The Few Glints of Life

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Aside from the hugely ambitious, visually arresting and at moments genuinely profound Japanese FIPRESCI winner Heaven’s Story, the few glints of life from a disappointingly flat Forum selection came mainly from documentaries. Communities under threat of dying out from demographic shifts and the brash, terrorising encroachments of “progress” was a thematic thread running through the three best of these — South Korean director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s feature debut Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream Of Iron, An Angel In Doel from Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert, and Matchmaking Mayor from the Czech Republic’s Erika Hnikova.

The innovative, complexly layered and poetic A Dream Of Iron was the section’s most successfully daring film stylistically, and suggests Kelvin Kyung Kun Park as a real talent to watch. It focuses on Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon district, a small hub of metal workshops which sprang out of the military scrap of ’50s economic recovery following the Japanese occupation and Korean war, and is now threatened by gentrification. More than just telling this story, the film is couched as a near-ritualistic palliative to the psychic unease on a national scale caused by Korea’s tormenting pace of post-war industrialisation. As Park explains in the festival catalogue: “The industrialisation of Korea forced upon it by colonial powers gave no room for subjectivity and no time for contemplation of aesthetics.”

Seeking a cinematic language to redress this, Park blends ’60s archival footage of Korea’s disorientingly rapid modernisation with the observed day-to-day shaping rhythms of metalwork at the site today, from the foundrymen to the cutters and engineers. In voice-over the filmmaker addresses his father, who ran a scrap metal business, speaking of a recurrent childhood nightmare in which his blood tasted like iron and referring to a village folk belief about metal as a bad omen — a ruthless substance of the earth with strength but no spirituality. Park said in the catalogue he had a sort of “city symphony film” in the vein of Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in mind when he went into the project, but was hobbled by capacity and budget into having to find a different approach. It’s just as well — A Dream of Iron is a wholly unique work of cinema, a kind of magic machine which in its soldering together of disparate material and registers befits a post-modern, information age in which the health of the collective unconscious depends on an ability to harmonise a tumble of disparate, cacophonous codes.

The impersonal appetites of “progress” threaten to swallow up another tiny locale in Dutch director Tom Fassaert’s elegantly dour-looking, yet charmingly curious black-and-white documentary feature debut An Angel in Doel. Slated for demolition as nearby Antwerp expands, the Flemish village of Doel is slowly abandoned as the elderly Emilienne remains in her home, feeding her chooks and refusing to open eviction letters. Her kitchen table is a focal point of the film, with neighbours dropping by and gathering there to talk of funerals, shooting stars and Doel’s decline in a manner startlingly surreal in its mix of earthy pragmatism, otherworldliness and wry wit. Stubbornly staying on even as the local priest dies and the last of her friends depart, Emilenne’s resistance begins to feel like a last stand against mortality itself.

Slighter and less accomplished stylistically, but hugely entertaining, Czech director Erika Hnikova’s documentary Matchmaking Mayor centres on Zemplinske Hamre in eastern Slovakia. It’s another village with its days seemingly numbered, due to the demographic slide of an ageing population, and its young folk moving away. Taken to micro-managing the town’s lives through the loudspeaker system left over from the communist era, the exuberantly overbearing mayor — a former army general — engineers to pair the unmarried 30-somethings off through a singles ball. They, however, are more adept at passive resistance than he’d hoped. While it milks the surreal eccentricities of small-town life – not least the astonishingly gaudy kitsch of the home interiors — Hnikova’s warm humanism ensures this humour never feels condescending. Instead, with its eye for the bizarre quirks of irreducibility, the film — like Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream Of Iron and An Angel In Doel — serves as a cinematic bulwark against the de-individualising forces of an auto-piloted and out-of-control urban industrial machine.