Saturday, 31 July 2010


(Chuan Lu; China; 2009)
Clearly a film that depicts the massacre of 300,00 Chinese people by the invading Japanese army in Nanking in 1937 is going to be heavy work, and considering the utter gravity of this brutal moment in 20th century history, it is to Lu Chuan's credit that City Of Life and Death carves a harrowing and horrific furrow for 135 minutes. There is no room for sweetening the experience with saccharine or heroism, but the relentless and epic depiction of the horrors of Nanking make for demanding but astonishing viewing.

By not having an outright protagonist in the film, but instead having a handful of key characters that we return to over and again, allows the film to circumnavigate its brutal exposition with an observational and semi-objective eye. The film mixes small-scale with large-scale, connecting personal dramas to the larger tragic schema – shots zero in on individuals faces reacting to the horror of their predicament or the minutiae of the event, then sweep out to take in the plight of hundreds and hundreds of people. It is the epic scale of these latter shots that really have punch – a church full of hundreds of Chinese all raising their hands in surrender, a swathe of deserting troops trampling civilians to get out of the city, hundreds of captured soldiers being gunned down in one large-scale execution.

The point of view is not solely from the Chinese, as the film focuses on a couple of Japanese characters who observe and participate in the atrocities, but ultimately the film shows killer and prey as part of a universal intertwined whole.


( Lucien Castaing-Taylor; USA/ UK/ France; 2009)

A slow gently-paced documentary about sheep and sheep-herders? Mmmm, sounds riveting.

For the first third of the film it seemed liked the director was happy for the film to amble off down an inconsequential path. It looked nice, but it lacked focus – shots of sheep being herded into a pen, sheep being shorn, lambs being birthed then reared – all fine, but rather ho-hum. Unlike other cinema verite approaches, there appeared to be no engagement with the subject, just a disinterested taste of being-there.

But when a flock of of several hundred sheep are herded into the Montana mountains for summer pasture, then the film finds it's direction. By narrowing the focus to two herders, alone on the mountain with their horses, sheep-dogs, and sheep, the film took on a sense of verve and vigour. Nothing overtly dramatic occurred, but a relationship starts to develop between the camera and the herders, and this newfound relationship begins to alter everything we see. The flock of sheep take on a new context, become more than just sheep. The whole herding experience is shown as a delicately-balanced relationship between man, his horse and dod, and the swathes of sheep that teem across the face of the mountain. The fragility of this particular tradition and vocation come to light in the exposition of herders grappling with the elements, with predators, and with the frustration of having to tend to flocks of wayward and peripatetic creatures.

Friday, 30 July 2010


(Chris Chong Chan Fui; Malaysia; 2009)

Newcomer Chris Chong Chan Fui drafts a noble entry into the pantheon of sedate meditative film-making. Balmy slow arcs through a forest, both microcosmic (insects, moss, forest-floor flora) and macrocosmic (high shots of the entire forest), are reminders of the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. A simple story of a young man returning home after studying in the big city, this film circulates itself around his mother's karaoke bar, a place where characters can escape into the world of the pop-song they are singing. In attempting to impress and woo a local girl with his grand plans, we quickly see that his bragadoccio is simple bluster to cover the fact that is he is lost. By allowing for long passages where the protagonist wanders through his home territory, the film nicely evokes the sense that he is finding his home unfamiliar and that he is lost within himself. Even the camera abandons him at one point, leaving him behind and letting him catch up a minute later, as he stumbles his way semi-disoriented through the forest. A very good first film, and I'm interested to see what the director will produce next.


(Jessica Oreck; USA/ Japan; 2009)

This utterly beguiling documentary effectively examines the Japanese obsession for collecting insects by harnessing voice-over explanations of various philosophies of nature and welding this with shots of the insect-world humming and thriving and related shots of the Japanese cityscape. As the doco progresses, the insect world is reflected in the human world, as car headlights become reminiscent of fireflies at night, or bustling Japanese streets correlate with the activity of ants.

