Thursday, 27 December 2012

PÖFF 2012

The always-charming Pimedate Ööde Filmfestivaali (Dark Nights Film Festival) in Tallinn this year's November was as full interesting programme as ever. While it offered some treats that have not yet been shown anywhere in Finland, most of the programme was familiar to Helsinki's avid festival-goers and arthouse cinema fans. But no matter, it will once again give me an excuse to take a look back at this year's offerings before the annual Best Of -lists.

Pieta (Hangul, South Korea)
Director: Kim Ki-duk

It seems that following his recovery from nervous breakdown, director Kim Ki-duk has started to shift away from his trademarked slow, artistic storytalling and more towards the Korean mainstream. His latest film is a Revenge Thriller, much in the vein of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy or Bong Joon-Ho's Mother. The film is based on a very fucked-up morality idea, which Korean films seem to specialize in. At least it doesn't go as far as Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil.

Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is the most violent and ruthless debt collector in mafia's paycheck. He hasn't any emphaty for anyone, and is glad to maim his "customers" for insurance money. Back home he usuallu spends time sleeping or masturbating. One day, a strange woman follows him home. He tries to drive her away, but she enters his house by force, and insists on cleaning up. She reveals herself to bee Kang-do's long-lost mother, Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su).

Initially Kang-do refuses his mother, and acts as if she's not there. He goes on his work, even though she insists on taging along. of course, she doesn't approve of the violence, but nevertheless attempts to win her son over by helping along. Slowly, Kang-do starts to warm up to Mi-sun. But she did have another reason to return to him after so many years, and this is just one step in her major plan.

Kim uses a lot of Christian iconography in the film, making a stark contrast on the people who certainly aren't living by Jesus's Golden Rule. He also doesn't spare the audience in awkward sexual content nor bone-crunching or skin-frying violent scenes. Yet for all the effectiveness of the cinematography and sheer skill in the storytelling, the whole film has a very slight feeling. As if the master is afraid to bring on his A-game. There have been good thrillers that have pondered the same sort of questions between family, morality, duty, sexuality and politics before. Pieta for all it's worth, can't really bring that much new things in the mix.


Call Girl (Sweden)
Director: Michael Marcimain

The most talked-about film this year in Sweden was this intriguing political thriller that is based on several real life scandals from the 1970s. While the film certainly takes some liberties to fill in some gaps, and makes some indirect accusations on past politicians, the depiction of 70's Sweden is noticeably realistic. The result is something like The Wire meets Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the Red Lights district.

Iris (Sofia Karemyr) and Sonja (Josefin Aspelund) are two misbehaving 14-year-olds living in a school home. The rebellious teens tend to run away to meet boys, drink alcohol and trick themselves into bars. But they run into a wrong crowd of girls who seem to have it all; a free apartment where to party, free alcohol with no questions asked, and plenty of money to use. The girls fall down deeper and deeper into the rabbot hole, until they find themselves to be in the service of bordello keeper Dagmar Glans (the magnificent Pernilla August).

Meanwhile, the small-time government clerk and pencil-pusher John Sandberg (Simon J. Berger) runs an operation to check Dagmar's shady business. He taps phones, plants tails and reads everything connected to her. Soon he starts to realize that Dagmar's clients aren't just faceless rich people, they are socialites from the very top of the Swedish society. Included might even be the rising Minister of Justice (Claes Ljungmark). But in trying to expose this scandal, Sandberg runs into a lot of trouble. But election day is coming and he remains adamant that the people will have to know the truth about their minister, who at the same time is strongly preaching about democracy and women's rights.

The film has three viewpoint characters, Iris, Dagmar and John. Each one has an intriguing story that has a lot of nuances and insights. It seems that the Swedes really like the archetypal characters of heroic jounalist finding the black spots in Social democracy, as well as the young girl who gets mistreated by misogynists working within the social norms. At times the film almost feels like it has too much content. A lot of these nuances get lost from the viewer when the story is suddenly skipping from one main plot to another. This approach would work better in a television series or a book.

In the end this society-shaking thriller is still superbly exciting stuff. The retro-styled electronic music, as well as pop hits from the era make a perky soundtrack, that houses a much more sinister core. While Swedish spying within the country in the 70's wasn't as large-scaled as in the Cold War setting, the stakes were still quite high. The film contains the idea that the country is willing to turn a blind eye on injustice, while at the same time the country poses as the moral superior and forerunner in the world. I'm almost certain I will enjoy the film more on subsequent viewings, since it contains so much to chew.


