IFFR Capsule Reviews

The Road to Mandalay (Midi Z)

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the immigrant story is on the rise as a theme in cinema. Yet rarely do we get to glimpse this from an Asian perspective. Taiwanese director Midi Z, himself an immigrant from Myanmar, in his fourth feature film The Road to Mandalay gives us insight into the difficulties illegal immigrants coming from Myanmar to neighboring Thailand have to navigate to stay afloat in a harsh and corrupt society.

The ambitious Lianqing, a strong central role by Ko Kai, illegally crosses the border on the road to Bangkok, in search of a better life. A determined dreamer, she soon finds out that greasing is the name of the game in her new home country. Because she doesn’t have an ID, trouble is always looking over her shoulder, with exploitation also taking a peek from time to time. Luckily she is helped by Guo (Wu Ke-Xi), who is obviously infatuated with Lianqing from the start. A romance evolves, although Midi Z mostly just suggests it by showing them together all the time. The headstrong Lianqing has no time for big romance anyway, busy as she is with fulfilling her dream of getting an ID and work permit, a first step toward her ultimate goal of moving to Taiwan. Corruption screws them over though, several times, and while this doesn’t deter Lianqing from pursuing her goal, Guo, who has simpler dreams, descends into despair. This widening gulf between the couple leads to an explosive finish, after Lianqing takes a dramatic decision that leads to a metaphorical sex scene that will not wash from the mind that easily.

The strength of The Road to Mandalay is Midi Z’s decidedly sober look at the difficulties immigrants face in the grind of the Thai immigration industry, where corruption lies around every corner. The absence of any melodrama punctuates the few moments when emotions do run high, searing these scenes into the mind of the viewer. Less poetic and more direct than his countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, his style is probably more akin to mainland colleague Jia Zhangke, whose work also has a strong political streak. While Midi Z’s imagery doesn’t strike as deep as Jia’s, his steady, almost languid pacing, and the natural way he lets the central relationship develop, make The Road to Mandalay a film that holds the viewer until the last frames, where the explosive ending might seem like a melodramatic cop-out, but whose shock is well-earned for those who will give this film a chance to work on them.

Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux)

As a member of the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and having previously worked on live performances for this and other bands, it is no wonder that Canadian helmer Karl Lemieux’s first film is infused with a certain punk rock aesthetic that at times pushes the boundaries of his film into the experimental. It’s unfortunate that Lemieux isn’t able, or perhaps is not confident enough yet, to stretch this attitude for the length of a feature film, since in scenes where the film’s representation of its protagonist’s world does get chaotic, the approach works wonderfully as a metaphor.

Maudite Poutine tells the story of Vincent, a young musician in a hardcore punk rock band who also is involved in the local drug trade somewhere in Quebec province. After swiping a few bags of marijuana from people higher up, his troubles (he needs to pay back for the dope, and then some) drive him into the arms of his older brother Michel, a moody, hermit-like figure who lives in their late father’s trailer in the woods. But the mobsters (who, confusingly, Michel also seems to be in league with), are never far away, causing the lives of both brothers to violently spiral out of control.

If that all sounds a tad conventional, it is. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the distorted, grainy black-and-white imagery and the sonic attack do feel like a distraction from the fact that there is not much going on underneath, at least not as much as the aesthetic suggests. It does make at times for intense viewing, and the rawness the IFFR festival website likens to Philippe Grandrieux is certainly there, but one can’t help feeling that Grandrieux has a better grasp of why that rawness is there. Lemieux is clearly still finding his footing and signature here, experimenting with the medium, and sometimes forgetting that he also has a story to tell (a strand about a budding relationship between Vincent and a classically trained musician is still lost in the woods around the trailer somewhere). Lemieux shows the promise of an original voice, but hasn’t quite found it yet. Still, Maudite Poutine is a good enough sample for audiences to find out if they want to see more from this young director in the future.

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Eric Valette)

The Criss-Cross segment in the Perspectives section of IFFR focuses on French crime cinema this year, and Eric Valette’s Le serpent aux mille coupures certainly falls under this label. A gleefully violent, unapologetic policier, the film weaves an intricate (if incredibly convoluted) web of connections between its half-dozen principals at a steady pace, all culminating in a lengthy shootout at the film’s central location, the homestead of black farmer Omar. His skin colour gives the film certain social undertones, and even a plot motivation or two, but any underlying message it might have is drowned in the blood of the film’s many, many victims.

