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Now in its sixth year, Paulo Branco’s Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival (LEFFEST) has carved out a niche on the roster of smaller European fests with classy retrospectives programmes, great guests and a commitment to incorporating visual art, music, theatre and discussions on the business of culture into the mix. Since 2007, Branco has assembled a roster of attendees that would make venerable Australian festivals drool with envy: Francis Ford Coppola, David Cronenberg, Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Lou Reed, Matthew Barney, Leos Carax, Christopher Doyle, Matthieu Amalric and Sasha Grey to name a few.

But as most of Europe teeters on the brink of economic ruin, there were signs the LEFFEST was not immune to the hardship: this year’s catalogue was a stripped down publication and many of the sessions I attended were only half-full at best. The guest-list didn’t seem to suffer though with masterclasses, special events and Q&As from Willem Dafoe, Monte Hellman, Fanny Ardant, Alfred Brendel, Abel Ferrara, Ingrid Caven, Adolpho Arrietta, Melvil Poupad and Sarah Gadon.

First things first, for future visitors some advice: (1) splitting the festival between Lisbon and Estoril presents logistical problems for those wanting to catch back-to-back screenings in both locales (about a twenty-five minute drive or half-hour train ride apart) and if you’ve got a hotel room in Lisbon and want to attend a late-night screening in Estoril then the only option home is going to be an expensive cab ride back to the capital; and (2) most screenings are subtitled in Portuguese only.

The festival’s core strength clearly lies with its retrospective and tribute sidebars, in truth far more interesting than the competition (Leonardo di Constanzo’s L’Intervallo took out best film) and the round-up of recent high profile festival fare in the Out of Competition selection (disappointingly Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was advertised in the lead-up but mysteriously disappeared right before the festival opened). On the most high profile of the high profile festival fare I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through two hours plus of Michael Haneke’s Amour scheduled in punishing late-night slots normally reserved for crazy genre flicks: I’m a masochist but I have my limits. Given this, I’ll defer to Brett Easton Ellis for a 140 characters or less summary of the stern one’s Palme d’Or winner: “Michael Haneke’s Amour is what On Golden Pond would have been if it was directed by Hitler.”

It was slightly confusing why Monte Hellman was the subject of a ‘tribute’ while Brian De Palma received a ‘retrospective’ but nonetheless it was a strong year with De Palma and Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospectives; tributes to Lucrecia Martel, Monte Hellman, João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata and Serge Daney; and focuses on ‘mavericks’ Adolpho Arrietta and Artavazd Peleshyan.

Although the festival enticed with a complete BDP retrospective at best you could call it a gappy best-of collection. Conspicuously absent from the line-up were titles that seemed unthinkable not to program like Raising Cain, Murder A La Mod, Get To Know Your Rabbit, Casualties of War, Femme Fatale, Obsession and The Fury; some big names like Mission: Impossible and The Bonfire of the Vanities; as well as some which are probably best forgotten (Mission to Mars). With the exception of The Responsive Eye and Woton’s Wake, two fine pieces that showcased De Palma’s dazzling formal promise at the beginning of his career, there was no sign of shorts like Icarus, Jennifer or 660124 either.

Passion

The last time De Palma unleashed a feature onto the world one woman had to go into hiding – eventually to seek political asylum in the USA – and certain members of the right-wing commentariat went apoplectic. The film was Redacted, a passionate response to Bush’s violent Middle-East excursions and a media landscape dominated by the online consumption of wartime imagery. Sometimes clunky but more often compulsive viewing, the Iraq-set drama was closer to Hi, Mom! than the Hitchcock tinged thrillers De Palma has accrued a loyal fanbase for. That was 2007, the last film of the 2000s it would turn out for De Palma and maybe his best from that decade.

Fast forward five years and the De Palma responsible for Redacted has well and truly departed – perhaps this is linked to the film’s financial failures – and he’s back with another thriller. In an interview with artist Taryn Simon earlier in the year De Palma was quizzed, “why is Western cinema so present throughout the world? Why does an American aesthetic still seem to dominate global popular culture?” The brusque response? “Because it’s the devil’s candy.”

Passion, based on Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (a film I haven’t seen and will probably never see), is candy well and truly past its expiry date despite some familiar De Palma-isms rearing their head (surveillance, kinky sex, murder, split di-opter lenses and split screens). There’s none of the formal sizzle of say, Femme Fatale, and not a single tracking shot worth writing home about. Perhaps most criminally a film named Passion does not have a single decent sex scene involving Rachel McAdams despite frequent signposts she is a kink goddess. The audience were frequently laughing at the histrionics on offer from Noomi Rapace’s ridiculous carpark meltdown to the OTT bitchy exchanges which would have been masterpiece dialogue had they been in Showgirls.

