Archive for the ‘Sydney Film Festival’ Category

Sydney Film Festival 2008

June 3, 2008

It’s that time of year again.

So far I have chosen 11 films, some of which I will undoubtedly report about here.

I like to see Chinese films. D, who is Chinese (by birth and affinity, if no longer by nationality) doesn’t want to come to these. The Chinese films for foreigners all orientalize China, or are boring (Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum etc), or criticize China, or a combination of any of those faults. The Chinese films for Chinese are either slow and boring or gimmicky and crass. It seems like a no-win situation.

We both like to see what I will loosely term gay films but there are very few of these on show at the Festival these days. It is possible that the gay film festival circuit has soaked them all up (and God knows, to mix a metaphor, they certainly scrape the very bottom of the barrel with some of what they show at Queer Screen.) I have only spotted one “gay film” so far, and that is a documentary. Of course, it is not only gay films these days which have gay characters. Conversely (and I’m thinking of some of Queer Screen’s choices in recent years) not all films with gay characters come even within cooee (warning: Australian or more properly Australasian colloquialism here) of being “gay films.” It very much depends on the point of view and the intended audience.

But I digress.

This is what I have chosen so far. As I haven’t mastered columns or tables in WordPress you have to read the information below as follows: day (all in June), title, time, venue (the wonderful State Theatre, the reasonable Greater Union/GU; the pokey Dendy Opera Quays/DOQ) and country of origin.

6 The Red Awn12.40pm State China
8 Alexandra -3.20 DOQ Russia
11 Circus School – 3.50 DOQ China
12 Useless –4 pm or on Sat 14 at 1.45 – both DOQ China
13 Stop Loss – 6.30 State USA (about Iraq)
14 Children of the Silk Road – 9.00 State China/Australia (set in China)
15 Little Moth – 10 am DOQ China
16 Hope – 12.25 State Poland (Only film D has agreed to see, so far)
16 Suddenly Last Winter 8.45 GU8 Italy (this is the gay one – D may come to this)
18 Up the Yangtze! 2.15 DOQ China
19 Fujian Blue 2pm DOQ China

There may be a few more, but the SSO made a special offer to subscribers where you can take a “friend” (who for practical purposes can actually be you) to concerts for $39 in June. I was going to some of these already and enlisted some friends and befriended myself. Together with one extra concert (this Thurs), I now have concerts on 5,6,7,18,19 and 21 June.

Together with my new enterprise at the gym (I’m holding my fire on this for now blogging-wise) I don’t really see that I’ll have time to do very much work at all. Some of the skiving off in the daytime which I have allowed myself may ultimately have to yield to the call of duty.

The Paper will be Blue

June 19, 2007

Fall of Icarus

Today I skived off work (not that I had much) to see The Paper will be Blue at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Rather than offer my own synopsis, I shall quote from the film website:

Lieutenant Neagu’s armoured unit is ordered to patrol the suburbs. The unit’s radio functions intermittently and communications between the different armoured units and fragments of radio and TV broadcasts give vague reports of “terrorist” attacks on the national television station held by anti-Ceausescu forces. The members of the unit are thrown into confusion.

Costi, a conscript who has managed to do his military service in Bucharest thanks to some wrangling by his well-connected father, believes that it is the duty of every Romanian, after so many years of dictatorship, to fight the supporters of Ceausescu, irrespective of the orders of his superiors. His arrogance and stubborness brings him into conflict with Lieutenant Neagu and he takes advantage of an altercation between his comrade and a group of demonstrators to flee.

Despite the Lieutenant’s threats and pleas, Costi heads for the television station to fight for the revolution.

The young soldier only makes it as far as a house near the TV station, where in the confusion he is arrested as a terrorist by the mixed group of soldiers and civilians who are defending the building. Meanwhile, the rest of Costi’s unit is taking risks to try to find the deserter. At the TV headquarters, Neagu is disarmed and humiliated by an overexcited Colonel, then finally heads to Costi’s home, where the mother and girlfriend of the young soldier are anxiously awaiting his return.

