Thursday, November 08, 2007

World Film Festival of Bangkok

The World Film Festival of Bangkok drew to a close this past Sunday still in search of much of an identity in this tough movie going town. It ran for ten days and showed about 70 films from all around the world. At least from my small sampling they were generally excellent films though not always very audience friendly as the programmers seem to have a bent for slow going serious arty fare with many of them having won awards at other festivals. The festival moved to a new venue this year, but it was a bit out of the way for many and the audience numbers were quite slim at my screenings with only one film (4M3W2D) having a near sell out. Of course the main issue with the festival is that none of the films had Thai subtitles – something of a tough sell to a Thai audience and by default it really becomes a festival for the ex-pats who live here – though many of whom I chatted with were very appreciative of having the opportunity to see these films. The venue was the Esplanade Mall which gave moviegoers an opportunity to ice skate, skateboard or bowl between films – and a choice of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or Chinese food. And let me not forget KFC and Famous Amos!

Here is a quick rundown of the films I saw other than Dream of the Red Chamber and 20:30:40 which I wrote about in a previous post. Only one of these falls into the category of Asian cinema, but hopefully some of these will land up in a friendly festival near you.

Egg (Yumurta), Turkey, 2007 – directed by Semih Kaplanoglu

Yusef receives a phone call in his tiny used bookstore in Istanbul informing him that his mother has died and that he must return to the small town where he grew up for the funeral. The film is covered by a sheen of melancholy, memory and silence in which very little occurs, very little is explained and the dialogue is as sparse as people in some of the barren landscapes. We are witnesses and yet never taken into the confidence of the characters and so have to grasp at the small nuances, the expressions, the stares and the body language to understand that everything emotional here is happening beneath the surface.

Once at his mother’s house Yusef meets his young distant cousin Alya who has been his mother’s companion and housekeeper for the past few years and she explains to him that his mother’s wish was to have a goat sacrificed. He only wants to get back to Istanbul but something almost mystical keeps him from leaving. Clearly there is a complex uneasy back story between him and his dead mother and perhaps a future romantic story between him and Alya but it is left primarily to the audience to guess at. This is a marvelously moody introspective tone poem with near pitch perfect performances from Saadet Isil Aksoy as the hopeful Alya and Nejat Isler as the taciturn Yusef. Its reflective mood slowly and almost unnoticeably seeps into your unconsciousness and stays there long after the film ends. This is the first of three films in what the director terms the Trilogy of Yusef but in an intriguing decision the director filmed the final part of it first – so one assumes that much of what was left unexplained in this film is revealed as we backtrack in the next two. The director won the Best Director prize at the festival.

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, Romania, 2007 – directed by Cristian Mungiu

Horror comes in all forms. Here it is presented in a spiritually barren world where the banality and indifference of society is more frightening than anything that comes in the form of the supernatural because it feels all too real, all too possible. Set in communist Romania in 1987 the title refers to the length of the life of the baby that Gabita is carrying. She is a university student and along with her loyal friend Otilia, they have made plans to abort it. This is a red cruel slice of life as it depicts one brutal frantic day in their lives in perhaps more realistic fashion than many of us can stomach. This is a dysfunctional society where everything is up for barter – either in the black market or under the table with bribes. Or with sex. With Gabita in a helpless state, Otilia sets about organizing everything from borrowing the money, to reserving a hotel room to contacting the illegal abortionist. Using primarily a handheld camera the director gives everything a sense of urgency, a sense of instability, a sense of loss. It is often hard to watch because it is presented so matter of factly with not an ounce of compassion - yet with understanding. It is also very nonjudgmental about a very sensitive subject that will make some squirm. Truly gut wrenching and startlingly powerful, it will stick to you long after Otilia’s final exhausted stare into the camera has faded away.

Love Songs (Chansons d’amour, Les), France, 2007 – directed by Christophe Honore

This is a rather nifty throwback to the musicals of Jacque Demy with the characters walking through the streets of Paris constantly breaking into song about the city and about love. Though much more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than The Girls of Rochefort with its progression from romanticism to deep melancholy, it tackles the sharp cutting angles of love as only the French can in film. Times though have changed since the early 1960's and this time love begins with a m̩nage a trois and ends in a passionate gay embrace. Broken into three chapters the film goes into some unexpected places of the heart. The songs are those of Alex Beaupain and sung by the actors Рlilting and charming with very simple arrangements.

