Defying the Weather: Sydney Film Festival

 

First published in Metro Magazine.

As this article is still being sold online by Metro Magazine, please contact Monique for the pdf version.

This year’s Sydney Film Festival proved more challenging than most. Walking between cinemas required grit and layers of clothing.

Sydney film festival review by monique hohnberg

Brollies didn’t stand a chance. I ran to the underground route between Myer and the Queen Victoria Building. Masses of human traffic, who all had the same idea as me, jostled in every direction. I arrived at Town Hall Station but the upward exit to the street was blocked. Water was gushing down the stairs. Up to George Street, on the wrong side, far from the cinema, and out into the torrential rain and frenzied winds. There was a great s

ense of relief at reaching the cinema entrance and taking in the smell of popcorn and coffee. Ironically, this endorphin rush made the festival experience more enjoyable and was a great introduction to the films.

Claire Steward’s first year as festival director was a success. Screenings were routinely sold out, despite the weather. Directors introduced their films and stayed for ‘Q&A’ sessions afterwards, adding an immediate sense of community. It kept the focus on the real business of filmmaking and thrilled the general public with a taste of fame. This year the program was increased by thirty per cent, with a total of 290 films. In past years, organisers of the festival have been accused of making it too big and hard to navigate. This year was certainly big, but Steward circumnavigated this problem by expanding into new specific areas. There were films for children, films on living with disabilities, and many Australian films. Her punt paid off with Best Feature Awards going to the Australian Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland, 2007) and a children’s film, Winky’s Horse (Mischa Kamp, 2005).

Lucky Miles

Lucky Miles is a fast-paced comedy loaded with one-liners and cultural clashes. An Indonesian fishing boat dumps a group of Iraqi and Cambodian men onshore in the remote area of the Pilbara in Western Australia. The promised bus stop is nowhere to be seen. Mayhem ensues and those that avoid the initial roundup by government officials team up. Survival, in particular finding water and getting to a city, becomes paramount for Arun (Kenneth Moraleda), Yousiff (Rodney Afif) and Ramelan (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth).

Meanwhile three army personnel track the refugees at a leisurely pace. The army men’s pragmatic style, stopping for yabbies and a swim along the way, is purely Australian. There is a beautiful ode to Crocodile Dundee/Hogan-as army- man: Greg Plank (Don Hany) stares trancelike in the rear vision mirror. He prophesizes the time and temperature. Turning his head he reveals an earpiece attached. The  audience reacts with glee. And this was the case throughout the film. Laughter was frequent and lingering.

This is not to say that the plight of the refugees is ignored. The characters share their stories with each other. We hear the incredible lengths they must go to just to get to our shores. The stories are told simply and this allows empathy for the characters. We understand the driving forces behind Arun and Yousiff’s desire to live in Australia, though director Rowland has put less effort into other aspects of characterization. Comedy is given priority. It is Rowland’s first feature and this shows at times. Also, there is rawness in the telling as sometimes edits don’t sit well together. But these are minor criticisms. The award for the festival’s Best Feature is well deserved.

She is horrified to discover she is also the stalker, but from another time zone. Her real-life husband suspects she is having an affair and menace pervades the air. Confused? Excellent, that means you’re following the story rather well.

In The Company of Actors

In The Company of Actors (Ian Darling, 2007) features Cate Blanchett and received a lot of press before its screening. Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Justine Clarke, Aden Young and Anthony Weigh performed the Henrik Ibsen play Hedda Gabler with the Sydney Theatre Company in 2004. This Australian documentary follows the process of recreating Hedda Gabler, with the same cast, for a New York audience two years later. Unfortunately, it is the ‘recreating’ aspect that is a fatal flaw in the documentary. We do not see the actors bringing the characters or the play to life. The process is about remembering how it was performed two years before and making a few additions.

For Blanchett fans it is compelling to see her in ‘real life’, talking and chatting with other members of the cast and crew. So often we see her only in character, where we get glimpses – teases – of what she may be like away from the camera. Blanchett also opens up about her fears and how her husband Andrew Upton is a solid rock of support. This provides box office appeal, but I was more entertained by the sections on stage management and the construction of the New York set. The documentary is also repetitive in parts, particularly towards the end. Long segments are devoted to informing us of the wonderfulness of theatre. I think the general public will like this glimpse into the mechanics of creating theatre, but I doubt filmmakers will learn anything new.

