30 June – 8 July, 2006
Karlovy Vary consists of three worlds that coexist hand in hand, blissfully unaware of one another. One is that of luxurious spas, boutique hotels and luscious shops filled with Bohemia crystal and garnets, all congragating along Teplá River, which cuts through the historical part of the town. The other Karlovy Vary is inhabited by locals and less well-to-do spa tourists. It offers a slice of ordinary life in the Czech Republic, complete with quietly spacious supermarkets, unassuming beer gardens and a few remnants of the by-gone communist era. And, there is Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), nestled in the heart of the spa glitter, a few steps away from Karlovy Vary’s everydayness, and safely cocooned from the two by the kilometres of celluloid dreams projected in nine festival locations and its 14 exhibition rooms.
The Festival centre is in Hotel Thermal, an aesthetically-challenged concrete building on Teplá, dressed for the occasion in pink fluff and populated by Festival veterans, media, a few unsuspecting spa holidaymakers as well as hunters of the Festival bargains, be it newly released film passes or a glimpse of an attending celebrity. As Andrew J. Horton reported from a previous KVIFF, one sizeable group in that lively crowd is students, enthused, interested and not always in tune with the hygenic expectations of their fellow Festival goers. They add a unique hue to the viewing experience and act as a barometer of any film’s passibility. Immediately vocal in their reactions, it is their silence, which may denote disengagement, that disquiets the few buyers who are game enough to make it to public screenings amidst the fervour of Festival meetings and intense nightly socialising. In any case, as Andrew noted before, it is a sheer impossibility to see almost 300 films screened in one week of the Festival, and choosing a selection method is one of the most essential decisions to be made from the outset. Of course, that decision is also utterly useless as a guarantee of a viewing pleasure, and it does not have to coincide with any criteria employed by the esteemed Festival jury.
The Central-Eastern European Staple
The most successful Central-Eastern European film of the Festival was Jan Hřebejk’s Kráska v nesnázích (Beauty in Trouble, 2006). It received a special Festival prize, continuing praise and it audibly pleased the less easily satisfied audience at its press screening. Beauty in Trouble is a showcase in popular Czech cinema. It follows Hřebejk’s earlier successes, stars one of the most prolific and well-liked Czech actresses of the moment, Anna Geislerová, as the lead Marcel, and – as aptly described in the Festival catalogue – it uses “a simple plot reminiscent of a story from a dime novel.” Its black humour peppers the otherwise slightly off-colour tale of Marcel effectively charmed by a rich and handsome Czech émigré who is willing to remedy all her financial problems, yet she is unable to resist the questionable allure of her good-for-nothing husband. Beauty in Trouble entertains with its gags and one-liners, and is likely to be successful in its domestic market, but its popularity outside the Czech Republic may not be that easily achievable.
Another surprise to the writer of this report is the award for the best actor that went to Andrzej Hudziak in Andrzej Barański’s Parę osób, ma ły czas (Several People, Little Time, 2005). This understated film from Poland also stars Krystyna Janda, a great dame of Polish cinema, who astonished her Polish viewers with a quiet study of a poetess, Jadwiga Stańczak, in Several People, Little Time. Janda is known for customarily large bravado delivery in her other films. Andrzej Hudziak’s portrayal of a conflicted poet, Miron Białoszewski, is also superb, yet Janda’s calm and measured performance gives that subdued film the power that possibly carried it to the short list of 15 films in the official competition selection. The story of Stańczak and Białoszewski parallels that of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, with an added level of complexity due to Białoszewski’s homosexuality and Stańzak’s blindness.
The “East of the West” selection of 17 films included Oleg Novković’s Sutra ujutru (Tomorrow Morning, 2006) from Serbia and Montenegro. With circulating claims of it being inspired by Danish Dogma, Tomorrow Morning is a memorable film about Nenad (Ljubomir Bandovic) who returns to Belgrade from Canada for his naptuals and unwillingly confronts his only seemingly resolved past, including an unpredictible ex-girlfriend and a video-tape made by his dead friend, Sima. Excerpts from that video-tape woven into the narrative acted out within a short few days add a haunting quality to the film, which is likely to be especially potent for the viewers who experienced the war in ex-Yugoslavia firsthand. Equally unsettling and also screened in “East of the West” is a triptych from Poland, Oda do radości (Ode to Joy, 2005) by three young film directors, Anna Kazejak-Dawid, Jan Komasa and Maciej Migas, with its three tales of young people’s disillusionment with the post-socialist Poland which propells the lead characters to leave Poland in search of a better life elsewhere.
