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Characterised by supreme confidence, this year’s Melbourne Film Festival was programmed as if no film is too startling or offensive to be seen, yet departing director James Hewison could have gone further still, says Lesley Chow as she reports on the films that engaged, entertained, irritated or impressed her, like Funny Ha Ha.

At this point, the Melbourne International Film Festival is free to go pretty much anywhere it wants. At least, that’s the impression I got waiting in lines that looped around the block for a full hour. Nothing, it seems, is too strange or obscure to draw a crowd: not even a two-hour silent Chinese film (Love and Duty), or a skewed fairy tale in which a little girl and a mentally retarded young man fall in love (Tideland). There’s a level of confidence in the event that’s almost frightening – it’s as if no film is too startling* or offensive to be seen. Whether it’s the programming of director James Hewison, or the increasingly slick marketing – the Asian films are inevitably presented as some kind of sushi combination platter – the festival has proven its power, if not its total commitment to risks.

(*Ed: Taxidermia is a good example, one of the films selected by Hewison from Cannes [Un Certain Regard]; György Pálfi’s extraordinary film raises the bar for on-screen body-grotesquery to new highs.)

Given his ability to create an audience for just about anything, it’s surprising that Hewison hasn’t gone further with this year’s program – especially considering this is his last festival before moving to the Australian Film Institute. The highlight of the 2005 festival was the outstanding retrospective on Uchida Tomu: one of the great directors of the 50s, whose work remains relatively unknown and difficult to see outside Japan. This year, the only retrospective focuses on Iranian director Jafar Panahi, whose films are widely available on DVD, and whose latest feature – a comedy about World Cup trials – was always going to be an easy sell. Nevertheless, Offside is one of Panahi’s best films – like The Circle, it’s about a group of women forced to rely on the goodwill of others.

"One of Hewison’s smartest moves has been the creation of a late-night slot for music and comedy films"

These girls are passionate about football but not allowed to attend games, so they helplessly circle the stadium before being fenced into a tiny space outside the gates. They spend the entire match collecting scraps of reportage, begging the male fans and guards for help. However, the new element here is the response they get – rather than stern patriarchs, these are young men half-heartedly enforcing a policy of exclusion they don’t subscribe to. What impresses us, along with the persistence of the girls, is the generosity of the boys willing to aid their path. These men are goaded into reluctant acceptance of their new friends, and are occasionally willing to be the pawns of witty and resourceful women.

One of Hewison’s smartest moves has been the creation of a late-night slot for music and comedy films. Of these, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic – a profile of the “ironically” racist comedian – generated the most toxic buzz. Silverman has to be one of the most intriguing and irritating comics around. Like Jim Carrey, she skates close to subversion, but her tense, quivering face gives the game away: she may claim to enjoy objectifying her black boyfriend, but her heart isn’t really in it. The film presents her in concert and backstage, making “sophisticated” fun of AIDS-related deaths and black teens. However, a close-up of Silverman shows her inability to make controversial comments without turning her face into a tight mask of disdain. She’s a fairly needy performer, whose act depends heavily on a shocked reaction from audiences. She gloats at the uneasy laughter of viewers when she makes a remark like, “I don’t care if you think I’m racist, I just want you to think I’m thin.” But how would she deal with an audience who shrugged – or agreed with her?

As annoying as Silverman was, at least her film was an attempt to strike a nerve. This year, I found the majority of the Asian features disappointingly safe. Perhaps Love, Seven Swords, Everlasting Regret and Johnnie To’s Election 2 were examples of the deluxe mainstream film that Hong Kong now produces in spades. MIFF tends to show too many of these classy, “international” pictures – films which lack the giddy, individual spirit of To’s comedies, for instance. I would love to see more of the disreputable side of Hong Kong cinema – and not just schlock horror. What about the wild farce Himalaya Singh – or the radical prostitution comedy Golden Chicken? The most engaging Chinese films were the 30s classics Love and Duty and The Goddess; both feature a stunning performance from actress Ruan Lingyu. In the latter, she moves from anxiety and despair in her role as a prostitute, to total abandon as she covers her child’s face with kisses. This is one of the great silent performances, as well as an intense depiction of a sacrificing mother – not even Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas was this fierce.

