By Sascha Krieger
Kazoku No Kuni (Forum / Japan / Director: Yang Yonghi)
Yang Yonghi’s first feature film goes back to the topics of her previous documentaries: the story of her family, divided between Japan and their native North Korea. A young man who repatriated to Pyongyang at the age of sixteen is allowed back for medical treatment but the visit is cut short for no apparent reason. For a very short time lives completely separate try and come together only to be torn apart again. A family refinding itself before falling victim to a faceless irrational Big Brother – the gentle, quiet, unsentimental way this story is told, how voices, mutual languages must be rediscovered is as moving as it is at times almost unbearably painful. The handheld camera lends the film an instability that corresponds well with the state of limbo portrayed. The story is told in short, quiet moments: the father’s deafening speechlessness, the son’s slow shedding of his robot-like facade, the utter incomprehension of the decision to call Sungho back after just one week, the sister’s literal inability to let her brother go. The human is pitted against that unseen power trying to root out individuality and even though it seems to win, these moments tell a different story. The film’s quiet, almost documentary-like realism gives it an intensity that is hard to bear at times – and impossible to forget.
Kid-Thing (Forum / USA / Director: David Zellner)
At the beginning, there is dirt track, damaged race cars bump into each other. As they hit they make no sound. For minutes, the camera stays on them, mostly close to ground. Dirt, bumpers, wheels. Cut: a girls face, void of expression. Meet Annie, an angry young girl who throws gravel at children in a playground, shoots a paintball gun at dead cattle. A parentless child although there is father but like all adults, here he is absent even when he is there. One day she finds a hole in the forest from which she hears a trapped woman’s voice crying for help, willing Annie to get someone to get her out. In the end they will come together, but in a different way. The film is done mostly on long steady shots, often staying for what feels like minutes on scenes of inertia, giving it a stark naturalism as well as an atmosphere of doom. The hole and the disembodied voice symbolize the abyss threatening to swallow this girl on her own and also provides a sense of mystery: Is this a voice from hell or a way to be rescued? A fairy-tale element both counteracting as well as intensifying the bleakness of this world. This is a dark film that has moments of humor, unsentimental, truthful without being optimistic. On a realistic level, the end could be called tragic. On the other hand, if this really is a fairy tale, who knows?
Metéora (Competition / Greece / Director: Spiros Stathoulopoulos)
A scenery like a painting: bare rocks in a remote mountain landscape, slightly out of focus and washed over, made to look like picture, late Romanticism or early Impressionism maybe. As if in Caspar David Friedrich painting misty clouds roll over them, giving the land an archaic, mythical feel. Fittingly, there are two monasteries right on top of those rocks. In them a monk and a nun who fall in love. There are secret meetings, light signals from window to window, regretful prayers, self-hurt and ultimately sex. At the end, they hold hands on a meadow. In between issues are illustrated with well-done animations, even hell comes into play here. That’s it. Metéora is at times stunningly beautiful, but as the novelty value of its visual language wears off there is not much left. No emotional depth, no conflict, no real topic. And not much of an idea: When the monk is in emotional turmoil, the sounds of the monastery disintegrate into noisy cacophony. This is as subtle as it gets. The emptiness is accentuated even further by the film’s deliberate slowness. The animation seems more important than any kind of substance. This is mere surface, great to look at for a while, and then, for a much longer time, very tiring.
Captive (Competition / France, Philippines, Germany, UK / Director: Brillante Mendoza)
Philippine director’s Brillante Mendoza’s new film takes us back to 2001, when Islamist terrorism became regarded as the chief threat to what we once liked to call the free world. an almost forgotten event was the kidnapping of a group of tourists in the Philippines by Abu Sayaf terrorists which lasted for almost a year. Mendoza has tried to turn the events of this months into a gripping and haunting film. Apart from the first twenty to thirty minutes he has failed to do so. Early on, Captive feels almost like a documentary, well capturing the frantic, fearful and unstable atmosphere of the kidnapping’s early phase. From the dense opening in which two arrivals – that of two social workers and that of the terrorists – are contrasted we follow the group in its meandering journey, getting glimpses of the different ways in which fear can manifest itself before everything calms down in a collective state of exhaustion. As long as Mendoza uses the handheld camera to just watch what is going on, the film keeps an intensity that almost allows the viewer to touch the state of emergency these people are in. Unfortunately, he does not trust this style to carry the film. So he starts to try telling stories – the nurses forcefully married to the, of course hypocritical, Islamists, the 12-year-old, social worker Thérèse (Isabelle Huppert) becomes friendly with, and pretty much everything else connected with Thérèse who is pushed into the center of the film. For the first time in her career, Huppert may be completely miscast, her star appeal certainly hurts the authenticity the film has built up in its first part. Later it converts to conventional story-telling, full of clumsy Hollywoodesque effects (animals symbolizing the threat), constant gun battles which are filmed and told in the same way and an ending that so much lacks inspiration (the counter-editing that works well in the beginning is now nothing but stale) that it even loses most of its drama. A wasted opportunity.
Shadow Dancer (Out of Competition / Rep. of Ireland, UK / Director: James Marsh)
Collette Mc Veigh, a young Belfast mother, member of a prominent IRA family, fails to carry out a bomb attack in the London Underground, is captured and forced by a smart MI5 agent to spy on her family in order to avoid prison and keep her son. They make a deal that soon puts her life in danger. An operation goes badly wrong and someone will have to pay. The only question is: Will it be her? Shadow Dancer takes us back to 1993, to the early days of the peace process, just before the first IRA ceasefire. It quickly develops a peculiar atmosphere of paranoia and matter-of-fact professionalism – on both sides. The drab interior of the MI5 offices and the backrooms in which the IRA brass meet are not fundamentally different. Neither are the distrust and the behind-the-back scheming. It is a world in which secrecy is the most important thing, in which even the closest relatives are light years away, kept distant by their secrets. It is a claustrophobic world whose dominant color is gray. The film’s paleness reflects the inability to escape from well-learned rituals, the cool and quiet photography the deadly and unthinking efficiency of both sides. It is a male world but the film focuses on the women, trapped in the webs of loyalty while at the same time trying to create a normal family life. They are strong women, stronger than the men because they understand what really matters. The contrast with their lives lets the men’s war appear absurd and meaningless. But there is no easy escape and no avoiding suffering. The story lacks plausibility at times, is a little too simplistic and there are a few empty clichès thrown in. Yet it does not matter for the film works through its atmosphere, its nearly suffocating density – and this closed, quietly suffering, subtly desperate face of Andrea Riseborough. It is to the film’s credit that it does not take sides – it shows rather than judges. as horrible as some of the things they’re doing are, they are all just humans, plain and simple. It’s a monstrous world without monsters.