The World Movies Channel Audience Awards for 2007:

Lucky Miles 2007, Michael James Rowland.Best Feature Film (State Theatre).

Winky’s Horse 2006, Mischa Kamp. Best Feature Film (other venues).

Shut Up and Sing 2006, Barbara Kopple. Best Documentary (State Theatre).

Searching 4 Sandeep 2006, Poppy Stockwell. Best Documentary (other venues).

Phoenix Dance 2006, Karina Epperlein. Best Short (State Theatre).

Spider2007, Nash Edgerton. Best Short (other venues).

The Monastery. Mr Vig and the Nun 2006, Pernille Rose Grønkjaer.
FIPRESCI Award for Best Documentary.

Dendy Awards:

2 Mums and a Dad 2007, Miranda Wills. Best Documentary.

Katoomba 2007, Leon Ford. Best Fiction.

Paper City Architects 2006, Daniel Agdag. Most Innovative Short.

Hear and Now

I was completely caught up in the emotional journey of Hear and Now (Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2006) and felt like I was experiencing the world of sound for the first time. In this American documentary, an elderly couple get cochlear implants after a lifetime of deafness. Their world opens up in new and unexpected ways. Sally Taylor cannot believe that running your hand along a wall creates a sound. And that doing the same with the other hand (which has a wedding ring) makes a different sound. Paul Taylor goes to the car wash twice in one day because the sounds are so marvellous. Water coursing through pipes is astonishing. How can water do that? Theoretical words of snap, thud, and tinkle must be matched up with their real sounds.

The emotional and practical journeys in Hear and Now are carefully entwined. This is what makes it so heartfelt and moving. As Brodsky (their daughter is also the director) leads us through the process of getting the implants, we see what the Taylors are thinking and feeling. Even the simple decision of who should go first into surgery is deftly explored. Original footage of Sally and Paul Taylor growing up deaf adds spice and realness. Earlier this year, it won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Documentary.

Roh Gyeong-tae is clearly setting up the incongruences and fragmentation that are occurring in South Korea as they grapple with the ultra-fast modernization of their society.

Inland Empire

The trick to watching a David Lynch film is to not worry about understanding it. Just relax and let the images and sensations move through you. Lynch’s distinctive style means that you make a very deliberate decision to attend his film. This was my first Lynch film since Blue Velvet (1986). I was prepared for anything to happen.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) starts with rabbit-headed humans in a lounge room. They wander about and iron clothes. The conversations are nonsensical, and abstract images routinely interrupt the scene. (The rabbits are from his online-only series called Rabbit.) The point could be to upset your equilibrium enough so that you become open to the semblance of a plot that follows. Or it could not. Lynch wrote the script, piece by piece, as he was shooting. He did not know what was going to happen next or how it would end.

In Inland Empire, two Hollywood actors sign up to do a remake of a film that was never completed. As if the original film was cursed, the previous leads died in mysterious circumstances. Rehearsals and strange occurrences begin. Someone is stalking the new actors. The female lead, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), begins acting out the film in her real life. As her film character falls in love with the character played by the male lead (Justin Theroux), she begins an affair with the actor in real life.

Reality and fantasy blur in her mind (and ours) as she struggles to know what is real. She is horrified to discover she is also the stalker, but from another time zone. Her real-life husband suspects she is having an affair and menace pervades the air. Confused? Excellent, that means you’re following the story rather well. So much of the films rests on Dern’s face as she, for example, thinks, has sex or just waits in her rehearsal room. Her performance is exemplary and this carries the audience through the bizarre and incongruent scenes.

At one point, the Polish neighbour (Grace Zabriske) turns up on Nikki’s doorstep. Zabriske’s face twists and turns with the effort of speaking. She spits out strange fairytales and warnings in between jarring pauses. All is hallucinatory. Nikki is held helpless by the fierce blankness of Zabriske’s eyes. It is a stand-out performance by Zabriske. Initially, the audience responded to her with little noises. Then all went into shocked silence. The eeriness was pervasive and created a chord of tension deep within. Dern’s performance reinforced the dread. Then laughter broke out all through the cinema. But it was not a happy kind of laughter, just a desperate attempt to release tension. Lynch is a master at creating suspense and playing with your emotions.

