Countdown

In the wake of former Artistic Director Edouard Waintrop’s triumphal, ceremonious departure to become Director of Les Cinémas du Grütli in Geneva at the close of last year’s edition – all bouquets, nary a brickbat – and latterly, and additionally, General Delegate of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, new incumbent Thierry Jobin could have been forgiven for any apprehension in filling such big boots and assuming a conservative approach to programming his first FIFF. However, au contraire, Jobin’s first festival was programmed with clear intent to take the festival markedly further into waters uncharted since its inception yet still, in spirit, true to its original mission: to serve as a cinematic bridge between worlds, between the (cinema of the) familiar, affluent West, and the Other-worldly and variously developing, revolting, stagnating, warring, downward-spiralling or sometimes even burgeoning so-called “South” – a euphemism for the third world and other struggling/developing nations much bandied-about by the FIFF historically but which has been so stretched by the festival in recent years – and which is dropping out of wider usage generally – that it has almost run its course.

Nevertheless, it still made one especially conspicuous, explicit appearance this year in the naming of the festival’s strongest programming strand, which was perhaps that part of the program most emblematic of Jobin’s express intent to widen the appeal of the festival whilst staying on mission. That was “Once upon a Time in the South”, a fabulous, 16 film strong survey of alt-Westerns – Westerns, generically speaking, to have emerged from countries removed geographically and/or industrially from the Hollywood and Spaghetti norms, as well as, oftentimes, from that other foreign country, per L. P. Hartley’s famous formulation: the past.

The titling of that programming focus aside, Jobin wasn’t one to be cowed from extending the festival’s ambit. Having been informed of his appointment comfortably before last year’s edition of the FIFF, he had plenty of time to consider his tack and summon up pluck enough to compose a program which could ultimately give credence to his trumpeting in his Director’s statement in this year’s festival catalogue that the FIFF has, in 2012, “undergone the most important transformation in its history.” (1)

To Jobin’s credit, he has been wont to acknowledging the great work done in already vastly expanding the festival’s horizons by his immediate predecessor, (2) when, for example, quipping in an interview in local paper La Liberté, issued the day of the festival’s opening, that he was Yeltsin to Waintrop’s Gorbachev! (3)

Before we embark upon a consideration of those specific areas of the 26th FIFF’s programming where Thierry Jobin can be seen most to have made his mark, we’ll first take a look at the feature films in competition – my raison d’être, in fact, for being at the festival this year in the first place, as I had landed a position on the FIFF’s FIPRESCI jury.

Feature films in competition

Star of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), Mania Akbari’s second narrative feature film as director, Yek. Do.Yek (One. Two. One) plays out as a succession of vignettes in which the several principals wax variously monological and dialectical, wooing one another and/or trying to repair the damage to a relationship and to a woman’s beauty wrought in a car accident, before an unblinking, often laterally gliding camera given to observing the action askance. It’s an intriguing and formally striking work, finding human frailty everywhere but universalising it too explicitly for my liking. Ostentatious Edenic imagery – in this scene a snake, in that, an apple (held long aloft centre-frame by a Barry White-voiced suitor, even!) – makes for a shorthand that rubs me up altogether the wrong way. I note though that what it has to say about relations between men and women is clearly more than controversial enough back in Iran to cause considerable trouble; attempts to gain One. Two. One permits from the Iranian authorities for an international release sadly saw its distributor, Katayoun Shahabi, imprisoned for nearly two months late last year.

Honey Pupu (Xiao Shi Da Kan)

More formally adventurous still – or altogether more scattershot, take your pick – is Chen Hung-I’s Honey Pupu (Xiao Shi Da Kan), a romance cyber-mystery for the ADHD generation. The most intriguing thing about this new Taiwanese film is not its original, glitchy, information-overload riffing on the lessening distinction between lives led within and without virtual worlds but rather its nostalgia for media technologies and outlets only very recently to have fallen to obsolescence (as well as for the glories of yesteryear’s films of Wong Kar-wai). There’s a wonderful melancholy comedy to scenes wherein characters wander around with a 5¼ inch floppy disk, no more aware of how to glean information from it than if they had have stumbled upon a stone tablet from Moses’ time, and equally in a scene where they come across a city block where – can you believe it? – there once stood a record store!

Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest, Wo 11 (11 Flowers), is much more traditional festival fare, an expectedly accomplished coming-of-age memoir set in bucolic southwest China in the penultimate year of the Cultural Revolution. 11 Flowers is centred around eleven year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing, excellent, just as all the child actors are in this film), whose innocence is tainted the day he stumbles upon a murderer on the lam and is threatened to keep mum about it. Meanwhile, in the adult world around him, matters related to this murder are linked to greater problems endemic in Mao’s China and to those poor souls expelled to its backwaters.

11 Flowers is a real charmer; my only real criticisms of it are those indigenous to the genre. It can’t really help but end with more of a whimper than a bang, and nor can the protagonist’s life ever really be felt to have been in great jeopardy, knowing that the entire narrative is being related as a recollection. 11 Flowers does though at least close on a humorously epochal whimper, with Wang Han’s first ejaculation.

English-born Indian Avie Luthra’s Lucky, an elaboration upon his well-awarded same-named short from 2005, also features a child at the core of its similarly commercially viable (read: sentimental) story: an African boy from a small township orphaned in newly post-Apartheid South Africa upon the death of his mother from AIDS. “Lucky” heads to the big smoke of Johannesburg where his deadbeat uncle, sworn to see to it that the boy gets a good education, has different ideas, leading to Lucky’s seeking refuge – and finding a slow-burning friendship and guardianship – from the ageing and highly suspicious Indian woman next door with whom he shares no common tongue. There are no great narrative surprises with Lucky, but the kid (Sihle Dlamini) and the old woman (Indian parliamentarian Jayashree Basavaraj!) are terrific.

Coincidentally, HIV infection is the central concern of Amr Salama’s Audience Award-winning Asmaa, an agitprop film masquerading as a highly engaging, excellently performed mainstream entertainment – an Egyptian Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), if you will. It relates one HIV-carrying woman’s struggles to be granted life-saving surgery on her gallbladder in a society in which medical practitioners are under-educated about AIDS and so won’t operate on her. However, might not sharing her story – and especially daring to bare her face – on national television, opposite surprisingly sympathetic, tub-thumping portly talk show host Mohsen (Maged El Kedwany), lend her a lifeline – and educate the nation in the process? Given this opportunity, Asmaa (Hend Sabri) nonetheless demurs for a long time, allowing the film to flash back and forth to illuminate her complex and tragic back-story, the better that we understand what’s at stake for her and her family in the here and now.

The film ends in a sequence so utopian that one can’t help but feel the film’s hedging its bets, unwilling to stake a clear claim for this sequence as being reality or fantasy. There is, however, one unambiguous, sobering note as the closing credits are set to roll: the Asmaa the film is based on never got her surgery and consequently died. I would note too that for all that Asmaa looks to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS from Egyptian society, it’s clear there are still taboos the film(makers) will not broach. We can easily enough infer through what act it was that Asmaa’s husband was infected in jail, leading to Asmaa’s own infection, but Asmaa – film and character alike – dares not speak its name. One taboo at a time, one taboo at a time…

Yahya Al-Abdallah’s Al juma al kheira (The Last Friday) also imposes upon its protagonist a need for seemingly unattainable urgent surgery, but taxi driver Youssef (Ali Suliman)’s plight, surrounding a troublesome testicle, is pitched more to produce a gently satirical, Kafkaesque portrait of a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged Jordanian everyman than with Asmaa‘s evangelical and specific sense of purpose. The Last Friday gets it just about right – had it been any more deadpan it might not have rang emotionally true and Youssef, flawed though he certainly is, might not have been half so sympathetic a character. I cannot begrudge its receipt of the Special Jury award, conferred by the Swiss Authors’ Society and Suissimage.

Isda (Fable of the Fish)

Loopiest story of the competition goes to Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s magic realist Isda (Fable of the Fish). A childless couple, Miguel (Bembol Roco) and Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) move to new digs in Manila in a crowded tip (this is not a figure of speech, neither within or without the film). Despite the ghastliness of their milieu, at once hearth and, through rummaging, place of work, life goes on and a semblance of happiness is maintained. Still – if only Miguel could knock Lina up! For such a slight upon his masculinity as his impotence represents is far worse than merely to live in the most appalling of third world conditions. However, Lina does eventually fall pregnant… only to give birth to a milkfish! Miguel is of course horrified, but with their fish-child comes a certain celebrity and comfort, if only they’ll be able to enjoy it.

