BFI London Film Festival: A World Away From the Mundane Mainstream
With so few features from outside of the United States and Europe securing a theatrical release in this country, it is vital that festivals continue to showcase pictures from Latin America, Asia and Africa. No British event is as committed to world cinema as the BFI London Film Festival and the 54th selection is typically diverse and distinguished.
From Quebec to Patagonia, the contribution from the Americas is particularly strong this year, with Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats confirming the good impression that he made at the tender age of 21 with How I Killed My Mother (2009). Indeed, he also takes the lead in this Montreal variation on François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), as he competes with gal pal Monia Chokri for the affections of new-in-town Niels Schneider. Seething with catty lines and camply hip visuals that owe as much to Wong Kar-wai, François Ozon and Christophe Honoré as the nouvelle vague, this achingly stylish paean to unrequited lust peppers the action with vox pops to emphasise its dramatic points. However, it’s the fond rivalry between Dolan and Chokri (that eventually brings them to blows during a stay in the country) that makes this such a vibrant insight into twentysomething attitudes to life and love.
Actor Diego Luna makes a notable directorial debut with Abel, a melancholic meditation on Mexican masculinity and the decline of family values in traditional communities. In addition to co-scripting with Augusto Mendoza, Luna also coaxes a poignant performance out of Christopher Ruíz-Esparza, as the nine year-old who comes home after spending two years in a mental institution to assume his absent father’s place at the head of the household. With mother Karina Gidi too concerned about his well-being to challenge his delusion and siblings Geraldine Alejandra and Gerardo Ruíz-Esparza happy to bow to his authority, the unlikely situations seems to suit everybody. But José María Yazpik‘s unexpected return changes everything.
Another unconventional arrangement transforms freelance business journalist Monica del Carmen‘s hermitic existence in Michael Rowe‘s Camera d’or-winning debut, Leap Year. An Australian based in Mexico, Rowe makes evocative use of light and confined space in this often disturbing depiction of urban alienation that sees the masochistic Del Carmen enter into a kinky relationship with the sadistic, but otherwise genial Gustavo Sánchez Parra, who shows her considerably more affection than either her whining mother or insecure brother. However, his devotion is tested by an extreme request that has to be granted on 29 February. With the minimalist aesthetic intensifying the dramatic tension, this is both shockingly intimate and coolly detached. But Del Carmen’s courageous performance also ensures that it is a surprisingly tender treatise on trauma, isolation, addiction and self-esteem.
Chronicling Bolivian divorcée Ninón Del Castillo‘s efforts to sustain her cash-strapped household, Juan Carlos Valdivia‘s Southern District is the latest in a lengthening line of anti-dramas about well-heeled Hispanics and their indigenous South American servants. However, this melancholic satire is easily the most formally audacious, as Valdivia not only keeps Paul de Lumen’s camera moving through Joaquín Sánchez‘s meticulously designed sets, but he also tilts, pans, tracks and crane swoops it through 360° shots that constantly keep trickling information about Del Castillo’s family and her desperate bid to keep up appearances, as older siblings Juan Pablo Koria and Mariana Vargas defy her authority and youngest Nicolás Fernández empathises with Aymara Indian butler, Pascual Loayza.
Moving down Argentine way, Pablo Trapero casts a noirish pall over Carancho, a social realist thriller that charts the destructive liaison between Buenos Aires insurance agent Ricardo Darín and junior doctor Martina Gusman. A principled lawyer who turned ambulance chaser on losing his licence, Darín dislikes duping traffic accident victims to enrich his bosses and his tainted decency appeals to the stressed Gusman, who injects drugs to get her through her interminable hospital shifts . However, Gusman disowns Darín when an elderly musician dies in a staged hit-and-run and he has to scam his ruthless employers in order to win back her trust. Medics Eva Bianco, Victoria Raposo and Adela Sánchez are more successful in their bid to aid the under-privileged, as they travel to an impoverished hamlet in Santa Fé province to teach the residents about health care in Santiago Loza and Iván Fund‘s The Lips. Billeted in San Cristobal’s derelict hospital, the trio spend their days listening to heart-rending tales of woe and their nights dealing with the emotional fallout. Consequently, they jump at the chance to let their hair down at a rickety bar. Built around a series of improvised consultations, this is an affecting vérité exposé of the dire conditions in which so many rural Argentinians are forced to exist.
