The Lost Hum; Madeinusa; Northern Light; Ode To Joy; Old Joy
THE LOST HUM [5/10]
The writing-directing 'double-team' of Hirosue Hiromasa and Takahashi Izumi certainly don't lack for intelligence or originality – but while last year's The Soup, One Morning (directed by Takahashi from Hirosue's script) saw them channel their creativity into an accessible and stimulating story, The Lost Hum (on which the pair swapped jobs) is rather more nebulous and frustrating. So much so, in fact, that it's likely to trigger walkouts from more impatient viewers: more a case of 'The Lost Audience,' unfortunately.
One scene in particular – in which a trio of twentysomethings chatter (without subtitles) as they walk through a city – is so wildly overextended it seems explicitly designed to probe our tolerance-levels. If nothing else, you have to admire Hirosue and Takahashi's audacity – and sticking with the sequence to the end makes the bathetic "payoff" (when it finally arrives) unexpectedly hilarious. Not all of their expectation-challenging ploys prove quite so rewarding, however: they come up with a very strong concept (so strong, indeed, that some savvy Hollywood producer or screenwriter is guaranteed to 'borrow' it in the near future) only to thoroughly obfuscate (and waste it) with a confusing opening and an even more bewildering finale.
An individual, seemingly guilty of a terrible crime (murder?), is held prisoner in a city-centre flat by the relatives of the person he has attacked. A website is then set up to with the aim of attracting strangers to the apartment where can deliver what's referred to as "third-party justice." Each "juror" behaves differently: some use the helpless 'criminal' as a punchbag; another see him as a 'sinner' to be saved. When more than one visitor arrives at the same time, debates soon rage about the moral/legal rights and wrongs of the situation. Indeed, The Lost Hum often bogs down in its' characters verbose philosophising. This is much less of a problem, however, than the mystifying closing reel, in which Hiromasa and Takahashi seem to run out of both steam and ideas.
A striking debut from Catalan-born writer-director Claudia Llosa, powerful drama Madeinusa is set in Manayaycuna, a remote village hidden in the windblown, mountainously scenic Peruvian hinterland. The unusual title is pronounced "mad-eh-oo-sa", as it's the name of the main character: a solemnly beautiful teenager (Magaly Solier) who lives with her younger sister Chale (Yiliana Chong) and with their father, local mayor Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman).
Though Cayo is a protective, affectionate father to his girls (their mother having long since moved to faraway Lima), he makes no bones about his plan to take Madeinusa's virginity during the town's Easter-weekend-spanning tiempo santo ("holy time") celebrations. This incestuous liaison isn't regarded as sinful during tiempo santo: the concept of "sin" ceases to exist because while God is "dead," he cannot "see."
Manayacuna has obviously developed a distorted, idiosyncratic form of Catholicism: there's an ornate church, but no priest. There are also no lawmen, no telephones, and the only outside-world link is a chatty van-driver known as "the mute" who pays occasional visits. On one trip he brings inquisitive photographer Salvador (Carlos de la Torre): is his destiny, as his name suggests, to "save" Madeinusa? Or is it he himself who will be in need of salvation?
Llosa's screenplay relies on the subversion of expectations: early scenes promise a conventional, worthily dull ethnographic drama. But as the plot gradually takes shape, we enter the territory of The Wicker Man and Dogville – films where well-meaning outsiders find themselves in isolated, 'backward' communities, and where their activities may result in their own destruction (The Wicker Man) or a localised apocalypse (Dogville). Madeinusa's heady resolution, however, is more ambiguous – there's a very unexpected eleventh-hour twist which puts everything that's gone before into a very different light, and which suggests that Llosa has more than a passing acquaintance with film noir. "Made in USA", indeed.
Madeinusa isn't merely a screenwriting exercise: the fable-like story is open to many interpretations, Llosa's sociological, political, psychological and theological elements sitting comfortably within a claustrophobic, humour-flecked narrative which, despite its occasional slow and/or nebulous passages, builds into a compelling (if somewhat histrionic) 'page-turner.' It's also rewarding to speculate on events which occurred before the 'story' began (the priest's fate; the mother's departure; the heroine's unusual name), and those which will ensue after the final fade.