Just to listen to professor Takeshi Yoro speaking on his personal vision of how humanity can learn from insects is worth the entire film alone, as he relates his own life to a humble quest for self-knowledge through the prism of entomology. But the film is memorable for much more than just Dr Yoro's philosophy, with fascinating trawls through shops and markets for insects and insect paraphernalia, excursions into forests with beetle hunters, who make more than an adequate living from selling insects, and moments focusing on children's wide-eyed awe of insects, and the pleasure they derive from keeping them as pets.

Visually the film is exquisite, with many passages evoking memories of experimental film-making a la Brakhage (his Mothlight is particularly redolent).


(Chris Morris; UK; 2010)

To make a comedy about ridiculously inept suicide bombers sounds like a pursuit in the name of bad taste. To have made the subject not only funny but also acceptable as an insightful mode for humour is something of an achievement. The fascinating thing about Four Lions is that it mostly avoids bad taste, shock value, and cheap laughs. This is genuinely amusing film about a very unamusing subject, and the director is not afraid to add depth and solidity to the would-be bombers, to make them likable as much as funny.

Chris Morris nicely dismantles the comedy trope of the warm fuzzy moment, making scenes that should be alarming resonant instead with warmth – I'm thinking here of the scene of the wife and son of one of the bombers bonding proudly with him over his decision to martyr himself, or the typical come-together-as-a-team-to-conquer-all moment as the bombers put aside differences in order to travel to London to complete their mission to kill themselves and others. These moments provoke a smile or laughter, but similar to Brecht's model of distanciation, there is a sliver of space to pause for thought, to wonder about why you are laughing.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


(Frederick Wiseman; USA; 1974)

Any opportunity to see a Wiseman has to be grabbed by the lapels, and this film is worthy of that imperative drive. In focusing on the studies performed on a variety of primates at the Yerkes Primate Research Center, Wiseman develops a documentary that is both amusing and brutal at the same time. The constant serious conversations amongst lab technicians about primate erections and ejaculates make them seem perversely fixated and even alien, while our attention and emotions are clearly attached to the plight of the primates, who are poked, prodded, stimulated, jerked off, dissected, all for reasons that are never fully made clear.

This film is also fascinating for a glimpse into the world of old technology, with repeated shots of oscillating monitors and swathes of switches and buttons that remind one of 70's sci-fi films. And, I guess, in some way, this is almost a 70's sci-fi film, with one alien group of beings coldly studying another group of lesser-fortunate beings.

Love those big 70's beards as well. They don't quite make 'em like they used to.


(Jessica Hausner; France; 2009)

A wonderfully composed and delicatedly nuanced film which reveals not so much the miracles of faith but the mysteries of the inner workings of peoples relationship to themselves and others. The pilgrimage to Lourdes that our protagonist takes is not one based on faith, but almost as a routine expression of hope. It is this idea of the routine and ritual, of going through the motions of faith and belief in the expectation that a miracle may occur, that is explicated throughout the course of the film. Hausner achieves this through subtle and poised means. Groups of minor characters comment upon the goings-on of Lourdes, and reveal their hope, desire and skepticism within the same breath. Lourdes is not a place to believe but a place to desire, with people either gazing longingly or with envy at others, or wishing that a miracle occur to them, almost as if they are wishing for a lottery win.

Hausner's eye for cinematic detail is firm, distinct, and painterly. The camera, often static, frames characters within environs composed of simple clean straight lines, as if capturing them within the geometry of their hopes. The scenes of ceremonies at Lourdes are stunning, with high-angle shots of hundreds of candles held by pilgrims moving towards the centre representing the magnitude of the fragility of belief.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


(Boss Lindquist; Sweden; 2009)

