Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors

This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) topped the success of last year’s with greater box-office records, sold-out sessions and unprecedented audience attendances. The Festival, spread across 19 days and encompassing 350 films, is without doubt a key event in Melbourne’s annual arts calender, the Opening Night itself with its red carpet welcome, celebrities-in-the-audience (from Morgan Freeman to David Wenham), and all the gala formalities, bestowed the city of Melbourne with a touch of Hollywood or Cannes (depending on how you looked at it). Part of the glamour of the Opening Night was the Festival’s 50th birthday celebration and the recognition of its prestigious history. Although the program was a vast improvement from last year’s, most notably the increased quality across its regular sections (“International Panorama”, “Regional Focus” and “Documentaries”), its retrospectives and sidebars were satisfying but hardly astonishing. The ‘work of a festival’ refers to the thought and care put into determining the size and shape of the program, its various emphases and themes, and its potential to lead audiences into unique and memorable viewing experiences. Whilst MIFF 2001 redirected itself onto this path, there still remains work to be done. And given the history and recognition of the Festival, it occupies a prime position to astonish, challenge and engage local audiences with the history, art and politics of the moving and sounding image.

In terms of its “International Panorama” section, the Festival made much more of an effort than last year to secure important and interesting films, represented in its press announcement of “Films direct from Cannes 2001”. One of these included Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), a Festival highlight. In this film, Haneke broaches the highly taboo subject matter of aberrant sexuality in a piercingly ‘classical’, direct and tender manner. The poignancy and intensity of the film is ultimately inseparable from Huppert’s performance, which leaves a lasting impression. It would also have been great to see Haneke’s previous film, Code Inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000); both films would have sat together nicely, it’s likely even that the success of The Piano Teacher (all sessions were sold out) would have generated interest in Code. Two very different but equally satisfying films, and both of which are unlikely to be released locally, were Faithless (Liv Ullman, 2000) and R-Xmas (Abel Ferrara, 2001). The former’s European high culture, bourgeois sensibility was matched by the latter’s portrayal of New York City as a place of ‘attitude’ and corruption where drug-dealing and family life sit comfortably alongside each other and the city is a hostile and surreal space where bodies mysteriously disappear and then reappear, and the hypnotic grace of fade-outs establish the rhythm of sorting drugs. If anything, you have to love R-Xmas for its non-political correctness and anti-Giuliani, pro-immigrants view of New York City.

The Circle

Another major film included in the “International Panorama” section was Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), an intense viewing experience mainly for its sublime matching of formal materiality with political urgency. Working in the similar vein of ‘metaphor’ as a comment on the state of things was Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), which like Faithless, seemed to hark back to an older idea of international art cinema, especially East European cinema and the films of Tarkovsky. Though the static contemplation of many shots in Tarkovsky, their Antonioni-esque quality, gave way in Werckmeister to a brilliant fluidity and rhythmic orchestration between camera and action.

There was very little else that I saw from the “International Panorama” section that fit the bill, as the above titles did, of compulsive and intense viewing experiences. The French component of this section was overall very standard. Highlights were Jacques Doillon’s Totally Flaky (2000) and Sandrine Veysset’s Martha.Martha (2000). John Lvoff’s Man of the Crowds (2001), co-written by Pascal Bonitzer, was an intriguing, measured film that explored themes of post civil war in the former Yugoslavia. François Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), an overrated film, seemed to flirt with ideas of internal psychic breakdown without ever really going the full stretch. Its introductory sequence, however, was superb – the camera’s distant and respectful gaze toward a series of actions carried out silently by the film’s leading couple – an extended moment in which ‘story detail’ was completely absent and the possibility of the film going in any direction was almost palpable. Glaring omissions in the French selection of films were, once again, Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinées sentimentales (2000), Leos Carax’s Pola-X (2000), Philippe Garrel’s Le Vent De La Nuit (1999), and more recently, Akerman’s Le Captive (2000), Baise-Moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000) and even Godard’s 20 minute De L’origine du XXIème siècle (Origin of the 21st Century, 2000).

