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MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL – CAPSULE REVIEWS

JAKE WILSON comments on some of the memorable films he saw at the 1998 festival; from monomaniacal heroes to other people’s fantasies that engulf an animated character.

The best film I saw at the Festival was Taste Of Cherry, by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. For all their obvious beauty, Kiarostami’s films aren’t necessarily easy to take. Invariably his movies feature very repetitive, locked-in structures (the first film of his I saw, Through The Olive Trees, unbelievably repeats the same lengthy scene five times) with monomaniacal heroes who make the same demands over and over again. It’s like a concentrated, nagging essence of the classic idea of drama: a character in pursuit of a goal. At the same time Kiarostami leaves a great deal open to the viewer, since these calmly infuriating quests take place in the midst of richly ‘natural’ settings – actual people, actual landscapes – that at first seem very close to the unmediated ‘real world.’ Mostly, in this film, we see the mournful hero (Homayun Ershadi) driving round in his Range Rover, circling the bare dusty hills, strewn with construction sites, outside Teheran – a landscape which can be seen as either barren or fruitful, depending, literally, on how you look at it. In a sense the same applies to the film itself. If I’m avoiding saying anything specific about the plot of Taste Of Cherry, it’s because this is a film that's built around a series of mysteries, present on every level: the characters, the storyline, the world. Some of these mysteries remain till the last possible moment, while the most important are never solved at all; but the startling ending is guaranteed to alter all your ideas about what you’ve just seen.

The infuriation factor is doubled in Jafir Panahi’s The Mirror, a study in quiet aggression that’s a virtual parody of the recent wave of charmingly ‘simple’ Iranian films. A girl goes home from school. She gets home. End of story. Like Panahi’s beautiful The White Balloon (co-scripted by Kiarostami) The Mirror concerns the adventures of a solitary child in an urban environment. But where the earlier film was confined to a few squares and laneways – a village-like enclave with few cars, a limited number of settings, and readable characters – this one turns us loose in an open, teeming, mostly impersonal big city. (The scenes of little Mina threading her way past honking traffic are calculated to terrify parents.) Even more than Kiarostami’s work, The Mirror intermittently pretends to take place outside the conventions of drama, in the uncontrolled but colorful space of actuality; when Panahi deliberately undermines this illusion, he forces us to rethink the film’s premises from the start. The result is simultaneously a work of social realism, a series of games with sound and image, and a questioning of the terms of ‘fiction’ filmmaking. Given Panahi’s frank use of tedium as a weapon, it’s often heavy going, but it leaves you with a surprising amount to think about.

Made In Hong Kong, the debut feature from Fruit Chan, is a terrific example of the mixing of genres and modes that goes on in a lot of Hong Kong films: it includes punchy action sequences (with violence both horrific and slapstick), teen movie erotic excitement, an implicit commentary on the Hong Kong handover, and a surprising metaphysical finish. The youthful hero, Autumn Moon (Sam Lee) is a high-school dropout who’s become a debt collector for the triads; while on assignment, he meets the terminally ill Ping (the sparky Neiky Lee) and, together with his not-too-bright best friend, decides to raise the money that will save her. Despite its practical pessimism and apparent morbid content, the film is far from depressing: there’s lots of rude masculine humour (Moon boasts about his wet dreams in which he shoots down planes with his cum) and a basic faith in the decency of the characters, however far this is defeated by circumstance. And the New Wave-like youthful energy of so many scenes – three kids tearing around – suggests the excitement as well as the hopelessness of a world in flux, where all ties (to family, to morality, to a future) are provisional ones that could be broken at any moment.