The doctors are nowhere near as benevolent in Anahí Berneri‘s It’s Your Fault, as young mother Erica Rivas is accused of maltreating her children after she rushes young son Zenon Galán to hospital after he bumps his head in a bout of boisterous horseplay with older brother Nicasio Galán. Already stressed by a looming work deadline and ex-husband Rubén Viani’s delayed return from a business trip, Rivas is so blind-sided by the charge that her confusion eventually gives way to wounded belligerence. Superbly played by Rivas and presented with a shifting emphasis that constantly forces the re-evaluation of assumptions, this is a compelling insight into computer-age childhood, parental responsibility and the climate of back-watching and blame that has made social services everywhere so ready to suspect the worst.
The pressures of young womanhood comes under further scrutiny in Delfina Castagnino‘s What I Love the Most, as city girl María Villar comes to stay with old friend Pilar Gamboa, who is mourning the recent loss of her father. An actress whose relationship with her boyfriend is fraying, Villar allows herself to be chatted up at a party by Esteban Lamothe, the best buddy of Gamboa’s recently dumped beau, Leonardo Castañeda. Thus, Gamboa is more than ready for a showdown during a walk in the woods after enduring the distress of firing the longtime employees of her father’s sawmill. With Villar’s insensitive self-obsession counterpointing Gamboa’s fragile taciturnity, this is a fascinating character study that eschews conventional narrative and stylistic flamboyance to concentrate on the interaction between onetime confidantes who now inhabit entirely different worlds.
Mexican cinema has enjoyed an unprecedented decade of success and it commemorates the centenary of the revolution that overthrew President Porfirio Díaz with Revolución, a portmanteau of 10 shorts by such acclaimed directors as Fernando Eimbcke, Patricia Riggen, Gael García Bernal, Amat Escalante, Carlos Reygadas, Gerardo Naranjo, Mariana Chenillo, Rodrigo Plá, Diego Luna and Rodrigo García. Exploring everything from the legacy of Pancho Villa to the changes that were made and still need to happen, this is both a political and a cinematic celebration of recent Mexican history.
Neither Costa Rica not Peru has yet to make such an international breakthrough, but Paz Fábrega‘s Cold Water of the Sea and Daniel and Diego Vega‘s October suggest the talent certainly exists in both countries. The first is set on the remote south Pacific coast at New Year and reflects upon the impact that a girl’s nocturnal revelation of domestic abuse has on affluent holidaying couple Luis Carlos Bogantes and Lil Quesada Morúa. As cold currents force poisonous snakes to emerge from the sea, Morúa becomes increasingly troubled by the child’s accusation and goes in search of her next morning. However, she learns much more about her own privileged situation than the supposed waif’s distress. Concern for a vulnerable stray also informs the drolly acute October, as maligned money-lender Bruno Odar finds a baby abandoned in his apartment during Lima’s autumn festival and, having hired neighbour Gabriela Velásquez to keep an eye on her, he begins a half-hearted search for her mother among the prostitutes he frequently patronises.
An unexpected delivery similarly changes María Onetto’s life in Natalia Smirnoff’s quietly quirky drama, Puzzle, as the jigsaw of Queen Nefertiti she receives for her 50th birthday sparks an obsession that prompts her to partner wealthy bachelor Arturo Goetz in a local puzzle tournament. Exploring a devoted wife and mother’s rediscovery of her self away from the husband and sons who adore her, but take her for granted, this is an impressive debut by Lucrecia Martel’s onetime assistant. By contrast, Daniel Burmeister is coming towards the end of his career. But the self-taught sixtysomething is determined to add to a filmography that includes such am-dram flicks as Let’s Kill Uncle and Terror in the Abandoned House and, in their highly engaging documentary The Peddler, Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich record his efforts to stage his latest opus in the sleepy town of Benjamín Gould.
