PAGES FROM A WARM ISLAND : Izola Film Festival day three

Published on: May 31st, 2005

official site : KINO OTOK
the second Izola film festival
Slovenia, 25th – 29th May 2005

Friday 27th May

   Mr Suave [5/10] (aka Mr Suave hoy! hoy! hoy! hoy! hoy! hoy! [sic], Joyce Bernal, Philippines 2003, 95 mins) is a daft, gaudy-coloured, camp-as-a-Filipino-Christmas comedy. I see it at the Thursday 10pm showing at the Odeon, which is the town's only year-round cinema. There's one medium-sized screen, accessed up a curving set of stairs (a slow motorised lift provides disabled access). I plan to watch the first twenty minutes or so, as I'm not seduced by the catalogue synopsis:

           Rico, woman-magnet, smooth operator, who can charm just about any
           woman. He's best known for two things: his popular shrimp – they're best
           sellers, especially with women – and his suave reputation. … But Rico –
           despite his superhuman charms – turns out to be seriously flawed.

Rico isn't just known as Mr Suave – that's actually his name: Rico Suave. Typical of this rather endearingly ramshackle enterprise reportedly based on a number one hit record in the Philippines (hence all those hoys in the original title). This source (not unusual in Manila, apparently) certainly shows – there's a certain appealing John Watersish roughness to the early stretches, but even as you're laughing and grinning along, you do wonder how Bernal and her three scriptwriters are going to keep this going for the 100-minute running time mentioned in the catalogue.
   As it is, they don't have to – I (pedantically) timed Mr Suave at a touch over 95 minutes. But even so, the air starts leaking out of the bubble before the halfway mark, and although the finale is OK (followed by an amusing "blooper reel") it does seem to take ages to arrive. Stick around for the end credits – the names of the cast and crew are as memorable as anything in the screenplay: Rico is played by Vhong Navarro, with Ketchup Eusebio and Brod Pete in support and a certain Roxy Liquigan helping out behind the scenes.
   On a similar note of intriguing exotica, the way the actors switch mid-sentence from Tagalog to American-accented English adds a certain spice to proceedings, the performances are suitably cartoonish, and some of the dialogue has to be heard to be believed. My personal favourite line: "She's diabetic – ants even gather around her urine." Beat that, Charlie Kaufman.
   After the film I repair to the seafront party zone, which is clearly aiming for some kind of music-festival vibe – stalls vending various vegetarian and non-vegetarian foodstuffs, etc. It's all a little too spread-out to really nail that Groningen/Glasto ambiance, but my chicken "kebab" (actually a tortilla wrap) hits the mark. An early night is required, as I want to get up for the South American double bill in the morning. This being a European film festival, an early night counts as anything before 3am,  and I hit the road shortly after one. Perhaps a light for the bike would be a good investment – CRITIC DRUNKENLY CYCLES INTO SEA is not a headline I fancy seeing in the Izola papers…

   After a slightly shaky start yesterday, the standard of the films I've seen picks up promisingly with the morning's double bill of South American features. Kicks off at 10.00 in the Odeon with Days of Santiago [6/10] (Dias de Santiago, Josue Mendes, Peru 2004, 83 mins.) Moody character study of an ex-Navy marine in his mid-20s who has difficulty adapting to civilian life in Lima.
   First-time director Mendes betrays his inexperience via arbitrary shifts between colour and grainy monochrome, and the final 10 minutes veers awkwardly into cheap melodrama (a hinted-at incest subplot rears its overfamiliar head). But over a tight 83 minutes Mendes draws a solid performance from Pietro Sibille in the lead – seldom off-camera, and thus having to carry the burden of the picture on his chunky shoulders.
   After a brief break it's Rolling Family [7/10] (Familia rodante, Pablo Trapero, Argentina 2004, 103 mins). This is one of the very few films showing here which has obtained UK distribution – the Kino-Otok programmers (bravely/commendably) favouring less "commercial" fare from "developing" countries. Much less abrasive and depressing than Trapero's 2002 expose of the Buenos Aires police in El Bonaerense, this is a warm bittersweet comedy about an extended dozen-strong clan going on a 1,000km road trip to attend a wedding.
   No great surprises en route, but Trapero thankfully resists the material's many potential detours into sentiment and melodrama. Star of the show is his own grandmother Graciana Chironi as matriarch Emilia – pic feels like a heartfelt tribute to a beloved family member as much as anything else. It's the most accomplished film of the four I've seen here so far, but I do marginally prefer a Brazilian treatment of not dissimilar themes from a couple of years back, The Middle of the World, not least because that epic journey takes place almost entirely on bicycles.
   Speaking of which – despite today being several degrees hotter than yesterday (I'd guess 25 to 28 degrees C at least) I embark on a 10km-each-way ride along the cycle path that hugs this beachless stretch of the Adriatic, to the next town along the coast, Koper (aka Capodistria). I came here in 2002 and saw a footy game on the industrial outskirts, but didn't go into the town itself. Not unlike Izola – working port with marina and old town, the latter featuring the impressive little Tito Square which could feature in a minor Borges story, with its c14 architecture and white Venice-style belltower or campanile.
   I eat grilled squid in Atrija restaurant, a courtyard type place just off one of the main pedestrian alleys. As I wait to be served, I see a grey-brown cat under a nearby table, nibbling persistently away at a green olive. Unusual chow for a feline… what happens to the pit? The squid is well up to scratch, though it's a little disappointing to see it served with chips (no mention of these pommes frites on the menu). A bargain at just under five euros (1350 tolars,  £3.50 or so)* . On the way back I buy some sunscreen, thinking as I do so of Kurt Vonnegut. Long story as to why.
   It's now five to six and I'll be off to give Ana Poliak's Pin Boy (Parapalos) another try, having walked out after 25 minutes of it at the Rotterdam film festival. Poliak is here in Izola and participated in a discussion on the state of South American cinema at Odeon this morning, alongside Pablo Trapero, Josue Mendes, Lisandro Alonso and an interpreter. Poliak at one point stated "I'm not politically engaged – I'm an anarchist" which shows an unusual understanding of either political engagement or anarchism. Whatever, the heat is relentless and the prospect of an hour and a half in a dark coolish cinema is irresistibly appealing.

