Golden Owl Awards 2002

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

LEEDS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2002

NEW DIRECTORS COMPETITION for the GOLDEN OWL award

Ster Century Cinema, Leeds, 7th – 10th October (www.leedsfilm.com)

International Jury : Mehreen Jabbar (Pakistan), Jacques Sarasin (Switz/Fr), Neil Young (UK)

Golden Owl : OCCIDENT

special mentions : Laundry, Shoes From America

also in competition : Bungalow, Magonia, Sleepwalkers,Step By Step, Weekend Plot, The Wild Bees


BUNGALOW (7/10)

Ulrich Kohler : Germany 2002 : 84mins

see review from Berlin Film Festival.


LAUNDRY (4/10)

Junichi Mori : Japan 2001 : 126mins

Drippy, limp romance between Teru (Koyuki) a slightly ‘slow’ young man who works in a laundry, and Mizue (Yosuke Kobuzuka) one of his regular customers. Though a reasonably well-observed tale of tentative love, this is no Brief Encounter – in fact, there’s nothing brief about the way Mori lingers over each stage of couple’s ups and downs. The debutant writer-director takes his own sweet time about things, with the so much emphasis on the ‘sweet’ that he occasionally veers into feyness.

While Koyuki is an amiable enough presence as the bumbling Teru, his brain-damaged act (complete with dopey smile and even dopier woolly hat) represents an over-familiar cinematic version of mild mental handicap. Gentleness is a rare quality in films these days, perhaps because it’s so difficult to get right, and Laundry is a good example of the potential pitfalls – the story isn’t much more than a wisp, but at over two hours runs into fundamental problems of pacing which any decent editor could probably remedy by chopping 30 minutes or so. As it is, we’re stuck in a permanent slow-cycle, one that seldom rises above lukewarm temperature.


MAGONIA (4/10)

Ineke Smits : Netherlands 2001 : 112mins

Magonia is a dangerous choice of title – let’s hope Smits isn’t planning a follow-up called ‘Bogie Nights.’ In fact, Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly considered calling Magnolia ‘Magonia’ – an old literary name for an imaginary place where anything can happen. Smits’ Magonia emerges as a more poetic version of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, and is referred to in her three half-hour, fable-like stories with mildly fantastical elements, told by a father to his son while on day-release from a mental hospital.

The three main sections are intriguing to look at, with background ranging from an old quarter of Tblisi, to the wilds of the Georgian interior (convincingly doubling for Africa in the central, glacial-paced, sub-King is Alive segment), to an atmospheric French seaside tavern (convincingly doubling for Holland in the final sequence, a rather downbeat variation on the returning-sailor subplot of Jacques Demy’s Lola).

Story-development is less satisfying, however – we’re constantly being told about the vital power of the imagination, but unlike the striking ship-shaped kite flown in the framing narrative, none of the episodes ever builds quite enough momentum to leave the ground. Adapted by Arthur Japin from his own short stories, the half-baked tales simply don’t translate well to celluloid, and are weighed down by some heavy-handed melodramatic plot developments, several stiff performances, and Giorgi Tsintsadze’s distractingly loud background music, which counterproductively underscores every major event.


OCCIDENT (8/10)

Cristian Mungiu : Romania 2002 : 110mins

Three stories unfold, closely overlapping in terms of time, place and characters, to build a snapshot of Romania at a crucial turning-point in its history. Though nimbly incorporating the political, social, economic and historical context of a nation previously best known for “Count Dracula and Nadia Comaneci,” this is a film that deals with its major issues by concentrating on ordinary people trying to deal with the pressures of modern life.

Luci (Alexandru Papadopol) and Sorina are a young couple whose marriage is severely tested by financial problems. Luci confides his difficulties in his friend Michaela (Tania Popa), who herself has to cope with the matchmaking plans of her marriage-obsessed mother (Coca Bloos). Her father (Dorel Visan), meanwhile, retires from the police force, and receives some tragic news about Luci’s cousin, who fled to the west during the Ceausescu era.

Occident emerges as a low-key cross between Run Lola Run (after a low-key start, its impact grows exponentially over three separate sections) and Magnolia: Mungiu pays as much attention to the tiny specifics and subtle details of the characters and their environments as he does to the ambitious wider structure into which it all so satisfyingly slots – keep an eye out for the ubiquitous ‘oxcart’ paintings in the background.

The multiple-narrative technique isn’t exactly ground-breaking any more, and there’s certainly no shortage of quirky character-based comedy-dramas coming out of central and eastern Europe at the moment. It’s unusual, however, to come across a script so ambitious and accomplished – Mungiu’s main strength clearly lies in his writing, he does a competent enough job of bringing it to the screen. He only makes one notable error – building to a terrific final freeze-frame, then letting the action begin again for a superfluous few extra seconds.

