I’ve been talking to my film students lately about the way that viewing contexts affect how we receive a film – whether this means different hardware, locations, moods and modes of engaging.
While many of these conversations have been around the value that can be found in any kind of viewing, the perceived ideal still seems to be the darkened theatre, with a fellow audience. The Melbourne International Film Festival gives such a fantastic opportunity for coming together like this for two weeks of really concentrated cinema experiences, a welcome retreat from winter.
While the dozen or so films I managed to see can’t be fully representative, they offer a sample of some of the different kinds of cinema experience MIFF 2023 had on offer. Here’s a rough top five:
Walk Up (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea, 2022)
Hong Sang-Soo has directed 28 features since 1996, and they are nearly always a festival highlight for me in that their effects last a lot longer than my immediate reception. I’m always thinking about these films days, weeks, months later.
Part of the difficulty in writing about Hong’s work is that conversations among fans can feel exclusionary, heading immediately into auteurist gushing about form and repeated character types. This repetition is one of the real pleasures of encountering his work.
If you’ve never seen a Hong film, you can expect slow, realist plots about relationships (romantic, familial). Austere cinematography (locked-off mid shots are a favourite). Protagonists who are barely veiled Mary-Sues, usually filmmakers themselves, sometimes novelists or film professors. Expect excessive drinking, the tables packed with empty soju bottles.
Walk Up Trailer
The “puzzle film” is usually used to refer to a director like Christopher Nolan, but Hong could not be further from that (a common, facile comparison is made between him and Woody Allen, a more robust one for me is Eric Rohmer).
Nevertheless, his movies are a delightful, abstruse puzzle box, where getting to know a character requires careful observation of not only what they say but how they behave.
In Walk Up, the filmmaker protagonist Byung-Soo (Hong regular Kwon Hae-Hyo), adult daughter in tow, visits an old girlfriend who owns a four-storey apartment building. Over a four-part structure, we make occasional jumps forward in time, from the evening with the friend and daughter, to a growing relationship with the proprietor of the second-floor restaurant, to our hero’s occupancy of the top floor with a new girlfriend possibly years later. The final part returns us to the beginning, with the filmmaker again encountering his daughter on the evening where the first chapter ended.
It’s so satisfying to slowly see commonalities unfold across the four parts. How, late in each chapter, a character leaves the building and the others spend the remainder of that chapter awaiting their return. How entitled, pompous Byung-Soo is looked after by the women around him, all of whom, in very different ways, are concerned about his health.
I note how poorly Barbie performed in South Korea, and how despite their strength and power, Hong’s women are often still beholden to his comically self-assured, quixotically dreamy – or just deluded? – men.
Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2022)
It’s fascinating how the most interesting hot teen actresses of my adolescence now play frumps in films by female auteurs. Beautiful Michelle Williams’ dowdiness here rivals even Kirsten Dunst’s in The Beguiled or The Power of the Dog. You would never believe this croc-clad, slouching woman was playing Marilyn Monroe 12 years ago.
A ceramicist slogging away at administrative work for an art centre, Lizzy’s (Williams) life is the series of dismissals and microaggressions that plague anyone made invisible by a shy manner and complete dearth of pizzazz in appearance or personality. As she prepares for her own exhibition, Lizzy is overshadowed by the success of her charismatic but flaky colleague and landlord Jo (a brilliant turn by Hong Chau). Jo’s popularity is even more galling because she is weeks behind on fixing Lizzy’s water heater and keeps saddling her with caring for an injured pigeon.
Showing Up Trailer:
This film manages to make a joke out of the po-faced ludicrousness of the art world, while never (for me at least) making fun of art or artists themselves. It’s a fine line to walk, but one that I found tethered by Lizzy’s ability to subtly, gracefully, if unwillingly shoulder the worry, responsibility and labour that is necessary for making creativity bear fruit.
This is the funniest of Williams and Reichardt’s collaborations, but still grounded in their usual quietness and honesty.
Femme (Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, UK, 2023)
The moment Femme ended, the stranger to my right turned to me and said, “Wow, that was intense hey? My friend edited that!”, and all I could reply was “Kudos to your friend!”
This film is complete white-knuckle suspense through its brief runtime, though the homophobic violence that prompts its revenge narrative is really hard to stomach.
I was reminded of how many rape-revenge films don’t seem to understand that revenge is only satisfying if the survivor gets away with it. In Femme, the satisfaction at the end is knowing that beautiful, tender hero Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), has the love of his community, and all the things that made a closeted, abusive bigot want to hurt him are also his strength and grace.
And that sometimes we don’t want to see bullies learn the error of their ways – we just want to see them left out in the cold.
Gush (Fox Maxy, US, 2023)
This was the only festival screening I went to that was sparsely attended, and I think this is partly because the program seemed confused on how to describe it – it’s an experimental film, which they appropriately describe as “maximalist”.
The editing is unrelenting, with layers of sound collage and grainy digital shots of nature overlaid with MySpace-aesthetic animations, auto-tune, scenes of live theatre and TV clips of Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell. There’s also director Maxy dancing with friends or chatting to them in the car about men they know on Instagram, and I feel like the impulse – in a festival context – is to tell you what all this is ABOUT, some decisive statement that makes the whole film cohere.
This feels anathema to experimental film, which does sometimes intersect with the essay film (with an argument and something to say), but doesn’t have to. My reception of Gush was primarily aesthetic – I got a very tactile impression of the life Maxy was living at particular points while making this, and while the film is informed by relation to land, the digital era, indigeneity, trauma and gender it didn’t feel like it was making laboured statements about any of those things, as such. Rather, they give it its form.
Also – as I see someone clever on Letterboxd saying, it reads like “a series of bitchy Jonas Mekas TikToks”. A very funny comparison!
Phenomena (Dario Argento, Italy, 1985)
This was part of the festival’s Argento retrospective – new restoration prints of the horror and giallo master’s classics. And 1985’s lurid hallucination Phenomena is a total blast. It concerns a teenager (Jennifer Connelly) arriving at a foreign boarding school and encountering a serial killer targeting young women (well, the latter is a feature of nearly every Argento film).
There’s also a discovery that she can communicate with bugs telepathically, a sleepwalking affliction and a kindly wheelchair-bound etymologist (Donald Pleasance) and his support chimpanzee. The ludicrous plot is barely the point, though, as the film is primarily governed by a sense of dream logic, with one event linked to the next in the most tenuous fashion, and aided by an operatic 1980s rock soundtrack that completely knocks.
Phenomena culminates in a long set-piece where Connelly descends into a nightmarish underground complex, falls into a pit of maggots and decaying bodies (this scene actually made me retch), is chased by a deformed child, escapes via a boat which catches fire, summons a protective swarm of insects, and seems to have been saved only to have the antagonists fall and rise again in true slasher style.
The final minute involves a rescue so ridiculous the whole audience burst into celebratory laughter and applause. You can watch a film nearly anywhere, but you need to be in the cinema for that kind of delightful experience.
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