There was again this year a fair amount of films scheduled for local release months even weeks after the Festival’s completion. Some of these include Takeshi Kitano’s Brother (2000), Julian Schanbel’s Before Night Falls (2000), Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2000), Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000), Dominique Deruddere’s Everybody Famous! (2000), Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (2000), and Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty (2000) – a significant number of films that leads me to wonder just why they were included in the Festival at all, since they occupy a space that other titles could have occupied and are due to appear on local screens (with all the requisite publicity of a new release) in less hectic times.

Any festival that claims to be ‘international’ is obliged to put together a slate of films that represents the best of world cinema at the time of programming. MIFF 2001 fared much better than MIFF 2000 in this regard but there were still some gaps: certain parts of global cinema were not represented; on the other side of the coin, there was a fair amount of negligible titles seemingly included because they represented certain parts of the globe; recent titles by noted directors (Akerman, Assayas, Gitai, Ruiz) were missing. There are of course the inevitable obstacles that arise when programming a world cinema section (as in programming in general for a festival) primarily the availability and cost of prints, which in turn foregrounds those curatorial activities where the Festival is able to exercise greater control and impose a distinct sensibility such as the retrospectives and sidebar events.

Other regular sections of the MIFF program that also define its parameters and sensibility are the “Australian Showcase” and “Regional Focus” sections, the former stamping the Festival as an Australian event, the latter reflecting on Australia’s wider geographic location and proximity with Asia. Given that the bulk of the “Australian Showcase” premieres titles to be released locally months later, the creative freedom of this showcase would appear to lie in pursuing other directions, for example, a historical emphasis, which the Festival did this year and should be commended for, or including low-budget films, which are unlikely to receive local distribution, and which would offer an alternative to the government funded, officially sanctioned features. The Festival’s commitment to Australian film evident in its insertion of Australian films into the Opening and Closing Night categories was admirable and both films were extremely fitting for their contexts. The sophisticated intrigue and slickness of The Bank (Robert Connolly, 2001) suited a Festival on the cusp of launching headlong into a major program whilst the colourful, youthful, celebratory though with a hint of melancholy, He Died With A Felafel in his Hand (Richard Lowenstein, 2001), suitably marked the end of a long and journey-like event. Curiously, the most popular film as voted by Festival audiences was Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001), a ‘sophisticated’ Australian new release that straddles the two worlds of a Robert Altman film and Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) without quite surpassing either. The performances, however, were exceptional.

The “Regional Focus” section has been an integral part of the MIFF program for a number of years now. It is a nice coincidence that Australia’s neighbouring region also happens to be a vital source of innovative and interesting films in world cinema. A significant portion of the Festival’s highlights came from this section of the program, and these included both ‘art cinema’ and mainstream titles – Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000), Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-Soo, 2000), Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2000), Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000), Time and Tide (Tsui Hark, 2000), The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000), and Joint Security Area (Chan Wook Park, 2000). Subtlety and nuance were defining features of many of these films, which ranged from a historical epic like Platform to an intimate study of urban relationships like Virgin Stripped Bare. to a humorous crowd-pleaser about the extravagant desires of everyday people like The Foul King.

Unfortunately, I missed several other key titles of the section including Die Bad (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2000) and Face (Junji sakamoto, 2000). The heavy presence of Korean films in this section was very welcome; not only did it offer the opportunity to see such splendid films but also to witness a national cinema accomplished in both popular and art cinema genres. It seemed very silly to include other Asian films, and some of them major titles, like The Isle (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000), in another showcase titled “Shadows – the dark side of cinema”. Though I didn’t catch Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans, 2001), which played in this section, I wouldn’t hesitate to place my bets that The Isle had less in common with this film then it did with say Memento Mori (Kim Tae-Yong, 1999). This in turn highlights another shortcoming of the Festival program – the creation of showcases with tenuous, loosely defined themes and the re-packaging of films from other sections of the program into new sidebars (an example here being “mach 1”). The “Shadows” showcase is an example of the former, for example, a film like The Piano Teacher or Memento Mori should by rights be in this section, and given the predominance of ‘dark’ themes and graphic violence in contemporary Asian cinema this would suggest that such themes are specific to this regional cinema, and would be better viewed in this context rather than being aligned with more conventional and traditional notions of ‘horror’ in film. And if this showcase was really serious, it would have included a recent Dario Argento title, like Non ho sonno (2001). It was these attempts to group films based on tenuous links without fully exploring the terrain and merely to address relevant sectors of the audience that seemed to be misguided and a case of making a very large program even more confusing.

