not able to feed themselves and their families remains a sad reality. Another accessible film, which uses conventional narrative techniques to effectively present the terrible reality facing China’s village population is Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less (1999). * Posted Saturday 2 August Comments by Fiona A. Villella Osama (Siddiq Barmak, 2003) Every sound and image of this film haunted me to the bone. It presents a world so radically far removed from our own ‘Western’ one and so turned inwards that I could hardly imagine parallel worlds – of different ideologies and laws – existing simultaneously. Similar to The Circle, Osama reveals a day in the life of women living, this time, in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The main character is a girl who lives with her mother and grandmother. Her father was a martyr and there are no other men left to fend for her and her family – a state of affairs that spells close to death for these women. Under the Taliban, widows cannot work nor can women walk the streets unaccompanied by a male escort. In order to survive, the mother and grandmother concoct a plan – disguise the girl as a boy, thereby enabling her to obtain work and support the family. And so begins one tremendously harrowing journey for this little girl whose identity is eventually disclosed. Along the way, we’re given insight into how the sexes are treated so radically different under the Taliban. We are shown how boys are taught, from an early age, to clean themselves religiously in order to remain pure especially after “wet dreams” or possible sexual encounters with women. From the first frame, Osama plunges us into a world that we cannot escape, a world of upmost oppression of women, one ruled by force, and permeated with threat and intimidation. Fear, dread and despair haunts every camera movement, every sound, every tableau in this film. And at the centre is the young girl, given the name Osama, through whom we experience this world. Her face and body – constantly twisted in fear – and her voice – that shrieks with horror: she represents hope and innocence plunged into perennial darkness. Just one example, after being wedded to an old man, she is given the opportunity to choose her own door padlock . Siddiq Barmak’s film is poetry and politics intertwined. * Posted Friday 1 August Comments by Fiona A. Villella Blissfully yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002) Nothing short of an experimental feature film, Blissfully yours invests all in the surface of things. The film centres on three main characters: Roong, (a young Thai woman), Min (a young Burmese illegal immigrant living in Thai) and Orn (an older Thai woman). Roong has taken Min under her wing, by teaching him Thai and paying Orn to take care of him whilst she’s at work. At the film’s beginning, Min is at the doctor’s, with Roong and Orn, being treated for some kind of skin ailment (a scene that’s very reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang’s cinema). We then follow the characters through various circumstances: Orn decides to make her own cream to treat Min; Min takes Roong to a quiet recluse in the jungle in order to relax after a long, hard day at work; and Orn also winds up at the same recluse but for the intention of having sex with her husband’s co-worker. The film maintains a carefully distanced observational regard toward its characters. There is no overt dramatic structure through which we can grasp their feelings, desires, motivations, and so on. And yet the temperament that exists between each character is so incredibly emphatic … built up merely through quiet dialogue, and specific well-defined gestures. We learn of the strong sexual tension between Roong and Min, of the antagonism between Roong and Orn, and of the desire object that Min is for both of them. Coincidentally, their entanglements become clear in the setting of a jungle. For the most part, story details flash by in spurts, for example, via voice-over, or sudden actions. Generally, however, the film’s pace is extraordinarily languid and, for the most part, we are left with the image. In one scene, there is a close-up of Roong lying alongside Min, murmuring his name, whilst he sleeps. The sense of emotion, of sheer wanting, cutting through the static scene is almost palpable. This sense of ‘reading’ the image extends to the strange drawings that appear intermittently on the screen. The very directness with which Weerasethakul tackles life and the everyday is astonishing. So far, a Festival highlight. * Comments by Aaron Goldberg Ghost Paintings (James Clayden, 1986 – 2003) When the Freud/Marx axis of cinematic meaning gets too much (i.e. boring), it’s always great to kick back and absorb some experimental cinema to keep the inspiration fresh. I’d never heard of local filmmaker James Clayden before, which is a good thing, as I had no pre-conceived idea of what his stuff was about. Basically Ghost Paintings is a series of experimental films that are more concerned with the textures of colour and light – starting with super8 and standard video, and moving to digital in the later series. Where the dominant paradigm in so many artsy-fartsy films is this concern with the ‘other’, Clayden’s work is more concerned with the ‘other side’ i.e. what happens to us after consciousness. Human shapes are blurred and defocused so they shimmer and blob like the aliens out of A.I: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001). Voices fade in and out of the musique concrète soundtrack as talking heads recite fragments of sentences. Signs point to lost highways, as a man has electrodes taped to his head, recording everything. Two amorphous humanistic bodies slowly merge as an incredible drone of ecstatic peace holds the moment. Lo-fi supernatural sci-fi to the max! Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002) Horror films, like good rock n’ roll, never goes away. And like rock n’ roll it generally has a good future behind it. Director Eli Roth really knows his stuff when it comes to horror/splatter, and it shows on screen. During his post-film question time, he was quite vocal about disgusting self-referential horror movies that seem to have become the norm in Hollywood. Coming off more like a slick Troma movie than the Evil Dead (Sam Raimi) series, Cabin Fever isn’t self-referential, but it’s definitely a cornucopia of post-modernism, which stops it just short of being a classic. The film takes its time to get going, but once it does the blood and goo start flowing in this splatter-stick romp. Roth reckons that Hollywood doesn’t want to make gutsy and disturbing horror films, so he feels it’s important for the grass roots fans to show their support by seeing the film, talking about it on the Internet, for example. Sure it’s exploitation, but at least Roth delivers some steak with the sizzle. * Posted Tuesday 29 July Comments by Chris Povey Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002), Love Liza (Todd Louiso, 2001), Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1996) In the book High Fidelity, writer Nick Hornby was concerned about the effects of pop music on mental states, however he overlooked a far more significant influence…film. The fact that I saw Morvern Callar, Love Liza and Taste of Cherry within two days suggested (to me at least) the planets were aligned in some cruel conspiracy. You’ve got to admit, three suicide films in two days ain’t a bad effort. Morvern Callar (UK/Canada) opens with Morvern curled up beside the corpse of her boyfriend, beneath the sinister glow of Christmas tree lights. Love Liza (US) gazes at Phillip Seymour Hoffman behind the glaze of a windscreen as he collects flowers – his wife has killed herself. And finally Taste of Cherry (Iran) stays with a man whilst he searches for someone to bury him after he has knocked himself off using pills. Interestingly, while all films approach the suicide event differently, they all steadfastly refuse to consider the motivation behind the suicide (or contemplated suicide). Both Morvern Callar and Love Liza feature physical imprints of the deceased. In Callar, a mixed tape recording, a record collection, a lighter and a completed novel are left behind. These items become symbolic references to the dead by which the use of the lighter to spark a cigarette recalls a person the audience did not know. A walkman delivers the best understanding of the deceased in Morvern Callar: when Morvern walks through the apocalyptic mesh and light stutter of a club, the sound is not of thrashing beats but the musical tastes of her dead partner, begging the audience to consider both what it says about Morvern and her partner. And in Love Liza (it is not insignificant that this title features the name of the dead as opposed to Morvern Callar that features the name of the living) an unmade bed, a car involved in the death act, an elastic with strands of hair and a letter are the means by which Wilson Joel (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) must understand the death of his wife. It is the symbol of the car that is used to devastating effect in Love Liza. Oddly enough Wilson is regularly behind the wheel of the car and begins peering into the petrol tank and eventually sniffing petrol. In order to hide his growing addiction he lies that he is interested in remote control planes (which don’t use petrol). Petrol and cars were the instrument of his wife’s death and Wilson fetishises these objects and director Todd Louiso takes the device a step further with the idea of ‘remote control’. For Wilson, the self-destruction of petrol and his interest in the remote control is not suicidal but rather tuning out and in fact at one stage in the film he arrives at a remote control Mecca with aisle after aisle and row after row of remote control cars, planes and boats. Here Wilson is informed that many of the orders for remote control are sent in from around America and an idea of a nation in grief, joined in remote control is created. The performance by Hoffman is exceptional. Is he the new Jack Nicholson? Watching his stubble, blank eyes, bleak looks and ratty hair makes you think that Love Liza could be a prequel to About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002). Except the narrative and the devices by which Louiso conveys the desperation of Wilson are far less self-conscious, far less quirky and cute than the film of Alexander Payne and accordingly the pain conveyed by Love Liza is far more acute. The main character in Taste of Cherry is filmed almost entirely from the wheel of his car as he searches for likely assistance in his death act. As opposed to Liza and Callar he is a man attempting to leave nothing behind. No note, no mixed