Not once does the camera move in the entire film, but I’m not about to applaud Fable for its formal rigour – there were times when it was all too clear that the cast were seriously struggling to cleanly exit the frame! Nonetheless, even though Alix Jr. employed the crudest of means, I still felt for these people, and worried for the welfare of their fishy son…

I’m not sure what to say about Hernán Belón’s El Campo (In the Open), a film which constantly toys with the tropes of an old dark house/city-folk-ought-not-stray-off-the-beaten-track horror flick only to deliver an ultimately incoherent experience with a most unsatisfying resolution. My main problem is that I’m not sure whether that incoherence is a function of the projection of a possibly incomplete version of the film (but off Blu-Ray?) – In the Open ran 20 minutes shorter than the advertised time.

I didn’t much care for Matías Meyer’s Los últimos cristeros (The Last Christeros), a ponderously paced affair, if handsomely shot, in which a bunch of sad-sack Christians in 1920s Mexico take to the hills in a bid to escape their persecutors who have the Constitution, the anti-clerical laws of 1917 enshrined within it and superior firepower on their side. I especially found its final scene, too long coming in the first place, ludicrous; it’s wildly, humourlessly overstated in positioning its unfortunate Cristeros as martyrs.

Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (Found Memories)

For mine, the strongest title in competition was Júlia Murat’s gorgeous narrative feature debut Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (Found Memories). Its premise is simple: a village exists in a Brazilian backwater whose tiny, elderly population is static; there have in fact been no deaths there for 30-odd years; the cemetery is physically and symbolically closed. Consequently the villagers go mechanically through much the same motions day in, day out, gently needling one another, inhabitants of a true twilight zone until the surprising arrival in town of Rita (Lisa Fávero), a young drifter and photographer. A little insensitively, she’s intrigued by this town-out-of-time. Might the villagers perhaps be right to be suspicious of this strange young lady who takes such beautiful and appropriately ghostly long exposure, pinhole camera photographs of the town and its mortality-defying yet faith-adhering locals? Might she not represent a threat to their way of life, to their very existence – but would that necessarily even be a bad thing?

Found Memories won as many as four of the prizes on offer at the festival but, quite to my surprise, the Grand Prix was awarded to Ido Fluk’s Af Paam Lo Meuchar (Never Too Late), an internationally premiering micro-budget road movie – a product of crowd-sourced funding, in fact – in which a listless young man returns to Israel after several years of good times in South America, during which period he missed the passing and funeral of his father, with whom he had had a strained relationship. Embarking upon an often nostalgic gad about the Israeli countryside in his father’s abandoned Volvo, his attempts to make peace within himself for his desertion of his family manifest in the employment of a conceit I can’t help but find hackneyed and awkward – his chatty dead father is a passenger for much of the journey.

And as for the film which we on the FIPRESCI jury awarded? Well, Countdown is a cracking action comedy-cum-melodrama, even a tragic Dawkinsian love story – a love story not between human beings so much, but more just between certain of their organs! – positioning debutante director Huh Jong-ho firmly alongside Na Hong-jin in the top rank of the next generation of Korean genre-benders. Jeong Jae-yeong channels Alain Delon and Chow Yun-Fat in the role of Tae Geon-ho, a dapper, taciturn, irrepressible, amnesiac debt collector whom fate should have it has a dicky liver and suddenly not long to do something about it. Chameleonic confidence trickstress Cha Ha-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon), who had successfully received organs previously from Tae’s dead son, strikes a deal with him – she’ll spare him some of her liver if he helps her get even with a Mr Big. Not that there hadn’t been any mayhem up until this point, but upon this deal being made there’s a whole helluva lot more to come, with some marvellous set pieces and considerable wit in their deployment before it all comes, it has to be said, slightly undone by a mawkish and protracted final sequence. Nonetheless, up until that point Countdown is terrific and expertly contrived fun.

Films outside of competition

Emblematic of the FIFF under Jobin, the festival opened with Diego Rougier’s Sal (Salt), a film from “Once upon a Time in the South”. It’s a meta-Western which, narratively speaking, writes itself – the protagonist is a would-be writer-director with Westerns on the brain and whose treatments are routinely rejected for not containing anything suggestive of lived experience. However, it’s not long before a case of mistaken identity sees Sergio/Diego (Fele Martínez) embroiled in a real-life scenario right out of his favourite genre and set in Chile’s Atacama desert, and it’s one in which he sure ain’t calling the shots…

I have to confess to struggling to accept a Western, even one as reflexive and as heartfelt a homage to its predecessors as Salt, when there is simply no grain evident in the projected image. No doubt this is largely a function of the weight of cinematic precedent, but for this old warhorse, wide open plains are grainy, and I’m not just talking about sand. Salt is nonetheless quite good fun, and made for an agreeable, if lightweight, curtain-raiser, whereas the excellent Closing Night film, Miss Bala (d. Gerardo Naranjo) made for a polar opposite experience at the other end of the festival – it’s one long, compellingly grim descent into a peculiarly Mexican hell for a woman who wanted nothing more than to compete in a beauty pageant but who winds up a pawn in the dizzying, extremely dangerous games played by drug dealers, corrupt officials on either side of the border and the broadcast media, with the distinctions between all three becoming increasingly indeterminate.

