Archive for the ‘Sydney Film Festival’ Category

Sydney Film Festival

June 16, 2019

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.

Beautiful enough for me

June 18, 2018

It’s June so it’s time for the film festival.

I bought a 10-ticket flexipass and then for one reason or another let the long weekend pass without selecting any films.  D wasn’t especially in the mood and, maybe it’s my age, but rather a lot of the films which take my fancy seem to be scheduled earlier than our weekend (or weekday, for that matter) lie-ins allow.

I especially like to get to the State Theatre.  On Wednesday night we managed it, seeing The Kindergarten Teacher.  The titular teacher becomes fixated on one of her charges whose poetical utterances, passed off as hers at the poetry class she attends, are more warmly received than her own efforts.  Think Ern Malley meets Wordsworth:  clouds of glory  coming up against shades of the prison house.  You keep wondering about her obsession – how can this end?  surely not well.  You are spared the worst with a poignant final line that still resonates.

This is a New York remake of an Israeli film. I was surprised, when I saw some trailers for the Israeli original, how faithful the remake was.  I enjoyed it and (spoiler alert) it turned out to be D’s favourite.

On Thursday D caught a documentary about a Chinese woman venturing into Parisian haute couture and on Friday night we saw a Turkish film Butterflies.  These were both at the multiplex Event cinemas on George St.  It is not a particularly empathetic venue for a film festival.

Back on Saturday night to the State for The Wild Pear Tree, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and set in Çanakkale – when one character refers to “our heroes” he means the soldiers  who beat the ANZACs and the rest of the British expeditionary force at Gallipoli.  At about 3 hours this was far too loooooooong for D.  I, too, found the lengthy discussions in a foreign language a bit taxing – it’s a wordy film.  Still, it was beautiful and the elements rather than just the wordiness came together at the end in the way that happens in long works, in part I suspect because by then you have so much invested in them.

People linger in the State Theatre.  It’s partly the festival atmosphere but more it’s the decor.  On both nights we were there for the last film of the day, and the staff had to push people out the door at the end.  “Good night, sir” said a more senior usher as I dawdled up an aisle, which was a polite way of going about it.

I still had 3 tickets to use so despite the beautiful sunny Sunday took the train and bus to Cremorne at 1pm to see a Polish film, Cold War at the Hayden Orpheum.  This was definitely arty – in black and white and in an old-fashioned film size. It’s about 2 lovers who first meet when the man (a pianist) recruits the woman (a singer and dancer) for a state-sponsored folk ensemble brought into being as part of the new people’s democracy after the war.

D refused to come because he suspected it would be anti-Communist.  He’s very loyal to Chairman Mao.

Cold War  had some terrific music – especially, for my money, the recreated folk-song collection sequences at the start and the (in the film rather derided) performances by the folkloric ensemble.  Taking soup in a nearby cafe afterwards I overheard an older group (this is Cremorne on Sunday afternoon) discussing the film.  As ever, it seems practitioners are impatient of cinematic recreations of the artistic process.  One half of what I took to be a gay couple was particularly critical, though surely he spoke with authority as he prefaced an opinion with: “When I was performing in the Netherlands…”

D drove over later for a 4pm session of 3 Faces, an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi who also plays himself, as does the lead actress, Behnaz Jafari. Obviously that’s not quite right since she plays herself.

The Orpheum cannot match the State but it still manages a pretty good heritage effect with what it’s got. Both cinemas make a commendable effort with retro staff uniforms.

The title to this post comes from one of the kindergarten child’s poems.  The first two lines are:

Anna is beautiful,
Beautiful enough for me.


June 24, 2017

I was away in Canberra for a belated/extended Queen’s Birthday long weekend so it was only at the last minute on my return on the Wednesday after that I arranged to go and see some films at the Sydney Film Festival.

The first, on Thursday night, was Call me by your name. D (who can only be persuaded to go to the cinema to see “gay” films) came with me for that.  I sensed while I was watching that this might well be an adaptation of a novel, and indeed that turns out to be the case.  The film is full of little details shown to us which, to me, at least, were not really explicable at the time and are only made retrospectively clear by reading up on the book.

The story is set “somewhere in Northern Italy.”  The context for the depicted coming-of-age is that European kind of long languid summer which we don’t really have here in Australia.  (A quibble: even this European summer could not really have been as languid for the 17-year-old protagonist as depicted. Surely he needed to put in a bit of piano practice?)  It is all very beautiful in a Merchant-Ivory kind of way (Ivory wrote the script).  I enjoyed it, as I think did D, though he afterwards observed that he feels he is too old for this kind of movie.