Several major Korean titles were missing from the “Regional Focus” selection: Lies (Jang Sun-Woo, 2000), Chunhyang (Im Kwon-Taek, 2000), and the astonishing, Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-Dong, 1999), which traces key moments in contemporary Korean history through a highly effective storytelling mode and temporal manipulation (similar to Memento [Christopher Nolan, 2000]). Other absences in this section included Gohatto (Nagisa Oshima, 2000), Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, 2000), his latest film released at the time of the Festival (Hollywood Hong-Kong [2001]), Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), which surprisingly played at Sydney but neither Melbourne nor Brisbane, What Time is it There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001), Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan, 2000), and Millenium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001). In addition, several recent Thai films of note were missing such as Fah Talai Jone (Wisit Sasantieng, 2000) and Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weersetakhul, 2000).

Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts

MIFF this year made a conscious effort to acknowledge the achievements of contemporary Asian cinema into its program by not only running a large regional showcase but also devoting its major retrospective spotlight to Japanese filmmaker, Ishii Sogo. This was a well presented and well attended retrospective that screened all of Sogo’s films and brought the filmmaker out to introduce screenings and partake in a forum. Sogo is an odd figure to place at the centre of a festival, however. Although there are consistent themes and styles throughout his oeuvre and his films deserve some form of exposure, you couldn’t really call any of them ‘masterpieces’ in cinema history. And while some of his films were high energy, thoroughly enjoyable gems (like Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts [2000] and Crazy Family [1984]) or well-crafted mood pieces (like Labyrinth of Dreams [1997]), others were somewhat overblown and laborious (Angel Dust [1994] and Gojoe [2000]). Aside from this however the Festival should be commended for displaying such a ‘pioneering’ aspect, that is, of pursuing the complete works of a neglected filmmaker and taking some kind of risk in terms of the audience’s response. Given that the films were quite popular with audiences, one could argue the retrospective was a success.

The Festival’s non-film, ‘generalist-humanist’ aspect is best represented by the “Documentaries” section, which ranged in subject matter from art and politics to history and architecture (with over half of the documentaries coming from the US). This section in addition to “Mooks Backbeat: Music on Film” presumably guarantees that the Festival reaches a wide audience, not exclusively a ‘film specific’ one. Subject-matter in the documentaries section ranged from the Middle Eastern conflict (Promises) to the most intimate portrait of lives (Southern Comfort, The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez, Sunshine Hotel) to filmmaking (Stanley Kubrick) to adventures into other cultures (Keep the River on Your Right) to painting and photography (Stars by Helmut Newton, Miotte by Ruiz) to sexuality, architecture, cult personalities and so on. The best documentaries were those that approached their subject matter with intelligence, subtlety and grace like Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), Pie in the Sky: the Brigid Berlin Story (Shelly Dunn Fremont, Vincent Fremont, 2000), and Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2000). In a similar vein, the music documentaries appealed to a wide spectrum of the music audience, from fans of Latin Jazz, hip-hop and folk ballads to rock n roll and heavy metal. Given that every single title in the “Mooks Backbeat” showcase was a documentary, it seemed misguided to place Tony Gatliff’s Vengo (2000) in this section.

This impulse of reaching diverse audiences was also evident in the number of sidebar events included in the program – like “mach 1”, “digital media”, “animation” – and the number of showcases either based on a national or regional cinema, genre-based, theme-based or filmmaker retrospectives – Ishii Sogo, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, British cinema, horror cinema, and Latin American cinema. Once you register that both groups of films (the sidebar events and showcases) sit alongside various other regular, sizeable sections of the program (world cinema, Australian film, regional focus, music on film, documentaries and international short film), it becomes pretty clear that this is one big festival.

