In its sixty-seventh year, the Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival, continues to function as one of the better barometers for the current climate of world cinema. It is in Berlin, after all, that X-Men universe blockbusters (Logan) and generations-late sequels (T2 Trainspotting)–I didn’t happen to see either–receive their international, red-carpet premieres, next to ethnographic documentaries chronicling the lives of those in depressed, former-Soviet Georgian mining towns (City of the Sun) and metaphysically inflected Bhutanese film noirs (Honeygiver Among the Dogs). The latter pair were two of the approximately twenty or so titles that I did manage to see–of the nearly 400 that screened at this year’s Berlinale. What follows is an account of the best of these works, which together suggested a solid but by no means spectacular Berlinale, in a year in which political topicality was somewhat less prominent than it was one year ago. In the age of Trump and Brexit, and with a German election coming in September, expect this to change dramatically over the next couple of years.
However, before I spend some time with my favorites from this year’s Berlinale, let me first acknowledge what was for me a predictable and mostly acceptable Competition winner: Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul. The story of two socially awkward slaughterhouse coworkers who learn that they share the same dream life, the My 20th Century director’s lightly comedic romantic melodrama is perhaps most interesting for what it reveals of the present state of European art cinema, and in particular its sources: where the 1989 Academy-nominated feature exuded the influence of Federico Fellini, at precisely the time in which the Italian filmmaker’s influence was at its most universal, On Body and Soul feels closer to the newer surrealist strain present in the work of Greek directors Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) and Rachel Athina Tsangari (Chevalier), and to the almost autistic quality that they communicate in their non-naturalistic characterizations. On Body and Soul doesn’t quite match their conspicuous mannerism, but it does at least confirm their work’s place on the forefront of latter-day European surrealism.
Of the twenty-odd titles screening in Competition, the biggest exception to the above, apolitical nature of the festival, may have been Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope (pictured above), the rockabilly Finn maestro’s serio-comic take on the Syrian refugee crisis–a topic that dominated the conversation at the 66th Berlinale (which notably featured the Oscar-nominated Fire at Sea and Havarie). The director’s first feature since his outstanding Le Havre in 2011, The Other Side of Hope follows Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) and middle-aged Finn Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), whose lives converge forty minutes in when Wikström hires Khaled to work in his dive establishment–after trading punches. The Other Side of Hope is possessed of an old-school proletarian social consciousness, which Kaurismäki visualizes in the coal-faced first appearance of his Syrian hero; and is haunted by right-wing nationalism, within a country that refuses the Syrian refuge. Though not quite to the level of The Match Factory Girl (1990), this is darker Kaurismäki, even as it retains something of the lighter spirit of a Drifting Clouds (1996) in its restaurant set-pieces especially, whether it is when we first glimpse their sardine-in-the-tin offerings or an aborted attempt to re-brand as a sushi house. Kaurismäki, rightly awarded best director for his work in The Other Side of Hope, deftly blends these disparate tones within the drab Formica and wood-paneled world, captured in simple reds and blues, and through the poker-faced, almost Bressonian performances that as always provides his visual signature. The Other Side of Hope is significant, if not quite top-tier work from Finland’s greatest living auteur.
Unexpectedly sharing The Other Side of Hope’s alien story-line, blend of light comedy and (shocking) violence, social consciousness, and most notably a major focus on food–albeit far more appetizing than in the case of Kaurismäki–Sabu’s Mr. Long may just have been the sleeper of this year’s Competition. Beginning in media res with a gathering of Taiwanese gangsters, the titular Mr. Long (Chen Chang) makes his presence known first in the spreading, fresh blood stain and then the knife’s blade that slowly emerges through the chest of a late-arriving colleague. With the latter thus collapsing onto the ground, Long appears and quickly cuts down everyone in the room, before placidly making his way through an empty streetscape, beneath glowing red lanterns. Assigned to a second job in Japan, things quickly go sideways, leading Long to hide out in a drug-riddled suburb where he will develop friendships with the neglected child of a junkie mother, and a bighearted group of townsfolk who force the silent Long, who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, to use his culinary gifts against his will. (In a moment of generic self-consciousness, the young boy explains that it is Long’s cool and the fact that he doesn’t say anything that leads to his fate.) Most of Mr. Long’s two-hour-or-so duration are committed to this comedic-melodramatic interstice in the life of the master contract killer, before he is, according to the codes of the genre, forced to face his knife-wielding enemies in a spectacularly violent, penultimate set-piece. Satisfyingly sentimental and successfully heterogeneous, Mr. Long is the Platonic ideal, essentially, of a New York Asian Film Festival centerpiece selection.
The recipient of the best actor prize in Competition, and another film in which a parent works, however inadequately, to reconcile with a child they’ve neglected, German director Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights operates in a far more naturalistic idiom–though it too combines humor and melodrama. After his father passes away, estranged father Michael (prize-winner Georg Friedrich) and long-haired, young teenage son Luis (Tristan Göbel) travel together to Norway to attend the funeral. With a few extra days before they need to return home, Luis reluctantly agrees to accompany his father on a trip through the land of the midnight sun. This natural phenomenon will thematically replicate the interpersonal stakes of the trip, with the sins of the father perpetually exposed and scrutinized by the emotionally wounded Luis. Things don’t exactly go as hoped, however, especially after Michael announces a plan for a three-day hike–and after an ominous, initially Kiarostamian long-take from the front windshield of their rental that takes the pair deep into the sublime Norwegian countryside. Bright Nights is an exceptionally well directed film, whether it is the emotional acuity that Arslan pulls from his performers or the character-focalized camera placements that establish the emotional rules of the film’s father son interactions–as, for instance, when Luis’s demand that his father not come any closer is met with a single medium close-up that Michael obediently does not breech. Arslan’s film is also, and perhaps, most of all, a work of texture, whether it is on the level again of its fine performances, or the physical feel of the sub-Arctic turf as Michael wrestles Luis to the ground.