Ismael is in a threesome with his girlfriend Julie and his co-worker Alice and the three of them share nights out and a small bed together. The three way relationship is clearly a temporary one of experimentation and curiosity and edges of jealousy work there way around them. But when one of them shockingly dies of a heart attack, the film leaves its expected path and romantic moorings into a period of despondency and guilt as the other two deal with their grief and how to escape it.

The Band’s Visit, Israel, 2007 – directed by Eran Kolirin

This small very simple film has received loads of praise and prizes at various film festivals and every bit of it is deserved. It begins in a state of sublime droll comedy and evolves from there to something that pierces the soul and uplifts it at the same time. Eight members of the Egyptian Alexandria Police Orchestra land in Israel for a concert they are to give, but no one has bothered to meet them at the airport. They are led by the rigid, somber and stuffy Tawfiq (Sasson Gabal in as marvelous a performance as I’ve seen in years) who adamantly refuses to ask the embassy for help. Instead they decide to get to the town on their own but after Saleh the band’s lothario sings Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” to the female clerk, he gets the wrong information and they end up on the roadside of a desolate isolated settlement all adorned in their best dress uniforms with only Egyptian money in their pockets. They are taken in by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the earthy sensual proprietress of a small restaurant for the night and in the ensuing hours their sad lonely lives quietly leak out through conversation, silences, remembrances and music in a pool of common humanity. This is one of my favorite films of the year.

Gardens in Autumn, France, 2007 – directed by Otar Iosseliani

If this passes for French irony and satire I expect I could go a long time without another piece of it. The charms of this film eluded me like a dying quail. Fanciful and absurd to a fault, this presents a fable of the transitory illusion of power in modern day France but it is so haphazard and jumbled that I soon lost patience with it. Vincent is a Minister of Culture and spends his time accepting tacky gifts from his constituents and berating his mistress for buying expensive even tackier statues. In his office resides a group of nameless flunkies that come and go with pointless papers to sign. As well as a tame leopard that lies about waiting to be petted. Vincent is blamed for some large protests and without much remorse hands in his resignation. Now a free man, he spends the next few days drinking, getting shit dumped on him, talking with his elderly mother (played by actor Michel Piccoli for some odd reason) and consorting with prostitutes and old mistresses. It is all done though with no particular narrative drive – just odd whimsical lazy shaggy dog sketches that add up to nothing as far as I could see.

Tokyo Tower, Japan, 2007 – directed by Matsuoka Joji

Nostalgia is awash in Japan these days with films and TV shows that hearken back to simpler days. Japan cinema is also awash in films made from TV shows and Tokyo Tower is both of these. A successful TV show, this film adaptation was a big box office hit with its sentimental and rosy portrayal of a relationship between a mother and her son. In fact, the film is really just a loving valentine to good moms everywhere (hi mom!), and though more than a bit overdrawn at 140 minutes it is certainly a very effective one that will elicit tears from most unless your mother was Joan Crawford. I am not sure what the Japanese equivalent of apple pie is, but this film is all mom and apple pie. Dad is strictly a side dish.

It begins in the present with Ma (Jo Odagiri) sitting by the bedside of his mother (Kiki Kirin) in the hospital as she fights cancer and he awaits the word whether it is curable. The film then bounces back and forth between the past and her progress in the present. With a husband (Kobayashi Kaoru) who liked his late night struggles with the bottle a bit much, mom (portrayed as the younger version by the real life daughter of Kiki, Uchida Yayako, which explains the eerie likeness) decides to leave with her small son and go live with her irascible mother in a small poor mining town. Over the years times are tough and money is slim but mom always manages to take care of her son (played by various child actors all adorned with Odagiri’s famous chin mole!). Eventually to her great pride he goes off to Tokyo to university where he decides to live a bohemian life and do little but drink and play cards. He still eventually graduates, pays off his debts and begins to make his way in the world as a graphic artist and a radio personality where he has mastered smut talk. But he cares for his mother dearly and feels pangs of guilt at having taken advantage of her love for him and so invites her to come live with him in Tokyo where she becomes the center of his group of friends. Humorous at times, poignant at many turns, the film wraps its soppy tentacles around you and won’t quit until you tattoo “Mom” over your heart.

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