As usual I had a terrific time in August attending the MIFF. It’s a great festival in every respect; well organised, easy to navigate what’s on offer, and a great App through which to book and change and get into sessions. And with so much choice! My biggest criteria for selecting sessions is to avoid anything likely to be grim. I also like to choose something from every category on offer except Night Shift which is all horror films and VR which I haven’t got into yet. I like long films; to be totally immersed in another world for as long as possible. And I want to be emotionally engaged in the characters; something that often gets lost. I like wordy films full of ideas; sometimes hard when you rely on sub-titles.

Choosing what to see is hard as there are so many and most of them sound great on paper. One has to interrogate the small summaries in the program carefully. I also check out reactions to films shown in Cannes and other festivals, including Sydney. Its tricky as I try to avoid full reviews because I don’t want to be influenced by other responses. This year I was determined to limit myself to a reasonable number of films. Something I’ve not managed in the past; last year I saw 60 which exhausted me at the time and made me very late with my post festival blogging!

This year I signed up for 40 and then added a few more to bring the total to 46 and was very happy with most of them. Rating them for the MIFF People’s Vote Survey is always tricky. I gave eight feature films five stars. I’ve ordered them here by preference. I also tweeted after every film bar one and I’ve included those tweets here as well. They reflect my immediate response, although sometimes I gild the lily in the hope of getting my tweet on the big screen.
An Elephant Sitting Still
Five stars. Strong story. Complex characters. Fateful choices. Innovative film-making – lots of shadow and silhouettes. Deeply philosophical. Loved every minute of its four hours.

I did love everything about this film. Set in a large city in Northern China it follows four characters through a single, fraught day. A schoolboy standing up for his bullied friend. The bully’s small time gangster brother. The girl, fellow student of the schoolboy who he’s keen on. An old man whose family is intent on putting in a nursing home. Their individual stories are told in a series of escalating incidents that come together and then separate, come together, then separate.

All of these characters have heard the story of a village where there is an elephant that just sits still all day. Is it a myth or real? We never find out. In the final moments of the film three of these characters take a bus trip to this place and the film ends in the dark with the travellers lit by the lights of the bus. We, and they, hear the sound of an elephant trumpeting in the distance. Magical.

The ever expanding city is a harsh environment. Our protagonists walk beside rubbish filled canals, congested highways, impersonal shopping centres, cavernous railway stations. There are construction sites everywhere. Unexplained explosions occur often. It’s an unsettling, hostile place.

Personal relationships – with lovers, with family members, with workplace colleagues and exchanges with strangers – are brutal and unforgiving. Everything is shot in cold grey, washed out green and faded blue. Almost black and white. People are silhouetted against windows; they walk through dark tunnels, up and down concrete stairwells.

There’s a lot of talking interspersed with long silences; between the school friends, between the gangster and his girlfriend, between the girl and her mother, between the old man and his family and finally, brilliantly, between the schoolboy and the gangster. All asking the great existential questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? How should I live my life? Very powerful film-making. Here’s the trailer.

Wild Pear Tree
A must see to be totally immersed in current Turkish society. Philosophical dialogues about love, art, religion and much more. Moments of beauty

I had high expectations of this film as I’ve really enjoyed this director’s, Nuri Bilge Ceylan earlier work – Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Winter Sleep. I wasn’t disappointed. This is another long film, 3 hours, that totally immerses you in the world of its young protagonist. He’s a student back in his home village after finishing university. We’re in that part of Turkey famous for being the site of Troy and near Gallipoli. Our sulky young man has written a book and is seeking support to have it published. His father has taken to gambling away all of the money he makes as a teacher. And in the process lost his reputation in the village. He dreams of finding water in a well on some land he owns outside the village. And is considered mad for that as well. The boy’s mother is sympathetic but can’t help. His sister is still at school.

