György Pálfi's "Hukkle," the Hungarian Hiccup Heard Around the World
by Anthony Kaufman
A film so unique it defies categorization -- is it nature documentary, murder mystery, musical. or mere cinematic puzzle? -- "Hukkle" is also exceptional in that it's one of the only truly independent Hungarian films to ever receive theatrical distribution in the United States. The man responsible for such an achievement is 28-year-old director György Pálfi, a graduate of Hungary's Drama and Film Academy, where "Hukkle" was his thesis film.
Winner of a New Director's Award at San Sebastian and Best First Film at last year's European Film Awards, "Hukkle" has already been released in more than 10 countries from Europe to Asia, and been shown at more than 120 film festivals. Nothing like the Hungarian films we know from such directors as Bela Tarr and Istvan Szabo, "Hukkle" is distinctively Pálfian -- if one could offer the label to a filmmaker with one feature to his name.
He certainly deserves it. "Hukkle" begins with a wrinkly old man on his stoop with a bad case of the hiccups (the onomatopoeic "hukkle" of the title and soundtrack), then follows a meandering hog, journeys underground with worm-gobbling moles, into the air with a fighter pilot, and throughout this small Hungarian town that's concealing a murderous secret, all scored to what the director calls a "symphony of noises." (To learn more and see the entire script, check out the very comprehensive website: http://www.hukkle.hu.)
"Hukkle" premiered at Chicago's Music Box on November 14 and will open at New York's Cinema Village this Friday, via Shadow Distribution, followed by a nationwide roll out. Stunning not simply for its originality, but for its visual and aural wit and ingenious storyline, "Hukkle" is one of the most exciting debut films of the year. Director Pálfi spoke to indieWIRE about his musical without music, "magic pictures," and the U.S. market.
indieWIRE: Where did the concept for the film come from? For example, did you have a particular interest in nature documentaries? Or for that matter, Agatha Christie?
György Pálfi: The concept came from music. I wanted to make a musical without music. I wanted to create my music with only natural voices, noises, and sounds. And when this idea came to my mind, I went to a little village, and looked for some original sound with original stories. I put the criminal story into the script, after having seen that every community had some secret. I selected the biggest one.
iW: How did you accomplish the cinematography of the underground animals?
Pálfi: It was easier for me to work with animals than with actors. If you know the behavior of the animal, you can create a situation in which you can shoot the scenes. For the underground animals, we built a maquette's table, and waited. But the hardest work was with Jimmy, the male pig. He was very smart and evil. He understood when the camera had started and he did not want to do his job.
iW: How did you manage to do the scene with the fighter plane? What sort of special effects were used?
Pálfi: We just asked KGB. This is a Hungarian special FX post-production company. They drew the F16 plane into the computer, after having shot the background of the village.
iW: How long did this complicated sound design take? What did the sound design accomplish and how many tracks did you make?
Pálfi: I think that was the most difficult part of the production. The sound recordist recorded some tracks at the same time as when we were shooting. Tamás Zányi (sound engineer) looked for original and clear voices in the village. After that we edited the first draft of the movie. That was a longer version. We recorded some new noises with folly artists, like the noise of the flowers growing. We found some special effects from archive CDs. Then, the music composers, Samu Gryllus and Balázs Barna, took the voices in order for music composing. Than the editing and the music composing ran together. When the movie's editing was finished, we invited foley artists again to the studio, and some musicians. And finally we mixed everything.
iW: To American audiences, the film may seem weird. What do you think audiences will call it?
Pálfi: The film is an experimental movie that respects the audience. It is very important for me what people think about my film. Of course, I would like them to like it. The film is a game too, and I think, if somebody likes to play, he or she will like my film too. This is not a weird film for me; it only uses a different storytelling system.
iW: In your notes on the film, you said you were inspired by something called "magic pictures"? What exactly are they and what do they mean to you?
Pálfi: When I had the idea for the film, I looked for some examples. I remembered a children's magazine, and I found the magic pictures. In this old black-and-white magazine, you could see many idealistic life situations and you had to look for some other things in the same pictures. For example, you see a soldier in the pictures, and you have to find his wife. And the wife is hiding somewhere inside the picture.
iW: What are you working on next? And how will you finance it? Will government money be enough?
Pálfi: "Hukkle" was my first long feature film. I received some very-very small amount of money from the government foundations. I had to find a cheap idea. Now I am working on a family story film. The heroes of "Taxidermia" (title of the film) are three men, three generations of a family who happen to live in Eastern Europe, in Hungary. The "Balatony Saga" is just like a subjective history of the second half of the 20th century told by Lajos, the youngest member of the family. Surrealism and historical facts get mixed up in his imagination, creating a kind of "fairytale realism," like for example in Marquez's novels. Or in the works of the popular contemporary Hungarian writer, Parti Nagy Lajos. The script is based on some of his stories.
We are looking for the money and financial partners from all parts of the world now. The government will give money for the film, after finding a co-production partner. We are selected as one of the three finalists in Europe for the 2004 Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award. So we are hoping.
iW: Finally, a general question about the state of Hungarian filmmaking: we get so few Hungarian films here in the U.S. (Bela Tarr, and that's about it). Can you give me some thoughts on a Hungarian national cinema?
Pálfi: This is a very difficult question for me. From Europe and Hungary, we see the situation of the U.S. movie market as a closed market. If a film doesn't speak in English, the Americans don't see it. If a film hasn't got the traditional storytelling, the situation is the same. The markets in general don't work mutually. We make 20 to 30 films per year. For this very small country, it is a big number. But the films most often talk about our specific problems. The Hungarian national cinema was very famous in the '60s and '70s in the whole world. I hope these times will return very soon. We have a big chance now.