Sunday, 5 September 2010

HIFF 2010 - Tips for Love & Anarchy

So finally the programme of the 23rd Helsinki International Film Festival is up. You can check it out here. I've been working as the assistant press coordinator for my favorite film festival for two months. During this time I've had the priveledge to see almost 40 of the festival's 130 films in advance. People have been asking me for reccommendations for a while now. Since I believe it's my professional duty both as a blogger and a festival worker, I'll give you ten tips, each from a category which the HIFF programme excels this year.

Sons of Cuba (Latin Grooves-series)

My favorite film so far has been the british director Andrew Lang's documentary Sons of Cuba. It's a film about the respected Boxing Academy in Cuba. The students there are small boys about 10 years old. Now, Cuba is one of the places in the world I would most like to visit. It has a nice 1950's sort of athmosphere and the citizens seem to enjoy their lives. Sons of Cuba goes straight to the core of this. Boxing is an important matter in certain parts of the world (and is a sport I can actually understand and relate to, unlike soccer). In Cuba it really creates national spirit, as Cuba has won numerous prizes at Olympics and other world-wide sporting events. In the start of the film, we see Castro giving a speech about boxing and he's referred to meeting athletes throughout the film.

The ambition of the small children the film focuses on is to become world masters in the sport. This is no small feat, and the camera follows their daily workout routines and regional matches against boys from other boxing academys. Commitment to the sport is touching in itself, but it's nice to see that the boys don't become brutal shut-ins from boxing. One of the most heartfelt moments in the film is a boy who cries, because he won his best friend in a match. This ambition is so dear to them, it's a real shock when Fidel Castro announces his retirement. It also brings up a sense of old Cuba disappearing and a bittersweet tone to the hard work the boys are having to cope with. It's a strongly symbolic film dealing with themes of nationalism and growing up in a culture which has ambitions which affect your daily life.

Nothing Personal (Stories From Ireland)

I am usually not a fan of traditional romances in films. These things are complicated, and should be depicted as such in films too. Nothing Personal might not qualify as a clear romance film, but it is about a man and a woman finding a certian connection. So, it's as much a romance film as, say Lost in Translation or Once. The film by Urszula Antoniak is about a woman travelling in Ireland who happens to a farm owned by a widowed man. He agrees her to stay and work for food. They also agree not to get too attached and thus will not even tell each other their names.

Of course this agreement is not as easy as it seems and both parties show interest in the other but dare not say it aloud. In fact, there's quite little dialogue in the film itself. The movie tells brilliantly a lot about the feelings and ambitions of the characters by their gestures. The acting in the film is also top-notch. The end goes a little over-the-top, but nevertheless this is a hauntingly beautiful irish romance story, in which the cold grey autumn nature of the emerald island plays an important part.

Accident (Complex Asia)

This Johnnie To-produced Hongkong film owes a lot to the producer's style. It is a batshit insane tale of a group of assassins that plan ludicrous plans to murder their victims and fake it as an accident. The best of all is that it plays the story as straight as can be, even though the plans are so carefully planned (an electric shock to a wheelchair-bound yakuza boss in particular) that it resembles more Wile E. Coyote-cartoons or Al Jaffee's inventions than anything realistic.

As it has to be in these sort of films, paranoia builds up and the viewer is adviced that nothing will be as it seems. I won't believe for a second that the director Pou-Soi Cheang's depiction of Hongkong as a barren cold landscape with rain-soaked streets in the nighttime is anywhere near the truth. But it works for the sake of telling a cinematic story. I am certainly interested in seeing the director's earlier works as they have such charming names as The Death Curse and Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster.

Sound of Noise (Northern Stars)

I'm also not a fan of swedish films in general (hey, I don't even like finnish ones), particularly comedies. But this film, based on the cult short film Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers tickled my funny bone just right. It has a suitably outlandish idea: six drummer terrorists play a four-part symphony using a city as their instrument. A detective who was born tone-deaf and hates music, tries to catch them to get rid of the noise tormenting him.

It might have some slight satirical messages about the modern life, where some sort of noise is always present and people have lost the true enjoyment of music as an art. Also, the real art in music is in performing, not doing everything by the book. But these ideas are in the background and the real fun is in the anarchistic ideas of creating music. In a bank a suitable beat can be done by putting piles of cash into a paper shredder, and a rhythmic construction site might overcome an orchestra where every beat must be on the right place by a millisecond.

Benda Bilili (Beat This!)

It's a real shame I missed the concert of these kongoan musicians. At least the documentary about their rags-to-riches story is suitably fun to watch. The Staff Benda Bilili guys are beggars who might be missing limbs due to malnutrition and diseases on the streets of Kinshasha, Congo. The poor people don't have enough money for instruments so they use thrown-out guitars with only a couple of strings. During the documentary a small boy with a pimped tin can as an instrument joins the group.

Of course without the help of the documentarists themselves, Benda Bilili might have stayed in the streets, begging and stealing for a living. But as the people have undenied talents, they get to a recording booth and finally, to an exotic tour in the far-away Europe. What doesn't change at any point is the happy-go-lucky and optimistic attitude of the players. In the climax, which is at a festival in Germany watching these guys have fun while playing to a huge crowd which loves them, is enough of an evidence to forget what an unfair world we live in for just a moment.

Anvil! - The Story of Anvil (Beat This!)

Fans of heavy metal probably already know about Sacha Gervasi's 2008 documentary. Anvil was touring with the biggest of 'em in the good old 80's, yet now the band has fallen into obscurity. Just like Spinal Tap, this documentary follows the band on a tour, in which Murphy's law works as a guideline. The band misses its trains, doesn't get paid, and gets only 200 people into a stadion capable of holding a hundred times as many. The moral is, never, ever, have you girlfriend act as a manager. Even if you know Spinal Tap by heart, you can't help but wonder how beat-by-beat reality can imitate art.