Not a fan of British cinema, I generally steered clear of these films. However, the two that I did see managed to balance each other out: Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000), a hyper-take on the gangster genre, and The Low Down (Jamie Thraves, 2000), a low-key, realist study of relationships and life in London. Both seemed more concerned however with their governing stylistic regimes then exploring anything rigorous or interesting in their characters and story. The “Viva New Latin American Cinema” spotlight offered films by older, experienced directors (Barbet Schroeder, Arturo Ripstein) and their younger counterparts (Albertina Carri, José Luis Marqués) but this section could have easily been the result of grouping together a collection of Latin American titles that emerged among the “International Panorama” section rather then a separately conceived and pursued idea. The Errol Morris spotlight was an excellent opportunity to view the latest work by this ingenious, creative filmmaker, whom Tom Ryan interviews in this issue. Although the Festival titled the Morris spotlight “Eyeball to Eyeball”, which it took from one of the series, this latest project by Morris is in fact titled First Person.

Similar to last year, the size of the Festival seemed to reflect more a marketing imperative to reach every potential corner of the audience then concerted and balanced programming. For example, all the many sidebars and spotlights worked well together in that they covered diverse periods of cinema history and genre but not one of them upon close inspection is really comprehensive and astonishing in and of itself. For example, the Sogo retrospective was interesting but not compelling. It was welcome but perhaps it could have been accompanied by another retrospective devoted to a more influential director (like Godard, Peckinpah, Akerman, Rivette, Antonioni, Borzage, Mizoguchi, Eustache, Ozu, Pasolini, Rohmer, Naruse), especially given that the other two major filmmaker spotlights were firmly in the documentary genre. Whilst the Herzog retrospective was excellent, there was an equally good one held recently at the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide. The Festival needs to be a bit more creative and thoughtful in its showcases. For example, it could pursue the idea of a showcase of films which feature the modern city as an integral element (which would range from Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1926] to City Girl [F.W. Murnau, 1929] to Rome, Open City [Roberto Rossellini, 1945]) or films which bear a “spiritualist” aspect. Or, it might consider developing its experimental content, a neglected area at MIFF 2001 as it was subsumed by categories like animation and new media. Some approaches it might take for the future: a series of films by important contemporary experimental filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Jon Jost and Sharon Lockhart, which have rarely screened in Melbourne if at all.

Admittedly, such ‘content’ should not be thrown into the void of the public domain but properly presented and delivered, including curatorial notes (explaining the rationale for the series of films) and introductions. It is obvious that the Festival attracts a very large audience, comprised of many who wouldn’t normally attend film culture events throughout the year, and so the Festival has leverage and responsibility (if it chooses to see it that way) of presenting audiences with a bold and strong program. And since these audiences come to the Festival seeking a ‘festival experience’, with an open mind and an appetite for something new and stimulating, it could be assumed that they’re prepared to go further than they would on any normal trip to the cinema. All of which would encourage the Festival to take more risks in its programming and to present arguments that support its chosen spotlights. In this regard, there is potential to improve the program guide and develop it as a resource for quality and intelligent commentary on the films and the spotlights.

Logistically the Festival was extremely well run, especially given the large audience numbers, and was overall very ‘user-friendly’. The layout of venues – all within walking distance of each other – made catching several films in one day a possibility. In addition, the Festival club is an excellent point for social gathering and helps add a strong sense of community to the Festival. On several occasions, wherever there was a significant delay in the starting time of a session, the Festival made an effort to ensure that the starting time of screenings in the following timeslot across all theatres was delayed to account for this.

Drea Dematteo from R-Xmas

One thing I took from the Festival this year, a personal highlight, was the experience of being completely transported to and immersed in starkly defined worlds that together represented what living in different parts of the globe mean: Platform, a sweeping and detailed view ‘from the ground’ of China over several decades; The Circle, an intense, unforgettable account of the experience of being a woman in Iran; Calle 54, a documentary that represented the pure emotion, energy and ecstasy of a musical form whilst unearthing its development across various parts of the globe and history; and R-Xmas, a film whose characters and their way of life, with all its contradictions and peril, is inseparable from the city they live in. So, thanks to the Festival for providing this portal.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.