Rounding out my Competition highlights was Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, the Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) director’s nineteenth feature in twenty-two years. With nearly all of those films involving the same essential narrative features–a filmmaker or artist, a pretty young woman or two, holiday settings, long conversations over dinner, and massive amounts of alcohol–the question with each new Hong is the manner in which Hong will rearrange the pieces, where he will put the black lines, bold colors, and fields of white (to use, and indeed overuse my favorite Mondrian-Hong comparison). With On the Beach at Night Alone, which stars Right Now, Wrong Then’s wonderful, best actress prize-winning Kim Minhee as Younghee, the answer is to transform what has always been a biographical template, a portrait of the banal everyday of the art-film auteur, into the stuff of real-world tabloid confessional, with the married director and his mistress combining for a film that focuses on Younghee’s rootless experience after her separation from her former lover and director. Eventually, Younghee and her partner reestablish contact in a scene that may or may not function as fantasy, and at the very least reaffirms the fact that there is no fact in Hong’s purely fictional worlds. In this moment of confrontation, bracketed by scenes on the eponymous, wintery beach, Hong’s own surrogate expresses his grave regret and self-loathing even as he gives Kim’s character her own focal voice, following the real-world revelations of their torrid affair. Whether or not On the Beach at Night Alone qualifies as top level Hong or not–I would lean toward not, though it is very solid–it certainly adds, and does so in a thematically significant manner, to a body of work that deserves to be considered one of the greatest of the past two decades.
Outside of Competition, the Berlinale’s more experimentally mined Forum, as always, provided the greatest quantity of significant works. Among the 47th Forum’s better entries were Argentine director Vladimir Durán’s surreal So Long Enthusiasm, with its perpetual reference to an off-camera space in the person of an unseen, imprisoned matriarch. However, the absolute highlight of this year’s version was Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar, which was also by far the stronger of the two Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Manakamana) offerings in this year’s selection. Comprised of three chapters with the majority of the film’s duration committed to a second, “costas” or coasts segment, El mar la mar provides a poetical portrayal of the Sonoran border region of the United States and Mexico–a region of great international political significance, to be sure, and another exception to this year’s comparatively apolitical direction. Bonnetta and Sniadecki synthetically patch together vantages of the parched desert lands, the remnants of lost travelers, and the testimonies of those that have borne witness to the desperation of the migrants who have risked their lives crossing the broad, dry expanse. Ironically, the image of something like a sea does materialize in this second part as we get a sense of this vast formidable expanse that divides the developing and developed worlds between either coast. In the third part, the filmmakers magnify the profound dangers of the space with its lyrical depiction of a violent desert thunderstorm, while part one’s near flicker effects suggest both early 1960s Stan Brakhage, and also the ominous presence of a border wall.
Moving to the Panorama, it was another landscape-dominated film that provided not only the best title in that particular section, but the revelation and one of the finest films of the entire 67th Berlinale. Mainland filmmaker Yang Heng’s Ghost in the Mountains opens with a tight framing of two young men with motorcycle helmets and a wad of cash. A consequent pan will connect the pair to the lifeless body upon which they are gazing. This opening set-piece, which will disclose the first of many spectacular mountain landscapes in Yang’s film, establishes both the formal and also the narrative parameters of the Betelnut (2005) helmer’s latest: Yang will shoot many of his scenes in extremely long takes and a great distance from his subjects; he will make use of camera movements to complete the context for his scenes, on occasion with a pitch-black sense of humor; and his narrative will circle back, like the camera movements themselves, to the place where the story started, to this opening prologue that we will rejoin at the film’s conclusion.
In the second scene, the film introduces its destitute subject Six (Tang Shenggang) as he returns to his backwater hometown, and to the small-time thugs and petty criminals whom he left years earlier in search of something more in the city. After passing out drunk on a rural road, he eventually finds his way to his family home where, in a template of a number of scenes to follow, he sporadically converses in extreme long shot, while turning his back to his brother, as both suck down cigarette after cigarette, beer after beer. Ghost in the Mountains indeed maintains the same disreputable, slacker, hangout spirit as the director’s notable 2005 indie feature, albeit within the spectacular, painterly framework of the Chinese landscape, which provides the basis for that nation’s highest visual art genre, and also a key feature of many of the more significant recent Chinese independent films. As the film progresses, which is to use the term in loose, temporal terms only, Yang slowly reveals the fatalistic mechanics by which the first scene act of violence will come to occur. A great circularity, glimpsed at an even greater distance over an exceptional period of time. Ghost in the Mountains is further confirmation of Mainland China’s leading position in the creation of a politically vital and formally experimental 21st century art cinema, one that finds China as the latest site for the struggles and inequities inherent within the uneven process of modernization and capitalistic development.