God Bless America (USA)
Director: Bobcat Goldtwaith

Could it be the Western civilization is nearing its end? At least it seems that our mutual culture has reached some lows that aren't easy to climb back up, as well as the political system is bitter, feuded and utterly divided, particularly in America. Stand up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's satire attempts no less to be a Natural Born Killers for the Naughties, a satire about a kill spree that reveals all that's wrong with the world today.

Sad-sack middle-ager Frank (Joel Murray) hates his job, neighbors, television programmes and life in general. He has to see his estranged daughter grow up to be just another prissy little asshole, living with his ex-wife and her new husband. The final straw is drawn when Joel is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. So, before ending his miserable days, he takes a last-ditch effort to make the world a better place by getting rid of his daughter's role-model, a spoiled rich brat whining on MTV about the wrong-colored car her parents got her as a birthday present. But by killing her, Joel also attracts the attention of her class-mate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), who insists they should go on a kill-spree to rid the world of assholes.

I suppose everyone has had fantasies of brutally executing parking violators, loudmouthed teens at movies, fugly screaming babies, uncompromising extreme-right wing politicians or douchebag tween stars. Goldthwait's murder fantasy balances on a fine line, particularly since America has had their share of tragic gun mishaps lately. But while the assholes in the film are really obnoxious, this is also a film smart enough to constantly question the morales and minds of its protagonists. While Joel is symphatetic, Roxy in particular often comes across just as bad and annoying as everyone she would like to end.

But all in all, as a satire, this is a bit slight. It really targets just one side of a culture and doesn't offer much in the way of analyzing how the society has come to this. It's more of a check list of everything annoying it's eccentric screenwriter/director. However, the film's main question on whether people can't be nice to each other any more, is a very valid one nowadays.


Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire, Italy)
Directors: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani

This year's Berlinale's top prize went to this sort-of docu-drama by Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. I say "sort of" because this certainly isn't an easy film to be comfortably fit in any pre-given characterization. Shot mostly in black-and-white, and in flashback, the film chronicles inmates at a high-security prison staging a play of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

We get to know the inmates for the most part only from the short scenes of the applying for a part in the play. They tell what they are in prison for, and at the same time heaps of their back story. The major flaw in the film is that one would like to learn to learn more of them. Now watching interviews for a long period of time is a little exhausting, and one can't remember most of it for what comes next. There are mafiosos, hotheads and people just trying to make ends meet, and the only thing that really connects them is the punishment at first, and the play later on.

Practicing for their roles, the inmates become to utterly inhabit their roles. Since there isn't much else to do in prison, the play becomes the sole reason for their existence. The prison architecture begins to look like a huge stage, and the similarities of Ancient Rome and the hierarchy at the Big House begin to get mixed together. But what comes after the play is done? The film is very experimental, twisting a famed tale to have a couple of layers more, but it is captivating to watch.


War Witch (Rebelle, Canada)
Director: Kim Nguyen

The film's two names tell a lot of it's two sides. It's about a girl who is a Soldier and a Magician at the same time, but fights constantly against the poor lot given to her in life. Komona (Rachel Mwanza) lives in the civil war-ridden Sub-Saharan Africa. At the age of 13, she sees her home village destroyed, and her being forced to murder her own parents. But this scarring experience seemingly also gives her the ability to communicate with the dead and stay out of harm's way. The invading soldiers equip her to fight for the Rebellion, but soon find that her abilities have better use to them as an Oracle, predicting the course of fighting.

The film chronicles Komona's life for three cricial years, during which she leaves her home, fights as a soldier, falls in love with a fellow wizard, the albino known as Magician (Serge Kanyinda), gets married and pregnant, and seeks to please the spirits of the dead by giving her parents a proper burial. Her life has several tragic twists for the worse, but adamant she keeps on going, even against the odds.

For all its darkness, War Witch embraces the African way of life from multiple angles. The belief in magic and mysticism isn't drawn out, but rather a comfortable part of all human interaction. At peaceful time, people are willing to help each other, and not taking worries of any petty details. When the Magician goes on a search of a rooster, people have a good laugh at his expense, even if he's pointing an AK-47 at their faces. His eagerness to find an extremely rare creature for love is endearing to people, even if he threatens their very lifes. People living in the war-ridden territories are well used to it.