For most of Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene At The Sea, that’s exactly what we’re looking at. At the edge of the tranquil sea there’s a strip of grey sand. Behind the sand rises up a bare concrete wall; beyond that, nothing but blue sky. In the middle of this airy minimalist landscape stand our main characters, teenage Shigeru (Kurodo Maki) and his girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Oshima), clutching incongruous fluorescent surf gear and staring directly past the camera, looking faintly comic, a little lost. The plot of this film – a deaf-mute garbage collector decides to learn to surf – is so simple and straightforward it’s like a pure object of contemplation. At the same time every frame of the film is infused with a stupefying yet extremely deadpan humour, mostly based on repetition, the way the characters don’t react, and the way that exactly what we expect to happen, happens (to wake Takako, Shigeru throws stones at her house; naturally he breaks a window). There are also beautiful moments where the ultra-resigned and stoic characters suddenly lose their cool; when the normally stone-faced Shigeru stares at some trivial mishap, then unexpectedly breaks down in giggles, it’s really amazing.

Perfect Blue, directed by Satoshi Kon, was the most interesting of several good Japanese animations that screened at the festival, a suggestive and frightening allegory about women, sexuality, and the media. The youthful heroine, Mima, is a singer in an all-girl pop group who rebels against her squeaky-clean persona when she’s cast by a soap opera in the part of a rape victim (modelled explicitly on Jodie Foster in The Accused). Following this drastic change in public image, Mima is haunted by the ghost of her former self, a wide-eyed, giggling, doll-like figure who’s the absolute epitome of Japanese kitsch innocence. This is just the first of a series of twists that eventually, in the manner of a delirious Brian de Palma thriller, make it impossible to distinguish between levels of reality, delusion and fiction. The film seems to describe a descent into madness, but what’s really alarming is that the fantasies which engulf Mima aren’t her own: they’re generated by everyone around her, from scriptwriters and agents to friends, relatives and obsessed fans.

The most obvious thing about the films of the great French director Jacques Rivette is their unusual length. Secret Defense (a French title which translates as Top Secret) runs for just under three hours – about average for a Rivette feature. But Rivette's taste for extended running-times and slow pacing doesn’t create a grandiose, epic feel; instead it makes his films seemingly lighter and more casual, based in the unhurried rhythms of everyday life. A mystery about a scientist (Sandrine Bonnaire) who comes to suspect her father was murdered, Secret Defense actually has an extremely tight structure, modelled on Greek tragedy.

But you’d hardly guess this from the low-key first half; a trap for the characters is assembled so quietly you don’t notice till it’s too late. As it happens, the film bears an odd, fugitive resemblance to another recent release: the American comedy-mystery Zero Effect. Both are leisurely ‘thrillers’ that favour quiet conversation over conventional action or suspense. Both feature isolated, detached protagonists whose investigations, casually begun, eventually reach back generations to a crucial secret: the repressed horror that marks their own beginnings. And for both, this central truth, buried in time, can only be reached (as in a maze) by means of a series of extended, roundabout physical journeys: riding back and forth, the characters traverse long distances, marking time in trains or airports, detached from the world that flows past them, wrapped in their private intrigues.

Whispering Pages was one of the highlights of the Alexandr Sokorov retrospective (along with his equally extraordinary Mother And Son). An extremely loose, near-wordless adaptation of ‘Crime And Punishment,’ this offers images of a ‘dark city’ more extreme than any produced in Hollywood, though not entirely outside the industrial-apocalyptic tradition of films like Eraserhead, Blade Runner and Seven. Shot mostly in grey monochrome, with occasional traces of washed-out color, the film follows a young man’s guiltstricken wanderings through sewers and derelict buildings, deserted or swarming with shabby, fearful crowds. The extremely slow pace allows us plenty of time to gaze at the delicate, cobwebby, involuted visual textures, which often reduce characters to shambling silhouettes, or flatten out faces as in obliquely-angled mirrors. A ghostly archaic feel encourages us to think of the whole movie as a faded relic of some forgotten, dying civilisation. And the sounds are as carefully assembled as the images, an eerie music of echoing footsteps, muffled muttering voices, and running water.

Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, from the Canadian eccentric Guy Madden, is a strange curiosity, another artefact out of time. The elaborate visuals are almost as painstakingly textured as Sokorov’s; the difference is that Madden deliberately walks the narrow line between visionary beauty and arcane kitsch. Set in the imaginary land of Mandragora, a far north province where the sun never sets, Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs (which is not, incidentally, about ice nymphs) has a indescribable plot that’s a farrago of Nordic mythology and 19th century melodrama, involving an ostrich farm, a magical statue, a one-legged mad scientist, a grizzled old prospector and assorted doomed loves. The whole thing is lit like the Myer Christmas windows, with lurid purple sunset backdrops and whole forests of plastic plants. Everything twinkles. As a desperate spinster, Shelley Duvall brings her own brand of bizarre soulfulness to Madden’s vision, and seems to fit right in. None of the other actors appear to know what exactly is going on, but maybe that’s part of the point. What’s particularly admirable is Madden’s refusal to play any of this for obvious laughs: when he does make jokes, mostly they’re so bizarre they’re not even funny. You take this film on its own terms or not at all.

More nervous laughter. Gummo, the first film directed by Harmony Korine (writer of Kids) is deliberately juvenile and formless, a rambling freak show that suggests neo-Warhol crossed with a slowed-down, live-action South Park. A couple of just-adolescent boys drift round the nowhere town of Xenia, Ohio – a freefloating zone, simultaneously suburban anyplace and post-apocalyptic wasteland – and get involved in various ragged semi-improvised skits. No shock effect is too tacky or dubious: gay black midgets, jocks who beat each other up on camera, creepy whisperings about sexual abuse. Naturally the kids spout choice obscenities throughout. (Sample dialogue: ‘That cat’s a lesbian.’) In a culminating atrocity, a retarded woman babbles to camera about her doll collection, then shaves off her eyebrows. The still-tittering audience goes deadly silent. On some level, the bewildering stupidity of a scene like this is also poetic and expressive – as if Korine, like his characters, were floundering about in some primal state of amoral cluelessness.

A romantic comedy of sorts, Buffalo 66 belongs to a fascinating sub-genre of ‘vanity projects’ (other entries would include the underrated Ishtar and The Mirror Has Two Faces) where presumably glamorous, successful stars deliberately cast themselves as pathetic losers – who in turn desperately dream of glamour and success. Just out of jail, the paranoid, hang-dog Billy Brown (writer-director-star Vincent Gallo) kidnaps a tapdancing student (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pose as his wife. The result is a multi-levelled exercise in roleplaying that actually gains from the sketchy unreality of its ostensible plot. Much of the humour comes from the dynamics of improvisation: Billy is the kind of inarticulate stooge who finds some phrase he likes (‘Make me look good,’ for example) and repeats it endlessly, while Ricci’s character emerges from silence to deliver a startlingly fluent monologue about Billy’s supposed job at the CIA. Within its basically simple structure, this strangely charming film has a ‘self-indulgent’ looseness that allows lengthy shaggy-dog jokes, intimate musical interludes and games with the size and shape of the screen. It also gains hugely from its gorgeous reversal-stock photography and from Ricci’s softly beautiful performance.

The veteran director Alain Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad) is known for his enthusiasm for comic books; his new film, Same Old Song, suggests he might also appreciate the formal qualities of Seinfeld, with its elaborately artificial coincidences, characters who suddenly start mouthing pastiche dialogue from old movies, and jokes that get magically passed along from one plot strand to the next. Centered loosely round graduate student Camille (co-writer Agnes Jaoui) this farcically plotted film maps the evolving interactions and relationships within a varied group of Parisians – each of whom is unaware of what’s going on between the others. I should have mentioned that Same Old Song is also a kind of musical: the gags and lines that get passed from character to character are mostly snippets of French popular song, rarely longer than thirty seconds, which the actors mime to as in a Dennis Potter TV series. This technique functions to confirm the movie’s self-proclaimed status as a frivolous piece of light entertainment; but the jokiness is partly deceptive, since virtually every character turns out to be suffering from some form of uncertainty, lack, or depression. As in most musicals, the songs arrive at the moments when emotion suddenly clarifies and can be expressed simply and directly. What’s modern and melancholy is the way the songs suddenly break off; as though these bursts of euphoria weren’t central, culminating points in a narrative, but merely incidental, swiftly lost.

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See Jake Wilson's REPORT on the Melbourne Film Festival

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Gummo

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Buffalo 66

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Alarmist

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The Eel

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