The division between five and four stars is always tricky. These 15 feature films were very enjoyable experiences, and outside the festival I would probably rave about them to all and sundry. But when handing out festival stars, one is ruthless! I’d recommend all of these so check them out if they come to a cinema near you over the next twelve months. I’ve included the tweets I posted about each film. These were aimed at being screened during the festival and some got up which was fun.

Birds of Passage
A glimpse into a remarkable culture that’s ensured families and tribes survive in a hostile environment. But not strong enough to survive doing business with the West. Extraordinary performances.

The cinematography here is remarkable with much of the action set in a surreal, stark desert landscape. In the opening scene we’re immersed in the spectacular courtship tradition of the Wayuu people of Colombia; a young woman is released from what appears to have been a twelve monthconfinement. In a vivid red scarf she leads possible suitors in a foot stomping dance – faster, faster, faster – mesmerising . Later we see a funeral rite, a remarkable, macabre re-burial. Along the way we learn the unwritten rules that have protected the lifestyle and culture of the tribe that has been living in this unforgiving environment for aeons. I loved the concept of word messengers, a protected class of people who convey messages between the different families. From the outset we’re told that this lifestyle is doomed and so we follow the fortunes of the family responsible. Ursula, the matriarch, is the holder of knowledge, able to read dreams, interpret signs and predict the future. When her powers fade we know she and her family, her whole tribe, is doomed. We meet her instructing her granddaughter on the rules of courtship. It’s her hard bargaining that leads ultimately to the breakdown of the culture she is sworn to protect. Rapayet becomes involved in the drug trade in order to acquire the dowry Ursula has demanded in return for her granddaughter’s hand. Thenceforth that trade becomes all encompassing leading to ostentatious wealth and ultimately death and destruction. All of the characters have great screen presence. There are lots of striking images and although there’s plenty of violence it’s kept at a distance and is not as shocking as might be expected. It’s the decline of a strong culture that shocks. Here’s the trailer.

Three Faces
Jafar Panahi delivers another of his warm, wryly humorous, deeply sympathetic portraits of Iranian life in this. As well as asserting the value of the artist in society.

This is a gentle slow moving movie that provides a glimpse into every day life in rural Iran. It’s very similar to Panahi’s previous film Taxi; so if you liked that, as I did, you will like this one. We’re back in a car; this time on a road trip to the country. The director plays himself as does the actress Leila Hatami. They’re on a journey to a village in search of a young woman who has sent the famous actress a distressing video selfie. Getting to the village is not straight forward; we’re on a tiny track going up and around a mountain beside a precipitous drop. There’s a system for alerting travellers when someone’s coming from the other side; known to the locals but not visitors. Later a character bemoans the lack of initiative that leaves the road in this condition. Director and actress have various encounters in the village leading to conversations about different aspects of Iranian life. There are lots of humorous moments and some sad ones. A linking thread is the role of actors and the arts in society. The young woman wants to be an actress against the wishes of her family; in particular a religiously devout brother. There’s a reclusive ex-actress living outside the village; condemned to a life of isolation and penury because of her calling. And we have our visiting director and actress who are recognised wherever they go; to either acclaim or disdain. As the story unfolds, over the space of two days we get an insight into the hopes and dreams and daily life of the villagers. Here’s the trailer.

Pig
A roller coaster ride examining the role of art, social media, fame, family and rock and roll. Full on lead performance makes you care the narcissist at the centre of it all. Great fun.

This is a hoot and not to be missed if you’re happy to just go with what I found to be quite an exhilarating experience. Iranian director, Mani Haghighi shines a bright light on a very different Iran to that shown by Panahi but ultimately asks the same question: what value do the arts, cinema in particular, bring to a society? We’re in the moneyed world of the upper class, urban Iranian here; film directors, producers, actors, A-listers. Our hero is an out of sorts, dishevelled, unhealthy and increasingly paranoid film director, Hasan. Everything’s going wrong for him; personally as well as professionally. His affair with his muse and leading lady, played by the wonderful Leila Hatami, is over. She’s even betrayed him work wise, having been lured over to work with another director. Superficiality and crassness are skewered in scenes on the set of this new film. Surreal dream sequences take us into our director’s downward spiralling psyche. From the start we are in a world dominated by the new social media scene and this reaches a crescendo in the denouement . There’s a serial killer on the loose, killing famous film directors. Our hero is miffed that he’s not on the list and goes to work himself with disastrous consequences. All quite mad. It wouldn’t have worked without a charismatic performance from the person in the role. Amazingly Hasan Majuni makes us sympathise with this narcissistic, self-centred, self pitying, increasingly ridiculous character. Here’s the trailer.

