Shocks and Surprises By Atilla Dorsay

in 41st Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Atilla Dorsay

The 41st Karlovy Vary Film Festival was the very first one I witnessed. It had all the qualities already admitted by its frequenters, but personally I appreciated a lot the level of the selection and as a FIPRESCI jury member (with the additional honor of being its president), I had unforgettable moments.

This year the best came from Europe. The film from the host country, Beauty in Trouble (Kraska v nesnazich) showed us, in the best manner of bitter comedies from this culture, the conflicts of a family in a quickly changing society. Sometimes using the elements of a sitcom, but most of the time extracting first class humor from the eccentric characters it depicts brightly. It is another success to add to Jan Hrebejk’s proved craftsmanship.

The Bulgarian Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata Elha) by Ivan Cherkelov and Vassil Zhivkov, did what the Taviani’s Kaos did for Sicily: In six different stories connected by the visual theme of a huge pine tree carried from a forest to the capital Sofia and the classical definition of Socrates about “the meaning of life” (something like “life is an upside down tree”), it gave us not only a few very cinematic moments and a constant visual pleasure to watch, but also a faithful reflection of rural Bulgaria. A bit too long, but to make one accept in one sketch which is totally spoken in a language we don’t understand, the Bulgarian gypsy language (and not even translated with subtitles!) was an act of courage.

From Finland came a modern masterpiece, Frozen City (Valkoinen Kaupunki) by Aku Louhimies, a penetrating story of alienation. The parallel with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is obvious, but this film moves in basically different directions. The couple’s relationship is as ruthless as can be and reminds one of the best moments of some Bergman films or Strindberg adaptations. The very calculated and cruel psychological torture of the husband by his angelic faced and soft-mannered wife, is a dramatic treat. It is a dazzling film which easily convinced us.

The Norwegian first film, Reprise by Joachim Trier, was also one of the best. With its unusual construction and a fresh, literary approach, this story of two young persons both trying to be writers, was a pleasure to watch in its first part. But then the director could not hold together his material. Towards the end the film was rather drowned under its excess of self-consciousness and its tiring effort of trying to be intelligent. Thus are the common faults of most first films. But the director is a talent to watch absolutely.

The Russian Transit (Peregon) was not at all the “war heroics” it seemed to be at the beginning. This is not a continuation of the themes of Cuckoo, the very successful previous film of the unpredictable Alexandr Rogozhkin. This film which revealed a totally forgotten page of the Second World War, a brief epoch of collaboration, near by Alaska, between Russian pilots and American (and female!) ones. Rogozhkin presents us an interesting synthesis of a kind of documentary, a detailed and mostly engaging series of human portraits and – towards the end and quite surprisingly – a whodunit! The recipe is tasty and makes up a quality mainstream film.

The French film, Virginie Wagon’s This Girl is Mine (L’enfant d’une autre), is a new version of a story as old as the Bible legends: To whom does a child belong? To the real mother or to the woman who raised him? Brecht and Chengiz Aytmatov are not far from this modern approach which becomes credible mainly thanks to the two female protagonists and the smooth, delicate treatment of the director. The Spanish My Quick Way Out (Volando Voy) departed from a real life story. A young Spanish boy, who, in the seventies, starting at the age of 9, chooses “the hard way”, participates in stealing, robbery and other crimes. Nicely acted and professionally shot by Miguel Albaladejo, it does not add much to the series of films of juvenile delinquency, almost a genre in itself.

The Polish Several People, Little Time (Pare osob, Maly czas) by Andrzej Baranski, is a respectable literary film about the lives and relationships of two (real) writers in the Poland of the seventies and early eighties. It is true that it does not concern many audiences unaware of these real-life characters, but personally I enjoyed it especially its understated but still efficient criticism of the communist era’s indifferent, even cruel attitude to artists.

Two other good films came from different continents and cultures. The American winner of the Crystal Globe, Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, about a drug-addicted mother and her efforts to get back her little daughter again after being released from prison, makes way for an American kind of realism, with echoes of a documentary style, cinéma-verité treatment and honest acting. Despite the magnificent portrayal by Maggie Gyllenhaal, it slips a bit towards a certain déjà vu, but an unexpected and strong finale saves the film.

Another woman director, this time the Iranian Shab Bekheir Farmandeh, departs from her personal souvenirs of a woman reporter during the infamous Iran-Iraq war and gives us a strong anti-war film different from the often seen American approach. Not that it is not classical in its narration. It is, but the director also takes her time to show us, amongst the absurdities of this war between two peoples with basically the same beliefs and culture, how daily life was still going on between bombs and battles, such as the wonderful episode of an aborted wedding. It is a humanistic, definitely anti-war film with also a strong ending.

Not everything was as good naturally. The German film Winter Journey (Winterreise) by Hans Steinbichler is a film about money, but big money and its owner, an eccentric and self centered capitalist who loses all his fortune, than falls into an obvious trap of a Kenya gang and goes to Africa to see it on the spot, accompanied by a thoughtful Kurdish woman translator (not to African languages, but to basic English!). It’s all very incoherent and only lightened by the grace of Hanna Schygulla, playing the dying wife.

The two films from Latin America, the Argentinean Destiny (El Destino) and the Mexican Mezcal, have both a common element: a typically Latin egotism. Miguel Pereira’s Destiny is the story of a criminal turned priest but who will find the redemption in a small village. The film abounds in clichés such as the road in construction which will bring nothing else but evil. Really? It’s a kind of Latin American western helped in its purpose by music a la Morricone and by the extensive use of large cloaks in Eastwood style. The other film, Ignacio Ortiz’ Mezcal is slightly more interesting. In this story of a bunch of people lost in a far away village, next to one dose of egotism, you have one dose of surrealism à la Marquez and one dose of (heavy) symbolism. Reminiscent of certain films of Bunuel (the Mexican period), the film has chosen a complex structure and therefore, it needs a constant effort from its audience. Is it worthwhile? Even if not, the director has a unique talent to visualize heavy rain or a storm, to depict this atmosphere of the end of the world and to describe a small bar with its daily competition of consuming mezcal (the local drink).

The Korean film Love Talk by Lee Yoon-ki about Koreans installed in Los Angeles has two main themes: the difficulty of adaptation for them to a totally different culture and, in a more general way, the difficulties of true love and relationships. Disjointed and developed almost in sketches, the film does not convince, but reveals its talented director’s sense of mise-en-scène. I have left Mouth to Mouth (Mun mot Mun) by Björn Runge, a Swedish-Danish co-production, to the end. True: This was a controversial film. Some people liked it, even in our jury. Personally, I hated it. For me, it was a zombie movie without the zombies! It is so determined in its will to shock, to scare and to disturb. Its characters were turned into caricatures, its dramaturgy into a sick gloom. And when the last father figure left, who, up to that moment was not even shown properly, made his entrance just to prove that he too was nothing but an incestuous rapist, the whole thing collapsed – at least for me. Even the basically talented directors have to remember sometimes old and extremely simple sayings, such as “too much is too much!”