Blancanieves (Spain, France)
One of the last films to be championed by Roger Ebert, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves realigns the story of Snow White to the bull fighting arena circa 1920s Spain and stylises it in the (silent) cinema of the time, ala The Artist. Immediately your eyes get lost in it: cinematographer Kiko de la Rica’s black and white compositions are rich and ritzy, with lavish contrasts between light and dark. A terrific score gives the smoky palette extra oomph.
As Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) so memorably lit up grotesqueries of the human physique alongside beauty that distracts, corrupts and titillates, so too does Berger — who revels in the anachronistic pleasures afforded to him via modern editing and contemporary social taboos: a dollop of rapid fire cuts here, a splash of sadomasochism there. Is it an irony that digital tech presents exciting possibilities for (new) silent films, or merely an inevitability? The Artist, Tabu and now Blancanieves point to a beautifully old future.
A Hijacking (Denmark)
After a cargo ship on the Indian ocean is seized by Somali pirates, the Copenhagen-based CEO of the shipping company decides to take on the process of negotiations himself and Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s taught, pacey fly on the wall drama gathers momentum by alternating between ship and boardroom. The CEO (a fine performance from Soren Malling, who gradually chips away at his character’s starchy business-is-business demeanor) is instructed not to get emotional, and not to hurry: “time is a Western thing. It means nothing to them.”
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A sweaty performance from Pilou Asbæk, as the ship’s shaggy chef, puts a perturbed human face to the precariousness of the premise. A Hijacking packages the ransom movie as a parable for corporate responsibility, human cargo representative of the ramifications of high-end wheeling and dealing. Lindholm’s decisions regarding what not to show (including the hijacking itself and subtitles for Somali characters) compliment the film’s eerie verisimilitude.
Computer Chess (USA)
It took mumblecore maverick Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) two feature films to switch on a colour grade; his fourth,Computer Chess, sees him slink back to the land of monochrome minimalism to portray a fictitious early 80s computer-v-computer weekend tournament. At first blush it seems like the rambly people-oriented writer/director has retreated to a place where production values stand for even less than they did before, but it’s a glorious deception.
Owing something to the burnt-out retro aesthetic of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), which, like this film, was shot on video and looks like a dried-out home movie, Bujalski goes to considerable effort to achieve the seemingly effortless. His geeky characters (too straight-up geeky to be brandished with the modish “anti-cool” label) meander through conversations, as is Bujalski’s style, reacting to fellow humans far more artificially than they do machines. Packaging Computer Chess as a fuzzy faux time capsule could have exposed its foundation as a vapid, unsatisfying gimmick, but instead gives the filmmaker hitherto unrealised stylistic focus. Audiences who tune into the right (analogue) frequency are in for an unprepossessing gem.
Pluto (South Korea)
When a student is found murdered in a forest and police start asking questions, there’s every indication writer/director Shin Su-won is establishing the framework for a grisly murder mystery. One of several sharp swerves later, Su-won steers audiences into a kind of academic Hunger Games/Battle Royale, with more than a passing resemblance to similarly cold-blooded brethren — notably Gregory J. Read’s Like Minds (2006) and Ben C. Lucas’ Wasted on the Young (2011). Murder and morbid intrigue abound in an elite private school where secret societies of backstabbing students find new ways to make coming of age angsty and weird.
Pluto’s plot is curly and hard to guess, a long fuse of kidnappings, killings, study classes and off the wall moments (“if you drink rabbit’s blood, you’ll get good grades”) snaking around an underworld-like setting where characters either fulminate against their lot in life or simmer with pent-up rage. What it lacks in cohesion it makes up for in ambition; Pluto is a batty, dingy downer that takes school yard growing pains to uncomfortable extremes in service of a bitter allegory about the potentially destructive nature of competitive education.
Approved for Adoption (France, Belgium, South Korea, Switzerland)
The line between biopic and documentary is colourfully blurred in this quaint but distinguished film from directors Jung Hening and Laurent Boileau. Hening, the subject and cartoonist who wrote the graphic novel on which Approved for Adoption was based, reflects on life as a South Korean adopted at a young age by a Belgium family, as the film between live-action footage and eye-watering Gibli-esque animation.
Hening may not have lived a remarkable life in the scheme of things, but in the context of an antipodean coming of age story his experiences pour lifeblood into the genre’s key arteries, such as notions about feeling isolated and different, uncertainty about place in family and society, and a constant spiritual search for recognition of the self.
“There is freedom in vulgarity,” says one of the subjects in director Beth B’s grungy no-frills doco about fringe burlesque artists, and it certainly seems so. There are freaks, spooks, weirdos, wackos, transexuals, cross-dressers and drag queens a-plenty bearing all for their salacious stagecraft, latching onto burlesque as a cathartic outlet for expressions of the body. Low-fi production values suit the film’s scungy settings, and while a clearer, wider perspective could have provided perspective to the subjects’ lives, snapshots of colourful characters carry Exposed across the boozy make-up streaked line.
For anyone remotely interested in the Wikileaks movement, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s dense documentary is compulsory viewing: a spin-free investigation of a complex saga that sorts through hype and hyperbole to arrive at a nuanced interpretation of the truth. The way Gibney builds up a protagonist, painting a picture of Julian Assange as an influential, admirable but flawed person gives what could have been a blow-by-blow account real human value.
We Steal Secrets will remind viewers of several key issues, particularly the braveness and imperfection (rather than perceived martyrdom) of Assange; the disquieting behind-closed-doors treatment of Bradley Manning; and the humanity of it all: ultimately this is a story about people who got in way over their heads and weren’t equipped to deal with the repercussions.
The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 5 – June 16. For the full program head to the official website.