Berlin's Lingering Movies, From Spectacular To Wonderfully Mundane
by Stephen Garrett
The 53rd Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin may have wrapped, but the movies still linger strongly in the mind. Although the competition section of this year's Berlinale had a satisfyingly eclectic group of contenders, its sister sidebar series -- the Panorama and the Forum -- were just as overflowing with celluloid goodies.
Among the competing films in the second half of the fest was the enthusiastically half-baked Dutch musical oddity, "Yes, Nurse! No, Nurse," a candy-colored homage to Hollywood tuners (with a touch of Jacques Demy for good measure). "Nurse" boasts vibrant choreography and cheerful tunes, but all in service of nothing more than a sitcom premise of oddball boarders whose eccentric behavior incessantly rattle their grumpy next-door landlord. Continental moviegoers waiting for "Chicago" to revive the European musical will have to wait a bit longer.
France ended the competition strongly with "Little Cuts," Pascal Bonitzer's tragicomic look at a befuddled ladies man (Daniel Auteuil) and his desperate attempts to maintain relationships despite himself. The loopy tale seems to point to darker and more superficial intrigue but ends up a surprisingly meaty and circuitous meditation on love, lust and desire.
Damjan Kozole's "Spare Parts" added to Hans-Christian Schmid's "Lichter" and Michael Winterbottom's "In This World" as the third competition film to address illegal immigration into Western Europe. The contradicting mixture of anxiety and sympathy is clear, but none of the trio of stories (despite "World" winning the Golden Bear) told about their plight with a freshness or vitality that would make them classic dramas, instead leaning on tired conventions about the moral twilight of shady smugglers and their continued victimization of desperate aliens.
One film that looked at a time-worn genre and gave it new life was Yoji Yamada's "The Twilight Samurai." Yamada, a prolific and successful filmmaker in Japan most famous for his "Tora-san" dramedies (the longest-running serial in the history of film), weaves a sad, sweet story of a widower samurai who has sold his sword to support two daughters and must be lured back into service to protect his community. No CGI effects or wire-flying tricks are needed for this very human take on such a beloved icon.
In its 33rd year, the International Forum offers a showcase for filmmakers still early into their careers, and this edition had more than a few standouts. One of its strongest selections (and one of the best documentaries in the festival) was "Mimi," a delightful look at a woman from the south of France who guides the audience through a tour of her completely unremarkable life, from her childhood love of trains to her homosexual maturation and eventual purchase of a remote mountaintop home. Fascinating in its fresh look at the mundane, "Mimi" enchants as much with the filmmaking as with its subject.
Another equally charming experience is Jeff Lau's "Chinese Odyssey 2002," a Hong Kong action comedy that combines martial arts mayhem with the slapstick sensibility of the Three Stooges. Produced by Wong Kar-Wai and starring Tony Leung, "Odyssey" charts the amorous misadventures of two commoner siblings and their love for a brother-sister pair who are royalty in disguise (the sister is even in drag). A romantic sensibility meshes well with the silly fun, resulting in a completely winning spectacle.
And among the more exotic fare is "Mercano the Martian," a bizarre animated sci-fi political feature from Argentina about an alien who crash-lands in Buenos Aires and finds himself a captive of big-business entrepreneurs who exploit his brain to create a virtual reality Internet theme park.
The Panorama section was also full of worthy treats. Although its story is a bit heavy-handed at times, Gillies MacKinnon's "Pure," a kind of a junkie version of "The 400 Blows," features standout Harry Eden as a 10-year-old boy trying to help his mum kick her habit. Scandinavian Jens Lien's "Johnny Vang" nails a very funny deadpan tone in its tale of a Norwegian worm farmer trying to get his business off the ground. And South Korea's Jang Sun-Woo follows up his worldwide S&M hit "Lies" with "The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl," a fascinatingly odd movie-cum-video game that pits a handful of different gun-toting, martial arts-kicking players against each other in a race to allow Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Match Girl" story end the way it was written. Doesn't make sense? Neither does the film, but its wildly kinetic visuals are easily midnight-movie material.
Just as it looked to the future of cinema, the Berlinale also celebrated the past with a tribute to Anouk Aimee, a retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu and F.W. Murnau, and a special presentation (with newly-struck prints) of the films of legendary producing team the Shaw Brothers. Masterpieces like King Hu's "Come Drink with Me" played alongside less memorable but equally inspired movies such as "Hong Kong Nocturne," a peek at '60s Asian mod life through the filter of a singing sister nightclub act; and "Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan," Chu Yuan's outrageously racy 1972 flick about a peasant girl, thrown into captivity and forced to become a whore, who vows revenge against her enslaver, a karate-kicking, blood-licking lesbian diva madame who can punch out a man's heart with her bare hand. For pure imagination, this 30-year-old mind-bending classic beat everything else in the festival without breaking a sweat.