Engagement, Diversity and Woman Directors

in 41st Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Li Cheuk-to

The 41st Viennale took place over a period of less than two weeks (October 17-29) and continued its tradition of taking risks with its rich and diverse program. The tributes to Emile de Antonio and Warren Beatty were obviously a timely programming choice against George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. De Antonio’s classic documentary against the Vietnam War, “In the Year of the Pig” (1968) still looks as relevant as ever. The film almost acts as a mirror reflecting a country that had not learned at all the lesson of the Vietnam War almost three decades ago.

Diversity is indeed the hallmark of the festival. While most other festivals also highlight films from different countries and in different genres, Viennale’s special programs can range from a focus on Vincent Gallo to two versions of “The Merry Widow” (by Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch respectively), from a celebration of over-the-top genre films and cult cinema to a return to roots in the six “Early Cinema” programs, presented by the Film Archive of Austria. It even includes a new project by the Austrian choreographer Christine Gaigg, “Adebar/Kubelka”, exploring the two art forms: film and dance, with the active involvement of the legendary avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka himself.

The Viennale is also well-known for its encouragement of young and emerging filmmakers. All sixteen films in the selection for consideration by the Fipresci jury are first or second solo features by their directors. Among them French productions featured strongly with a total number of four, with USA (three) and South Korea (also three) following close behind.

Incidentally, seven out of these sixteen films were made by young woman directors. The two from South Korea, Park Chan-Ok for “Jealousy is My Middle Name” and Byun Young-Joo for “Ardor”, were widely noticed since their works premiered at Pusan last year. “It’s Easier for a Camel…” is a directorial debut by famed actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who also stars in the film as the rich daughter of an Italian industrialist in Paris who feels crippled by her wealth. She tackles this rather unique subject of guilt over money with imagination and a light touch of bittersweet humor. The director of another French film “Since Otar Left”, Julie Bertuccelli, works in the more traditional humanist vein with a superb script and a trio of wonderful performances. The story of three generations of Georgian women coping with loss and life in the post-Communist era is extremely touching, and Bertuccelli’s balanced treatment of their competing motives and aspirations reveals her assurance with the medium as well as her maturity in vision.

Widely recognized as a young talent to watch with her directorial debut “The Virgin Suicides” four years ago, Sofia Coppola’s sophomore effort “Lost in Translation” has received high praises since its premiere at Venice and Toronto this fall. Though it is apparently overrated for its off-beat quality as an American film, while her unconscious cultural prejudice against Japan is largely overlooked, Coppola proved to be a sensitive filmmaker full of wry observations and quirky humor with this study of two persons thrown together in an alien environment.

In contrast, the Austrian entry “Free Radicals” tackles a much bigger theme than that in director Barbara Albert’s last debut feature “Northern Skirts”… With a host of characters unknowingly linked by the death of a young woman and each working out his or her destiny, the film cuts back and forth between stories throughout the course of a year, and is divided into four chapters by the four seasons. Albert demonstrates a marvelous degree of control over her material, and the ambition and intelligence of her script is evident. But the parts finally fall short of adding up to a whole that delivers the promise at the film’s beginning.

On the other hand, the feature debut of Argentine filmmaker Celina Murga, “Ana and the Others” seems surprisingly lacking in ambition. A simple story of a girl returning to her hometown and looking for her ex-boyfriend, it was shot with minimum flourish but with a deep affection for the characters and the small town locale. Here the people connect with each other and life keeps ticking along. The minimalist approach reminds one of Iranian cinema, while the naturalness and improvisational feel of those random, casual conversations among characters seem to be directly inspired by Eric Rohmer. This is an Argentine film that represents a distinct departure from the recent trend in its national cinema to engage with socio-economic reality in the age-old tradition of social realism.