Monday, July 20, 2009

Karlovy Vary Film Festival Highlights Pt. 1

The Monolithic Hub of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The travel book writer Brett Atkinson claimed that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is full of B-list celebrities "wondering how their invitations to Cannes got lost in the mail." With little context, this remark seemed especially cutting in its definition of the Czech event as a poor man's Cannes. Spending time at Karlovy Vary, however, illustrates just how disingenuous and off the mark Atkinson's assessment is. The purpose of Karlovy Vary was never to emulate any of the glamorous aspects of the Cannes experience rather its aim seemed simpler - to provide the public with an opportunity to see a breadth of world cinema. To that end, this year's Karlovy Vary was a resounding success offering surprising films from across the globe and across a wide spectrum of genres. Out of the 40 films I saw during the eight-day festival, here are some of the highlights:

Best Film - Love Exposure dir. Sion Sono (Japan)

Few films initially seem as audacious and risky as "Love Exposure." Far more unique than its bizarre subject about a voyeur who falls in love, is its sheer length - 237 minutes. If the production was at all clumsily put together, such a running time would surely be a recipe for disaster. Before the film was screened at Karlovy Vary, a representative of the Tokyo FilmeX international film Festival attempted to assuage the suspicious audience. She said that the filmmaker intended his four-hour movie to feel like 90 minutes. To my surprise, director Sion Sono easily achieves this lofty ambition creating a manic epic that throbs with a bizarre energy as it explores the strange world of voyeurism and the passionate love the obsessive gaze inspires.

Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) is a pious Japanese teenager whose innocent existence is troubled when his pious father, a newly appointed Catholic priest, falls in love with a troubled and promiscuous member of the congregation. Once this woman leaves the priest, he becomes increasingly severe demanding that his once beloved son confess his every sin. To reconnect with his father through the act of confession, Yu realizes that he must shed his straight arrow ways and live a life of sin. Swiftly, he progresses from committing such terrible crimes as stepping on some ants and failing to help an old woman across the street to leading a gang of thugs around Tokyo to snap panty shots of unsuspecting girls. In his determined effort to become ever more sinful, the ever faithful Yu becomes known as "The King of the Perverts." During his covert escapades, the master voyeur falls in love with his ideal Virgin Mary, Yoko. Much to the delight of the wide-eyed Yu, the thought of Yoko sparks his first erection. Unfortunately, the presence of a malevolent Christian cult Zero Church plus Yoko's love for Yu's transvestite alter ego Madame Scorpion stand in the way of his true and pure romance!

Pop star and first-time actor Takahiro Nishijima delivers an enthusiastic performance as the "high school voyeuristic photo maniac" Yu Honda. Although Nishijima effectively emotes genuine pain as circumstances tear Yu farther away from his love, its the actors infectious glee that dazzles making Yu's journey down the road to perversity into a joyous liberation. Staring down at his first erection caused by the sight of Yoko, the actor has an ecstatic expression illustrating his characters' sheer pride at this arousal. So much of the film pivots on the star's ability to express such strange passions sympathetically, and he never disappoints.

Director Sion Sono employs a variety of visual techniques to ensure that the four hours move at an unbelievably brisk pace - a feat that speaks to the artist's craftsmanship. To create dramatic tension, much of the film's first-half features inter-titles that countdown to an eventual miracle in Yu's life. Every few scenes, a clock appears announcing the inevitability of the miracle in increasingly shorter spans of time from days to minutes to seconds. The film thus expertly creates an intriguing sense of anticipation. The style of Love Exposure is just as dynamic veering from that of an intense kung fu movie to a melodrama. Sono captures Yu's panty snapping as an acrobatic and kinetic spectacle straight out of a deranged anime which lends an exhilarating edge to the hero's peeping. Sono occasionally strips all ornamentation from the action replacing such over-the-top stunts with more hard-hitting moments of violence. Although the film defies categorization as it moves between genres, the sheer length of the production allows for an aesthetic complexity without the risk of incoherence. Indeed, the filmmaker’s creativity seems unbridled as he constructs a unique hyper-reality defined by both innocent and sometimes dark desires.

Beyond its visceral qualities, Love Exposure has a thematic complexity rarely reached in popular cinema delivering a complex view of today’s Japanese society. In the film's comedy, it examines the odd perversity of Japanese popular culture that eschews the explicit for the taboo. When a porn company forces the hero to meet with the fellow outsiders that worship his every move, the film becomes a series of confessionals with increasingly deranged characters. Strikingly these figures expound upon of obsessions that are less explicitly sexual and more innocently fetishistic including interests in feet as well as nurses and doctors. Such a hilarious scene succinctly highlights a society that continues to reconstitute the erotic. The film's more subversive focus on Catholicism and a fringe Christian cult brings to light a culture haunted by its own unstable identity. While Love Exposure is often humorously exaggerated, its portrait of contemporary Japan is devastatingly bleak.

