I had my first taste of a light hearted romantic romp at the HKIFF last night. I saw the Turquaze. It’s a film about the kind of changes in the lives of a trio of Turkish brothers in Flemish Gent in Belgium upon the death of their father, directed and screen-written by Kadir Balci, starring Nihat Altinkava as Ediz, the eldest brotehr Burak Balci as Timur ( the main protagonist of the film), the second brother, Sinan Vanden Eynde as Bora, the 18 year old and youngest of the trio, Charlotte Vandermeersch as Sarah ( the protagonis’s lover) with original music by Bert Ostyn and photography by Ruben Impens.

The film opens with the family visiting a barely breathing old man lying with eyes closed in a hospital bed shortly after which we are shown the three brothers washing with soap bubbles the body of their father, bundling him up with a white linen and transferring his body to a coffin and then the whole family mourning against the sound of Turkish music at the burial after which there was a kind of family meal between the three brothers at the home of Ediz, the eldest brother who is married to Turkish woman. They chit chatted. Ediz asked the second brother Timur if he had a girl friend. Timur was not prepared to answer. He gave as excuse that his father had just died. Then Ediz continued to press and asked if she was a Turk. Timur asked whether it was important. He said it was. His brother didn’t agree. He continued to berate Timur who retorted that he had no right to say what he did. Ediz said he is the eldest brother and could say whatever he wanted. Timur stormed out. Ediz threw his things after him and told him never to come back. In fact, Timur had been going with a beautiful, vivacious young blonde Sarah, a sales clerk at a travel agency. Timur was working as an attendant at an art museum. They made passionate love together and Sarah just adores Timur and feels she’d never have enough of him. Their mother wanted to go back to Turkey to be with her friends and relatives. Ediz asked if his wife Zehra should accompany her to look after her but she said his wife’s place is at his side. Ediz is the kind who thinks that he must continue to uphold Turkish traditions in a foreign land and thinks that an eldest brother’s word is law in a Turkish family. He does not even want his wife to watch television to learn some Flemish spoken in that town. We see snippets of the lives of the three brothers. Ediz works as a mechanic in a Turkish garage and frequently picks up non-Turk women whilst the quiet and contemplativeTimur had studied music at the Academy but couldn’t find job as a musician but finally decided to join a dying local brass band just to have a chance to do what he has always loved: playing music. He plays both the guitar and the trumpet well but couldn’t find any formal Belgian orchestra to hire him, perhaps because of his race. Their youngest brother Bora is a just an unsure teenager trying to find out about himself and is into all the techno gadgets of digital technologies. The three of them together thus represent the full spectrum of respectively old traditional authoritaran, backward looking, middle of the way and all out rejection of Turkish values in the order of age.

Sarah wanted to introduce Timur to his family who had just bought tickets for the weekend at a string quartet concert. Timur attended, Sarah’s mother, an uneducated but talkative woman, eyed him constantly at the concert after whch she asked him all kinds of ignorant and insensitive questions to which Timur replied with sarcasm and left in a quiet rage, shortly after which he returned to Instanbul from whither he originally came. Bora was upset and reproached her mother. After a while, she could bear it no longer and asked around for Timur’s address in Turkey. So Lieve went to the museum to ask one of Timur’s fellow worker who was crazy about Turkey but couldn’t help except to suggest that he ask Bora, who would come up occasional to see Timur. She did but Bora Bora said he did not know. She asked who would know. He suggested Ediz to whom she went. To her surprise, he gave it to her.

We next see Sarah being taken around Instanbul and we have a kind of cinematique traveloque about the exotic touristy Instanbul when Timur show her around. During the visit, Sarah found out that a girl’s whose photo she accidentally previously found in to in Timur’s wallet was not the cousin who had died as he previously told her when he was first asked because she saw her name on a grave. Then he told her that she was about to be married to him when she had a fatal traffic accident just a month before they were supposed to get married. Apparently, he had not yet gotten over his grieving. Sarah who had previously complained to Timur that he merely thought her good enough for making love but never good enough to be introduced his fmaily, asked Timur to go back to Belgium with her. He said he was not ready. She left. He saw her off at the airport. He was confused. He went drinking, got into a brawl and came home with a bruised eye and blood around one of its corners. In the meantime, Ediz continued to fool around with women and Bora also got into trouble with a motor cycle gang and also got beaten up.

Timur then came to a decision. He returned to Belgium. His mother too, found she could no longer adapt to life back in Instanbul, saying that she did not find what she was looking for but when asked what it was, she said, she herself did not know. Back in Ghent, Timur had a talk with Ediz and began to talk back saying that he himself asked him not to go with non-Turkish woman but that Sarah told him when she went to the garage to get his address that she saw him making love to one there. That was his old flame, Lieve. They got into a fight and was stopped by passers by. They walkied away with their arms around each others shoulders. We next see Timur playing the trumpet together with all the members of the local brass band behind him right in front of the somewhat misty glass pane on the top to bottom window of the travel agency where Sarah works. She wipes off the air conditioning water vapors from the otherwise transparent window separating them, all smiles and joy, a suitable final image of what divides them. The film ends.

It was a light film full of flowing images and lush sound about the kind of misunderstandings between native Belgians and immigrant Turks that takes a cross-continent journey to repair: their values and customs are so different: a film about people caught between two cultures, at home in neither. There is some great original music including electronic, rock, cross-overs, flamenco guitar and traditional rhythmic Turkish folk marches and melodies in the film which I enjoy enormously. I’d give it a 2B plus. The ethnic and cultural difficulites could have been explored rather more subtly and in greater depths. As it is, we got a slick flim moving along smoothly and sensuoulsy on the surface just like an ordinary but not particularly exceptional Hollywood commercial film on a cross cultural romance.

