13th Ljubljana International Film Festival
13th Ljubljana International Film Festival
Ljubljana, Slovenia, 11-24 November 2002
‘Perspectives’ Section for films by first- and second-time directors
winner of the Mobitel Kingfisher Award :
Juan Villegas – Saturday
(special mention : Wen Zhu – Seafood)
CITY OF GOD
Cidade de Deus : Brazil 2002 : Fernando Meirelles (co-director Katia Lund) : 130mins
As its title implies, the main character in City of God isn’t a person but a place. Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cidade de Deus’ was built in the early sixties as a low-rent, low-key residential area. But over the course of two decades, the City declined into a drug-ridden, poverty-stricken, crime-infested slum – a no-go zone for outsiders where young gangsters staged increasingly violent turf wars. Paulo Lins’s novel based on these real events is the basis for Braulio Mantovani’s script, brought to the in bravura style by Meirelles, whose second feature instantly establishes him as one of the most exciting directors working in world cinema – though it should be noted that Lund is credited as ‘co-director’.
Our narrator is Buscape (translation:”Rocket” – Alexandre Rodrigues), one of the City’s quieter denizens. A genial but slightly bookish sort, Buscape’s dreams of becoming a news photographer eventually bring him into contact with the publicity-hungry Ze Pequeno (“Little Ze” – Leandro Firmino da Hora), a 20-year-old veteran of this bloodthirsty arena. Buscape carefully traces the origins and consequences of long-running feud with rival drug-baron Cenoura (“Carrot” – Matheus Nachtergaele), both of them pals of stabilising-force nice-guy Bene (“Benny” – Phelipe Haagensen). Ze is the dark star around whose fierce gravity the film revolves – a ball of fury and spite who kills for fun, making scores of enemies who include Mane Galinha (“Knockout Ned” – Seu Jorge), a bus-conductor diverted from normal life into gangland when his brother is killed in a shootout.
From the very first moments – in which a pot-bound rooster makes an audacious bid for freedom down the City’s mean streets – we’re carried along on the film’s propulsive, kinetic energy. The zappy camerawork, frenetic editing and pounding score make it clear we’re in the presence of a supremely (perhaps even aggressively) confident film-maker. These early stretches have a Hollywood-calling-card kind of brashness, which may dismay viewers who feel Meirelles is merely transplanting established (perhaps now even hackneyed) American storytelling methods to a new locale: he’s clearly seen GoodFellas more than a few times, while a split-screen sequence in a disco seems to pay explicit homage to Boogie Nights.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with adopting what is now an established form of cinematic language – especially if it’s deployed to such brilliant effect as in City of God. And this is, despite the ‘Americano’ style, a uniquely Brazilian story: football and music have long since replaced religion in terms of influence, and in virtually no other society would the gangs’ melting-pot racial mix be taken for granted. Though severely restricted in terms of geography (the vast majority of scenes play out within the City’s confines), this is a project of dauntingly ambitious scale: Meirelles’ traces the organic development (decline?) of the City, paying subtle but close attention to the architecture and sociology of each stage in the process. In one staggering, virtuoso sequence, the camera remains fixed on a single room as, over the course of several years, it descends from well-maintained comfort to squalid drug-den.
The financial and psychological imperatives operating on the young characters are made explicit throughout, giving the film a resonance and political intelligence which enable it to transcend the limitations of the gang-land genre. And, in stark contrast to over-hyped Latin American features of recent years like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, the expert pacing in City of God makes its 130-minute running-time fly breathlessly by. There’s barely a moment to digest every detail in this teeming, brutal, intimate epic, so electric and intoxicating is the atmosphere Meirelles manages to create – and, even more remarkably – sustain.
(seen 19th November 2002, Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana)
Sabado : Argentina 2001 : Juan Villegas : 72mins
As the lives of three young couples intersect one day in a faceless corner of modern Buenos Aires, a convoluted roundelay of mathematical precision is played out in a chain of casual infidelities.
Don’t be fooled by Saturday‘s short running-time – writer-director Villegas’ debut contains at least as much dialogue as most standard-length features, as the six characters spend most of their time chattering away in an entertaining/maddening fashion that elevates tail-chasing to an art form: not since Richard Linklater’s Waking Life has a script contained quite so much circular, self-reflexive quasi-philosophical jaw-jaw.
