My HKIFF 2015 Picks


The 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival kicked off earlier this week. Here are a few of the festival’s films that should be worth your attention.

Force Majeure

forcemajeure2

Few of us, thankfully, have ever been in a life-and-death situation where we have but a split second to make a critical choice – save or be safe. I’m reminded of the book and movie, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, where Sophie had to make a choice that no mother should ever be asked to make. Most recently, and not fiction, Corinne Rey, a designer at the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, chose to let jihadist gunmen into her offices rather than risking her and her daughter’s lives by being defiant against them. I have no doubt Ms. Rey will be questioning her choice for the rest of her life. The Swedish film, FORCE MAJEURE, looks at what happens to a family when a parent makes, in retrospect, the wrong choice.

“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word for Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), who is on an idyllic skiing vacation somewhere in the French Alps with his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their young children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). Their first day in this winter paradise starts off extremely well. The sun is shining, the powder is fresh, the kids are smiling, and Ebba is happy to have Tomas away from his job for five days of family R&R. It’s all a bit too perfect though. Even as the ski resort’s photographer poses the family for those portrait shots that will make all their friends ooze with jealousy when they see them, or as they crash out together on their hotel bed for an apres ski afternoon nap, we just know that something is going to happen because life is never that perfect.

Day Two continues where Day One left off with another morning on the slopes but it all goes quickly downhill after that. While having lunch at one of the resort’s impossibly picturesque outdoor restaurants, a controlled avalanche on one of the nearby mountains goes out of control and it seems that the cascading snow is heading straight for the restaurant. As the snow gets closer, everyone panics and, in that split second, Tomas reaches for his iPhone and bolts the scene, leaving his family to their fate. As it turned out, the snow wasn’t as close as it appeared and, once the snow dust settles, everyone is safe. Just as quickly as the chaos arose, life returns to normal and all the guests – including Tomas – return to their tables to finish their meals. But life will never be the same for this family whose father chose self-preservation over the welfare of his children.

Later, as Ebba tries to make sense of what happened at the restaurant, Tomas has a different recollection of events. To be fair to Ebba, Tomas doesn’t say what his recollection is; he just says that Ebba’s version is inaccurate. For the sake of family unity, though, they agree to disagree and put it behind them, but Ebba, who saw her children abandoned in a time of crisis, finds that she cannot. Ebba is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to the man she believed would always be her family’s rock and shield. Unlike the trails that are meticulously groomed every night for new ski runs in the morning, Tomas is unable to find redemption with his family because he cannot bring himself to offering them a simple apology and an acknowledgement (especially to himself) that he’s only human. He is trapped in society’s expectation that the man/husband/father must be strong and in control, though he eventually realises that cannot live that way any longer and he melts down in front of Ebba and the hotel’s janitor in a most unmanly way.

FORCE MAJEURE is a sometimes funny, sometimes painful exploration of gender expectations. The film could have ended right after Tomas’ admission of weakness, leaving us to speculate on the viability of his and Ebba’s marriage but two subsequent events jar our preconceptions again and again. I guarantee that after you see this film you will ask both yourself and your significant other, “What would you do?”

The film was an audience favourite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Jury Prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It was also Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this year and deservedly so. Go see this film! It’s well worth your time.

FORCE MAJEURE has already been screened on March 24th. It will have a second screening on March 28th.

I first reviewed PARTY GIRL last September before I knew it was coming to the HKIFF. Here it is again:

Party Girl

partygirl

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was 30 years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in the dress she used to wear, faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind!

Barry Manilow, “Copacabana (At the Copa)”

Angelique (Angelique Litzenburger) is a cabaret girl in a town somewhere on the border between Germany and France. In her early sixties, she is well past her sell-by date, which is something that only she seems not to have noticed. But the club owners and the other girls get along well with her so they let her keep a barstool warm all night, downing drinks, smoking cigarettes and very occasionally chatting up nervous, young men who are new to this arena.

When Michel (Joseph Bour), a retired miner and Angelique’s erstwhile client asks her to marry him, she is faced with a choice that she has been avoiding for far too long. While you can take the girl out of the bar, it’s much harder to take the bar out of the girl, as Angelique and Michel grow to discover. It seems that when Michel was paying for companionship, the party was on but once sex became expected of Angelique, it was lights out.

At the same time, Angelique tries to mend her relationship with her four adult children, who are the products of dalliances with three, and possibly four, different men. The most strained relationship is with her youngest, a 16-year-old who was taken from her by child protective services ten years earlier. While her older siblings seem to take their mother’s life choices in stride, the girl is very dubious about reconnecting.

