I’m half way through the festival and a few people have asked what my favourite films have been so far. Out of the 30+ I’ve seen, and excluding retrospective screenings and short films, here are my ten highlights at the half way point:
13 Assassins | no more screenings
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer | Thu 4 Aug
I Am Eleven | Tue 2 Aug
Jane Eyre | no more screenings
Michael | Mon 1 Aug
Senna | Sat 30 July (today)
Sing Your Song | Sun 31 July
Surviving Life | Sun 31 July
Tomboy | no more screenings
The Yellow Sea | Tue 2 Aug
I began Friday with Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree. It’s a sweet and ultimately sad romance film set during the Cultural Revolution in China. The use of inter-titles throughout the film to explain entire pieces of missing action at first makes the film feel very episodic and disjointed. However, as it gently unfolds it does pleasingly deliver a gentle story of forbidden love during an era of repression. It becomes shamelessly emotive towards the end and while my resistance crumbled and I became very choked up, I did question if the film had really earned the right to be so overtly manipulative. I never felt a connection between the personal and the political and resolved that it is simply a moving film of unfulfilled love. Maybe that’s all it needs to be and while it’s a minor work from Zhang I still enjoyed it.
The personal and the political is very much established in Route Irish, to the point that it is at times blatantly didactic, which is something that director Ken Loach is occasionally guilty of. Still, a minor Loach film is better than most other films and I got a lot out of this angry condemnation of the way Allied soldiers and contractors in Iraq have abused the locals. The film somewhat plays out as a detective narrative with the protagonist trying to piece together the events that lead to the death of his best friend. Loach includes some expectedly observant commentary on what class of people go to serve and die in war and what class stay home to profit from the results. Audience sympathies are dramatically shifted away from the lead character as the film tackles issues such as the use of torture and revenge, in a way that is distinctively Loach.
Before I get into the short film program, I should quickly mention the short film Bunce, which I saw on Wednesday. Written, narrated and featuring Stephen Fry, it’s based on one of Fry’s childhood experiences. It’s a charming enough film, but the story is not much more than an anecdote.
I’m booked into three of the short films programs and the first one was International Shorts – Misfits, a program of slightly offbeat films. The session started with Ghost, which apart from one eerie effect of a chicken bone marionette coming to life, didn’t have much else of interest. The bar was then raised considerably with All Flowers in Time, by Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette who I wish would direct more as I love his sensibility. All Flowers in Time is best described as a fusion of video art, suburban gothic and monster movie. (Yes, I know I ripped that off the program notes, but I wrote that bit and was rather pleased with it so I figured it’s OK!) In uses its train tunnel location to create a menacing atmosphere, with the power of suggestion being used to create the sensation of dread. I got more laughs out of Las Palmas than I have from anything else that I’ve seen at MIFF this year. Director Johannes Nyholm creates a mini-resort populated by marionettes and then casts a baby in the roll of an obnoxious, demanding and generally ugly tourist. It works brilliantly. Finally, The Unliving does something new with the well-worn zombie genre by having a future society where zombies are now the norm and used for menial labour. Just as story got going it abruptly finished, leaving me feeling that the film had been made as if it were the beginning of a feature. If that is the case then I hope the filmmakers get the required attention from the right people so that they can continue the story. I’ll line up for a ticket right now. A great way to conclude an overall excellent program of shorts.
Finally, to back track a little bit, on Thursday I saw Sion Sono’s Cold Fish. The story of a passive man who is drawn into a world of murder by a charismatic and more powerful man reminded me of Snowtown, although it’s a very different film. Unlike Snowtown, Cold Fish simply offers a straightforward depiction of Alpha Male behaviour to deliver a few transgressive delights. I’d heard that in the earlier screening there was one very vocal audience member who found all the violence against women extremely funny, making the film extremely unpleasant to watch. In my screening the audience laughed out of shock more consistently at the audacity of all the forms of violence, which I had no problem with. Having been a big fan of Sono’s other films, I was a little disappointed by Cold Fish, especially its meandering middle section. It does reach a wickedly fun climax of absurd nastiness towards the end and how can you not admire a sex scene/fight to the death that takes place on a blood and entrails covered floor?
There was a large secondary school group in the audience for Under the Hawthorn Tree, who became incredibly giggly during the tamest of tame scenes where the potential for a bit of heavy petting was mildly suggested. I was genuinely surprised by their response as I thought kids these days were all corrupted by the plethora of sexual images that they are meant to always be bombarded with.
Maybe they are simply too busy trying to find something to wear for a fancy dress party. I heard this random snippet of conversation on a tram the other day while heading into the city: ‘I want to go dressed as a cactus but I have no idea how to look like a cactus’. Then later in the same day I witnessed a young guy serenading his lady companion with the theme to Family Ties. I hope he got lucky that night. I hope the cactus guy did too.
Meanwhile, my MIFF fatigue is causing some wild mood swings. While sitting in Fed Square between sessions I caught myself giving the finger to a seagull that was pissing me off. Yep, I gave the bird to a bird. Later that day I hit a guy with a piece of mandarin
peel, but in my defence I was aiming for a bin and I am uncoordinated.
Show us your MIFF
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a film soundtrack collector, but after discovering the full extent and range of what David O’Connell has collected over the years – over 4000 soundtracks – I happily concede defeat. David’s all-time favourite film is Alien and Jerry Goldsmith’s score has a lot to do with that. David’s been coming to MIFF for the last five years and has been steadily building on how much he attends. This year he’s looking like he’ll get to 55 films. He’s most looking forward to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Elena, and to survive the festival he always has his pockets stuffed with power bars and a semi-crushed vegemite sandwich or two. So far A Separation has been the best thing David’s seen, and he’s also loved Tomboy and Littlerock. His all-time favourite MIFF experience was in 2009 seeing Nicolas Winding Refn, one of his favourite directors, in conversation followed by a screening of his amazing film Bronson. David’s only real MIFFhap is the misery he inflicts upon himself through his determination to never walk out of a cinema, despite being strongly compelled to do so several times last year. David writes about film at In Film Australia, 20/20 Filmsight and his own blog Screen Fanatic, where he is currently posting several MIFF reviews.