The Fugue
This took a while to build to its poignant finale. Great performances. Meticulously observed family life.

Described in the program as a mysterious, allegorically feminist tale, this starts with a woman clambering out of the earth and staggering along a railway line. She’s suffering from a fugue, the psychiatric, not musical one. I looked up the definition after the festival and think it describes the film perfectly: a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from ones’s usual environment. Alicja, is identified after appearing on a reality television show that tries to put missing people back with their families. The television people are delighted to have engineered a successful reunion, Alicia not so much. She’s taken back to people who claim her as daughter, wife and mother. I didn’t like her at first. She’s angry and uncooperative; keeping her distance from them all. She refuses to wear the beige coloured, middle of the road clothes hanging in the wardrobe, preferring the leggings and leather jacket she arrived in. The house appears unfamiliar to her. Gradually the truth of her past life is revealed; to her and and to us. We get glimpses of a past trauma. Her little boy denies she is his mother, puts pins in her bed, is hostile. She seems indifferent to him. Later we see him in the bath with deep scarring on his body. There’s a woman who’s very familiar in the family home and with the little boy. Husband initially hostile and wary about getting closer, but finally they have what seems to be satisfactory sex. What went wrong between us? she asks. He knows of course, has known all along. Quietly compelling and by the end and deeply moving. Here’s the trailer.

Shoplifters
Pleased this lived up to expectations which were high! Warmly humanistic portrayal of hardscrabble Japanese life. Beautiful performances from everyone. Could watch Lily Franky in anything, but all the women and the kids were great.

This film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. At first I couldn’t really see why although I enjoyed it a lot; but not enough for five stars. Nevertheless it has stayed with me very strongly and I wonder whether I was misled by its gentleness into missing what it was saying about the nature of family connection. The director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, was also responsible for The Third Murder which I rated more highly. This one has more in common with his other films, especially Like Father, Like Son which also starred Lily Franky and which I enjoyed at an earlier MIFF. Lily Franky is a wonderful actor who could make any character sympathetic. He certainly imbues the father figure in this story with great warmth. He’s wise and caring towards his young charges; none of whom it turns out are his own. A rag tag group of down and outs make up this so-called family; grandma, mother, father, aunt and son. They’re eking out a living in various ways including some sharp shoplifting routines carried out by father and son. Into this materially precarious but warm and loving environment comes a little girl who they discover abandoned and, as it turns out, abused, at home. It’s a house of cards and you know it’s all going to come tumbling down. As it does. Along the way there are some heartfelt moments. There’s a lovely trip to the seaside and lots of lovely conversations about all sorts of things but especially what makes a family, what makes a loving relationship? It takes on a darker hue when they get tumbled. Hypocritical societal norms; shallow media sensationalism, uncaring bureaucracy swallow our family up. Here’s the trailer.

Yomeddine
This is a delight. Egyptian road trip covers a lot of ground. Family, religion, poverty but above all acceptance. Great performances from everyone. Lots of humour.

This feature film often feels like a documentary. In part because the lead actor, Rady Gamal, is himself a leprosy survivor and his body bears horrific scarring. The character he plays, Beshay, has lived in the leprosy colony all his life. When his wife dies and he learns that the administrators have family records of the inhabitants he decides to go in search of his own. His small helpmate, the orphaned and unlikely named Obama, comes along for the ride; initially to Beshay’s annoyance but together they are a formidable and engaging pair. The Egyptian landscape they travel through – desert, abandoned temple, the banks of the Nile – is spectacular. The adventures they have along the way are authentic; by turn terrible and heart-warming. They get robbed and abused but also find help and sympathy; especially from a group of social outcasts like themselves. While their circumstances are grim, there’s lots of humour along the way. Beshay gets imprisoned with a radical Islamist which is very funny. They find Obama’s old orphanage, now an abandoned ruin, and there’s a great moment when they find his papers amongst the discarded, dusty filing cabinets; Thank God for Egyptian record keeping. By journeys end our two travellers have discovered a lot about themselves; including where they came from and why their families abandoned them. It’s a denouement that’s more complicated than expected. Here’s the trailer.

Aga
Loved this. Stark landscape. No need for words. Emotions writ large on weathered faces. Built to an emotional crescendo. Great.

