Monday, February 16, 2009

Distributors act fast!

Back from Berlin. Exhausted from a week of parties and screenings. A little disappointed that I did not get as much media exposure as I had hoped. But here's something from the respectable Financial Times. I'm especially pleased because this is clearly a tough journalist.

Wackiness that’s serious
By Nigel Andrews
Published: February 15 2009 19:49 Last updated: February 15 2009 19:49

Given time or eternity, it had to happen. As surely as monkeys at typewriters will end up tapping out the works of Shakespeare, a Peruvian film about a woman with a potato in her vagina will – at some point – win the Golden Bear.

This was the year. Not that The Milk of Sorrow, the first Peruvian film entered in competition at Berlin, is artless, let alone primitive. Claudia Llosa’s film sprang into view on the penultimate day, highly wrought in its weirdness, deeply serious in its wackiness, and probably needing only a jury headed by Tilda Swinton, the brightest maverick in the screen-arts establishment, to confer the gilded grizzly.

The film’s Spanish title is La Teta Asustada (The Poisoned Teat), denoting a Peruvian superstition that raped or abused women in strife-ridden times pass the sickness of fear to their suckling babes. The heroine (Magaly Solier), thus infected, keeps a tuber in her pudenda to ward off violation. “Magic realism” doesn’t quite catch Llosa’s style. It is more nutty-as-a-fruitcake naturalism, sometimes deliberately funny, as when a doctor tries to persuade Solier that there are right and wrong places to store root vegetables, sometimes rich with a droll, wise, deadpan all-seeingness. The photographic style is in the best sense faux naïf. The acting, as the story marches towards apocalypse, is neither faux nor naïf but intense, bold, level-gazing.
For most of this Berlinale, anxious bookies had walked the Potsdamerstrasse trying to coax bets on Iran’s About Elly (drowned woman’s death catalyses insights into despotic society), Germany’s Everyone Else (sex-war study) or the Anglo-French London River (races find amity in the terrorist aftermath of July 7 2005), all noted in my last dispatch. No careful person would have put a punt on any for Golden Bear. At the same time, we all knew that each film would win something.

Iran’s Asghar Farhadi was duly named Best Director. London River put Best Actor prize in the hands of Mali-born star Sotigui Kouyate, his quiet grace preferred to the full-steam emoting of co-star Brenda Blethyn. Everyone Else was a double success for the host country, earning Best Actress prize for Birgit Minichmayr and sharing the runner-up Grand Jury Prize with Spain’s Gigante (Giant)), a tender whimsy about a super-sized security guard finding love in a supermarket.

These films at least looked comfortable in a festival competition: more than could be said for Peter Strickland’s bafflingly lauded (by some) Katalin Varga, a sort of Cold Comfort Tundra working up rape-and-revenge shenanigans in Romania; or the trite comedy, The One and Only, dramatising the boyhood memoirs of actor George Hamilton, with Renee Zellweger doing her best as eccentric, toujours gai mum.

Even Theo Angelopoulos and Chen Kaige, those godfathers of modern art cinema, made us offers too easy to refuse. The Greek director’s The Dust of Time has a poly-accented cast – Bruno Ganz, Irène Jacob, Willem Dafoe – slogging through a symbol-laden seminar on human migration in a xenophobic world. The Chinese director’s Forever Enthralled is a lacklustre clone of Farewell, My Concubine, its spectacle and drama resembling yesterday’s stage sets.

No, the festival fringe, as often at Berlin, was the place to be. Distributors, please act fast to acquire Simon Chung’s End of Love, a bold, compelling tale of drugs and bisexual love, proving that little has changed for filmmaking in Hong Kong thankfully since the handover. The place clearly is a “special administrative region”. Now will the Chinese government let the rest of China catch up?

And I saw again, because my admiration for Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel’s 75-minute gem grew through invidious comparison with other films, Sweden’s extraordinary Burrowing. In a tale of the suburban versus the sylvan, prologued by a Thoreau quote, a new kind of cinema grows before our eyes. There is barely a plot, merely the movements and voice-overs of three or four vari-aged characters, choreographed near-abstractly as “children of life” midway between nature and nurture. It is lyrical, mysterious, dazzlingly photographed and, in every sense that cinema can bear, poetic.

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