|Festival poster circa 1993. Image Source: http://www.hiff.fi|
Helsinki International Film Festival opens today! This year, the festival is celebrating a quarter-century of Love & Anarchy. For a person my age (i.e. only a year or few older than the festival) it's hard to imagine the film-going climate of the days before. While it's a myth there weren't any interesting art house flicks and such in theatres, the fact was that they came from a pretty thin slice of the world. Love & Anarchy changed all that way back when.
|The very first HIFF movie poster.|
The Killer (Hong Kong, 1989)
Director: John Woo
As mentioned, Love & Anarchy used to be the first and only place to see some of the Greatest Hits of Asian movies in the whole Finland. One of the festival's most important imports is the action cinema of Hong Kong director John Woo. Woo himself also visited the festival in the early 90's. His best film is still this action tale, pondering the morality of a violent hit man, and the code of ethics he has in the job.
The deadliest mob enforcer/assassin on the business, Ah Yong (Chow-Yun Fat) accidentally blinds the nightclub singer Jenny during one of his jobs. Feeling guilty, he dedicated his life to take care of her and vows to quit his line of business. But in order to get Jenny a surgery to restore her eyesight, he has to take on one last assignment. But it turns out the Triads don't want him to stay alive and the mission turns out to be a trap. With his skills, Ah Yong survives the first encounter with Triad thugs, but there wlll be more after his head. He makes a deal with the hot shot detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) to bring down the mob bosses. Li Ying learns to trust his foremost worst enemy and starts to see the warm heart beating inside an unstoppable killer.
Like many of Woo's films, at it's core it's about friendship and almost a wartime brotherhood type of relationship with two men facing overwhelming odds and billions of bullets. Woo perfected his shooting scenes with almost ballet-like choreography and utilized stuff like slow-motion and symbolic imagery that broke into mainstream American cinema a decade later after The Matrix. But Woo is a true original. There's no way around it, this is a cornerstone in action movie cinema altogether. And thus also warrants its place in Love & Anarchy's retrospective, no matter how many times you may have seen it already.
Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994)
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Sometimes the greatest films come from a little impovisation. In the early 90's, melodrama maestro Wong Kar-Wai was on a roll. While making Ashes of Time he took a two month vacation but couldn't calm down and just be still. He decided to make a movie based purely on his gut instinct. Thus was born a gripping tale of loneliness, everyday romanticism and bittersweet emotionalism. And Chungking Express is at least among, if not the best of Wong's films.
Chungking is basically an episode film in that it features two stories that are similar, yet don't have much in common with each other. In the most densely populated areas of Hong Kong, two lovelorn policemen each on their own, never meeting, try to overcome a broken heart and fall in love again.
First, we have a young 24-year-old cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose first love with an unseen woman named May is going to pieces. He gives her one year to change her mind, until his 25th birthday, and remains adamant that they will get back together, bordering on obsessive. He becomes pedant to the point where he starts to collect tin cans with the same expiration date as his relationship. But the day comes and May doesn't contact him in any way. He goes to a bar to drink and decides to falls for the first woman he sees. She turns out to be mysterious blonde woman (Brigitte Lin) who, unknown to him, just so happens to be a notorious drug smuggler. But she too is broken and alone and finds a kindred spirit in him, even if her bad business won't allow her to become attached.
The second story is similar, as it concerns another cop (Tony Leung) trying to get over the break up with his airline stewardess girlfriend. He eats every day at a small noodle shop at a station, where he is spotted by the quirky noodle-saleswoman (Faye Wong). She falls in love with him and decides to help him get over the breakup, and starts following him around.
The universality of the tales is underlined by the fact that character names aren't used. Hong Kong is only shot in neon light at night, and particularly in the second story, likened with Los Angeles, California. Both are full of broken dreams, and are seething with crimes and broken promises, yet have a melancholic loneliness at the hearts of many of its occupants at the same time. Wong develops his stunning visuals (realized by cinematographer Christopher Doyle) from scarcely-lit noir films old and new. Even though the stories concern policemen, they aren't solving crimes nor doing much police work.
As melodramas come, Wong doesn't trust to worn-out plots nor hammy acting. Instead, the film barely has a plot and will remain frustratingly unresolved for those waiting for happy endings that tie all loose ends together. But Wong respects his audience's intelligence more and keeps things subtle while the imagery just seeths with the emotions he wants to come across. Every lonely person on the planet who wants to believe in love but is too much of a realist to accept a hokey Hollywood love story to come true, will find his or her true love with this film.