Love Exposure director Sion Sono

In addition to its cultural specific conclusions, Love Exposure explores the more universal attraction of voyeurism. It depicts a world where different forms of surveillance compete from the traditional Peeping Tom (belonging to the Rare Window and Blow-up tradition of film) to another stratum of individuals who watch the watcher. The sheer amount of surveillance provides a compelling meditation on a moment where the boundaries of privacy are being effaced due to the sheer ubiquity of the camera in the digital age. Orwell, Powell, manga, and a dash of Kill Bill collide in this one-of-a-kind exhilarating film that continually surprises while making a convincing case for the merits of the four hour narrative film.

A Cannes Surprise - Looking for Eric dir. Ken Loach (England)

Besides showcasing unique films like Love Exposure, Karlovy Vary was also the perfect place to catch films that won audiences over at Cannes (or in the case of the also-featured Antichrist, disgusted them). One of the major films I missed in competition was British auteur Ken Loach is Looking for Eric. Like his fellow Brit Mike Leigh in last year's Happy-Go-Lucky, Loach has inserted a sense of optimism into his social-realist style with similarly sublime results. Loach’s film is an affecting story about overcoming despair that harnesses the inspirational beauty of an absurd meeting between a broken man and his football idol.

The aging postman Eric lives a lonely life with his distant children who have little respect for their father. Eric cannot seem to get past mistakes he made in life prompting his peers to find new ways for their friend to regain his confidence and joie de vivre. One exercise the group performs involves imagining a figure who each respects and could emulate. Some say icons like Gandhi and Sammy Davis Jr. while football fanatic Eric cites, "the greatest footballer who ever lived" Eric Cantona. Soon afterwards the footballer suddenly appears in Eric's home dispensing sometimes obtuse but always sincere advice. With the sage Cantona by his side, Eric attempts to follow his idol's example and rebuild a shattered life.

Actor Steve Evets plays the pathetic Eric with laudable range moving convincingly from a state of crestfallen impotence to one of confident strength. As Eric mumbles "I'm sorry" in his sleep during the film’s opening, the actor fills his voice with a soft anguish. Cantona's presence changes the character - a shift marked by Evets' more boisterous and bold demeanor. After the football star declares that his apprentice needs to stop living a passive existence and learn to say "no," Eric begins to chant the word. With every repetition of the phrase, the actor sheds his past reserve until his last furious bellow of "no" becomes a testament to his rekindled masculinity.

Cantona is likely a figment of the older Eric's imagination, a narrative conceit that allows the athlete free reign to portray himself as a mythic caricature. The footballer exudes a larger than life charisma with every confident declaration. After Eric happily admits that sometimes the public forgets that such famed athletes are simply men, the footballer adopts a serious expression and sternly replies, "I am not a man! I am Cantona!” For all his winning bravado, Cantona effectively handles rare moments of vulnerability as well. Once these wide-eyed fans asks him how he felt hearing thousands chanting his name, he replies that he was always afraid people might stop cheering. The athlete’s usually unshakable façade gives such glimmers of humanity an added resonance.

Director Ken Loach accentuates the perfect chemistry between the postman and his personal God by sporadically inserting clips of Cantona's finest moments into the film. The older Eric narrates each of these excerpts of perfect goals and beautiful passes with breathless excitement. These moments of sublime sportsmanship succinctly reinforce the footballer's powerful hold on the British popular imagination. Loach's fusion of jubilant sports clips with his often understated visual style underscores how figures like Cantona let the public dream and, to paraphrase Eric, allow people an opportunity to forget all the troubles of their lives.

The magical atmosphere the scenes with Cantona contrasts with the very real difficulties of contemporary society such as gang violence and more personal challenges like familiar estrangement. Oddly, the mere presence of the athlete in the narrative lends a gentle optimism to the stark issues which Loach confronts head-on. Looking for Eric exalts the power of the modern myth of the perfect athlete and, more broadly, all fantastic dreams to energize and inject a bright spark of hope into the sadness of the everyday.

Reevaluating a Cannes Sensation - Samson and Delilah dir. Warwick Thorton (Australia)

For the American viewer, Australian cinema can be particularly resounding. The country's film often deals directly with issues that have long been repressed in the American psyche - the untamed landscape and the indigenous question. I experienced firsthand just how central the plight of the aborigines is within Australian life at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra two years ago. I expressed concerns about how little exhibition space was devoted to the Stolen Generation - a period where the government adopted a policy to forcibly separate aboriginal youth from their families in the hope of assimilating them into Caucasian Australian society. In response, the tour guide expounded on how the museum liberal minded curators clashed with the conservative government of John Howard that discouraged discussion of the state's extremely racist past.