Yes, Passion is Mean Girls grown up (Mean Women then…) and yes, De Palma has clearly gone for the comedic with exaggerated performances and crazy plotting but frequently the film resembles tired Euro detective TV dramas with its generic corporate locales (shot in Berlin). Lucio Fulci would have milked such a set-up for all its sleazy thrills and chills but every trick De Palma throws at us feels tired and the violence bland. Side note: what piece-of-shit old-school mobile phone can store and send incriminating video files like the one featured at a crucial plot point?

The Last Time I Saw Macao

João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata were the subject of a tribute showcasing all their features, documentaries and shorts which included their latest collaboration A Última Vez Que Vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macao). Rodrigues – Portugal’s most electrifying auteur – has depicted the primal urges powering human desire and longing since his blistering debut feature O Fantasma. His first short, made as a graduation piece for the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinemah, O Pastor depicts the tragic consequences of a shepherd divorced from his flock, an impressively succinct film that hints at the exploration of raw desire that would thematically mature in his features. It would be almost a decade before Rodrigues directed another short, Parabens!, starring Guerra da Mata as a man waking up after a hard night’s partying with a naked guy beside him and a girlfriend on the phone.

As The Flames Rose

Guerra da Mata’s terrific debut short, O Que Arde Cura (As The Flames Rose), stars a buff Rodrigues but is formally worlds-apart from Parabens! with its late eighties-set tale of a man waking up to one of Lisbon’s worst disasters, the Chiado fires of 1988, as his own personal life is engulfed by emotional trouble. Rui Pocas’s camerawork hauntingly lingers over flesh and objects, Guerra da Mata’s prior work as an Art Director on Rodrigues’s films has given him a master eye for environmental detail, in between highly stylized shots of Rodrigues wandering around a prison of an apartment. An emotionally piercing wonder of a short, it demonstrates the versatility of Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata in tackling material with a variety of aesthetics: a fusion of theatre and cinema here, documentary cinema for Alvorada Vermelha (Red Dawn), dramatic realism for China China.

Morning of St. Anthony’s Day

Joao Pedro Rodrigues’s equally brilliant short film Manhã De Santo António (Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day) is a droll zombie film of sorts from a national cinema that has next-to-no history with horror movies. A large gang of youngsters emerges from the underground as if stirring after the mother of all parties and wander the streets of Lisbon, some making it to pay their respects for St. Anthony’s day, others not so lucky. In a series of brilliantly framed shots echoing Tati, Rodrigues’s intent may be to present a humorous alternative vision of how St. Anthony celebrations impact the city’s youth but you can’t help but feel it’s an eerie premonition of what could come from a country blighted with youth unemployment and a hazy-at-best outlook for future societal prosperity.

The Last Time I Saw Macao has been doing the festival rounds since its launch at Locarno but the tribute allowed me to catch another film the duo made last year concerning the former Portuguese colony, Red Dawn. Paying tribute to Jane Russell and invoking the spirit of Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, the twenty-minute short tours Macao’s Red Market, a famous fresh-food emporium selling a range of seafood and meats (rather hilariously a Vancouver foodie website listed Red Dawn as a food-themed film alongside more palatable fare as El Bulli to catch at the city’s film festival but I can assure you that most will not be racing out of the theatre after watching for a bite to eat). There’s a horrific beauty to the efficient and robotic-like process of chicken throat slitting or fish decapitation thanks to the precise framing and duration of each shot and the appearance of a ethereal mermaid is a sublime contrasting note against the carnage

Macanese cooking is a fine art, combining a multi-ethnic array of flavours and spices to marvelous effect for the best dishes, and in a way The Last Time I Saw Macao utilizes a similar principle: a dash of film noir, a serving of Marker-like cine-essay, and liberal sprinklings of the personal-journey documentary.

