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Past Article

Berlinale 04: Competition
By David Hudson
January 2, 2005 - 1:55 PM PST

Beautiful Country, Hands, Embrace, Primo, Next Life.

February 8 and 9

Two days since the last update, we're just about at the halfway point in this year's Berlinale. Eleven of the 23 films in Competition have been screened and murmurs are beginning to rumble under the surface: Where's the film that'll blow us away? We haven't seen it yet, or at least I haven't.

Last year, Michael Winterbottom's In This World, the film that went on to win the Golden Bear, was the very first film in the Competition to be screened; no matter what you saw afterwards, great or awful, you knew you could already chalk up a unique cinematic experience for the 2003 edition of the festival. In my opinion, and seemingly in more than a few others' as well, a few good films have been screened, but no great ones. Yet.

For example, Screen International launched its "Festival Watch" poll today in its daily Berlinale edition. Nine critics from nine publications ranging from, say, Sight & Sound to one from Estonia I hadn't heard of before, peg each film with stars: One star for "poor," two for "fair," three for "good" and four for "excellent." So far, no film has scored four stars, whereas I would bet cold hard cash that at least two had by this point last year. In case you're curious, the film weighted with the greatest number of stars is Patrice Leconte's Intimate Strangers, which I find mildly surprising. It's a fine film, yes, but nothing that'll have you phoning home with news of something exciting and different to watch out for. The film ranked lowest is Country of My Skull, and I'm afraid I couldn't argue.

Tim Roth, Bai Ling and Hans Petter Moland

Tim Roth, Bai Ling and Hans Petter Moland

It is still a little early to start lining them up, but for myself, I'd say that among the best of the bunch so far would be Daybreak and two I'll get to in a moment, Beautiful Country and Lost Embrace. Following close behind for me would be Intimate Strangers and In Your Hands. I'll place The Missing here because I have mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, it gets pretty hokey at times, but on the other, there were sequences that had me rivetted to my seat like no other so far at the fest. Falling below the line of approval would be The Witnesses, Skull, First Love and Your Next Life. Unfortunately, I had to miss Monster, though I don't plan to miss any others in Competition. For what it's worth, the reviews over here, as they were in the States, have been mixed.

Evidently, I like Beautiful Country considerably more than a whole lot of other festival attendees and reviewers. That's fine. I've heard and read their arguments and they've failed to convince me that this isn't a very fine film indeed and certainly worthy of a healthy theatrical run in the US and around the world. The idea for the film came from Terence Malick, a good solid start in my book. Malick also wrote the original draft of the screenplay and, after seeing Aberdeen, decided (along with producer Edward R. Pressman) that Hans Petter Moland was just the director who could bring the epic journey of a young Vietnamese man from his homeland to America to the screen - for a mere $5 million. Though Moland likes to joke that if you want to make a film set in the Far East and the States, the obvious thing to do is call in a Norwegian, straight across the board, Malick was absolutely right.

Beautiful Country

Beautiful Country

I had no idea the budget for Beautiful Country was that low until after I'd seen it, so that figure came as something of a shock. This is a big film in all sorts of ways, one that has at least a few of us defenders betting already that it'll win one Bear or another when this festival wraps [...we were wrong]. And it's only natural that comparisons with In This World, admittedly a superior film, would come to mind: Both films are about emigrants seeking a better life in a distant country they know next to nothing about; both films depict disastrous run-ins with ruthlessly exploitive people smugglers; in both films, the nadir of the journey occurs on a boat; both suggest - not argue outright, but suggest - that the countries these emigrants leave are actually more beautiful than the ones they finally reach.

But comparisons can stop right there. Blending documentary and fiction, Winterbottom's was a very different sort of project. Beautiful Country is a story loosely based on the experiences of many Vietnamese, but takes a different stylistic tack entirely. Binh, played with strength and grace by first-timer Damien Nguyen, is the son of a Vietnamese mother and an American father, a GI during the war, and as such, he ranks just above the animals on a farm in the breathtakingly beautiful Vietnamese countryside. He then learns that his status is about to be demoted yet another notch and sets off in search of his mother, now a servant in a house run by a rich and cruel family in Ho Chi Minh City. Perhaps you can tell already that life in Vietnam, while certainly appealing to the eye, is not romanticized by any means. A series of misfortunes leads to a spontaneous decision: Binh must leave Vietnam, his five-year-old half-brother in tow.

What follows is episodic, yes, but it doesn't feel that way because relationships among the characters - Tim Roth as an emotionally dead ship captain and Bai Ling as a woman who'll buy whatever she deems necessary with her body - bridge and overlap the geographical scene changes. Binh's ultimate goal becomes finding his father and, since he's played by Nick Nolte, whose participation in the film is most definitely not going to go unmentioned in any future marketing campaign, it's not revealing too much to say that Binh eventually finds him. When he does, though, all clichés are handily avoided and several expectations are confidently undercut. One of the many admirable attributes of the film is the way it sharply contrasts the ideal of "America," still pervasive around the world, and the reality.