To explain the plot in all its details would be complicated, but the rough outlines are these: a highly trained Arab criminal (or terrorist, this is never really clear) by the name of Ibad is on the loose in the French countryside. By chance he runs into three Colombian drug traffickers, who have set up a meeting with two French gangsters in the wine fields of local farmer Omar and his wife. Ibad disposes of the Colombians, but wounded, he takes refuge in Omar’s home, holding the family hostage. The two French gangsters try to dispose of the bodies of the Colombians elsewhere, but this draws the attention of a local police inspector, a Spanish drug investigator, and the big honcho of a Colombian cartel, who in turn brings along a terryfying hitman by the name of Triple Zero (a juicy over-the-top performance by Terence Yin). The initial hit on the Colombians was spied on by another farmer, busy trying to destroy Omar’s vines, as he is part of a group of locals who would rather not have a black man as their neighbor, and this gets the locals involved in the plot too.

Sound convoluted? Rest assured that Valette, who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Hervé Albertazzi, goes out of his way to get all of these people (the ones still alive, that is) together at Omar’s farm for an explosive shootout that leaves virtually no man standing. There is very little nuance in the characterization with the exception of Ibad, who may hold Omar’s family hostage, but emerges as an anti-hero at the end of the film. The violence is at times overbearing (there were walkouts after one particularly graphic torture scene), but fans of the genre will certainly enjoy this well-paced thriller, overlooking the story’s many eyerolling plot diversions. The craftsmanship involved is excellent all around, and Valette certainly knows how to set a scene, but unfortunately the social commentary gets lost in the cacaphony of violence. If Omar and Ibad were, respectively, a white farmer and a white criminal, it wouldn’t have differed much, which leads to the conclusion these were only necessary plot points to set some of the story’s pawns in motion. A minor nitpick.

Prevenge (Alice Lowe)

Shot in just 11 days, the deliriously funny and deliciously gory (and decidedly British) Prevenge shows that its writer/director/star Alice Lowe is (despite her unassuming resemblance to a middle-aged next-door neighbor) a talented filmmaker, and a little twisted too. Despite its low budget showing through, Lowe manages to keep the audience connected just long enough to not get bored by the repetitive nature of the film, wrapping the story up with a glorious last-second surprise in just under 90 minutes.

Ruth (Lowe) is seven months pregnant and widowed, after her husband fell to his death in a terrible mountaineering accident. Whereas your average unborn child starts kicking around a bit, Ruth’s baby starts talking to her, and the things it says aren’t very nice. With baby instigating her to kill ‘selfish people’ (seemingly a reference to her dead husband and his dangerous hobby, with a child on the way), Ruth goes on a murder spree that gets out of control, and gives the makeup department of the film a chance to go all out on gaping wounds and other bodily harm. At least Ruth manages to keep a sense of humor about it…

In an interview (on video) after the film, Lowe said that she wanted to contrast the period of pregnancy, when everybody around the prospective mother acts happy and everything is all roses and lavender, with the pain that actually comes from giving birth, itself an act which seems almost alien (there is a reason everybody remembers that scene). There is a psychological struggle behind the idea of this film, a sort of PTSD before the trauma, as can be seen in the intentional wordplay in the title. While this doesn’t manifest itself too clearly in the film, it is something that the actually pregnant Lowe (the baby at the end of the film is her own newborn) must have thought about a lot during her pregnancy. That this is what comes out of this period is perhaps a little frightening (tongue in cheek fully intended), but also a testament to her creativity. The deadpan humor and in-your-face gore make for an intoxicating cocktail, and even if the film starts to feel samey when we get to yet another killing, the inventiveness of Lowe and her team keeps this fresh to the end. Highly recommended for those who do not take life too seriously, but perhaps young fathers-to-be should give this a miss.

Katie Says Goodbye (Wayne Roberts)

Debuting director Wayne Roberts had the luxury of a deep set of supporting character actors next to a phenomenal Olivia Cooke in the titular role, and the cast makes his debut film come to life in this somewhat predictable, but nevertheless moving coming-of-age story about a young Arizona waitress who dreams big in a place where dreams usually go to get crushed.

