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FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 2 – Paul Dano, Zellner Brothers and the first great film of the festival

FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 2 - Paul Dano, Zellner Brothers and the first great film of the festival

Part two of my Berlinale coverage, focusing on decision points: the moment when I pretty much made up my mind about a film, and how that moment reflects on the film as a whole, capped by my Indiewire grade. Read Part One

Our Homeland (Yang Yonghi) For the most part this drama about a repatriated North Korean returning to his family in Japan is given a solemn, safe treatment. Things liven up when the man visits his childhood friend who’s come way out of the closet. Made by an accomplished documentarian making her fiction debut, the script feels saddled by a need to dispense documentary facts about Japan-North Korean relations, but the gay friend takes his expository function(“I’m gay and ethnic Korean, a double minority!”) and sells it like he’s making his Broadway debut. His exuberant presence catalyzes the entire ensemble, transforming them from societal representatives to flesh-and-blood characters. B-

Kid-Thing (David Zellner) Basically a candy-colored Texas version of Bresson’s Mouchette that kind of goes nowhere, but there’s no denying the ferocity of vision in some moments, especially the most disgusting ones: a reprobate girl crushes an inchworm with her bare hands; close ups of cow dung and a cattle carcass being pulverized with paint gun pellets, the screen exploding with brown and orange. There’s a lot of untamed energy in this film. B-

The Woman in the Septic Tank (Marlon N. Rivera) So many good moments in this South Park-esque satire of two young Filipino filmmakers trying to break into the film festival circuit with the ultimate third world festival movie, about a suffering slum mother forced to sell her son to a pedophile. There’s the raucous casting debate between three actresses as the lead, creating three simulated scenarios for the outcome; and Eugene Domingo running away with the show as a seasoned diva breathlessly breaking down all the DIY filmmaker bullshit into Sundance-ready formulas. But my favorite has to be when the production assistant imagines the project as a Hollywood musical, with Manila slumdogs breakdancing to lyrics like “we are burping our souls,” and a tender serenade by the pedophile to his victim. As the filmmakers say while high-fiving themselves, “Forget Cannes, we are going to the Kodak Theater!!!” B+

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) Julius Caesar performed by Italian inmates in a prison, moving freely (if sketchily) between straight performance of the play to actors breaking character talking about how the story relates to their lives. The movie never fully explores that interplay, leaving us with teasing moments like when an actor insinuates that another’s impeccable performance as a traitor reveals his true nature. They threaten to come to blows, and then abruptly the scene ends. But despite the shuttling, half-finished quality of it all, there is tremendous care taken to the textured black and white images and a consummate sense of staging. B-

Barbara (Christian Petzold) Barbara, a East German doctor stuck in a countryside hospital and secretly planning to escape to the West, while fending off her supervisor who has an obvious yen for her. With compelling matter-of-factness, he tells her the story of how he wound up in the boondocks: a tragedy involving a state-of-the-art baby incubator, a nurse with a crush, and a two infants blinded for life. Barbara’s response: “Is your story true?” She can’t be bothered to care about or trust the people she’s trying to escape from. But too late: her doctorly concern and shared sense of personal setback expose her weak points, camaraderie has wormed its way in. All of this is conveyed through the subtlest nuances in looks and timing. Masterful stuff. A-

Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (Heinz Emigholz) In theory I get the connection between Emigholz’ amazingly dynamic 70s work and what he’s doing now with his static shot documentaries of architecture, where motion and energy are conveyed simply by the geometries of buildings. And I do like the haunted house approach to his filming buildings devoid of people, so that the focus is more on a sense of natural decay affecting the utopian lines and surfaces of modern concrete. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re just watching shots of buildings, especially when it’s hard to discern a logical flow from one building shot to another. C

For Ellen (So Yong Kim) As a fan of Kim’s In Between Days and Treeless Mountain as well as Paul Dano’s mutant-like weirdness, I really wanted to like this one. But something is terribly missing at the center of this minimalist study of a rock star trying to retain his wife and daughter. For me the dealbreaker came when father and daughter finally sit down to their first conversation, a painfully drawn out series of banalities. Dano is usually great at being game for anything, but here it seems he’s called upon to synthesize moments for So’s characteristically docu-realist camera to capture, and his zombie-like character is so submerged inside his own inarticulacy that there’s hardly a ripple on the surface. The dreamy, shoegaze camerawork, so expressively precise in past So films, here merely compounds the obfuscation. C-

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play, and contributor to and Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

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