"The best movies I saw were far from elegant"

The best movies I saw were far from elegant: strangely enough, all of them seemed to deal with compulsion, and the ways it can be used or channelled. Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a totally gripping film about the Irish war of independence, and an intelligent young doctor (Cillian Murphy) who is urged by his community to turn brains into brawn. But as the fight progresses, brains come back into the equation: this film is about the force of language in war as much as anything. None of the characters can agree about where to draw the line between selling out and a realistic compromise, and the key moments occur in the debating room rather than on the field. Ireland is seen as a land of great talkers, who can shout persuasively and articulately: enough to incite others to bloody fury, and struggle relentlessly for years, as well as to promote peace.

Bruno Dumont’s Flanders cuts between a grinding life in rural France and an unnamed war in a distant land – a teenage girl’s apathy on the one hand, and a ceaseless battle on the other. It’s a comparison that doesn’t entirely work, but the film awakens our responses to death, and the confusion that surrounds it – a smiling face suddenly slumps over, and bodies senselessly fall down or become unaccountably inert, as if agreeing to lay low for a moment.

By contrast, the Korean revenge drama Sympathy for Lady Vengeance maintains a mood of high-key hysteria; in this film, the voices that call out for violence are like the chorus in a Queen song – epic and towering as well as introspective. The film is weightless but entertaining, thanks to a marvellously authoritative performance from Yeong-ae Lee as the woman dispensing justice. An interesting note is the sassy and very Australian voice of Lady Vengeance’s daughter (Yea-young Kwon), who lends her distinct cadence to the film’s mix of accents, translations and karaoke dialogue.

The films of Abel Ferrara remain as mysterious as ever, even as they take on icons with startling directness. His work deals with the clash of hubris and myth: a hell-raising protagonist becomes lost in a world of apparitions. In Mary, the ego is supplied by an actor-director (Matthew Modine) who attempts to make a blockbuster about Jesus – he’s all about demographics and publicity. However, it appears that during the making of the film (a stone unrolling from a tomb, the scenes of religious debate), some kind of passion has been inadvertently aroused – acting seems to have triggered or disturbed a genuine faith. While several of the characters find relief in a higher power, the film hangs on to the possibility that a primal mystery has been unleashed, in the process of filming sacred scenes. Marie (Juliette Binoche), the actress who plays Mary Magdalene, turns into a martyr and visionary under stress – we see that she steadfastly prays with eyes shut while Matthew Modine’s ridiculously American Jesus holds forth with his disciples. Ferrara sees religion as a dark power, capable of riling up a New York as gritty as the one he showed us in Ms. 45 – and just as full of compelling madmen, whether film producers or true believers.

"the discovery of this festival "

However, for me, the discovery of this festival was definitely more modest in scale: two beautiful comedies by the US writer-director Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. The attraction of these films is simple: they offer us ten of the most charming people we’ve ever seen, outside of a Howard Hawks movie. In Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski turns Boston into a soft, magical wonderland, where young workers and students pad around, making the lightest and airiest of small talk, and occasionally kissing and enchanting one another. Although they don’t know it, these characters are stranded in paradise: if one person’s thought trails off, someone always finishes it in a creative and unexpected way. Comparisons have been made with Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater, but I don’t know if either director has sustained such a warm and forgiving atmosphere. In Bujalski, the tone never turns bitter or sharp. This is comedy that seems to pour out of a single mood, or from the pages of a book: it’s the everyday projected as a seamless fantasy.

Published August 17, 2006

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Funny Ha Ha - discovery


Mutual Appreciation - Andrew Bujalski’s charming people

Taxidermia - striking

Offside - one of Panahi's best

The Wind That Shakes The Barley - gripping

The Goddess - stunning performance

Mary - dark power

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