TIM WONG looks back on the major film festival of the year, the New Zealand International Film Festivals, a programme where quiet achievers shone in lieu of bombast and audacity.


MINUS the support of a major sponsor, and battling one of the coldest, most debilitating winters on record (poor weather is usually a blessing for attendance, just not when it’s as morbid as this), festival organisers had it tough. Neither proved to be an obstacle though: the NZIFF rounding out its strongest edition in years with the mesmerizing Waltz with Bashir, probably the most talked about import from Cannes ’08. In contrast to the opening and closing night fixtures of recent festivals – Michael Haneke’s Hidden the exception in 2005 – audiences were for once confronted, the upside of not having a naming rights holder to appease. Ari Folman’s film also concluded the fortnight on a hint of audacity, an attribute otherwise lacking from the 170-strong programme, which in neglecting to court controversy or daring, could well have faded fast. Yet levelling the playing field proved to be a robust, winning formula: standards remained relatively high, there were no catastrophes to speak of, and while at the expense of any surprises or sparks, films of quiet achievement were allowed to stand up and be noticed.

A late exclamation mark, Waltz with Bashir also helped carry through a particularly stellar last day that began with Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day in its four-hour entirety – an outright masterpiece which ended at five in the afternoon, yet had the legs to continue for an eternity – followed shortly by a live orchestral accompaniment of the Harold Lloyd vehicle The Freshman. By night, Folman’s centrepiece emerged as a problematic work: less documentary than hypnotherapy, it engaged Israeli-Palestinian discord (specifically, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the horrors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre) under the cover of its director’s murky subconscious, a vantage point used to eschew perspective, if not context on a whole. But Folman’s apolitical tenor is exactly what sets the film apart: its surrealist, humorist tableaux of animated imagery rendering the vagaries of memory as a post-traumatic disorder, where a private anguish is allowed to displace the routine didacticism purveyed in documentaries on the horrors of war.

Favouring authority over audacity, Lorna’s Silence finds Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne inching ever closer to the conventions of a movie. Dialling down the clenching formalism of their previous Palme d’Or winners, the brothers embrace the plot twist in all its maddening, synthetic glory – a direction not entirely unexpected for the super-consistent filmmakers. Indeed, coming after the oddity of a chase sequence in The Child, the film’s sharp, unforeseen turns prove to be less of an anomaly against the Dardennes’ otherwise steadfast austerity. In the titular, headstrong role, Arta Dobroshi is also a compelling enough presence to offset any concerns about the duo’s subtle – although still very much assured – change of tack. Meanwhile, programmers had the good sense to bypass Wong Kar-wai’s disastrous My Blueberry Nights in favour of his newly refreshed Ashes of Time Redux, a drunken masterpiece among wuxia movies. Regarded as incoherent, the film is much less of a mystery when viewed as a prototype to 2046, insofar as sharing the same degrees of erstwhile longing and memorialised love. The tempestuous fight sequences – all sound and fury across the Embassy’s deafening speaker system – provided added kick, performance enhancing the melodrama back towards the baroque, Canto martial arts spectacle of Hong Kong Cinema’s early, exhilarating nineties.


Gomorrah

For all its assumed prestige, Cannes dispatched a number of flunks expected to deliver on critical promise or filmmaking reputation. The Matteo Garrone-directed Gomorrah, bolstered by early praise, arrived as the most enterprising Italian movie in years, defying its industry’s ongoing creative slump, yet was ultimately too formless to justify its Grand Jury accolade. Flatlining the film’s cross-section of mafia-infested Naples was Garrone’s coarse choice of aesthetic, too knockabout and high-strung to reveal its underworld characters in full. Lofty parallels to The Wire were drawn and cast aside, for Gomorrah’s attempt to humanise its ill-fated Neapolitans only ever blurred them into a statistical coda. Aided by a striking, unblemished print, Three Monkeys continued Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s high-definition gaze, and was by no means featureless: humid with stunning, inclement imagery, and augmented by an ensemble of unusual, deep-focus performances, his was a fantastically gloomy film. Behind the spectacular brooding however, Ceylan has produced something neither alienating nor existential, but finally empty. With Grand Priz-winner Uzak now a distant memory, Ceylan’s latest mood piece resembles not the idle, relationship unease of early Antonioni, but far more disconcertingly, The Passenger – an equally stodgy and ponderous faux-thriller.

Surpassing any hoopla around the festival’s Cannes acquisition in July, far superior offerings were uncovered from the 12 months before. Two films In Competition a year earlier, Silent Light and Flight of the Red Balloon, were absolutely worth the wait. The Carlos Reygadas in particular seemed to ferment over time, arriving as a fully matured and developed work, with any threat of the bombast that trademarked Japon and Battle in Heaven consigned strictly to the opening and closing shots. Even then, Reygadas’s dusk-to-dawn bookends maintain a sense of order, surrounding events in a hushed, celestial light that transports spirituality into a secular realm (a metamorphosis heightened by the film’s acute awareness of nature). Blessed with unforgettable scenes – Johan’s family bathing in fresh water; wife Esther, amidst torrential downpour, dying from a broken heart – Silent Light preserves its mystique, never specific about its characters’ community (Mennonites) or intriguing geographical lie (North Mexico). Not until its final, astonishing moments does the film relinquish its grasp on this peculiar reality, drawing overt inspiration from the climax of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet – a reference that’s initially off-putting, yet crystallising as a transformation of religious belief into cosmic, elemental faith.