It’s a night of madness in which soldiers receive orders via television from poets and actors, radios transmit garbled signals, arms are distributed to civilians and gipsies are arrested as Arab terrorists

In case the reference to Ceausescu and Romania isn’t clear, here is a little further background:

The original inspiration for the film is a tragic incident which took place in the Romanian revolution in 1989, in which two armoured squads of Interior Ministry troops that went to protect a military unit were accidentally butchered. This episode received considerable media attention.

In the days following the departure of the Ceausescus, when the Romanian people had no clear enemy, over 1,000 people died in such accidents and personal vendettas.

Like Ghosts, the film starts at the moment that catastrophe befalls its central characters, and then fills in the back story. You would think that this grim dramatic irony would totally overshadow both films, but it doesn’t. I think this is because, in each case, not only is there humour, but there is human detail which I can only sum up in the sense of that much-hackneyed word, humanism.

The Paper will be Blue shares an apparently improvisatory and quasi-documentary style with Ghosts, though it is less didactic and I suspect that the improvisation is more apparent than actual. The theme (a very reductive word) is the way in which, even when a big Historical Event is occurring, the continuities of everyday life (and of course, especially, the hope of staying alive) persist. A lot of this involves the dynamics of the group of militia men at the centre of the story as they move around Bucharest in their armoured vehicle. Much of the action takes place in its claustrophobic cabin.

We have all seen those shots on the news of gunmen firing from windows. When Costi, the central character, leaves the unit and gets involved in the street fighting, the film gives the most graphic (and scary) sense of what this must be like that I have seen. You don’t realise when you watch those newsreel shots framed by voice-over just how loud and terrifying gunfire can be.

The subject of trying to live an ordinary life in times of war is one which is famously dealt with in Brecht’s Mother Courage, and this film made me think of the production I saw of that play last year by the Sydney Theatre Company Actors’ Company. The film brought to life the fearful sense of disorder and chaos of such times. While I was watching the film, I wasn’t even sure on which side Costi was fighting, and although a Romanian watching the film would definitely know, I think that was still very much the point. Who was the “government”? Who were the “terrorists”? What choice you had and what side you were on could very much depend on who you were with.

I was reminded how, after the English Civil War/Revolution, Thomas Hobbes was so keen to emphasise the importance of social order at all costs. Without it, life can be frightening, nasty, brutish and short. This may sound tritely modish, but there must be at least food for thought here about what has been unleashed on the people of Iraq.

The film also made me think of W H Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, though I think Auden tackles the question from the other end, or at least a different angle. Hence the picture above.  This painting and this one (sorry about the terrible ads on that) are also referred to in the poem.

If you are in Sydney, you can see the film on Friday at the Dendy Opera Quays. Its impact will be less in a smaller cinema but still greater than on the television, which is otherwise likely to be the only other opportunity to see it.

After the film was over I went home for a short nap before going to see Gerhard Oppitz playing Beethoven sonatas at Angel Place, but I was too stirred-up to sleep. I’ll have to post about the recital later.

The most expensive convenience shop in the world: the most boring film

June 13, 2007


When I go to the Opera House, which is more often than my financial circumstances suggest I should, I often stop in at the convenience store at the Macquarie St side of the Quay Apartments (aka The Toaster) to buy some necessity: cigarettes; cough lollies or peppermints (to make up for the cigarettes); or sometimes an apple.

I have a kind of running joke with the proprietor (a joke to me; doubtless tedious to him) that his shop is “the most expensive convenience shop in the world.” This is hyperbole, as we both know I only mean most expensive in Sydney, but the phrase has a certain ring to it.  I’m not really complaining about this.  If I buy peppermints or cough lollies there, it is only because the Opera House is even more expensive and because I have been too badly organized to buy these things somewhere else beforehand.