Mungiu does delight, however, in wrongfooting audience expectations, and manages the tricky feat of keeping the characters broadly sympathetic even while accurately endowing some of them with less-than-endearing traits. This has resulted in Occident coming under fire for “blant nave racism” in the ‘Michaela and Her Mother’ section, but the film is explicitly anti-racist. In the words of one of his characters, Mungiu’s approach involves “looking life in the eye” to diagnose the very real social problems that afflict this country in the throes of painful transition.

This is the move away from Eastern-Bloc (formerly Soviet) influence towards the West (‘occident’ as opposed to ‘orient’), specifically the possibility of European-Union membership. Bucharest’s capitalist revolution is, we see, already in full swing – fancy housing developments are springing up not far from cramped, squalid tenements (“Nowadays, there are so many rich people,” marvels one resident). A city store is named ‘More and More: A Life Philosophy,’ while at one point Luci and Michaela find jobs as walking advertisements – she wears a mobile-phone costume, he becomes a walking beer bottle. In a typically understated comic touch, he then makes a phone call while she sips a can of Coke.

Romanians have one unusual linguistic advantage, their language being a sister-tongue of Italian – residents of the two nations apparently have no difficulty understanding each other. But the prospect of EU membership isn’t without its perils – the fear is that talented people will be lured, like Luci’s cousin before them, to the bright lights and higher wages of the west. Indeed, Occident has been described in terms of Mungiu “[shaking] his head at his characters’ departure. without suggesting any compelling reason to stay.” But the film itself represents one reason to stick around – if Romania can come up with such a skilful and intricate movie, the country’s clearly got something going for it.


SHOES FROM AMERICA (2/10)

Botinki iz America : Arkadiy Yakhnis : Germany 2001 : 90mins

Painfully stilted and pretentiously ‘poetic’ character-study set in a tiny, remote Ukrainian village in the aftermath of World War II. Among the handful of survivors is 70-year-old Isaac (Ramaz Chkhikvadze), who potters around his meagre dwelling, pondering the ghosts of his past and talking to his deceased relatives.

It’s easy to see why this kind of worthy material would attract funding, as the themes involved are clearly serious and powerful. It’s all the more disappointing, then, to find so little discernible talent on show either in terms of writing (four scriptwriters are credited) or direction. This kind of stodgy fare might conceivably pass muster on Ukrainian TV, or in a state-subsidised Kiev theatre, but on the big screen it comes across as static and creakingly old-fashioned.

This is a picturesque, aggressively quaint vision of rural poverty where the main pastimes include accordion-playing, rooster-stroking, tarot-reading and dream-interpretation. There’s much energetic cackling from Isaac and his visitors (who include an irritatingly ‘enigmatic’ gypsy woman who, like the movie itself, may or may not exist) and the soundtrack, which alternates between a tinkly-piano, gloopy-strings score and some post-dubbed wheezing and grunts which supposedly emanate from the guilt-ridden old codger. “A son should cry for his mother all his life” is among Isaac’s more cheery sayings.

The performances are largely wooden, the lighting in the numerous outdoor scenes is distractingly fake-looking, and the pacing is so leaden that the ninety-minute running-time feels closer to two hours. The only lively aspect, in fact, is the contribution from Kesha the rooster: a quirky, inquisitive presence who, in one genuinely disturbing moment, is threatened with death at the hands of the grief-maddened Isaac. Yakhnis thankfully pulls back at the last second – but it’s arguably the only thing he gets right in the entire picture.


SLEEPWALKERS (4/10)

Ebrenjarok : Bence Miklauzic : Hungary 2002 : 102mins

The lives of three individuals (Gyorgy Gazso, Eszter Marko, Peter Laszlo) intersect in the streets and bars of Budapest, finally converging when they wind up in the same police-station cell. As a snapshot of modern-day Hungary, Sleepwalkers is much lighter in tone than Kornel Mondruzco’s claustrophobically provincial Pleasant Days, but it’s ultimately only marginally more optimistic. And Miklauzic isn’t as distinctive or promising a new voice as Mondruzco: he does little to re-invigorate the tired overlapping-narratives format which Sleepwalkers so lazily occupies (especially alongside Cristian Mungiu’s superficially similar Occident [also in the Leeds competition.])

