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The Dawn of New Era: Locarno 2018

Dragonfly Eyes (2017)

Dragonfly Eyes (2017)

By Martin Kudláč.

The largest annual Swiss film gathering, and one of the longest running film festivals in the world, in Locarno flourished into a sought-after cinephile event, some say even “the worldwide cinephile benchmark.” Fearless in programming daring, experimental and all around unconventional cinema, although without the elitist tinge since also mainstream-ish fare and genre-leaning and -bending titles belong among the regulars on the slate, the distinctive position on the cinema worldmap is being attributed also to the late leadership of Carlo Chatrian.

The more surprising turned out to be the announcement that the seated artistic director will be soon vacating the position to take over the responsibilities of Dieter Kosslick, the director of the Berlin International Film Festival, which he will be sharing with Mariette Rissenbeek as the new leadership team of Berlinale from 2020 onwards.

The 71st edition of Locarno Film Festival thus became the swan song for the outgoing director. The festival programming remained consistent with its current direction, echoing and mirroring similar dramaturgic patterns from the previous editions. Besides some shared similarities between 2017 and 2018 edition, a cluster of films introduced in Locarno will be surely bowing in the Netherlands at the International Film Festival Rotterdam due to the shared aesthetic affinity and overlapping programming.

Several world-premieres felt as cut from the Rotterdam´s cloth despite the fact that Locarno´s programmers prefer more subtle and less idiosyncratic and punk filmmaking when it comes to debuting talents. However, the boom around exploring the combinatorics of fiction and documentary filmmaking and their seamless integration waned off and nothing as formally eccentric as Dragonfly Eyes by Xu Bing, a rare case of enforced narration carrying social commentary unto a series of authentic yet inconsistent found footage clips, made appearance.

The on-going debates about female representation and women in film industry defined the 2018 edition. Apart from several films named after their leading female protagonist and in one rare case anti-heroine, the 71st edition was the edition of women in pictures, literally and figuratively.

The festival did not shy away from being a political and this year, Locarno responded directly to the heated and on-going polemics on the gender inequality. The festival´s representatives committed to the pledge of gender parity and inclusion, the first A-list festival to do so after Cannes. From now on, the festival agreed to provide submission statistics according to gender, to unveil committee members and programmers and to reach parity in executive leadership.

After the festival has successfully wrapped the 2018 edition, the nomination of the new artistic director came in as the board unanimously appointed Lili Hinstin, the artistic director of Entrevues Belfort International Film Festival, into the role.

The social realist drama in the clothing of neo-noir thriller, A Land Imagined, netted the top honor in the international competition. A sophomore feature by emerging Singaporean filmmaker Siew Hua Yeo proceeds to fuse drama and genre elements structured as a puzzle narrative. While the story follows Inspector Lok attempting to find a missing Chinese worker from a Singaporean land reclamation site, most of the film remains dedicated to the plight of Wang, the missing worker, as insomnia drives him to discover the dark side of immigrant labor behind the splendor of Singapore.

Since Locarno and Rotterdam share many parallels, A Land Imagined can be compared to this year´s Rotterdam audience favorite, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem by Muayad Alayan. Alayan marries the allure of thriller and forbidden love story to socio-political drama against the backdrop of a divided Jerusalem. Yeo follows a similar route, albeit uncovering the toll behind Singapore´s meteoric economic rise. Where Alayan applies gradually escalating linear narration, the director of A Land Imagined blends two plotlines, the one of Wang and Lok, to a surreal effect of a mind deprived of sleep.

The more experimental approach assimilating relevant and seemingly irrelevant events in the story along episodic characters that may or may not be red herrings has a strong potential to detract viewers. However, the mystifying plot development and strong possibility of an unreliable narrator forces the audience to pay close attention to the unraveling of a story of exploited immigrant labor. Wang and Lok represent foreign labor and domestic government respectively, in a neo-noir thriller of government being incompetent to protect the underprivileged.

The main award from this year´s main competition at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam went to the Chinese bleak social realist drama infused with a pinch of magical realism and satire, The Widow Witch (2017). The director, Cai Changjie, frequently employs absurd humor and almost burlesque scenes as tools of a scathing critique of thorny social issues.