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Curling is the name of a game played on ice in which players by two competing teams try their best to guide over the slippery surface of an ice game ring (called “curling sheet”) 8 heavy granite blocks (called “rocks”), polished into the form of a cheese cake after an initial slide by a team member towards a marked circle ( called a “house”) . The team which gets the maximum number of rocks closest to the centre of the house. It’s a bit like the French game of “boule”, except that it is played on ice instead of on the ground. It is a game which calls for a great deal of co-operation between its team members. But for me, it is the name of a Canadian movie by the film critic turned director Denis Côtè’s I saw yesterday morning, the fifth in my HKIFF list.

In many ways, it is a strangely haunting film. We see endless expanses of pure white snow, over the woods, the fields, the highways, interspersed with scenes inside a lonely out of the way cabin off the highway, a bowling alley, two motels and finally a children’s snowboard playground. It almost feels as if the winter snow is a silent observer of all that is going on in the film.

As the film opens, we see in close up the freckled face of a girl of about 12 called Julyonne (played by Philomene Bilodeau). She is being examined by an opthalmologist and is told that she has got astigmatism and must wear a pair of corrective spectacles. We learn that she does not go to school. We next see her at home, talking to a man who fixes her dinner. He is her father Jean-Francois ( played by Emmanuel Bilodeau, her real life father). Their conversation is spare, almost purely functional although they apparently get on well but we see little signs of any strong or even warm emotion on their faces. There is a calmness and expressionlessness as blank as the snow outside of their house in snow-bound Quebec. We are next shown a scene of Jean Francois wiping the floor of a bowling alley, in silence, with bowling pins in the background. A new young girl Isabelle ( played by Sophie Desmarais) in heavy make-up and an exaggerated hairdo (which changes every time we see her) and dressed like a sexy doll, is arriving to work there. He looks at her for a second or two but continues to wipe the floor. After work, his boss tries to formally introduce her to him and engage him in conversation and says that he must bring out his daughter girl Julyvonne to play at the bowling centre a little more with her new assistant. He says that one should not “hide in the lake to avoid being wetted by the rain”. Isabelle, a Spanish girl, doesn’t understand the French proverb and asks what it means. His boss explains it to her. Jean Francois makes a non-committal reply. We next see the father and daughter walking home at the side of the highway in a blazing blizzard, is questioned by a passing police patrol car officer who offers to give them a lift home but is rejected by the father .

As the film develops, we learn that Jean Francois does want her child to go to school because he does not want her to pick up bad habits from the other kids and not too effectively home schooling her, that the child’s mother Rosie is in a woman’s prison, that out of boredom Julyvonne would often glue her face to the window of her house to observe in silence what is going on outside her house,that she would even look at a man stopping his car at the side of the highway in the distance to pee, that she would lie besides some corpses lying unattended in a nearby forest, that she often asks to see Rosie, that she is allowed to see her only once during which she was embraced for the first time by someone, that being allowed to listen to the radio would be regarded by her as a great reward for having behaved well according to his father’s standards (the song being played as she dances to its rhythm is signficantly Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”), that one day Jean-Francois found another unattended young boy at the side of the highway, apparently frozen to death, that there is a suddenly a trail of blood leading from the girl’s white bedsheet to the toilet, that the girl watches a tiger behind a fence in a zoo (?) lying in the snow. The images and scenes are never explained. They are merely presented and juxtaposed. We never know what happened before or afterwards.

What is Denis Côtè is trying to suggest by his images? Are they mere enigmatic symbols? Perhaps we may get a clue from two scenes: the first shows Jean Francois being invited to play a game of curling by the proprietress of the motel where he and his daughter are living but he merely watches despite enthusiastic exhortation to him to join in and the second towards the close of the film when he imitates the motions required to win the game of curling and hitting the extended hands of each member of the team in blue uniform in celebration of his having done well and embracing the proprietress (probably in his imagination) and burst into a dance but only after he had gone out and had a casual sexual encounter with another lonely woman in another motel during one of his period of anxiety and had talked during that brief escapade to an old proprietor of another motel with a sign “fermé” upon its main entrance, about the joys of rabbit hunting and the final scene, in which he is bringing his daughter to a children’s snow board playground where we see children having fun with their parents so she can be with children of her age, something about which she has been asking her father for permission to do and which up till then, he has steadfastly ignored. For once, it was day time and not dark as was most of the other scenes.

Like “The Ditch” which I saw earlier, there is no movie score. The only music we hear is that at the party at the bowling centre and the one heard on the radio at Jean-Francois’ bleak and bare home. Is the silence of the film part of the message? The film looks like a cinematic jig-saw puzzle. We’ve got to fit the pieces together. It’s a tale of loneliness and the need to connect. There is a subtle irony: the girl’s mother who wants to be connected is locked inside a prison ( we are not told why) whilst two persons who are free not within heavy prison gates appear to be voluntarily isolating themselves from society, living alone in an attempt to avoid being “contaminated” by society’s bad habits and therefore living a kind of marginal existence outside the pale of normal human intercourse in a kind of solitude a deux.