As with many engrossing biographical documentaries, this film introduces a not-so-familiar name and reveals an individual with such an unusual story that by the film's end you're guaranteed not to forget the name in a hurry. Carleton Gajdusek earned a Nobel prize for his radical research into the cause of kuru, a highly infectious neurological disorder that was decimating the population of New Guinea, but it seemed his interest in New Guinea extended beyond solving the riddle of this disease. He also became fascinated with the customs of this society, in the uninhibited displays of homosexuality and man-boy relations, and, after taking many boys from New Guinea and raising them in the US, he is convicted in the US of sexually abusing one of his foster children. What is fascinating is that the object of this biographical scrutiny allows himself to be interviewed, and it is the locking of horns between the director and Mr Gajdusek that comprise the strongest scenes in this film. It is not just his lack of guilt for his behaviour that marks the territory of this film as unusual, or his belief that his science and his sexuality cannot be separated from each other. What assists in pushing a controversial subject into murky grey waters is the support he receives from the scientific community, who speak so well of him in terms of science but are almost at a loss as to what to say in regards to his pedophilia.

An unsettling film – you cannot help but admire his achievements and even his apparently sincere sentiments in looking after 57 children from around the world, but the images of Gajdusek nearly foaming at the mouth and expressing his outrage at a world that does not understand his point of view seem to linger longer in the mind than his genius.

Monday, 26 July 2010


(Ben Russell; USA/ Suriname; 2009)

This is film-making forged from the School of Minimalism. Essentially this is a 135-minute film composed of a little more than a dozen long single shots, often tracking through a changing landscape (from jungle to dirt road to bus to city streets, back to jungle, then to quarry, etc) and frequently following two Surinamese men. I find it appealing to have the opportunity to meditate and meander within the images presented, to not have a narrative forced upon me and to drift within the camera's drift. Previews of the film outline a connection between the journey these men take with the journey their ancestral slaves took centuries ago, and I found myself feeling the trace of history on the actual paths these men tread, and noting the other feet that must have wore these paths into furrowed grooves in the landscape.
However, for once my penchant for drifty minimal film has hit a slight wall, as I found my myself drifting towards sleep about halfway through the film. This film's meditative, long-take pace of a journey through a changing landscape reminded me of Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos, but there's a key difference between both films. Alonso's film has a very loose narrative core at its heart, and is satisfied in allowing the drift to occur within 80 minutes. In Los Muertos, we are going from A to B. But in Let Each One..., the protagonists are going from A to A to A, which is perhaps politically significant regards the journeys the Surinamese may have taken in the course of their history, but opens up the possibility for a bit of snooze-time.
Visually, the film is stunning, and the film offers many sublime moments of meditative cinema-drift, but I wonder if the film could have been culled a fraction.

ADDENDUM (written 16/08/2010): This film preyed on me over the past couple of weeks, and I'm beginning to re-assess my original views. I watched a segment of this film again (on YouTube) and I feel I didn't do this film justice. The fact that I said these brothers are merely going from "A to A to A" seems a little silly now - the journey that is charted in this film is an audacious and brave directorial decision from Ben Russell. By focussing purely on the movement of these two people, with slight digressions here and there, an intensely palpable sense of moving away from an original point is evoked. As they keep travelling, it is as if the ghost-trace of where they have travelled from remains within the film. I keep thinking of the starting point, and recalling the movement away from this point. I wrongfully ignored the camerawork in my original review - the constantly roving and moving camera as it follows these men is incredible, even circling around them as they walk - one moment we're in front, the next moment we've gently dropped back and we are behind them. I correct my feeling about it's length - it is not over-long, it does not need to be culled, and I wish I could watch again right now to re-live it. The score goes up to 4, and a re-view of this film some time in the near future is in order.


(Gustavo Hernandez; Uruguay; 2010)

The hype and buzz around this horror film is that it has been crafted entirely in one-take on a single digital camera. Does that mean its any good? Mostly yes. Good house-based horror films often work on a simple premise – people go into a house in the middle on nowhere, bad stuff happens inside the house, people are trapped, some people get killed, either some people survive and escape or the bad thingies win. This films works on such a simple premise – father and daughter go to a house to clean it up for a friend, dad goes upstairs, something unpleasant happens, daughter walks gingerly through house scared out of her mind and trying to work out what the hell is going on. But the added element is the single-take – it allows for extended slow passages of creepy unease, as we wait and wait for the next potential fright to come out from behind a door or above a fridge.

