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MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL 2005 – WRAP

A SUMMARY OF GLOBAL INDIE FILMMAKING
The Melbourne International Film Festival’s extensive movie menu offered patrons everything from pain to pleasure, from local to distant filmmakers, from strikingly relevant social issues to the gentle explorations of character, and from elation to disappointment. This year, MIFF summarized much of contemporary independent filmmaking in 18 crowded days of programming. Andrew L. Urban reports.


With Ingrid Bergman’s last film Saraband, and Sarah Watt’s first film, Look Both Ways at one end, and Lukas Moodyson’s A Hole in My Heart at the other, the width and depth of a film festival’s menu possibilities are well explored in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (July 20 – Aug. 7), which again screened the largest number of films in any Australian festival – over 400, including 110 shorts.

Saraband, made a couple of years ago, brings to a close the career of one of cinema’s most respected and influential filmmakers. Made originally for television, and shot on high definition video, it also brings the grand master neatly into the digital age. But it’s the content, as usual, not the technology which is striking in a Bergman film. Characters who drive the story and draw us into their world. So it is with Saraband, picking up on the lives of the irreconcilably split Marianne and Johan, played again by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, who starred in the earlier film about this break up, in Scenes From A Marriage, made in 1973. When Marianne decides to visit her ex after 32 years, she is embroiled in the bitter and emotionally vicious conflict between Henrik – Johan’s son from another marriage – and Henrik’s 19 year old daughter, Karin. Marvellously engaging, often painful, and emotionally charged, Saraband is a fine farewell from Bergman. (Saraband has its Australian television premiere on World Movies, August 24, 8.30pm.)

"darker personal territory"

Fellow (much younger) Swede, Lukas Moodyson (Lilya 4-ever), travels deeper into darker personal territory with his controversial drama, A Hole in My Heart. A father and his alienated son Eric live in a squalid apartment, where the father, Rickard and friend Geko, try to make an amateur porno film with a young and willing 17 year old Tess, who’s devastated that she didn’t get into Big Brother. Over a debauched weekend, their drinking and fornicating descends into a savage hell, while the teenager hides in his room, disapproving, frightened and cranking up his headphones. Exploring the sickness that springs from emotional dislocation at its worst, the film is graphic, gritty and gobsmacking.

Sarah Watt’s debut, on the other hand, is an engaging but more gently conceived exploration of the heart, promising Australia a bright and interesting new cinematic talent. Set over a hot Australian country town weekend, several people dealing with unexpected events find their lives intersecting. While performances are crucial, the film really floats on its emotional and visceral content, with Sarah Watt’s animated paintings flashing up as representations of Meryl’s inner thoughts and feelings. This is so well done that it doesn’t appear to be a device but an organic part of the screenplay and the character. (Look Both Ways opens around Australia on August 18, 2005.)

The collection of other new Australian films, including Opening Night’s Little Fish (opens September 8, 2005) from Rowan Woods, plus Kriv Stenders’ Blacktown (winner of the Sydney Film Festival 2005 Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Feature – Sidebar Program, a month earlier), Tony Krawitz’ Jewboy and Ivan Sen’s Yellow Fella (both screened at Cannes), continue a tradition of showcasing local cinema. This helps position the chosen films for future commercial release – while nibbling away at the potential target audience for distributors. But on balance, the former is deemed more valuable, providing prestige. And it’s heartening to note that each of the Australian films in the program succeed on their own terms.

The Australian Showcase is but one stream of programming that director James Hewison offers his audiences: there is International Panorama (includes US, French, South African, Swedish), Regional Focus (South Korea, Philippines), Documentaries, Homelands Now – the Middle East, Backbeat, Animation Gallery, Direct from Cannes, Horizons: New Chinese Cinema, Sliced Life: Fruit Chan, New Europe, New Media, Cinema Argentino, Raw Japanese Cinema and Shorts. This is an ambitious menu, overpowering in its diversity and impossible to fully explore. That means the choice is both frustratingly wide and satisfyingly diverse. Patrons can hardly fail to find something to appeal to their personal tastes.

"enormous public interest"

Which may account for the enormous public interest in the Melbourne film festival has always had. It seems incongruous that for the rest of the year, Melbourne box office is consistently some 20% below that of Sydney’s, yet festival attendance is higher than for its Sydney sister.