The documentary-fiction hybrid is the third China-tinged project the pair have worked on (following China China and Red Dawn) but it’s less a portrait of the actual Macao than a tribute to the Macao of cinematic history (the vivacious Cindy Scrash delivers the opening tune You Kill Me from Josef von Sternberg’s Macao) and Guerra da Mata’s childhood memories; quite a few recognizable landmarks from the tiny former Portuguese colony are eschewed in favour of tight close-ups of objects designed to power the noir-ish atmospherics and filming extended to mainland China and Portugal. In a lot of ways the film’s enigmas from the central premise, the mermaids, the murders, the lack of distinct human faces captured, and the seductive oscillation between fiction and documentary genres is representative of Macao as the eternal enigma, an island nestled near Hong Kong and its murky political status and the juggernaut PRC with its very obvious political system. From Hong Kong you can’t visit Macao without a passport and likewise it’s difficult for mainlanders to travel there as well. Garish casino temples with their erotic stage shows like shrines to capitalism just a short trip away from a supposed socialist utopia. Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s spellbinding tour of the Far East is a cinematic object of the future grappling with a mysterious past and maybe about as close to perfect a 21st century transportation on to the decks as Julie Benson tosses a leather wallet overboard.

Estoril’s seaside locales would be the perfect setting for a future Hong Sang-soo film: you can imagine a middle-aged Korean filmmaker wandering around the town looking for something to do in between screenings at the local Casino, meeting pretty Portuguese women and going for a tour in nearby Sintra. A perfect title for such a film – In Another Country – has unfortunately already been taken.

So the story goes, a few years ago Claire Denis (in the ROK for Jeonju’s film festival) stepped off the plane and headed directly for a bar to drink the night away with Hong Sang-soo. Denis is clearly an admirer of Hong’s cinema: an enthusiastic essay she wrote about him appeared in Hong’s book for the KOFIC’s Korean Film Directors series and in 2010 when she headed the Un Certain Regard jury she handed the top prize to Hong’s Hahaha. Denis and Hong’s piss-up in Jeonju must surely have left an impression on Hong given his latest, Dareun naraeseo (In Another Country), features a French female filmmaker exploring a seaside town, drinking and, inevitably, encountering a spectrum of laughable traits of Korean masculinity.

In Another Country

Accentuating the interconnectedness of the Hong/Denis universe, the star of the show is Isabelle Huppert, making this film her second 2012 journey to the East (Brillante Mendoza’s chaotic Captive for those who are counting).  When the announcement came a few years ago that Huppert would be starring in a Hong film, a part of me feared that the presence of the French superstar (‘superstar’ seems the wrong term but you get my drift in the context of this sentence) could force the dilution of what makes Hong’s cinema so powerful in order to guarantee a wider audience and leverage Huppert’s fan-base (for Australian readers: the kind of fan-base who slavishly attend Palace film festivals and were born pre-1970). But my fears were misplaced; In Another Country is the same Hong Sang-soo everyone knows and loves, the messy zooms, the dazzlingly intricate and echoing narrative strategies, the soju…and the hopeless men spouting bullshit.

Three separate tales of a European woman (each played by Huppert) visiting Mohang emerge from the mind of a young woman on the run from debt-collectors. On their own each tale is comical and touches on the theme of infidelity (in the first the French filmmaker has indulged in a tryst with a married guy, in the second a rich housewife is cheating on her traveling husband, the third is the victim of infidelity and looking to recover on holiday).

Like other Hong films though, the beauty and richness of the narrative comes alive when you consider the tales against each other, the verbal and physical repetitions and variations pinging around the head of this young woman dreaming it all up. A playfully cutting exploration of the sexual politics of Koreans, Huppert’s appearance allows Hong to widen his focus to include the ways in which Korean men interact with western women, an opportunity not taken in his Paris-set Night and Day and only hinted at infrequently in other films when the topic of Asian men and western women pops up in conversation.

If each story here operates effectively enough as a self-contained short but works far better when taken into consideration as a whole, what a mouth-watering proposition a marathon of recent Hong films would be together – let’s say, for arguments sake, Lost in the Mountains to In Another Country – to explore the broader suite of narrative echoes, patterns and variations being dreamt up by a filmmaker increasingly asserting himself as the most fascinating manipulator of the storytelling form working in film today. It would also be a useful opportunity to nail down the finer points of the hows and whys of THAT zoom. Maybe a consideration for a future LEFFEST tribute…

Present on all the festival collateral was a young woman holding an umbrella with the rain falling from inside it on to her. A curiously offbeat image but I hope Portugal’s economic storms don’t wash out this quality festival for the future. Some festival directors bleat on about competitions as if they want to be the next Cannes and although LEFFEST has a smallish competition the real winner is their retrospective programmes and events and they know it. It wouldn’t hurt a few festival directors to learn a thing or two from Branco.

Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival
9 to 18 November 2012
Festival website: www.leffest.com

About The Author

Ben Cho is a cinephile based in Australia. He is currently shooting a remake of Ride The Pink Horse, a pornographic thriller set for release in 2014 starring Chuck Stephens.

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