Saturday, June 30, 2007

Killer of Sheep and the Black Side of American Cinema

June 16th

Perhaps the weakest link in this years exemplary program of Sydney Film Festival was the retrospective section. John Huston? I must be missing something... Not only had I seen everything in this program but I think I have most of the films (Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle etc...) on DVD. What's the point if you can probably catch most of these films on cable or simply get them on DVD? Sorry, I must remind myself that I'm not the center of the universe. Apparently the screenings were full...

But there was something truly special in the form of Charles Burnett's student feature film - 'Killer of Sheep' shot over weekends in the summer of 1976. This black and white feature has the rare privilege of being listed among the few films that are being preserved by the Library of Congress. Burnett's film is widely considered to be not just one of the greatest cinematic renditions of African-American experience, but also one of the most important independent American features ever made.

I came to the film with absolutely no expectations. Accolades might make me want to see a film but never make my mind up for it. I was, however, partial to the fact that it was made for only 10 000$ - I'm a sucker for triumphing under-dog stories.

The film is essentially plotless. It describes a couple of days in the life of a black neighbourhood in LA. The epicentre of the film is Stan, a 30-something man who has difficulty in getting his life together. He's worn from his work at the slaughterhouse, the lack of money, the constant demands his friends make on his time and even the emotional needs of his wife. And that's it. There are hardly any dramatic developments (by most standards) and even no climaxes. It's as if Burnett is simply content to luxuriate in the dreary banality of everyday life, constantly teasing us by turning away from the "story" just as we think something "dramatic" is going to happen. At one point Stan is approached by two hoodlums who try to coerce him into a robbery. Stan is confused and is almost tempted, his moral dilemma painfully etched on his face. But once the wife puts the hoodlums in their place, this potentially tense story 'hook' becomes just another 'moment' strung together with other seemingly prosaic bits and pieces.

In another scene, the camera follows a child for quite a while. The child has been seen in the beginning and we think that he could potentially be one of the protagonists. We only get a long scene where this boy walks around, wearing a funny dog mask and then disappears altogether. It is this exquisite bravery in handling of screen time and the confidence with which Burnett snatches a "tune" only to abandon it for something else, that made me stare at the screen in awe. It takes extreme confidence or maybe recklessness to not try and involve your audience in a clear-cut narrative arc that would carry them through the experience just on the basis of 'what happens next?' logic. That's also to director's exceptional cast of non-professional actors who are more or less portraying themselves. That sounds almost facile and an easy way out, but from a personal experience of having worked with non-actors, I know that getting them to be as natural, relaxed and supremely confident in front of camera as Burnett's actors are - requires great talent, skill and above all, vision. And what a sad, lethargic and moving vision this is... It's the kind that is almost never seen on American screens - a vision of profound simplicity and dignified micro-realism that we've come to identify with Czech filmmakers (Forman's 'Black Peter' especially comes to mind) and the Italian cinema of 1940s.

Jazz is perhaps the best simile that can be applied to the improvisational ebb and flow of this film. And you hear plenty of it in the film. Languid, sensual, wistful and poetic. It slowly dawns on you that the film is as much a visual as an aural experience which is caucused with impeccable taste. The music translates the lives of these people into a language that is universal in its emotional reach - like poetry. In fact, the music (or its copyright to be more precise) was responsible for holding the film back from proper distribution until all the rights were cleared very recently. But without it, the lyrical aspect of Burnett's film, its obvious "poeticisim" would not be possible and is one of the key reasons that it seems still so fresh and immediate today - like a Hafiz poem celebrating the bittersweet torments and pleasures of our daily slog through life.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Away From Her, Rescue Dawn

June 15

The festival is in full gear now and it was time to serve up some heavy stuff. Namely films about dementia and POWs.

There are many things you can say about Sarah Polley. Lightweight is not one of them. Even when playing a drug-dealing teenager in Doug Liman's crime-comedy 'Go', Polley always manages to add some serious gravitas to her screen characters. Isn't it time blondehood proclaimed her a national icon?