Another new feature filed under “Once upon a Time…”, Fernando Javier León’s amusing La cebra (The Zebra) presents a slightly skewed, microcosmic re-imagining of the Mexican Revolution replete – if not as satirically effectively as I would have liked – with all the male chauvinism that ’60s Westerns set in that milieu were wont to feature. Still, the protagonists are morons and the butt of most of the film’s humour; they’re a pair of bandits unsure whom to ally themselves with in the revolution and who early on steal a zebra from a carny couple, believing it to be a “gringo horse”. Not understanding that words shouted out at them during this act of thievery are actually insults, they henceforth refer to their strange, stripy new horse as “Foquer”…

Most of the rest of the Westerns on offer were much older titles but which amounted to an inspired overall selection, ranging from Wisit Sasanatieng’s gorgeous fusing of Thai melodrama and Sergio Leone, Fah talai jone (Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000) and Oldřich Lipský’s completely goofy Czech parody Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera (Lemonade Joe, 1964) through to Ralph Nelson’s underseen, rug-out-from-under-you revisionist Western Soldier Blue (1970) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ur-Midnight Movie El Topo (The Mole, 1970). On which note, in another move towards widening appeal, “Midnight Screenings” are now a feature of the FIFF, even if none of them did in fact start any later than 10pm. I hear tell I dodged a proverbial bullet, unlike hundreds of others, by missing the Hong Kong blockbuster 3D rou pu tuan zhi ji le bao jian (3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, d. Christopher Sun Lap Key), but young Welsh filmmaker Gareth Huw Ewans’ Indonesian martial arts spectacular Serbuan Maut (The Raid: Redemption) is quite another matter. While extremely light on for plot or psychological depth, its exhilarating action scenes more than compensate. The choreography of its umpteen fight sequences, set in a grimy Jakarta tenement block tightly controlled by gangsters, is breathtaking with respect to both the physical prowess on display and to shot composition and editing. Furthermore, some of the falls taken by baddies and goodies alike are wince-inducing in the extreme.

Every year the FIFF collegiately offers carte blanche to another festival from the neighbourhood. This year it was taken by Olivier Père, artistic director of the Festival del film Locarno, who programmed Cutter’s Way (1981), equal parts a contribution to the recuperation of a semi-forgotten film as it was an unashamed expedient to lure American-based Czech director Ivan Passer to Fribourg, whereupon he gave a masterclass.

Further afield still from the festival’s usual happy hunting ground, and yet much closer to home, the work of Swiss animation supremo Georges Schwizgebel was celebrated in a fabulous exhibition in Fribourg’s Cantonal and University Library. Inexplicably, its launch was sorely under-attended, even though the artist himself was in attendance. I cannot fathom why this event was not choc-a-bloc – do the Swiss not grasp what a genius they have in their midst in the unassuming form of this marvellous animator?

At any rate, I was delighted to examine working sketches for a variety of his gorgeous, painterly short animated films, highlighting how he conceives, and executes, the often Escherian manipulations and transformations he imposes upon the frames within the frames of his animations to such mesmerising effect and demonstrating that what appears on screen, as if the product of a stream of consciousness, is of course the end product of a very great deal of precision planning and attention to detail.

Romance

Schwizgebel also contributed to the FIFF’s programming, curating two terrific packages of animated shorts, while his latest tour de force, the typically hypnotic, Rachmaninov-scored Romance ran as a short before his revelatory feature selection, Tatsumi. This is a wonderful animated documentary from Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo on gekiga, or adult manga, pioneer (“adult” not in the hentai sense, per se) Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Aside from dramatising the artist’s own life, Tatsumi animates – minimally, but highly evocatively – several of the stories he staked his reputation with. Most hauntingly, this includes the tale of a photographer who captured a photo of the shadow on a wall of a mother and son presumed to have perished when the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; the shadow was all that was deemed to have been left of them. Not so, however…

