Wednesday 17 August 2016

Melbourne International Film Festival - Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan pays his first visit to MIFF

Serious young cinephile  Shaun Heenan currently lives in South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. This is the first of a series of reports he will be posting about the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.

This was my first trip to the Melbourne Film Festival, and my first trip to Melbourne. I took two weeks off work to attend the festival, and spent twelve days watching films non-stop, for a total of almost sixty films. I chose twelve days to match the length of my usual haunt, the Sydney Film Festival, though MIFF itself runs for eighteen days.

Patrons at MIFF are separated into two groups for queueing, with those who pay the yearly $95 membership allowed in first to have their pick of the seats. I ended up in the Member queues quite by accident, because a membership is required to purchase a Festival Passport, which allows you to book as many sessions as you want for $369. If you’re seeing more than about 25 films, it becomes cheaper to buy a full pass.

Day One
Forum Theatre, Melbourne
The Forum Theatre is right across the road from Flinders Street Station, making it a good place to spend the majority of the festival, as long as you don’t mind a few stairs. The upstairs auditorium is grandly decorated with around 600 seats. This became my home base for the festival, and although I saw 35 films here, I never sat further back than the third row. The seats reminded me of those in Sydney’s State Theatre: padded but far from luxurious, and packed fairly tightly together. I stayed here for all of my first day at MIFF.

Mahana (Lee Tamahori, New Zealand, 2016)
The director and star (Temuera Morrison) of Once Were Warriors (1994) reunite for this 1960s-set drama showing the conflict between two proud sheep-shearing Maori families. Morrison is the clear highlight in his performance as the brutal patriarch of the Mahana family, though the film focuses on his quiet grandson Simeon (Akuhata Keefe, who is less impressive in his first role.) The film impresses while focusing on the practical survival of an outcast group of hard-working family members, but the drama during revelations of family secrets later on is much less convincing. Very mildly recommended.

Diamond Island (Davy Chou, Cambodia/France/Germany/Thailand/Qatar, 2016)
Straight from the International Critics’ Week at Cannes, this visually impressive but slowly paced film shows the disenfranchisement of Cambodian youths, growing up in a country which is moving away from them. The characters are a group of teenage construction workers, risking permanent injury to build a luxury resort none of them will ever be able to stay in. These themes are mirrored in a side-plot about a young man made comparatively rich due to his Western ‘sponsor’, whose nature is never explained, but sadly obvious. The aesthetic is the highlight here: the film filled with neon lights and dreamlike music. Recommended.

Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2016)
The first of thirteen Palme d’Or nominees on my schedule, and the winner of the main prize at the Sydney Film Festival. Sonia Braga’s performance dominates in this story about a retired music critic fighting against the system as wealthy developers try to buy her out of her beachside apartment.
There’s both humour and horror to be found as the rich dirtbags use nastier and nastier tactics to try to force Braga to move. I’ll need to revisit this one when I get a chance, since exhaustion caught up with me, but I was impressed by what I saw.  Recommended.

I had also planned to see Mohamed Ben Attia’s Tunisian drama Hedi on this first night, but after nodding off a few times during Aquarius, I decided I was better off heading back to the hotel early to get some sleep. I’ll catch up with this one whenever I get the chance.

Day Two
To start my second day at MIFF, I had originally booked Tommy Krappweis’ German YA fantasy film Mara and the Firebringer, but as I headed into ACMI for the screening I realised hundreds of schoolchildren had shown up on class trips to that session, and switched my ticket for the film playing across the street at The Forum.

Radio Dreams (Babak Jalali, USA/Iran, 2016)
Winner of the Tiger Award at Rotterdam, this film set in a Persian-language radio station in California has a sense of humour which keeps it mildly amusing throughout. Iran’s first heavy metal band has been flown to America to meet and jam with Metallica live on air, assuming the big-name band actually shows up at the station. Iranian musician Mohsen Namjoo does well in his performance as the ever-more-exasperated station manager (with an incredible hairdo) trying to fill time with impromptu programming as the band get later and later. Mildly recommended.

The Bacchus Lady (E J-yong, South Korea, 2016)
The story of an elderly Korean woman who works as a prostitute to pay for her son’s overseas education. She finds herself taking care of a child after his mother winds up in prison. The film draws attention to the real-life situation of many older Korean women left in poverty without savings or welfare, but fails to make its own story connect emotionally. The plot unnecessarily goes off on some pretty wild tangents, failing to recognise the simple human drama of the premise. Not recommended.

Harmonium (Kōji Fukada, Japan, 2016)
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes this year, Harmonium works really well for its first hour. This is a Hitchcock-style story of a man who inserts himself into the lives of a Japanese family. He has a mysterious history with Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), but it comes as a surprise to Toshio’s wife and daughter when the man is invited to live with them. All of this buildup is great. It’s an impressive thriller. And then something horrible happens at the halfway point, and the movie spends the remaining hour not knowing what to do with it. The second half fails as completely as the first half succeeds, meandering through misery without doing anything touching or clever. I can’t quite recommend this, but it’s close.

Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
This was where my first venue change of the festival came in, and my phone’s GPS helped me navigate the four-block walk to the infamous Comedy Theatre. The 1000 seats here are too hard, they’re too small and they’re packed too tightly together. There is no comfortable way to watch a film in this venue, and I know of at least one MIFF patron who missed a bunch of films he was very excited to see because he flatly refuses to book films at this venue. Of course, nearly everything from Cannes played here exclusively. There’s a floor area covered completely with these nightmare seats, and there’s a dress circle upstairs which is only mostly filled with them. My greatest discovery of the festival was the two rows of seats in the dress circle where the seats are slightly softer and slightly further apart. They are the only reason I kept coming to this awful venue. They’re still not great.

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, 2016)
Asghar Farhadi is probably the most consistently impressive dramatist currently working. A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) are two of my favourite films of the decade, and while The Salesman isn’t quite as good as those, it’s still one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana’s (Taraneh Alidoosti) happy marriage is shaken after Rana is assaulted in the shower by a stranger in their first days at a new apartment. Emad begins looking for clues to hunt the man down, and Rana withdraws from the world. The character growth is more important than the mystery, and leads us towards an ending which surprises, but makes perfect sense after what we’ve learned about both characters. This film won the Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards in competition at Cannes. Highly recommended.

Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2016)
Another from the Cannes competition. Retains almost nothing from Guiraudie’s previous film Stranger by the Lake (2013) apart from perhaps the shockingly frank depiction of genitalia. This is the bizarre story of a filmmaker who falls in love with a shepherdess while searching for inspiration in the French countryside, and finds himself drawn to the other residents of the region in increasingly strange ways. There are elements of surrealism here, and of drama as the relationship takes some odd twists and turns, but none of it really feels like it adds up to much. Smarter people than I have liked this film very much, but I just couldn’t connect with it on any level. Not recommended.

More to come.....

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