Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dublin Film Festival 2014 Report - 22nd and 23rd February

The Lost Weekend

Tracks (dir. John Curran) marked the third and final Mia Wasikowska starring film I saw during the festival, and this is the only one where she takes center stage. It's another extremely strong performance from Wasikowska, here playing Robyn Davidson - a young Australian woman who traversed over 2,500 kilometres of Australian desert in 1977, mostly solo. Her companions are four camels (one a calf) and a dog. The increasingly ubiquitous Adam Driver plays the photographer who meets her at certain intervals, and she's also joined for a period by an elderly Aboriginal guide). Wasikowska and Curran manage to capture the character's almost stubborn drive in a consistently engaging way - there's a welcome element of vagueness about the motivations (perhaps because the motivations were vague), instead focusing on the various challenges Davidson faced over the course of her months traversing the difficult terrain. 

Being honest, it's not the sort of film I'd tend to warm to: a 'motivational' true life story, told pretty conventionally. But I actually found myself engrossed and quite moved by this story as its told here, and there's no shortage of beautiful imagery and moments. Curran also doesn't shy away from portraying the sometimes bleak reality of the adventure, and it's not quite the sort of film that will have you rushing out to train wild camels for your own journey through barren Australia. The film could, however, have benefited from losing of the more on-the-nose flashbacks and voiceovers - as mentioned, the film is undoubtedly at its best when keeping focused on the journey itself. Overall, though, this was a welcome surprise.

Our Sunhi
Hong Sang-soo doesn't really stretch himself with his fifteenth feature Our Sunhi, but I still loved it (unashamed Sang-soo fanboy that I have recently become). The viewer encounter many if not all of his directorial trademarks: awkward romancing, speculations on the nature of filmmaking (there's always a film director turned film academic), those wonderfully articulate zooms, the curious repetition of scenes and images, and of course incredibly long takes of people talking / eating / drinking. This actually pushes the latter to new extremes, with a pair of compelling compelling sequences taking in one bar, with Sang-soo filming two important, ten minute plus conversations without an edit. As ever with Sang-soo's films, the result is a captivating internal pace and rhythm that negotiates the thin line between capturing raw, genuine emotions and reflecting on the artifice of cinematic form.

The unique focus is here is the way we look at ourselves and how others perceive us - here realised as three separate male suitors attempt to woo the eponymous Sunhi (Yu-mi Jeong) through perhaps disingenuous flattery and awkward flirtations. Certainly, Sang-soo is not a director unwilling to critique the contemporary masculine condition in unflattering detail, and with Sunhi herself he continues to create strongly defined yet endearingly elusive female protagonists. As ever, there's great truth and honesty in Sangsoo's approach, even if the characters themselves aren't always 100% genuine (well, at least until they've emptied a couple of soju bottles). And it's as effortlessly witty and funny as In Another Country, making it a real pleasure to watch. Sang-soo mightn't break with form here, but if the form isn't broken...

Bad Hair (dir. Mariana Rondón) is a peculiar little Venezuelan drama that plays out like a nightmarish, unloving portrait of a mother her young son, set in the housing projects of Caracas. Samuel Lange plays the son Junior - a 9 year old more interested in hair cuts and dressing up than traditional boyhood activities. His mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) fears he's gay, and over the course of the film seems to have less and less time and love for Junior. It's well made, diving down to depths many parents will surely consider almost horror film territory. Tackling issues such as class inequality, gender confusion and self-identity, there's interesting ideas but at same time the film itself didn't quite set the heart a flutter in the way a truly special one does. Worth a watch, but Bad Hair left me a little underwhelmed altogether - a film that's equal parts hard to hate and difficult to love.

The Gambler (Losejas, dir. Ignas Jonynas) is, well... ugh. A rather grueling assault of grimness greets the viewer in this pitch black Lithuanian-Latvian character study concerning paramedic Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniusonis). He's deep in debt, bordering on alcoholic and is working on starting up a betting ring where punters can wager on which terminally ill patients will kick the bucket (indeed). Oona Mekas plays Ieva, Vincentas' love interest and the film's none-too-subtle moral centre. And the film itself is none-too-subtle altogether - Vincentas is sent down an improbable road to unlikely redemption, and there's nothing particularly nuanced about the way this plays out. Characters are more caricatures than credible human beings. To Jonynas' credit, the film is committed to its horrible characters and almost cartoonishly repugnant world, so in that way I guess it succeeded in what it set out to do. But it's an endurance test as opposed to something I quote enjoyed unquote, and felt a lot of it felt deeply contrived in its attempts to make us squirm in discomfort. Felt in need of a good shower afterwards to wash off the layer of grime, but there was one film left to go on Saturday night. Luckily, it was a good one.

A Touch of Sin
A Touch of Sin is a truly magnificent 'state of the Chinese nation' address from the renowned Jia Zhangke. Four vaguely interconnected stories manage to encompass and critique the director's home country - migrant working (much of the film is set around Chinese New Year, when - as the wonderful Last Train Home informed us - workers travel home to their families for the holidays), industrialisation, ideological hypocrisy, changing methods of communication, corruption, shifting (degrading?) morals etc...The society portrayed here is at odds to many of the images we see portrayed in most Chinese and Western media, to the point where it seems like a near miracle Zhangke was allowed make such a scathing film in his own country. It's a cynical film, but one that seems genuinely concerned with some of the changes taking place in China.