Living with her unemployed mom in a trailer park (dad left them for another woman), Katie works at a local diner (run by Mary Steenburgen, who is always a joy to watch), a job that allows her to save up for her big plan: move to San Francisco and become a beautician. The waitressing is not her only source of income, as she also gives a little extra ‘service’ to some of the men in town, as well as a father-figure trucker (Jim Belushi, in fine form). Katie comes across as somewhat simple, but her chirpy offering of sex comes off as an act of a gentle soul who sees no harm in sex just for the sake of it.

One day, she notices a new mechanic in the repair shop she passes by on her way from work, and she is immediately infatuated with this Bruno (soulful-eyed Christopher Abbott), an ex-con of few words. Slowly, the upbeat and positive Katie manages to lure Bruno out of his shell, and a relationship develops. Attentive watchers of this kind of story know that misery lurks around the corner, and when it starts raining misery on Katie, it starts pouring.

Some of Katie’s misfortune is telegraphed from miles away, but it is Cooke’s strong portrayal of the naive and sweet Katie seeing her dreams being smashed to bits one by one that helps keep the film strong into the final stretch, even if it is as unassuming as its central character. There is nothing novel here, but the earnestness of the film is admirable, and there is very little fat on its bones, the only negative probably Chris Lowell’s caricatural bad guy (Mireille Enos’ bad mother is far more nuanced in this respect). Not a film that sets the world on fire, but a strong emotional and distinctly female pull should help this film find an audience, and hopefully Olivia Cooke the exposure to get her into bigger films.

Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell)

Prejudice and bigotry are of all ages and places. As the current US administration is closing up its borders to Muslims, Swedish director Amanda Kernell’s debut film Sami Blood shows that elsewhere in the world, from the 1930s until today, racism has reared its ugly head too. Set against the bookends of a stubborn elderly lady who displays clear racist tendencies towards the indigenous Sami people of northern Sweden, Sami Blood tells the tale of a bright Sami girl, Elle Marja (Maj-Doris Rimpi), who refuses to be oppressed and ridiculed by the Swedish townfolk around her. A fiery spirit, she defies her mother and sister, and after ditching her traditional dress sneaks into a dance with the locals. There she meets Niklas, visiting from big city Uppsala. Shortly after, she hops on a train, in search of Niklas and a life as a ‘normal’ Swede. She takes on the name Christina, and tries to work her way into Uppsala society, but it is not long before her real identity is found out, and she has to come to a decision on her identity and place in the world.

The bookends show the old Christina revisiting the North after the death of her sister, who has remained true to her roots. It is these scenes that underline what prejudice can to do to people, as Christina has grown to hate her own heritage and people, and only at this advanced age finds peace with where she comes from. The problem is that the film in between those bookends is mostly far too tame to resonate, focusing too much on Christina’s struggles to adjust in a world she is not used to. After the opening scenes with elder Christina displaying her aversion and racism towards the Sami, that message never returns so starkly in the film, which mostly remains a costume drama of manners. Art direction and cinematography are top quality, and lead actress Rimpi is clearly talented, but the film lacks bite to make a real impression in a time that, as recent events have shown, really needs it.

Beyond the Mountains and Hills (Eran Kolirin)

Everybody has some dark secrets to hide, whether it’s a family member or a whole nation. Eran Kolirin’s (The Band’s Visit) third feature-length film Beyond the Mountains and Hills explores the cracks in an Israeli family of four that is a regular, harmonious unit on the surface. Father David Greenbaum (Alon Pdut) has just left the army, and is trying to create a new career in home marketing. Mother Rina (Shiree Nadav-Naor) is a teacher who attracts the attention of one of her students. Daughter Yifat (Mili Eshet) is a rebellious teenager who falls in love with a Palestinian. And son Omri (Noam Imber) is a skater boy who calls his mother a whore. All four do something in the film that they would rather not reveal, and even as some family members know the secrets of some of the others, they try to deal with them on their own.

While the web of secrecy is entertaining enough in its own right, it is the underlying metaphor of this family as a representation of the state of Israel that gives the film another layer. Even if Israeli-Arab tensions only tangentially find their way into the film except for Yifat’s story, they still seep in precisely because they are on the edges, and the film explores several themes that directly connect to them.