In 'Away From Her' Polley finds herself behind the lens, directing her debut feature based on a Alice Munro's short story. A debut most unexpected considering the subject matter and Polley's youth (she's all of 27). Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinset) have been married for many years. They have no children and seem to only need each other. But when Fiona shows rapidly developing signs of Alzheimer disease, their secluded Utopian world begins to collapse. She insists on moving to the nearby clinic for the elderly, claiming that she doesn't want to be a burden on Grant. Reluctantly he agrees, but after a month at the clinic, Fiona seems not to recognize her husband and has developed a close relationship with a fellow patient - Albury. Confused and upset Grant wonders if this latest twist in their relationship is not just due to illness but Fiona's way of taking revenge for past hurts and testing their love.

And so it develops into a magnificent game of psychological enquiry on the nature of human connection, fidelity and responsibility. What is remarkable about Polley's direction is the understanding and maturity she brings to her treatment of this painful situation. She could've gone for easy shots, milking the drama dry but instead chooses to underscore her film with some exceptionally written dialogue that sparkles with wit and humour. This allows the audience to bypass our instinctive reactions to the tragedy of Fiona's condition and contemplate about the essence of Grant's attachment to her. Indeed, when a relationship is stripped of that most essential component - memory - what is left to hold it together? It's a difficult proposition and we're not given straight answers either. That's why I think the film succeeds; it leaves space for our own personal questioning, a kind of self-interrogation when you go back home and face your close ones.

What 'Away From Her' also emphasises is our natural need for connection, whatever the situation. When Grant meets Albury's wife, they connect not only because of their shared problem, but because their lives are left in a vacuum that needs to be filled. It's the kind of approach that is stunning both for its simplicity and ambiguity. It's not about surfaces, sex, financial need or even intellect, its much more primal and difficult to pinpoint.

The director makes her cast act as if they're in an Ozu film. The absolutely magnificent Julie Christie - who is herself suffering from Alzhemeir's - gives a sublimely delicate performance that is full of mystery and incredible tonal range. Everyone else is on par; it's a consistent ensemble piece that is never out of sync. Polley's use of the screen is also worth noting. She often uses backlighting to surround her actors with a beautiful glow that radiates warmth and also something otherworldly. There are many quiet moments where a whole sea of information is conveyed by a single glance, a wistful 'Oh' or an innocuous gesture. It's no wonder Atom Egoyan has produced the film - his benevolent influence is everywhere.
While the film does wonderfully what it aims to do it must be said that is a long way from say Bergman's 'Cries and Whispers' or Atom Egoyan's 'The Sweet Hereafter'. I think that by choosing to treat the situation with a relatively light touch and deliberately overlooking the ugliness and pain caused by dementia, the director has played rather safe. This is not a harrowing experience by any means and I felt that we as an audience are left too easily off the hook. You shed a tear or two and feel happy sad but you don't wonder in the end who's left cleaning after Fiona's shit her pants. In my book, that's a cop-out, yet I can't but like this film because it truly is rewarding on so many other fronts.

And now for cinema's lone wolf's - Werner Herzog's - new film, 'Rescue Dawn' - starring Mr. Batman himself, Christian Bale. This is how imagine the initial meeting between Herzog and Bale went.

So you've seen the documentary right? Little Dieter...
Bale: ... needs to fly. Yes of course I've seen it. I know all about the guy.
Herzog: So you know that you'll be in some tough situations. We want to shoot the film in
location in the jungle, no fucking studios.
Bale: I'm no Hollywood pansy, I can take it.
Herzog: But you know... I want to be really real. I want you to fly the plane and crash dive.
Bale (visibly excited): Bring it on!
Herzog: You'll have to loose a lot of weight throughout the filming.
Bale: Plenty of experience in that department.
Herzog: No stuntmen...
Bale (punching the air): Yeah baby!
Herzog: And I want the audience to really feel its real. There's this maggot eating scene, real
Bale (jumping off his chair): Fuck yeah!
Herzog: And everyone's gonna fart in your face when you're chained up to about five POWs.
Bale: I'll do the movie for like 20 bucks!
Herzog: 10 bucks and you'll have to bite and eat a live snake coz you know... we want it be really real.
Bale... (has an orgasm).