Set in Siberia’s tundra the star of this film is the landscape. It’s incredible. Whiteness as far as the eye can see. We follow the old reindeer hunter, Nanook, and his wife, Sedna, as they undertake their daily rituals. The name Nanook is a tribute to the 1922 film Nanook of the North that documented the lives of indigenous people of Northern Canada. He drives his dog sled here and there; making a hole in the ice through which to fish; setting a trap for seals and snow hares; his brown, deeply lined face scanning the horizon, seeing things that we can’t. Sedna inside their round, fur-lined, stove-warmed tent prepares food shredding dry fish, making broths. In the evenings after their austere meal she rubs ointment on his aching shoulders, they speak sparingly but it is a comfortable, companionable silence. Lying together he asks her to sing; which she does. While he’s out she rubs ointment onto a nasty looking bruise on her stomach. One day a motorised sled comes speeding over the snow to the tent. It’s their son, Chena, bringing fuel and food. We get hints about his life in the city. He’s not drinking any more. He’s working. He’s well. There’s reference to a daughter, Aga. What she did was wrong, Chena says. His parents say nothing. After one night with his parents he leaves. The old man kills a snow hare. We see the woman making something out of the fur. Finally she reveals it’s a hat. For her daughter. He won’t talk about Aga. There’s a terrifying storm during which they struggle to keep the tent upright. Then all is calm again; whiteness everywhere. There’s a death. Then a long journey far across the tundra; hat in hand. The old ways giving way to the new. All leading to a very emotional finale. Hardly a word spoken in the whole film. No need for words. Here’s the trailer.

The First Lap
Enjoyed this a lot. Encounters with one’s lover’s family rendered with excruciating authenticity. Beautifully nuanced performances from everyone. Close observation of families / relationships is a very Korean thing.

The story, such as it is, emerges slowly in this film. We meet a young couple, Ji-young and Su-hyeon, as they pack up their apartment. They’re affectionate and accommodating towards each other as they eat take away and negotiate who should have the use of the car in their new place. Su-hyeon on the phone to his family. It’s his father’s birthday and his brother and mother want him to be there and to bring his partner. Ji-young’s okay with that; but is he? In bed next morning she tells him she’s late with her period. What does he think about that? What does she think about that? We’re not sure. Then they’re on their way to her parents. They are aspirational middle class folk who’ve moved recently into a new apartment in a high priced development in a part of the city they are unfamiliar with. There’s an ongoing thread throughout about navigation; what road to take, what lane to be in, where to park. There’s lots of tricky navigation as they move across town, making a detour to a chemist shop. At Ji-young’s parents place everyone’s awkward except Mum who wants to know when they’re going to get married and have kids. The men go for a walk leaving the women to it. They’re awkward but polite to each other. Our young couple leave early at her request. Next they’re on their way to Su-hyeon’s folks. A long drive into the country. Its rainy then snowy. More navigation although he’s familiar with the road. He doesn’t travel on it much. His family is working class. Su-hyeon has escaped this milieu and not keen to go back. His father’s the one to be managed here. His mother’s advice to Ji-young is don’t get married! After an awful night of forced bonhomie and drunken behaviour from Dad our young couple travel back to the city. While not much happens, the awkwardness of first encounters with a partner’s parents is perfectly captured. As are the myriad of emotions that such encounters have on both parties to a couple. Really well done. You feel for the two young people and hope they make a go of it; despite their parents! Here’s the trailer.

Sheikh Jackson
This was warm and engaging as well as gently informative about Muslim religious teachings. We share the Sheikh’s journey of self discovery.

I had no expectations of what turned out to be a very heart warming film. We meet the central character, the Sheikh of the title, as an adult. And what a gloomy, holier than thou sort of chap he is. Insisting on following all of the tenets of his religion to the letter, and having his long suffering wife and child do the same. He’s not likeable at all. He’s forced to go to a psychologist. When he discover’s she’s a woman he can barely look at her. She’s calm and collected, asking him to reflect on his childhood. And so we get to see why he’s ended up as he is. Flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence show a young boy traumatised by his mother’s early death and his father’s philandering. Dad is an irreligious, womanising businessman who struggles in the parenting department. Our sheikh’s a bit of a dork at school but finally finds acceptance via an obsession with Michael Jackson. This extends to a ridiculous ringleted hair do channeling Michael Jackson’s look in his Thriller period and spending every spare minute practicing his moonwalk, instead of studying. Everything comes to a head at a Michael Jackson look alike competition where our hero wilts under pressure and stuffs up his chance to get the girl of his dreams. He spurns turns his father and all he stands for – booze, women and money – by accepting a longstanding invitation to live with his very religious uncle. The adult sheikh revisits his past, including the girl of his dreams who’s become a folk singer, and, very movingly, his father, who now has a new family, including a new son. It was all quite beautifully done. Lots of fun, while at the same time being quietly informative about the Muslim faith; both in its extreme and its moderate versions. Here’s the trailer.

