With the Berlin International Film Festival wrapping up for another year, we thought it would be a good idea to reflect on the film festival madness and give our verdict on some of the best (as well as the mediocre) films we got a chance to see.
Amongst the obligatory Hollywood movies that get included each year in a somewhat obvious attempt to drag the big names out of their LA cocoons, there were a couple that stood out as quite enjoyable to watch. Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’ and Jason Reitman’s ‘Young Adult’ (written by the Oscar-winning Diablo Cody, of ‘Juno’ fame) were hearty comedic affairs, boasting original, witty scripts and rejecting the usual ‘everything is fine now that it’s the end of the movie’ ending so often resorted to in American (Hollywood) cinema. Charlize Theron’s performance in ‘Young Adult’ was refreshing yet not for the faint hearted, whilst Thornton’s impressive ensemble cast in ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’ (Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, et. al.) really brought the Brits-meet-Yanks clash to life.
The Competition section this year - supposedly the heavyweight category - was somewhat lacking. The films were certainly good and deserved attention, but I expected more from this category. Films with such great premise as Brillant Mendoza’s ‘Captive’ (based on a true story in which a small group of Muslim terrorists, intending to kidnap employees of the World Bank for ransom, mistakingly abduct a group of Christian missionaries) and Matthias Glasner’s ‘Gnade’ (a German woman accidentally hits a 16-year old girl with her car but drives off hoping it was a dog, leading to the inevitable guilt drama that follows) fell short of expectations. The Hungarian film, ‘Csak A Szél’ (Just the Wind), was an intense, if at times painfully slow, cinematic masterclass. Subduing the audience into an easy, atmospheric slumber, taking note of the aesthetics of the characters and the scenes they find themselves in, the film (which is based upon an actual series of killings) depicts the shocking and tragic racial killing of a single Romany family in a Hungarian village. The film stood out in terms of both form and style; a disturbing and affecting entry, more than deserving of its Silver Bear award.
My favourite category of the Berlinale is always the Panorama section, with its focus on ‘new films by renowned directors, debut films and new discoveries – movies with an individual signature.’ It’s in this section that you’ll find the hidden gems of the festival selection, uncovering, often by chance, rare films that you might otherwise never be able to see. Of course, there are some that will go to general release and probably commercial success, such as Juliette Binoche’s latest film, ‘Elles’ (a Parisian journalist becomes personally embroiled in her exploration of young women working as prostitutes to fund their studies) and the US film ‘Cherry’ (a rather odd choice for this category, with a cast boasting the likes of James Franco and Heather Graham). Generally though, if you manage to get a ticket for this section - most of the time - you’re in for a treat. Yonfan’s 1995 film, ‘Bugis Street Redux’, was a real surprise. Despite its tricky start, this film quickly finds its feet and develops into a considered exploration of the loss of innocence, through the mesmerising performance of its lead actress, Hiep Thi Le. Centered around a young country girl who somehow finds herself working (in the platonic sense) at the SinSin love hotel on the infamous Bugis Street in Singapore (renowned for its libidinous, (trans-)sexual nocturnal happenings), this is a tumultuous coming-of-age story like no other.
Venturing north of Singapore leads us to the Korean epic war drama, ‘Mai-Wei’ (My Way), a film inspired by the discovery of a photograph during the WW2 invasion of Normandy, which depicted a slim Korean man in German uniform. It later transpired that this same man had served as a soldier not only in the German army, but in the Japanese and Russian armies also. The film is, without a doubt, the most ambitious film in the entire Berlinale programme. It’s the kind of film you might find within a Tarantino film, so absurd is its ‘epic-ness’. Despite the too-numerous battle scenes that leave you wondering if you’ve just witnessed every major battle in the twentieth century, there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this film. The love-hate rivalry of its two central protagonists, the Japanese and Korean marathon runners who are sworn enemies for most of the movie, but then make up their differences in time for the big dramatic (and of course tragic) final scene, provides the main crux of this 137min odyssey of war.
The Irish film, ‘Dollhouse’, from Kirsten Sheridan (once nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the film ‘In America’) was far from epic, although the ambition was certainly there. The main premise of the film is this: five young Irish chavs break into a house - the owners are away - the young Irish chavs drink, take drugs, have sex, and destroy the house (not as much fun as it sounds when that’s all that happens for the duration of the film). Relying too much on the improvisation of her cast and resorting too often to the mindless destruction of the stylish, designer seaside home, Sheridan strays far from the acclaim of her previous work. There’s a certain expectation with films that aim to be harshly realistic and gritty, an expectation set by the likes of Shane Meadows in ‘This is England’, to which ‘Dollhouse’ unfortunately just doesn’t live up to.
One film of which I had no expectations (as I was lucky enough to just stumble across it moments before it started), was Davy Chou’s ‘Le Sommeil D’Or’ (Golden Slumbers). Between 1960 and 1975, nearly 400 films were made in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but during the Khmer Rouge regime, the majority were burnt or left to decay, along with the cinemas and film studios. Chou’s documentary is an exploration of what remains and what can be remembered of the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema. Through moving and often heart-wrenching testimonials from the producers, directors and actors that survived the regime (most of their colleagues and families were killed, along with a fifth of Cambodia’s total population during the communist regime), Chou presents a unique perspective of this tragic period in Cambodia’s history. The lost films, the emphatic recollections “as though it happened yesterday”, the odd surviving photograph or soundtrack on YouTube, all become painful metaphors for the very real losses these people experienced. A sensitive, moving, and inspiring feature length debut.
Overall, a great selection of very worthy films got some much needed exposure at the Berlinale, which is really what film festivals are all about! Some disappointments, some surprise crackers, needless to say, Berlin’s biggest and most important international event is most certainly exceeding itself.