Above: A highlight of the 2009 Berlinale, So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain.
Treeless Mountain (dir. So Yong Kim) - This premiered at Toronto last September, but so far I’ve yet to see a better film than this subtle, carefully observed semi-autobiographical story of two Korean sisters struggling to get by without their parents. After the laudable DV debut In Between Days, Kim switches to film, which does wonders in clarifying her vision: utilizing long lenses that make masterful use of deep staging within a naturalistic, almost documentary environment. Kim places tremendous faith in telephoto long shots that train for nearly the whole time on the faces and gestures of her two tiny protagonists as they react to the half-seen, half-comprehended grown-up world that engulfs them. What could easily play for cutesy melodrama instead becomes a stolidly cinematic depiction of childood growth and resilience.
About Elly (dir. Asghar Farhadi) – One could dub this “The Iranian L’Avventura”; like Antonioni’s film it uses a woman’s disappearance to expose the nature of those left searching for her. Elly’s eponymous character vanishes from a family beach party to which she was invited to be matched with one of the sons. Whereas Antonioni’s use of this narrative device revealed yawning chasms in his ensemble’s existential and moral fabric, here it leads to a narrative contest waged across sexual lines. The missing girl’s character is hotly debated between the men and women in the family, exposing numerous prejudices that persist even in this progressively middle-class Iranian household. Shot in conventional handheld but well performed, the film suggests a post-Kiarostami Iranian cinema capable of achieving much within a mainstream idiom.
Mental (dir. Kazuhiro Soda) – As Neil Young has already indicated, this film may test the patience of some, but for me this observational documentary about a Japanese mental health facility is worthy of the mantle of Soda’s idol Frederick Wiseman. The film extends itself to its subjects, allowing them to express themselves in their own time, making up for the gross neglect paid them in a society where the mentally disabled are kept well from view. This cinematic act of generosity eventually reaps ample rewards as the patients’ oddly lucid musings on the purpose of their lives and their struggles with happiness and compulsive thoughts of suicide lead to a startling universality. If the Berlinale gave awards for the “performances” of documentary subjects, surely one would go to Sugano, a brilliant but fragile ex-social worker who directs his own scenes and whose poetry provides the script for one of the most emotionally affecting scenes of the festival so far.
The Exploding Girl (dir. Brad Rust Grey) – While not a self-acknowledged member of the Mumblecore movement, Grey takes their milieu of inarticulate, emotionally fragile youths and applies a supreme technical competence that’s generally been missing from those films. Like his wife So Yong Kim, Grey trains long lenses on his characters to evoke a voyeuristic, life-in-the-moment realism, following two childhood friends going through phases of love that threaten to upset their kinship. Low-budget urban filmmakers should study this film to learn how to achieve intimacy even in the midst of noisy Manhattan intersections.
Ricky (dir. Francois Ozon) – A family fable whose online trailer is worth watching in itself, this fantastical drama centered on a baby that mysteriously sprouts wings and flies has an audacious concept that ultimately is underserved. There’s great acting across the board, especially the baby, whose cherubically ripe face and physical expressiveness seems as much a CGI creation as its airborne appendages. Ozon sets up the premise with Shamalyan slow-burn efficacy, but it’s debatable what the film is really about. The film doesn’t do enough to make its premise plausible, which wouldn’t be an issue if it had a stronger sense of what’s at stake. If it’s about the parental need to “let go” as its supporters claim, Ozon could have done a better job developing that theme; as it is, it feels slapdash. Nonetheless, the wondrous early scenes with the baby are where it truly takes flight.
The International (dir. Tom Tykwer) – I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. It doesn't work as a conventional action thriller (there really is only one action scene, though it's a stunner), seeming more preoccupied with detailing the innumerable obstacles facing Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, playing a pair of ineffectual investigators, well, ineffectually, as they try to take down a bank that illicitly deals arms to the third world, profiting from a world of endless war. It's a bold and timely premise for a mainstream film, and it takes itself seriously enough to conclude with a deeply cynical view of global capitalism. The film's failure to offer closure or satisfy most entertainment expectations are precisely what makes it interesting.
Storm (dir. Hans-Christian Schmidt) – Basically as socially serious as The International but with better acting and no action scenes, this courtroom drama inspired by the Serbian War crimes trials has the mainstream polish and respectability of a Euro-Soderbergh. It does well at suggesting the political gamesmanship between governments and international law enforcement that prevents war criminals from truly facing justice, though it ultimately opts for a melodramatic crowd-pleasing climax. Kerry Fox is outstandingly understated as the morally-conflicted prosecutor; Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) plays a rape victim reluctant to testify.
Dongbei Dongbei (dir. Zou Peng) – debut feature has one of the most horrifying movie posters I’ve seen this week: the lower torso of a woman lying with blood soaked through her pajama’s crotch region onto the sheets of her bed. Needless to say, the screening was standing room only. The film feels like a compendium of Chinese 6th Generation tropes (naturalistic long takes, sardonic social commentary) though Zou ups the ante in the sex department with depictions of female masturbation and cunnilingus. Despite a certain luridness in its concept, the film makes some startling narrative movements and invests its familiar milieu with an engaging energy.
Skirt Day (dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfeld) – Isabelle Adjani came out of a five-year hiatus to overact her way through this puerile version of Laurent Cantet’s The Class—with gunfights! At best this makes for a good TV afterschool special, what with every social issue afflicting the youth of France crammed into its 80 minutes. There’s somewhat interesting configuration of racial and sexual politics going on, but pitched to such hysteria that it amounts to a wash of Gallic noise.
Little Soldier (dir. Annette K. Olsen) – Worst pseudo-lesbian Iraq War vet-meets-African sex worker global allegory movie EVER.