Well... that is pretty much what happens in the film. I don't mean to denigrate Herzog's achievement with this film. It's frighteningly REAL and extremely engaging. But in telling this TRUE story of the only American POW to have escaped from the jungle during the Vietnam war, Herzog tramples the same ground he's travelled through so often in 'Aguire', 'Fitzcaraldo', 'Kobra Verde', 'White Diamond' and his own documentary on the same subject - 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'. Herzog goes back to the jungle... only to find that he has nothing new to say. Well, what more can be said about survival instinct, ambition and human ego that he hasn't explored already? Here, the director even manages to make a film about the Vietnam War that has absolutely nothing to do with the Vietnam War. It could've just easily have taken place in any other war - provided there's a jungle. Yes I know that's not what the film wants to be... we're not meant to politicize the situation. The underlying philosophy is actually very black and white. Dieter has to do everything humanly possible to escape. No questions about right and wrong and why the Americans are bombing innocent villagers. It doesn't matter, this guy just wants to survive. And there is no denying that Herzog captures this harrowing struggle beautifully. We're 100% with him and his actor on this journey.

But my problems is that we're at it again and we know where it's going, the pay-off is astonishingly jingoistic (it'd make a perfect propaganda piece for American troops in Iraq) and what's worse, there are no surprises along the way! Add to it the irritating mugging of Christian Bale (in contrast to the delightful Steve Zahn) who mistakes mannerism for acting and you get a strangely irrelevant one-act film from a master-filmmaker. Even accusations of 'mainstream' aspirations seem beside the point. I just hope that this is a way for Herzog to earn enough funds for a five hour film set on the Everest and featuring a tribe of telepathic dwarfs.

And I'm sorry... but I'm seriously worried about Bale. Will someone please tell him that Oscar is simply a gold-plated tin statue and NOT the Holy Grail?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sydney Film Festival... of Drummers and Masturbators

I know, I know... the festival is well and truly over and I haven't delivered on my promise to post "hot and up-to date news" from the festival. I work and have a social life - so shoot me! All the other reviews will be post-facto.

June 12

There are certain films that call out for new definitions... words even... Films like 'Pink Flamingos' or 'Mullholand Drive'. Screening in the festival's 'Provocateur' section was Koen Mortier's Belgian debut 'Ex-Drummer' and "Eye-Fuck" is the first idiomatic phrase I came up with when trying to describe it. Yes, it hurt and I actually looked away. Now, people who know me, know perfectly well that there's practically nothing cinematic out there that can outgross my jaded viewing sensibilities. I'm perfectly content to eat pop-corn while watching 'Bad Taste' and 'Salo'. It's not that 'Ex-Drummer' is more visually vulgar, gory or disgusting than these films. Maybe it's the terrifying reality of the characters that cuts so close to the bone. However ludicrous the situation somehow I felt that people like the ones featured in this film pass me by everyday on the street. What kind of people you may ask? A trio of guitarists with serious handicaps - one is deaf (and a wife-basher), the second has a dead arm that has gone numb from masturbating (has a bald mother and a psychotic father) and a third one is so angry he walks on the ceiling (and hates women to the point of wanting to slaughter them). The forth one is the drummer - a famous and privileged writer who is approached by the three invalids to help complete a band that is going to play only once at a local rock competition. The writer (his sole handicap being the fact that he can't play the drums) agrees just to be able to observe the depraved lives these disparate characters lead.

