SFF 2010, Day 1: Estonia brilliantly confuses while Korea plods.

This is my first time in Sydney in over 10 years. I'm completely biased to Melbourne, born and bred. I did find a good coffee upon arrival so you are doing OK so far Sydney. I've got my eye on you though. Our group briskly checked into the hotel where I discovered our booking was under the name Thompson. Is this an omen signalling the shape of things to come or just some pointless, completely explainable distraction? We'll find out soon enough. Two films tonight were on the cards. Let get into it shall we...
 
THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY
 
Wow! In fact I think I wrote that word several times in my notepad while this was playing out. What a way to start the festival! I knew nothing about this film going in other than it was in black and white and from Estonia. This lack of preconceptions is one the joys of film festivals. The film opens with a funeral procession through a desolate wasteland. In the distance a car speeds towards the group. The procession continues as the car narrowly misses the group and flies over a hump into the ocean. The group of mourners briefly stop before nonchalantly continuing on as if nothing ever happened. A man stumbles bloody and bruised out of the car and wanders off after the procession.
 
At this point I'm thinking Bergman, then a moment later I think Tarkovsky and another moment later I think Lynch. This film is bracingly unique and maddeningly hard to pin down. Our central character Tony leads a challenging life, his wife seems to be cheating on him, his boss is making him retrench whole warehouses of staff and to top it off he seems to be being given a series of moral temptations by something or someone that may or may not be the devil.
 
All this may sound like dauntingly heavy stuff but the whole film is infused with a unique streak of absurdist humour and a fascinatingly anachronistic soundtrack that includes weird 80s electro and traditional bluegrass. This is such a difficult film to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. It is almost wilfully eccentric as it careens through an increasingly abstract story that includes severed hands, cannibalism, non-sequitors, Japanese angels, naked dancing, the weirdest performance of Uncle Vanya you have ever seen and a Kafkaesque interrogation scene where the detective strips naked.
 
Late in a game a character quotes William Blake and for a small moment I thought I had a handle on the film. In some ways it resembles Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. While Jarmusch's film can be interpreted as the journey of a man though an ethereal limbo-like afterlife, this film seems to exist in a similar dimension. Its not reality as we know it by any means but more an abstract construct. The narrative follows a dream-like causal flow as our protagonist gets tempted and tested by unknown and possibly cosmic forces.
 
 
One sequence in particular stands out as the most amazingly surreal set piece I have seen outside of a Lynch film in many years. We enter a mysterious club called, The Golden Age which contains all manner of odd characters at times looking like a cross between Mulholland Drive and the orgy scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. I wont say anything more other than it's truly riveting cinema.
 
 
 
I really, really enjoyed this one folks. One can only hope it appears in some form somewhere so I can share this experience with you. Sadly I can't really see how many distributors would view an eccentric, oblique, Lynchian, black and white Estonian film as a profitable commodity.
 
POSSESSED
 
I was really hoping for more from this Korean thriller but sadly it ended up being a rather average affair. The film begins promisingly with a few well-calculated scares but it quickly slips into repetitive rhythms.
 
A girl returns home to her mother after her sister mysteriously goes missing. The plot plods along as a suspicious spate of suicides pile up one after another. Every character in the apartment building has their own part to play. The film is structured almost like police procedural, which is strange for what is essentially a demon possession thriller and the story unfolds through a series of clunky expository monologues/flashbacks. This results in a frustrating rhythm that repeats over and over and over. Detective interviews odd neighbour who reveals a piece of information, sister has strange supernatural experience usually involving a by the numbers scare (tension – respite – surprise). Rinse and repeat for the rest of the running time.
 
The film is effective in its own way delivering scares but completely losing its way in the last 15 minutes. A thoroughly misguided climax completed a story line that I didn't particularly care about leaving me completely deflated. The audience seemed to be getting a requisite amount of seat jumping moments so for the most part we can regard this as a functional yet uninspiring film.
 
TIDBITS
 
  • For both films tonight there were projection problems. The sound dropped out for 2 minutes in the Temptation and there seemed to be major focus issue for the first 20 minutes of Possessed. I do expect slight problems of course as I understand the volume of films being screened and the nature of some of the prints but this is something to be aware of.
  • New Iphone ticketing system not working properly. It's a great idea... in theory.
  • The short screening before Possessed was a real treat. Nicolas Provost's Long Live the New Flesh was one of the best examples of codec error video art I have seen. I'm a big fan of this new form of art. It seems thoroughly modern and when done well results in some truly stunning imagery.
  • 4 films tomorrow including 3 documentaries. Also planning on checking out the festival club.