Naked Lunch (Canada/UK/Japan, 1991)
Director: David Cronenberg
Cronenberg's love letter to the beat novel by William S. Burroughs is by far not everyone's cup of tea. I hardly understood the novel way back in the day. Upon first viewing, I deemed the film to be a shallow adaptation, doing weird stuff for weirdness' sake. Yet Cronenberg is rarely simple and a subsequent viewing is often more than handy. The Canadian author has stated his film is based more on his personal experience of Burroughs' writing rather than a straight adaptation (which would be somewhat impossible, given the novel's rambling style, jumping from one thing to another with seemingly little effort).
This is a movie that has a constant theme, which is William S. Burroughs. Several aspects of the man pop up from unexpected places, most notably his urge to write, his ambivalent homosexuality, his tendency to binge on hard drugs and liqueur. Some of the most dramatic parts of his life, such as the accidental homicide of his wife by trying to shoot a glass on her head, are also main plot points.
If you need to know more about the plot, it's about the exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller) who finds that the powder he uses to kill bugs is also a powerful hallucinogenic drug. This gives the uptight man new purpose in life, as he rediscovers his passion for writing. But the drug also causes him to act in strange ways and possibly kill his wife Joan (Judy Frost). He travels to the Islamic port to get to the bottom of his wife's disappearance and to make amends with two dueling creatures inhabiting his various type writers.
So, this is a delirious account, where there's a strong sense of anything being possible. It's a film that delves into the human subconscious and brings up some of our most grotesque fears. Disgusting creatures and body modifications appear here and there. There's no one better to do this than Cronenberg. Bright colors make this almost cartoonish, or more accurately, instantly looking like the cover of a 50's pulp fiction novel. Burroughs' text is recited in several scenes with characters telling stories. I think the author himself was proud of how respectful this is, while at the same time unmistakably a product of the feverish imagination of its director.
Hana-bi – Fireworks (Japan, 1997)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Another notable presence in the festival throughout the years has been the Japanese "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. He shares Wong Kar-Wai's knack for melancholy, but whereas Wong makes strong, vivid melodramas, Kitano makes calm, poignant, and slowly moving genre films, most notably crime films. Renowed for his almost zen-like yakuza trilogy, Kitano surprised the world when he took some elements of his previous work, and made with the same tools his most touching film.
Yoshitaka Nishi (Kitano) is a police officer who quits the force. His reasons are personal in two levels. First, he's struggling with the guilt over the crippling of his partner Horibe (Ren Ohsugi) in a shootout. Second, he needs time off to care for his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), who is dying of leukemia. He will do anything for her, even break his morals. But one brick builds on top of another and Nishi eventually gets indebted to the yakuza. He must sacrifice more and more for those he loves, and this altruism will start to threaten his very life.
As with his best work, Kitano uses silence to great avail and lets us viewers often figure ourselves what's going on through the heads of his main characters at several given times. The film is deeply personal, since it's Kitano's first film after surviving a near-fatal car accident. The suicidal feelings of the wheelchair-bound Horibe must have come across the auteur's mind before. Like himself, characters are seen using art as a therapy method.
But while the film deals with traumas, guilt and sacrifice, it's main message is none of these. The film tells us simply of how beautiful and precious life is. Miyuki is a beautifully realized character, appreciating art, and wind at the beaches as she's nearing her end. While Nishi may be altruistic and self-sacrificial, she is the true role model of the story as she spends none of the time in self-pity or wallowing in past pains but enjoying the little things during the few moments she has left.
Elephant (USA, 2003)
Director: Gus van Sant
A big part of Love & Anarchy's programme has been to bring both major award winners and American independent films to screens before anyone else has had the chance to. So was the case with the Palm d'Or -winning Elephant, one of Gus van Sant's finest. The film has been made in the aftermath of Columbine high school massacre, but sadly, it's perhaps even more poignant today as such mindless carnage has grown more common all around the western countries.
While suggesting how the film ends may be regarded as a spoiler, it is by no means hard to guess. All in all, it adds poignancy to van Sant's approach to the subject. His camera tours around a seemingly-regular high school in Portland one day, stopping at various teens talking about their problems, plans or other mundane things. But at the same time two sad, lonely, fucked-up teens, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are preparing for their own ultimate solution. These guys are humanely also shown as dumb, naïve and (deeply) flawed young persons as they are, not as some vicious killing machines born to do harm to others.
To call the film melancholic would be an understatement. No matter how mundane things van Sant's teens deal with, there's a string of finality in them. It's as if his characters were already dead, trying to get through their final day and having their last conversations. Van sant has a deep understanding of teenagers and his dialogue is natural, unforced and realistic. Much of his film's young cast appear with their own first names.