David lynch’s inland empire Inland Empire is shot as if the camera is a huge Frankenstein head not properly attached to its neck. The camera lumbers through hallways, sometimes grabbing faces, a bit of moving shoe or just the corner where the wall joins the ceiling. Otherwise, it sits discordantly as it peeps through stairways and hovers well below or above traditional eye lines. This, combined with a grainy feel (it was all shot on digital video), creates a chilling, dreamlike quality. So much is unknown and terrifying. In contrast, the film being made (by the characters) uses classic wide angles with lots of soft golden light throughout the scenes. The film and characters look innocently seductive in that perfect way that makes Hollywood the ultimate deliverer of escapist fantasy. Lynch understands so much about perception, reality and desires, and how the medium of film sits in this realm. His efforts were applauded at the Venice Film Festival in September 2006, where he was awarded a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in film. The more I think about Inland Empire, the more is revealed. And that is great value for money. I thought I’d never say it, but I am a happy convert.

The Last Dining Table

Film posters describe The Last Dining Table (Roh Gyeong-tae, 2006) as ‘a meditative essay for the exhausted soul’. It is an experimental film of another kind to Inland Empire. Set in Seoul, South Korea, the film consists of montages that contrast modern day and traditional pastimes. Corporate people discuss how long it takes to bore a tunnel through a hill, a squatting woman scrubs huge copper pots that dwarf her, a man humps under his doona, and a candle is lit to begin the evening prayers in an alleyway. It is more like a photographic exhibition that provides glimpses into people’s lives. People do move in the frame, but the camera is held still and one long take regularly used. It creates the feeling of a silent witness.

The lover of the humping man stands in the doorway watching. She asks in a matter of fact way if he loves her. He continues humping. She watches unperturbed. Why doesn’t he get up and embrace her? Why isn’t she upset when he ignores her question? Roh Gyeong-tae is clearly setting up the incongruences and fragmentation that are occurring in South Korea as they grapple with the ultra-fast modernization of their society.

The silent witness is rudely interrupted when Gyeong-tae wants to make a point. Speaking directly to the audience, he points out the correlation between the extinction of animals and rises in the Earth’s temperature. He does this three times in a row. It is much like repeating to a child the same thing when they stubbornly don’t want to do it. And maybe that’s the point. Yet we as a society have already gone past the point of denial and are now acting. He is not achieving anything
with this technique and it destroys the poetic awareness of the film. It’s a shame because the film would have otherwise been, as the posters claim, a meditative essay. Nevertheless, I too can feel the exhaustion as Gyeong-tae struggles to understand his Korea by examining vignettes of everyday life.

La Vie en Rose

French music icon Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard), as portrayed in La Vie en Rose
(Olivier Dahan, 2007), is extremely likeable, generous and imperious. She has the power to get what she wants when she wants it. So much so that it ends in her premature death at the age of forty-eight. La Vie en Rose focuses on her rise to fame from the brothels of France, her character and her well-loved songs. The film flicks constantly between her childhood, fame and her death. Some film biographies use this device just to break up the singular story of one person’s life, but in La Vie en Rose it is neatly done to progress the story arc. When it cuts to a different time period we immediately know where we are – It is cut neither too soon nor too late. Piaf’s songs feature heavily in the film. They are carefully juxtaposed with specific periods in her life and English translations are provided by subtitle. This could suggest a heavy handedness by the director. Instead, her personal life allows us to understand the songs more fully, making them richer and more evocative.

It is an outstanding performance by Marion Cotillard. She completely transforms herself into the Piaf required for the different stages of life, even to the point of changing how she walks and moves. It is uncanny to watch. Stacked shoes on the other characters created Piaf’s diminutive frame and Cotillard shaved her head to create Piaf’s high forehead. The framing in each scene is such that the focus is always on Piaf and her story. There is no sense that Dahan is trying to create ‘art’ or a style with his visual storytelling.

It is a common phenomenon for performers to live their inner life out on the stage and to die young. This theme is explored throughout. Piaf is told she is playing with her life. She responds, ‘You have to play with something.’ The songs are about her inner life, and she feels dead if she can’t perform. She collapses on stage several times because of ill health, despite being warned not to perform. It makes for compelling viewing.

Piaf had so much misfortune occur: her true love died, she suffered from crippling arthritis, liver damage, a morphine addiction and much more. Another theme the film explores is how one can survive so much tragedy and pain. Her final song is ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (‘No, I regret nothing’). In it she cries that the only way forward is to wipe the slate clean.