tape… not even a body. In the typically minimalist Kiarostami aesthetic the torment of the main character is delivered simply by abundance of dirt. His long drives through mountains of dirt are a meditation on death and he is fixated on being covered by dirt. At one brief stage when he leaves his car he is almost buried by avalanches of dirt that release an extraordinary artillery of explosive sound. In contemplating the relative obscurity of the film’s ending an audience would do well to consider the significance of the changing environment in Taste of Cherry. Although it is an odd coincidence, all three suicide films are a terrific example of the rewards of film festival persistence in the face of long queues, cold and hunger. It is exceptional that all three films expressed no fascination with death but rather conveyed a fascination with and love of life in completely different ways. * Posted Monday 28 July Comments by Aaron Goldberg All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003) Just remember I said this first, but David Gordon Green could be the next wunderkind American film director in the spirit of that other ‘kid’ Paul Thomas Anderson. After watching this film it was mindboggling to learn that Green is only 28 years old! All the Real Girls is a densely layered story about the trials and tribulations of young love, set in small town North Carolina. The film moves at a snail’s pace, but the emotional impact is as heavy as the iron mills that populate the protags’ locality. Loaded with Americana that is iconic rather than trashy, the film effortlessly inhabits the worlds of the John Hughes teen-melodrama and the Altman/Sayles rural drama within the same teary blinks of the protags’ lovelorn eyes. House of 1000 Corpses (Rob Zombie, 2003) If Scream (Wes Craven, 1997) managed to postmodernise and henceforth emasculate horror films with its self-referential ‘golden rule’ schtick, then a golden rule in cinema is that rock stars should never make movies. House of 1000 Corpses tries to be everything and manages to be nothing. A blatant rip-off of Tobe Hooper’s brilliantly sick (and still banned) satire Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) mixed with wanky Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) experimental stylings and sorta camp-trash Gregg Araki (what happened to him?) agitprop aspirations, this film manages to transcend trash and underground and reach a turd, sorry ‘third’ way – I call it ‘waste.’ The most entertaining thing during this session was when one punter yelled out “Crap!” at the end of the film. He was greeted by rousing applause. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003) I’d never seen an Abbas Kiarostami film properly until this one, but I’ve read a hell of a lot about him. I decided to get off the fence and queue up for this blockbuster with all the other highly-educated fans of this bloke. In fact Abbas politely and appreciatively introduced the film in person, and commented on how he felt honoured to show the film in such a beautiful cinema, and was surprised by the huge turn-out. Ten is a seriously humanist and radical film that uses naturalistic drama to discuss the oppression of women in Islamic countries. A ‘chick flick’ that means it, and more feminist than Jane Campion’s entire career, Ten is the kind of film where a hijab has infinitely more significance than any act carried out by a billion balaclava-clad lunatics. demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002) On paper, to me, this film potentially had everything. Some interesting set pieces, kinky manga porn, US alt-cinema queens Chloë Sevigny, Gina Gershon and Connie Nelson speaking French, Neu and Sonic Youth on the soundtrack, allusions to the literature of J.G. Ballard and the cinema of David Cronenberg and Chris Marker – on paper, sure, full marks. On screen, zero. * Posted Sunday 27 July Comments by Albert Fung Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002) After almost a decade of creative silence, Tian Zhuangzhuang returns to filmmaking with Springtime in a Small Town, a somewhat ordinary remake of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948). This is rather disappointing for me as his The Blue Kite (1991) was one of the films that got me interested in China’s Fifth-Generation and Chinese cinema as a whole. Fei Mu’s original is considered to be one of the greatest Chinese films of all time, employing a low camera angle and most notably, a melancholic voice over that permeates the narrative. Although it is unfair to compare Tian’s remake with Fei’s classic, but Springtime relinquishes most of what was interesting about the original and adopts a more conventional style. The acting is mechanical and interaction between the characters feels a bit forced. However, this may be a deliberate attempt to invoke the staged quality of the original (Fei used actors from Shanghai theatre). But what remains is basically a run-of-the-mill love triangle where the audience is left counting the emotional clichés as they predictably unfold. Tian’s regular use of tracking and panning shots does redeem the film however. The long takes and smooth camera movements complement the slow and even pace of the film. It is also refreshing to see a male character emotionally (and physically) suffer from the tribulations of love. Liyan weeping against a tree following the