Are Jean-Francois and Julyvonne happy? Should they continue to stay outside of normal social intercourse? Is the director suggesting at the start of the film by the image the Julyonne does not have the two pupils of her eyes correctly focused that she does not see the world with the correct perspective? Is Jean Francois’s boss pointing to the core of his employee’s problem when he used that French proverb about the avoiding the rain by drowning in a lake? Is the role that best fits Jean Francois is that of a clown, the role that he was given by his boss at a children’s birthday party at the bowling centre? Is Julyvonne fascinated with the danger of the sleeping and yawning tiger behind the fence? Does she prefer the company of corpses to her solitude? Is the director suggesting that there may well be other children dying of solitude in Quebec apart from Julyevonne? That the menstrual blood of Julyvonne indicates that she has arrived at another stage in her life in which she needs some changes in the way she has been brought up and is that not why the proprietress of her motel suggest that instead of cleaning up the mess of her blood on the floor, it would have been easier if she were to give Jean Francois another new room altogether? Is the true meaning of the game of curling the process of enthusiastic participation in it rather its results? Do we “win” merely by playing? Denis Cóté does not give any easy answers. He prefers to show us, to give hints, allusions and enigmatic symbols rather than to tell us. The photography is sensitive, the winter snow and silence overpowering and the acting very natural. I’d give the minimalist film a 2A.

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Leap Year

In “Man and Crisis”, Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish existentialist philosopher, says” man can come to such a pass that, although he must do something to live…he finds no occupation which satisfies him, nor do the matters on his material and social horizon or the ideas on his intellectual horizon move him to anything which seems satisfactory. He will go on doing this or that, but he will do it like an automaton, without achieving any sense of solidarity between himself and his acts; these acts he considers of no account, without meaning. When this happens, there surges up in him an unconquerable loathing of the world and of living, both of which seem to him to have a character which is purely negative…These men try to resolve the problem of living, that is, of treating with things and with neighbors, by reducing contact to a minimum…man,in effect reduces life and the world to a corner, to a single fragment of what it was formerly. This is simplification in the face of desperation, in the face of feeling lost in an excessive richness of life…all those appetites and possible pleasures, but none of them full and complete…he who has truly despaired feels this quality of negativity extending throughout the entire ambit of his life, with no single point in the whole span where he can make himself secure…our own period is constitutionally one of desperation..a period of disorientation. But insofar as he is disoriented, and not yet oriented, he is despairing…in these situations, man find himself facing not a whole series of ways out, but a dead end…As Spaniards say, he is between the sword and the wall…man denies his whole life except for a single point which, thus isolated, becomes exaggerated, exacerbated, exasperated. He pretends that life consists only of this, that this single point alone is important and the rest is nothing…Man who is lost in complications aspire to save himself in simplicity–a universal return to nudity, a general call rid oneself of, to retire from, to deny, all richness, complexity and abundance.” To me, this rather long passage from the Spanish philosopher, although originally meant for some other purpose, describes to a T the 4th HKIFF film I saw last night, The Leap Year.

As the film opens, we see a rather ordinary, slightly plumb dark skinned young Mexican lady shopping in another perfectly ordinary looking supermarket, goes home, returns home, talks to his mom and young brother about some trivialities, makes a telephone call to get some information to write a newspaper or magazine article and then goes to the window of her tiny dark studio flat with the barest of furniture, wall decoration, the only window of which looks into a small patio below and the window of the opposite flat. Through the slit at the corner of her cheap cloth curtain, she voyeurizes the young couple sitting intimately on a sofa. She reaches her hand to her crotch and masturbates.

She eats, she writes, she talks to her mother and her brother, she puts on make up before her dressing table, changes her dresses, goes out, picks up men, takes off her clothes once she is inside her flat and have sex with them. The men would leave whilst she is sleeping or think that she is still sleeping. She does not find out their name until after she has made love, nor does she need to know who or what they are. Neither does she care to tell them who or what she is. She picks up a young man who says he is a designer, Arturo, likes the way he makes love. The first time, he hits her butts whilst banging her. The second time, he hits her face. The third time, he belts her. The fourth time, he pisses on her. The fifth time, he burns her breast with a butt of a lit cigarette. The sixth time, he passes the blade of a knife around her neck, her breast.

The woman crosses each day of the month of February with a cross. Shortly before that, she learns that she is fired and has been promised an exploration of another position The 29th day was completely blotted out. It was the day her father died four years ago. On the previous day, she was told on the phone that she is fired but that the editor will see if he can get her another position. She tells her sadistic lover to come the following day and make love with her again and plunge the knife into her so that she can feel the blood running over her own body as he makes love to her. She tells him that she will prepare gloves for him so that no fingerprints will be left and nobody can find out who the killer is. On the following day, she puts on a white gown, places a pair of white glove on the coffee table and a knife, plus a towel and arranges them neatly into a pile. She stays a short while in front of a picture of the Holy Virgin, probably asking her to intercede for her for what she is about to do. The phone rings. It is his brother Raul. He is coming up. She quickly puts away the stuffs on the table under the bed. He enters. They embrace. He has just broken up with his girlfriend. She consoles him. He lies on her lap. She strokes his hair and shoulder. The film ends.

It is a minimalist film. Save for the first scenario, the entire film is confined to her bedroom and what goes on within. The bedroom is her uterus. It protects her egg. There the egg is born. There she finds the only activity which give meaning to her life. It is there she intends to end her life. When life is an endless routine, when the only activity which makes her feel she is still alive and therefore still human is love-making, it is surprising what some people will do. As Ortega y Gasset says, in such despair, people may then desperately try to reduce life to one single activity and hope in that single activity to be a climax of both pleasure and pain, of activity and inactivity, of life and death. Love-making has become a ritual. In the Genesis, God is said to have created the world in 6 days and on the seventh day, He rested. Perhaps the woman in the film wants to round off her life of physical pleasure the same way, an eternal rest, the rest to end all temporary deaths at the height of orgasm. Perhaps the only person she really loves is her father. That’s may be why she plans to end her life on the fourth anniversary of the day her father dies, perhaps so that she may be joined with her father in a different world. But we really do not know. We only know that she kept her father’s shaver which she uses to shave her body hair. Whatever may be the true reason she chooses to die on that anniversary, her plans are interrupted by life: the life of the only living person she truly loves and cares for, her brother. She is redeemed by her affection for her brother. A macabre film.