Whilst the combination of social realism and either absurdist or genre elements form a fair amount of contemporary independent Chinese films reflecting the dire nature of mostly provincial life, the writer-director Liang Ying, employs an indirect, subtle yet no less persuasive approach in his latest feature, A Family Tour, unveiled in the Locarno´s international competition. Set on the neutral ground of Taiwan, the film´s protagonist, a film director, Yang Shu, is about to meet her ailing mother who she has only seen through a computer screen over the last years.

Yang Shu lives with her family in an exile in Hong Kong after making a politically-charged feature, The Mother of One Recluse; a film inspired by events in her and her mother´s life revolving around Shu´s father that drew ire of the governing party. The setting of a seemingly uneventful family drama, Yang Shu, her husband and small son meet Shu´s mother at various sites in Taiwan so as not to arouse the suspicion of Chinese authorities who have already complicated enough Shu´s mother´s life at home. The film gathers its power through the ripple effect of the circumstances of Yan Shu´s displacement driven by political reasons which led to unwilling severance of ties with her family as well as the country.

Liang Ying semi-autobiographic film diverges from the latest surge of Chinese independent production at the international festival circuit. A Family Tour unveils as a psychological family drama outside the conventions and style of social realism exploring the uprootedness and the relative notion of freedom that Ying as a dissent filmmaker has direct experience with. He externalizes the frustration through the leading character and the emotional encounter and despite occasional proneness to controlled melodramatic moments; Ying preserves the political undercurrent as the protagonist pursues the justice without betraying her personal integrity. Partly emotional, bared of sentimentality with occasional albeit needed bouts of metatextual comicality most likely inspired by Ying´s real-life experience, A Family Tour is an affecting family drama serving as a vehicle to unearth a history with ever-present consequences.

One of the distinctive voices of Romanian New Wave, Radu Muntean, introduced a fairly different kind of film after his previous and acclaimed One Floor Below. His latest, Alice T., sits in the blind spot of psychological drama and teenage comedy, a Rorschach test to be decided by each viewer. The film opens with scenes from the domestic life of the eponymous protagonist, a temperamental teenage girl having a row with her mother over her growing suspicion that her adopted daughter may be pregnant. Alice vehemently denies this in an escalating and melodramatic fight demonstrating little respect for her provider. As it turns out, Alice is a pathological liar and unscrupulous opportunist while Alice T. is a rather fluid narrative.

a) Alice T. as a psychological drama. Muntean observes the dynamic between adolescent daughter and her mother from a distance as she exerts unconditional maternal love despite the daughter’s many flaws and while the absence of father figure is painfully present. The director effectively captures the corrosive effects of overprotective parenting which eventually turns against the mother.

b) Alice T. as a teenage comedy. The protagonist glides through her life and hurdles without a single care in the world, either for her mother or her closest friends. The young tyrant bullies, yells and greedily picks all the cherries from the cake of life in a hysteric fashion.

Diane

Diane

The New York Film Festival chief and the director of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Kent Jones, switches gears in his feature-length fiction debut, Diane, that has already bagged awards during its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. After dedicating documentaries to revered filmmakers in Hitchcock/Truffaut and A Letter to Elia, a seemingly ordinary aging woman dominates his latest offering. The eponymous protagonist, a mother of an adult son struggling with drug abusing problem, visits her terminally-ill cousin in hospital and encounters with death become a fixture in her life. Diane´s simple life unravels in between the demises of her relatives and friends which eventually prompts her to confront her own mortality. Jones accentuates the mundane face of death, a natural, integral and unavoidable part of human existence in a small town community.

The leading septuagenarian falls into the category of a self-sacrificing figure but contrary to Alice T.´s mother, she lets her son fight his demons despite worrying badly and redirects the energy to help the less fortunate in homeless shelter. Jones delivers a realist drama, melancholy looming in the background and slowly permeating the film´s tone. A rather minimalist yet deeply touching portrait of human´s demise depicted in a civil fashion makes Jones´ fiction debut even more fascinating. Alternative title: the minutiae of mortality.

