Berlin Diary: Ice cream, cheesecake…

Posted on February 13, 2015

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All good things, including film festivals, must come to an end.

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Midway through the festival, I decided I hadn’t seen much Asian cinema. I missed Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak, thinking that I’ll get to see it back home anyway. (A friend who was at the screening said the response was rapturous.) The in-competition Chinese film Gone With the Bullets didn’t interest me much – I’m sure it’s a gorgeous production, but what little I heard of it reminded me of numerous earlier films, especially Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad. I settled on something smaller instead, a Taiwanese film named Thanatos, Drunk, directed by Chang Tso-Chi. What a bad decision. This isn’t about the film itself, which follows the story of two brothers – one straight, one gay. This is about the style, best described by this note from the press release: “These are lives in limbo, without fixed coordinates.” At some point during a film festival, the brain shuts down. This was that time for me. The film itself seemed to be in limbo, with frame after psychedelic frame floating by with no mooring, and I committed the ultimate sacrilege. I kept switching on my phone and looking at the time.

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I had better luck with Phan Dang Di’s in-competition Vietnamese entry, Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories. (A good night’s rest surely helped.) The film is eerily similar to Thanatos, Drunk – again, the slimmest of plots fleshed out with impressionistic imagery; another gay angle. But the longueurs here are handled with a gently lyrical touch, which makes all the difference. The film is being advertised as “a magical love story,” and whatever else, it’s certainly about the love for pictures, still and moving. The story is about a photography student who gets a camera and begins to “look” at the people and places around him, in the city and in the Mekong Delta, and the cinematography is possessed by a similar spirit of inquisitiveness. Water, sky, mud, folk songs backed by a guitar, nightclub performances, ballet lessons, sexual jealousy, gang-related violence, an experiment with lipstick – everything comes together so quietly, you can practically hear the crickets.

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Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents. That’s a provocative title. It’s a provocative movie. The “or” is misleading, for this German film narrates the story of Dora as well as her parents. She’s a special-needs child — only, she’s no longer a child. She’s discovering her sexuality. Soon, she smiles at a man, who’s only too happy to use her for sex. And the questions begin. Should Dora be protected always, never to be free to be her own person? What are the man’s responsibilities? Is it enough that he’s made Dora feel like a woman, as opposed to her parents, who keep treating her like a child? And what about Dora’s mother, who’s trying to get pregnant and discovers, to her horror, that her daughter has gotten there first? Is she right in insisting on an abortion? The film is somewhat contrived as drama, but it’s more successful as a trigger for thoughts that rarely arise in other child-abuse stories. The director, Stina Werenfels, isn’t after our pity. She asks us to look at Dora the way Dora wants to be looked at, as a “normal person.” It isn’t easy.

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The last days of a film festival are like the efforts of someone who knows it’s all over between the two of you, but is trying to let you down very slowly, very gently. The big, splashy premieres are over, as is the did-you-see-this? excitement of being among the first people in the world to catch a film and discuss it. But this is when we get the time to catch up on buzzed-about films (that we weren’t able to schedule in earlier) that are having repeat screenings, or just watch something because you want to, and not because you have to. You’re done with the spinach. Now have a helping of ice cream – or, the salted caramel cheesecake, which, I must say, has me lighting up a (mental) cigarette after every slice.

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That probably explains why the premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was saved for the end. With its swirls of colour and generally saccharine disposition, the film is literally dessert. I’ve always enjoyed Branagh’s work as a director – I mean, he made something worthwhile out of a Thor movie – and I thought he’d bring some of that wit to bear upon this ancient fairy tale. I half expected the Prince to be outed as the foot fetishist he surely was, massaging the soles of millions of women under the pretext of finding the owner of the glass slipper. Alas, this is a faithful retelling. The word “competent” kept coming to mind. That’s hardly the recipe for magic.

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