In this film by Michael Rowe, the only thing we learn about this 25 year-old journalist Laura, played by Monica Carmen, is that she lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, has a mother and a brother. She does not appear to have any friends. All her life she never really has any love, only love making. She longs for the kind of love which she despairs to find. Is that may be why she allows Arturo to torture her and ends her life?

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Cirkus Columbia

Last night was a Friday night that I shall never forget. I saw my third film of the HKIFF. I was deliriously happy about what I saw. It was a beautiful film in many ways. It starts with a shot of a young man getting up, going into the patio to have breakfast and asking his mom to bring him his shirt. He uses his finger to pick up some food on the wooden table and is scolded by his mom, and says he is merely trying to taste it. He is told to wash his hands which he does using the water from the water jug from which he drinks. A military captain arrives and brings him a box which contains a powerful attenae. He goes up the roof and sets it up immediately, dropping things from the roof which nearly hit someone below. He is an amateur ham radio enthusiast.

Next we see a slick new Mercedes Benz travelling down a small country road amidst mottled green leaves, the sun shining behind them as fluttering films of translucence. From the windshield, we see to the left a beautiful slim sexy young red head with a big wicker basket in front of her chest expressing surprise that Bonny inside was vomiting. At the steering wheel to her left, we see a middle aged man with a thick head of hair and bushy eyebrows. A haunting folk melody was being sung by an angel like female voice. The car stops by a gas station. A gauche young man in T-shirt who looks like he hasn’t fully woken up comes up hesitantly to service the novel car and is trying to figure out where the gas tank entry was. He fills her up. He wakes his sleeping companion and signals him to look at the beautiful young lady. The man pays. The young gas station attendant says he hasn’t got change. The middle aged man asks where his boss is. He says his boss is still sleeping and won’t be around until about 10 a.m. The middle aged man shrugs his shoulders and says at least the boy can wash the windscreen. The young man does so but nearly breaks the rain wiper and apologizes. The Benz leaves.

The car arrives at a small town. It owner finds a bar whose boss seems to know him and who brings out his best wine and freshly baked meat. He asks how he can get back his flat and is told that he must go find the mayor. He does. The mayor seems quite familiar with him too. He whisk out a bottle of good wine which he says he has been drinking for the past 20 years whilst the mayor brings out from under his table some ham which he says he has been eating for the past 50 years. They have a good time with the ham and the wine reminiscing good old times. The mayor thanks him for the big donation he made for him. He tells the mayor he has a little problem: how to get back his flat after it has been occupied rent free by others for 20 years. The mayor says there is no problem. We next see a whole team of people of policemen arriving at his flat and demanding that it be returned. A woman pours scalding hot water on the policeman and swears she will die before she leaves. The mayor calls in the firemen. They arrive and ram open the door, rush in and get the screaming and shrieking woman out and lock her up in the police car and later in a cell but the new mayor offers her a run down city council flat. The man goes into his former home, inspects everything and installs himself and his girl friend there. They were supposed to get the divorce papers ready so that he can legally marry the girl. But once he is there, his mind seems occupied by other things.

The young man at the gas station arrives back in a bicycle, finds its door closed against having a new occupant. In the night, he hurls a stone at the bedroom window, breaks it and leaves in his bicycle. The next morning, he climbs up the wall and the metal stairs around the pipes at the side of the house to get back his radio and tries it out. He gets a radio ham signal from America and is ecstatic. Someone hears him. He is found out and is brought down to face the middle aged man. To his surprise, the middle aged man is not angry and give him the keys to the house and tells him to enter through the front door if he like and need not to climb in like a thief. It turns out that the woman the man (called Divko) evicts is his ex-wife Lucija and the gauche young man is his son Martin and Bonny is a black tom cat!

Soon, Bonny is missing. He himself looks for him everywhere and can’t find him. He then sends his son and his girl friend to look for it and became the laughing stock of the town. After a while, he figured out a way to get back at those who laugh at him. He put up notices everywhere that there will be a reward of 2000 Deutsche mark for any one who can bring back the cat and we next see a scene in which we see lights up everywhere in the middle of the night and we hear off screen, everyone calling for Bonny!

The film is a fast moving hilarious, ironic film on the situation in a small village town in southern Herzegovina, a part of the former Yugoslavia which used to be ruled by the Communist Party now overturned and replaced by a democratic party shortly after 1990 but before the Yugoslavian wars broke out. There are conflicts between friends because of political opinions (whether one supports Communism or capitalism), ethnic origin (whether one is a Serbian or a Croatian), class (whether one is rich or poor), official status (whether one is a civilian, a police or a military official). Friends become foes and foes become friends because of such differences.

As the film ends, we see the middle aged man, sending away his son and his new girl friend Azra who has in the meantime developed a romantic liaison whilst searching together for their fiancé’s and their father’s darling Bonny, off to Germany because of certain Serbian military coup, in the middle aged man’s car, together with the head of the local police, with money given to the young man by his father. Seeing that he still has a heart for her son, the mother reconciles with her husband. As the cinema resounds with another beautifully lyrical folk song, we see the middle aged man reaching his hand across the seat of his wife as they were riding the Cerkus Columbia, going up and down and round and round, a look of contentment on their faces as in the distance, we see the smoke rising up from three bombs, one following another, one closer than the other, amidst the roofs of the building, close to a church tower but with the sound of the blast muted to a faint crackle, rather like fire-crackers than those of real bombs. Everything seems just a game. I like the way the director skilfully ties everything up with this final image of the merry-go-round. It is the perfect symbol of what goes on in Herzegovina with its endless changes of place in the musical chair and constant shifts in the balance of power between now the Communist, now the Democrats, now the military, now the police, now the old mayor and now the new mayor, now the husband, now the wife, now the past and now the present, now man, now a tom cat! What started out as a revenge ends with a reconciliation, of a man with his own past which never deserts him and works its magic on him and transforms him back to where he started once he is in touch with it again!