   I'm always surprised how quick night falls in Izola ("night rang down like a shout" – Cormac McCarthy in Outer Dark, I think). About an hour ago as the sun sets into the Adriatic, I glimpse it through buildings as I cycle away from the screening of Pin Boy (more of which anon). It's well below the horizon, and as I cycle slowly past the marina (several deck parties audible, shades of that daytime scene in The Fog) and there isn't even much of the glorious pinky wash I saw on my first night here.
   Each day hotter than the last, tonight still steamy humid (but not oppressively so), little insects flying into my arms as I push on uphill in low gear through the dusk. Crickets making themselves heard in certain spots tu pa tam.
   Kino-Otok clearly has several major plus points. Location-wise it's excellent, both geographically (this is an underrated section of Europe; a Venetian friend-of-a-friend reckons the fish is better on this side of the Adriatic) and also chronologically, following so closely on the heels of Cannes. The festival organisers are a persuasive lot, and their strategy is to lure guests of a certain world-cinema calibre along from the Croisette. This gives the auteurs a chance to wind down after the chaotic frenzy that is Cannes. Whatever Izola film festival may be, chaotic and frenzied are not adjectives that spring readily to mind (although behind the scenes things can of course get a touch frenetic at even the most laidback of fests).
 I see Pin Boy [4/10] (Parapalos, Ana Poliak, Argentina/Belgium 2004, 90 mins) at the 6.15 showing on the town's biggest screen, at the Cultural Centre (this apparently isn't used as a cinema for the rest of the year, which is a shame… The outdoor screen in one of the town's squares probably seats more. Which reminds me, I will be missing out if I fail to see something outdoors before departure on Monday.)
   Pic is a contemplative, patient (i.e. grindingly slow) feature about Adrian (Adrian Suarez), a twentysomething young man who gets a job working a a bowling alley in Buenos Aires. But this isn't just any old alley: it's one of the few remaining in the world where the pins are set up by hand.
   Hazardous work – but in Poliak's resolutely low-key treatment we get no messy injuries or short-tempered flare-ups. Our easygoing, laconic hero is shown the ropes by an old-timer, chats with some of the other workers, gets better at the job. And that's about it as far as the alley is concerned. These scenes are punctuated by sequences set in the flat where Adrian is staying, which belongs to his cousin Nancy (Nancy Torres).
   Is there some kind of slow-burning 'kissing-cousin' subtext going on here (cf Familia rodante's quasi-semi-incest subplot)? Perhaps – that at least would explain the numerous "meaningful" silences in Nancy's flat. Or is this merely evidence of a dirty mind on my part? If nothing else, I do get to the end of Pin Boy, which is more than I  managed at the Rotterdam FF in January. At times in the second half I do wonder whether Poliak was going to get the unique, unwanted honour of having made a film out of which I'd walked not once but twice.
   Several of my fellow patrons do head for the exits early – the seats clacking loudly as they do so. These include, bizarrely, a woman with a small child (aged maybe six) who sits behind me and asks perplexed questions in Slovene for the first twenty minutes before requesting, and being granted, a return to the warm outdoors. (A dalmatian brought in by its punkish female owner is asked to leave before the picture starts – a shame, as the film's highlight features an energetic mongrel delighting itself by pushing the bowling-balls up and down the "gutter".)
   Not suitable entertainment for youthful viewers. And, despite a wildly adulatory introduction by lean, amiable festival-chief Vlado Skafar (the tiny Poliak on stage alongside him) I have to admit that I can't share his enthusiasm. This kind of slow new Argentine cinema can yield rewards: Lisandro Alonso's La libertad, and to a lesser extent his Los Muertos (which I plan to catch for the second time here tomorrow, having been baffled by it in Edinburgh last year) and also Santiago Loza's Extrano**. Loza also happened to co-"write" Pin Boy, although most of it was (presumably) improvised.
   The manual bowling alley is clearly very intriguing, promising material – but these only fitfully engaging results suggest that Poliak and company would have been better off doing a "straight" documentary. Of course, directors these days hate the distinction between feature fiction and documentary – and they find plenty of backing in this from certain critics and festival programmers. Maybe Poliak is a major talent. But I have to report that after one and a half viewings, Pin Boy has failed to (ahem) bowl me over.
   It's now 21.36 and I'm not in the mood for another film (even though organiser-and-friend Jurij Meden reckons 10pm's One Nite in Monggok is the pick of the whole schedule. Just too damn hot. Rather cycle around and see what crops up around the town. Then make for the after-midnight headland party once again to watch the lights of old Trieste way over in the distance, across the black and tideless Adriatic and its better-than-Venice fish.

Neil Young

click here for Saturday's reports

* postscript : Pizzeria Atrija is at Cevljarska 8, Koper. The bill for one grilled calamari with chips and one apple juice comes to 1420 SIT (Slovene tolars) = 5.97 euros (calculated on the bill) =  £4.03 (calculated at home in the UK). The squid-and-chips combo itself costs 1,200 SIT = 5.04 euros =  £3.41. You'd pay at least double for the same dish in any British restaurant.

** postscript 2 : Poliak co-produced and edited Extrano.