Sydney Film Festival

I saw five films. Short accounts only of some of them as I have already gone to such length about the German film “festival.” I’ve linked to various reviews of each.

1. Pain and Glory – Almodovar .

Self-referential and likely as not destined to be a “late work.” Beautifully made as all Almodovar films are, which owes quite a lot to his “team.”  I enjoyed it; D, less so – too much talking. For a “gay” film there wasn’t much sex – everyone’s got too old for it. I particularly appreciated the fresh autobiographical angle cast on Bad Education –my favourite Almodovar film.

2. Never Look Away

A fictionalisation of the life the German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter (born 1932) emigrated from the East to the West just before the Wall went up and from Socialist Realism (Dresden) to “Capitalist Realism” (Dusseldorf). The film ends with his breakthrough in the West in the sixties. The German title translates as “Work without an author” which refers to Richter’s reputation-making works which were blurry paintings of “found” snapshots.

When I was watching the film the shadows cast by the third Reich seemed just too neatly invoked, but it turns out that Richter’s aunt, compulsorily sterilized as a schizophrenic as part of Aktion T4 and later starved to death in the final months of the war, really did pass through the clinic led by his SS gynaecologist father-in-law, though this was only discovered many years after the events of this film. You can see why this was an attractive scenario for a film treatment which ran to 189 minutes without seeming long at all.  Scathing review by someone who cares about Gerhard Richter and art here.

3. This is not Berlin

A gay/bisexual coming-of-age film set in Mexico City in 1986. At first I thought the title was differentiation from the world of Herr Issyvoo but in fact the reference was to the 1936 and 1968 Olympics (which were a bit more of the same in terms of the domestic political circumstances in the host country) and then performance art protests during the 1986 World Cup (also, obviously, in Mexico). It was all a bit of a trial for me because the protagonists’ coming of age involved drug-enhanced punk-music of a kind which I find almost unbearable. My elder sister was in a similar scene (though more musical than performance art), a few years earlier, and I have mixed memories of my encounters with it – so much boring noise and younger-brother hanging around. If she’d given me some drugs it might have been a more positive experience for me.

4. So Long, My Son (地久天长)

A Chinese saga running from about 1975 to 2015 (and from about 8.35 to 11.30 pm).

Three couples become friends as “educated youth” banished to the countryside. Returning to their home town (a northern city) two of them have sons born on the same day (cue Il Trovatore or, parodically, The Gondoliers). One of the women falls pregnant again and the woman of the other couple, in her role as a “leader,” ensures that an abortion ensues pursuant to the one-child policy. The abortion goes badly – that is, worse than just an unsought  abortion: the woman can no longer have children. So what? She’s not supposed to have any more, after all.  Then, ten or so years later,  the son of the leader forces his playmate the other boy (a non-swimmer) to play in a reservoir where he duly drowns. (I’ve unscrambled the film’s chronology: the film starts with this event without fully spelling out the role of the surviving boy.)

The now childless couple, inconsolable and with nothing to say to their friends, emigrate to Fujian where they adopt an orphan whom they give the name of their dead son. Unsurprisingly, he rejects them as soon as he is old enough. Meanwhile, the younger sister of the leader visits prior to her departure to the US and falls pregnant to the now childless man. She offers the child to him but he says that won’t solve the problem. You just know that isn’t the end of the story but it’s left as a sleeper.

Time flies, everyone gets richer. The third couple, who have a bit of a subsidiary plot line of their own after the man is imprisoned for attending a “lights out” party early in the piece, overcome their offstage travails and have a son. The onetime leader, dying, seeks a final reunion; after the funeral her son, now a doctor, tells the other family what happened at the reservoir; the childless couple sweep their son’s grave; the doctor has a son; the adopted son comes home down in Fujian with his girlfriend; skyping from the US the younger sister of the leader (aunt of the doctor) reveals her son to the now not childless father.