The middle aged man, Divko Buntic is wonderuflly played by Miki Manojlovic, who is most convincing as a monomaniac, his ex-wife Lucija by Mira Furlan, his son Martin by Boris Ler and his girlfriend Azra by Jelena Stupljanin. Miki is simply superb as the self-centred and half-crazed and monomaniacal but generous Divko bent on punishing his ex-wife and ignoring his new girl friend once he is home from Germany after 20 years and on finding his lost cat, which ironically only appears on the branch of a nearby tree when he and his ex-wife are enjoying the swing in the old fashioned Cirkus! The photography is sensitive and the music very listenable!

The director of the film Danis Tanovic co-adapted the film script based on the novel of the same name by the Croatian journalist Ivica Dikic. The film was selected as the Bosnian entry for the best foreign language film at the 83rd Academy Awards but lost.

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My second film at the HKIFF is the Swedish Svinalängorna (literally “the Swine Rows”, the housing project where part of the film is set) or in its English name Beyond, directed and co- screenplayed by one of Ingar Bergman’s fomer actresses now turned director Pernilla August and starring Noomi Rapace as the heroine Leena, Ola Rapace as her husband Kimmo, Alpha Blad as Marja her daugher and and Selma Cuba as her second daughter Flisan, Ville Virtanen as her father Johan and Outi Maenpaa as Aili her mother, Tehilla Blad as the child Leena, Junior Blad as her younger but since deceased brother Sakari.

The film starts with a close up of one side of Leena’s face. As the camera withdrew further from her face, we see there is another face beside her, it was that of a man, Kimmo. She is still asleep. The man wakes up. He moves his face towards hers. His face is above hers and starts kissing her. She half resists. A telephone rings. She doesn’t feel like taking it. It continues to ring. She has to get up. She does. We see her face with the telephone. The female voice asks, Leena? She switches it off. Off screen, we hear some chidlren’s voices, telling her they’re coming. She tells her husband to pretend they are still sleeping. Her husband asks her who the call was from. She says it was just a crank call. We see the head of first one child emerging from screen right then another. On the head of the first, a girl about 8 or 9 was a white crown with four battery-powered candles around it. The other, younger, another girl about 6 or 7 also has a white crown of tinsel but without candles. On the hand of the older child was a birthday cake. We learn later they’re Marja and Flisan. They are singing Santa Lucia. She looks happy and kisses them. It is the picture of domestic bliss. The bliss is shattered by another telephone call. She takes the call. It’s from a hospital in Ystad, a town some more several hundre KM away. The voice at the end of the line says that her mother called her previously but it was cut but that she asked the hospital to call again. She takes the call at the toilet. She hangs up without saying anything. She is reflecting. Her mind flashes back to her childhood. She was brushing her teeth. She saw her mother, in a swim suit. She was at the head of an indoor swimming pool, preparing to swim. The camera pans to the right. We see a small young beside the mother some 8 feet away. Her mother plunged in. So did she. We see bubbles from the splashing arms and feet and the sound of water as their limbs thrashed, splattered speeding away. Then the scene switches to another day. It was her first day in school. Her mother overslept and they brushed their teeth and had to rush.

Leena returns to the bedroom with a sullen face. Her husband asks her who called. She tells him. He tells her that if she doesn’t go her mother might get depressed. She says that people get depressed all the time. She doesn’t want to go. Her husband says they must. He kisses and holds her tight in his arms. The following day, she was surprised when she heard her husband telephoning to his office saying that he would have to take a few days off.

Next we see her face again in front of the steering wheel of her car, with her husband beside her, her two children behind. As she was driving. It was raining, water dripping on the windscreen and the windows. There were constant flash backs. She was inpsecting a new house with her parents. An agent was showing them around. Before she leaves, the middle aged female agent reminds her mother not to clog the toilet with newspapers and that they need to pay the utilities themselves. Her mother was happy with the house but was complaining to her husband why he let the agent talk to him that way, as if they were ignorant peasants.

They moved into the new house and were introduced to the new neighbors. Young Leena got talking to another girl at the next verandah and was invited to go into her house. She climbed over the fence and saw how nice everything was. They got talking and saw a lipstick on the girls table. She said she could have it. She took it and held it against her chest. In another flash back, she saw her father planting sunflower seeds and showing her in her bedroom how they germinated in a corrugated egg carton paper before taking them out into the garden of their new house and how he gave them lots of attention. She saw how well they grew. She recalls how the neighbors said they were nourished not with water, but with love. She was back in her bedroom, writing out the definition of new vocabularies she learned at school, words like love, peace, panic, depression, orgasm, liquor, puck, stubborn, hermit etc.

In aother episode, she remembers his father was returning home. She saw that once he entered the house, he held her mother and wanted to make love to her. He couldn’t wait. Her mother half resisted. She was complaining that he was drinking too much. She heard her father vowing to her mother to be sober. When he saw her pouring his liquor into the toilet, he belted her, whilst her mother merely crouched at the sitting room floor through the door of which she could see his father lashing her, crying but did not stop him.