Mountain Miracle – An Unexpected Friendship
A lovely film. Great performances from two young leads. Spectacular scenery and a serious message – don’t wrap ill children in cotton wool.

This film was screened in the schools section of the program which often has little gems hidden within. It’s quite a lovely little film which sounds like faint praise but is not intended. The attractiveness was in the performances from the two young leads and the spectacular scenery that surrounded them. Thirteen year old Amelie has severe asthma but hates admitting to this weakness. We meet her first when, whilst with school friends, she has a serious attack and her friends, not having known of her problem, have no idea what to do. This forces her parents, divorced but amicably co-parenting, to get her admitted to a mountain retreat specialising in the treatment of young asthmatics. Of course Amelie is outraged at everything. Especially at being treated as a sick person. Her room-mate is her complete opposite. At first I thought Amelie was a bit of a princess but she grew on me. Predictably she goes AWOL pretty early into her stay. Climbing up the mountain, to prove she can. She meets up with a young local; the red haired, freckled Bart, who climbs with her. Along the way we see spectacular scenery and the two young people teach each other a thing or two. While some things stretch the audience’s credulity the overall effect is quite lovely. The message is, don’t treat young people like cripples, even if they do have a serious condition. Not rocket science and one hope’s today’s educators don’t. Here’s the trailer.

Zama
This wasn’t the languid interior movie I was expecting. Full of incident and drama. Looked amazing. Lush colours. Revealing the destructive contradictions that lie at the heart of colonialism.

A harsh and steely dissection of colonialism. There’s great authenticity in the details; characters attempt to keep their European dress standards in the sticky heat and midst the dust and squalor, donning ridiculous wigs before attending to official matters. They’re seeking to impose their idea of order on a hostile environment that protects its essence from these alien intruders. Poor Don Diego de Zama; to outward appearances, a man of substance, but he’s not really, not even at the start, and from there he unravels further. He’s a bureaucrat, a magistrate, in an unnamed outpost in South America, pining for civilisation. In the book on which this is based by Antonio Di Benedetto, the outpost is Asuncion and city to which he seeks to be transferred is Buenos Aires. Daniel Gimenez gives Zama a superficial dignity as he surveys all around him. At first he seems a disinterested observer; carrying on his work, keeping up appearances, maintaining a civilised appearance while all those around him are in various states of decrepitude; either physical or spiritual. Completely dependent on the vagaries of an increasingly erratic autocratic governor Don Diego desperately tries to maintain hope that by following the rules he will will receive the transfer he yearns for. But despite promises from the governor we see him succumb to the torpor and general decline of those around him. There are some amazing cinematic moments; strange figures appear to him. Are they hallucinations or real people? We move forward in time. There’s a new governor. Zama is an old man. He volunteers on a mission to catch an elusive bandit who has been harrying the colony for all the time he has been there. Is this mythical character fact or fiction? The band of hunters move through a surreal landscape of tropical lushness. The leader of the troupe gets stung by a bee; over time we see his arm swell into a live habitat of moss and ferns. Bandits are elusive but there are encounters with natives that dissolve into dream like episodes. The mythical bandit reveals himself, but is he one or more? The posse divides and descends into violence. I was disappointed in the ending but further reading afterwards shows that it’s true to the book. The final scene has the wounded Diego being asked by an Indian do you want to live? The existential question. We don’t hear his answer. Here’s the trailer.

Asaka I & II
No tweet because this was my last film!

I loved this director’s, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, last film, Happy Hour which was described as a Japanese Sex And The City. I’m not sure about that, but it was a lovely, perceptive, slow (five hours) dissection of the lives and loves of four very different young women. This was less successful but very interesting. We see Asaka first, meet and fall in love with Baku. Love at first sight. All appears normal. They’re with friends on what seems to be a long week-end away. He goes out for milk and doesn’t return. That’s Asaka I. Next we meet a young saki salesman who looks exactly like Baku. He meets the young woman from the tea shop next door and is entranced. She is alarmed at the sight of him. Why would that be? Eventually, despite her misgivings he becomes her boyfriend. They’re finally living together, life is good. That’s Asaka II. Then their happy life is turned upside down by the reappearance of Baku. What will Asaka do? Good performances from everyone. You feel for Asaka and for Baku and for his doppelganger. Mostly the twists and turns work although you might need to suspend disbelief at Asaka’s penultimate move which comes out of the blue and doesn’t quite fit with the trajectory thus far. The title is clumsy but the meaning is clear. When will we see the real Asaka? But by the final coda you feel that she is finally coming to terms with her life on her own, not through someone else. And that’s a good thing. Here’s the trailer.

