Neil Young’s Film Lounge – 51st San Sebastian Film Festival


Nazioarteko Zinemaldia DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIAN Festival Internacional de Cine

report by Neil Young

official website : San Sebastian Film Festival

Section one : Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
Section two : Day 4, Day 5
Section three : Day 6, Day 7
Section four : Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Awards comment

format of reviews:
Title / rating / original title(s) : country(s) of origin : year : director(s) : length : section of festival
synopsis in italics taken directly from official festival brochure


Day 1 (18th Sept) : We Hereby Sign

Day 2 (19th Sept) : The Station Agent, Havana Suite, The Bulgarian Brides

Day 3 (20th Sept) : Inheritance, The Iguassu Effect, Memories of Murder, Eager Bodies, Godforsaken

Day 1 : Thursday 18th September



Los Abajo Firmantes : Spain 2003 : Joaquin ORISTRELL : 95 mins : Zabaltegi (special screenings)

When the leading actor of a theatre company performing Federico Garcia Lorcas Comedia sin titulo in different provinces dies, he is substituted by a young actor who does everything he can to convince his companions to take a stance against the governments decision to take part in the war against Iraq

Could hardly be much more topical looming shadow of Iraq war, Feb/Mar 2003. Dates shown on screen documentary footage of Pedro Almodovar, Javier Bardem, Leonor Watling, Marisa Paredes marching against war. Paredes shown presenting Goya awards on TV: Let us fear war. Goyas watched on TV by troupes actors much lower down the food chain of the profession, and they know it, but proud to bring Lorca to the provinces. Upheaval after death of original leading man replacement Jorge (Juan Diego Botto, from The Dancer Upstairs) is famous as teen heart-throb star of TV, but also very politically committed. Behind-the-scenes of a play, but a world away from Jacques Rivette heaviness (Va Savoir etc). Light, antic, Bullets Over Broadway-ish feel, closer to Belgian satire Strass. Backstage tensions an easy target, and technique doesn’t help in early stages: handheld cameras, gratuitous jerky editing. Jaunty, clumsily applied muzak score. Scenes feel improvised inevitable uneven results. Planned-out scenes work much better: highlight is Jorges stage debut embarrassed (but pleased) to be greeted by crowds of teenage girls in the audience chanting Hot stuff! Improves from this point on (as audience gets used to style?) aided by ever-reliable Javier Camara as Mario, who overcomes initial antagonism against Jorge. Elvira Minguez also good value as older, more world-weary, less politicised actress (cf Paredes in All About My Mother). Bottos sister Maria as local girl returning home completes main foursome around whom action revolves. Establishes genial tone, but comedy threatens to outstay welcome. Saved by more serious turn half-hour from end as consequences of Jorges actions have direct impact on safety of the troupe. Violent reactions from pro-war elements of audience. Four main characters (coward, victim, self-seeker, egotist) stuck inside theatre: their moral choices. Ends on a (cautious) high.

Day 2 : Friday 19th September



USA 2003 : Tom McCARTHY : 88 mins : Official Section (in competition)

The tale of three lonely beings. And different. Fin, the train-loving dwarf and Olivia, the artist who has lost a son. But loneliness is impossible if the neighbours of the old station in which you live include an amusing, extroverted Cuban who doesn’t give until having succeeded in creating a sort of new family. The message is clear : isolation is better shared.

From first seconds, clear where we are: US indieland. Plangent, spare guitar; slightly grainy look of low-budget American independent features. Bittersweet is the word: comedy with tragic undertones. Quirky characters and situations. Miniature of small lives in quiet desperation. All the boxes ticked off. Talk of miniature/small is dangerous, given that main protagonist Finbar (and actor Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf. Shouldnt matter, but does become pivotal to story something of a tall tale. Weird inheritance he receives the Station as a bequest. Air of fable: Station is located in Newfoundland. Such symbolism not exactly subtle. Contrivances and coincidences along the way, but also surprising preponderance of belly-laughs. Parable of tolerance: most reactions to Fin are negative. Realistic? Inevitable darkening of third act bittersweet finale, cautiously upbeat. Music never lets up, though. Easy to forgive such lapses: Dinklage / Patricia Clarkson / puppyish Bobby Cannavale all do solid work. Hard to dislike gentle, elegaic tone of nostalgia for older, quieter America. Cars = trouble. Better to walk or take the train: he’s in effect a trainspotter! Self-confessed boring individual tale of a man suffering from an excess of attention, both positive and negative. Just wants to be left alone.Bartleby figure of extreme reticence before (predictable) softening-up.



Suite Habana aka Suite Havana : Cuba (Cub/Spn) 2003 : Fernando PEREZ : 84 mins : Official Section (in competition)

This years most successful Cuban movie is neither documentary nor fiction. It is a mixture of the two, moreover collectively portraying a city and its people. Suite Habana narrates a regular day in the life of ten ordinary Cubans, with nothing special about them. Ten real people who become actors without stopping being themselves and without ever losing sight of reality in this fictional operation.

