Karlovy Vary 2017 diary

Last orders in the Dennis Hopper Bar. A somewhat basic boozer, it’s located in the generally fancy-schmancy Karlovy Vary, spa-resort home of eastern Europe’s answer to Cannes. But the moniker if the pub is more to do with the Easy Rider-loving biker clientele than any evident cinephilia — no image of Hopper adorns the walls. The tempestuous star, who died in 2010, would still doubtless be gratified by the establishment’s nomenclature; its 10pm Monday-night “last call”… not so much. Stymied in my plan of getting a second 330ml glass of Gambrinus (16 crowns, just over 50p) I mosey back down my hotel, just across the river on the tourist-oriented southern side of town — the side from which the vast bulk of festival visitors foolishly never stray. An early night.

First full day at the 52th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) ends without my having caught a single picture. Main reason: I was moderating a 90-minute lunchtime public discussion with Ken Loach and his scriptwriter/pal Paul Laverty, in conjunction with the duo receiving Crystal Globe awards for lifetime achievement. Ken, a very spry 80, suggests we do the whole thing standing up so that those at the back of the room can see us. The session passes quickly; all involved seem happy with my efforts. Afterwards, still suited and adrenalised, I “hit the town” and spend most of the evening in a basement beer-bar with various international pals. Around midnight I squeeze in a nightcap from a temporary beer-stand near town’s big river, the Ohře: a sleepily atmospheric watercourse I shot footage of on my previous visit a year ago.

Having gone 46 years on this planet without seeing a single film by exalted Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), I catch two within five hours: Mizoguchi is the focus of KVIFF’s main retrospective this time around. In the morning, in the grand Municipal Theatre, I see Osaka Elegy, a 71-minute drama from 1936 which the prolific director (whose credits date back to the silent era) reckoned his first “proper” film. Soon after, one of his most critically revered works, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939), clocking in exactly twice as long. The latter, detailing the rollercoaster career of a Kabuki actor in gentle-paced style, occasioned a distracting number of walkouts at a mid-afternoon screening whose audience featured a considerable number of curious tourists — today is the first half of a two-day public holiday in the Czech Republic. In the evening I catch Polish maverick Andrzej Zulawski’s torrid love triangle That Most Important Thing: Love (1975), a freakish box-office success in France back in the day, perhaps chiefly notable now for a shamelessly spectacular supporting turn from the reliably unhinged Klaus Kinski as an egomaniacal stage-actor (!) playing Richard III (!!) in a samurai-themed production (!!!).

I bump up my Mizoguchi tally to five with My Love Has Been Burning (1950) in the morning, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) in the afternoon, Miss Oyu (1951) in the evening — all at the Municipal Theatre, a superbly bijou edifice completed in 1886, with murals by a pair of young Viennese dudes named Ernst and Gustav Klimt. Of the trio, Sansho the Bailiff (bafflingly titled, as villainous Sansho is a relatively minor character in this torrid historical tragedy) is by far the most famous, but the standout for me is My Love Has Been Burning (aka The Flame of My Love), a rousingly full-blooded paean to the against-all-odds feminist struggles of 1880s Japan starring the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka. The Municipal Theatre is a fine venue, but the audiences can there can often be a royal pain: during the tense, quiet climax of Miss Oyu some bozo behind me blew his nose at some length and at top volume. When the lights went up, I gave him both barrels.

Another day, another Mizoguchi: 137-minute The Life of Oharu (1952) somewhat taxingly scheduled at 9.30am but absorbing throughout, with Tanaka once again going through all kinds of ordeals as the desperately luckless eponymous heroine. My modus operandi this year is to concentrate firmly on archival classics, having been underwhelmed by my sampling of new fare last year. Indeed, the only “newie” on my schedule is Francis Lee’s Yorkshire-set rural romance God’s Own Country, which has been playing to strong critical and audience responses around the festival circuit since premiering at Sundance in January. Romanian smoulderer Alec Secareau makes for a strappingly charismatic, vaguely Alan Bates-ish co-lead in this tale of love (and sex!) between blokes working on a wind-blown sheep-farm but otherwise the picture (which opens in the UK on 1st September) strikes me as nothing particularly fresh. I follow up with Pedro Almodóvar’s international breakthrough from 1988, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a larkish, decidedly stagey comedy which the sold-out audience lapped up in audible delight. Evening: heavy but tasty Czech food at basement, localsy Panoptikum bar/restaurant, looking out and up through the windows at the black skies of a sudden summer thunderstorm.

I depart KV at lunchtime by train for Prague, but not before squeezing in one last Mizoguchi: appropriately, it’s his swansong Street of Shame (1956), which premiered two months before his death at 58 from leukaemia. Mizoguchi is rightly renowned as one of the major directors most concerned with women’s issues; noble female self-sacrifice is a recurring leitmotifStreet of Shame is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the “working girls” in Tokyo’s red-light Yoshiwara neighbourhood, predating Robert Altman in its unfussy multi-character focus and disarmingly down-to-earth streak of world-weary humour. Mizoguchi was famously dubbed the “Shakespeare of cinema” by critic Robin Wood, but this does some disservice to his collaborators, especially regular scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda. In Street of Shame (spoiler: the ladies aren’t particularly ashamed), the theremin-heavy electronic score by Toshiro Mayuzumi plays a strong role, straddling the past and future in a manner decidedly ‘Japanese.’ Suitably inspired, I sit down with Serbian editor Ana Stanić to belatedly trim down my Ohře footage into a four-minute short. One for KV 2018 perhaps? As they say round here, “without work, no cake.”

19th July 2017
written for Tribune magazine