The proprietor always remonstrates with me that his rent is very high, and I allow him that.  Last Friday, when I raised an eyebrow at his price for a tin of Eclipse sugar-free mints, he took a new approach:  “You should see the price at the shop on the other side.”

I knew he meant the convenience shop at Circular Quay East, which is Sydney’s touristic golden mile, approaching the Opera House on the waterfront with views of the Harbour Bridge.  Whatever his rent, I am sure that the rent for the other shop is higher, and the passing traffic greater. I conceded that his shop was the second most expensive.

Yesterday, on my way to a session at the Sydney Film Festival, I was able to put that to the test.  A tin of  Eclipse mints (is this my version of Burgernomics?) scanned in at an astounding $3.95.  But here is the interesting bit (almost worth waiting for).  When I demurred at this, the shopkeeper asked me, “How much money do you have?”

I was intrigued that he offered to bargain in this way.  I certainly had more than $3.95 on my person, but I answered “I’ll give you $3 for them,” which he readily accepted, as well he might – this was still healthily above the odds.  I noted (memo to the ATO) that he did not bother to ring up the revised amount at the till.

 Clearly, it is not only high rents which drive high prices, but also the availability of tourists who will pay them. Quelle surprise! Well, we’ve all been there.

It was an evening for superlatives. I saw “Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang‘s” I don’t want to sleep alone. The Film Festival publicity said:

“The sense of dislocation and the desire for proximity is palpable in this deeply poetic, visually stunning film that pushes into painterly abstraction.”

So I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Deeply poetic, visually stunning and painterly abstraction are all code words for very slow.

Never have I felt compelled to check the time so often as I did whilst watching this film.  I was tempted to leave the screening.  If I had been near an aisle I might well have done so.  The experience reminded me of listening to broadcasts from Wimbledon in my childhood, where virtually the only fascination for me was the excruciatingly slow progress to some kind of outcome which offered an almost totally abstract satisfaction simply because I had to spend so long waiting for it and, having already invested the energy in starting to wait, felt compelled to “roll another cheese down the hill.”  When something finally happened in the film, it felt like a moment of harmonic concord, melody or rhythmic interest in one of those long atonal and non-melodic and rhythmically monotonous pieces of music, where those qualities, when finally vouchsafed, achieve their savour simply because they have been so long withheld. 

I have seen some of Tsai Ming-liang’s films before. There is always a lot of water, a physical affliction, and very little dialogue. But at least The River had some kind of denouement. You can see some bad films at festivals (especially at the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival, where we are all suckers by reason of the subject matter), and of course there are many bad, silly and trivial films which I simply would not be interested in seeing at all. This film is not bad: it is well executed according to its own aesthetic.

Tsai has found his metier and is sticking to it, but I’m not sure if I will going back to his next film for more of the same. It is always possible to conceive of a more boring film, just as you can always find a more expensie convenience shop, but as things stand, for me this was the most boring film in the world.


June 10, 2007

I saw this film at the Sydney Film Festival last night.

Like Tony Ayres’ The Love Song Stories, this film is based on a true story.  In this case it is a fictionalised back story of how a group of Chinese immigrant workers came to be cockling at Morecambe Bay off Lancashire one night in February 2004.  23 of them were drowned by the incoming tide.

It was made for Channel 4 by “Nick Broomfield, the veteran documentary filmmaker.” He used non-professional actors, many of whom, we are told, had been or were illegal immigrants to the UK themselves.  The film starts with the gang driving out onto the sands at dusk under a stormy sky, the tide coming in, and Ai Qin (who we later learn to be the central character) standing on the roof of the almost-submerged van and phoning home with her mobile.  After asking whether the money-lender has been around (for the repayment of the loan taken out to finance her clandestine passage to the UK, as we later learn), she asks to be put on to her baby son, Bebe, to whom she sings a song.

