Unearthing gems By David Edwards

in 15th Brisbane International Film Festival

by David Edwards

In its 15 years existence, the Brisbane International Film Festival has positioned itself as a smaller but nonetheless important avenue for exposing Australian and Asian cinema to its audiences. This year’s edition largely lived up to expectations with a strong selection of new cinema complementing new works by established filmmakers.

As one of Australia’s three major film festivals, BIFF (as it’s known) is a key event for Australian filmmakers. The Australian line-up included the low-budget features The Actress (Zak Hilditch) and Em 4 Jay (Alkinos Tsilimidos); Alec Morgan’s excitingly inventive doco Hunt Angels; Ana Kokkinos’ tough but intriguing The Book of Revelation; and the world premiere of the breezy 48 Shades (Daniel Lapaine).

The latter three films were in contention for the FIPRESCI prize awarded by our jury to a film from the Asia-Pacific region. The selection for the prize brought together a diverse collection of films, mainly by first- or second-time feature directors from around the region.

As a mainly non-competitive festival, BIFF’s declared aim is to expose audiences to a variety of cinema experiences, and on that count, it delivered. Over 300 features and shorts unspooled during the 10 days of the event, ensuring anyone who wanted an experience outside the “norm” of Hollywood features could have one.

The event started in fine style with Robert Altman’s gentle, funny, nostalgic and whimsical A Prairie Home Companion. This is quintessential Altman, with his trademark observational style and real love of his characters. After the disappointing The Company (2003), it was inspiring to see this master of the craft back in form.

BIFF featured three showcase screenings – Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking; Gregory J Read’s Like Minds and Daniel Lapaine’s 48 Shades; all enthusiastically accepted by the Brisbane audience – albeit for rather different reasons. Reitman’s film struck a chord as smoking is a hot-button issue in Australian society right now, Read’s psychological drama set in a boys’ school starred BIFF favourite Toni Colette and scored highly in the audience vote; while Lapaine’s feature showcased Brisbane city in a story from hugely popular local author Nick Earls.

These were complemented by four gala screenings of Heading South (Laurent Cantet; France/Canada); the well-received No. 2 (Toa Fraser, New Zealand); A Simple Curve (Aubrey Nealon; Canada) and the powerful United 93 (Paul Greengrass; US/UK). To those could be added an “unofficial” gala screening of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (US), which sold out its sessions at the festival.

Beyond those headline sessions, the festival unearthed several smaller gems. High on that list was Byambasuren Davaa’s second feature, The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolia/Germany), which was awarded our jury’s FIPRESCI prize for the festival. Davaa’s gentle film took an apparently simple premise and developed it into an incisive and captivating look at a fast-disappearing way of life.

Debut Taiwanese director Yao Hung-I paid homage to his mentor and the doyen of Taiwanese cinema, Hou Hsiao-hsien, with his feature debut, Reflections. The film charts a relationship in decline. Filled with conflicting emotions and potential regret, Reflections borrows heavily from Hou’s distinctive style, yet Yao managed to stamp his own imprint on the film.

At the other end of the scale, Kim Dae-seung’s Blood Rain (South Korea) was a heady mix of historical epic, supernatural thriller, slasher flick and detective story. With a striking visual design and solid performances from its large cast, this was a rather different view of Korean cinema from the gentler style usually seen in Australian festivals. The film was rewarded for its daring by the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) jury.

With a selection as broad as BIFF’s, some disappointments are however inevitable. One in that category was Amol Palekar’s Quest, a politically-correct drama about a wife struggling to come to terms with her husband’s homosexuality. The film was talked up, but turned out to be a talk-fest, with dialogue dominating and cinematic elements overlooked. At nearly 2 hours, the film seriously outstayed its welcome.

Compared with the hectic pace and frenetic hype of festivals like Cannes and Toronto, Brisbane’s more laid-back approach and real love for the art of cinema (as opposed to its commercial aspects) make it an enjoyable event for film professionals and filmgoers alike. The festival doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, and succeeds admirably in bringing world cinema to its target audience. Clearly, the fest still has potential to grow further, and the challenge for organisers will be to build on the goodwill and classy reputation it’s developed to date and take it to another level.