D stayed away. He scorns films about China which he considers likely to have been made for foreign consumption. He couldn’t see how a drama hinging on the one-child policy could fail to be such a film. Certainly US reviews (Variety; Hollywood Reporter) rather superficially in my opinion zero in on the one child policy as the iniquitous source of the characters’ suffering.

Following some internet investigations after I recounted the film,  D reluctantly conceded his suspicions might have been misplaced. The film already has a China release; the State Theatre film festival audience was well-leavened by Chinese people. (Fewer of the whitey audience lasted the full distance.)

The Chinese title, which roughly translates as “So long as the world endures” an epithet relating to sentiments such as friendship or hate, is used as the chorus in the Chinese lyrics for Auld Lang Syne –which features in the film. Viewed from this angle, the theme is not so much the one-child policy as the endurance of the characters and their friendship in the face of the tumultuous changes and, yes, sufferings, of the past 40 years.

Presumably this is a more acceptable narrative for Chinese presentation.

The film was  a real tear-jerker. I went along with the flow but  afterwards was left with a few niggles.

First, though this is perhaps the smallest – in all the sufferings (including mass job loss on entry to a market economy) nobody ends up worse off. Everybody becomes rich. That, I’d say, is part of the acceptable narrative.

Secondly, in the film there are six mothers (the women in each of the original couples, the niece,the mother of the adopted child and the doctor’s wife) but none of them has a daughter – the children are all sons. So much for holding up half the sky and a suspiciously convenient sidestep of a major aspect of resistance to the one-child policy.

Thirdly, though really just a corollary of the second niggle, there is a neat plot device where the father of the childless couple is contacted on his mobile phone. Despite his apparent desire to escape his previous life, he hasn’t changed the number. It’s neat because this means that plot developments triggered by calls from old acquaintances are always signalled by the also unchanged and distinctive call tone – the opening theme from Mozart’s Symphony No 40. But we never saw his wife with a phone of her own.

5. Queen of Hearts

Anne is a Danish children’s lawyer with a beautiful house, a doctor husband, Peter, and two lovely twin daughters aged nine or ten. Gustav, Peter’s troubled son from his first marriage, arrives to spend the summer holidays with them before enrolling for his final year of school in Denmark. Gustav has run out of chances back in Sweden where he was previously living with his mother.

Gustav doesn’t want to be there, but, as Peter tells him, as a minor he has no choice – other than boarding school. After some initial difficulties, Gustav embraces his new family. A golden-lit idyll ensues – pony club for the girls; swimming in lakes; water pistols; long northern summer nights. Anne, Peter and Gustav take turns reading ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to the twins – which turns out to be the source of the title (in English at least; the Danish title “Dronningen” simply means “Queen”).

And then Anne embraces Gustav and more – there is some pretty graphic sex including fellatio with what I presume was a  prosthetic penis (it looked a bit thick and straight to be real). That’s hardly a plot-spoiler above the quasi-anatomic detail because the affair is the publicized premise of the film. I had to cover my eyes for some of this. It cannot end well and it doesn’t. The season shifts to a bleak but still gorgeously filmed winter.

Sentence first, verdict afterwards – the Carroll/Dodgson Queen is hardly a sympathetic character.

Peter reads to his daughters:

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

It’s almost unthinkable that Anne should act as she does, yet how can such events (even if less “unthinkable” when a step-father rather than a step-mother is the adult party) be anything but unthinkable? The “unthinkability” is the horror. Reversing the more common genders casts a fresh light on all the usual tropes mobilised to force the younger party to keep the secret.

Trine Dyrholm’s performance as Anne is a tour de force.


That’s the film festival for me this year. It’s a special experience worth treasuring. A lot of this has to do with being in the State Theatre, and given a choice I always try to choose a screening there.  But it is also about joining with others, many of whom are diving deeper into a binge than I ever manage.  I didn’t spot any actual duffle coats and thermoses this year, but they were figuratively present in the  buzz of conversation, reunion and shared journey.  You rarely  get this from the sparsely filled late night arthouse sessions which are my normal cinematic fare.

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