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MIFF ’11 Reviews: ‘A Separation,’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ & ‘Knuckle’

MIFF '11 Reviews: 'A Separation,' 'Norwegian Wood' & 'Knuckle'

It’s that time of year once again: the Melbourne International Film Festival has hit town and, as ever, we’re right amongst it. For a change, we’ll endeavour to focus on films not extensively covered on the site before, possibly with a general recap later on. One of the early highlights of the festival (which runs between July 21st and August 7th) so far has been Asghar Farhadi‘s “Nader & Simin, A Separation,” which took home the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

A riveting, complex and thought-provoking work, Faradi’s film shines predominantly for its depiction of characters navigating their way through modern Iran — a society simmering with issues relating to class, gender and religion — with great divisiveness and, at the same time, empathy. Audiences are immediately thrown into the thick of it with the film’s very first scene which sees the husband and wife duo of Nader and Simin (Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami) passionately arguing in front of a judge about the prospects of a move abroad and its effects on their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

As their subsequent separation unfolds, Nader hires domestic help to care for his ill father which comes in the form of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a woman less well-off than the comfortably middle class leading family. A series of events then unravels leading Razieh and her family to take legal action against Nader, spiraling the story into a moral riddle of sorts. Credit to Farhadi, though, as throughout it all, character’s motivations, actions and the subsequent consequences are never judged, never portrayed as definitively wrong or right, good or bad with only more questions brought about at each turn in the plot.

The most interesting journey in the film, however, is that of Nader and Simin’s daughter Termeh, an eleven year high school student. The teenager is forced not only to deal with the perils of adolescence and high school but is also troubled with her parent’s potential divorce, their legal troubles and, most fascinating, the stark realization of the underlying factors that rule the society she resides in. The conclusion of the film may leave a bittersweet taste in audience’s mouths but the journey taken up until that point is one of such great reward, it doesn’t really matter. [A]

An adaptation of Haruki Murakami famous novel, Tran Anh Hung‘s “Norwegian Wood” is a melancholic meditation on love and loss that endeavours to sensually immerse audiences into the world of a Japanese student set amongst the ’60’s counter culture. Troubled by the suicide of a close friend, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) moves to Tokyo where the arrival of an old friend sees him caught between the past and present, pain and pleasure, obligation and desire — all in the form of a love triangle between he, the fractured Naoko and the spirited Midori.

The crippling running time could have done with a little tightening as it felt uneven and somewhat aimless in parts, which is highly detrimental to the film’s mood. There are, however, aspects to love with the music (featuring a score by Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood) and photography partnering to great visceral effect at times; never more so then when the eponymous Beatles song is introduced. Oscar-nominated thesp Rinko Kikuchi shines as the explosive, broken Naoko, who drives a wedge between Watanabe and Midori. All in all, though, we guess it’s a continued wait for Tran to break through from his impressive, early films. [C+]

Ian Palmer‘s “Knuckle” landed on our radars when David Gordon Green, Jody Hill and Danny McBride‘s Rough House Pictures teamed with HBO with plans of a T.V. remake. And, god, we have to admit there’s no better team to do it. The documentary of Irish traveling families (more or less, gypsies a la Brad Pitt‘s mob in “Snatch“) who turn to bare knuckle fighting to resolve differences is a film that’s raw, compelling and equally funny and easy as it is tough viewing.

Members from each of the families portrayed are inhibited by an unspoken, multi-generational rivalry with the leaders dominated by the idea of victory against one another through the violent sport. Director Palmer intimately tracks these families — with a focus on one family’s best fighter, John Quinn McDonagh (a role we’d easily see McBride take up in the potential remake) — over a 12 year period depicting the highs of victory and the jubilant community celebrations that come with it to, adversely, defeat and the inner torment and suffering faced. Visions of children no older than 9 or 10 trash talking rival families pre-fight and then play-fighting each other post-fight suggests this haunting tale is one that, in reality, will continue for years to come. [B]

Finally, here’s a couple of humourous ads that have been running at the festival, one of which features local star Geoffrey Rush.

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