Then we’re back to her driving, on the way to Ystad. The children are singing the alphabet song. She wants her husband to sing. He can’t remember except a tiny fragment and apologizes. It was raining heavily. The beads of water on the windscreen makes her remember the water beads in the shower of a beach her mother brought her to and those at the gymn when she first joined the school’s junior swimming team wearing her own swimsuit and how was told to dress like the other, how the male coach said that if she did not want to swim, she should not join and how on the day of the competition, she stayed inside the shower room and did not want to go out and how she was told that she could never win if she never came out and how when the time came, she swam, and swam and swam and eventually won the junior champion and how happy and proud her mother and the coach and everybody was and how her mother was also a swimming athlete in Finland having won some medals too. She could not concentrate as memories of her childhood flashed back and nearly has an accident. She stops the car and runs towards a nearby wood. Her husband rans after her in the rain, comforts her in the woods with kissess and hugs.

They arrived at the hospital. She introduced her husband to her mother and also her children rather coldly, doing the minimum. It was the first time her mother saw her children. She said they got lovely names. When they were alone, her mother begged her to bring her her dad and was told to take her wedding ring which she had placed at a sideborad in her house. She was asked to stay there for a while.

At her mother’s request, they moved into her house. They found the house in a total mess, with utility bills unpaid, dishes left unwashed at the kitchen sink. Whilst she was cleaning up, Marja was going through the things in her mother’s bedroom. She was looking at certain photographs including those of her younger brother Sakari and began asking who was who in the photos. She was angry and scolded her that she previously told her not to touch anything. But the photos triggers memories of how she had to help look after her younger brother and how as a child, she had to cycle to the supermarket, how she had to help make biscuits in the kitchen and even had to help her mother doing hourly paid work as a cleaning lady for richer people and how she helped her mother once to clean a wash basin and mirror and was given more money by her mother than she thought she deserved and how when she said it was too much, how her mother said she did an excellent job and how when she visited her rich neighbor’s house, she was taught how to wash glasses properly by girl neighbor’s mother’s live-in boyfriend, a building site supervisor when her own father was just an ordinary worker.

Her husband found her childhood Christmas wish list. And she recalls how her mother complains to her father about their emigrating from Finland to Sweden and be second class citizens because her husband has become a drunk and how during a Christmas, her husband insisted on putting on the Christmas light lubs on a small Christams tree and how her mother told him to do so later and join in the family celebration and how he insisted but fell because he was too drunk and how they then got into a quarrel because he turned a happy occasion into an unhappy incident following which remark, he hit her and how they struggled on the floor and eventually how his father slashed her mother with glass shard from a broken liquor bottle, with blood all over her fallen body and how she had to call the ambulance and how her brother had to be taken away because the authorities said so following her mother’s injury and she remember how she fought against the authorities taking away her brother. Her husband wondered why she never mentioned about her having a brother before until now.

Next we see Leena at the hospital, carrying a flask. We learn later it contains her father’s ashes. Her mother reminsinces over her father, saying how well he danced the tango when he was young and the wonderful time they spent together and how good it was to stay in the hospital because when she needed anything, she only had to press a bell and how her brother died because of an accident whereupon Leena flew into a rage and said brusquely what a terrible husband she had, how she got beaten up and how her brother died of drug overdose because of depression after going from one institution to another.Her mother then apologized to her and said how sorry she was and admitted that it was she who signed the papers giving up Sakari. because she could not cope. They cried. She remembers how to induce her young brother to eat some biscuits, she had to promise to give him a bubble bathe with plenty of bubbles. Aili asked for a cigarette because she was dying to have one. She gave it to her and put her out on the verandah because she knew that her mother was not going to live long. She went home. She got another call from the hospital. She was told ther mother had died. She put down the phone, cried, and said she ought to have been there. Her husband holds him in his arm and kisses her. The film ends.

The film is based on a best selling semi-autobiogrpahical story of the same name about the 1970’s written by Susanna Alakoski, dealing with alcoholism and domestic violence which won the August Award, Sweden’s most prestigious literary prize. It was a good film, but not exceptional but Noomi Rapace’s acting is excellent as the emotionally controlled Leena. So were the acting of her mother and the children. One can see the influence of Bergman’s close up everywhere. The constant use of dark blue in the car journey and the hospital gives the film a sombre mood which helps to convey the repressed sorrows of Leena’s past. The music, though sparingly used, is used to good effect, with guitar and one of Chopin’s Nocturnes on piano. The ploy of Leena’s Christmas wish list and her vocabulary list serves to tie skilfully toether the scattered fragments of Leena’s memory and give it a certain kind of aleatory unity. The constant cuts between the present and the past adds contrast and tension and explain why Leena was so cold, reserved and controlled in everything she does towards her mother which we see at the start of the film. Her desperate attempt to seal her past into a never to be opened chest of memories fail with that fatal telephone call on the morning of her birthday. The past always has a way of catching up with us when we least expects it! Overall, I would give it a B plus.

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Last week, I saw an unusual film from Spain. It was called “Biutiful”, the way the protagonist’s daughter wrote the English word on to a photograph of the snow-covered summit of the Pyrenees against a clear blue sky. The photograph was pinned on the door of a run-down refrigerator in the kitchen of a small studio flat in the slums of modern day Barcelona.She wrote it out letter by letter as her father half hesitantly spelt it out for her in response to her question. We see in the girl’s eyes how she longed to have a ski-ing holiday there.

The film was co-written, co-produced and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starred Javier Bardem, the winner of the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2010. This is a powerful film about the life of a man living at the margin of contemporary Barcelona, with its illegal immigrants from Africa and China, its need for cheap labor, for drugs, for sex, for violence, for amusement, for escape from boredom, from death but ultimately for meaning.

