In Lav Diaz’s Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History), a 250-minute musing upon the reality of transgression and the perception of transformation, an old adage springs to cinematic life, its accepted platitudes seemingly proven: The more things change for the film’s pair of Filipino protagonists – intellectual Fabian (Sid Lucero) and villager Joaquin (Archie Alemania) – the more the surrounding society stays the same, despite their best and worst efforts. Deeds borne out of idealism and injustice beget a drastic shift for the two men, one killing to avoid debt, the other punished as the mistaken perpetrator. As Diaz makes his film in Dostoevsky’s – and Crime and Punishment’s – mould, he settles on the realisation that history is cyclical; it repeats, but never concludes.

Norte made for an interesting, if understated centrepiece of the 2013 Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF), the 22nd year of the event, now unfurling in the humid climes of Queensland’s capital city on the cusp of summer. A lauded work but one considerably less accessible to the broader audiences all film festivals now covet, it sat quietly amongst higher-profile features, its running time likely a prohibitive factor to the bulk of patrons. And yet, Norte is the quintessential festival film, not just for its prolonged length, weighty subject matter and contemplative approach – all of which rage against everything mainstream movie viewing will never be – but for its feat of persistence. The film festival model shares this trait; it evolves with time, and is subject to variation between cities and under changing directors, but its encouragement of audiences to submit to the intensified consumption of cinema and the continuation of screen culture always endures.

Norte, the End of History

Norte, the End of History

From November 13 to 24, BIFF attempted to inspire such behaviour in the manner of all film festivals, the event’s new publicity overflowing with the message of embarking upon a cinematic journey. The voyage at hand offered a departure from previous years, with debut director Jennie Hughes arriving fresh from Victoria’s Open Channel to take over the festival head’s post from three-time director and Melbourne International Film Festival alumnus Richard Moore. In the 137-feature, 45-short program Hughes oversaw in her first and only year at BIFF’s command, different points of focus came into view, though the bulk of its international perspective – a veritable “best of” assemblage taken from its southern counterparts in Sydney and Melbourne, sandwiched among premiere drawcards fresh from international events – remained.

BIFF 2013 officially commenced where all expeditions start: at home, shining the spotlight on its own state in the opening night selection. With the first Australian outing of Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, the festival celebrated the filmmaking capacity of Queensland, whilst telling the serious and stately story of Eric Lomax, a survivor of World War II atrocities in Singapore. Carefully crafted sentiments and aesthetics pondered not only the motivation for the horrors and heroics of combat, but the mechanism of forgiveness decades later. Through astute performances by its stars, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, the film transforms Lomax’s reliving of terror into an opportunity for redemption, and the renewal and fresh beginnings that come with it. Horrors are laid out on screen, but the ensuing catharsis of the affecting resolution ensures this approach is justified.

The other festival bookend offered perhaps the event’s biggest coup – the screening of 12 Years a Slave, now the Academy Award winner for best picture of 2013. Steve McQueen’s formidable debut Hunger was a highlight of BIFF’s 2008 program, and his return offered another round of insights into the subjugation of physicality and freewill. In a potent dissection of the exploitative practices that blighted the United States less than two centuries ago, this simultaneously challenging and compassionate feature demands attention. The plight of the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, provokes in its own right, peppered as it is with the senseless stripping of liberties and the cruel maltreatment that followed – but in its portrayal, it exceeds the story. The central performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor interprets his ordeal with such smouldering sadness and innate nobility that an emotional response is a foregone conclusion. McQueen and his star don’t pander to sentiment, instead gazing an assured eye over a subject already whose importance and meaning has often been underscored. In the film, this meditation comes of its own accord, incited by the strength of the unspeakable, actual terror rendered on screen with touching devastation and elegance.

The filmic destinations offered between BIFF’s opening and closing nights stayed true to the festival’s assemblage of circuit highlights, including Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes 2013 Palme d’Or winner La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour). Much has been made of the film’s off-screen circumstances, its production conditions earning almost as much attention as its coveted festival accolade. Much has also been made of the lengthy sex scenes between stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, their explicit nature controlling the chatter around writer/director Kechiche’s adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel. The ordeal the actresses reportedly went through in bringing such a close, complex bond to the screen shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the film itself be seen as merely the sum of its troubles. Blue is the Warmest Colour is not the end of an equation, but the making of it – with the chaotic and imprecise almost gleefully included. That mess abounds as the film charts the ups and downs of an imperfect love story, the primary romance proving both passionate and problematic. That Kechiche’s tale is both epic in scope and average in detail is less predictable, and that is where its beauty lies. The over-extendedness and repetitiveness of the narrative, the careening and freewheeling aesthetics, and the jaunty and sometimes jarring performances, prove powerful in dissecting and reassembling the basics of human connection.

Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color

Tom à la ferme came simmering with tension and repression, the fourth film from J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother, 2009), Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats, 2010) and Laurence Anyways (2012)-wunderkind Xavier Dolan, easily reaching the apex of the festival’s entire program. Steeped in a style indebted to Alfred Hitchcock, the writer/director delves deeper and darker than in his previous pieces, whilst reclaiming his place in front of the camera. Desire remains his obsession, but with a thriller-like twist. As the bereaved titular character attending the rural home of his deceased – and secret, to the departed’s family at least – boyfriend, Dolan dances with his inner turmoil, first tormented by the blankness that greets him like a slap in the face, then torn when he finds his lover’s sibling both repulsive and alluring. A game is afoot in the intense, incisive story, examining the need for connection regardless of its consequences. As expressive imagery shows time and time again, while accompanied by a chilling score, the young Quebecois filmmaker has the aptitude and insight to match his sheer audacity. His latest is his most pulsating, pensive and penetrating work to date, and also his finest.

What will come next for Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam is always a loaded line of questioning; the answer is often similarly encumbered by expectation. The Zero Theorem bears the burden of both the anticipation of another fantastical sci-fi fable from a filmmaker known for such works, and an eclectic, inconsistent conclusion. The central idea, stemming from Pat Rushin’s screenplay, seems like a vintage outing for the frenetic filmmaker – but its execution stumbles. As Christoph Waltz’s data-processor tries to conquer several holy grails – his own in working from home, his employer’s (Matt Damon) in completing a supposedly impossible project, and the combined quest of unlocking the reason for human existence – his “rat in a maze” demeanour is matched by that of the watching audience. Where the film excels in its elaborate design and affection for the genre, it unravels in its unconvincing grasp on its narrative. As familiar concepts of bureaucratic suspicion, technological paranoia and alternative destinies echo through a movie striving to be smarter than it is, the director’s latest dystopia is notable for effort but not its the end result. But “inserted” quirkiness in the form of a teen hacker (Lucas Hedges), a bumbling psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton) and an attractive espionage agent (Mélanie Thierry) adds to the enduring charisma of Gilliam’s oeuvre.

Roman Polanski’s La Vénus à la fourrure (Venus in Fur) aligns with the director’s current fascination with works for the modern stage, seen first in Death and the Maiden (1994) and most recently in Carnage (2011), but his film is more a gift to his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, than a manifestation of those interests. Seigner featured in Polanski’s Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992) and The Ninth Gate (1999), and has enjoyed a fruitful career outside of her husband’s gaze, yet rarely have her talents been on such full-bodied display. The framework of David Ives’ two-person play aids immensely, as does its comedic interplay with and interpretation of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, widely accredited as the spawning point for the term masochism. Pitted against an exasperated – in character, not in performance – Mathieu Amalric, Seigner not only steals the show, literally in the context of the film’s narrative, but proves an ample embodiment of the many attitudes towards carnality surveyed in the film, even as the movie devolves into a parade of developments that prove a little too overdone and schematic. The film’s overarching style is too beholden to the material’s origins to really benefit from the influence of its director, though his mastery of conversations remains. And what is La Vénus à la fourrure if not the ultimate riff on the power balance between the sexes, concentrated through a bickering, bantering, preening, performative discussion?

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur

Asian cinema, a mainstay of programming under the 18-year reign BIFF’s first director, Anne Demy-Geroe, returned to prime position as displayed by Wong Kar-wai’s controversially re-edited Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster). The film’s selection was burdened with the weight of substantial baggage, three versions of it having now been seen in different regions around the globe. In keeping with the bulk of the Western world, and with the release preferred for English-language territories, BIFF screened the so-called “Harvey Weinstein cut”; whatever the feature may be in its other iterations, even sliced and diced it makes for a rousing historical martial arts movie that does justice to its notable subject. Ip Man was a finessed fighter whose later-in-life teachings of Bruce Lee have cemented his story as one of persistent legend, but this tale of origins is just as mesmerising. The calm, calculated visual language of the consummate Wong effortlessly transcends any alterations in form, his lavish offering unfurling with lyrical sumptuousness befitting the auteur’s life’s work. The long-in-gestation The Grandmaster also merges its exquisite imagery with irony, raising a wry smile for its focus on – aptly so – the fleeting and ever-altering nature of everything. Change flickers across the poised, polished faces of the leads: the sorrowful Ziyi Zhang and the stoic Tony Leung the picture of pained grace and perpetual melancholy as they swirl around each other in the mist of the unattainable and unrealised.

