Category: Sydney Film Festival 2010


I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at ten o’clock on a Thursday morning near the end of the Sydney Film Festival. I couldn’t recall if I’d ever seen a film in a theater so early, even at school. The State Theatre was rather full; not surprisingly most of the clientele were middle-aged or old people. No doubt many of them were there because Uncle Boonmee had just recently won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Others were probably out to see every film in competition; and a few would have been subscribers willing to give anything in the festival a go.

I wondered what the oldies thought. It might be the epitome of a film that earns raves and awards but leaves general audiences cold. You’ve got to hand it to highly-regarded Thai director Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul for presenting his own startling vision on his own time, and making few concessions to conventional plotting or suspense. It’s a quiet film. The audience I saw it with was even more quiet. Were they drawn in by this “contemplative” film? Or were they asleep?

A pungent commentary by Nick James in Sight & Sound (noted in this blog) bemoans what he calls “Slow Cinema,” accusing director Semih Kaplanoğlu, director of the Berlin-prizewinning Honey (also at SFF) of being passive-aggressive and elitist. “There are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine.” Regardless of what James thinks of Weerasethakul’s aesthetic, he might have been describing Uncle Boonmee on behalf of the punters. And to be honest it bored me at times (unlike Honey, which I loved through and through.) But I was also very fascinated, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve not seen any of Weerasethakul’s other work but now I’m curious.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays a middle-aged man with a failed kidney who retires to the country. Attended by relatives and caregivers, Boonmee reflects on his life peacefully but with considerable sorrow – he believes his illness is karmic punishment for killing communists while in the army, and is convinced he’s doomed. He might also have death on the mind because he’s frequently joined by the melancholy ghosts of his wife and son. Eventually the narrative gives way to a series of dreamlike excursions into Boonmee’s past lives – not so much portraits of history as ephemeral, sometimes surreal sketches, including an astonishing, disturbingly erotic encounter between an aging princess and a talking catfish.

Intertwining these various devices, Weerasethakul weaves a portrait of contemporary Thailand that includes  subtle commentary on the government and military; it’s given depth by its sense of weird history and legend; the whole thing enhanced by Buddhist spirituality. The cinematography is gorgeous: the Thai countryside is wonderfully rendered in widescreen and visually signifies the story’s differing moods. The sunny, life-affirming scenes on Boonmee’s farm, like the carefree moment when he shares honey off the comb with his sister (one of many reminders of Honey for me, especially as I saw it the same week), are starkly contrasted with the misty darkness of the haunted, timeless jungle where Boonmee feels he is called to die.

And, yes, at its best the film, perhaps reflecting its Buddhist outlook, is meditative or indeed entrancing. Differing episodes and shifting realities are seamlessly and organically connected by Weerasethakul’s very restrained but somehow powerfully insistent direction. It’s not without suspense, albeit a kind that burns so dimly you sometimes forget it’s there.

Call me easy to please, but what I loved about this film is the element of fantasy. To me, movies should depict the improbable and the fabulous as often as possible. Since the seminal From the Earth to the Moon, fantasy represents something essential about cinema, but lately it’s somehow been relegated to commercial blockbusters, cult fare, or kids’ stuff. I’m always happy when a “serious” auteur shuns realism and goes for something mysterious or otherworldly.

The ghosts in Uncle Boonmee are really cool, especially the monkey ghosts. They’re unspeakably eerie from a distance — creeping silently through the jungle, appearing to mortals with their baleful, glowing red eyes at portentious moments in their lives — but are gentler on closer inspection, resembling black-furred wookies. Without having seen his other films I shouldn’t go as far as to say Weerasethakul has been influenced by Miyazaki, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Miyazaki’s work with the animistic spirit-creatures, the mystical view of nature, and the deep-rooted sense of human lives and fates determined or enhanced by powerful magical forces. (Though I must say I don’t think this film is as visionary or perfectly realized as anything Miyazaki’s done.)

Uncle Boonmee does cross the aforementioned line into boredom a few times. I don’t think I’m being a philistine to suggest that a few of the scenes consisting of the characters quietly smalltalking, or sitting and watching TV and not talking at all, are a bit indulgent, or that the obscure conclusion of the film is rather empty and disappointing. Repeated viewings are no doubt called for; sometimes abstract or challenging music can reveal more melody or structure upon further listening and I can imagine Weerasethakul’s filmmaking style works the same way.