The Karrabing Film Collective
Provided another great insight into Australia’s Indigenous culture at which MIFF excels. In the raw film-making. Great to hear how they do it at the Q & A. Some quite wonderful images.

The Karrabing Film Collective commenced in 2008 bringing together separate Indigenous clans from the Anson Bay region of the northwest coast of the Northern Territory to pursue critical activism following the Federal Government’s Emergency Response Intervention. Karrabing champions collective Indigenous agency through the production of local artistic forms that serve as powerful alternatives to dominant settler-colonial narratives. Their highly inventive cinematic language carves a unique space between artists’ film, activism, narrative cinema and grassroots self-representation. There were three short films: The Jealous One, The Mermaids of Aiden In Wonderland, Night Time Go. They’re strange films and hard to describe. Film-making in the raw as I said in my tweet. It’s as though the camera is just following characters going around their everyday lives. But into these contemporary settings, ancestral stories are interwoven. There are some very striking visual images along the way; of the bush, the sea, underwater, bird, a dystopian landscape. In one we see archival footage from the Second World War telling of the historical displacement of people. Ultimately all of the films reflect the very real challenges faced by Karrabing members and their communities imposed by governments, corporate and industrial interests and from the natural environment. It all requires some work on the part of the viewer but its worth the effort. The work of the Collective has been shown internationally including at the at the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and Berlinale 2017. I wasn’t able to find a trailer of any of the three films I saw, but here’s a trailer of Saltwater Dreams made in 2016 that gives a flavour of the work being produced.

Acute Misfortune
Challenging to watch, but obviously great film-making by all involved. Fine performances and cinematography. Episodic framing revealing of the antihero at its centre.

Another film made possible thanks to the MIFF Premiere Fund, proving again its worth. Really well made but challenging to watch because of the character of the painter Adam Cullen whose story it tells. While plenty of dark elements of his character are shown, in an episodic way, the film leaves out much of gruesome detail. Death by alcoholic poisoning is not pretty. The director alluded to this in the Q&A when he said he wanted to leave Cullen with some dignity. I’m not sure the film provides much dignity to the other character portrayed; journalist and writer Erik Jensen. He gets treated abominably by Cullen who manipulates him into researching a biography of the artist. This meant Jensen spent a lot of time with Cullen and was variously abused throughout; both verbally and physically. Unusually for a film about an artist I think more of his work should have been shown. It would have provided background on why Cullen was important enough for both a book and a film. You see a couple, mostly the Archibald prize winning portrait of David Wenham which I like. Cullen, not so much! But wonderful performances from both Daniel Henshall as Cullen and Toby Wallace as Jensen make the film compelling viewing. I also liked seeing Genevieve Lemon and Max Cullen in supporting roles. Here’s a trailer.

Morocco
Loved this. Marlene Dietrich – what a presence! Easy to believe two men would be besotted. Great atmosphere – the mysterious East; the heat; the crowded spaces! Terrific.

What more is there to say. This was Marlene’s first appearance in an American film and the only one for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She has an incredible screen presence as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly. I saw, in a MIFF tweet I think, that someone loved the fact that Gary Cooper is treated merely as beefcake in his supporting role as Legionnaire Tom Brown. It was his 28th film (not counting a number of earlier uncredited parts). He’s gorgeous but doesn’t have a lot to do. I suppose he had to be swashbuckling enough for us to believe the glamorous Marlene would give up her millionaire lover Monsieur La Bessiere and go traipsing through the desert after him. What’s interesting is how much is conveyed without words or much explication at all. Everything’s there but much has to be inferred or put together by the audience. No back stories for Amy Jolly or Tom Brown (such ridiculous names!) No real explanation for why they fall for each other; they just do despite the fact they barely speak to each other; two conversations max. It’s all in the eyes, in the faces, in the body language. All of it was great. Here’s the trailer.

 

One Response to MIFF 2018 – Four Star Feature Films

  1. Joe says:

    What a great selection of films and informative reviews.It is a reminder of how many terrific films there are at the festival. Love the tweets as intro. And I wish I had seen Fugue and First Lap! Keep me posted if they come up!

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