On Friday afternoon I snuck away early from work to see The Teacher .  I was drawn to this in part because of my own friendships (dating from Berlin 1987) with a family from die ehemaliger DDR.  One feature of life in the DDR, and I think of all then-communist states, was that in the absence of a market economy, people resorted to informal networks for exchanges of goods and services and favours.  (Not that this doesn’t occur always, but then and there it was to a greater extent than since or then in the “West.”)   As the eponymous teacher (in the then Czechoslovakia) asks, “Shouldn’t we all help each other?”

Ironically, my East German friends remember this response to adversity favourably as giving rise to a greater social connectedness than under capitalism – which on one view just substitutes different adversities such as lack of money for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

But back to the film.

At the start we see the teacher getting each child in her middle-school class to tell her what their parents do.  Helping each other, in this case, turns out to mean the parents helping the teacher, in exchange for which she dispenses favouritism and tip-offs as to what to revise for class quizzes.  That may seem benign.  The darker side is if co-operation is not forthcoming, because the flip side of favouritism is victimisation of the children of parents who refuse to play the game.

As the music makes clear from the outset, this is all played as a comedy, obviously with a bite.  Zuzana Mauréry in the title role gives a bravura performance.

Both films were screened at the State Theatre, which for me was part of the point of going. In these multiplex days there is something of a time warp in going there – not just for the glorious fantasy architecture, but also of being part of a really big audience with a sense of occasion.

At the start when I go to the State I always have a bit of a double-take at the relatively small (to the size of the cinema and the proscenium) screen. In fact, I find I adjust to that quite quickly, and the sound system (obviously updated) rises well to the feel of the big room full of people.

The afternoon session of The Teacher still had a bit of the duffle-coat-and-and-thermos atmosphere of film festivals of yore.

The other more specific time warp was that both films were set in 1983.

In CMBYN that presumably came from the novel. The film signalled it in various ways, starting with the Sony walkman (Sony also produced the film) which the young protagonist was wedded to as he transcribed music with pencil and paper, and including the various popular-music-themed t-shirts he sported. Obviously cars and decor also matched the period. My own memory of 1983 is that news of HIV/AIDS was beginning to trickle out. Yes, I know the first news was in 1981, but I wonder if the boy’s parents would have been quite so open to his having a gay romance even a year later, in 1984. At the very least, they would have surely felt obliged to have a little chat about precautions.

In The Teacher, the period setting obviously had a specific historical function – the eponymous teacher is also a Communist Party leader and the willingness or unwillingness of any of the parents to complain has a lot to do with that. A particularly delicious aspect of the film is its period retro-look. As the reviewer in The Hollywood Reporter puts it:

Cinematographer Martin Ziaran, art director Juraj Fabry and costume designer Katarina Strbova Bielikova have come up with a warm look, with colorful, 1970s-like patterns. This initially counterintuitive choice is the opposite of the cold, austere and bleak way in which the Romanian New Wave has visualized the Communist era, for example. But it works beautifully as a counterpoint because despite the warmly nostalgic look, the film’s themes and message make it clear the era was not something we should look back on fondly in any way.

That’s a US perspective. I’m not sure if things are quite so black-and-white as that (the film itself offers a little 1991 postlude).

I’m probably a bit of a fraud to claim any film-festival-going credentials for having seen either of these films. Given Sony’s moniker on CMBYN and Palace Cinema’s on The Teacher my guess is that, provided you live in a metropolitan area of Australia, you can expect to see both of these films coming soon to a cinema near you.

At the film festival

June 14, 2012

June long weekend each year marks the beginning of the Sydney Film Festival.

Because of the time of year and main venue, this festival is always associated in my mind with well-rugged-up crowds at the State Theatre. Black is big.

At the risk of repeating myself (see the link above) a big part of the attraction for me in this festival is seeing a film inside the State Theatre. The view is probably better downstairs or even in the Mezzanine Level, but the feeling is best if you are upstairs in the circle when there is a full house. It’s all to do with the crowd dynamics.

Sometimes different parts of the theatre react differently. At one point this year there was an odd moment when the people in the stalls all laughed at something and we caught their laughter from afar in a less-laughing dress circle.

It’s a few years since I managed the full, film-binge experience and even then it was a pale shadow of what the true afficianandos submit themselves to. This year I went to four films, one of which (sadly) was at a more anonymous modern cinema. As I am going away this weekend, that’s my festival for this year.

These are the films:

Amour – a harrowing account of an elderly Parisian couple whose relationship is tested (as they say) when the wife has a stroke and her husband undertakes to care for her at home as her health steadily and dramatically deteriorates. This is a bit close to the bone for people my age as it fairly unfinchingly depicts stuff that we all know happens and which we increasingly see happening to our parents, their friends and our contemporaries’ parents and which may well happen to us in due course, but which we don’t generally care to dwell on. I’m not going to suggest to my parents that they go and see it.

