Berlinale Days 7-9: 9 films from top to bottom

Kevin B Lee

Above: Claudia Llosa's Golden Bear winner, The Milk of Sorrow.

By Comparison (dir. Harun Farocki) – A nearly wordless study of how bricks are manufactured in several countries suggests something like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of documentaries, though starkly devoid of the sense of “progress” as technological efficiency replaces human community. Whether showing villages in Africa where the entire community participates in brickmaking, or plants in Europe where unmanned robots make customized bricks with chillingly beautiful, inhuman precision, Farocki utilizes a deceptively simple framing and montage technique, a refreshing directness of representation that stimulates a flood of interpretations.

The Milk of Sorrow (dir. Claudia Llosa) – Winner of the Golden Bear, and deservedly so, this is a sharply realized take on a young woman’s coming of age while internalizing the legacy of wartime rape and abuse suffered by her family. For the most part it just grooves on a lucid stream of vivid images clustered on themes of marriage, sex and music (the soundtrack of this film, with some crazily lyrical a cappella performances by the lead, is stunning). There’s just that one central conceit about the lead’s use of a potato as a prophylactic that seems like magical realism taken too far. God help us if this starts a trend in third world prestige pictures with vegetables occupying bodily orifices…

Land of Scarecrows (dir. Roh Gyeong-tae) – Similar to The Milk of Sorrow, equally evocative in its imagery but more disjointed, riffing on themes of migration, pollution and sexuality. Main narrative thread concerns a woman whose upbringing on a landfill may have affected her hormones, leading her to Manila to bring home a bride. The film breaks down the boundaries that separate nature and pollution, native and foreigner, man and woman, though it leaves a disturbing suggestion that homosexuality is a corruption of nature.

Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Film (dir. Oksana Bulgakowa) – An astounding work of film scholarship, this 166 minute study of the meanings behind body language in Soviet and Russian cinema is up there with Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself among recent films that bring brilliant new understanding to other films.

Dr. Ma’s Country Clinic (dir. Feng Cong) – A four-hour portrait of a rural clinic is really a structuring device that allows its subjects, poor rural farmers, to tell the audience everything they could possibly want to know about life in rural China. As such it manages to be both sprawling in content and evocative in delivery, and ultimately earns its extended running time.

When It Was Blue (dir. Jennifer Reeves) – I was enjoying this groovy, psychedelic meditation on nature processed through dual projections (digital and film) and tons of post production effects, until the person next to me whispered, “What kitsch.” The thing is, she’s somewhat right. Not so much due to the visuals (which are often amazing, if heavily indebted to Brakhage) as to the gratuitous soundtrack of music and nature audio that shades the experience towards being in a spa.

Katalin Varga (dir. Peter Strickland) – Watching this Romanian rape-revenge tale, I kept thinking, “What would Christian Mungiu do?” Mostly because the film is shot in a pretty but stylistically impersonal arthouse style that adds little to the proceedings. Except for one extended monologue on a river where the camera achieves an amazing dream effect, the virtues of this compelling story of the side-effects of retribution seem mostly locked in the script.

London River (dir. Rachid Bouchareb) – An almost offensively inoffensive take on the London bombings of July 7, 2005, positioning itself as a politically correct tale of healing and tolerance between two parents (Brenda Blethyn as the silly prejudiced Christian, Golden Bear-winning Sotigui Kouyate as the noble Muslim) who discover that their children, missing since the attacks, were a couple. If the parents had ended up in bed together, now that would have been interesting.

Forever Enthralled (dir. Chen Kaige) – The proof in the pudding with this stuffy biopic about the most famous Peking Opera performer of the 20th century is that it doesn’t inspire any interest in Peking Opera. Chen’s style is reminiscent of Hong Kong prestige pictures circa 1989, calcified into artless academicism. Some interesting stuff with art and gender proves to be as much of a cocktease as it was in Farewell My Concubine. All the same, the international critics seemed enthralled by the exoticism on display.

Best of the fest (refer to this entry and the previous two round-ups for details):

1. Everyone Else
2. By Comparison
3. Beeswax
4. The Milk of Sorrow
5. Treeless Mountain

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