The Czech Štěsti (Something Like Happiness, 2005) by Bohdan Sláma offers a different view on the life of the less privileged in the post-socialist Czech Republic. Good-hearted Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová from Sláma’s well-received Divoké vcely [The Wild Bees] of 2001) resists the plea to join her newly emmigrant and ambitious boyfriend, and chooses to remain in the Czech Republic to take care of the small children of her friend Dasha (Anna Geislerová), who rapidly descends into a mental illness. Monika’s new partner, unemployed Tonik (Pavel Liška), wrestles with the challenges of his lifestyle to satisfy the responsibility of his new relationship and helping to care for somebody else’s children. Something Like Happiness deserves attention not only for its raw cinematography, but also for emphasising human dignity as a means of resisting the pressures of consumerism, which is one of the unanticipated destructive forces awakened by the new capitalist-democratic order of the post-socialist Central-Eastern Europe. Rather than banning his characters from their home country in search of a better reality, as do the young creators of Ode to Joy, Sláma insists on at least considering the other alternatives.
Another section of the Festival Programme, the Variety Critics Choice “Europe Now!” included Polish Dorota Kędzierzawska’s Jestem (I am, 2005), scored by Michael Nyman. As do other Kędzierzawska’s films, I am focuses on the life of a child, this time a boy, in a desperate search for emotional normality in places where it is difficult to find. Unlike her previous films, I am may almost qualify as a family viewing, especially thank to its crystal-clear cinematography. Also chosen by the Variety critics, Steen Agro’s Sklapnie a zastřel mě! (Shut up and Shoot Me, 2005) most definitely falls in the family viewing category. It is a black comedy about an English tourist who, after his girlfriend is flattened to death, Monty Python style, by a falling monument in Prague, decides he has no reason to live and is intent on dying. Scoring low on DIY proficiency, he requests to be killed by a cab driver who attempts to comply, with grotesque consequences.
Hungarian György Pálfi takes grotesque to the extreme in his Taxidermia (2006), which was one of the hottest tickets of the Festival. With almost each frame bringing a viewing challenge due to its graphic depiction of sexual reveries, gluttonous desires and obsession with death, the film consists of three stories of grandfather, father and son, each living in a different political climate and each indulging in the feverish pleasures of his own. Considered by its critics a breakthrough in the history of Hungarian cinema, Pálfi’s Taxidermia shows a perverse world of social and individual deformity which leaves it in anticipation of many a battle with censors around the world.
Perversion is also a quality that marks a remarkable debut feature by Peruvian Claudia Rosa, yet her Madeinusa (2005) disturbs with the subtelty, rather than graphic-ness, of its story. A study in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnaval, Rosa’s film is set in a remote Peruvian village in Cordillera Blanca where each Easter the concept of sin is suspended for two days. At 3pm on Great Friday the villagers take down crucified Christ to blindfold him so he can bare no witness to what is to follow. The appearance of Salvador (Carlos Juan De La Torre), a young geologist from Lima, introduces an unwelcome interruption to the otherwise predictable pleasures of the two days. He is befriended by Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), a daughter of the village mayor, with the disastrous consequences for the mayor as well as Salvador. Madeinusa was screened in the Forum of Independents section of the Festival and is one of most striking films of KVIFF in 2006. Its lasting effect comes from the juxtaposition of disturbing subject matter, which painfully brushes against the concept of morality, sin and religion, with the gentle manner of storytelling employed by Rosa, and supported by powerful performances of the lead characters.
Brazil was also strongly represented by Andrucha Waddington’s Casa de areia (House of Sand, 2005), Lirio Ferreira’s Árido Movie (2005), and Marcelo Gomes’ Cinema, aspirinas e urubus (Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, 2005). Each film explores a relation to a particular social or individual past and each is set in a different part of the North of Brazil. Aesthetically reminiscent of Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow (2004), House of Sand takes a viewer through the lives of three generations of, this time, women who – by the force of their familial histories – are bound to the deserts of Maranhao. Árido Movie is set in the arid landscape of Rocha Valley, and stylistically it is trapped in the long shadow of influential Glauber Rocha, which mirrors its lead character’s entrapment in the past of his just deceased father. Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures captures a story of a travelling German salesman of aspirin in the inhospitable landscapes of the north-eastern Brazil in 1942, just before the Germans were declared the enemy of Brazil. All three films have in common a distinguishingly strong theme of isolation, in which the landscape plays a powerful role.