In fact — and at the risk of sounding like a hopeless film nerd — the boredom was actually okay with me. I might have felt unusually amiable because of the early hour of the screening, or maybe I was just willing to trust it because of good reviews from friends. Even when my attention wandered for a while, or I got frustrated with a particularly slow scene, I found the total effect intact. I reckon Joe knows what he’s doing. For a film that puts oldies to sleep the way it does, Uncle Boonmee is powerful stuff. I felt quite haunted when I left the theatre.

Between Two Worlds (Ahasin Wetei) addresses years of civil war and instability in Sri Lanka not with drama, not with documentary reportage, but with an admirably uncompromising and beautiful surrealism. Directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara and shot by Channa Deshapriya (who won a cinematography award at the 2009 Dubai Film Festival), Between Two Worlds is a stunning series of widescreen dreams depicting a land and a people reacting to violence and disorder organically, whimsically, and sometimes superconsciously, but always without ordinary sense and logic.

It had been a good while since I’d seen a purely surreal film, and Between Two Worlds was a primal pleasure. There is, naturally, not much plot to report. The film opens with an arresting sequence in which a young man (Thusitha Laknath) jumps from a low cliff into the sea, and is then washed up on a beach. Though on the surface it appears to be a suicide attempt, we’re not sure whether it could be a ritual, or a symbol, or a dream, or all of the above. The Indian Ocean and Sri Lankan coastline rendered with gorgeous colors and textures in widescreen, the hypnotic sound of the surf, and the half-conscious movements of the young man combine to create quite a spell.

But that spell is broken and a new one cast when the scene suddenly switches to an urban center in the grip of violence and anarchy. We follow the same young man as he inexplicably takes part in a bizarre civil uprising, apparently aimed at the apparatus of communication: thousands of people wearing Mickey Mouse masks attack journalists, blow up radio towers and stations, and smash televisions in the street.

Shortly after he rescues a young woman from being raped (only to cling to her in a rather aggressive and confused way himself), he flees the city again, and spends the rest of the film wandering about the countryside, seemingly in a trance, taking part in strangely disjointed events and interacting with strange people. He is apparently on the run from an unnamed military, which sometimes has anachronistic aspects, as in the astonishing scene in which a group of rebels are attacked by men on horseback. There is some indication our hero is a prophet or some other mystical traveller, perhaps an incarnation of a mythical being, moving outside of time and history, and only witnessing fragments of mortal life and conflict. Many times he takes on the characteristics of an animal: stalking warily through a field of grass, crawling through a jungle, hiding in the trunk of a tree. Jayasundara shapes this unorthodox dreamtime using elemental motifs: trees, water, fish, blood, breast milk. The movie seems to flow according to a stream of consciousness, but it’s also very carefully composed and “painterly” (to use one irresistible buzzword).

As with the best surreal art, Between Two Worlds is inscrutable but edifying at the same time. It portrays war, oppression, and rebellion viscerally, and creates space for us to reflect on our society’s relationship to nature and the timelessness of our actions in this world. As mentioned, Deshapriya’s cinematography is rich and marvellous whether he’s working with huge landscapes or candlelight. It’s difficult to decide whether this film, or the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Honey, which was also at Sydney Film Festival, is more beautifully shot. Between these two and the ghostly, surreal Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, SFF 2010 offered some visionary yet earthy, abstract yet powerful and affecting stuff from the Asian continent.

If Between Two Worlds has a weakness, it’s that a few of the weird tableaux, especially the larger-scale ones, falter in their execution: either becoming silly, or openly betraying flaws in the production design. In the Mickey Mouse riot at the film’s beginning, some of the characters have stilted, unnatural movements, and are obviously throwing fake kicks and punches. Is this intended to highlight the absurdity of violence? If so, it doesn’t really work. Later, in a scene where huge trees are moving in the backround during an unseen skirmish in the jungle, we can actually see the ropes used to manipulate the trees.

This occasional cognitive dissonance is a shame in light of the visionary moments that work so well, like the aforementioned scene with the cavalry, and that in which Laknath’s character takes part in a human chain moving buckets of water. It’s part dance and part mysterious ritual — the men’s choreographed movement and the sound of their chanting is beautiful and disturbing. It’s one of the unforgettable images I’ll retain from this beautiful and disturbing film.