This provides the link to the beginning of the back-story in Fujian.  Ai Qin, deserted by her husband and unable to find any but the most meagrely paid work, decides to go to England to earn money to support her son (she is too proud to take money from his father).  For this, the people smuggler will charge her $25,000 ($US, I think, although I don’t have a clear-enough recollection of the Chinese dialogue to now be sure).  She pays a deposit of 5,000 RMB (Chinese dollars: Renminbi) and, after a tearful farewell, is on her way.  After a six-month cross-continental journey, on payment of the full fee back in China to the people smugglers (confirmed by them by mobile phone) she is handed over to the gangmaster, a fellow Chinese who runs a former council house full of similar Chinese “illegals,” arranges their forged documents (for a price, of course), and fixes them up with work through a labour hire company.

There follows a catalogue of the the usual exploitations of the illegal migrant worker: a shaking down at every possible point; a succession of low-grade and low-paid (and even lower paid becaue they are “black” workers) jobs; bullying from the gangmaster.  The group of Chinese workers live together in an overcrowded council house in provincial England – in England, but not part of it.  But actually, they are a part of it, which is really the agit-prop point of the film: after a day of back-breaking work picking shalotts destined for ASDA, Sainsburys and Tesco, they go shopping in a supermarket but are unable to afford the shalotts which they could very well have picked themselves.

Eventually their house is raided – neighbours have complained about the overcrowding and, not surprisingly, immigration status is also an issue.  They travel north to take up cockling, but here, too, they are unwelcome and hustled off by locals from their turf (actually, of course, sand).  Which brings us to where the film began, and explains why, when the “Ghosts” (aka guilao/gweilo, that is, the white men) won’t go out, they are heading out onto the sands at dusk under a stormy February sky.

Reviews and publicity-generated articles I have tracked down make much of Ai Qin, who plays the central young woman in Ghosts, also called Ai Qin.  We are told that she herself was an illegal immigrant in England and separated from her son (the story must really be more complicated, because she seems to have made an asylum application at some stage which she doesn’t want to talk about) and her performance is praised.  For my money, the strongest performance came from the actor who played the gangmaster.  Tellingly, though he bullied (and sometimes cajoled) his gang, he was only one link above them in the chain of exploitation and vulnerability. He too had to wheedle with the employment agency, and he took the brunt of the bashing by the locals at Morecambe.   Though hardly an attractive character, he was played with a certain almost Chaucerian comic breadth in his awfulness, and was always interesting to watch.  Ai Qin, by comparison, was played to pluck our heart strings, including (one of two false notes) when she wrote her son’s name in the condensation of a window: “BEBE.”  Surely she would have written in Chinese characters.

We saw this film after we saw The Love Song Stories.  D found The Love Song Stories boring and I too found it slow at times, but neither of us found Ghosts slow.  It was much more diverting than The Love Song Stories,  at least while we were watching it, though maybe less thought-provoking in the long run.  I think this is because few of the “revelations” about the situation in which such people find themselves were new to me, and nor for D, who in his early days as an adult immigrant to Australia had his share of underpaid immigrant “black” work. 

The Love Song Stories is a true story which has been dramatised, which necessarily means fictionalised, and has all the artifices of “Art.”  Ghosts is more like traditional historical fiction: its characters are not the actual people who died at Morecambe Bay, but fictional characters very like them (the old “fictional character right next to the historical event” gambit), but it is presented in the now familiar style of the quasi-documentary – hand held cameras, improvised dialogue, etc.

Ghosts had a picaresque aspect which always moved the story along, even if this in itself involved a certain degree of artifice.  For instance, when the workers go to a meat processing factory, we saw them working at a number of different meat processes: this provided a variety of gruesome theatre, but in real life it is more likely that the workers would have spent the whole shift on the one terrible and tedious task.  Ghosts also had a wider range of characters, none of whom ever had to be investigated so deeply, and this also gave more opportunities for humour. 

I do think that Ghosts had a clearer narrative and dramatic shape than The Love Song Stories. I suspect that, because it was fictional in a way which TLSS was not, Broomfield had greater freedom than Ayres to arrange his material to best effect.