Lucy Walker profiles another artist at work in Waste Land, as she accompanies Vik Muniz – who is renowned for works made from discarded materials – to the world’s biggest rubbish dump. Yet, while Walker captures the processes that lead to the production of a series of large-scale photographs, this is as much a study of Tiao, Irma and Zumbi, the catadores or pluckers of Rio’s Jardim Gramancho, who toil with a determination and dignity that is truly humbling.
If Moby’s score is vital to this discreet documentary, so Gustavo Santaolalla’s music underpins the poignant drama in Kiran Rao’s debut, Dhobi Ghat, which turns on the relationships that desi banker Monica Dogra forges with reclusive artist Aamir Khan and laundryman Prateik Babbar (who dreams of making it in Bollywood) during her sabbatical in Mumbai. Middle-class mores are further explored by another first-timer in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, as 17 year-old wannabe poet Rajat Barmecha is expelled from his public school and is forced to live with estranged engineer father Ronit Roy and his younger half-brother Aayan Boradia in the industrial town of Jamshedpur, whose alienated youths afford Barmecha an opportunity to rebel against his authoritarian parent.
Another son finds himself being sent to a strange place in order to improve his prospects in Nila Madhab Panda’s I Am Kalam. However, rather than slaving in his uncle’s cafe in Rajastan, young Harsh Mayar befriends Hussan Saad, whose father lives in the nearby royal palace, and their friendship has unexpected consequences for them both in this engaging reworking of The Prince and the Pauper. Despite its similar title, the tone could not be more different in Ananth Mahadevan’s I Am Sindhutai Sapkal, which recalls the achievements of a campaigner for women’s rights who grew up in 1950s rural Maharastra and was forced into a marriage with a 30 year-old when she was just 12 years of age. Cast out with her third child after being falsely accused of infidelity, the self-taught Sindhutai used her education to speak up for abused women and abandoned children and earned the nickname, Maa.
Tejaswini Pandit’s earnest performance is matched by that of Irrfan Khan in another biopic, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, which chronicles the exploits of a country boy who becomes a famous runner after being dumped in the army athletics team after failing to adhere to military discipline. However, the medals that Paan Singh won in the Asian Games count for nothing when he returns to his family farm and he becomes a Robin Hood-like bandit after his mother is murdered trying to defend her land. In a very different vein, the life of transgender Bengali actor Chapal Bhaduri inspires the action in Kaushik Ganguly’s Just Another Love Story, as his passion for a bisexual man scandalises the homophobic press and forces cameraman Indraneil Sengupta to decide between his wife and gay director Rituparno Ghosh. And a camera also proves key to the action in Aamir Bashir’s Autumn, as Shahnawaz Bhat struggles to cope with the disappearance of his photographer brother during a mission to report on the militant insurgency in Kashmir.
Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives leads the list of Asian titles. A mesmerising dissertation on existence and the afterlife, this is more a film to experience than assess. Returning to the tamarind plantation where he also keeps bees, Thanapat Saisaymar is nursed by sister-in-law Jenjira Pongpas and consoled by the spirit of wife Natthakarn Aphaiwonk and long-lost son Geerasak Kulhong, who has assumed the form of a flame-eyed simian. Although this is Weerasethakul’s most linear and accessible outing, it’s still impossible to attribute definitive meaning to many of the sequences, including the tryst between disfigured princess Wallapa Mongkolprasert and a talking catfish. However, with its wealth of cinematic allusion and astute mix of Buddhist fable, personal preoccupation and political comment, this is a beguiling investigation into who we are, what we once were and what we might still become.
For all Uncle Boonmee’s arthouse appeal, it’s cult Japanese director, Takashi Miike, who looks set to steal the headlines with 13 Assassins, an all-action remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 samurai movie, which harks back to 1884, as retired warrior Koji Yakusho assembles a crack unit to ambush a depraved nobleman before his power becomes too great. With nods to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1969), this may be one of Miike’s more restrained outings, but it’s also a masterclass in generic film-making. Ironically, Sion Sono’s Cold Fish feels more like a Miike project, as it reworks the story of Japan’s most notorious serial killer into a cultishly gruesome thriller. Drifting apart from second wife Megumi Kagurazaka and defiant teenage daughter Hikari Kajiwara, tropical fish salesman Mitsuru Kukikoshi takes solace in his local planetarium. However, when fellow fish peddler Denden saves Kajiwara from a shop-lifting charge, Kukikoshi is inexorably drawn into the dark secret that Denden shares with his bloodthirsty wife, Asuka Kurosawa.
