The 63rd Berlinale will be considered the edition where Wong Kar Wai was omnipresent. With his long gestating THE GRANDMASTER opening the Festival and serving as the chair of the Grand Jury, WKW was everywhere, greeting audiences, signing autographs for fanboys and attending breakfast talks with young filmmakers in the Talent Campus throughout festival week.
But aside from the mega-presence of WKW, as well as his two leads, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, Asian films were on the light side this year. This is somewhat surprising, since Berlinale usually has strong Asian representation in their various sections. Some have speculated that the bigger Asian fare are waiting to premiere at Cannes, which takes place in May, or even Venice in September, signifying the growing competitiveness between the major festivals, especially for premiere status.
Whatever the case, the programming overall was pretty weak compared to previous editions. Many of the 27 films that I watched throughout the week were disappointments or marginally good. Again, this could be a continuing state of the middling returns when it comes to quality in narrative features nowadays and the rise of documentaries as “real life” subjects become more compelling and are truly stranger than fiction. And the documentaries I did see were, unsurprisingly, excellent.
So, here’s a quick roundup of solid films that emerged from my film-viewing marathon in wintery Berlin:
Apparently, there is a 4 hour cut of this film, which I would love to see. WKW is back after his unsuccessful foray to crossover to the West with the maligned and pedestrian MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. His ode to kung fu is what it is, an homage to the philosophy of kung fu, the changing tides of Hong Kong during the first half of the 20th Century, and the displacement of individuals (geographically, politically and spiritually) and how kung fu is a retention of one’s cultures and tradition.
The film essentially focuses on three kung fu disciplines: Tony Leung plays Ip Man, who has been portrayed in countless films, including the well known IP MAN series starring Donnie Yen. Ip Man is famous for being the sifu of a young Bruce Lee. He represents wing chun. Zhang Ziyi is Gong Er, a kung fu master’s daughter who has been displaced from Northeastern China. And there’s Chang Chen as the “Razor” from Taiwan.
The three characters represent the 3 Chinas (Hong Kong, China, Taiwan) and WKW weaves the stories not too well, going more for set pieces that are tangentially connected and lots of voiceover from these three kung fu disciples on the nature and essence of kung fu. While the story is sort of lacking, the action sequences are breathtaking and stunning. This is WKW at his very best, pulling out everything from his bag of tricks to reinvent some truly spectacular action sequences that feel visceral, real but at times, looks like art pieces (and sometimes Calvin Klein ads).
Surprisingly, THE GRANDMASTER was a pretty divisive opening night film, getting some terrible reviews from the European press corps. Many wrote that it was “too Chinese,” whatever that means. I think many WKW fans are expecting something more in the vein of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE or even ASHES OF TIME. In my opinion, THE GRANDMASTER is actually his most accessible film, with some amazing action sequences, deep philosophy and an allegorical take on the divided China. But then again, I was wishing for more and maybe one day, we’ll get a THE GRANDMASTER REDUX.
VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR
This was one of the best films I saw in Berlin. From Montreal based filmmaker Denis Cote, comes one of the most offbeat films I have seen in a long time. It’s as if Wes Anderson directed a ’70s lesbian prison film and then segued to the Coen Brother’s BLOOD SIMPLE world of revenge and violence in the heart of the forest. Audacious, meticulous and with some set-pieces that are truly brilliant, VIC+FLO SAW A BEAR is going to make an impact in art house circles in the months to come. The film also won the Silver Bear at the Festival.
WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW?
The second feature from Taiwanese American filmmaker Arvin Chen (AU REVOIR TAIPEI and the award winning short MEI, which you can view on The Short List) is a sweet comedy drama about repressed sexuality pitted against traditional Asian family traditions. The film follows two Taiwanese couples trying to stick together amid emotional and sexual upheavals that threaten the sanctity of their safe, and hetero, relationships. Wry and whimsical with touches of Jacques Tati and Woody Allen, the film is a love letter to Taipei and Taiwanese culture. Director Chen’s style is quite loose, maybe sometimes meandering and soft in its scene setups, but overall, you get swept away with its free spirited nature, like a mild gust of wind.
What is especially interesting about this film, with the main characters being simple, everyday people, is the fact that Chen casted Taiwanese rock stars to play this meek roles.
Post film Q&A with director Arvin Chen and his cast.
THE ACT OF KILLING
This documentary, from notable director Joshua Oppenheimer, was one of the most disturbing and frightening films I saw in Berlin. THE ACT OF KILLING is a documentary about the Indonesian death squads of the mid-1960s who tortured and killed communists. But it’s also a film within a film, as Oppenheimer urges the aging gangsters to recreate their acts on increasingly elaborate scale (prosthetics, props, drag outfits, soundtrack, location shooting). They grin and mug just as they also take it very, very seriously (this is where art imitates life and the perception of being in a “movie” gets really disturbing).One of these killers, Anwar Congo, is a celebrity and to see these sadistic men re-enact these atrocities with glee and a glint of nostalgia makes this whole enterprise just absolutely shocking.
One of the highlights of the Festival was GLORIA from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. Gloria is a 58 year old divorcée (a bravura performance from Paula Garcia, who was awarded Best Actress at the Festival). Her children have all left home but she has no desire to spend her days and nights alone. Determined to defy old age and loneliness, she rushes headlong into a whirl of singles’ parties on the hunt for instant gratification – which just leads repeatedly to disappointment and emptiness. But then she meets Rodolfo, an ex-naval officer seven years her senior to whom she feels romantically inclined. She even begins to imagine a permanent relationship. However, the encounter presents unexpected challenges and Gloria gradually finds herself being forced to confront her own dark secrets.
Employing a 70s and 80s pop soundtrack, GLORIA is funny, bittersweet and at times, raw, as the film explores the sexuality and desires of an older single woman still looking for love. And yes, the film does end with the song “Gloria.”