Already winning the top honor at Locarno, the prolific South Korean auteur, Hong Sangsoo, revealed his 22nd feature, Hotel by the River, in the competition. A low-key chamber drama, takes place in and around a hotel and sees an elderly poet, Younghwan, invoking his two adult sons. The reason for the meeting is his sudden premonition that he is going to die, even though he does not suffer from any ailment, let alone life-threatening one. Against the ruminating trio appear two women retiring into a small hotel room as one of the them is trying to move forward after a recent breakup. Awkward encounters, existential crisis and meta-textual humor veil the essentially cryptic story as a reunion of male members of a dysfunctional family and the parallel storyline of a breakup intertwine.

If this year´s Locarno selection had a prevailing theme, it was for sure “a first love” while from the formal perspective, iterations of coming of age genre absorbed into dramas rotated on the big screens in succession. Both features create foundation stones of Canadian documentary-turned-fiction filmmaker Philippe Lesage´s new oeuvre Genesis. Lesage continues in revisiting the topic of first loves in a semi-autobiographic film, second one after The Demons (2015). Following two stepsiblings Guillaume and Charlotte on their love conquest, enriched by a surprising appearance of a third character in a coda-like ending, Lesage observes emotional and physical torment in a stoic mode.

As Guillaume has to grasp something that appears to not be a harmless bro-mance he feels towards his best friend, Charlotte seeks to establish a relationship with mature yet more irresponsible partner after her current boyfriend somewhat foolishly and naively proposed opening their relationship. In an intriguing execution, Lesage´s detached observation leaves viewers to fully absorb the endeavors of the protagonists and their inner turmoil. Genesis´ ambivalence of compassionate and cruel, of the two defining traits of growing up and adolescence, and Lesage´s psychological comprehension of the state of the minds of main protagonists make the film a poignant and superior addition to the plethora of coming-of-age stories.

Lesage understands his characters very good and the materialization on the screen is exquisite. The method of uninvolved examination resembles the style of Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund. The Canadian filmmaker does not employ long shots in the Östlund´s extent while he shuns the ironic undertones that characterize the Swedish director´s earlier works. Genesis tackles the abrasive effects of the protagonists route into the adulthood. Guillaume has to come to terms with mis-perception of his own image among peers, his class clown role is just an act to conceal his elitism and opportunism according to the class teacher, and later the ostracization after trying to be true to himself in front of the class. Guillaume plotline certainly does have comic moments stemming from the awkwardness of the particular moment that Lesage shares with Scandinavian poetics. However, he modifies the style for Charlotte´s story following a rather emotionally masochistic character that ends up being victimized in one of the most surprising, memorable scenes yet excruciating scenes where comic awkward shifts into shocking awkward although Lesage does not adjust his matter-of-fact formalism.

A coming-of-age version of Waiting for Godot turned out to be Glaubenberg by the Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach (Mary Queen of the Scots, 2013), as incestual desire takes the main role. Infatuation transforms into a grotesque obsession as Lena lusts after her brother and considers it love. Not as controversial as the premise might suggest, Imbach´s subject of interest veers towards the psychology of the situation and not biology. The unrequited and socially-avoided love drives Lena into a downward spiral of self-delusion as the desire takes a pathological turn, nudging the protagonist mental space into a fantasyland. The topic, as well as several situations, offered cringe potential and strenuous unraveling although Imbach chivalrously resisted the temptation to let the main character endure needless physical humiliation and abuse as some moments implied it might happen. The film takes certainly different route than to provoke shuddering bodily reaction. The title refers to the mountain where the siblings spent carefree time during their childhood, enjoying each other´s company and affections without the libidinous complications. After Lena´s hopelessness escalates, Glaubenberg the film takes a symbolic turn, a fulfilling finale crowned with a reasonable speck of sentimentality, after enduring the struggle of attempting to confront a social taboo and a biological urge out of control. The result is less biological and more lyrical as innocence concealed in the shadow of lust and delusion has the final word/scene.