The tragic hero of the film, John (John Robinson) is randomly spared by Alex and Eric just before they start their shoot-out. He tries his best to first stop people from going to school, but is not taken seriously since he's seen as a geek. Then he attempts to alert parents and authorities, but this has little effect on how the things go down and many of his friends die.
As for the somewhat cryptic title, I see it as a fairly clear metaphor: Elephants never forget, so we should not forget the victims of surprising and cruel mass murders either.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
One of the best movies of the 2000s (yes, way up there) is this Werner Herzog's oddball documentary, which at face value repeats much of the director's basic themes, such as an eccentric individual dismissing the rules of a society and man's relationship with uncontrollable forces of nature.
This is truly a story too weird to be fiction. Timothy Treadwell was a natural conservenatiotist who loved the great outdoors and spent whole summers in the wilderness. More troubling was his love towards animals, particularly bears. He viewed them as his peers, friends and companions. Treadwell didn't get along well with many people and started to sink deeper and deeper into his own world he saw nature. In actuality his vision of nature was warped by his own mind. Treadwell was also a major narcissist, shooting endless tapes of himself ranting about nature and his sightings.
Ultimately, Treadwell's life ended in a tragedy as he was mauled and eaten by a hungry grizzly bear. Years later, Herzog attempts to find and capture this free-spirit's soul. His film mostly consists of clips from Treadwell's own tapes. But our German documentarist/narrator also does some leg work and travels to meet persons who knew something of the spirit of Treadwell.
The movie is all about kindred spirits. Treadwell felt bears were his, until nature's cruelty made it's point clear. Yet this also extends to Herzog who sees something similar in the ranting, but smart and poetic Treadwell, as he did with his muse Klaus Kinski. Herzog's own scenes, particularly one where hears the audio of Treadwell's death tape are almost as chilling and memorable as Treadwell's own.
The movie arises multiple points to ponder till the conservationatists come home. Where actually is one man's place between unforgiving nature and society, where the most original, poetic individuals may be shunned and not allowed to grow freely. It’s a beautiful movie, very poetic and yet a really sinister spiral into madness.
Taxidermia (Hungary/Austria/France, 2006)
Director: György Pálfi
This offbeat and grotesque Hungarian movie satirizes the Hungarian national psyche and history. It is an episodic film showcasing three generations of men from the Balatony family. It's also not much of a plot-driven movie, rather than a mood piece that showcases the perversity, greed and madness of each generations focus person.
WWII-era soldier Morosgoványi Vende (Csaba Czene) is a figure sort of like a sex-crazed Woyczeck. Slow-minded, he's constantly berated and belittled by his commanding officer Lieutenant Balatony Lajoska (Marc Bischoff). He has chosen to give Morosgovány shelter, but makes him sleep in the pigsty. He has vivid sexual desires towards Lieutenant's teenaged daughters and even his obese wife.
In the 1970's Morosgoványi's bastard son Balatony Kálmán (Trócsányi Gergõ) is a world-class competititor at speed eating. He falls for the women's speed eating champion Aczél Gizi (Stanczel Adél), much to the chagrin of his coach and foster-uncle. Distracted by love, he has a horrible accident while competing.
In the modern day, Kálmán has grown to be a morbidly obese mountain of lard. He lives with his son Balatony Lajoska (Marc Bischoff), who is a taxidermist, whom he despises. For Lajoska is thin as a stick, and a major disappointment in the eyes of his father. After the death of his wife, the only thing he can love are his three huge cats. Lajoska takes his father's insults and verbal violence calmly, but in secret harbors a plan to get back at him and also to get himself recognition all over the world.
Taxidermia is surely a one-of-a-kind movie. Filled with the blackest humour imaginable and with scenes unbelievably disgusting and delirious, mere text doesn't do it justice. It's like the British comedy series The League of Gentlemen or Monty Python's The Meaning of Life - on acid. Only splatter fans and truly twisted individuals can value the film at face value, but then, we find mountains of things to love here. Particularly the suberbly odd final punch.
But the film does go a little deeper. To get to the core one should know a little bit about Hungarian history and society. Suffice to say, history hasn't been kind to Hungarians, which explains why each generation has their own traumas and crosses to bear. Pálfi takes the faults caused by these traumas and takes them to ridiculous extremes. So, when people fight to survive, comes strong sexual urges. When food is scarce and people are hungry, comes overwhelming greed and gluttonous food orgies. And when one looks past these days, when things are finally better, one finds a need to still concerve some of these horrible sins rather than to move on.
The rest of Love & Anarchy's retrospective after the festival. Right now I'm in a hurry to get to the screening opening film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hope to see you at the festival!