The boy wanders around the village meeting up with old friends. In the most beautiful scene he comes across a girl he went to school with. They talk about their lives elliptically revealing under the pleasantries thwarted dreams. She takes off her scarf and shakes out her hair under leaves of a tree made golden by the sun. They kiss. Later he sees her wedding to a wealthy older man, cementing her future and her family’s prosperity. Later still he fights with the young man who had been until recently her boyfriend. He seeks help for his book publishing enterprise from the local mayor but he’s only interested in a book that extols the regions tourism potential. Its not that type of book. He refers our boy to the owner of the cement works who is known as a reader of books and is also prosperous. But he’s not interested in the sort of book our hero has written.

Through these conversations you get to see the workings of the village; who has power, who has esteem, where people fit in the unwritten hierarchy. Later our boy comes across two Imams who are in the middle of eating apples from a roadside tree. Is it stealing? The boy throws clods of earth at them and eventually the two young Imams engage in a friendly (on the surface) argument. They debate the pros and cons of conservative versus progressive Islam. The role of Imams in village life is revealed. It was here that I was most frustrated with needing to rely on subtitles.

Later our hero goes back to Canakkale where a model of the Trojan Horse dominates the foreshore. He engages in a long dialogue with a famous author about the purpose of literature and in particular who judges what is or is not great writing. More frustration about subtitles. He has a nightmare about being locked in the Trojan Horse on the bus ride back to his village. At home his father’s gambling has left the household without power. He is full of bitterness about his father but his mother is less judgmental. He can’t, won’t understand. It’s a very powerful evocation of youthful ambition and associated bumbling about trying to find your place.

Time passes. He does his compulsory army service, getting paid, so that finally his book is published. Its dedicated to his mother. He returns to where he argued with the successful writer; whose latest book is a best seller. His books have not sold. He returns to the village. His mother is proud and pleased, but confesses she hasn’t read it. Nor has his sister. He visits his father who, finally banished from the family home is living on his plot outside the village. Where he hasn’t found water. He proudly brings out a battered copy of the book heavily annotated and obviously read and re-read. We are offered two endings; the boy ends it all, or he’s reconciled with his father. I loved everything about this film. Here’s the trailer.

The Third Murder
Great performances, wonderful cinematography, compelling drama. Existential discussions. Does everyone deserve to live? Who deserves to judge another? Wonderful.

I knew nothing about this film but I like the director Hirokazu Kore-eda having enjoyed Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm and Our Little Sistervery much at earlier MIFFs . I also like the actor, Masaharu Fukuya who was in Like Father, Like Son. It’s very close to a two hander between an accused murderer and his sharp suited lawyer played by Fukuya. Most of it takes place in the interview room at the prison where the accused is being held. He’s spent most of his life in prison; convicted of two murders a long time ago but spared the death penalty by the judge who presided over his trial. This it turns out is the lawyer’s father.

Upon being finally released the accused was given a job in a food processing factory where many of the employees are ex prisoners. The owner of the factory has been murdered and his body burned on the side of a river. The defence has been in disarray which is why our sharp suited lawyer has been called in. The accused has signed a confession. It’s the only thing linking him to the murder. In a short scene at the start the prosecutor alleges our lawyer is just interested in maximising legal strategies for the defence rather than finding out the truth. This becomes a central concern of the film.

When first interviewed the accused turns out to be an aggravating interviewee; all over the place, contradicting himself and looking shifty. His defence team start investigating. There are three of them; our latterly employed sharp suited expert, a youngster doing all the leg work and an older more experienced one, an ex prosecutor. There’s also a woman office manager who gives her two bobs worth from time to time when they’re discussing the case back in the office. Sharp suits ex judge Dad also comes to stay with him and adds some thoughts of his own. Including saying that he was wrong to be lenient with the accused when he was before him for the two earlier murders. He was never going to amount to anything.

The legal team interview the victim’s widow, was there something shady going on at the factory? And an employee who is aggrieved that as ex convicts the owner was exploiting them. They visit the accused’s home town, in snowbound Hokkaido. His daughter’s gone from the bar where she worked. They interview the policeman who investigated the earlier murders. Sharp suit follows the victim’s daughter, a school girl with a gammy leg so she walks with a limp. She’s seen visiting the site of the murder. They discover she’s been a frequent visitor to the accused in his dingy flat. Why would that be? Sharp suit thinks he’s got it figured out. The accused is protecting the girl. She’s prepared to give evidence favourable to the accused. She wants to reveal the truth. Then it gets murky again.