Although there are minor tell-tales signs of the stock-standard horror-film tropes – muted colours and tinkly mournful piano soundtrack at the beginning of the film, for example – this is not a bad first-time entry from Uruguayan director Hernandez into the horror genre. The twists and turns the film take in the last third of the film wonderfully up-end all of the preconceived ideas about what is going on, although its resolution does feel a tad weak.


(Zhao Liang; France/ China; 2009)

The first experience of a glitch with the mechanics of the festival, as the film was shown for the first 5 or so minutes with the wrong ratio size, leaving all the subtitles off-screen and unviewable. After a few minutes of houselights up and audience murmuring, we were treated to a cinema version of pantomime, with a screen image being re-sized digitally while the audience yelled “No, more, more, wait! Yes! No! Bit more! Bit moooorre! Yes!” I was almost disappointed this moment of audience camaraderie was over.

This documentary's depiction of Chinese people forced into homeless lifestyle in order to have their petitions heard at the main Petition Office in Beijing was direct and to the point. Their lives are a near hopeless convolution of bureaucratic hold-ups and rejections, and they often run the risk of physical harm and even death (one segment of the film shows some of the petitioners retrieving pieces of clothing and shattered body-parts of two people who were chased by local government enforcers into the path of a train).

Where the film started to get sidetracked for me was focusing more and more on the drama between a mother and daughter, petitioning for the rights of their deceased husband/ father. Usually this microcosmic focus on the specific narrative of individuals within the larger studied group can reap reawards in documentary film. But, somehow, for me I found this focus on Qi and her daughter Juan to be a little too distracting from the general plight of the petitioners, to the point where I felt it had subsumed the focus of the film. I'm not saying this film lacked power and strength – the experiences of the petitioners hit you like a kick in the gut, but maybe I didn't need the 'softness' of a narrative about mother-daughter relations to ease the kick.


(Sergei Loznitsa, Germany/ Ukraine/ Netherlands; 2010)

Having read all the warnings that this would be one helluva dark, bleak journey through the bowels of modern-day Russia, my steeled nerves pushed me through this experience with a sense of not really having been tested. Maybe its a matter of being adequately prepared – some films from other years (I'm thinking here of Alexsey Balabanov's Cargo 200 from 2007, or Gyorgy Palfi's Taxidermia from '06) caught me unawares and left me feeling slightly headachey, depressed, and lacking appetite.

My Joy is much better than either of the previously mentioned films, although this story, of a truck-drivers descent into the chaos and brutality of a hell-on-earth in the backwaters of Russia, is not one that I would re-visit in a hurry. I admire the ease that the director finds in designing an apocalyptic world out of components of the everyday in rural Russia, and I admire even more the elliptical unfolding of this brutal world, presented as an unravelling thread of episodic elements through which a narrative is almost fighting to be heard and seen. This almost feels like a horror film, in terms of the nightmarish and abhorrent way people treat each other, but by the film's end it is perhaps not as bleak as most current horror films, with a very vague sense that a modicum of justice has been served and escape from hell is possible.


(Lee Changdong; South Korea; 2010)

Having been a bit of a snob at MIFF two years ago, I skipped Lee Changdong's previous film Secret Sunshine, because it swung closer to the 'ho-hum' side of my cinema-barometer (cinerometer?) After watching Poetry I am laughing at my inability to correctly judge a film by it's previews, as Changdong's new film reveals yet another Korean director who is part of the ever-growing vanguard that pushes forward Korean cinema as one of the strongest national cinemas at present. The story of a grandmother who attends a poetry class and struggles to write a single poem, while also having to deal with the early erosion of her mental faculties and her grandson being involved in the suicide of a young girl, this film is elegantly paced and gorgeously composed. The slow build of the pressure this woman experiences is nuanced perfectly, and what really struck me, and surprised me, was the regular reliance on open frames, busy with nature or city or administrative interiors, yet almost always meditative, as if the director is inviting us to try and find the poetry in the everyday, just as the woman is searching for the same. I was warmly surprised and thoroughly engrossed in this film, and am eager to see what Changdong's previous work is like.