The Home Song Stories

The protagonist of The Home Song Stories, Rose (Joan Chen), has the knack of attracting men into her life. She is beautiful, artistic and a socialite. Yet her vile temper, destructive tendencies and the responsibility of providing for her two children drive them away soon after. The Home Song Stories (2007) is a semi-autobiographical Australian film written and directed by Tony Ayres. A writer looks back on the story through his experience as her son (Joel Lok). Like Ayres’ previous film, Walking on Water (2002), it focuses on the various ways in which people cope with tragedy. The Home Song Stories is more sophisticated in its approach and the demise of Rose superbly crafted.

Rose manages to get Australian citizenship for her family by marrying Bill (Steven Vidler), who has a heart of gold and truly loves her. Yet she can’t help herself when she invites her lover Joe (Qi Yuwu) into their home. She is forced to leave and she has no real skills with which to earn a living. The family’s already precarious existence starts to crumble. It is mesmerizing to see whether they will survive. The daughter and son do survive – just. Ayres plays with the plot, suggesting a path, then withdrawing, then going there again or somewhere else entirely different. Chen’s performance is, as usual, superb and pulls you in. The art direction nicely juxtaposes 1970s Australia with careful placement of oriental comics and clothes. Kung fu technicolour dreams jar with the dry Australian setting. It points to the bridge that many immigrants stand on between their old and new countries. This theme is further embellished with Rose possessing a distinctive Shanghai accent while her two children speak ‘honest to goodness Aussie’.

Rose walks through suburbia in her silk high-collared ornamental dresses. It strikes at your heart as she shimmers down the street: a sliver of a dream trying to wake and find a place in alien surroundings.

Paprika

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2007) is an astonishing piece of Japanese animation. It is part Matrix, part cyberculture, and draws heavily on film references for humour. Kon’s reputation as anime auteur (Millennium Actress [2001], Tokyo Godfathers [2003], and Perfect Blue [1998]) is assured.

Paprika (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara) is princess of the psyche; she has the ability to live in people’s dreams and decipher them. But by day she is Dr Chiba, a mental health professor who has helped create the DC Mini. This device allows access to patients’ dreams. Terrorists steal the DC Mini and attempt to take over the world by controlling dreams and the collective conscious. A parade of tortured dolls, animals and robots chant their way through the streets of dreams. They overpower fragile minds and everything descends into nightmare. Worlds dissolve into each other. A simple room becomes a cliff; a cave becomes the insides of a beast.

Swooping cinematography lends an atmospheric, light-headed quality to the film.
The terrorists gain enough power to make the dreams become real. The Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984), the Mummy from The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) and others step into the real world and create havoc. Throughout all this, Paprika changes form at will from sphinx to Monkey (from the 1980s television series Monkey) on his cloud. It is hugely entertaining to spot the reference. Paprika and Mr Konawaka (voice of Akio Ohtsuka) are now the only ones who can enter dreams without being controlled. They have to save the world.

In the law of yin and yang, perfect harmony can only be obtained when both are equal. Mr Konawaka, the police chief, is above all a man of action, the yang of the film. Although he does his best, ultimately he cannot stop the terrorists (who are also male). At the end, Paprika/Dr Chiba sucks in the male energy through her mouth. As she does this she grows from child to woman. The violence stops and peace emerges. This could be Kon’s call for women to stand up and take their place in the world and help end its continuing problems. Which is not to say that Kon thinks the feminine energy is perfect. Before Paprika has the power to stop the terrorists she must unify her energy with that of Dr Chiba. Dr Chiba represents the female in the corporate world who operates with logic. Paprika has the ability to understand emotions, instincts and the Jungian elements of their mind. Unification occurs when Dr Chiba follows her emotions and saves her dearest friend. Kon highlights this with dialogue, ‘so she becomes true to herself’. Now her attempts to save the world are no longer futile. The clear message is that women must embrace all aspects of themselves to be truly powerful. It is also a joy to see that Dr Chiba and her alter ego, Paprika, are human feminine characters, rather than overtly sexualized women.

Endnote
1 Chris Attwood & Robert Roth, ‘A Dog’s Trip to the Chocolate Shop – David Lynch’, Healthy Wealthy n’ Wise, <http://www.healthywealthynwise.com/
article.asp?Article=3062>, accessed 5 July 2007.

Monique Hohnberg has worked as a digital media specialist for NSWFTO & WIFT Australia. Monique now works as a professional writer and actor. Her writing includes plays, films, poetry, reviews and feature articles.

First published in Metro Magazine.

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