The catchphrase “police procedural” describes fiction that focuses on the painstaking work detectives do to solve crimes. The description originally applied to stories depicting the gritty or even tedious side of a very difficult line of work — noir with an unromantic but compelling streak of realism. But recently police procedurals have taken on a lot of flash and glamour with the tremendous popularity of shows like CSI and Law and Order SVU. In an age of constant crime reportage, we’re inclined to make heroes of the fictional cops who fashion sense out of chaos. I think there’s something darker at work too: perhaps as we fetishize the processes and technology used to solve crimes, we fetishize the crimes themselves.

The new Romanian film Police, Adjective thumbs its nose at all of this, pointedly, if not gleefully, draining all the romance from the most played-out genre of our time. It takes the concept of “police procedural” to its logical conclusion, showing police work at its most mundane, bureaucratic, and demoralizing. But as crafted by writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu with deliberate pacing and a bone-dry Romanian wit, it’s nimble and clever and even entertaining, while making subtle commentary on life after Ceausescu’s police state.

Dragos Bucur plays Cristi, a young cop with a boring, thankless job. He’s tasked with tailing a group of teenagers to determine which one of them is supplying hash to the others. This mostly involves standing around for hours in the cold, waiting for the kids to come and go, watching them smoke in a schoolyard. The way it’s presented here there’s nothing voyeuristic or even very suspenseful about this stuff. We never even see a closeup of the suspects. It’s just one long, quietly atmospheric take after another of Cristi watching, chainsmoking, going to get tea to break the tedium. The city setting is drab, little else but brick and grey concrete; there never seems to be any sunlight. After his long days, Bucur retires to various shabby, flourescent offices to fill out endless paperwork. It’s a dull, sometimes dysfunctional environment left over from the repressive 1970s and 80s.

It’s not long before it’s clear Cristi doesn’t have much stomach for his duty: he complains about the prospect of locking up a kid over petty drug charges, and spends much of the film trying to prove to his superiors there’s no case so he doesn’t have to feel bad about ruining a young life. But the system gives him little choice but to continue gathering evidence to incriminate. And Cristi is no heroic lone wolf from some other cop movie; he’s a blue-collar worker in the service of functionaries. He’s not unintelligent, but perhaps a bit hapless, and has a tendency to get pushed around by his colleagues and lose arguments.

What the film lacks in warmth and excitement, it makes up in cheek. The plot of Police, Adjective is essentially just a framework for a series of acerbic dialogues, low-key but often hilarious banter about minor details. The Eastern European fondness for cynical barbs and aphorisms really gleams on display here. In this wordplay there is a particular focus on the meaning of the words themselves. Time and again, Cristi finds himself in discussions and disagreements about the exact definitions of words and concepts — whether it’s the legalisms that bind his actions or the banal lyrics to a song his wife likes.

As the film slouches toward its inevitably implosive conclusion, it’s obvious that Porumboiu as a writer is far more interested in semantics than politics or police work. The “climactic” scene, a confrontation between Cristi and his chief (Vlad Ivanov) is one long, slow-burning exercise in dialectics. There are no good guys or bad guys, no violence; this place is not even exciting enough to be Kafkaesque.

Police, Adjective is very watchable and enjoyable given how hard it works to portray tedium and bureaucracy. The cinematography is excellent — its cool, overcast tones and eye for detail fixing a melancholy sense of place in this urban backwater. Bucur portrays Cristi as a flawed but very likeable guy. He never smiles — no one does in this film — but not far beneath his mask of sarcasm and ennui he’s quite human, vaguely yearning for a slightly more free and just system (dimly represented by his honeymoon in Prague). There are several scenes in which we simply watch as he eats lunch, or sits at a desk and reads, and Bucur’s odd charisma makes it happen.

Porumboui’s directorial hand is very assured here; I imagine the occasionally uneven tone is intended. But I found the consistently sharp wordplay to be the strongest thing about the film, and could have done with far more of it in proportion to the long stretches without dialogue. Porumboui’s calculated deconstruction of the crime genre at times succeeds in deconstructing his own creation; occasionally there’s a dissatisfying sense that the whole thing’s a pisstake. But overall Police, Adjective is a uniquely dry and droll slice of boring life.

Honey

Honey (Bal), the third entry in Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s “Yusuf Trilogy” following Egg (Yumurta) and Milk (Süt), won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in January before playing here at the Sydney Film Festival. It deserves its Golden Bear and any other accolades it may receive. It’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.