realisation that his wife holds feelings for his old friend is especially poignant. Dolls (Kitano Takeshi, 2002) Kitano describes Dolls as his attempt to make an “art film”. Whatever that means I do not know, but I have always considered his films to be a band apart from popular Japanese cinema. His use of traditional Bunraku doll theatre and the interweaving of three love stories in Dolls are slightly interesting but not innovative. Indicative of Kitano’s films as a whole and of Japanese culture in general, women are treated as fragile and submissive to the whims of men; one female character waits 30 years for her love, preparing lunch every week in anticipation that one day he will return. What’s frustrating is that many Japanese films manage to present at least one female character with an emotional state that hasn’t developed past the age of 12 and Dolls is no exception. The main couple in the film ironically called the “Bound Beggars” look like they’ve just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Nevertheless, the screening of Dolls I attended garnered a strong turn-out obviously riding on the hype and cult status of the “Beat”. * Posted Friday 25 July Comments by Albert Fung Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002) My first film for MIFF and I’ve got to admit that I approached this year’s Festival with slight apprehension. The yearly ritual of watching several films a day for two weeks, power-walking from one venue to another and eating whatever I could put in a plastic bag. For what? Films? Sitting on my ass for what can be described as the most passive activity in our modern world. Not to mention having the privilege of being able to do so. I’ve always thought no matter how much one intellectualises film spectatorship, there’s always an element of pure entertainment and escapism involved, shutting oneself off from the outside world. This is very much like the two characters in Oasis. Both characters receive little or no affection from their families and are marginalised in society. Like someone from a Kim Ki-duk film, Jong-du is uninhibited and indifferent to the people around him. After being released from prison he becomes attracted to Gong-ju, who has cerebral palsy. Following a disturbing first encounter, they develop a close relationship and offer each other the affection and intimacy they have both been yearning for. Despite her disability, Gong-ju’s character is given her own subjectivity and there are moments in the film where her expressions of joy are quite moving. Oasis deals with provocative and quite controversial subject matter and Lee Chang-dong manages to create a film that is affecting without being distasteful. Ostracised and neglected by society, Gong-ju and Jong-du foster a love outside the confines of common morality. Unlike more commercial fare which deals with similar subject matter like Shallow Hal (Farrelly bros., 2001), Oasis uses humour without mockery, producing genuine sympathy for its main characters. A challenging yet touching film whose basic premise is the tragic love story. * Comments by Fiona A. Villella Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) If any film announces the death of the quirky and oddball in Australian cinema, than it would have to be Japanese Story. This three women team – writer, Alison Tilson; director, Sue Brooks; and producer Sue Maslin – set out to make a very low-key, humanist, and sensitive film within an overall realist register. The result works. The storyline in Japanese Story is quite bare and the rhythm of the film paced in a way that very much allows moments of emotional resonance and intensity to expand and vibrate. Whilst there is an element of naivety and simplicity throughout the film – the story and character arcs resemble textbook filmmaking – what holds it all together is Toni Collette’s extraordinary performance as well as the sincerity of the project. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003) Once again, Panahi’s Crimson Gold employs the circle as a narrative structuring device. The film is book ended with the robbery of a jewellery store by the main character, Hussein. This event, which frames the narrative, is a culmination and actualisation of the character’s brooding thoughts and concerns, indirectly and directly expressed throughout the film. Where The Circle waded through a series of characters, Crimson Gold stays with one, Hussein, a pizza delivery guy and petty criminal. The film clearly posits Hussein as working class and we follow him through a series of circumstances – both during work and non-work hours – in which the distinction between different social classes is pronounced. Hussein is particularly self-conscious of this class difference and offended by the owner of a jewellery store who constantly dismisses him whenever he visits. Though he is generally a silent character, Hussein – played by Hossain Emadeddin – emanates dissent, apathy and/or kindness through his particular physical presence. The documentary realist aesthetic that defines contemporary Iranian cinema is alive and well in Crimson Gold. Although at times I felt the film’s ideas were very obvious and any working through of them lost real force, what carried Crimson Gold through and gave it a charged, unnerving quality was Hussein, sort of like the Iranian prototype for a Travis Bickle of contemporary Iranian society.