Other programming focuses at this year’s FIFF included one on Bangladesh under a new ongoing rubric, “Terra Incognita”. I only caught one of the seven titles on offer and can only hope the other six were stronger than Enamul Karim Nirjhar’s Aha! (2007); it needlessly bookended its protracted intrigue surrounding the future of a gorgeous, if dilapidating, Dhaka mansion with some risible business involving the mansion owner’s hire of a confessed murderer and, inevitably then, a murder. Whereas “Decryption: The Image of Islam in the Occident” was a survey of films examining Muslim/Western culture clashes, collisions and coalitions which, atop Stephen Frears’ evergreen My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), included Dernier Maquis (2008), a droll and beautifully lensed depiction of troubles unfolding in an unglamorous workplace largely populated by Algerian Muslim immigrant labourers and overseen by a man they call “Mao” (played by the director, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche), who decides to open a mosque on the premises but makes a divisive decision in his choice of imam.

Cut

Appearing simply “out of competition” was the festival’s most peculiar offering, Amir Naderi’s Cut, a no doubt unprecedented French-American-South Korean-Japanese-Turkish co-production co-written by Shinji Aoyama, in which its Iranian director presents probably the most bizarre – and surely the most masochistic – on-screen depiction of cinephilia yet.

Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Shuji, a young filmmaker and stager of illegal film society screenings given to taking to the streets and, megaphone in hand, imploring passers-by to demand better cinema, insisting that there is still good cinema being made, cinema worthy of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi even, whose graves he makes highly emotive pilgrimages to.

It transpires that Shuji’s brother has just been beaten to death, with the fortune he was indebted to local yakuza still owing. So what does Shuji do other than offer himself up to them as a human punching bag in the toilets of their office/boxing ring, somehow cushioning himself from the worst of the sprays of body blows he endures (and endures and endures…) by screaming out his demands for better cinema, eventually culminating, with Shuji increasingly resembling a refugee from an early Shinya Tsukamoto film, in an anaesthetising countdown of the 100 greatest films ever!

There are a lot of problems with Cut aside from the ludicrousness of the method of recompense employed by Shuji to clear his inherited debt. My biggest beef is that for a film in which the protagonist is a radicalised, evangelical cinephile, it sure posits one hell of a boring, ossified canon du papa, especially given Shuji’s insistence that there is still good auteur cinema being made. I can’t remember the countdown exactly, but I struggle to recall anything listed there from this century – or even anything much from the 1990s. And I’m certain there wasn’t a single film in it directed by a woman. By the time it wound up with great fanfare at its ludicrously predictable #1 position I was just about ready to punch myself too.

That’s a wrap

Lest anyone be inclined to read anything into my finishing my account of the 26th FIFF on such a bum note, please be assured that the festival was an infinitely more generous pandering to a cinephile’s love of the seventh art than that which was dished out to poor Shuji in Cut, not to mention one much more interested in expanding – and exploring beyond – the established canon than Naderi’s ostensibly oddball but actually very conservative new film. It is in fact with considerable anticipation that I look forward to seeing where Jobin takes the FIFF next. Might a certain compass point be dispensed with altogether come 2013? Stay tuned.

Fribourg International Film Festival
24-31 March 2012
Festival website: http://www.fiff.ch/en/

Endnotes

  1. Festival catalogue, p. 22.
  2. For my accounts in Senses of Cinema of Waintrop’s expansionist latter two years at the helm of the FIFF, see “Going South in 2010: Thinking Global, Talking Local: The 24th Fribourg International Film Festival”, in issue 55, 2010, and “Many Things to Ever More People: The 25th Fribourg International Film Festival” in issue 59, 2011. Worth noting: in the former article, I quote Waintrop explaining that “to speak of the geographical South no longer has meaning” in an interview conducted for Le Temps by… none other than Thierry Jobin, long a critic prior to his appointment at the FIFF and one known, at that, to have often been quite dismissive of what he perceived as the FIFF’s conscience-pricking principal agenda of years gone by. See, for example, Samuel Jordan and Eric Steiner, “«Le FIFF sera plus accessible»”, La Liberté, March 24, 2012.
  3. Samuel Jordan and Eric Steiner, “«Le FIFF sera plus accessible»”, La Liberté, March 24, 2012.

About The Author

Cerise Howard is the Artistic Director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and a committee member of both the Melbourne Cinémathèque and tilde: Melbourne's Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival. A freelance writer and peregrine film critic, she can regularly be heard on Plato’s Cave on Melbourne radio station 3RRR.