Sydney Film Festival,, May 2014

The Film That Will Make You Quit Your Job And Move To A Tiny, Anonymous Beijing Flat: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’

If Richard Linklater’s Boyhood epitomised honest, transparent, generous filmmaking, Black Coal, Thin Ice is adjacently oblique and enigmatic; a film that refuses to give up it’s secrets. Severed body parts are turning up in coal plants. The only clue is that their owners were all lovers of a sad, withdrawn dry-cleaning woman. Though Black Coal is mega-grim, a few moments of indescribable loveliness and melancholy render it unusually emotionally complex for a crime film. All the usual genre markets are there — the chase scenes; the signature murder weapon (ice skates!); the plot twists; the hardboiled, alcoholic detective protagonist. But at the core lies a broken romance that resonated truthfully and sets this film apart from other murder mysteries.

Despite it’s tough, anxious bleakness, Black Coal leaches a deep sorrow that is hard not to see as an indictment of China’s hostility (or at best, indifference) to its own citizens. And the nighttime picture of our tragic femme fatale, eyes glazed, feet invisible, gliding towards us on ice-skates across glowing ice and green neon, remains, for me, one of the most sublime and affecting images of the film festival.

For fans of: LA Confidential; Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery; mega-grim crime films; drinking whiskey on your own

The Film That Will Invoke An Existential, Anti-Capitalist Crisis: ‘Night Moves’

Hurray for genre films for real grown-ups! As capitalism’s efforts to break the atmosphere and trash the ocean have heroically gained momentum, the political thriller genre has morphed accordingly. Where it once was all about conspiracies (with a bell-bottomed Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, and a psychotically Republican Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate), eco-thrillers have now become standard festival fare (last year’s The East at SFF).

American director Kelly Reichardt has produced a seriously anxious film about frustrated activists who turn to super-direct action. She proves that slow, quiet thrillers are the deadliest, and that tension lives in the smallest spaces: the wrung hands, the dappled shadows across fluoro-yellow bags of nitrogen explosives, and the blurred cop lights through rear-view mirrors. High on spooky ethics, big ideas and white-knuckle suspense — let’s hope for a cinema release soon.

For fans of: The apocalypse; Planet Earth; intelligence; The Monthly; trees; carbon taxes; smart political thrillers.

The Film That Makes You Realise “Chinese Hipster” Is A Movie Genre: ‘Dancing in the Room’

The SFF marketing people are Freudishly genius. When they say “droll, oddball, low-budget, non-romantic comedy”, what they really mean is “poorly crafted, hipster Chinese film”. It seems the hipsters are everywhere — they are a truly global endemic, and they have infiltrated the film industry, too. Everyone wants to be Wes Anderson, which means a cliched indie film from North America is essentially the same as a cliched indie film from Asia: the design and photography declare themselves obviously, and the characters are parodies of themselves, swinging their legs over concrete freeway walls, wearing stripy socks, having deeply philosophical conversations and trading quick, witty banter filled with nostalgic and insanely niche cultural references.

Dancing in the Room is about a twenty-something woman with a great fringe who moves to Beijing, breaks up with her boyfriend, dabbles reluctantly in cosplay, does terrible karaoke, makes poor life choices and… that’s about it really. It’s a wasted subject: six million people (!!!) graduate from university every year in China, and most move to the cities expecting good careers but instead find menial employment and weird little subcultures of similarly down-and-out youth. This film could have been fascinating. Instead it went for the easy cliches, switched genres in the final act and pulled an unforgivable ‘don’t worry, Aunt Em, it was just a dream!’ deus-ex-machina stunt. I felt cheated.

For fans of: Fluffy cats; super-kawaii photo booths; plastic stationery made by small children in big factories; trashy karaoke

The Film That Will Explode Your Tiny Brain: ‘I’m Not Him’

The line between an open-ended film and an unripe one is fine, but the difference is enormous. It’s a shame the Hitchcock-inspired Turkish drama I’m Not Him didn’t tread that line more carefully. Its meta-narrative, genuine plot-twists developed from Vertigo and big themes of mistaken identity and existential rupture have made it a satisfying pick for many film festival curators and viewers. But for me, the plot was too opaque to be understood literally, yet not evocative enough to be read purely symbolically or atmospherically. I’m Not Him was just too far away and too emotionally detached, and while its self-assurance, photographic beauty and sheer cleverness will definitely earn it a bit of cinephile cred, I needed more transparency and heart.

For fans of: Vertigo; challenging cinema; mistaken identity; puzzle films like Memento; Turkish coffee.

The Film That Will Make You Want To Watch Fargo For The Hundredth Time: ‘Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter’

A seductive film premise is the easiest part of filmmaking, and American director David Zellner has a great one: a lonely Japanese office lady is convinced that the Cohen brothers’ Fargo is a true story, and treks to Minnesota to unearth the cash buried by Steve Buscemi’s idiot everyman. What starts as a tale of social alienation in Japan ends as a story of obsession everywhere.

Whether you think Kumiko is sweetly enchanted or dementedly fixated will decide whether you like this almost child-like indie film. The director and his star Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) play it straight, treating our heroine with mythological reverence. I sat back and let Kumiko wash over me as a symbolic fairy tale and really enjoyed it — the other critics savaged it and thought it was borderline ridiculous, and its protagonist tragically mentally ill. Whatever. It’s not brain-exploding, but get on board and you’ll see a sweet film about devotion versus delusion, with some beautiful deep-snow cinematography.

For fans of: Guinea pigs; suitcases full of money; whimsical Japanese cinema; stunning desolate winter photography


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