Intellectually stimulating as Madeinusa undoubtedly is, the film also appeals to the emotions thanks to vivid cinematography (Raul Perez Ureta), colourful art-direction (Eduardo Camino), and the "conceptualizacion visual" (Patricia Bueno, Susanna Torres). Llosa's real trump card, however, is Solier's performance as a combination of junior femme fatale, long-suffering victim, confused teenager, doomed Juliet and demure virgin-saint. A tough test for any actress, but the newcomer rises to the challenge: it helps that hers is face which, as they used to say in old Hollywood, the camera loves, and that her voice's gentle purity casts its spell over both Salvador and the audience. Llosa's script and direction provide intelligence and soul; Solier the beating (sacred?) heart.
NORTHERN LIGHT [6/10]
A tough kickboxing trainer learns to reconnect with his teenage son – and his own feelings – in Northern Light, the nicely-crafted debut feature by a highly-touted Dutch director who built up a considerable reputation with his award-winning shorts (including 2001's The Last Day of Alfred Maasen and 2005's Veere).
Viewers who only know Lammers through Northern Light may be surprised to learn taht his shorts were noted in the Netherlands for their visual flair and experimentation: the feature, while evocatively 'lensed' by cinematographer Lennert Hillege, emphasises "old-fashioned" elements like character and story rather than indulging in any kind of avant-garde artiness. This is an intimate family tale, told simply and well, built around two strong central performances.
Lucien (Raymond Thiry) has thrown himself into his work since the death of his wife and daughter in a car-crash nearly three years ago. He hasn't yet dealt with his grief and guilt, however, and has long struggled to maintain a functioning relationship with his 15-year-old son Mitchell (Dai Carter). Though quiet and introspective ("You won't make it if you're so passive," Lucien informs him), the latter is essentially a confident lad, strong both physically and mentally. Indeed, if anything it's Lucien who needs to mature and learn to express his emotions without recourse to his fists: the plot's major flashpoint comes when he strikes Mitchell at the latter's 16th birthday party, provoking to a painful period of estrangement.
Northern Light doesn't pretend to break any new ground – indeed, the three-act structure is a little too predictable. Despite this, it's easy to appreciate the film's professionalism, attention to detail, and the way it gives the characters space to breathe and develop before our eyes. The suburban, multi-racial neighbourhood of Amsterdam-Noord ('Amsterdam North') is unobtrusively evoked: this milieu of smoky pubs, strip-joints, kebab-shops and Chinese takeaways has an oddly British ambiance, as befits a pleasingly small-scale picture which arguably owes more to Ken Loach than to Lammers' near-neighbours, the Belgian freres Dardenne.
ODE TO JOY [4/10]
The tough lives of today's Polish youngsters are ham-fistedly dramatised in Ode To Joy, a triptych comprising short-ish films by three different writer-directors – none of whom, sad to say, emerges with reputation much enhanced.
The title sounds the first warning-bell – Beethoven's Schiller-inspired 'Ode To Joy' being European Union's official anthem. The phrase is used here in the most clodhoppingly ironic fashion – one which matches the film's contents all too well. The only real 'joy' on display is the characters' exhilaration at the prospect of departing Poland for London's gilded pavements. Indeed, on this evidence the EU comprises only Poland and London: nobody considers relocating to a warmer or more laid-back Euro destination. One of the main characters even has a degree in German – but the idea of moving to Berlin, Hamburg or Munich never crosses his mind.
The German-speaker is Wiktor (Leslaw Zurek), who forms the sympathetic focus of the third and (marginally) strongest segment, Pomerania. Maciej Migas delivers with something approaching a realistic, economic, involving, narrative that manages to eschew cheap effects or melodrama – a task which eludes both of his fellow directors. But there's really disappointingly little – stylistically or thematically – to distinguish the episodes from each other: the cinematographers favour dank, gloomy depictions of city, town and seaside alike, favouring a hand-held, close-up-heavy 'roughness' much better suited to DV than celluloid.