Now, in an American comedy, we'd follow this bunch of losers through trials and tribulations until the eventual triumphant conclusion (they play wonderfully, win a prize, get the girl, get laid, get a contract or understand the value of friendship or whatever). But people do things differently in Belgium. First of all, the losers can play - and really well at that. Second of all - nobody seems to really give a shit about the prize. Thirdly - there's not a single good-looking person in sight. Hollywoodn't as the ad says. The film is narrated by the writer/drummer whose dry, lordly voiceover has a Virgilian chill to it as he takes us through the hellish-Flemish uber-camp of self-destructive nuclear family wasteland. In fact, the tapestry here is so convoluted that at times it's difficult to pin-point what exactly the director is aiming his guns at. Considering the horrifyingly bleak hilarity of the film's coda, my guess would be that 'Ex-Drummer' is a critique of society's destructive strive towards 'normality' at all costs - an achievement of an impossible equilibrium if you like. Because in the end, the most disturbed character is really the figure of the writer whose Nietzschean disregard for humanity eclipses all the other handicaps on display put together. But then what does a meter-long dick and a middle-aged bald woman have to do with all that? I'm still trying to figure... The problem with this film is that it tries to do and to be so many things at once. I could call it bluff on a whole deck of mixed themes and metaphors but still not win the hand, so in the end I decided that Koen Mortier's obvious tactic of 'hit'em hard, ask questions later' is a clever choice - now I absolutely must watch this film again. Visually, Belgian (of the Flemish side) films always tend to be on the dour - 'it really sucks to be in Belgium' - side. And this is no different, but the director, who I repeat is an exceedingly clever bloke, uses the 'toilet bowl' aesthetic to foreground the extreme aspects of his story into semi-documentary type visual texture which makes you totally not blink twice when you see a man walk on a ceiling or you suddenly find yourself in an overly enlarged vagina. Add to it some real on screen sex, the surreally violent ending and you get the idea. To say that I look forward to Mortier's follow-up film would be a complete understatement.

The second film of the day I had already seen previously, so deviously I decided to include it as part of my festival quota.

'Witnesses' is Andre Techine's typically cool look at the terrifying spread of AIDS in 1980s. Featuring the director's wide-eyed muse - Emanuelle Beart - as a bohemian writer of children's books, the film is a story about a group of people that are profoundly changed by the disease. Sarah (Beart) and her policeman husband (Sami Bouajilla) have a happy open-marriage arrangement which is somewhat thrown off balance when they have a child. When their closest friend a gay doctor (Michel Blanc) falls in love with a precocious youth named Manu and brings him along to one of their country gatherings, things become even more complicated as attraction develops between all the wrong people. Manu is attractive and is desired by everyone and he takes full advantage of it. Soon, long drives out for 'flying lessons' with Sarah's husband follow. But this is not the Paris of the 20s and a very different kind of war shutters the precocious bonhomie of these hedonistic times. Manu comes down with AIDS, which painfully tests every one's allegiances and motives.
I usually enjoy Techine's dry, laconic storytelling and his multi-stranded narratives that always seem to center on a cultural microcosm rather than just on a single individual. And this is no exception. The uniformly excellent cast deliver stunningly restrained, unsentimental performances and it is a testament to director's mastery that we come to understand and care for all his flawed characters. Like Almodovar, Techine refuses to pass judgement and his typically French sense of subtle irony reinforces the inherent complexities in human relationships never going for definitive and facile statements. The achievement of this film is that it is anything but message driven. We forget to moralise while watching how these people desperately try to clutch on to their dignity and forge ahead with life. The rich shading of interactions, emotions, the fluidity of relationships and emotions is what makes 'Witnesses' such a beautiful testament on the human spirit.
It does seem that Techine himself profoundly changed after the 80s. The magnificent exuberance of his early cinema-du-look films such as 'Barrocco' with their electrifying stylistic gusto has given way to distinctly plainer and paired-back mise-en-scene. He obviously doesn't think of life anymore as a romantic romp through technicolour. Who can blame him?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sydney Film Festival Day 4: Of Mattresses and Men (and Women)

It's Monday the 11th; the festival's just kicked in and I'm already blogged out... but let's get to it...