Well, since the last great Turkish film I saw anyway. In case you don’t know (I didn’t until recently), the Turkish independent film scene is experiencing some kind of remarkable epoch. A fountain of creativity has been harnessed to a pragmatic determination to produce and distribute (often with financial backing from Europe), and the result has been one highly original and personal film after another. The list of awards claimed by Turkish indies in recent years is long.

Let me give an idea of the exuberance of Turkish filmmaking at the moment. Derviş Zaim, one of the founders of the movement, is in the midst of a series of three thrillers, each one thematically inspired by a different medieval Islamic art technique. The most recent one, Dot (Nokta), was one of the best films of last year. Pelin Esmer made a documentary about her uncle, an obsessive collector of junk, then proceeded to reformat it into the brilliant narrative feature 10 to 11 (11’e 10 Kala) — keeping her uncle onboard to play himself. Call me late to the game, but I was so impressed with the consistent high quality of all the films in the Turkish program at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year. It reminds me of what one New York journalist wrote about the glory days of hiphop. A naïve friend asked him which hiphop records were good. His reply was, the black ones, and also the ones that are round — in other words, all of them. If someone asked me what Turkish indies to see, I’d say all of them.

In this atmosphere for Kaplanoğlu to plan a trilogy telling the life story of a young poet in reverse order, with breakfast as a running motif, doesn’t seem so farfetched — and in fact the three installments were completed and released in three successive years. I’ve not seen Egg or Milk, so I can’t comment on the part Honey plays in the “reverse trilogy.” I can only say how much I loved this film and describe its mesmerizing effect.

Honey concerns Yusuf (Bora Altaş) at the age of six, and his relationship with his loving father (Erdal Beşikçioğlu). The plot is mainly just a series of sketches. The boy learns to read. The boy harvests wild honey with his father. The boy has difficulty speaking, and struggles in school. The boy is jealous of his cousin. The boy learns to love poetry. The boy waits for his father to return from a journey. These strands are shaped slowly over the course of the film into a quiet suspense.

Honey depicts a child’s state of mind better than any film I’ve seen. We tend to recall childhood from an adult’s linear perspective. We remember the first time we were stung by a bee — boy did that hurt! Or the time we ate too much ice cream and threw up — that was funny! We’ve taken years of memories and sequenced highlights in convenient and banal ways as if they were TV news.

What we often forget, or won’t admit, is that children live in a different world than we do. It’s a world less complicated, more pure, filled with joy and even ecstasy. But it is also more mysterious and frightening, and to them it can seem dangerous and cruel. Children are not stupid or backwards, but their minds work differently. They perceive relationships between people differently. They perceive time differently. They might stare at a tree or an anthill for hours, or simply stare into space and think. They invent and devoutly follow their own primal belief systems and mythologies to help them understand what’s going on around them. An everyday object or an immediate family member can transform suddenly into a threat.

Once when I was about the same age as Yusuf, I was terrified by a dead wasp in our family’s car. It had died in an upright position so that it looked merely at rest on the panel below the rear window. It sat there, eerily still, not far from where I was sitting, looking enormous to me. I vividly recall its staring eyes. I alerted my parents — and they told me not to worry about it, it wouldn’t hurt me. But I simply couldn’t believe I was asked to endure such a thing. I momentarily lost all trust in my parents as well as my belief in biological death and other laws of nature. The world had ceased to make sense. I was trapped, imprisoned, locked in a seatbelt for a timeless time, with a possibly undead monster lurking close by.

Honey is largely made up of such impressions. Yusuf is the center of the story; he’s onscreen almost every moment. Since he doesn’t speak much, there’s not much dialogue, and much of that is whispered. The film is crafted according to his perspective: the point of view is quite often low to the ground; adults and furniture seem to tower overhead; the objects that so fascinate a child are given prominence (a wooden toy ship, a glass bowl full of ribbons). Mysterious interactions between other people are viewed at a melancholy distance (often through a window).