The skeleton in Tsurube Shofukutei’s cupboard may be less shocking in Miwa Nishikawa’s Dear Doctor. But the fact that the respected medic in a remote mountain village is a con man with no qualifications placed new graduate Eita in a difficult position, as Shofukutei’s mostly elderly patients trust him implicitly, particularly widow Kaoru Yachigusa, who wants to keep her terminal cancer a secret from her devoted daughter, Kimiko Yo. Illness brings Hikari Mitsushima home to manage father Kotaro Shiga’s freshwater clam farm in Yûya Ishii’s Sawako Decides. However, despite the assistance of uncle Ryô Iwamatsu, she is no more suited to this task than she was to designing toys in Tokyo and her problems are exacerbated when latest boyfriend Masashi Endô pitches up with four year-old daughter Kira Aihara in tow. But, when Endô leaves Aihara in Mitsushima’s care while he plunges into an affair with her erstwhile best friend, she rises to the dual challenge of saving the ailing company and winning over the sceptical female workforce, many of whom had been seduced by her chauvinist father.
The South Korean screen boom shows no sign of abating and LFF 2010 includes both Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (which took the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes) and Hong Sangsoo’s Oki’s Movie. The first stars veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, who returns to film for the first time in 16 years to play the resident of a dormitory town outside Seoul who joins a poetry-writing class just as her grandson Lee Da-wit is implicated in the suicide of a female classmate. The intricacy of the visual and verbal poetry finds echo in Hong’s typically acerbic study of film school newcomer Jung Yumi’s relationships with tutor Moon Sung-kuen and fellow student Lee Sunk-yun. Dividing into four parts to dissect each liaison, this wittily perceptive assessment of the chasm that separates the sexes culminates in Jung’s short movie, which compares her excursions to Mount Acha with the lovers who are now detested colleagues trapped in their own neurotic insecurities.
Much acclaim has also been heaped upon Jo Sung-Hee’s debut, End of Animal, a post-apocalyptic road movie that follows the misadventures of pregnant Lee Min-Ji following the blinding flash in the sky that prompts her cabby to venture into the nearest town to find someone who can repair his car. Convinced the driver’s gone for good and having already been deserted by the mysterious stranger who had hitched a ride in the front seat, Lee decides to strike out on her own and her encounters with a chic couple, a feral youth with a baseball bat and a bicycling sociopath draw her deeper into a heart of darkness that has been designed to test her by a sinister supreme being, whose attempts at communication she has vigorously resisted.
If Jo’s detached formalism and rigorous enigmaticism occasionally prove resistible, Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation is even more rigid and uncompromising in depicting the dead-end lives of some Inner Mongolian slackers and their world-weary elders. While his teenage uncle has a hard time getting out of bed and his grandfather can barely rouse himself off the sofa, a small boy is eager to get outside to enjoy the last day of the holidays. However, his escape from the confines of a nondescript apartment is merely an excuse for Li to stage a slap-happy mugging, a low-key lovers’ tiff and a rambling rumination on life, the universe and nothing in particular. Whether focusing on stark interiors, a cramped classroom or some furniture in the snow, Li ably conveys everyday ennui on the margins of China’s economic miracle. But Yurui Qin’s atmospheric cinematography and the odd flash of deadpan wit are scant consolation for the lengthy passages of torpor and repetition.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s approach couldn’t be more different in Chongqing Blues, as sea captain Wang Xueqi comes to Sichuan Province to find out why son Yi Zi was gunned down by the authorities during a department store siege. Shunned by Ding Jaili, the wife he abandoned to a life of drudgery in her new husband’s textile factory, Wang relies on old pal Wang Kuirong and his disapproving son Hao Qin for clues about Yi’s past. But, while hostage Bingbing Fan, shop assistant He Yumeng, security guard Li Qing and policeman Zhang Jiayi all present their side of the story, it’s Hao’s girlfriend Li Feier who provides the crucial insights into Yi’s state of mind. The flashbacking structure may occasionally seem cumbersome and there is a slight tendency to sentimentalise. But this is a touching study of the father-son bond that subtly critiques contemporary society and ends on a note of quiet optimism.