The underdeveloped scripts are the main problem, however: Kajezak-Dawid's "heroine" Aga (Malgorzata Buczowska) is too selfish and ignorant to earn our sympathy or intetest; Komasa creates an intriguing "hero" in working-class rapper Michal (Piotr Glowacki), only to put him through a series of increasingly cartoonish humiliations. A brief coda wraps things up in a cursory, unsatisfactory manner.
Audiences seeking a worthwhile Polish compilation are directed towards Solidarity, Solidarity, which features contributions from Wajda, Machulski, Glinski, et al. The film-making "kids" behind Ode To Joy should be sent a copy each, as they clearly still have an awful lot to learn.
OLD JOY [6/10]
A Sideways without the wine (or the sex); a Blair Witch Project without the witch; a Deliverance without the rednecks; a Walden without the pond: Old Joy is a film about absences and silences, lacks and wants; abandoned things lost things, missing things.
Some viewers may feel that Reichardt (adapting Jonathan Raymond's photo-illustrated novella) has also dispensed with anything resembling a "plot": not very much 'happens' over these 73 minutes, at least not on the (limpid) surface(s). Two old pals in their mid-thirties go on a weekend road-trip to Oregon's Cascade mountains, where they eventually enjoy the calming delights of Bagby Hot Springs.
Along the way, the pair – bearded, hippyish Kurt (Will Oldham!) and Mark (Daniel London), who has 'settled down' into a relationship and is about to become a father for the first time – ponder a changing world where their once-beloved Sid's record shop has turned into a health-drink bar named 'Re-juicen-ation'.
Dialogue is sparse, making every exchange freighted with meaning: when Kurt announces "I miss you, Mark" as the pair sit (Gerry-style) in front of a camp-fire, this counts as a major emotional statement. We're given scraps of information which we may or may not wish to build into a back-story: were the pair once lovers? Is Kurt 'still' gay? Is he now homeless?
The presence of alt-country 'superstar' Oldham in front of the camera and that of Todd Haynes (executive producer) behind the scenes, meanwhile, suggest there's some kind of social/political statement going on here – likewise the opening, in which we hear a radio-debate on Lyndon Johnson, Civil Rights, and the "Southern Strategy."
What does it all add up to? Does a film actually have to "add up to" anything? Old Joy is content to remain as inscrutably self-contained and subjective a haiku, its merits very much a matter of subjective interpretation. It's rather like a glass of water: refreshing, cooling, and stimulating: but imparting no intrinsic nutritional value, and leaving little trace-memory behind.
14th/15th February, 2005
THE LOST HUM [5/10] : Hanauta-dorobou : Japan 2006 : HIROSUE Hiromasa (1978) : 92m (timed) feature (video)
seen at Cinerama, 29.1.06 (press show; section Sturm und Drang; world premiere; winner of NETPAC Award for best Asian film at IFFR [shared with The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros])
MADEINUSA [7/10] : Peru (Per/Spn) 2005 : Claudia LLOSA (1976) : 103m (timed) feature (35mm)
seen at De Doelen, 29.1.06 (press show; section Tiger Awards Competition; winner of FIPRESCI International Critics' Prize)
NORTHERN LIGHT [6/10] : Langer licht : Netherlands 2006 : David LAMMERS (1972) : 82m (timed) feature (35mm)
seen at Venster, 31.1.06 (press show; section Tiger Awards Competition; world premiere)
ODE TO JOY [4/10] : Oda do radosci : Poland 2005 : Anna KAJEZAK-DAWID (1979; section Silesia); Jan KOMASA (1981; section Warsaw); Maciej MIGAS (1976; section Pomerania) : 112m (timed) feature (35mm)
seen at Cinerama, 29.1.06 (press show; section Tiger Awards Competition)
OLD JOY [6/10] : USA 2005 : Kelly REICHARDT (1964) : 73m (timed) feature (video)
seen at Cinerama, 30.1.06 (press show; section Tiger Awards Competition; winner of Tiger Award [with Walking on the Wild Side and The Dog Pound])
More details on these titles – and all others shown at the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival – can be found at the IFFR official site
A full alphabetical index of all films seen at IFFR 2006 can be found HERE