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Viennale 2: ALPHA MALE / OMEGA FEMALE

In one of those serendipitous quirks of scheduling that festival-going sometimes throws up, I saw what are currently my favourite male and females performances among 2010's new films in consecutive screenings on the final Saturday of the Viennale.

Attentive readers of this site will already be familiar with my enthusiasm for Mišel Matičević and his work in Thomas Arslan's In the Shadows (Im Schatten)—itself one of the year's most outstanding world-premieres—which I wrote about in my dispatches from the Berlinale back in February.

Over eight months later I had my second viewing of the picture, an absorbingly low-key, stripped down neo-noir that showcases the strengths of what's become known as the "Berlin School," built four-square around the very precise, very physical, largely wordless turn from Matičević ("stone-faced," according to Variety's enthusiastic belated review, published in the wake of the picture's early October screening at the Vancouver Film Festival.)

A greater contrast between Matičević's relentlessly tamped-down grimness and the expansive, surging emotionalism of Murakami Maki—heroine of Kanyama Keihiro's Seesaw—can barely be imagined, so squarely does each performer occupy their respective position at extreme ends of the thespian spectrum (alpha male / omega female?).

And their respective movies have hardly anything in common. A downbeat thriller slickly shot on celluloid in the classical tradition, In the Shadows is a collaboration involving relative veterans in their forties or fifties with a stack of impressive credits to their name: Arslan (48), cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider (59), editor Bettina Blickwede, composer Geir Jenssen (48), and cast (Matičević is 40, his co-stars Uwe Bohm and Karoline Eichhorn are 48 and 45 respectively, key supporting players Hanns Zischler and Rainer Bock 63 and 56). It is a work of hard-won, steadily-compiled experience: in German, Erfahrung rather than Erlebnis.

Seesaw, however, is a rather ragged-looking video-shot affair—the hand-held DV deployed here is very far from "high-def"—made on an evidently sub-shoestring budget, by a cast and crew who all seem to be in their twenties or early thirties. It's the debut feature from Kanyama, who co-wrote the script with members of the Kai-kankyaku "scenario workshop," and who co-stars with Murakami: the pair play Shinji and Makoto, a young couple living in a compact city-centre flat, who start to notice that their friends are getting married and/or having children. He rather fancies the idea of a wedding; she's satisfied with the status quo—a cause of minor friction in what's otherwise a harmonious, loving relationship.

Part of the impact of Seesaw relies on a certain out-of-the-blue plot-development which comes after the half-way point—and which isn't going to be specified here. Suffice to say that Murakami's Makoto gets put through a gruelling emotional wringer—indeed, in certain final-act sequences, Kanyama and his editors Nishida Mizuki (who's also the DP) and Mutsuura Yasuhiro somewhat overdo things in this regard, allowing scenes to run on some way beyond optimum length.

This does put Murakami firmly in the spotlight for extended periods of time, and will no doubt translate to numerous festival-circuit awards for an actress who doesn't seem to have had much big-screen experience (my researches on this front are hampered by the fact that she shares her name with a noted Manga artist.) But it's in the early stretches that Murakami is actually more effective: her daffily ditzy Makoto can be endearingly sweet one minute, frustratingly immature the next, an archetype of so many modern, urban twentysomethings who seem ill-prepared for what can be a very harsh world indeed.

Taken in toto over the course of Seesaw's seventy-odd minutes, Murakami's performance is nuanced, vibrant and ultimately quite heartbreaking—even if the movie itself strains a little too strenuously on occasion for emotional effect, and is perhaps still one edit away from a fully satisfactory form. Director Kanyama—whose own professional background is mainly in front of the camera—deserves credit for recognising the trump-card in his hand and giving it maximum exposure: while Seesaw is an uneven, quietly promising debut for him, the beautiful and talented Murakami is the name to watch.

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