Personally, I'm always relieved to see a new Hong San Soo film -- perhaps because I know, when I do, that our friends at the New York Film Festival automatically have one less slot to fill. (And if there's a new Wes Anderson or Michael Haneke too, well, the programme practically selects itself!) Unusual in certain respects (it's set and shot in Paris), and utterly familiar in others (it's about, yes, a selfish male artist vacillating between two women), Hong's latest effort, "Night And Day", is a lovely, bittersweet 90-minute movie, whose only drawback is its 145-minute running time. What would be charming and acutely-observed at the lesser length, turns protracted and even tedious at full stretch. Still, you have to admire the Korean's chutzpah in opening with the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony -- a gesture which, whatever its intended ironic function, can't help but set the bar rather high for whatever follows it.
Similarly long (157 minutes), though considerably denser and more ambitious, Salvatore Mereu's "Sonetaula" has the gravity and elegance of a major work: a coming-of-age tale that also serves as a chronicle of Sardinian history between 1927 and 1950. Its eponymous protagonist begins the film at twelve years of age, waiting as his wrongly-convicted father serves a prison sentence in a distant town. But before long, the young man is himself an outlaw, living like an animal in the hills, and haunted all the while by memories of his childhood love, Maddalena (Manuela Martelli, typically superb).
With its deep feeling for landscape, its astonishing array of faces, and above all its unsentimental depiction of proletariat life, the film's guiding spirit seems to be Pier Paolo Pasolini -- these days, so remote an influence on Italian cinema, that his example could only prove an asset. In fact, I haven't seen an Italian feature so compelling, so assured in its execution, since Bellocchio's "Buongiorno, notte" back in 2003.
By contrast, Johnny To's long-gestating, much-delayed "Sparrow" fell at the first hurdle. An urban fairytale, heavily indebted to Jacques Demy -- it's essentially "The Pickpockets of Cherbourg" -- it opens with a rich swell of strings and the sight of To regular Simon Lam sitting on his bed, sewing a button on his suit jacket, his face animated with an enthusiasm so wide-eyed, it makes Betsy Ross seem like Karl Lagerfeld.
Into his open window flies a sparrow -- which he greets with a sunny "Hello, sparrow!" (Yes, it's that kind of movie.) Except that, as anyone who's ever ventured outside will realise at once, the bird in question is actually not a sparrow at all. It's a finch -- and easily distinguished as such by its large, orange beak and bright, conspicuously un-sparrow-like coloration. Whereupon one simply stops caring; if To can't be bothered getting this detail right, then frankly, what's the point? Sure enough, this carelessness extends to the rest of the movie. Even the film's climactic sequence, a choreographed showdown in a rainstorm, feels unconvincing: imagined, perhaps even anticipated, but not fully thought-through.
A confession: I didn't catch "Elegy," Isabel Coixet's adaptation of Philip Roth's novella The Dying Animal, since I'd resolved not to bother with any more of her films after her last feature, "The Secret Life of Words" -- which featured perhaps the single worst dialogue exchange of this century, between the great Sarah Polley and a badly miscast Tim Robbins. (She: "One day, suddenly, I may begin to cry and cry so very much that nothing or nobody can stop me and the tears will fill the room and I won't be able to breathe and I will pull you down with me and we'll both drown ..." He: "I'll learn to swim!")
But I DID see "Fireflies In The Garden" -- and how I wish, now, that I had not! A leaden, painfully-earnest melodrama (call me cynical, but I sense an Autobiographical element), it's the kind of film which deadens my faith in American cinema. From the first shot of a boy tearing headlong through a field of wheat -- which, wouldn't you know it, cuts across time to another boy, sprinting through the same field: plus ca change! -- we were deep in Sundance territory: one of those films where the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons, and every family gathering is freighted with simmering tensions -- though none quite so complex that they can't be neatly resolved in 100 or so minutes, amid handshakes and hugs and Lessons Learnt.
Its glittering cast struggled valiantly, but to no avail: how could they? Willem Dafoe's bullying patriarch was so one-note, it made his Green Goblin seem like Prince Hal, and Julia Roberts, as his wife, was wasted. Literally. It's bewildering. I have, over the years, met Dafoe socially, as well as his co-stars, Emily Watson and Ryan Reynolds, and found them to be extremely smart, funny, engaging people, all with finely-honed senses of irony. Knowing this, I find it hard to accept that they did not hurl Dennis Lee's script into the nearest recycling bin, stifling chuckles as they did so.
Nevertheless, even as the grumblings grew louder over this year's uninspired competition, days four and five yielded at least one other great film -- albeit in the Panorama section, by the Austrian filmmaker Goetz Spielmann. "Revanche" starts out in Ulrich Seidl territory, among a group of Russian and Ukrainian prostitutes, held prisoner in a Viennese brothel, but soon shifts gear, becoming something else entirely -- first a doomed love story, then a drama of revenge and redemption, one whose stifling provincialism and inexorable sense of fate recalled nothing so much as Fassbinder's "The Merchant of Four Seasons."
Beautifully lit by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (one shot, of an old man sitting at a wooden table, in morning sunshine, had the numinous intensity of a Vermeer), it quietly attested to Spielmann's virtues as both writer and director: his patience, his watchful eye, his essentially compassionate view of human nature. The film goes off in all number of fascinating directions, at least one of which is totally unexpected. Yet it works -- magnificently, in fact. So why was this film and "Sonetaula" not in competition? To leave room for ... what? "Elite Squad"? Give me a break.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW's special Berlin section.