Time is highly manipulated: it collapses or is stretched depending on what’s on Yusuf’s mind. In one memorable sequence, he gets out of bed in the morning to see whether his father has arrived home; then we see virtually the same thing repeated, and we realize it’s now the next day. Yusuf is only living for that part of each day. In other instances we’re not sure of the order of events, or whether what we’re seeing is a dream. Yusuf’s dreaming life is key to his character — there is some suggestion he’s clairvoyant. In many ways Honey plays like a series of dreams; but it’s not surreal as such. In fact it’s beautifully earthy, with terrific detail of country life in the Black Sea region of Turkey. Bora Altaş’ touching performance is also very grounding. He carries the film with delicate charisma.

Kaplanoğlu’s mise-en-scene and Bariş Özbiçer’s cinematography are masterful. Working with a palette of deep forest greens and rich browns, using lots of shadow and natural sources of light, they’ve made nearly every frame of the film as glowing and sumptuous as a classic Dutch painting. But it’s not static; the tension between stillness and movement is enthralling. In one scene, Yusuf’s father cuts and eats an apple while a kettle behind him comes to a boil. At first our eyes are drawn to the knife and fruit in the room’s dim golden light; we only start to register the blue flame of the stove in the background as the sound of the whistling kettle very slowly rises up into the sound mix. There’s an abundance of such exquisite shots — the skittering of a bee across the pages of a book, the dancing of the moon reflected in a bucket of water. And the visual scheme may be pastoral but it’s not quaint or precious. There’s a freshness in the approach that makes ordinary things appear striking, as in the strange low-angle shot of Yusuf’s uncle making rope, highlighting the rhythm of his activity. One sequence depicting a festival on a plateau frames a large crowd with the detachment and thrilling, abstract beauty of the German photographer Andreas Gursky.

The great sound design is a big part of the total effect, especially in the scenes set in the woods. There is no music at all in the film, but an especially lush and detailed soundtrack of rustling leaves, running water, birds, and animals forms its own ambient music and goes a long way to suggesting Yusuf’s internal condition. This is one indie you’ll want to watch with a good sound system.

The trancelike state created by Honey recalls a very different film, No Country For Old Men. At the peak of their powers, the Coen brothers found a perfect pitch between the unusual stillness of many scenes and the suspense generated by the plot. We might be gazing at a desert landscape, looking for one distant movement in the corner of the frame; or staring at light reflected on a doorknob in the dark, waiting an agonizing time for something to happen. Honey works on such levels. So often indie cinema aims for minimalism: minimal budget, minimal drama or emotion, minimal apparatus. Honey may be quiet and slow, but like the intense ambient music of Brian Eno or Ulf Lohmann, its scope and impact are maximal.

I guess there’s always going to be disussion about whether films like this are “meditative” and “contemplative,” or simply “boring.” I saw a lot of sneering, contemptuous reviews of Honey; one Indiewire critic, frustrated by what he called a substandard Berlinale, dismissed it as “ponderous.” A controversial editorial in Sight & Sound (noted in this blog) skewered Honey as an example of “Slow Cinema,” citing an epidemic of boring, “passive-aggressive” films made by elitist auteurs, supported by a lazy industry.

I’ll never be accused of elitism; I’m more keen to see Iron Man 2 than half the indies released this year. I did not sense it here, unless an original vision presented with great skill is elitist. And I also had an opportunity to compare Honey with other “contemplative” films at SFF, including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which took top honors at Cannes. Unlike that film (which I did admire a great deal), Honey captivated me from start to finish. It’s not just a virtuoso filmmaking exercise; I never stopped wondering what would happen next, never stopped caring about the boy. Kaplanoğlu has marshalled his formidable talents to tell a very human story in an unusual way and the result is a remarkable artifact, as softly dazzling as candlelight on a dark emerald.

The Tree

Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, closed the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago before premiering in Australia on Sunday night at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. I’ve been going on about Aussie cinema a lot lately, so it was nice to be present at the premiere of such a noteworthy new Australian film. True, it’s a French co-production, with a French writer/director and an Anglo-French star; but the story, characters, and setting are as thoroughly grounded in Australia as the titular tree.

That tree is a very old, absolutely massive Moreton Bay fig that dominates the rural Queensland countryside for miles and dwarfs the two-story house inhabited by Dawn (Gainsbourg) and her family. When her husband suddenly dies, Dawn is left alone with four kids, and she’s hardly up to the task. A whimsical, irresponsible woman of nearly forty, who has never had a job and has always let others make decisions for her, she is now overwhelmed by grief. As months pass, she retreats into a shell, the household falls apart, and it seems her kids are raising her.