Every film festival has them - movies that you're not going to see anywhere else... that is until the DVD comes out.
Tsai Ming Liang is a filmmaker who seems to work exclusively for the festival circuit. I have never seen any of his films released in Australia commercially. And I doubt they get released anywhere else. He's just the antithesis of everything that popular cinema stands for... fast and cheap thrills, facile emotions, visceral pleasures.
So it's no wonder that I put his latest opus 'I Don't Want To Sleep Alone' on top my "must see" list. It's Liang's first film set in his native Kuala Lampur - a liminal place that seems to register on the world map as a transfer point between the north and south hemispheres. Appropriately Liang delves in the rampant multi-culturalism of this city, with his characteristic wide-eyed objectivity. From frame one, we feel the absolute rawness of the place. The drab colours, the depressing dilapidation of half-finished construction sites, the babyloniasm of it all... amidst which Liang's camera picks up his protagonists in a pattern that seems resolutely random only to turn out to be celestial. The plot "wanders" around a homeless Chinese man who is severely beaten up (in the hilarious opening scene) by some thugs and is then picked by a local construction worker who then proceeds to almost religiously look after him for no apparent reason. Then there is a young restaurant hostess who is forced to look after her proprietresses' comatose son. And then there's the central character: the mattress. That's right, I'm completely serious.
Throughout the film there's practically not a single verbal exchange between any of the characters. Words are rendered ineffectual in Liang's universe, never more so than here. They just stare at each other for a while, then follow each other for a while, then make an occasional but telling gesture, then either walk away or lie still staring at the ceiling. This strange, Keatonesque atmosphere permeated the theater itself. Pure silence; yet I was laughing hysterically without making a single sound. The director is able to do wonders with the most banal of situations, to draw out humour and poignancy out of the ordinary by the sheer audacity of his timing and meticulous choreography. For this film is nothing if not a dance: a cinematic quartet of pas de deuxs that is exquisitely poetic and at times soaringly sensual.
While Liang's earlier film "Good bye Dragon Inn" (2003) was defiantly challenging in its temporal and spatial experiments that lead to near-abstraction, his latest masterpiece is much more humanist and emotionally rewarding. The early scenes of bodies (actually a single body) being washed and groomed in real time are painfully confrontational in their unflinching reality, testing our own limits of endurance when it comes to caring for other people's needs. But of course its much more than that. The film transcends the banality of sex to speak volumes about our need for contact and a sense of proximity. The bare intimacy of it all - physical and emotional - is sometimes so powerful as to be uncomfortable yet by then end of the last scene proves to be nothing short of cathartic. Ok... I feel myself floating away with all the gashing superlatives, so just for the touchdown I'd like to say that this is my film-revelation of 2007 so far.

I also somehow squeezed in the second showing of 'A Walk Into the Sea' and I'm glad to report that the experience proved worthwhile. The hitherto unknown figure of Danny Williams - one of the periodic victims of Andy Warhol's Factory is unknown no more. This documentary is a fascinating semi-expose of what went on in Warhol's silver-foil cocoon and how it affected a young and extremely talented filmmaker. Williams disappeared when he was 27, presumably due to suicide, although his body was never found. For a couple of years he was Warhol's live-in boyfriend and was graciously lent the valuable Bolex camera that allow him to shoot two dozen highly original experimental films. No one saw the film until their recent discover and more crucially no one seemed to remember Danny making them - even while they were starring in it. While Esther Robinson's documentary is only rudimentary and occasionally annoying in its cloying techniques, it is full of fascinating interviews with many survivors of the Warhol era and more importantly has clips from Williams' films which are to say the least - revelatory. This is a must see for anyone interested in the period and in American avant-gard cinema in general.

The last film of the day was Manoel de Oliveira's tribute to one of the greatest films ever made - Bunuel's 'Belle du Jour' - appropriately titled 'Belle Toujours'. The film is basically a sequel of sorts... 38 years after the original film finished Henri Husson sees Severine in the opera and proceeds to chase after her through Paris. She finally agrees to meet him for dinner claiming that she only wants one thing... to know whether her husband was told or not. Those of you who know the original film, will know what a crucial question this is. It's this kind of, perfectly flimsy, premise that many of Oliveira's existentialist fables are constructed around. I must admit I've never quite warmed to this auteur's films, with the exception of 'The Convent' (1994) - an utterly strange, almost silly, philosophical parable which starred the original Belle de Jour - Catherine Deneuve. In this film, Bullie Oglier takes on the reigns as the aged, but still enticing, Severine. She manages to retain a lot of the cold mystery that Deneuve projected in her role. Piccoli huffs and puffs through his role, at times seeming like he's going to have a heart attack. But sadly, the whole affair is quite grating and masturbatory. It's the epitome of antiquated bourgeois film making that for some reason refuses to die a dignified death. The director's bizarre casting choices for the secondary roles make this almost painful to watch, especially in the first half. And the astoundingly superficial "insights" the characters come up with, seem to have been drawn from a "How To Read Freud" textbook for high school students. The final "dinner" is however quite light and deadpan and the pay off is surprising, appropriately absurd and infuriating (it has to do with length, a box and a rooster). At least Oliveira stayed true to Bunuel's spirit. And you gotta give it to him - he's nearing 100 and is still making cerebral comedies. Respect!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sydney Film Festival Day 3

