Disturbing in its plot and philosophy, TWILIGHT PORTRAIT (right) is perhaps surprisingly co-written by its female director Angelina Nikonova, and her female lead, Olga Dihovichnaya. Beaten down by her job and her unresponsive husband, social worker Marisha (Dihovichnaya) is brutally gang-raped by a group of police, and desperate for vengeance. But when she tracks one of them down to his grim apartment block, and has her chance for revenge, she instead falls for him in Stockholm Syndrome fashion, and becomes utterly devoted to him and his family. He even metes out a kind of twisted justice at her behest, and they both cross the line.
Truly upsetting and perhaps even more shocking is the obsession, fear, denial and self-loathing that spirals out of control in Oliver Hermanus’ BEAUTY, and leads to the brutal gay rape of a young man by the central character, Francois. You have been warned.
MISS BALA (right), from Gerardo Naranjo, stars the impressive Stephanie Sigman as a would-be beauty queen who is recruited by a gang when she witnesses their nightclub hit on the police. Swiftly and unwittingly drawn into their plans, determined to keep her father and brother safe, barely able to emote as lawlessness swirls around her, she simply cannot escape the gang leader’s clutches – and yet she still competes in the surreal beauty pageant. Non-stop bloody violence ought to make this a bit ho-hum, but it’s Sigman’s focused femme fatale that makes this a must-see.
Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s powerful debut FLYING FISH is a series of interlocked, beautifully shot tales of love and violence, with explosions of sex and murder punctuating the nihilistic narrative, foregrounding the acts rather than the characters.
Those more used to seeing Andy Lau in crime thrillers like Infernal Affairs will admire his versatility in Ann Hui’s charming and moving drama, A SIMPLE LIFE (right). Here he’s spoiled businessman, Roger, who is waited on hand and foot by his elderly maid, Ah Tao, who he takes for granted – until she has a stroke and their roles are reversed. While helping her locate and live in a care home, and meeting the other ageing residents, Roger remains in denial about her flagging health. Meanwhile Ah Tao accepts her lot with gratitude and gentle stoicism, and we see their relationship strengthen credibly – thanks to both leads’ performances.
If it’s black and white, yet modern comedy you’re after, then Hong Sangsoo comes up with the goods again in THE DAY HE ARRIVES. Hong’s main character is a film-maker returning to Seoul who has comical reunions with his old friends. And they not only drunkenly rake over the past and their old conversations, but Hong also literally re-runs the same scenes, with fresh takes, crucial differences and repetitions in dialogue and rhythm, so the endlessly amusing film is also structured like a piece of music with key motifs.
Last year’s festival gave us Sawako Decides. This year Yuya Ishii presents the glorious, life-affirming comedy, MITSUKO DELIVERS (right), again focusing on a madcap heroine (the mesmerising Riisa Naka) who takes the road less travelled in every part of her life. Occasionally slapstick, frequently surreal, but always warm-hearted, it’s the tale of a woman who changes everything and everyone she encounters.
Set in the middle of the economic downturn as it hits Japan, it shows that if you follow your dream (or in Mitsuko’s case, follow your “cloud”), then even if you are single and pregnant, have lied to your parents about being in America, and have no money, prospects or possessions, things can still turn out to be “cool”. Which is precisely what this film is.
The must-see documentary of this year’s festival is undoubtedly DREAMS OF A LIFE (right), from our own Carol Morley, starring Zawe Ashton (now better known for playing Vod in Fresh Meat). It’s an extraordinary story of an ordinary woman, Joyce, whose decaying corpse was found some three years after her death, above the shopping centre in Wood Green. Getting much further than the police investigation, Morley meticulously reconstructs Joyce’s life, interviewing friends, old flames, colleagues and even her MP, and interweaving them with Ashton’s subtly re-enactments of the key moments. Guaranteed to haunt you long afterwards.
Also worth checking out is DARWIN, Nick Brandestini’s faithful film about a ghost town of only 35 people of all shapes, sizes, faiths and predilections, right on the edge of Death Valley, California.
WOMEN WITH COWS, Peter Gerdehag’s lyrical documentary about two ageing, bickering, yet ultimately loving Swedish sisters, trying to keep their dairy farm going despite one having critical health problems, and the other wanting out, plus nit-picking government regulations. The idyllic-looking surface gradually reveals the real harshness of rural survival in the 21st Century, much like the Belgian drama, Last Winter.
There have already been over a dozen films made about murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, but Marina Goldovskaya’s BITTER TASTE OF FREEDOM perhaps gets closer than any to the real woman, choosing to focus on her humanity as well as her commitment, drive and professionalism.
Michael Barnett’s SUPERHEROES documents more of a frivolous subject, the real-life superheroes who roam the streets at night, righting wrongs and setting themselves up as beacons of moral strength and guidance. Their comic book costumes and invented personas make them hard to take seriously, and inevitably, much humour ensues, but Barnett shows that deep down their purpose remains righteous and well-intentioned.
© Helen M Jerome 2011