One day in the life of a city Where life is lived at a unique pace. Uniquely fast? Uniquely slow? Alternating between the two? Its never explained. Cityscape shots, then focus on residents of the city. Mostly wordless, cut to the music. We get their ages and names then, right at the end, more details. Including their dreams. One old woman Dreams no longer were told. 84 minutes of interminable pseudo-humanistic bullshit. Nice cinematography (Raul Perez Ureta) but shamelessly sentimental visuals and music. Exploits subjects by rendering them artificially mute! Pawns in the directors hands. Kid ah! Old women ah! 97-year-old woman stuck in front of the television, apparently immobile. Why? Artificial wordlessness inflicted upon them as part of directorial conceit even during meals! Why? So he can make his maddeningly trite points about life. False poses they’re made to strike owe nothing to life, and everything to bad feature-films. This, of course, is neither fiction nor documentary its a different category, much worse than either. Pretentious. Pernicious. Warning: contains clown.

For other films rated 1/10 and 2/10 check out our Diorama of Dishonour.



Los novios bulgaros aka Bulgarian Lovers : Spain 2003 : Eloy DE LA IGLESIA : 95 mins : Horizontes Latinos

Eloy de la Iglesia has returned to directing with a film that includes the best of his style filtered by the experience that comes with age. Screened at the Berlin Film Festival in the Panorama section, it tells the story of the romantic unbridled passion of Daniel (Fernando Guillen Cuervo), a wealthy bourgeois lawyer, for Kyrill (Dritran Biba), a young Bulgarian who takes advantage of him. Prepared to sacrifice absolutely anything to win his love, Daniel even begins to run real risks.

Slim, gay twist on Birthday Girl: nondescript western-European white-collar worker finds adventure, danger and liberation in relationship with dodgy eastern-European(s) inevitable Mafia connections. But this is a more inconsequential kind of culture-clash comedy: when he goes to Bulgaria for Kyrills wedding it has shades of My Russia. Doesnt develop much beyond basic set-up Kyrills shadiness never in any real doubt. Doesnt help that directorial contributions are mostly bland and/or affected and/or cliched. Exception: bizarre Kiss Me, Deadly development late on involving suitcase containing radioactive materials. Daniels fantasies feature effective but jarringly incongruous and gruesome special-effects. Seem to have sneaked in from another movie perhaps derived from his moviegoing. Pal is golden years fan this innocuous timepasser no chance of qualifying for such a description.

Day 3 : Saturday 20th September



Arven : Denmark (Den/Swe/Nor/UK) 2003 : Per FLY : 115 mins : Official Section (in competition)

The second part of Per Flys trilogy on Danish society. While in the first part Baenken (The Bench) he concentrated on the destitute, on this occasion the subject at hand is high-flying industry and the lack of scruples shown by entrepreneurs when struggling to stay in power. The tale centres on Christoffer, heir of a powerful family business who has to give up the things he loves most to become harsh and implacable.

Mogens Rukov co-wrote the script for Thomas Vinterbergs peerless Festen, and now he’s also credited among the four writers of Inheritance another DV-shot chronicle of an upper-middle-class Danish clan in crisis, with Thomsen again in the central role of the tormented, Oedipal black sheep. This time Thomsen is Christoffer, who very reluctantly takes over the running of his family firm a vast steel business after the suicide of his father, only to find that his inheritance exacts a terrible price on his marriage and personality. Dour, chilly, controlled and austere in the stereotypical Scandinavian style (until a startling third-act surprise) Inheritance makes familiar points about family tensions and modern big-business, but does so in an arrestingly assured and compelling style, right up to its bracingly bleak finale.

[review written for Time Out].



El efecto Iguazu : Spain 2003 : Pere Joan VENTURA : 90 mins : Horizontes Latinos

Winner of the Goya for Best Documentary, this is more of a vital experience than a film. For four months a film crew followed the developments in the conflict of the Sintel workers and the construction of the famous Camp of Hope right in the middle of Madrid. The filmmakers gradually became part of the people camped out there, and a curiously beautiful symbiosis took place between observers and observed.

Solid, committed, heartfelt piece of unapologetic proud, even agit-prop. Documentary on striking workers who set up Camp of Hope for six months in 2001. Details sketched in via testimony from strikers. Does what it sets out to do just fine even trip to Genoa for protests at globalisation are neatly interpolated, giving wider context to specific local issue (thus emphasising the Iguassu Effect workers drift happily along on calm waters of river, before suddenly they’re cascading helplessly down a steep waterfall). However this is proudly one-sided perhaps inevitably so, but surely a few neutral voices might have helped. Lays it on a bit thick at times certainly viewer will be minded to shoot the piano player whose tinklings are ladelled so generously over the soundtrack. Tearful victory-celebrations montage moving, but somnewhat overdone: sentiment overpowering judgement (also unconvincing idyllic 8mm footage of Sintel workers connecting rural areas to phone system: job seemed to consist of dancing and larking about.) But this is a serious and valuable contribution to a major worldwide issue as a use of film, very hard to fault.