Little gems dotted the program, like Bombon El Perro from Argentina’s Carlos Sorin, among powerfully relevant films like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, gripping genre works like Johnny To’s Election, and the refreshingly exciting new Australian films that are as varied one could imagine.

Bombon El Perro is an optimistic road movie in the vast empty stretches of Patagonia, about a man and a dog. Juan (Juan Villegas) is a modest middle aged widower with a permanent deferential smile and a stoic attitude to life. By shocking contrast, Mysterious Skin (now with its profile lifted after the Australian Family Association tried to have it banned but was rudely rebuffed) takes us into the lives of two young men whose experiences as youngsters at the hands of a pedophile reverberate throughout their lives – and not always predictably. 

Bahman Ghobadi’s acclaimed but deeply melancholy Turtles Can Fly, is set on the Iran/Turkey Kurdish border. The villagers are keen to get a satellite dish installed so they can tune in to news reports about the impending US invasion of Iraq. The 13 year old boy who bosses the village children for anti-personnel mine collecting duties, the young Master Fixit of the area, sets about getting this task done, and is nicknamed Satellite. In the process, Agrin, a young girl from another village who arrives with her armless brother Hengov, and her blind little bastard son (the consequence of her being gang raped by Iraqi solders earlier), catches his eye. Hengov, it turns out, has a gift for predicting future events, more useful even than the satellite dish. Satellite attempts to befriend this strange, damaged and unhappy trio, without success.

"award winning action thriller"

Derek Yee’s award winning action thriller, One Night in Mongkok, is a tough, violent, crime/cop thriller set in the world’s most populated piece of real estate, the film tells us: the Hong Kong suburb of Mongkok. It is also seething with crime. A feud between two gangs ignites the story, in which Lai Fu, a boy from the country, is brought in (desperate for money) to assassinate an enemy. He ends up saving Dan Dan, a pretty prostitute from a violent customer, and they try to evade his revenge. The cops are on their tail, too, aware of the young assassin’s mission amidst the gang war and so tension and action increase as the chase intensifies. Yee manages to successfully juggle two distinct points of view; we are drawn in by the young Lai Fu and Dan Dan the hooker, as well as seeing the view from the small police unit, which tries to keep law and order in murderous Mongkok.

Needless to say, there were disappointments, too: Amos Gitai, the Israeli filmmaker with a reputation for strong material, turns in a self indulgent and self important film about young women smuggled from Eastern Europe to Israel as sex slaves. Gitai takes this crackling subject and manages to make a boring (if sometimes graphic) film; there are a couple of well made and/or well written scenes, but the extreme hand held camera work seems only to symbolize a poverty of imagination and a lack of something valuable to say. Whether the people who walked out of the screening did so because they were offended or bored is impossible to say.

Considering its win of the FIPRESCI prize at Rotterdam this year, expectations were also somewhat dashed by Spying Cam from South Korea’s Whang Cheol-Mean, which almost works brilliantly, but is let down by a lack of story clarity. Two men share a bare hotel room during what seems to be a heatwave. They have a video camera (similar I suspect to the camera used to make the film) and a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. They start reading from the book and there is some amusing play acting, but this sort of existentialist set up can only sustain for a short time unless we are given some context. The context is oblique and too long in coming – and too fuzzy. 

For Closing Night, Hewison has chosen Election, straight from Cannes and ostensibly a Hong Kong action thriller, which surprises with its focus on character and power seeking, not guns and violence. Although violence can take many forms ….

"a coup with the Opening Night film"

But let’s finish at the start, as it were: Hewison scored something of a coup with the Opening Night film – the World Premiere of Little Fish (headed for Toronto in September 2005, along with look Both Ways). Cate Blanchett is mesmerising as the troubled Tracy, who is trying to kick free from a life of depressed melancholy in the wake of heroin addiction. The fact that she has a close relationship with her mother’s ex, Lionel (Hugo Weaving) who introduced her to the drug, is just one of the elements of the screenplay that enrich the film for its complexity and for its unexpected veracity. Hugo Weaving makes a remarkable jump in characterisation as the junkie Lionel, never once allowing us to see him acting. His transformation is both physically and emotionally complete. Likewise Sam Neill as the bisexual criminal who can buy his thrills: written and performed with layers of characteristics. Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) is another genuine character, defying the obvious profiles, as are all the supports; this is but one of the film’s many strengths. 

Published August 11, 2005

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A Hole in My Heart


Little Fish


Look Both Ways


Election


Saraband


One Night in Mongkok


Turtles Can Fly







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