Flight of the Red Balloon also soared to magnificent heights as a summation of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s oeuvre to date, distilling the grandmaster’s most entrancing qualities as a filmmaker: distinctive long takes, weightless interiors, beguiling female protagonists. In the only uncharacteristic turn, Juliette Binoche seizes control of what has customarily been a muted female lead – think Millennium Mambo’s Shu Qi, or Café Lumière’s Yo Hitoto – and threatens to blow the roof off Hou’s hushed, contemplative tone. Binoche, a force of nature, is hardly a saboteur though, and behaves independently from the formal raptures of Hou’s film, funnelled chiefly through the warmly lit spaces of her character’s perfectly cramped apartment. She is, I think, Flight’s masterstroke, and her performance is wonderfully autonomous and free spirited, like the eponymous red balloon. As Café Lumière’s de facto sequel, the film’s other main attraction is Paris, framed with the same inquisitiveness and beauty of its predecessor, Tokyo.


In the City of Sylvia

Pleasing on the eye, In the City of Sylvia wanders the cobblestone streets of another Franco postcard destination, Strasbourg, in tandem with the improbable natural light of Hou’s film. A tourist’s European wet dream, the movie similarly casts its eye over a city too gorgeous for words, within the framework of an unrequited romance: a dreamy young artist pursues his possible soul mate, with the lines between lovesick puppy and sleazebag stalker occasionally blurred. Yet for all of Sylvia’s wordless, itinerant splendour, its overzealous beauty – and in particular, its safari of female species – was a bridge too far for this reviewer. It also didn’t help seeing José Luis Guerín’s fifth feature so soon after Flight of the Red Balloon. Other returning filmmakers fared better: Shane Meadows’ modest and endearing Somers Town, his second consecutive Truffaut riff (after This is England, and starring his own Jean Pierre-Leaud, Thomas Turgoose); Alexandr Sokurov’s graceful and open-wounded Alexandra; Guy Maddin’s heady and hilarious My Winnipeg, a paean to the purgatory of his hometown; and Fernando Eimbcke’s soft-spoken Lake Tahoe, shot through the haze of a lazy Sunday afternoon. The festival’s only improbable disappointment, The Man From London, was Béla Tarr’s first since the staggering Werkmeister Harmonies, and drew the usual long, deep breaths, cut to a rhythmic, eventful saunter. Alas, not unlike Three Monkeys, the film was also a little tired, vacant and long in the tooth.

A welcome turnaround, Asian Cinema stocks rose sharply from the previous year, with Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (a twofer from Korea’s arthouse major leaguers), and the Chinese-Canadian directed Up the Yangtze all superb (this, among a fairly benign selection of documentaries on the whole). They were supplemented by a gentle South Asian triptych (The Elephant and the Sea, Flower in the Pocket, Wonderful Town), and one bitterly compelling surprise (I Just Didn’t Do It, an unexpected cold shower from Shall We Dansu?’s Masayuki Suo). Also fine from Japan was Nobuhiro Yamashita’s A Gentle Breeze in the Wind, which revived the exquisite languidness of Linda Linda Linda, and married it with a Studio Ghibli sensibility (namely, Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday) – perfect in lieu of Hayao Miyzaki’s latest animation. Grasping at the dynamics of a brawny blockbuster movie, Vexille discharged its sci-fi concepts (picked up by documentary Mechanical Love, a sinister case study on the ethics and metaphysics of humanoid robotics) in favour of spiffy videogame scenery, while Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, essentially six Neon Genesis episodes spliced together and reconstituted for the Big Screen, bludgeoned viewers with its clash of heavy metal, religious symbolism, and incongruous humour. The festival’s two high-tech anime features were in fact the only new arrivals from Asia surplus to requirements.

As the NZIFF’s ungainly rear end, this year’s edition of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival – formerly That’s Incredible Cinema – once again failed to attain cult status, despite an unconvincing throwback to its glory days. That its re-branding turned out to be another false gesture suggests an unsettled alliance between the Bill Gosden and Ant Timpson-directed festivals, now in their fifth year as a merger. Even so, the two programmes are far from incompatible, and in some ways co-dependent: Timpson’s section now an equivalent to Toronto’s Midnight Madness programme, making for a more rounded film festival on the whole. The inspired Teeth, in particular, served up the kind of juicy, audience-goading morsel that would’ve traditionally been waved away (it also boasted Jess Wexiler’s nicely modulated and expressive performance, one of the best of the year). The problem, rather, is one of identity crisis, and until a retrospective element can be reintroduced into Timpson’s selection process, his programming will continually fall short of expectations; that is, movies consistent with the criterion of incredible or strange. The solution is possibly as simple as renaming the section to reflect its changing values; and to stop kidding devotees of the original festival, deceased since 2003, that it is alive and well. Timpson’s annual Movie Marathon is the more obvious torchbearer for all things Incredibly Strange, and as long as arthouse prevails over grindhouse in its current form – a subsidiary of the NZIFF – the concept may never fully galvanize the support and approval of its cult-savvy fanbase.




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