The 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival came and went in what seems the blink of an eye. It was an easier year for me, given that there were less ‘must see’ titles in the programme, and less ‘lucky dip’ temptations too. Apart from a handful of works by contemporary auteurs – notably Haneke, Loznitsa, Lanthimos, Zvyagintsev, Grisebach, Denis, and Hong – the programme (when compared to previous years) was remarkable for its relative lack of cinematic heft.
Of course, my opinion is entirely subjective, and the general consensus is that this year's festival was one of the best. But it says something when Jane Campion’s China Girl (a continuation of her excruciating Top of the Lake) and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (disappointingly conventional from this director) were touted as two of the ‘big films’ of the festival, and that Tarkovsky’s Stalker (one of the great masterworks of post-war cinema, looking and sounding better than ever) gave the contemporary ‘big hitters’ a decent run for their money.
The upshot is that I struggled to find the usual 40 or 50 titles that make up my yearly habit, eventually cobbling together a list of 20. If anything says something, that certainly does ... well, for me at least.
Among them were a handful of ‘lucky dips’ such as UNA (dir. Benedict Andrews), the only film I walked out of this year – something I rarely do. The short before it was woeful, and sadly the film fared little better. Every facet of the production was a lost opportunity, from the score to the acting to the direction. I chose the film on the basis of a quote in the programme from Tricia Tuttle (of the BFI), where she described the filmmaking as “artistry of the highest order”. Pfff. Mental note ... if Ms Tuttle says it’s good, think again.
BANGKOK NITES wasn’t without interest, but this 3-hour film outstays its welcome and purpose by at least 90 minutes! Others will feel differently, but I was envious of those who walked out, one of whom was the fellow who convinced me that it might be worth a punt. He lasted two hours, but he wanted to leave after 30 minutes, and this guy cites Lav Diaz's 8-hour long Melancholia as one of his favourite films, so he isn’t squeamish when it comes to duration. I don’t care much for ‘identifying with characters’ or ‘engaging narratives’, particularly if the ideas and themes are well considered and formally integrated, but in Bangkok Nites I would have happily settled for a decent yarn.
A FANTASTIC WOMAN was anything but, a conventional plea for sexual tolerance that led the audience by the nose to its clichéd conclusion: the heroine on a concert stage singing earnestly from the hard-fought-for reaches of her down-but-not-out inner fortitude. A better title might have been, 'A Fantacist Woman'.
MALIGLUTIT was beautifully produced, and on an anthropological level it was full of genuinely interesting bits of business, but as a work of cinematic fiction it was a long 90 minutes. It also ended with the corniest message of the festival, “No matter how tough things get, you should never give up." Good to know. Sheesh!
I was extremely impressed by Katell Quillévéré’s Love Like Poison back in 2011, so my hopes were high going into HEAL THE LIVING … alas, too high. It has its moments, notably one of the most original car crashes I have ever seen, unexpectedly brilliant, but it soon became exactly what the programme notes said it wasn’t – a routine hospital weepy. Well, in fairness, it was better than that, directed with restraint and precision, but ultimately Heal the Living was little more than an advertisment for organ donation.
THE ORNITHOLOGIST is a very strange bird (sorry, couldn't resist). I liked the first hour, but gradually wondered if this wilfully mysterious, unpredictable shaggy dog of a film (driven by an iconoclastic mix of Catholic, animistic, and queer presumptions) might end up being less than the sum of its parts … and that's pretty much how it went. This curious mix of Jodorowsky, Guiraudie, Jarman, Weerasethakul, and possibly Bunuel, had a disappointingly lame ending for such a singularly idiosyncratic film. Yet one supposes that a throwaway ending was exactly what the director intended. After two hours of intriguing, provocative, at times ribald, at others self-indulgent, always cinematic and unlike-anything-you’ve-quite-seen-before filmmaking, João Rodrigues opted to wrap it all with a wan truism about treasuring love regardless of where one finds it. OK, but I can't bring myself to recommend the film ... or sit through it again.
The only Hungarian film this year, ON BODY AND SOUL was interesting, but it seemed to me to suffer from not quite having the courage of its convictions. I got the impression that the director wanted to make a tougher study of the near-impossibility of finding love in a dysfunctional world, but that he may have lost his nerve or caved to external pressures. The film felt stranded between two unresolved perspectives, as if the filmmaker was trying not to alienate a potentially 'broader audience'.
I had my doubts, but having sat through all nine hours of Shoah twice determined that I couldn’t not see Claude Lanzmann’s NAPALM. I don’t regret it, but once was enough. The glimpse into present-day North Korea, akin to what the world might look like under Scientology, is the most interesting aspect of the film, but Lanzmann soon draws the focus onto a lengthy annecdote about an encounter he had in the late 50s with an attractive Korean woman, a curious tale that recalls Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in terms of what we don’t know and will never know about what may or may not be the truth. The film is also unsettling in that Lanzmann is revealed to be something of a sexist in the way old men can be – saying things that are patently unacceptable but getting away with it because they’re "harmless old codgers". Hmm?
Those familiar with Aki Kaurismaki will know exactly what to expect from THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE, a film replete with the stylist tropes that have served him well for many decades. Kaurismaki’s dead-pan wit charms as always, as does the post-Bressonian understatement of the cinematography, set design, acting, dialogue, and direction. But I’m not convinced that Kaurismaki found the right balance between the seriousness of his subject matter – Syrian refugess and European indifference – and his trademark retro schtick. His heart is in the right place, but despite a well-judged performance from Sherwan Haji in the central role, I thought that Kaurismaki's Kaurismaki-esqueness may have got in the way of his own film – or maybe I've just seen it too often.
Crikey, I’m half way through my 2017 choices and so far the films have been largely once-see diversions. Damn! And I thought I made a pretty good selection. Thankfully, substance was at hand, starting with what turned out to be one of the most polarising films of the festival, Claire Denis's Let the Sunshine In.