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Born in 1952 as an offshoot of the burgeoning post-war film societymovement, the Melbourne International Film Festival is Australia's oldestfilm festival, and part of Melbourne's winter landscape. The Festival wants to be interesting for not just the congoscenti but a broad audience, reports JAN EPSTEIN in this preview of the 1999 edition.

In 1998, 90,000 people attended the Festival (London attracts 110,000). Surveys show that in the last two years patronage has increased by 70%, and Sandra Sdraulig, who took the helm as Executive Director three years ago, believes that the increase is due to the shift in programming from niche to generally more accessible films.

"Film buffs are still supporting the Festival"

"High profile films attract ordinary people, but the niche cognoscenti are still satisfied with the program," Sdraulig says. Single session sales have increased, so have mini-passes. But proof that film buffs are still supporting the Festival is in the steady number of Gold and Silver passes being sold. There is spillover from mainstream audiences into the hardcore arthouse and experimental sections, and Nielson ratings show that the age profile of those attending is "reassuringly across the board."

MIFF opens this year with Siam Sunset, the debut feature of Australian actor John Polson. It's a funny, clever, lushly lensed film which won the French Railways Workers award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in Critics Week. (Ed: the Rail dOr is much prized, and astutely appropriate for a film from a country which prides itself on its egalitarian spirit.)

Siam Sunset stars Linus Roache (Priest) as Perry, a successful design executive in a British paint company, who wins a coach trip to the Australian outback in a Bingo game, after the tragic death of his wife through a falling fridge. In his quest to forget the past and discover the perfect colour (Siam Sunset), he falls in love with Grace (Danielle Cormack from Topless Women Talk About Their Lives), and becomes a magnet for disaster.

One test of any Australian film is how it presents in foreign climes, and in Cannes there was nothing but pride in seeing this stylish, multilayered film represent our national cinema.

FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN FILM is the Festival's theme this year, and on the eve of a new millenium, what could be more appropriate than a series of 10 films by new and established directors, titled 2000 AS SEEN BY...

Hal Hartley's The Book Of Life is a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek account of the Second Coming of Jesus, featuring Hartley regular Martin Donavan as Jesus and Thomas Jay Ryan as Lucifer. Canadian actor/writer Don McKellar achieves the impossible and makes the apocalypse seem casual in Last Night, which concentrates on a group of characters dealing with last minute business, as Toronto unravels and prepares for the end. McKellar's debut feature is piquant and moving, and his characters eerily memorable.

Critics at Cannes last year couldn't make up their minds if Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole (pic) was simply tedious or a masterpiece. Set in a run-down apartment block, in a depopulated Taiwan beset by rain and disease, a plumber is sent by a downstairs neighbour to fix a leak in the flat above. What results is a hole in the ceiling/floor, through which the two occupants 'communicate'. Bleak and wryly comic, the hole is symptomatic of the state we find ourselves in at the end of the twentieth century.

Also worth watching is The Wall, Alain Berliner's imaginative look at the dangers of linguistic schism in Belgium, and Life On Earth, in which Abderrahmane Sissako flees the Y2K bug in France to record the poetic timelessness of his native Mali.

More than 50 feature films, culled from major festivals around the world, will be screening in International Panorama. Some will be released commercially.

Aleksandr Sokurov's Moloch caused a furore at Cannes this year, when it was awarded Best Screenplay by the Cannes Jury, led by David Cronenberg. Moloch covers 24 hours in the life of Adolf Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun. The setting is atop Hitler's mountain retreat in Bavaria, and the film's action, such as it is, consists of watching Hitler and his gangsters at play.

Like The Hole, Moloch is minimalist filmmaking which defies Hollywood conventions. As such it is poetic and difficult, with no narrative in the usual sense. Rather we absorb and understand Hitler from the film's aesthetics, from what we expect to happen, and from what does not.

There are magical scenes: Braun lost in herself doing callisthenics in a bodystocking, Hitler grinning gleefully at himself in a newsreel. Despite the film's dreamlike beauty, which is truly seductive, Sokurov shows Hitler, Goebbels and Co as ugly little trolls who have crawled out from the dark, and now rule the earth from the top of a mountain. Sokurov seems to be saying that evil is vacuous. Love cannot exist there. All that is left in such a vacuum is stunted, stupid and ugly.

Tim Roth's directorial debut The War Zone is also impressive. At first sight the film's theme, the abuse of male power in the family, seems to sit oddly with Roth's on-screen image of punk hero. But this talented actor is also a gifted director. Ray Winstone is explosive as father of a family of five, relocated to brooding countryside in Devon. Tilda Swinton (who made the film just weeks after giving birth to twins), plays the mother too preoccupied with her new baby to notice what is tearing the family apart. Roth handles some difficult scenes extraordinarily well. His cinematic style is quiet, studied, and he employs an almost static camera at times to great effect.

The Five Senses, by Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa (Eclipse) is a perfect film of its genre. The lives of a handful of characters interconnect when the little daughter of one of their neighbours goes missing, feared abducted, in Toronto. The five senses are the threads woven into each character's story - Richard (Phillipe Volter) is in danger of losing his hearing, Robert (Daniel McIvor) is a house-cleaner with a nose for love, Robert's best friend Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), has a problem with her sense of taste, and so on. Podeswa captures exactly the right balance between charm and realism, with the film's clever bones hardly protruding.

Emir Kusturica's latest film, Black Cat, White Cat (pic) is very loosely based on an ancient Serbian proverb that good luck follows bad. Set in a small Gypsy community on the banks of the Danube, it's a rambunctious romp, filled with carnivalesque characters, about two aging 'godfathers' who fall out over a black-market deal.

The Class Trip, French director Claude Miller's unnerving, eye-catching drama about a melancholy young boy's traumatic experineces during a winter vacation; David Cronenberg's eXistenZ depictsa society in the future where game designers are worshipped as superstars, and players can organically enter the game; John Sayles Limbo, a compelling tale about survival (family, nature, other people), set in Alaska. Consummately acted, with characters that are fully rounded, Limbo's talking point is the surprise ending.

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Siam Sunset, opening night film

An Ideal Husband, closing night film




Strange Fits of Passion

My Name is Joe

The Wounds

Class Trip

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