Berlinale 2020: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Domangchin yeoja (Competition / Republic of Korea / Director: Hong Sangsoo)

Three conversations with three women. That’s all Hong Sangsoo’s latest film is. The connecting element is a young woman visiting or happening to bump into old friends. For the first time, she’s away from her husband. They had never been apart before, he thinks it’s natural. Three times she tells this, every time is pretty much exactly the same words. Yet all we see is female bonding, sometimes awkward, often quietly understanding. Men are intruders, threats, side notes. As always in Hong’s films, he accentuates cinematic means: Zooming in, turns to the same motif as a connector between scenes, unmotivated soppy music, slightly distorted, as if played via a tape deck or radio. This creates distance and sometimes comic relief, always tinged with seriousness as in the scene a neighbor comes to compain about stray cats being fed – a masterpiece of hyper polite passive aggressiveness in which the woman stands her ground almost apparently timidly and the final say belongs to a rather confident cat. Humour is a weapon where others aren’t accepted. The film highlights the women’s independence as well as their socially demanded dependance on their male „companions“, the first woman visited has given up for good and the second ridicules quite brutally. As they straddle the fine line between emancipation and social expectation, the film keeps emphasizing its artificiality. The reality it’s clean though somewhat impersonally rigid imaged capture is fragile, almost illusory. And yet, it cannot be denied. In the end, the mountain gives way to the sea as a visual leitmotif, endless boundlessness instead of something to be overcome. Another quietly symbol to be missed at your own peril. Just like this entire beautiful film.

Domangchin yeoja (Image: © Jeonwonsa Film Co. Production)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Competition / United States / Director: Eliza Hittman)

17-year old Autumn is pregnant. With her cousin Skylar, she sets out to New York City to have an abortion. End of story. In a laconic tone and a matter-of-fact straightforwardness remindful of a documentary, the film depicts her journey. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is not one of many words, a well of one-word replies with a stony face. Not much happens in it except in one scene when she is asked questions about  abuse suffered. She does not reveal anything but her crying, her slowly distorting features, her loss of control tell everything there is to know. The story is in the faces, hers and Skylar’s (Talia Ryder), not in their world. The careful attempts to keep everything hidden, the frightened caring glances, it’s in the slightest of touches of hands. The opening with a high school talent show and a bit of bullying is a little too routine, the fleeting attempts to convey being caught in the cold lights of the city and the atmospheric soundtrack, while rare enough, are unnecessary compromises towards an assumed audience taste. The film doesn’t need them. It’s at its best when reduced to its core, to its bare imagery, the ever close yet unobtrusive camera eye, the protective distance the protagonists keep. The film depicts the journey that is abortion, without drama, without artificial conflict, without all the clichéd inner struggles. what goes on inside stays there. This makes it harder to care but is closer to the truth. The film and its heroine don’t let the viewer in, they stay outside. At the time tome, they’re as close as it gets.

Favolacce (Competition / Italy, Switzerland / Directors: Fabio and Damiano D’Innocenzo)

All is not well in the unnamed Italian suburb this film takes place in. Times are rough, the men’s masculinity fragile, the women docile to the level of long having checked out, the children withdrawn, shy to unfeeling. The film is filled with scenes of rage, of crying, of faces, bodies on edge. „A true story inspired by a lie“, the film is called at its outset. Or maybe it’s the other way around as this is clearly meant to be a bitter satire of a society also edge, without a centre, without the ties that bind. Veering between brightly coloured realism and dream-like artificiality – infused with slow motion, blurry images and an eerie soundtrack taking over at times – the film spells out its verdict clearly from the start. In this world you either snap or die. The adults choose one path, the children another. Only the oddest of couples, an over-energetic, somewhat hypermasculine as well as desperate father and his super-shy, almost mute son, break the pattern and try – literally – a new start at the end. While, some of its over-the top ideas almost work to showcase the absurdity of late capitalist society, form and story always follow message and the latter is rather on the plain side. And so the film is little more than an overacted and way too obvious sketch which might well have worked as a short. As a feature film, it’s way out of its league.

Saudi Runaway (Panorama Documents / Switzerland / Director: Susanne Regina Meures)

While under the current Crown Prince, a ruthless dictator not shying away from having journalists murdered even on foreign soil, there has been a slight improvement in women’s rights, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most oppressive countries for women. Saudi Runaway provides a unique, unfiltered and devastating glimpse into the reality of life for women in the deeply patriarchal system. Filmed on her two mobile phones by a young woman of whom we only learn the first name Muna, who is planning her escape, we enter the inside of a Saudi family ruled by an unforgivingly despotic father. When Muna is in public the image is often blurred by the fabric of her niqab, only at home, the veil comes off but the prison remains. The opening shot is through a window and through several layers of grids, symbolic of the cage Muna is trapped in. The film, always clandestinely filmed in fear of detection, feels as claustrophobic as the situation it records, with the tension becoming almost unbearable the closer it gets to the escape attempt. The perspective is Muna’s, the claustrophobia real. And yet, we stare at it from out side, half-believing this can be true in 2020. We can read about it, hear interviews, see documentaries but Saudi Runaway takes us inside as much as it’s possible. Unfiltered, real, yet also registering small acts of love and solidarity and human desire for life coupled with resilience whic drives Muna on. When Berlinale is over, there is no doubt this will be one of its must-see films.

Maggie’s Farm (Forum / United States / Director: James Benning)

Trees, bushes, a meadow. A fixed camera angle, for minutes at a time. In the background a constant drone of distant traffic, sometimes mixed with nature sound. Later white walls, ceilings,, waste bins, ramps, sheds. James Benning’s new film shown the California Institute of Arts in its underbelly. Staircases, back rooms and corridors, park and wood land. No wide angles, everything seems enclosed by the rigid frame, even nature feel domesticised, on a leash. Pople are absent, animals, too. Sometimes, a few footsteps, then silence, only the electric drone of the lights or other contraptions. A world without life, shabby, effective, bare. Cold effectiveness, a constant flow – of traffic, electricity, the new life force that doesn’t need humans. The longer the film runs the more the dread can be felt. These rooms and places already seem like they have abandoned us. The hidden infrastructure that makes us possible – the natural and the natural. The trees don’t need us and neither does the concrete. The post-apocalyptic is already around us. We just have to see it. James Benning – as in previous films – makes us do so.

Petit Samedi (Forum / Belgium / Director: Paloma Sermon-Daï)

The film starts with grainy footage and (almost) ends with it. Between the early 1990s techno party images and old family videos lies the story of Damien Samedi (hence the title) and his mother. Damien is 43 and a drug addict. Centered around conversations between the two, the film has an almost documentary feel, the images plain, well composed (an early knack for filming through doors is later given up) yet seemingly random, the perspective neutral, observant. We also see Damien doing gardening work, smoking (just once), in conversation with his therapist. One scene hints at a drug-induced state of agitation but otherwise, the film avoids any addiction cliches. Damien is calm, reflective, his mother more agitated yet also quite self-aware. Both seem like they’re looking back at something overcome, which gives the film a strangely distant feel. Its approach is matter of fact, somewhat cold even. It leaves the viewer just as cold, with relatively little insight into the dynamics of a drug-infected mother son relationship. The distance that keeps the film from sliding into addiction film cliches and even adds a touch of humour as in the promising early scenes when we first meet the fussing mother and witness some witty banter turns out to be its greatest weakness as it makes it fail to connect with the audience.

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