A very gay day indeed... even while the rain torrents nearly made me stay in the house.

I like to have themes during festivals and Sunday just turned out to be a little... bent. Two films that dealt with homosexuals in highly conservative societies screening on Sunday the 11th caught my eye.
Paul Schrader's 'THE WALKER' was made back in 2006 but I'd never heard of the film until this Sydney screening. Considering that the film deals with murder and corruption at the higher ranks of Washington's political elite... I wouldn't be surprised if someone up there didn't really feel like letting out of the bush.
This strange, strange post-neo-noir looks at the unconventional career of one Carter Page III - a gay Virginian tobacco heir, played with astonishing aplomb by... wait for it... Woody Harrelson. Carter makes it his duty to be that essential accessory that every rich politician's wife should have - her handbag. He's there to amuse them while they play cards in the afternoon, ready to advise them what kind of fabric they should choose for their walls, soothe their anxieties by telling them how beautiful they look and drop them off to their lovers' houses when they need an alibi. It just so happens that Carl's closest fag-hug friend, a leftist senator's wife Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott-Thomas), needs such an alibi when her boyfriend turns up murdered. Poor Carter of course promises to help and is dragged deep into the dirty side of Washington politics.
What at first seems like a political satire with Woody hamming it up as the unofficial Louella Parsons of Washington, turns into an increasingly complex thriller that sheds skin like an onion and smells like raw fish.
Think Big Sleep crossed with My Best Friend's Wedding and you get some idea of what Schrader has come up with. Of course I don't mean to suggest that such a superficial description could do justice to a film as multilayered as this. But it's not for nothing that Schrader has authored a seminal essay on film noir. He knows the style like the back of his hand and deals his cards like an ultimate pro. You think you know where the film is going to go, but after leaving the film you might suddenly realise that if you were watching a murder mystery, you still don't know who the killer is. But that's not the point anyway. Schrader has drawn a sublime character study rendered nearly impeccable with dialogue tuned like a piano wire. Harrelson gives a standout performance. It seems every macho Hollywood star is clamoring for a chance to wear pink so expect at least some Oscar buzz.
I'm not very well versed in interior American politics, but the film works simply as a study of corrupt power masquerading as democracy and there's no audience member in the world nowadays that can not relate to that. I could go on and on about this film because it works on so many levels. Suffice to say that Schrader has made one of his best works so far which proves once again that he's one of the best, most sensitive, liberal and honest American filmmakers working today.

'LA LEON' is a chamber piece set in the Argentinian tropics. It's a quietly brooding film that looks at yet another outsider who tries his best to go on about his business without bothering anyone. Him being gay of course is a problem, although no one seems to care much except the resentful ferry man who has issues with all outsiders including a bunch of immigrants stealing wood from the region's forests.
Stunningly photographed in black and white, La Leon simmers with menace underneath its languid surface. It reminded me of some of the seminal Japanese films of the 60s ('Onibaba', 'Woman in the Dunes') that dealt with repressed sexual desire. But unlike those films, director Antheago Otheguy's second feature delivers the same old notions and truths that we've seen countless times before. Yes, the bully just wants to fuck the protagonist, yes the landscape is a sexual metaphor, yes society is a rotten microcosm no matter where its located... yawn... I felt like I was seeing 'L'Aventura' for about 10 millionth time. The arthouse trappings of films like this are just not enough to disguise the fact that the water is only ankle deep. Added to it is a plot that is almost archaic in convention, leaving this audience member catatonic with luck of suspense. And lets admit it... when you're watching someone raw a boat for minutes and minutes... the least you can ask for is some element of surprise. Still... I managed to gain some enjoyment out of exquisite shots of canes gently swaying in the water...