Chilean Play (2006) is another well-delivered feature debut by a female director, Alicia Scherson. In her film, provincial Cristina (Viviana Herrera) is taking care of an elderly bed-bound patient in his home in Santiago de Chile. The cleverly structured plot of the film reveals that she, the focal character of the film, is an indispensible auxiliary in bringing order to other people’s lives. If only reality TV shows were able to take a leaf out of the mesmerising voyeurism of films such as this one, where the quirkiness of everyday unassuming ordinariness keeps tantalising the viewer… An even stronger case of the same type of magnetism is presented by Amat Escalante’s Sangre (Blood, 2005) from Mexico. In it, Diego (Cirilo Recio Dávila) is married to possessive Blanca (Laura Saldaña Quintero), both leading a quiet life divided between their non-eventful work, soap operas and daily matter-of-fact acts of sex. Although Blood did not seem to be well received – it was screened in an unventilated and very hot tent, which did not help the slow delivery of the film – it is definitely worth some attention, especially given that it is Escalante’s debut feature. However lightly but nevertheless touched by Latin magical realism, the film’s narrative leads its main character, Diego, on a trip equally bizarre to his supra-ordinary life. While the Festival catalogue describes Blood as “an existential and mercilessly hopeless portrayal of human estrangement”, it has much more to offer. Its acute observation of the couple’s daily life leaves open the window into the complexities of human motivation.
A Taste of Asia
Kim Ki-duk’s much awaited Shi gan (Time, 2006) was warmly received, as was his appearance at its screening, which was also a cause for much amusement for his enthralled audience. At first Kim Ki-duk remained impervious to the screening hostess’ attempts to extract from him answers to her questions, and when all present accepted his persistent silence to the nth question, “what are you prepared to do to show your love to your partner?” he claimed the microphone to sing a song in Korean. In Time the answer to the same question remains even more surprising. The lead, See-hee (Sung Huyn-ha) is petrified by the idea that her admiring boyfriend, Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo), may get tired of seeing her unchanged face day in and day out. To his distress, she decides to disappear from his life. His attempts to date other girls are unsuccessful until he meets Seh-hee, who is See-hee but after a plastic surgery that has changed her face beyond recognition. The meticulous aesthetics of Time’s architectural cinematography emphasise the appeal as well as the superficiality of She-hee’s misguided desires to stimulate her boyfriend’s love with her drastically changed appearances. The cold surgical precision of the film’s form reflects the obsession with the image which more often than not is socially equated with identity.
Another Korean, Lee Yoon-ki premiered internationally his Reobeu tokeu (Love Talk, 2005) as part of the official competition. In it, Young-shin (Jin-hie Park) is a young Korean émigré to the US who hosts a broken-heart radio talkback. While she dishes out love recipes for her listeners, her own love life is slowly revealed as being as barren and troubled as that of her hopeful audience. The story of an emigrant alienation is well-presented, however the main characters’ frequent outbursts of anger followed by their stone-walled withdrawals are not always convincing. Love Talk addresses one of the most interesting aspects of the progressively globalised world: the point of the intersection between two or more cultures played out within an individual who either chooses or is forced to exist on the margins of that intersection.
One surprising Thai film is Nah nakorn (Citizen Dog, 2004) by Wisit Sasanatieng. This outrageously surreal musical follows Pod (Mahasamut Boonyaruk), a shy country boy, in his Bangkok adventures while he is trying to establish his life in the city. On search for his finger lost in a sardine can, he experiences the strangeness of urban life, haunted by the vision of his grandmother as a scornful gecko. His love interest, Jin (Saengthong Gate-Uthong), is convinced that the book she found and which she holds in her cherished possession, has chosen her, rather than the other way round, even though it is written in the language she cannot understand, fortunately enough because it is about a “homosexual tryst”. Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog is an exhilarating roller coaster but its extreme quirkiness might not make it for a smooth ride for everyone.
In its trifocality, the selection of the films described above does not include any sample of the extensive Festival offering from the US or UK. Obviously unfair in its bias, this significant ommission is dictated by the expected greater availability outside the festival circuit of non-subtitled films. The only viewing exception I made from this no-English-language rule was for Andy Garcia’s Lost City (2005), which in the context of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Castros’ Cuba gains another layer of sentimental charm. Even if the glamour of pre-Castro Havana portrayed by Garcia in his film may be an easy target for a disgruntled critic, the score of the film composed by its director, executive producer and the lead actor in one presents the viewer with an irresistible excuse to enjoy it.
It is without doubt that anyone attending a festival of the enormity of KVIFF would come out with a different list of films worth describing in their report. Even better, the microcosm of that and any other festival of this type is a phenomenon worth attention in itself. Yet, what makes Karlovy Vary stand out from the other festivals of the similar stature is its location in a small spa town in Central-Eastern Europe. Because of the town’s size, it fascinates with the lack of permeability between the worlds of the Festival, that of the locals, and that of the well-moneyed holiday makers from Russia.