(Jacques Rivette; Italy/ France; 2009)

I slept through a large swathe of Rivette's last film Don't Touch The Axe, for reasons other than boredom, when it was shown at MIFF 2 years ago. Having not experienced a huge deal of Rivette's work as yet, I pumped myself to the gills with caffeine to experience his latest film. No need for caffeine - it's his shortest film, at a mere 85 minutes!
Rivette handles the short form extremely adeptly. In essence, it is still a puzzle-film as only Rivette can do, with an Italian traveller attempting to unlock a woman's anguished relationship to her past life with a travelling circus.With a shorter timeframe Rivette doesn't have much time to interweave a number of plots with varying generic styles, like he does with his long films, but working with a tighter framework has resulted in an economy of Rivettean modes – he elides serious drama and comedy by layering both on top of each other, such as in the scenes with the clowns performing their comedy routines so wearily in front of dwindling audiences that all humour is wrung out. For me, this film does not match the magisterial heights of Celine and Julie Go Boating or La Belle Noiseuse, but as a simple 'intro' to the man's work, this is a humble and masterful addition to his canon.


(Marko Skop; Czech Republic/ Slovakia; 2009)

The MIFF 2010 festival is kicked off with this short and sweetly melancholic documentary about a tiny village that is barely a smudge on the map of Slovakia. After a gentle, almost inconsequential beginning where we learn that the small elderly population of this village (196 people and rapidly dropping) is made up of Rusyns, a national minority in Slovakia, and that there is not a heck of a lot to do in Osadne, the film settles on two village figureheads – the mayor and the priest. Their plans to bring vitality to their village seem archaic and out-of-step with the modernisation that Slovakia is undergoing with its incremental introduction into the European Union. Their trek to the EU to drum up support and funding for their plans seems to highlight the loss in culture, community, and perhaps even tradition, not only of this village but others just like it. The even, gentle pace of this film does not force any kind of message upon the viewer, yet by the end of the film, it is difficult not to be quietly moved by the plight of Osadne. This is not a radical or spectacular documentary, in terms of its flow, subject matter, or presentation, but its strength lies in the unassuming style it uses to present a struggle against the inevitable.

MIFF 2010 Preamble

After years and years of watching films as obsessively as possible, I've finally decided to mouth my thoughts, ideas, opinions on the subject of Film/ Cinema, however dilettantish these may be. The best place to start is now – at the beginning of the 59th Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF 2010). I've haunted this event for the past 6 years, and each year since 2004 I've measured the two and a bit weeks of the Festival purely through film – days operate around session times, food becomes somewhat irrelevant, dreams start having end credits, and by the end of the festival my complexion has turned a pasty grey and I've become half-man, half-celluloid.

Due to limited time each day, these little mini-reviews for each film viewed at the festival will be dashed out as quickly as possible. Not that this is intended as an outright disclaimer regards the quality of the reviews - these reviews need to sprint to the page as quickly as possible due to my annual attempt to cram as many films into the festival as possible. Some days, (actually most days), I'm slavishly viewing 5 films in a row, running from one to the other. God knows why I do this – sometimes a film I've rushed to see is ultimately rewarded with a nice wee doze. In the past I've dozed through some great films, and woken up near the end wondering why it was only 30 minutes long. Other times, my cine-narcolepsy is caused by the film boring me to sleep. I used to be dismayed at this tendency to doze in films – now I've learnt to accept it, and occasionally love it.

I thought about using a rating system based on dozing during the film – the more pillows a film gets, the worse it is. However, I've decided to base my rating system on my personal talisman. Mini-mike will be assisting with rating the films, standing in for the usual stars used in film reviews. No, I don't see this as some fey comment on the redundancy of the star-system – to all intents and purposes this the same kind of rating system as usual (Zero through to Five, with all the halves in between), and in my head I'm rating films based on a numerical 'score', but I see no reason why the rating image used in this blog can't be whatever the hell I want.

Time marches, so on with the reviews.