The accused finally agrees to tell sharp suit the truth if he promises to believe him. Will he? Yes. The truth finally revealed: I didn’t do it! Change the plea, withdraw the confession. If they go down the accused will be hanged for certain. So much for strategy over truth. As these twists and turns occur the sharp delineation in the interview room between accused on one side of the glass, lawyer on the other, starts dissolving. We start to see the two faces side by side together and reflected back at each other. Everything is dissolving. And so to the final courtroom verdict. Finally we are left wondering; what was the truth of it all? Completely compelling drama. Here’s the trailer.

Burning
Keeps you guessing. Fantastic performances. Modern Korea. So many Gatsbys. No place for a woman.

This is another film I had high hopes for because I loved the director’s, Lee Chang-dong’s, last film Poetry. This film also won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes. It was terrific. So thought provoking. A young man, Jongu, is stuck in dead end jobs, mostly as a delivery boy. His mother left long ago and he’s been living with his father in a rundown farm outside of town. His father is now in prison awaiting trial for assaulting a neighbour. His son turns up to watch proceedings but we’re not sure whether he’s there to support his father or to view his humiliation.

Early on he meets up with a young woman, Haemi, who used to live in his village who now works spruiking consumer goods at markets. There’s a great scene where another woman employed in this demeaning work speaks about the lack of opportunity and poor treatment of women in Korea. That’s bye the bye. Or is it? Haemi gives Jongu a good time, taking him to her apartment, having sex, and generally taking him in hand. When she leaves on a holiday to Africa she gets him to look after her cat. He goes every day to feed it but never actually sees the cat.

When she gets back she’s in the company of a rich playboy who seemingly is giving her everything she wants. Jongu joins them at playboy’s flash apartment. A new age man. Cooks, entertains his wealthy friends, includes Haemi and Jongu in the party. Especially Haemi who puts on a show for them about what she’s seen in Africa. Jongu finds women’s make up in the bathroom and a drawer full of cheap trinkets. Our new man drives a flash car. The three of them go to Jongu’s place in the country. They eat and drink. Haemi dances while the sun goes down. They’re near the North Korean border. The newcomer reveals to Jongu that he really only gets to experience real feeling when he burns down greenhouses. They leave Jongu alone.

After that evening he doesn’t see Haemi again. She doesn’t answer his calls. He goes to her flat. No-one’s there. Nor is there a cat. She wasn’t allowed a cat says the landlady. There was never a cat. Jongu takes to jogging around the greenhouses that are nearby his farm. So far they haven’t been burned down. He feels compelled to check daily. He starts to surreptitiously follow the playboy. He’s got a new young woman friend now. And a cat. When asked what he is going to do with his life, Jongu has said he is going to write. What’s he going to write about? He doesn’t know. Towards the end of the film we see him through a window, in Haemi’s flat, typing. This film leaves you lots to think about! Heres the trailer.

Jirga
Benjamin Gilmour has created another great film about Afghanistan. And Sam Smith gives a great performance. Unbelievable good given the conditions they faced making it. Locals are terrific too. Amazing landscape.

I loved Son of a Lion which I saw at MIFF 2008 and also enjoyed the book of the same name that Benjamin wrote. I thoroughly recommend both if you can get hold of them. We were also fortunate to attend the Q & A after this film so heard a bit about how it was made. They’d intended making it in Pakistan where there is a functioning film industry and a degree of security. But permission was withdrawn. So they went with minimal crew and no security to Afghanistan to see what they could do there. This incredible film is the result. In fact they told us that it took as long in post production getting it to feature film quality. A great achievement.

Its a simple story of an Australian veteran, Mike, travelling back to the place where he killed a man. He wants to atone for his action. It’s a beautiful performance from Sam Smith in this role. He’s in every scene in the film and has to convey so many different emotions, mostly without words. He’s terrific. We see the initial incident and then we follow Mike on his return journey, buying Afghanistan clothes, being refused help because where he wants to go is now controlled by the Taliban. He finally convinces a taxi driver to take him to part way to his destination. Incredible landscape. Dry and harsh, a single road threading through mountains. Then suddenly there’s an amazing lake. Driver and passenger swim and then eat and play music beside an open fire before settling down to sleep.