In terms of filmmaking, Kolirin’s style is rather flat, with very few directorial flourishes, the most eyecatching, or perhaps ear-catching, his frequent use of music and song, while eschewing an actual score. The song lyrics are almost a commentary on various incidents in the film. Beyond the Mountains and Hills is a strong film, a little hard to get into, but ultimately rewarding long after viewing.

Demonios tus ojos (Pedro Aguilera)

When you tell children they are not allowed to do something, why is that exactly what they try to do? And do we actually change that behavior when we become adults? What attracts us in the forbidden? It is this theme that Spanish Tiger Award competition entry Demonios tus ojos explores, homing in on one of the last taboos, incest.

One night, celebrated director Oliver (Julio Perillán) is scouring porn clips on the internet, when he stumbles onto a clip of his half-sister Aurora (Ivana Baquero) having sex. He returns to Spain, the country he called home for a long time, to visit her, and unbeknownst to her installs a camera in her bedroom, giving him the ability to watch her 24/7. Things get more uncomfortable when she finds out, and starts a dangerous game of push and pull. The physical attraction is there, the attraction to the danger of the forbidden as well, and the question becomes if Aurora and Oliver will give in to the temptation and where that leads their relationship.

The fascination in Demonios tus ojos lies not so much in its subject matter, as daring and provocative as it may be, largely because it doesn’t really have a lot to say about it. The essence here lies in the audience, and their reaction to the film. Even if the subject matter is taboo, there is a strange tension when watching this, like you know you are watching, and enjoying, something that shouldn’t be enjoyed. Great credit goes to Aguilera, whose sensual, even erotic imagery and the way he captures the Lolita-esque Aurora lend the film a sense of voyeurism that is at once uncomfortable and titillating. The voyeurist aspect is enhanced by the proceedings in Aurora’s bedroom being shown full screen in an elliptical frame, as if we are looking through Oliver’s eyes. This puts us in the place of the director (as Oliver is, both by profession and in the way he ‘directs’ these ‘scenes’), and says something about how we watch stuff that falls outside of the norm, and what that does to us. The film’s coda misses the mark on this, because of the extreme example given (not to be spoiled here), but the rest of the film is an interesting subject for discussion.

Daphne (Peter Mackie Burns)

There comes a point in time when you start thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” Daphne (Emily Beecham) has reached that point. A sous chef by day, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed philosophy fan by night, she is at a crossroads. Afraid to commit to anything, she keeps everyone at arm’s length, as much a pose as a defense mechanism, until one night she witnesses a violent stabbing, and her life begins to unravel.

Scot helmer Peter Mackie Burns and screenwriter Nico Mensinga show a keen eye for millennial angst, and in lead actress Emily Beecham they have found a perfect voice who strikes the right tone between sad and funny, heartfelt and uncomfortable, to create a lived-in portrait of a woman who is desperate to find her way in life, but doesn’t know where to look. Daphne is a film that takes a little time and effort to get into, but as it progresses and you become more comfortable with Daphne’s rhythm, your heart starts to go out to this woman on a path of self-destruction, not least because of all the small nuances Beecham puts into her performance. Nothing rings false here, even if the film is still safely colouring within the lines as opposed to treading new ground. Yet it uses exactly the right colours in exactly the right places, which lifts the film a level or two above a Bridget Jones’s Diary, the somewhat obvious comparison piece. But Beecham’s Daphne is darker, more acidic in her comedy, more desperate in her struggle to find her place, and even lonelier than Renée Zellweger’s more famous single white female.

Not enough can be said about Beecham’s extraordinary performance here. An actress mostly known for TV work (although she did land a small role in Hail, Caesar! recently), the 32-year-old Beecham, just slightly older than her character, manages to stir up empathy for a not wholly sympathetic woman, creating a full-bodied character out of the slightest inflections of her voice or a narrowing of the eyes. Some scenes lend themselves to broadness, but Beecham doesn’t really give in to the temptation. A scene at her therapist’s, where her only screen companion is his voice, becomes a master class in held-in emotions, slyly helped by Burns’ choice to employ a slow zoom in and out during the quasi-monologue. It is Beecham’s performance that propels Daphne up a notch or two, and although the film doesn’t break new ground, it creates a central character and a world that make you want to know what happens next, even as the film provides some closure for Daphne. Hopefully, this film will not be forgotten when the next BIFA awards roll around, because it deserves all the praise it can get.