A real-life story of Domenico Scandella, a 16th-century miller, receives the big screen (and fiction filmmaking) treatment from the Italian director, Alberto Fasulo. Despite the centuries of history, the story of Menocchio (the name under which Scandella was also known) remains topical for current times. The illiterate miller spreads very enlightened and progressive thoughts in the times when the Catholic Church needs to tighten its grip during the Protestant reform movement. He offers a different outlook on the world and life outside the totalitarian shadow of the Church and its obscurantism. Soon labeled as a heretic, Menocchio, a man of principles, withstands imprisonment, trials and the menace of being burned at the stake, refusing to bow down to imposed dogmas. In the period drama, Fasulo opts for a high number of face close-ups and compositions of talking heads, eventually invoking a form of a medieval documentary rather than a conventional fiction filmmaking. Fausulo translates a man´s struggle against the domineering and controlling power structure as a human story and not an aggrandizing myth despite the parallels between the biblical story of David and Goliath. Menocchio´s triumph turns out to be much bitter compared to David although the name of unknown miller made it into the historic books.

Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti joined forces to contribute to the dominant topic of the 71st Locarno´s line-up – the coming of age and first love – albeit in a folklore clothing, Sibel. The leading character, a mute girl named Sibel, belongs to a conservative community in the Black Sea Mountains where the local ancestral whistled language has persevered along with other customs (meaning gender stereotypes). By the nature of her handicap and superstitious villagers, she is shunned as she cannot fulfill the fundamental and old-fashioned mission – get a good, a euphemism for financially secured, husband and bear offspring. To prove her value to the small community, she prowls the forest intending to hunt down a wolf allegedly threatening the citizens. After Sibel traps an injured fugitive Ali instead of a bloodthirsty wolf, Zencirci and Giovanetti smoothly segue to socio-politically tainted territory as the process of coming-of-age entails peeking behind the curtains of isolation and encountering the world outside.

Zencirci and Giovanetti pivot between drama and fairy tale as Sibel gradually defies the superstition and ascends on the path of self-actualization. The tale of female empowerment unspools against the backdrop of conflict-stricken country and society´s conformity rather succumbing to the oppression than risking political backlash. The Turkish drama offers an inspiring story and parable of emancipation against the hardships of personal and geo-political circumstances propelled by the strong performance of Damla Sönmez in the leading role. Ultimately, Sönmez did not win the Best Actress award that traveled to Romania to the protagonist of the unruly child in Alice T.

Dominga Sotomayor, an emerging Chilean filmmaker, became the first woman to win the Best Director award in Locarno for her latest feature, Too Late to Die Young. The coming-of-age drama rendered in washed-out light colors sees a small community leave their urban environment and start a new life in nature´s embrace after the fall of Pinochet´s regime. Sotomayor draws parallels of the building of a small utopic paradise to a country born into freedom, an ecosystem that turns out to be extremely fragile where an irresponsibly dropped ember can lead to an inferno swallowing the whole realm. The focus of the story remains mostly on the leading characters, a boy harboring unrequited love for a girl that longs for the attention of an older guy, a side-effect of her strained relationship with father. Like Sibel, Sotomayor employs the iteration of coming-of-age formula to construct a socio-political parable. However, where Zencirci and Giovanetti re-mold the humiliation into empowerment, Sotomayor conjures the allegory of newborn country to first love. The susceptibility to heartbreak mirrors the pains of rebuilding country with all its falls and flaws, with the harsh experience providing a hardening effect to pull through in both cases.

Abbas Fahdel´s Yara also shares similarities with Sibel, the coming-of-age genre and the first love theme being the constant of the competition, in a folk-laden drama. The protagonist of the same name is a young-adult parentless girl living with her grandmother in isolation of the Lebanese mountains amid a deeply conservative society submerged in patriarchalism. The director tackles the topic and situation highly delicately, turning the focus to the serene, simple and ultimately innocent existence in a fascination with the daily minutiae as the formal line between documentary and fiction dissolves. The slow-burning, at times even plotless, narration and long observatory shots hint at slow cinema aesthetics in D.I.Y. mode since Fahdel was not only on writing and directing duty but produced, shot, edited the film as well as edited and mixed the sound.

Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of outlets. He holds PhD in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).

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