The documentary is carried by the band's lead characters, drummer Robb Reiner and guitarist "Lips" Kudlow. The dues are instantly symphatetic but also a little simple. Unlike many heavy metal bands, they prove to be in the business strictly because they love to perform and play music. And they have a hilarios stage show to boot with playing instruments with a vibrator and whatnot. I would much rather give them my hard-earned money, than the crybabies of Metallica.

I wonder if someone would make a documentary about Thor? The band's gig at a crowded comic shop a year ago would've been a hilarious scene.

Dream Home (Midnight Movies)

To balance all these feel-good music documentaries and romance films with a punk attitude, one needs a good splatter film from time to time. By a mile, the most inventive and fun of these this year, is Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home. It stars a timid young lady (Josie Ho) looking for a home in Hongkong. The hard-working, mild-mannered woman does turn into a Mrs. Hyde of sorts during the night - she'll not avoid murder to get to her goals. And her goal is to get an apartment with a seaside view in a certain block of flats.

As I'm looking for an apartment in Helsinki, I know how frustrating the process can be. All the good pads seem to be already taken, nevermind the cheap. And because of greedy investors, the situation is way worse in Hongkong. The opening statement says that one has to be prepared to be a little crazy in order to score a flat. And that is certainly true. While being socially critical, the film is also a story of a good person pushed to the edge. Even though the main character is a brutal serial killer, ready to murder pregnant ladies without mercy, one can't help but to symphatize her. Men have abused her her whole life and unfortunate events, such as her father getting sick, have stopped her for reaching her goal. Why should the lives of a couple of potheads and other scum living in the building stay as an obstacle?

Trash Humpers

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is a film which I must reccommend with severe reservations. You see, the film is almost an unbearable experience, even at 70 minutes. As the film has no plot, the schtick gets repetitive in 10. The most fun you'll have in the theatre is watching frustrated people walking out. So the whole film might be a joke on the audience. It can also be seen as being mock-artistic and questioning, what do we look as an art. As Korine has hight credits as an indie-auteur, he might've been interested in making the ugliest film possible and seeing how people might think of that.

Trash Humpers barely has any plot at all. It stars a group of ugly creeps, who look a little like old people. These people go on to hump trash cans, smash tv sets and other things on the street of Nashville, and do other disgusting things over and over again. They shout out annoying, repetitive sentences. They might even commit a murder at one point, but the chronology of the film is challenging to say the least. The film is shot on a crappy-looking VHS tape. The film reminds me of Herzog's Even the Dwarves Started Small. As that one was a critique of the society, Trash Humpers might be a critique of the YouTube- and Jackass generation, who have an obsession to shoot stuff, even without ideas, talent or common sense. That is, if Trash Humpers even is supposed to be about anything.

Dogtooth (Spotlight selection)

Dogtooth is about three adult children that have been kept inside a big property their whole lives. Thus, they depend on their father and mother in everything. The parents teach them lies that get ever more surreal, from the meanings of words referring to the outside world, to the existence of their older brother, his relase "to the wild" and eventual "death" in the hands of a common house cat. But even the meekest children also have needs and curiosity, which can wreck this artificial idyl. Letting an outside prostitute in to pop the oldest son's cherry is the first mistake.

I see Dogtooth as a satire about keeping pets. Especially how rich city-people keep them. As pet owners can refer their dogs and cats as people, the film switches them to actual people. This setting of course seems grotesque this way, with no sense of freedom or a chance to create oneself. It does it like a good satire should: playing even the most fucked-up things as straight as one can and never underlining its purpose. One can't say that the film doesn't have a philospohy inside. At least Platon's cave parable is an important starting point of this film. Sick, but I like it!

Everything and its momma:
Love Exposure (Spotlight selection)

I considered putting Love Exposure in the Romance spot, but then again the film is about so much more than a simple boy-meets-girl story. I held off watching the film for quite a long time, because it's four hours long. That was a mistake. Love Exposure shouldn't be judged because of its length. Even though it's twice as long as a regular film, it has enough content for a dozen. If anything, it would need ten or so ore minutes. It's ironic that director Sion Sono claims he doesn't even remember a film as ambitious than this anymore (this one was made in 2008).

Love Exposure is a often-comical look into the human sexual experience itself. It touches upon such themes as religion's relation to sexuality, perversity, sexual awakening and frustration with a wonderful, weird touch and plenty of great ideas. The ninja-training for taking secret panty-shots from below ladies' skirts is one of the funniest scenes for a long time. Even though the film doesn't shy away from such bad taste, it also has a ponderous side of the nature of love and how one creates it. And it has also a darker side. All the characters are three-dimensional as they have skeletons in the past, which helps to understand why they do the things taht they do, and how hard it is to get to a happy ending.

The film has been compared to Jodorowsky, and although it has some truth in it, it constrains the film too much for one director's ideas. The film is much richer than this. For example, it also has a wonderful homage to Meiko Kaji and some ass-kicking punk rock for background music. Watching this is very rewarding. If you have four hours to spare, see this. If you don't, rethink your life and make room.

Remember also Lebanon and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I have recommended before in this blog. There are also a lot of other good films which I can't be bothered to write at the moment. Go see and discover for yourself!

Don't be a shut-in. Go out and see these films!

Of course I haven't seen nearly as much as I'd like to yet. Here's twelve more I intend to check out:

Alamar - To the Sea
The Illusionist
The Killer Inside Me
Pom Poko
Summer Wars
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
We Are What We Are
White Stripes in Under The Great White Northern Lights

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