As I started watching the film, I couldn’t figure out whether this was a documentary or a fiction. The actress playing Angelique was too realistic. She played the wilted rose effortlessly. Her demeanour betrayed too many years of heavy drinking. The children, for their part, acted like they knew each other and their mother for years. Either this was great scriptwriting and acting, or it was the real thing. I had to stop the film (one benefit of watching a screener) and find out. It turns out that one of the directors, Sam Theis (the other two being Claire Burger and Marie Amachoukeli) is one of Angelique’s sons. So, yes, Angelique really is a faded party girl and her four children really are her children. Now that’s bold filmmaking!

PARTY GIRL premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May in the Un Certain Regard section, which showcases young directors. It went on to win the Caméra d’Or, which is the award for the best first feature film. The three directors have been friends since their days in film school in France and they have collaborated on smaller projects before. This film was apparently inspired by Angelique’s sudden announcement a few years ago that she was getting married.

This is not an easy film to watch as you study the psyche of a woman, wrinkles and all, who is stuck in a life and a lifestyle that has long passed her by. She is as unable to change her spots as she is unable to part with her leopard-print coat. The story’s resolution, which may seem inevitable, is nevertheless unsettling. As flawed as Angelique is, we want her to succeed because we believe deep down that she is a good person who simply makes bad choices. Michel nails it when he tells her that hurting people is all she is good at. That may be true, but the one she is best at hurting is herself. As the final scene plays out over the haunting lyrics and melody of “Party Girl” by Chinawoman (aka Canadian singer-songwriter Michelle Gurevich), we realise that making bad choices is really all Angelique is good at.

Here is the music video of “Party Girl”:

PARTY GIRL has already been screened on March 24th. It will have a second screening on March 28th.

Listen to the original review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 38:26.)

The Israeli film industry has seen a renaissance in recent years with many films winning awards at international film festivals and even receiving Oscar nominations.

This Is My Land

thisismyland

The prospect for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is back in the news this week with the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Is peace even possible? That question is examined from a pedagogical point of view in the documentary film, THIS IS MY LAND, by Tamara Erde.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Council began with the Oslo accord of 1993. Over the following seven years, a number of agreements were reached but, sadly, many of changes that were promised by both sides were never implemented. One of them, on the matter of national education, was included in the Oslo II accord of 1995. Articles XXII to XXVII (Relations between Israel and the Council) state that both sides:

… shall accordingly abstain from incitement, including hostile propaganda, against each other … that their respective educational systems contribute to the peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples …

Twenty years later, Palestinian children are still being taught that “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea”, the river being the Jordan River and the sea being the Mediterranean. School maps show their national homeland stretching from Lebanon and Syria in the north to Egypt in the south. In other words, Israel does not exist. Meanwhile, some Israeli schools – generally religious ones – are teaching their students that this same piece of land was divinely given to the Jews and no peace agreement will ever change that.

In recent years, some Israeli schools have begun integrating Israeli Arab and Jewish students, teaching Arabic and employing Israeli Arab teachers in the hopes of sowing the seeds of peace. The programme is not without its challenges though. As THIS IS MY LAND shows, even the two teachers (one Israeli Jewish, the other Israeli Arab) in one such classroom have to edit each other’s personal opinions in order to ensure their students receive an unbiased view of Israeli/Palestinian history.

Most Israelis of Erde’s age and older were taught the official narrative of the State of Israel: Under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, the country would be divided between its two peoples. However, Arab leaders and governments rejected the plan and, once it was approved by the General Assembly, civil war broke out, which culminated in July 1948, following the founding of the State of Israel. They were not taught the point of view from the side of the Arabs who were living there at the time: Many of their villages were razed to the ground as Jewish leaders sought to exert control over their new country.

To be fair, this narrative is now changing on the Israeli side of the divide and many young Jewish children are being presented with a more balanced view of their country’s early history than in previous generations. However, the narrative on the Palestinian side has not changed. Children there are taught that they are under occupation and they must engage in a struggle (“jihad”) to liberate their country from their oppressors. In the film, a Palestinian teacher congratulates his student for saying that “freedom ends where another person’s begins”. But why is one person’s freedom mutually exclusive to another’s? Can’t both people be free? This is the fundamental problem that Israel faces with the Palestinians. The latter only sees its freedom in the context of the former’s destruction. The notion of a shared future does not exist.

Unfortunately, Erde’s film offers not much more than a simple overview of both the politics and the politicization of education in Israel and Palestine. There is one poignant scene where a 17-year-old Israeli boy says that he has forgotten what the word “peace” means. What is sad is not that he has forgotten. It’s sad that he knows he has forgotten. I would have preferred to hear more such insights from articulate teenagers on both sides of the border who, hopefully, have started to develop their own opinions. Instead, we are shown a number of pre-teens who simply parrot the opinions that their teachers have been spoon-feeding to them over the years. In any case, if this is what the children are learning, the prospect for peace is quite dim.

THIS IS MY LAND will be screened on March 31st and again on April 4th.

Listen to the review of all three films online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:25.)

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