There were a few remarkable moments at the press conference worth mentioning, and by the way: Here's as good a time as any to emphasize that if my brief comments on these sessions arouse interest in them, there's nothing exclusive or privileged about them at all. You can watch all or any of them any time you like [...this is actually a service that's "live" on the official site for only a limited period of time, i.e., the videos no longer stream at some point once the festival's over]. At any rate, Remarkable Moment #1 would have to be the Moland's reaction to praise for the film from a French journalist. The screening for the press yesterday morning was the first time Beautiful Country had been screened anywhere at all; the print had just been flown in from the lab in Norway (and the actors, in fact, had yet to see it themselves). Well, Moland, clearly physically and emotionally worn down by the tight deadline, broke down. His baby had just received its first compliment.

Bai Ling comforted him while he pulled himself together again, but little did she know she'd be at the center of Remarkable Moment #2. A Chinese journalist stood up to ask a question, started speaking in Chinese and just went on and on. The press pack grew restless, a few calling for him to sit down, but Tim Roth waved them to keep quiet. By the end of his short speech, the man had broken down in tears. Bai Ling, taken by surprise at first, but then clearly moved, translated: The journalist was expressing his, well, joy at seeing Bai Ling - who'd run into trouble with the government for her taking a role in Red Corner - doing just fine, career-wise and otherwise. There's no news of her in China these days. He'd simply been saying how happy he was for her.

In Your Hands Forbrydelser (In Your Hands) is the second-to-last film to have been officially ordained part of the Dogme 95 "movement" before the "Dogmesecretariat" closed its doors in 2002. Of course, it hadn't been completed yet, but here it is, Dogme #34, and director Annette K. Olesen has dutifully obeyed all the restrictions. She claims they actually gave her a certain freedom as she made Hands; for example, she would have been tempted to have music swell up here and there, but of course, she couldn't. Not allowed. What she could do, though, was concentrate on her story and its characters, and what's more, shooting on location meant shooting in an actual women's prison.

The story briefly: There are two new arrivals, two new women at this prison, Anna, a priest, and Kate, a prisoner. Oddly enough, this is a fresh start for both. It's Anna's first real assignment and Kate was having a hard time of it at the prison she's just come from. Hope is in the air, and all is pleasant and underplayed enough to have you wondering for quite a while, actually, if this is going to be all there is. But Kate seems to have some sort of supernatural powers she doesn't completely understand while Anna, clinging to her own beliefs in the supernatural, can't come to terms with Kate's. As Olesen says, reality eventually overcomes all optimism in this story by its end. It is an engaging story well told, but I wouldn't call it devastating as many, in fact, have.

Daniel Burman El Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace) has the advantage of being the comic relief after a couple of days of solid heaviness and, for making good use of it, was indeed embraced by audiences today. There's a story, but it doesn't matter much. Embrace is more about a sense of place and character and would actually make a delightful play. Set in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, and even more tightly, mostly within a run-down mall, the film has a protagonist, Ariel, played with dry humor by Daniel Hendler, surrounded by, you know, quirky characters, most of them played by amateur actors. Director Daniel Burman goes in for a shaky camera with lots of zoom, but the overall effect is light rather than dizzying. Most of the humor is verbal, though, and it's remarkable how well it comes across to those of us who don't speak Spanish. Again, a tribute to the amazing cast which features, it should be mentioned, Yiddish singer Rosita Londner as Ariel's grandmother.

The first "Boo!"s of the festival were heard as the credits rolled for Primo Amore (First Love). Someone shouted, "Zeitverschwendung!" ("A waste of time!"). Someone far more kind suggested later in conversation that the film might have made an interesting short. He has a point. I also couldn't help but wonder if people were objecting so vigorously to the film when what really infuriated them was the idea at the core of it, derived, mind you, from a true story: A man attracted only to very thin women forces the woman he falls in love with to lose weight to the point of very seriously ill health. Even if that's so, it still doesn't make the film worth your while. I will say, though, that director Matteo Garrone made a few interesting choices here and there. I particularly liked a scene of close-ups of the two lovers who were completely out of focus while the background of rolling hills was sharp as you please. I was then doubly interested when Garrone said that it might capture just how much this pair has detached itself from the real world or it might be the woman's daydream; he didn't know himself and found both interpretations legitimate readings. But for all that, Amore is a trying exercise.

La vida que te espera (Your Next Life), from Spanish director Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, his sixth film at a Berlinale, isn't nearly as abrasive or objectionable, but it isn't overwhelmingly winning, either. Its greatest pleasure is probably its setting, the Valle de Pas in northern Spain where a farming community still lives as they have for centuries. So you get a period piece, in a sense, with the occasional convenience of a truck or scooter. There's a murder (the guy had it coming), there's a love story with shades of Romeo and Juliet, there's double-crossing and a bit of pining for the old ways. It all goes down smoothly but is just as quickly forgotten.

next >>>

Preview, Daybreak, Intimate Strangers.
Witnesses, Country of My Skull, The Missing.
Beautiful Country, Hands, Embrace, Primo, Next Life.
Nightsongs, Head On, Sunset, Maria, Final, Samaria, Weeping.
Kiss, Triple Agent, 20:30:40, 25 Degrees, Bears and Postscript.

back to past articles


David Hudson
lives and writes in Berlin.

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view past articles

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