Amour won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, so were it not for the experience of seeing it at the State I could probably have waited for a local release.

Once upon a time in Anatolia – a Turkish police procedural – an account of an overnight expedition by police, a prosecutor and a doctor into the countryside with two suspects in search of a corpse and then its retrieval. Pretty slow but fascinating: almost imperceptible plot but rich in texture and conversations on a multitude of topics in the “My Dinner with Andre” tradition. David and Margaret gave it four and a half stars but Margaret did point out that it is 2 hours and 37 minutes.

These two were both pretty slow: you are meant to feel this pace as part of the “art.”

Eleven Flowers” or 我十一 (Wǒ Shíyī = me at eleven or I was 11). Chinese film a bit in the “Little Chinese Seamstress” tradition though rather less picturesque, based apparently on an incident in the film-maker’s childhood when with his family he was living in a kind of internal exile in the provinces. D comments that most of this sort of thing is for foreigners only (it was, it seems, a French co-production) and dismisses it as 文化革命– chic, in this case a child’s-eye view. Some of the acting was a bit wooden and acting and plot tended to be mawkish. Probably the weakest film of the bunch though not without charm, even if that relied on having four small boys as the main characters.

Barbara (2) – this was my favourite, though it too could be said to be part of a post-Communist genre, here dealing with the former East Germany, though it was far from being Ostalgic. In this case, the titular Barbara is a doctor who has been banished from Berlin to a provincial hospital after having applied to emigrate to the west. She comes under surveillance (though rather less high-tech than that in The Lives of Others) which she successfully evades whilst making arrangements with her western lover to get away. Meanwhile, distractions arise in the form of a rather cuddly fellow doctor (who is keeping an eye on her on behalf of the Stasi) and the demands of her patients. As in Once upon a time [etc] this film assumes a special moral position for the physician. This seems to me to be a literary tradition, especially in relation to life in the provinces (I first wrote Chekhovian here then wondered if I was just making that up, but have since noticed that Helen Garner makes the same association in The Monthly so on the strength of her lit-cred I guess I wasn’t just making that up or misremembering.)  It’s a position sometimes accorded to school teachers. Few think so well of lawyers and anyway they rarely stray far from town. Turgenev’s The District Doctor also qualifies for an allusion in the course of Barbara.

I enjoyed this film the most because not only did it have a feel for and recapture Osti aesthetics (I made some friends in East Berlin in 1987 and spent some time in the former east shortly after 1989, so I could recognize the design tropes) but also because it had a real plot, even though this entailed a certain romantic implausibility for the concomitant twist.

My next wintry diversion, coming up shortly, will be the quadrennial SIPCA – the Sydney “International” Piano Competition. (The A stands for “Australia.”) The competitors have been selected and some of the jurors announced. More of that later, I expect.

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.

Sydney Film Festival – State Theatre

June 10, 2007

Last night I went to the State Theatre for part of the Sydney Film Festival.

I mostly go to “art-house” films, and too often these are screened in poky little multiplex cinemas.  Even when a film is on a larger screen, there is something intensely dispiriting about traversing modern foyers with the atmosphere of a shopping mall or where, indeed, the foyer is even in a shopping mall.  The State Theatre’s kitschy splendour definitely contributes a sense of occasion. For that reason alone I try to take advantage of the film festival to see something there each year.

The film festival is a well-established annual event in Sydney – I remember following it in my teenage years via John Hinde‘s inimitable 15-minute weekly ABC Radio program, which we usually listened to at the dinner table. Its devotees (in black, goggle-eyed (I almost typed “google”), thermos-clasping) have long been the butts of fairly good-natured humour.

I came to the film festival late in life. One reason is because, until relatively recently (and I think this may have been bound up with requirements for censorship laws) you had to subscribe to pretty much the whole festival to get to go to it. The other is that, for many years, it coincided with the end of first semester and the attendant crush of essays and exams.

I saw two films. I was going to discuss them in this post, but on reflection I shall post about them separately. They were/are Tony Ayres’ autobiographical Home Song Stories, and Ghosts, a film based on what Wikipedia describes as the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, when more than 20 Chinese “illegal” workers were drowned by the incoming tide whilst cockling by night on the tidal flats off the Lancashire coast.

Both films have a second screening at the festival and I recommend them if you are in Sydney. Home Song Stories will probably have a general (but also, I expect, rather short) cinema release in Australia. Ghosts was made for Channel 4 in the UK and the more likely bet is that your next chance to see it will be on SBS.