As the film opens, we see a man smoking amongst the snow amidst the bare branches of some denuded trees, pensive. Another man approaches. They eye one another from a distance. The young man decides to get closer. The first offers the other a cigarette. The other takes it. They smile. They take a puff on their own cigarette, each continuing to think their own thoughts about their own separate problems. They separate, in silence.

Next our ears are bombarded with the deafening sounds of some disco music. Nude ladies were doing some pole dance on the stage in the flickering colors of a stroboscope in a bar disco filled with cigarette smoke, boose, half clad hookers shuffling around men looking for one night stands. We see the hero talking to his fat brother, his back against the entwining arms of two women. His brother introduces a passing young hooker to him . The hooker beckons him with an alluring look and says he looks great. He is not interested. He had come to talk business, about getting work for some illegal immigrants. He is Oxbal, played by Bardem.

We are then shown scenes of some slum sweat shop producing garments. We see oriental faces speaking nothing but Putonghua, their hands feverishly putting certain cut cloth under the fast stitching needles of some electric sewing machines. Supervising them are two Chinese men, one younger and the other middle aged. The older man does not speak Spanish but the younger man does. From the way they talk in Chinese and the way they look at each other, they appear to be engaged in some kind of lovers quarrel. The older man interrupted their quarrel and gave Oxbal some money to sweeten it for the Spanish authorities and they resumed their quarrel which ended with one of them kissing the other on the mouth.

Then the scene switches to that of a woman dancing naked, a glass of wine in her hand over a bed. Sleeping on the bed is the Oxbal’s brother. The woman steps on to the man’s back. The man pulls her over to kiss her. We learn later that the woman is Oxbal’s wife. The movie moves on in scene after rapid scene as we follow the life of Oxbal: he had to see the police to keep them from looking where they ought to, to arrange work for illegal African workers, Chinese illegal workers, to find accommodation to house them, to push drugs, to spend time occasionally in funeral parlors to tell anxious relatives the thoughts of corpses for pay, he having inherited such a supernatural gift from his mother’s family, to feed his children, to take them to school and to make them happy etc.

In fact, we learn as the film unrolls that he has two young children, is separated from his wife who left him because of her violence and his cancer, she herself being a drunk, a dope addict, a violent mother and a slut. But his wife comes one day to see the children and says she loves him and wants to be given another chance. She begs him. He relents but she relapses into her irresponsible ways: she promises to take the children to their dream holiday in the Pyrenees but leaves her daughter behind on the ground of some trivial disobedience. He has to take the children away from her but in the meantime, he learns that he cancer is worsening and does not have long to live. He struggles to keep his family and his own hectic life together amidst the mad jumble of all the things he has to do. He saw that the illegal Chinese workers were sleeping on the floor without any heating. He bought some cheap gas heaters from a second hand store and gave them to the workers. Then he learned from the TV that all of them died the night before and their bodies were disposed of by their Chinese bosses by dumping them on to a nearby beach. He was struck with a terrible guilt. He blamed himself for not ensuring that the heaters were in working order and not leaking gas before he bought them. We see him agonising over his lack of judgement out of a desire to scrimp on what little money he had.

He loves his children, but knowing of his impending fate, he has little choice but to leave them to the care of an African woman whose husband was arrested and deported and for whom he had engaged in a fight during the former’s scuffles with the arresting Spanish police. When the signs of death became imminent, he gives her all the money that he has and asked the African woman to take care of them. When the film ends, we see the African woman with her own toddler child at the airport on a flight bound for Africa.

It was a fast film in which we have some spectacular cinema work from Rodgrigo Prieto, who manages to glut our eyes with an incredibly rich feast of colors and forms. We have simply superb acting from Bardem and also a first rate musical score from Gustavo Santaolalla, which adds not a little to the pace and mood of the fast but emotive scenes. A postmodern saga of love, violence, greed, betrayal in the life of a petty criminal striving honestly to find some order and to retain a modicum of humanity amidst the impossibly maddening pace of big city life in the fragmented and alienating half world of criminals and illegals in contemporary Spain. He buckled under the strain of trying desperately to keep a balance between devotion to family, friends, health and the need to make a living or merely to survive. Nobody can survive under such circumstances. His world finally disintegrates under the weight of all kinds of pressures into that ultimate chaos: that of death! Is the chaos of his life a reflection of the fragmentation of Spanish society or the other way round? Does the film lament or rejoice in such fragmentation or disintegration? Does he both acts on and adds to as well as being acted on by the society in which he finds himself. Is his cancer merely personal? Who is right? Who is wrong? Who a hero? Who a villain? Does it matter? A sad movie. But what an excellent one!

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A Feature Film?

The HKIFF has begun for me last night! It began with a bang! I am not so sure I like the bang. It hit me. It dazed me. It puzzled me. It hit me with boredom. It dazed me with stupor. It puzzled me how easy one could pass for an author of a so-called “art film”.

As the film “The Ditch” (2010) opens, we see some people huddling on the ground of some yellow dirt. On screen right, there appears part of what looks like the side of a tent. Two figures approach. Then a third appears in the distance.The last figure was the director of a labour camp. The two newcomers were asked to go into a hole dug into the ground: a ditch, euphemised as “Dormitory No.8”. To the left was a row of a dozen beds with some yellow dust-covered quilts. To the right there was an opening serving probably to let in a bit of light and fresh air. Along one side of the dug-in mud wall we see some worn out looking wooden sideboards with hot water flasks and eating utensils. People moved about in silence, expressionless, with little interaction. We are then shown people sitting on their bed greedily slurping something up from a shallow metal soup bowl. Some workers moved in, approached one of the beds, wrapped something up, tied it with pieces of strings and bundled it out. It was a dead body. Outside, we are shown a row of people shovelling listlessly, without enthusiasm, without strength, at the side of what appeared a long ditch in the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert. Some one fell. Others tried to drag him up. He had no strength even to stand up. He was hauled upon higher ground to give him more air and probably left to die.