Trying to make sense is also the theme of Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao, as Westerner Thomas Rohldewald comes to stay with Chinese shepherd Mao Yan and their lack of a common language exacerbates an inability to live together that is emphasised by the very different dreams that each man has after they doze off while sunbathing. If this highly original exercise in conceptual art represents something of an acquired taste, Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew offers a more accessible snapshot of the history and character of Shanghai. In addition to being the first Mainland film to include sequences shot in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, this also provides a fascinating insight into the Chinese film industry, as Shanghai was once the Communist Hollywood and Jia includes interviews with Fei Mu (about his 1948 masterpiece, Spring in a Small Town), Zhu Qiansheng (on the price he paid for collaborating with Michelangelo Antonioni on Chung Kuo in the early 1970s) and Wei Ran, who reminisces about his mother, the actress Shangguan Yunzhu, who was known for playing women caught up in momentous socio-political change and whose career came to a tragic end when she committed suicide in 1968.
Hou Hsiao-hsien is also among the contributors and fellow new waver Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is a timely inclusion in the Treasures from the Archive strand, as his gentle style is a clear influence on both Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Taipei Exchanges and Chang Tso-Chi’s When Love Comes.
Clearly intended to be a modern-day fairy-tale, Hsiao’s coyly narrated feature ends up being as cluttered as the coffee shop opened by sisters Kwai Lun Mei and Lin Zai Zai, which quickly fills up with the bric-a-brac that customers have brought for barter. Well-travelled regular Chang Han’s promise to swap stories for bars of soap sums up the fragrant triviality of this exquisite, but desultory exercise. For all the care taken with their preparation, the anecdotes and reveries that punctuate the action – along with some vox pops and snippets of line-drawn animation – add little to either our understanding of the siblings and their aspirations or Hsiao’s discussion of Taiwanese consumerism. Chang’s equally restrained outing revels in the small domestic dramas endured by a family that hailed from Kinmen Island before opening a restaurant in Taipei. However, when teenager Li Yi Jie discovers she’s pregnant, the truth emerges about her father Lin Yu Shun’s relationships with wife Lu Xue Feng and concubine He Zi-hua, as well as a long-suppressed secret from home. Withheld information also drives Singaporean debutant Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle, which provides a cutting commentary on the country’s post-colonial history, as 18 year-old Joshua Tan conducts some research into the father he barely knew while waiting to be conscripted for military service.
Another father’s behaviour baffles his son in Phan Dang Di’s Don’t Be Afraid, Bi!, as a six year-old Vietnamese boy struggles to understand why his dad’s visits to a masseuse cause his mother as much pain as the decline in his bedridden grandfather’s health and his teacher aunt’s furtive crush on one of his pupils. The sheer difficulty of surviving in an uncaring world similarly informs Raymond Red’s Manila Skies – in which desperate Filipino Raul Arellano turns airline hijacker after his attempts to find a worthwhile job are repeatedly frustrated – and Aktan Arym Kubat’s The Light Thief, in which the director plays a kindly Kyrgyz electrician who vows to prevent corrupt politician Askat Sulaimanov and his hoodlum kinsman Stanbek Toichubaev from selling his customers’ land to the Chinese.