Sitting in stark contrast, what to make of the almost silent cycle of incised masculinity and stylised violence that is Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius? At times, that perplexed shrug, that space between laughing and decrying, seems to be the reaction the director himself is aiming for; that his latest feature will challenge and aggravate is never in doubt, but the laughs that flow uncomfortably are an overwhelming outcome. Never one for repeating himself in his work, the Korean auteur jumps swiftly from fellow BIFF selections Arirang (in 2011) and Pieta (in 2012) to a film of introspection and betrayal that is forever cognisant of the many readings of its moniker. As his trio of family members (Cho Jae-Hyun as the father, Lee Eun-Woo as the mother, and Seo Young-ju as their teenage son) – and the other woman (Lee again) who has come between them – are interlaced in and around each other in a caustic circle of mistrust and mistreatment, Kim marries unflinching carnage with a straight-faced but blackly comic tone. A brazen, bloody removal drives a narrative that anxiously traverses the familiar and the frenzied, but as Moebius continues to twist in on itself, subversion reigns supreme. The dual casting of Lee as the perpetrator and victim is a stroke of genius in reaffirming the absurdity and interconnectivity of the plot, albeit one complemented by extensive – and clearly cultivated – discomfort.

Moebius

Moebius

BIFF’s genre proclivities comprised a brief seven-film strand, though those that made the program constituted some of the festival’s most interesting and adventurous choices, such as Sion Sono’s playful parody Jigoku de naze warui (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?). Sono asks his viewers to interrogate the ideas that drive his film whilst luxuriating in his ode to all things over-the-top and action-oriented (the festival programmed the film in its late-night slot). If ever one of the Japanese maestro’s features was made for midnight viewing, it was this, Sono offering grindhouse cinema a love letter that surpasses Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s homage in their pertinently titled 2007 double feature. That Sono’s film is driven by the antics of an art collective called “The Fuck Bombers” sets the scene for the insanity that follows, but all with one aim: relishing cinema made for the elation of ecstatic consumption, a rare approach in modern times. When the cohort of creatives become occupied by a war waged between rival Yakuza gangs, it seems that anything could happen; what really is at play is the director’s adoring contrast of the varying film styles and forms of his nation’s cinema. Also evident is a lamentation on the death of celluloid, again pitched within the splashes of blood and spates of violence that sustain the movie. A lurid, alluring allegory, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a question worth the resulting mental preoccupation.

The two-year-old BIFFDOCS prize was absent from the 2013 festival, as well as the $25,000 coffers awarded to Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang in 2011 and Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles in 2012. If BIFFDOCS had remained along with its conscious valuing of factual films that surprise, entertain, provoke and disturb, Jehane Noujaim’s Al midan (The Square) would have certainly been a leading candidate. A number of documentaries have trodden the same path of late, delving into the intimate stories springing from the Egyptian Revolution; a disarming subset of these works explores the actions of citizens in recording their own versions of history, best evinced by Mai Iskander’s Words of Witness (2012), and now, The Square. The Oscar nominee is immediate, immersive, inspiring and infuriating – all at the same time. Teeming with urgency and intricacy given the many events captured in and around the centre of the storm that is Tahrir Square, Noujaim’s film is less an attempt to make sense of an indecipherable and ongoing slice of instability, and more an effort to present the dire reality experienced by everyday Egyptians as a result of the continuing factional war over the country’s leadership. Filmed on the streets and amidst the thick of the explosive action – with the political and personal displayed to not just veracious but vivid effect – Noujaim’s film demonstrates the true clout and impact of documentary filmmaking.

BIFF also endeavoured to accomplish the feat that keeps dedicated cinephiles returning: celebrating the very medium of cinema. The broader program is, of course, designed to do just that – that’s what a film festival is all about, in fact; but overtly displaying that love of everything the movies mean to its most avid proponents has become an almost standard – but still salivated over – aspect of every festival schedule. The inclusion of György Pálfi’s widely-screened Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim (Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen!) perhaps best encapsulated that spirit, one that the 2013 Sydney and Melbourne film festivals also acknowledged. The joyous compile of clips from numerous films into one cohesive, recursive whole enlivened BIFF’s single evening of Open Air cinema, as well as its bid to harness the city’s film fervour. The festival’s many retrospectives held the same aim, as did the Cinema, je t’aime strand.

