Being One's Own Obstacle

in 47th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Vojtech Rynda

Two of the best films in the main competition at the 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival seemed to represent polar opposites. Yet both films dealt with the same subject matter: the inability to move on in life.

The title character of the Norwegian film The Almost Man (Mer eller mindre mann, directed by Martin Lund) is thirty-something Henrik, who appears to be starting a new phase in his life, which has been successful so far. He has a cozy new apartment, a new job working with people from his social strata, a solid income, and a tolerant girlfriend who is expecting their first child. But somehow Henrik is unable to leave his adolescence behind and embrace the joys and responsibilities of his current position in society. He tends to have a “kick against the pricks” attitude, indulging in childish small revolts against rules with his long-time friends, and becoming more and more aggressive until he eventually sinks into a pathological state of mind.

Chiyo, the protagonist of the Japanese film Kamihate Store (Kamihate shoten, directed by Tatsuya Yamamoto), is already at the stage of pathology. The owner of a small grocery store at (literally) the end of the road by the seaside, Chiyo seems to be paralyzed by grief over the death of her mother, as well as by the general apathy which characterizes the village. From her mother, Chiyo assumes responsibility for a strange tradition: she sells milk and bread rolls to people who come to commit suicide by jumping off a nearby cliff.

On the surface, these two movies do not have much in common, except for the fact that both present us with a study of a mind which is stuck and scared, rejecting the reality of the “normal” world. And even here there is a difference: we observe the changes which Henrik goes through, while we witness the state that Chiyo is in. Yet the two films somehow complement each other in the main competition, in a dialectic way. Seeing both films helps us to understand their qualities better, and also to appreciate the selection of films in the main competition.

There are several obvious contrasts between the two movies – for example, The Almost Man takes place in a small town, while Kamihate Store is set in the rugged nature surrounding a village. The fast-paced Almost Man immediately brings the stark rules of Dogme 95 to mind, while Kamihate Store employs a very slow pace and meditative narration. Some of the other oppositions are more complicated. The Almost Man moves towards a breaking point, while Kamihate Store deliberately moves in circles and finds strength in repetition. Henrik externalizes his state of mind verbally and through very vivid physical action, while Chiyo represses her emotions and keeps them inside.

Despite the serious subject matter, there are elements of humor. Yamamoto uses humor very sparingly, in short moments (the scene where Chiyo tells two bored hip girls who have been attracted by stories about her on Facebook that she has poisoned their bread rolls), but The Almost Man can be perceived as a dark comedy, full of scenes in which Henrik tests the bounds of “normal” social behavior. But with Yamamoto, humor serves as relief in an otherwise bleak story, while the humor of The Almost Man becomes gradually more and more absurd, to the point where it turns aggressive and the spectator fears the end of the scene.

Over the years, the main competition at Karlovy Vary has found its niche in films which are depressive for their own sake, artsy portraits of dysfunctional people. In its 47th year, the festival seems willing to break free from this tendency. Neither Henrik nor Chiyo are characters happy with their place on earth or in society, yet they are both fighting and struggling – and this is what makes watching them not depressive at all. In addition, neither Lund nor Yamamoto are trying to hit the spectator over the head with heavy-handed messages or an arrogant style. Which was precisely the case with Ektoras Lygizos’ Boy Eating the Bird’s Food (To agori troi to fagito tou pouliou), easily the worst film in competition. Watching this Greek film made the viewer appreciate the way that Lund and Yamamoto managed to show us the minds of their characters, in different but equally strong ways.