Zamani Esmati’s Orion is something of a companion piece to this crusading exposé, as this guerrilla drama (which was filmed without any official permits) examines the treatment of women in modern Iran through professor Mehrdad Sheykhi’s resort to unscrupulous doctor Mohammad Reza Farzad to repair student Nasim Kiani’s hymen after Sheykhi takes her virginity. However, the police have been watching the premises. Bride-to-be Nadine Labaki faces her own crisis as her ex-fiancé returns from a prolonged absence in Georges Hachem’s Stray Bullet, a taut psychological drama set during the opening days of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
The troubled history of Israel provides the backdrop to both Julian Schnabel’s Miral and Dover Kosashvili’s Infiltration, which have been based on acclaimed books by Rula Jebreal and Yehoshua Kenaz respectively. The first covers the period from the founding of Israel in 1948 to the Oslo Peace Agreement of 1994 and centres on student Freida Pinto’s growing conviction that school founder Hiam Abbass’s bid to turn Palestinian children against violence is fundamentally flawed. The second ranges from Suez to the Six Day War and focuses on the boot camp experiences of various Ashkenazi recruits (including some Holocaust survivors), as they strive to forge a nation in the face of severe secular and religious differences.
Eastern and Western influences also collide in Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone, which follows prodigal Khaled Abol Naga into Alexandria’s underground music scene after his attempts to repair his relationships with his ageing father and an old flame come to nothing. And music similarly proves to be the food of love in Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye’s Benda Bilili!, which traces the rise of a band of homeless, disabled Congolese and street children.
Football offers Rwandan kids Eriya Ndayambaje and Roger Nsengiyumva an escape from the problems of daily life in Debs Gardner-Paterson’s Africa United. However, the former’s poor planning looks likely to cost his friend the chance to play in a FIFA team set up to mark the 2010 World Cup. But, having escaped from a children’s army in the Congo, the pair retain the determination to trek 3000 miles through seven countries in order to get to South Africa in time for the big kick-off. Equally inspirational are Caroline Kamya’s Imani – which centres the events that link a former child soldier, a hip hop dancer and a maid in the Ugandan capital, Kampala – and Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader, which follows teacher Naomie Harris’s bid to help 84 year-old ex-Mau-Mau fighter Oliver Litondo’s secure the free primary education to which all Kenyans are entitled.
Another old soldier struggles to reintegrate into life on the rough streets of Lagos in Andy Amadi Okoroafor’s hard-hitting Nollywood melodrama, Relentless, as Nneka Egbuna returns from a peace-keeping stint in Sierra Leone and finds himself caring for a prostitute thrown off a bridge to die by one of her clients. Oliver Schmitz takes an equally uncompromising look at discrimination against women in Life, Above All, an adaptation of Allan Stratton’s Chanda’s Secrets that features a courageous performance by 12 year-old Khomotso Manyaka in a forceful, but moving study of AIDS, infant mortality and teenage prostitution in small-town South Africa. Finally, the indomitability of the Zimbabwean populace is memorialised by Saki Mafundikwa in Shungu: The Resilience of a People, a powerful documentary that examines life in this benighted country from the viewpoint of supporters and opponents of Robert Mugabe’s regime, as well as those who have fallen victim to it and those attempting to alleviate their suffering.
Fuente: Oxford Times
Entry filed under: LATIN AMERICAN FILM. Tags: Abel, Adela Sánchez, Amat Escalante, Anahí Berneri, Augusto Mendoza, BFI London Film Festival, Carancho, Carlos Reygadas, Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, Cold Water of the Sea, Daniel and Diego Vega, Delfina Castagnino, diego luna, Eva Bianco, Fernando Eimbcke, Gael Garcia-Bernal, Geraldine Alejandra), Gerardo Naranjo, Gerardo Ruíz-Esparza, Gustavo Sanchez Parra, icolás Fernández, It's Your Fault, Iván Fund, Joaquín Sánchez, Jose Maria Yazpik, Juan Carlos Valdivia, Juan Pablo Koria, Karina Gidi, Latin american film at the BFI, Leap Year, mariana chenillo, Mariana Vargas, Martina Gusman, Michael Rowe, Monica del Carmen, Ninón Del Castillo, October, Pablo Trapero, Pascual Loayza, Patricia Riggen, Paz Fábrega, Ricardo Darin), Rodrigo Garcia, Rodrigo Plá, Santiago Loza, Southern District, The Lips, Victoria Raposo, What I Love the Most.