This was my first time attending the #Berlinale and I was able to see four films in competition and four films in the Panorama section. Click the film titles to read the credits, production details, and synopses published by the festival!
UNA MUJER FANTÁSTICA (A FANTASTIC WOMAN) was my clear favourite and it had me from the very first frame. Sebastián Lelio’s previous film Gloria about a divorced woman on the wrong side of middle age navigating her way through a romantic relationship was such a triumph so I was very excited to see Lelio’s next film. A Fantastic Woman like Gloria explores the difficulties an individual faces when living outside what society deems normal. Marina is a trans woman who loses her love to a much older man in a freak death early in the film and is forced to deal with his family over the funeral and his apartment she is living in. Played with such grace by Daniela Vega (who is also trans) in her debut performance, it’s such a shame that she didn’t receive the Silver Bear for best actress - more on this later. Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza did grab Best Screenplay however and deservedly so, their screenplay doesn’t miss a beat. It felt like the stadium-sized audience at the very royal Marlene-Dietrich-Platz were glued to their seats from the word go. In another session I attended it wasn’t uncommon for people to talk occasionally throughout the film. A FANTASTIC WOMAN also revels in its stylishly colourful noir like production design and exquisite cinematography combined with a disquieting soundtrack by British electronic musician Matthew Herbert. It has been acquired by Sony Picture Classics.
CASTING JONBENET is a Netflix documentary that drew some real laugh out loud moments and strong emotional chords with me. It explores the world’s most famous child-murder case of the six-year-old American beauty queen, JonBenet Ramsay in her home in Colorado. By recording multiple screen tests over a period of time, a diverse range of protagonists share their knowledge and suspicions of the case as well as their acting prowess. Kitty Green uses this device beautifully to instil a sense a real sense humanity from the actors. Casting JonBenet’s success lies not only in the facts or fictions of the murder case itself but in its examination of acting, how humans present themselves to the camera and the diversity that arises from this amongst other things. The laugh out loud moments come from the various actor’s efforts to portray and interpret their character whilst under the scrutiny of a screen test. At other times deeply heartfelt moment arise from the personal stories of some of the actors like one man who was diagnosed with cancer in between screen tests. Like the stylistic device of the mockumentary before it, Cast JonBenet may path the way for this new stylistic device (albeit more limited in its scope than the mockumentary) to reach greater popularity in the not too distant future.
Ana, mon amour details the lives of two students who fall in love and the consequent years that follow post-university. I was interested to see this film because the synopsis read that one of the characters suffers severe panic attacks. It’s not easy to illustrate mental illness on screen but director Călin Peter Netzer and his team succeeded. Ultimately, the cutting back and forth between the different periods of time in the lover's lives becomes too overloaded and tiresome. Beware also if you have problems with shaky cameras.
in BAMUI HAEBYUN-EOSEO HONJA (ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE) by South-Korean and international film festival staple Hong Sangsoo. Minhee did a good job of portraying a young and successful actress on a break from her acting career and life in general who visits a seaside city in Germany briefly before spending time in a seaside city in South Korea. However, On the Beach at Night Alone in its attempts to explore the familiar coming of age tropes, fails to come up with the goods. Most scenes play out in wide shots with the camera occasionally zooming in out on the more dramatic moments within the scene making it feeling lazy and cheap. There is an honest warmth and truth to all the performances and which is probably why Minhee won the award. However, due to the lack of conflict and strong tension, On the Beach at Night Alone eventually reveals itself to be a film about a director reminiscing about a love lost and the hardships of existence without settling the score leading up to this moment.
I saw the Chinese fictional animation in competition, HAO JI LE (HAVE A NICE DAY) at 9.30 am on a Saturday morning on the epic screen at the Friedrichstadt-Palast. Reminiscent of watching cartoons on a Saturday morning in my childhood, Have a Nice Day certainly isn’t for children although there are some childish moments. It’s a film about a country in rapid transition and insecurity shot through with quirky moments and characters. The beautiful animations in Have a Nice Day, philosophical musings and symbolism, however, don’t hold it high enough to overcome its lengthy pacing and weak story structure.
PIELES (SKINS) sounds very intriguing: a series of episodes of characters with some kind of hideous deformity who are marginalised from society. A welcome change from the usual good looking actors that accompanies pretty well every film. Its mise-en-scene is also strong, enveloping a world with a curious obsession for the colour purple. However, it’s essentially a soap opera where the same gag is used too often and fails to rise above this shortcoming to become more interesting and important.
BING LANG XUE (THE TASTE OF BETEL NUT) starts off slow but eventually reveals a man that works for a water theme-park feeding and training dolphins amongst other things whilst in a relationship with another man who makes money singing for gawking older woman at his mobile karaoke. A young, beautiful woman enters the scene and this kicks the film into action. Although intriguing to see young characters from China enact seemingly alternative lifestyles The Taste of Betel Nut rambles along and doesn’t reveal much of this conflict between tradition and the possibility of a new way of life.
I haven’t seen many films set in South Africa so it was nice to see THE WOUND. A love story between two men who are the caretakers for teenage men in a brutal circumcision initiation in nature outside of the city. Another film that explores traditions and ways around them, The Wound has nice performances and tech credits however it fails to explore the relationship between the two lovers in any satisfying depth or explore themes of homosexuality or race within modern day South Africa with any great meaning.