Sa-lin-eui chu-eok : South Korea 2003 : BOON Joon-Ho : 127 mins : Official Section (in competition)

Memories of Murder1986: South Korea is a military-dictatorship police state, where crime is rare and serious crime almost unheard of. But when the bodies of young women are found raped and murdered in remote Gyunggi Province, the authorities realise their first ever serial killer is on the loose. The increasingly exasperated local cops Park (Song Kang-Ho) and Yo (Kim Roh-Ha) turn to desperate and bizarre means of cracking the case – with zero results. So their superiors draft in a Detective Suh (Kim Sang-Kyung) from Seoul, whose arrival on the scene shifts the murder-hunt into a much higher gear…

The second film by 34-year-old Bong (Koreans place the surname first), Memories of Murder is a strikingly original, boldly audacious – and mostly successful – attempt to breathe new life into the jaded police-procedural/serial-killer genre. As anyone who has ever worked in or with the emergency services will know, many cops (like medics) privately deploy very dark humour to insulate themselves against the more horrific aspects of their job – humour that may seem jarringly insensitive to outsiders.

Thus Bong adopts a startingly light touch, injecting some surprising strains of comedy – even slapstick, on occasion – into what is essentially a serious and thought-provoking film about a grim period of recent Korean history. The tone is often quirkily oddball, and it’s hard not to laugh at some of the cops’ antics – but the laughter rings very hollow when we remember that what we’re watching is life in a police state. And nearly everything we see on screen is a true dramatisation of actual events – Bong’s script is based on the detectives’ own accounts.

Adhering to the facts isn’t without its risks: the case’s ambiguous resolution may be as frustrating and disappointing for the audience as it is for the cops themselves. After two hours of careful build-up, the finale (and brief coda set several years later) may strike many as anti-climactic – but Bong deserves credit for challenging our expectations, rather than bending his nation’s history to suit them. He’s emphatically a name to watch.



Les corps impatients : France 2003 : Xavier GIANNOLI : 94 mins : Zabaltegi

A plain, simple love story. But perhaps not quite so plain and simple. Charlotte and Paul are in love. But she’s sick very sick. Ninon, her cousin, appears on the scene. Completing the triangle. A triangle of pain, made of renunciation and desire, a movie making not even the slightest of concessions to sentimentalism or romanticism.

Giannolis outstanding 1998 short LInterview the story of an exasperated journalists attempts to parlez with Ava Gardner boded well for a feature-film career. Eager Bodies, based on Christian de Montellas novel, turns out to be an effective but extremely low-key, DV-shot story of young love imperilled by illness and suspicion. Students Charlotte (Laura Smet) and Paul (Nicolas Duvauchelle*), both twenty, struggle to cope when she’s diagnosed with cancer. The arrival on the scene of her sensual cousin Ninon (Marie Denarnaud) only complicates matters further. Firmly avoiding the weepie trap, Giannoli crafts a commendably unsentimental depiction of a thoroughly convincing personal crisis. Though often slow, and punctuated with silences and stillness, there’s no mistaking the pain and passion that drives these three desperate people into, and out of, each others arms.

[review written for Time Out].

*Devauchelle has a tattoo on his back which reads Straight Edge despite this his character is seen drinking, smoking and having sex during the film, thus breaking the three basic commandments of the straight-edge movement.



Van God Los : Netherlands 2003 : Pieter KUIJPERS : 83 mins : Zabaltegi

Based on the true story of a young group of murderers which shook Holland in the mid-90s with an escalation in terrible crimes. Van God Los (Godforsaken) talks about friendship, love, loyalty and violence. What started out as a group of small-time crooks activity ends in tragedy when Stan and Maikel become paid hitmen for the all-powerful Osman. Van God Los (Godforsaken) is Hollands biggest box-office hit of recent months.

In the vein of Wilde Mossels (feckless Dutch youth drift into violent trouble), with more than a hint of GoodFellas : on a smaller scale, of course, but bodycount surprisingly high. Focus on a trio: Stan = Ray Liotta figure. Maikel = De Niro. Sef = Pesci. Based on true story of 1993 Venlo gang in backwater provincial town (deadly dull atmosphere nicely captured). Minor league young hoodlums stumble into higher league (Sweet Sixteen). Seen through Stans eyes his narration. Flashy camerawork, soppy slomo flashbacks to dad abandoning him. Trite broken-home explanation for Stan (and Maikels) problems. Classic falling in with bad crowd situation problems passed on to next generation (young kid Yuri learning bad habits). Of interest mainly to amoral Dutch teens (hence box-office success). Female audiences will go on basis of good-looking actor playing Stan won’t be bothered about his inexpressive performance: three basic facial modes. Kohl-eyed Maikel and punkish Sef chew the scenery. Not a subtle movie by any measure: religious aspects of title find correspondence in numerous crosses lurking in the background of many scenes. Effective moments, but outstays welcome even at 83 minutes. Interminable and ill-judged comedy costumes finale (its feast day in Venlo). According to end-credits, what we’ve witnessed is Neither fact nor fiction. A very handy get-out. Despite touches of bumbling criminals humour, this is an ostentatiously grim, tawdry little tale.

films seen at cinemas Principe, Principal, Astorias and Kursaal, San Sebastian/Donostia

by Neil Young