This ideological battle came to a head on the exterior of the museum. In large Braille font, messages read "Sorry" and "Forgive Us For Our Genocide." Upon hearing this, Howard's government ordered that the Braille be changed to simply meaningless babble. This version was far different from the innocent official perspective given during the tour which stated that the braille read "G'Day Mate" and "Welcome to Australia." This experience highlighted how a portion of Australian culture seeks to place such troubling history within a forgotten oblivion.

Given this cultural divide, Samson and Delilah seems particularly audacious in its harrowing view of aboriginal life within a sharply acted love story between two aboriginal youths. At Cannes, the film was a sensation winning the Camera d'Or award for the best film by a first-time filmmaker; however, the film's profoundly desperate depiction of modern-day aborigines sparks a fear that the outraged aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thorton creates an overly caricatured reality that too often exploits rather than challenges the worst stereotypes of indigenous populations.

Teenagers Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) live in a dilapidated village in the middle of the Australian outback. Even though they rarely speak with each other, there lies an attraction between the lay about Samson and the more industrious Delilah.. Their bond causes Delilah's aging grandmother to jokingly refer to the 14-year-old boy as Delilah's husband. This connection serves as the one bright spot in the rut of their lives which moves at an achingly slow pace. Samson's existence can be measured by the periods between his substance abuse while Delilah clings to the routine of taking care of her sickly relative. As circumstances isolate the pair from their village, the two must learn to rely on each other.

The young actors who play the titular characters share an undeniable chemistry. They express their fondness not in moments of overt affection but rather ones of playful strife. To catch the attention of his girl, Samson throws a rock at Delilah as she walks in the midday sun. With superb understatement, each effectively expresses the profound sorrow and sometimes quiet joy of their troubled lives. 14 year old actor Rowan McNamara plays the substance abuser in a convincing muddle that briefly fades into lucidity when Delilah has Samson's attention. His counterpart Marissa Gibson puts up stern façade that gives way to motherly affection as Samson minds begin to deteriorate. Together, largely in silence, the actors expose a facet of modern teenage courtship that is devoid of romantic gesture, yet remains utterly romantic.

While the leads are often a paragon of subtlety, Warwick Thorton's direction is disappointingly heavy-handed. A scene where Samson inhales gasoline under a bridge encapsulates his overt style that forsakes any subtext. In a characteristic long take, the camera lingers on the teenager who sits in the center of the frame. With every inhalation, the afternoon scene grows darker and darker. Finally, the only object clearly visible remains the plastic container in Samson's hands underscoring the presence of such devastating substance abuse within aboriginal life. Because the film captures such moments with all the nuance of anti-drug public service announcement, its pronouncement on the dire straits of the indigenous people appears far too simplistic. This framing, which brings to the screen the stereotype of a drug addled aboriginal population, does nothing but insult the audience's intelligence instead of provoking it.

This oddly offensive distillation of aboriginal society manifests itself not only within the film’s direction but also in the narrative written by Thorton. The film presents the central village as a mere confluence of oppressive, backwards beliefs and sloth-like attitudes. The elders are shown to be violent and overbearing while the various youths do nothing all day. In their dealings with kids, the adults resort to violence beating them with batons. Out of the village, the film defines the relationship between the native and Caucasian Australians exclusively as one of exploitation. At one point, Delilah finds a tableau made by her grandmother at a native art store sold for over $20,000 even though it was bought from the artist for a mere $200. Like the depiction of Samson's drug abuse, Thorton articulates exploitative dynamic so clearly that it rings patently false remaining at a distance from a more complex reality.

Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thorton

Even more severely, the film posits that any integration between the different aspects of Australian culture is not merely difficult but impossible. A drunken homeless aboriginal man who befriends the two initially has no discernable past outside of his vagrant lifestyle. Digging into his suitcase, Samson discovers a photo which shows the same figure clean-cut with a broad smile as a white child, presumably his own, hugs his leg. The model for cultural integration has since devolved into a crazed, babbling character unable to bridge the societal divide. As dire a fall as it is unbelievable.

Speaking on his work, the filmmaker testified that he personally witnessed such scenarios growing up in a similar social mileau to the lead characters. By creating a composite of these struggles into a single narrative, the film's depiction of modern Australia alienates. His indignation at the uncaring system completely colors the films, and yet Thorton expresses his angle in the shallowest of terms painting his own populace as mere victims. While Samson and Delilah delighted many at Karlovy Vary, with one festival programmer dubbing it a masterpiece, its view of ethnic disenfranchisement in modern day Australia completely fails to illuminate.

Next Up - A Genre Take on Karlovy Vary

Your reporter enjoying a delicious Karlovy Vary wafer.

Even though I covered three highlights from Karlovy Vary, there are still 37 films left to discuss. To illustrate the breadth of the selection, I will look at the festival offerings through one genre. Stay tuned for comedy in the next Karlovy Vary blog update!