Marley (USA/UK)
Director: Kevin McDonald

This two-and-ahalf hour documentary chronicles no less than the whole life of Bob Markey, poet and a prophet. The most popular reggae star of all time had a bumpy career, with success that didn't come overnight but which was fought for years. The documentary gathers an impressive cast of interviewees, from Marley's immidiate family (mother, sons) to close friends and co-workers (including Lee "Scratch" Perry and Jimmy Cliff). The film also captures the rise of Marley-mania, beginning from Jamaica and taking over the whole world from teh United Kingdom to Japan to the United States.

The film is all business, to the point where it starts to resemble a historical documentary more than a mere music biography. The basics of Marley's life are well-covered all around, but at the same time, the movie also doesn't go very intimately into any subject. Any new revealations are scarce, even if Marley's sons remembering him as a father, and his beloved remembering his final days are quite touching. Altogether this works as a good 101 on Bob Marley's music, but I would always like that a biography film would look more like its central subject. This is a bit too distant and the cinematic tricks generic to reflect a truly innovative artist.


The Thieves (Dodookdeul, South Korea)
Director: Choi Dong-Hoon

The English subtitles didn't work on the PÖFF screening of this South Korean caper film, so I have little to say about it's plot. But it's a colorful, fast-paced film, with kinetic action scenes, globe-trotting exotiscm in the vein of the best James Bond flicks, plenty of sexy ladies and double-crossing. It seems like the cast is filled with colorful characters as well. Mark this one a prime candidate for a proper rewatch at some point in the future.

Captive (France/Philippines/USA/UK)
Director: Brillante Mendoza

The latest film by Brillante Mendoza is a naturalistic look into the captivity endured by western tourists in the hands of Abu Sayyaf guerrilla fighters in  . The film is mostly told through the eyes of the French schoolteacher Thérèse (Isabelle Huppert). She had come to Palawan for humanitarian aid, yet goes into long-winded soul-searching after her kidnapping and harsh life hiding out in the jungle. She does fill the role of taking care of the elderly and the sickly among other captives. Yet the terrorists have little use to any hostages that can't manage to flee any spot as quickly as possible to avoid capture.

The film is repetitive and harsh, although this does reflect the nature of the situation the main characters are in. At several points, mednoza winds down, and offers some magificent jungle footage. The flora and fauna live on, caring little about the quarrells of people. In this nature, the clear predecessor of this film is Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. However, Mendoza is not capable of balancing the poeticism and harsh realities as masterfully. The film drags often, and its characters remain quite thin, even if they are tried to flesh out now and then. The resulting film is a pick-and-mix bag, sometimes quite good, some times dull.


Shame (UK/USA)
Director: Steve McQueen

Director Steve McQueen's look into sex addiction has reaped a lot of critical acclaim. A lot of this comes from his quiet, slow-moving and very visual style, even though the filmmaker doesn't always seem to think it through on what kind of storytelling the style would fit best. But Shame is certainly a better told story than McQueen's previous, too-experimental-for-its-own-good debut Hunger. Michael Fassbender does a good, convincing main role as Brandon. The 30-something stock-broker is udes to picking up girls at bars, subways or really, everywhere he might run into a flirt. He also has huge stacks of porn, a subscription to live internet sex camera sites, and a tendency to hire call girls for his pleasure.

When Brandon's younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to an unexpected visit, he has to start rethinking his life. The shame of his condition forces him to move his sexual activities out of his apartement. At the same time he is disgusted when his boss picks up Sissy and the pair have sex. Brandon has serious problems with intimacy and angrily and bitterly refuses any close contact with Sissy. It appears that he's overcompensating for some guilty feelings, and the movie suggests he has trouble seeing women in anything other than sex objects.

Sex addiction is not an easy subject to make a film about, since it often falls into the pit of exploitation (as in the notorious Finnish film Levottomat 3) or moralization. McQueen does manage to have a cold, distant view on the films for the majority of the running time, but falls head first into the latter by the end. The cheesy pouting and extremities that are on offer put some unnecessary weight, when McQueen had put so much weight into individual images earlier. When Brandon's hedonism also goes way overboard, the film starts bordering on the line of exploitation after all. McQueen's hard-pressed style doesn't stay intact throughout the film, which is a true shame.


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