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Nine movies in Bangkok's BIFF 2009 competition

THERE are nine movies in the main competition of the Bangkok International Film Festival 2009: Across the River (Iran); Adrift (Vietnam); Altiplano (Belgium); Breathless (South Korea); Everyone Else (Germany); Huacho (Chile/ France/ Germany); I Killed My Mother (Canada); Inland (Algeria / France), and The Search (China).

Across the River, by the prolific US-based Iranian director Abbas A. Motlagh, has barely been shown outside Iran, but is bound to attract attention here. In the wake of a major battle of the Iran-Iraq war, a cameraman finds himself stranded in the wilderness alongside the only other survivors, an Iraqi and an Iranian soldier. With a single gun between them, the soldiers alternatively take each other hostage, marching aimlessly upon the scorched earth to an unknown destination. Realizing that neither has anything left to go back to, they form an unlikely friendship, to which the cameraman is the sole witness.

Adrift (Choi Voi) is a Vietnamese film that has just been shown at the Venice Film Festival. Scriptwriter Phan Dang Di and Adrift’s director, Bui Thac Chuyen, are a rarity in Vietnam's film industry in that they have both achieved international recognition.Di told AFP recently that the film, which shows people caught up in complex games of seduction, “blurs the boundaries between good and bad, while also touching on homosexuality, a subject still largely taboo in Vietnam.”

The same taboos do not exist in Thailand, and despite their proximity, it is difficult to conceive of two more contrasting societies when it comes to social mores. Thais identify very strongly both with male and female homosexuality, so it can be expected that Adrift will screen to packed houses.

Slow, real, and uncompromising, Altiplano was well received at the Cannes Film Festival and also at the Sydney Film Festival. Said to be a combination of fiction and documentary, and set in Peru, this is the second feature film from Belgian–born Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth who also wrote the script together. It has a strong and story-oriented narrative, and has been described as depicting sacrifice and redemption, and the fight between modernism and tradition, nature and the city.

I am hoping that BIFF shows the movie on one of its bigger screens, because reviewers have all agreed that Altiplano is visually stunning and features an exceptional soundtrack.

Reviewer Amber Wilkinson says the world of Breathless (Ddongpari) from Korea, is “a place where violence begets violence from the cradle to the grave - and where the distance between the two may be covered in a heartbeat. And in the spotlight is that most insidious violence of all, the sort that takes place within the family home.”But she goes on to say that rookie director Yang Ik-June has managed to lift the film from being a “run-of-the-mill gangster flick into more interesting territory that considers the state of modern Korean society, where violence… as prevalent as rice”. Todd Brown says: the film’s Korean title Ddongpari literally means “shit-fly”, and it’s a fitting title…... Breathless is an unrelentingly brutal film in its depiction of violence and its titular anti-hero’s dirty mouth. It’s safe to say that about 95 percent of the dialogue consists of profanity.” Breathless did well at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, walking away with one of the three Tiger Awards for best film by a newcomer. I Killed my Mother (J’ai Tue Ma Mere) is another newcomer’s first major feature. Hollywood Reporter critic, Peter Brunette, says of the film’s director, 20-year-old Quebecois newcomer Xavier Dolan: “He has given us a somewhat uneven film that demonstrates a great deal of talent. In the vein of "Ma Vie en Rose" (if not quite as polished and mature) and other gay adolescent coming-of-age films of comic rebellion, it's a congeries (collection) of brilliantly achieved cinematic moments and repetitive, massively self-indulgent gestures of acting out.” He continues: “…the film is entertaining enough to attract paying customers and imaginative enough to attract critical support as well. It should be given a look by distributors in all territories and will have a full and happy life on the fest circuit. If reviewers around the world have got it right, the programmers for BIFF 2009’s main competition may have got it wrong when they selected Everyone Else from Germany.Variety’s Derek Elley wrote: Watching “Everyone Else” is akin to spending a vacation with people you know you won’t like from the first day. Two-hour ramble through the self-absorbed emotions of a young couple — and their equally self-absorbed friends — chilling out in Sardinia promises in the opening scenes to be a subtle, low-key comedy of awkward relationships. But by the second reel it becomes clear that writer-director Maren Ade’s sophomore feature (following her promising debut, “The Forest for the Trees”) is simply fuzzy filmmaking of the worst sort. An extraordinary choice for a competition slot at Berlin, [this] pic is headed nowhere.” Elley also pans Inland, a co-production between Algeria and France: Yes, it got the Fipresci award for best film in competition in Venice last week, but that doesn’t prevent Elley from writing: “Auds who dozed through "Rome Rather Than You" are assured of a comfortable two-and-a-half-hour snooze during Algerian auteur Tariq Teguia's sophomore outing, "Inland." More of the same listless wandering and navel-gazing, though this time staged in some striking, thinly populated desert-scapes, this pretentious yarn of a topographer sent to western Algeria is for the card-carrying ex nihil ex parvo (nothing is produced from nothing) crowd. Screen International seems to like the Almendras directed Huacho, a co-production involving Chile, France and Germany. The magazine’s Jonathan Romney writes: “In this undemonstrative but engaging film, little ostensibly happens, rhetorical commentary is at an absolute minimum, and yet we learn much about a certain way of life and the rural-urban divide in this region. While the theme of endangered rural populations is timeless, Huacho clearly has particular relevance to the current state of the global economy. Almendras’s non-professional cast – whether they are acting or effectively being themselves or versions thereof – are certainly very comfortable in front of the camera. By the time the film reaches a quietly hopeful ending, Huacho’s objective, sentiment-free approach has paid off in imparting an enormous respect and tenderness towards its characters.” I haven’t been able to find a review of the Chinese entry in the Main Competition, but I like the sound of Pema Tseden’s The Search. A film director, accompanied by two friends, travels to the Himalayas to find an actor and actress to play the roles of Prince Drimé Kunden and Princess Mande Zangmo in his Tibetan opera. In one of the villages, the director finds a girl with a melodious voice, but she will take the role only on one condition: the director must find her ex-boyfriend, who previously acted as the prince alongside her. The director consents to her wish, and as they begin the journey, the simple search for an acting cast eventually becomes a complex quest for existential and spiritual meaning. As always, it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the nine entries will come out on top. There are two prizes, the Grand Prix, and the Special Jury Prize. If I had to stick my neck out, I would tip Breathless to win one of them, and I would only add that Thailand is not well-known as a meritocracy!

Jeremy Colson

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