The Berlin Film Festival provides a welcome opportunity to scan the state of the movie business worldwide. It may not have the glamour of Cannes or the beauty of the Venice film festival but it’s an ‘A’ ranker that pulls in the stars (this year saw Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Renée Zellweger, Ron Howard, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Williams, Tim Roth, Mario van Peebles and John Boorman amongst others). It’s also massively popular with Berliners who queue for hours for tickets and not just for the latest Hollywood blockbuster or the best of new German cinema.
The main competition section was quite weak this year. Alongside Cold Mountain there was Howard’s latest offering The Missing, the dreadful new Robin Williams vehicle The Final Cut by Omar Naïm, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (the follow-up to Before Sunrise), John Boorman’s plodding Country of my Skull, the first part of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos’ mega-saga Trilogia (take a cushion), the disturbing Samaritan Girl from Korean director Kim Ki-Duk and Ken Loach’s latest, unusually upbeat film, Ae Fond Kiss; as well as about twenty other films from around the globe.
The Golden Bear award thankfully went to the excellent Head On (Gegen die Wand), a film by the German-Turkish director Fatih Akin. Apart from this film, there was little else in the main competition that excited the chattering filmgoers in Berlin.
Many of the more interesting if perhaps rather esoteric films can be found in the Panorama and Forum sections of the festival. In the former section could be found Van Peebles’ Getting’ the Man’s Foot Outta your Baadasssss! – possibly the best film title in the festival! It’s a portrait of his father, famed blaxploitation director, Melvin van Peebles and is an evocative recreation of a seminal moment in black American filmmaking.
Che Guevara was also very much in vogue this year with the documentaries The Last Hour of Che and Travelling with Che receiving a lot of attention. Both are interesting insights into the character of a man became such an icon around the world and whose face on a T-shirt is probably more popular now than its ever been.
Berlin has a huge gay population so gay film features strongly in the Panorama section. One of the more obscure stories came from South Africa in the form of Proteus by John Greyson & Jack Lewis, which was an imaginative recreation of a true piece of South African penal history – the story of a ten year homosexual relationship between a Dutch prisoner and a Hottentot prisoner on Robben Island in the late 18th century. The acting is a bit ropey but the film is strong on the hypocrisy and bigotry surrounding these issues. From Russia comes the film You I Love (Ja Lublju tebja) directed by Olga Stolpovskaja and Dmitrij Troitskij. Essentially a coming-out tale, it tells the story of Tim, a young, successful guy working for an advertising agency who falls in love with Vera, a TV presenter, but who then realises he’s more in love with a young Kalmuk guy called Iloomyi, who just happened to drop onto the bonnet of his car one night! If this sounds like high farce, at its best this film is just that, finding plenty of low comedy out of a problematic situation. As the film progressively becomes more serious it rather loses its momentum but the real interest in this film is the presentation of contemporary Moscow. I suppose glasnost is over 14 years old now, but the city seems a remarkably cool and attractive place, full of dynamism. It’s also difficult to imagine a liberal film like this being produced in Putin’s Russia.
One of the best films in the whole festival was the Thai film Beautiful Boxer, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham. Thai film in general is going through a purple patch at the moment and was well represented in Berlin (the wonderfully named The Adventures of Iron Pussy and Baytong featured in the Forum section) but this was the pick of the bunch, telling the true story of a transvestite kickboxing champion. It’s an amazing story of effeminate toughness and is brilliantly filmed – exciting, funny and ultimately quite moving.
One of the biggest disappointments in the Panorama section was the latest film from Isao Yukisada, A Day on the Planet (Kyo no dekigoto). Considering that Yukisada directed one of the best films of 2001, namely Go, the story of a second-generation Korean-Japanese kid, his latest work is monumentally dull. Showing 24 hours in the lives of some of the most pathetically banal Japanese teenagers you are ever likely to meet, it’s a real bore. None of the characters are appealing or interesting and at times intensely annoying. Perhaps this was Yukisada’s point. If so, it’s a damning portrait of contemporary Japanese youth but also a dud film to watch.
The Forum section served up the next two parts of the Hong Kong cops and gangsters thriller, Infernal Affairs. Part 2 is as stirring as Part 1 but Part 3 is disappointing. If you haven’t seen the first two parts you will have no idea what on earth is going on, which makes it a failure as a stand alone film.
Bollywood finally got a decent look in at the Berlinale with four films from the Indian subcontinent. Of these, Maqbool (directed by top Bollywood music composer Vishal Bhardwaj) was most typical of the genre. A melodrama loosely based on the story of Macbeth, it’s set in the gangster underworld of Mumbai. Here Muslims and Hindus mix easily in their pursuit of the illegal rupee and it’s not long before the backstabbing starts. As one might expect the music is excellent with Hindu Bhardwaj taking inspiration from Islamic Sufi music for his score. Irrfan Khan is excellent as the antihero Maqbool, pursuing his fate to its tragic end.
At the other end of the spectrum was the film Final Solution by Rakesh Sharma which chronicles the appalling intercommunal religious violence in Gujarat. It examines the role of the local government in stirring up hatred and ignoring brutality and examines the spread of Hindu fascism.
All in all a rather mixed year at Berlin, but the excitement of this festival is being able to see brilliant films from the unlikeliest sources whilst star-spotting as you hurry along the freezing streets round the Potsdamer Platz.