In fact, the real sleepwalker here may be Miklauzic himself, who, after a misleadingly kinetic pre-titles sequence, takes a strictly by-the-numbers approach to his promising material, with a particularly counter-productive reliance on close-ups. While his script (co-written with Balazs Maruszki) does make some telling points about Hungary’s progress from totalitarianism to a new “kleptocracy” of chronic, clannish corruption, we get disappointingly little real sense of Budapest’s atmosphere.

Instead, we’re offered a succession of unlikely plot developments featuring “quirky” oddball characters, including one intense bloke at a party who (amusingly) seems to think he’s Udo Kier. The one genuinely unexpected and promising plot-point – a principal character discovers new electrical/ESP powers after a high-voltage accident – goes nowhere, setting up a semi-comic final twist that’s as lame as we’ve come to expect.


STEP BY STEP (6/10)

Laurent Merlin : France 2001 : 84mins

Merlin’s first film is a classic case of a young film-maker’s reach exceeding his grasp. The lengthy pre-titles sequence is enough to establish his talents as a director, so nimble is his manipulation of the ever-tricky split-screen format. On the evidence of this enigmatic, strikingly confident prologue, audiences will be eagerly expecting a boldly experimental narrative to unfold.

But the further it goes, the more conventional Step By Step becomes. In a way, this is in keeping with the arc followed by central character Stephane (Ludovic Bergery), who progresses from rock bottom at Paris’s wilder margins through a life of petty (and not so petty) crime, before finally returning to the straight and narrow. He makes the last stages of this journey lying in a hospital bed, where he tells his life story to a flinty but sympathetic female cop (Anemone).

Merlin flashes back from the present (split-screen, colour) to various episodes from Stephane’s dramatic past (full-screen, black and white), slowly assembling fragments until the whole narrative clicks into place – and we realise that his superficially flashy technique has been placed at the service of a surprisingly straightforward story.

But despite the limitations of his (own) script, Merlin’s visual skill makes for an absorbing enough experience: the contributions from Lionel Yan Kerguistel (cinematographer), Pascal Cuissot (editor) also help, as does the cutting-edge score by Richard Cocciante and the prominent French electronica outfit Scan X. It’s Anemone and Bergery who really swing the balance, however, and they reward their young director’s audacity with charismatic, contrasting performances – especially when the split-screen technique allows both to be in close-up at the same time.


WEEKEND PLOT (5/10)

Mi yu shi ki xiao shi : Zhang Ming : China 2001 : 91mins

Intermittently intriguing but fatally underpowered Chinese entry into an ‘ominous heat’ sub-genre that includes Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Sluizer’s Spoorloos. The early sections are easily the best, in which writer-director-editor Zhang introduces his six main characters as they explore the banks of the Yangzhe river on a holiday weekend. A series of minor but sinister developments creates a mood of agreeable, steadily accumulating tension.

But the suspense doesn’t lead anywhere. A character does finally seem to go missing, but it’s right at the very end of the film, and by this stage Zhang has long since dissipated whatever suspense he’s been able to establish as he switches between the five remaining holidaymakers and Yudong (Zhang Yalin), a policeman who leaves the group to return to his nearby home town.

The ‘plot’ in Weekend Plot is constantly deferred, until time eventually runs out – the latter sections fizzle away in such bathetic style (at one ludicrous juncture the characters get caught in a downpour while in search of a crucial ballpoint pen) that audiences may suspect Zhang of aiming for some kind of deconstructive comedy. But Wen Zi’s doomy score indicates otherwise – leaving Weekend Plot as six characters in vain search of a drama that frustratingly refuses to materialise.


THE WILD BEES (3/10)

Divoke vcely : Bohdan Slama : Czech Republic : 94-7mins

The title sounds like it should belong to one of Irwin Allen’s big-budget US-apocalypse flicks from the seventies, but The Wild Bees turns out to be a disaster movie of a very different kind: a boring, humdrum non-event of a film about boring, humdrum non-events in a small Moravian village.

Among the locals is Lada (Pavel Liska) a Michael Jackson impersonator who looks good, but proves unable to perform when he finally gets up on stage. The film is much the same – Divis Marek’s strikingly clear rural images indicate a fine career as a cinematographer, but he can hardly be expected to breathe life into Slama’s inert script on his own.

Likewise, while the actors (Zdanek Rauser, Tatiana Vilhelmova, Marek Daniel) provide uniformly naturalistic performances, they’re never given enough to work with. There’s no pace or urgency, and the results are as grindingly monotonous as Miroslav Simacek’s halting strings score. It all feels about four hours long – one or two nice touches here and there, but nowhere near enough to prevent tedium setting in and taking a firm hold early on. ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ indeed.


reviews completed 28-29th October, 2002

by Neil Young