This goes on and on and on. We are shown more people dying, people scraping, struggling for every bit of food, eating seeds from what sparse vegetation there may be on the ground, an old man vomiting, another picking up the undigested seeds from the vomit on the ground and putting them into his own. Two of those inside that underground room got letters: their wives were divorcing them whilst in another corner, an illiterate old man was asking a literate one to help him write a letter home, asking them to send more food supplements. We are shown more scenes of bodies being bundled up and dragged out from the “ditch”, every morning and of people knowing that they are going to die and asking their friends to help them deal with their bodies after they go. One young man Lao Dong told another Xiao Li to hide his body at a corner in the hole for several days until his wife Gu arrives from Shanghai and for her to bury him but if Gu does not, then take him outside and bury him. The wife arrives, discovers him dead, cries in ear-piercing shrieks and wants to find his body, but not before she has given away in despair the biscuits she brought for her husband for those in the cell to share, then begs to be brought to where her husband is buried. Nobody knows. She begs again. Then she was told to go see the supervisor. She goes, sees a petty proletarian official, got a lecture on evil middle class rightist value from that keeper of the death register book because she demanded to know where her husband’s body was and swore not to leave until she did so. She returns to the cell and begs for more information. Nobody gives her any. She goes out all alone. She looks around. There were hundreds of earth mounds about. She digs one, two…. She does not find her husband, digs the dirt with her bare hands, covers up the corpses again when she finds a body other than her husband’s. Finally with information of her husband’s cell mates who initially were reluctant to let her know the horrible truth that later corpses were not buried but simply left piled up along the dust, she finds it. Her husband’s mates help her burn it with scraps of twigs and leaves, setting up a bon-fire amidst the wasteland.

The scenes depicted were those at Jiabiangou, one of the thousands set up during the Anti-Rightist movement following the “Let A Hundred Flower Bloom” movement launched after the spectacularly disastrous “Great Leap Forward” 1958-1961 in which Mao urged the Chinese people to do in one day what the West would take twenty years. In the “Hundred Flower Bloom” movement, later described by Mao as “luring the snakes from their den”, Chinese intellectuals were encouraged to voice their opinion on how the Socialist Revolution might go forward. The result was a flood of criticism more than the Chinese Communist Party could swallow.Those who honestly voiced their opinion were accused of having rightist bourgeois thinking , the equivalent of being accused of being a devil or a witch in Medieval Europe, and sent to so-called Labour Camps for “re-education”. Jiabiangou was one of them, in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert. Some three thousand political prisoners were arrested and sent to the Jiabiangou Labour-Re-education Camp – which was only built to hold fifty inmates – in the middle of the Gobi Desert, more than 2,500 of whom either were starved to death or if not died of dysentery or simply exhaustion.

Partly inspired by Yang Xianhui’s novel Goodbye , The Ditch is said to recount the harrowing story of life at the labour camp. The co-maker, screenplay writer and director of the film ,Wang Bing devoted several years to interviewing survivors of the camp, who shared their devastating and chilling experiences. Because of unbearable hunger, prisoners were forced to forage for scraps of food: leaves, seeds, rats, even human vomits and feces and human flesh from dead bodies of other inmates, so severe was their hunger. As the film ends, one of the inmates was told to stay behind to help the camps’ director because the authorities knew that it was impossible for the current batch to do any useful work because they were rationed only 8 ounces of fluid food per day and had to be sent home by a train because the daily deaths was more than they could handle.

It was a film with potentially explosive emotional impact. But director Wang Bing chose to use a spare documentary style, without music, without story line, just bare, stark “reality”: the reality of hunger, death, despair in that darkest hour of Chinese history. Nothing is made of the stunning immensity of the Gobi Desert or its desolation. There was no plot, no explicit drama, no use of the camera through panning, close-ups or camera movements etc. The camera was static. So were the scenes depicted. There was no music. Nor any contrast between the silence of the dormitory of death and the howling cold winds of the Gobi Desert outside nor that between the spectacular sunrise or sunset of the desert outside and the murkiness of the dormitory of the dying within. Nothing stands out: a landscape of uniform boredom, unrelenting bleakness and unmitigated gloom. I find it particularly unendurable that the director subjected us to the non-stop shrieking of Gu for more than two minutes when she learned of her husband’s death. It was positively enervating and shows an utter lack of artistic sensitivity or restraint. Probably, the director never read LaoTzu. Others may like it. But for me, it’s a colossal flop. It is an artless “documentary” which passes itself off as a feature film or more likely its reverse. Perhaps, it was deliberately “artless” so as to enhance the sense of “verisimilitude”. I can understand Wong Bing’s dedication to unearth for us this now forgotten episode of Chinese history, he having spent three years tracking down and interviewing survivors and wardens of this forsaken corner of the Gobi Desert on what actually went on there but I suppose there are more interesting ways of doing so than merely “reproducing” what obviously is a “staged reality”. As it is, I find it as dry as the sands, as monotonous as the landscape and about as moving as the empty expanse of the vast Gobi Desert skies. But I do like that dramatic scene in which an old CCP party cadre who had served the Revolution since 1938 confronted the camp director. There should have been more scenes like that to create more dramatic conflict and emotional tension!

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