There you have it. A very solid start but no revelations so far.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sydney Film Festival - Day 1&2

I thought long about my decision to cover the Sydney Film Fest, about what form such coverage should take. At first I wanted to do a video-diary, then just interviews for my site, then simply a diary, then... well I guess I just didn't want the hassle. If this blog is going to be of any use, I guess I should start putting some interesting stuff on it.
Well then... over the next two weeks I'm going to post views and reviews of everything I come across at the 2007 SIFF. Considering that I'm seeing nearly 30 films, I think the initiative is justified.

The festival opened on Friday the 9th with Olivier Dahan's 'La Vie en Rose'. A splashy biopic about the great French icon, Edith Piaf, Dahan's film has garnered mixed reviews and countless gushing adjectives relating to the reportedly astounding performance of Marion Cotillard... Last time I saw her, she was playing a deadly sex kitten in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'A Very Long Engagement'. She's come a long way since then I guess, still playing a deadly sex kitten (in a way). I avoided the film, but the Sydney public was in ruptures as they always are when they get some second-hand French sophistication for a 15$ ticket and a bag of popcorn.

The next day the festival kicked in with some truly interesting Australian premieres. Namely 'A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory' a documentary made by the subject's niece - Esther Robinson. Unfortunately I couldn't see it, but I find the subject immensely fascinating. Williams is almost a completely unknown filmmaker from Warhol's factory, plus his fate alone makes for an utterly compelling tale. He disappeared mysteriously in 1966 never to be seen again. I don't see it coming back on screens here... so thank God for DVD.

On the other hand, my expectations for Tony Ayres's new film 'The Home Song Stories' was barely lookewarm. His debut feature 'Walking on Water' left me as cold as a cube of ice, although it was praised to no end by all the Australian critics (the biggest malady of our bloody film industry). Thi one is not going to be any different ... expect a double orgasm from Margaret Pomeranz on 'At the Movies'.
As it turns out, Ayres returns to thematically similar ground - an autobiographical tale of a dysfunctional familial unit battling against all odds to stay together. The film tells the story of a Hon-Kong nightclub singer, Rose (the exquisite Joan Chen), who leads her children on an impulse to Australia in 1960s following a navy officer from Melbourne whom she met in Hon-Kong. After marrying the man, she briskly leaves him in a week, taking her son and daughter on an excruciating journey from one 'uncle' to another, until she's forced to come back to her husband again, only to leave him for a much younger Chinese migrant. As Rose ages, her self-confidence wanes as well. She resorts to emotional blackmail, namely suicide, to get what she wants.
Once you know that story is autobiographical you can't help but feel sorry for the filmmaker and his sister from whose points of view the film is rendered. It's a tragic tale for sure, but Ayres succeeds in taking a hard, long and generally restrained look at his mother whose emotional disbalance causes everyone so much grief.
The authenticity of the material is admirable as is the director's ability to condense this very episodic tale into a solid narrative structure. You never lose focus or become disengaged from the characters. This is largely thanks to the remarkable performances from the three leads. Joan Chen, whom we don't see often enough, gives an exceptionally complex performance as a woman who is seductive, vivacious, independent at one moment and destructive, manipulative, needy the next. The children are splendid too, hopefully we'll see more of them in the future.
While not a masterpiece, 'Home Song Stories' is one of those rare Australian films that really look deep into the immigrant experience and manage to wring some answers to as yet unanswered questions of identity, cultural difference and female empowerment within the context of Australia's recent history. The film sometimes veers dangerously close to a cathartic edge, at times almost falling into self-pity and melodrama. The framing device that the director used (a voiceover by the now adult son) is also really irritating because of its earnestness. It reeks of a desperate need for closure and is probably the biggest flaw in an otherwise fine film.
The NSW premiere was attended by the whole cast, including Joan Chen, and a Q&A session followed the film. Self-congratulations all-round. I also spotted a very grungy-looking Phillip Noyce making his way to the film with a very (and I mean very) young and attractive African woman. I'm sure it was just his secretary.