Next morning Mike tries to get the taxi driver to continue. He doesn’t want to. Money is offered. Finally enough to get him to take the treacherous road further south. Motorbike riders pass them, up ahead a road block looms. Mike leaps out of the taxi and takes to the hills. We know he’s doomed in this harsh environment. Soon enough, exhausted he lies comotose under the sun.

He’s saved by the Taliban who have presumably been watching him stumble around. They take him to a network of caves where he’s chained up and treated harshly. But he’s fed and given water and kept alive. He sees other prisoners executed. Finally the leader of this group arrives and there’s heated discussion about what to do with this strange fellow. He describes his mission. They decide to let the villagers decide his fate.

They take him to the village where he once again describes why he has come. He is taken to meet the widow of the man he killed. The Afghani actress who plays this role is fantastic. So much raw emotion. And so is the local boy who plays the son of the man killed. He has a critical role to play in the jirga of the title. Its a trial during which all the men of the village debate what should be done. Will he be executed or will he be forgiven? Gripping. Here’s the trailer.

Capharnaum
Spectacular performance from Zain carries this deep dive into the mean streets of Lebanon. And later baby Yonas steals every scene. This final shot of Zain smiling shows what’s lost on those streets. Powerful film.

This film won the jury prize at Cannes. The title comes from the Bible where it’s the name of a village that has been cursed by Jesus. Portends a grim tale. The story starts with a young boy who we meet in prison. He’s taken to a courtroom where we learn he is taking legal action against his parents. The director, Nadine Labaki, plays his lawyer. We get a brief glimpse of how the Lebanese legal system works. But the bulk of the film is taken up with Zain’s back story. To what has led to this confrontation in the courtroom. It’s a story of poverty and squalor. Feckless parents with too many children, no jobs, no money, living hand to mouth. It could have been depressingly grim; just the thing I seek to avoid.

But young Zain’s performance is so good it never becomes too much. He’s a remarkably engaging fellow; moving through the lanes and alley ways that are his home turf with assurance; taking no nonsense from the adults around him. He lugs the heavy loads required of him; scrounging bits and pieces of food and anything useful that he comes across. Having fun with other children in the same situation as himself. They have mock gunfights, share stolen food. Zain is sceptical of acts of kindness. Especially from the shop keeper for whom he does errands.

Early on we find him discovering his sister has started her periods. He’s insistent she not tell their parents. He steals pads for her, explains she must hide them from her parents, get rid of used ones separately from the usual rubbish. He knows what her parents have in store for her. He’s contemptuous of them. Its when he discovers that she’s been given in marriage to the storekeeper that he flees the house.

In another town with a funfair he starts over, scrounging what he can from the streets. An Ethiopian cleaner, struggling to keep herself and her baby afloat, comes to his aid. She can use him to babysit while she works at the restaurant. She’s trying to get enough money to get forged papers as her visa is no longer valid. She lives, and pays rent for, a single make do room in the shanty town near the market. Zain and the little boy are wonderful. There are moments of humour amid the gloom. An elderly couple who work at the funfair try and help the woman get a new visa but can’t carry it off. Then catastrophe. She’s arrested with no way of contacting them. Zain and little Yonas are on their own.

Zain steals another child’s bottle of milk. Yonas treats it with disdain. Their situation gets worse and worse. One of the most distressing things is the lack of interest in, and help for, these two desperately in need young people. They are ignored. Small acts of kindness are few and far between. Being allowed to wash at a service station. Being given some change, some food. Mostly though Zain has to steal what he can while pulling little Yonas around in an upturned tub. Finally Zain is forced to hand Yonas over to the smarmy fellow in the market who has always wanted to buy him. For the purposes of making money out of his adoption.

Zain goes home where he finds the worst has happened to his sister. Pregnant at an unbearably young age, she’s dead after not getting proper medical treatment. Zain races around to attack the storekeeper and gets himself arrested. And we’re back in the courtroom. He’s asked what he wants of them. To stop having children, he shouts. The parents get to have their say. What can they do? They have no money? They can’t register the children – it costs too much. Without papers there is no medical treatment.