There's a few ideas connecting the stories, which only occasionally have characters interact. For example, the first episode's protagonist - a miner (Jiang Wu) frustrated with the inactivity and corruption of his village elders - is not seen again after the film has switched perspectives. Each character could be seen as representing a certain section of Chinese civilian society, three of whom could be classed as migrant workers. However, most obviously each section is punctuated with acts of extreme violence. The type of violence differs in each chapter. The first chapter is a kind of revenge fantasy as the miner wields his shotgun to definitively teach the village elders a harsh lesson. The second character's motivations are perhaps the most mysterious - a migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang) who seems to engage in random acts of violence as much out of pleasure as necessity. Zhao Tao plays a sauna worker who is forced to defend herself following a humiliating assault at the hands of two male clients, while the final chapter focuses on a young worker (Luo Lanshan) driven to self-harm following his experiences working in a seedy nightclub and, later, a huge factory complex (an all too common situation in China). The violence itself, particularly in the first chapter, is almost unrealistically visceral yet highly cinematic. But Zhangke is committed to encouraging the audience to understand and critique the characters' actions and the reasons behind them, even if they're not always forgivable. There's not much empathy we can muster up for someone who engages in a killing spree, but this is a violent thriller with vast sociological and emotional depths.

It's a wildly ambitious and wildly successful film, laced with moments of black humour. Expertly crafted and visually drowning in creeping, uncomfortable smog - oddly out of focus in a few shots, though - this is one of the most thought-provoking and thematically complex films I've seen in quite some time.  

Festival programmer Grainne Humphrey's nicknamed the final day 'happy Sunday', due to a day's worth of crowdpleasers dominating Savoy 1 (Dublin's most iconic cinema screen). However, joy was not the prevailing emotion down in the Lighthouse cinema, where myself and a small crowd were getting pummeled with the sheer misery that was The Fake. Whereas The Gambler felt wrong, this felt just right in its unrelenting bleakness.

From Yeon Sang-ho, the director of the equally depressing King of Pigs (which played JDIFF 2013), this Korean animation is the antithesis of Western animation in both aesthetics and tone. It's a pretty much joyless account of a village about to be flooded due to building of a dam, with the villagers seeking solace in a new 'faith healing' church. The closest thing to a main character - Min-chul, the only skeptic - is a violent, foul mouthed asshole who pretty much can't get through a conversation without using the most obscene insults or resorting to physical violence (including against his family). That gives you an idea of the level of brutality here, but the film is a pretty devastating deconstruction of organised religion and small town communities in which pretty much no-one gets off easy. The film explores the darkest recesses of its setup, leading to an inevitably dark conclusion (although with a surprisingly poetic epilogue). It feels forced at times - the subtitles are maybe even overlittered with expletives - but mostly the uncomfortable force of the film further marks Sang-ho Yeon as an almost completely unique voice in contemporary animation. Do not expect this in a multiplex near you any time soon.

The surprise film this year was Muppets: Most Wanted. I'd say more, but for some incredibly silly reason all attendees had to sign an embargo form before entering. Suffice to say, however, it is a sequel to The Muppets. I find myself once again wishing this slot was reserved for offbeat, unexpected titles - films that would slot into the full programme comfortably, not whatever upcoming mainstream release a distributor is willing to offer (with a Dublin set chapter, however, this at least is a little more suited to JDIFF). You have a guaranteed roomful of viewers: what a wonderful opportunity to truly shock and surprise them and take them outside their usual comfort zone. The Muppets don't quite achieve that, but nonetheless a marked improvement over last year's dreadful Welcome to the Punch.

The Stag
Unexpectedly, I found myself quite enjoying The Stag (dir. John Butler) - a predictable but entertainingly energetic comedy about a group of six men who head into the Wicklow Mountains for one of their bachelor's weekends. Alas, I was really disappointed that the final act morphed into sentimental mush. I don't like second guessing or 'correcting' filmmakers' intentions, but the extended wedding scene should have been excised entirely as it added nothing of note and gravely damaged the film's tone and characters. Which is a real shame as elsewhere the film is genuinely funny (in its crude way) and there's some surprisingly well handled story and character moments among the standard bromance. A powerful campside earlier on singalong actually managed to communicate so much in an impressively cinematic way, all without resorting to the raw cheese that came later. If it ended fifteen minutes earlier, I would have walked out of The Stag with much more of a spring in my step and nicer things to say. But at least to its credit it managed to step out of the 'Irish Hangover' realm for much of its running time - in fact, I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed The Hangover even with the deeply misjudged finale.

One little thing though - the name The Machine (played by co-writer Peter McDonald in the film's Zack Galfanakis role) might have sounded great in the script, but having every character use 'the' when referring to him felt awkwardly unnatural throughout.

And that's it! 28 films, ten days, much frustrations at the repetitive sponsorship ads that played before every film. I had an absolute ball, although a couple days outside of a cinema was needed for a bit of a detox. Only a couple, mind.

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