It doesn’t really matter that all six characters speak in almost exactly the same way – this isn’t a realistic exploration of Modern Urban Living, rather a playful game in which the characters are pawns, brought together by ‘chance’ and/or the grand design of Villegas’s script. Like TV sitcom Seinfeld, Saturday is ostentatiously about ‘nothing’ – there may be car crashes and some bed-hopping, but the real subject matter is the humdrum time-filling speculations that occupy us in our less energetic moments. Mundane speculations which, Villegas seems to suggest, form a surprisingly crucial role in who we are and what we do.
This is all amiably absorbing in a deadpan, quirky way, though a little so-what-ish and not sufficiently distinctive to make Saturday stand out from the many similarly well-observed, small-scale movies produced in all parts of the world every year. But Villegas has an ace up his sleeve – one of the men in the couples is Gaston Pauls, star of international Argentine hit Nine Queens and here playing himself. In a subplot which gently echoes Being John Malkovich, Pauls gamely has a lot of fun with his image: at one point, arguing with his girlfriend about the extent of his celebrity, he stops passers-by and quizzes to establish the degree of his fame.
And just as Malkovich‘s Malkovich was irritated by the public’s constant references to a non-existent movie in which he played a jewel thief, Saturday‘s niftiest running joke sees Pauls constantly having to correct the mispronunciation of his surname – it’s apparently ‘Powls’, not ‘Pols’ – the gag reportedly being dreamt up by Pauls himself. Villegas handles everything with a light, comic touch, and though his direction is strictly functional, it gets the job done – Martin Mainoli also deserves credit for his on-the-button contributions in the editing suite. The script, however, is the strong suit – Villegas’ achievement is to establish a an accessible, apparently mundane comic universe that’s just a little bit off-kilter. “What’s your favourite season?” Pauls is asked by a reporter. “Thursday,” comes the instant reply – it somehow makes perfect sense, and you wonder whether this is even Saturday at all.
(seen 16th November 2002, Kinoteka cinema, Ljubljana)
Hia xian : China (Chi/HK) 2001 : Wen Zhu : 86mins
“Life is wonderful. And so much good seafood to eat!” This is the philosophy expounded by cop Deng Jianguo (Cheng Taisheng) as he attempts to persuade suicidal prostitute Zhang Xiaomei (Jinzi) that existence isn’t such a bad thing. Weirdo Deng’s efforts aren’t always so charming or gentle – he progresses from mild harassment to all-out stalking, and even resorts to a bout of sex so rough that it arguably crosses the line into rape. He’ll try anything to shock Zhang back from the brink – but his methods, though often dubious, prove surprisingly successful.
Seafood presents an intriguingly original vision of modern China – not least in its use of digital-video cameras which are still relatively rare for mainland features, even underground ones like this. Equally unexpected are the locations in the icy northern coastal town of Beidahe, a semi-deserted, out-of-season ‘resort’ known as “suicide city” whose bleak, unpopulated vistas include a spectacularly frozen sea. These provide suitably odd backdrops for a very strange, very un-romantic kind of movie pairing – she seldom speaks, he never shuts up, barking out a string of harsh orders. No smoochy sweet nothings from Deng: “If you die, in the morning I’ll come and rape your corpse!” is about as soppy as he gets.
With its intense focus on an unlikely couple, its out-of-the-way coastal hotels, its use of DV, the lack of background music and the slow pace, Seafood could be classed in an austerely neutral mini-genre along with monochrome South Korean entry Camel(s), but Wen Zhu’s film has more humour, and a lot more going on. It’s never predictable – early on, Deng meets a young poet in her faceless hotel room, and we expect that he’s going to emerge as her ‘love interest’. But these expectations are rapidly, and brutally proved wildly incorrect. There’s an even more startling left-turn an hour in, setting up a final section in which Xiaomei returns to Beijing and her colleagues ‘on the game.’
One of the girls discovers her ‘john’ has left the ‘fee’ in a rather awkward place, requiring her disgusted-bemused pals to perform bit of amateur gynaecological extrication. On drying out the yuan, they realise the note is phoney, but try to spend it all the same – it’s refused at every store, including by an automated checking machine which tinnily squeals “This bill is counterfeit! This bill is counterfeit.” The girls’ response is a a truly priceless line of deadpan dialogue that perfectly encapsulates Seafood‘s unclassifiably dark humour: “I just withdrew it!” truthfully exclaims the prostitute. Almost as hilarious is the way, soon after, that Wen Zhu ends his movie. except it isn’t so much an ending as a stunningly sudden mid-scene halt, as if his camera had unexpectedly run out of film (or somebody forgot to pay the electricity bill). It’s jarring, but entirely appropriate for a film that so confidently and slyly delights in the offbeat and the unexpected. And though the
(seen 16th November 2002, Komuna cinema, Ljubljana)