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen

Embracing a cornerstone of the Merchant Ivory tribute, a busy cinema audibly revelled in the opportunity to see producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) on the big screen 28 years after its initial theatrical release, with associate producer Paul Bradley in attendance. Sounds of enjoyment echoed throughout the room as the feature unfurled its inhibited Edwardian romance, the resonant tale – seeing Miss Lucy Honeycutt’s (Helena Bonham Carter) lovelorn vacillation between the mischievous George Emerson (Julian Sands) and the prim and proper Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), all under the careful watch of her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) – still working its charms.

With new local content lacking, the festival’s celebration of Australian veteran Fred Schepisi’s career endeavoured to bridge the gap. Though his latest effort, Words and Pictures, wasn’t included, his presence added strength, introducing his 1976 film The Devil’s Playground within a program that also featured his episode of Libido (1973), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Roxanne (1987), Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Last Orders (2001). The writer/director offered his incredulity for the passing of time during his decorated career, seemingly aware that his 1976 first feature itself gave the strongest statement needed. Drawn from his experience attending a Catholic seminary, Schepisi’s semi-autobiographical offering still seethes with an unwavering portrayal of authority that proves inherently disconcerting; however his feature should and could never be easy viewing. The weight of sin, both theoretical and actual, bears down on the audience with undiminishing force in a film rightfully amongst his most respected.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

BIFF’s other two retrospective sections dared to reimagine and reconceptualise their relevant auteurs, recognising the ever-changing process of cinematic interaction. Situated amongst a mini-ode to Yasujiro Ozu, Yoji Yamada’s Tokyo kazoku (Tokyo Family) updates one of his seminal works, Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), both paying homage to and relocating the tale within contemporary confines. That the final product so beautifully and movingly succeeds is far from an assured outcome. That it inspires a deeper affinity with the original work, also screened at the festival, was perhaps less likely but a reality that was warmly welcomed. The two offer an astounding testament to the living, breathing nature of cinema, showing that the evolution of film is a constant cycle.

Placed within a comprehensive listing of the Russian filmmaker’s works, Michal Lecszylowski’s Regi Andrej Tarkovskij (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1988) peers at the director from the outside in, presenting a counterpoint to and insight into his acclaimed work. Possibly the most intriguing insertion in the stream of works that also gifted big-screen viewings to his early short films and seven features, it may also be the least digestible, an intimacy with Tarkovsky’s oeuvre essential preparation. And yet, made on the set of Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986) by its editor, Lecszylowski, the documentary opens a window that branches past the normally observable. While familiarity with Tarkovsky’s output vastly aids its appreciation, seeing the director at work and witnessing his words – taken from his book Sculpting in Time, as well as interviews – is an apt introduction to examining the man beyond his movies.

Exploring the artist apart from the art also sits at the centre of Bertolucci on Bertolucci (Walter Fasano and Luca Guadagnino), an engaging snapshot of the Italian filmmaker’s impact spoken – through interview footage – in his own words. It has been many years since the films of Bernardo Bertolucci filled theatres, his work not always aimed for mass consumption and now infrequently made; yet, his hits – controversial and applauded, both – ensure his longevity. A portrait of the creator of Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970), Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), The Last Emperor (1987), Stealing Beauty (1996) and The Dreamers (2003), the documentary illuminates through missives on his greatest movies, but also in the passion that emanates from Bertolucci’s candid discussions that also retrace his relationship with Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is unfortunate that this excellent documentary didn’t accompany its own retrospective, but this was understandable given that the Sydney Film Festival and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image covered such ground in 2012 and 2011 respectively.

Bertolucci on Bertolucci

Bertolucci on Bertolucci

The chance to revisit a classic work on the big screen is a “guilty pleasure” for film fans. The affording of that occasion is the privilege of film festivals, albeit decreasingly so in an era that sees regular, though limited in range, retrospective screenings at multiplexes and art house cinemas. Projecting two landmark works, Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), within their natural confines became one of the easy highlights of the event – and what a sight each original effort was to behold, finessed and fragmented, touching and thoughtful in the manner that earned their legacy. Matching the former with the meandering but still interesting To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter (Emiko Omori) helped furnish the background of a 1962 short considered exceedingly influential by a filmmaker far removed from accepting that label. But it was the science fiction piece itself, now known to the masses for its formative role in the creation of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), that dominated its session. Resnais’ drama has also recently benefited from modern references, courtesy of its star and Amour actress Emmanuelle Riva; of course, the resonance of its inclusion in the wake of the director’s recent passing is only now evident. Re-watching both films with their contemporary callings in mind was as transformative an experience as BIFF – or any film festival – could have hoped for. The years change, the content remains the same, and the cycle continues.

Disclaimer: Sarah Ward was a staff member of the Brisbane International Film Festival and Screen Queensland from 2011 to 2013.

Commissioned and edited by Adrian Danks.