UK 1967 : Peter WHITEHEAD : 70m : seen 16/1 at Verdensteatret (public show)
Raucously enjoyable you-are-there documentary about the London scene at the height of "swinging sixties" era – the time when the city briefly became the focus of world attention as the most "happening" place to be (a status it would shortly surrender to San Francisco.) Whitehead expertly cuts together live concert footage (principally of the Rolling Stones and "The Pink Floyd"); interviews in which scenesters of various types (including a jerky Mick Jagger, a somewhat befuddled Edna O'Brien, a sardonically articulate Michael Caine and a chatty Julie Christie) sound off on matters of the day; material shot handheld and guerrilla-style on the street (semi-newsreel, proto-MTV); and pretty much anything else that takes his fancy. The results are jagged and seemingly slapdash, but it doesn't take long for a distinctly personal, witty, percussive aesthetic to emerge – or rather evolve from the milieu into which Whitehead so gleefully plunges. Though deliriously "of its time" (picture would make an ideal double-bill partner for Antonioni's Blow-UpTonite has somehow dated surprisingly little four decades on: the flat-out highlight, an extended chat with an entertainingly skeptical, hilariously world-weary David Hockney (who really does come across like a mix between Alan Bennett and Morrissey), feels like it was recorded yesterday (or perhaps even tomorrow).

Norway 2006 : Hisham ZAMAN : 52m : 17/1 at Fokus (press)
50-odd minutes proves an unsatisfactory running-time for low-key comedy Winterland, which could and should be bulked out to feature length – and there are at least a couple of sequences that are obvious candidates for elaboration and expansion. The picture a slow-burning, observational affair (in tone, pace and snowy environment reminiscent of Armenia's offbeat charmer Vodka Lemon [a prizewinner at TIFF 2004]) about Kurdish refugees living in a remote corner of northern Norway. The script mainly focusses on the tricky relationship between a fortyish factory-worker and the softly-spoken woman he has 'married' on paper without ever actually meeting – this unorthodox order of events having been caused (topically enough) by the exigencies of war. When the demure "princess" eventually arrives in Norway, she proves rather older and chunkier than her 'groom' had expected – but his biggest shock comes on the night of his wedding ceremony when she reveals that she isn't a virgin. Our hero's pig-headedly old-fashioned reaction to this news tests audience sympathies somewhat, but we suspect (correctly) that everything will work out just fine in the end. Nothing spectacular by any means, but providing sufficient wry chuckles – and poignant moments, courtesy of Shler Rahnoma's nicely delicate performance as the hapless "bride" – to ensure the not-quite-hour flies in pleasing style.

STILL LIFE : [6/10]
Sanxia haoren*
China 2006 : JIA Zhang-Ke : 108m : 17/1 at Fokus (public)
Still Life was the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival – and, while by no means a bad movie, is the kind of middling affair that makes you keen to find out what else was in competition. In fact, Children of Men, The Queen and Black Book were all in the running – and any of these would have been a worthier winner than Jia's topical but torpid tale of discontents in back-of-beyond China. His setting is the part of Sichuan province that has been flooded during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam – one of the largest engineering projects in human history. These still-unfolding real life events provide Jia with some spectacular and apocalyptic backdrops for what are very small-scale human stories: part of the point of the film being the incongruous contrasts between the latter and the former. There are two story-strands, which occasionally come tantalisingly close to convergence – both involve people searching for loved ones with whom they have, for various circumstancial reasons, lost contact. Ying Liang's Taking Father Home [also showing at TIFF 2007] covers similar thematic and geographical turf with much greater verve, humour, atmosphere and economy – Still Life feels somewhat ponderous and mannered in comparison, though there are several grace-note moments (ranging from the mundane to the quasi-sci-fi fantastical) that are clearly the work of a very talented and confident film-maker. Anyone only familiar with the much-garlanded, critically-lauded Jia from his last two films – this one and The World – would, however, be forgiven for wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

EMPTY : [5/10]
Estonia 2006 : Veiko OUNPUU : 40m : 17/1 at Fokus (public) 
A hostage to fortune, that title – and unfortunately for all concerned the film itself, while a decent enough little calling-card for its young writer-director, proves far from "full." It's a self-consciously offbeat, small-scale, deadpan-comic tale of love, jealousy and cuckoldry set in what looks like a coastal area of Estonia in what looks (hair, clothes, moustaches, cars) very much like the late 1980s. Speaking of the eighties: to paraphrase New Order, this is indeed a somewhat 'bizarre love triangle.' The participants: a lanky, sullen ginger-haired woman (who could pass for Cate Blanchett in a very dim light) whose feuding suitors are (1) a sad-sack, brown-suited bloke who can't contain his emotions and seeks to quell them with vodka and/or beer; and (2) a cartoonishly conceited, pompously 'sophisticated' violin-player. Gnomic exchanges abound, along with meaningful silences and semi-absurd situations which seem primarily engineered to provide the viewer with striking, tableau-style compositions. Best value is provided by Johan Ulfsak as an officious, mullet-haired "neighbour" who manages to steal both of the scenes in which he appears – not exactly grand larceny given the lukewarm nature of proceedings. Another highlight comes during the closing credits, namely a lively cover-version of George Jones's 'White Lightning' by The Fall – it's disappointing (though somehow predictable) that there's no actual mention of this in the credits themselves.

THE VIOLIN : [7/10]
El violin
Mexico 2006 : Francesco VARGAS QUEVEDO : 98m : 17/1 at Fokus (public)
Isn't there an adage that goes something like "you get the best tunes out of an old fiddle"? If there isn't, there should be – and The Violin provides ample evidence of this on about half a dozen levels. Most literally, a very old violin is a key element in the plot, which takes place in a mountainous/foresty rural spot during an unnamed civil war in a (deliberately) nameless Latin American country (grainy black-and-white adds much to the timeless feel). Then there's the violin's owner and player, an exceedingly venerable gent whose thirtysomething son joins the guerrilla resistance after his village is ransacked by brutal army personnel desperate to hunt down any and all rebel forces. Then there's the fact that the venerable violin-playing gent, the wonderfully-named Don Plutarco, is played by a non-professional chap of advanced years billed as Don Angel Tavira – "Don" being a particularly respectful variant of "Mr" in Spanish-speaking countries. Proud, dignified, quietly defiant, Tavira is terrific in what emerges, quite unexpectedly, the film's lead role – shades of Esther Gorintin in Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left [the highlight of TIFF 2004], perhaps. Don Plutarco's special skills (his proficiency achieved despite his only having one hand) bring him into the confidences of the area's military jefe, who turns out to be not quite the evil martinet he initially appears. The scenes between Don Plutarco and the military-commander may remind some viewers of similar moments in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, but The Violin is a much more intimate affair, one which wears its toughness and sensitivity rather more lightly (and is also thus a cut above Ken Loach's thematically-similar Wind That Shakes the Barley.) This is an impressively gritty little fable which manages to overcomes a somewhat hackneyed, unpromising opening to develop into a truly tense affair marked by unobtrusively powerful monochrome cinematography, restrained deployment of a suitably strings-dominant score, finely-drawn characterisations and a surprising avoidance of sentimentality. Recommended.

Neil Young
17th January, 2007

NB all details (timings, years, countries, etc) are from TIFF film-festival catalogue

INDEX to our TIFF 2007 coverage

* I'm informed that the original Mandarin title of Still Life roughly translates as "the good person of Shanxi province," and is thus an oblique reference to B.Brecht's play The Good Person of Sichuan.