There’s an upbeat ending that is probably not in keeping with the authenticity of the rest of the film. But it’s a relief all the same. The final shot is of Zain being photographed. The photographer tells him to smile, that the photo is for his papers not for a funeral. And we finally see a completely different Zain. A little boy smiling, with his life ahead of him. Here’s the trailer.

Full Moon In Paris
Loved this. Such clever dialogue. Pascale Olger’s such a chic leading lady, in great clothes she designed. Fun to see a young Fabrice Luchini.

I actually haven’t seen many films by Eric Rohmer. On the basis of this one I hope we get a full Rohmer festival at Cinematique some day. According to the MIFF program this film is from his celebrated 80s oeuvre. It was wonderful. Terrifically witty dialogue about the nature of love and our expectations of romantic partners. About relations between men and women. About how we deceive ourselves. It looked terrific. Beautiful colours. And the two main stars, Pascale Ogier and Fabrice Luchini were terrific as was Pascale’s long suffering boyfriend, Tcheky Karyo.

I’ve mostly seen an older Fabrice in mostly serious movies and in the great comic Netflix series Call My Agent. Here he’s very young and quite gorgeous. He’s Pascale’s platonic friend but would clearly like to take it further. Very naughty. She is wonderfully indifferent to his desires. She wants to be free. But sure enough gets more than she bargained for. You know where it’s going from the opening scene but that doesn’t matter. Just delightful in every way. Here’s the trailer.

One Day
This is a triumph. Captures the minutiae of attending to the needs – material and emotional – of children perfectly. Throw in work requirements and partner infidelity and you get trauma. Great performance by the Mum, Zsofia Szamos and the kids.

I included this one in my program late in the piece and am so glad I did. It was an amazing portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life caring for young children. The people sitting behind me hated it, so there’s a warning this might not be for everyone. But I thought it revealed so well the constant pressures on parents in dealing with their day to day lives. But it also contained moments of joy that children give you. It opens with the wife about to go out for the night with her friend. Her husband is standing waiting for her to be ready alongside the woman friend. It’s revealed that the wife thinks the husband and friend have had an affair. They claim not to have done so. There have just been meetings and texts.

We see the wife the day after. She’s got a bit of a hangover and is gulping down water. Then the rituals of the day commence. Breakfast. Schoolboy son won’t shut up about a video game he’s engrossed in. His kindergarten aged sister niggles him constantly. Baby has to be hand fed. There’s a leaking sink. Funds are too low to have it fixed. Dad is dropping off the two older kids. Boy is reminded to bring home his gym clothes. He’s still talking about his video game. Wife gives the house a quick tidy up. Mother-in-law comes to look after baby and take him to childcare. She thinks husband and wife need a holiday. Wife thanks her for helping out and heads out to her work as a sessional language teacher.

She gets a call from her husband; he’s going to meet their woman friend after work. One last time. She confides in her co-worker. He tells her he’s certain the husband is having an affair. In the afternoon the whole pick up routine from school, kindergarten and childcare is dissected in stunning detail. Forgotten instructions from teachers, struggles to find the right clothing in chaotic change rooms, and to get tiny hands and feet into shoes and jackets, arrangements with other parents to share pick ups and drop offs to extra curricula activity. All the time the wife is thinking, thinking, thinking. What is he up to. What should she do. She rings him and asks him not to meet the woman. He insists on going; he’ll be quick.

Evening. She has some quiet time reading to kindergarten girl. She gives the boy advice about his friendship worries. She makes dinner for the children. The baby is sick. She messages husband – pick up medicine on your way home. The children go to bed. She has to attend to baby. Time moves on. No husband home. She has dinner alone. She goes out for the medicine. She comes to a fork in the road; to go on or to turn left. You don’t know which way is home. You half want her to take the road out. Leave it all behind her. She’s exhausted. At home, more tending to baby. No husband home. Two alternate endings are offered. He sits on the sofa and says Yes I did, so what are you going to do about it. Or he comes home, lets himself in and life continues. You’re left pondering. What would you do? Here’s the trailer

 

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