One of those kids, the 8-year-old Simone, becomes convinced her departed father communicates with her through the fig tree. She spends a lot of time nestled in its huge branches, talking to him. Dawn, as childlike as her daughter in many ways, grows to believe the same thing. The reassurance granted by that belief gives her the strength to try and get it together. This involves getting a job and, as it happens, seeing another man (Marton Csokas), which causes a rift between her and Simone. Increasingly Simone retreats to the tree for support and guidance; but the tree seems to have its own ideas.

The overt plot and central conflicts mark The Tree as a chick flick. It’s about family, grief and crisis, and learning to love. But it’s a splendidly abstract, low key chick flick, with a child’s sense of wonder, and beautiful performances. Gainsbourg inhabits a very difficult character with eccentric grace. The young Morgana Davies is superb as Simone. Csokas is all warmth and restrained intensity in the thankless role of the love interest who is, well, not a tree.

Bertuccelli depicts country life in Queensland with a prosaic touch. The house is ramshackle, its inhabitants humble and working-class. The interior design is nothing special; the children wear hand-me-downs. The highlight of the family’s year is driving a beat-up camper van to the beach for Christmas. The dialogue is straightforward and laconic in a classic Aussie way; a lot goes unsaid. All of this is presented plainly, with no effort to make it hip or stylish. As with rural people in real life, what they lack in cool, they make up in the natural beauty surrounding them.

The relationship of people with nature is a central part of the Australian psyche; the untamable wilderness of this land is often a force of reckoning in Australian fiction — characters discover or lose themselves when confronted by its power. The Tree carries on that tradition, but in a way that’s gentle and wonderfully organic. The characters go about their lives, the plot moves forward, but nature has a way of intruding. Some of the best moments in the film are the evocative little encounters with ants, frogs, bats, and jellyfish. The characters are captivated by these interruptions, and so are we, under the quiet spell woven by Bertucelli.

The tree is the main event of course. It’s gorgeously filmed — the luxuriant green leaves and hazy light filtering through its boughs effectively illustrate love and nurturing, and perhaps something more mysterious. The lush sound design helps make the tree a living presence. It intertwines with the characters’ lives, seems to envelop them and the story completely. There’s a little of the magic of Aronovsky’s The Fountain at work here in a more subtle format.

The Tree is a lovely, quiet little story about regular people — and it deserves mass appeal. But Bertucelli ingeniously makes the events of the film seem like a fable or a myth, and she’s crafted a fine new entry in the Australian canon.

Road, Movie is an independent Indian film — and that’s a bigger deal than you might expect. India has a massive, globally successful film industry, with a long and proud history. You’d think this would create fertile ground for experimentation on the side; but surprisingly, independent filmmakers there don’t have it easy.

This reality hit me with Bombay Summer (Joseph Mathew, 2008), one of my favorite recent films. Produced with American financial backing, it’s far more like an American indie romance than the sort of film normally made in Bombay — moody, evocative, naturalistic, with exquisite photography and nicely human characterizations. Yet it’s a very Indian film too in that it captures the everyday feel of the place and the lives of its people — both rich and poor — better than anything I’ve seen, and also pays tribute to classic Bollywood music and art.

So it was discouraging to talk to the director Mathew and hear how hard it is to find interest in India for such films. And indeed some Indian friends who saw it said they didn’t like it — it’s boring — nothing happens — and so on. Indian films face a different set of audience expectations, and fierce competition tends to rule out deviation from convention.

I was glad to see another Indian indie featured at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. And Road, Movie (written and directed by Dev Benegal) has certain things in common with Bombay Summer. It’s an Indian-American coproduction that manages to be atmospheric and human, gritty and romantic all at once. It also cleverly salutes Bollywood. And likewise it co-stars the wonderful Tannishtha Chatterjee. (I’d happily watch Tannishtha talk about the Bombay Stock Exchange for a couple of hours.)

But Road, Movie is more abstract than Summer, more playfully weird, with a magical tone borrowed from the likes of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson, but also from the Bollywood classics carted by its protagonists across India.

Abhay Deol plays Vishnu, a hapless young man who’s stuck inheriting his father’s hair oil business. He’s happy to be handed an excuse to drive a beat-up old mobile cinema van across India to its new owner and delay his cringe-inducing fate. Along the way he picks up an orphan (Mohammed Faisal), a fat old ganja-smoking entertainer (Satish Kaushik), and a beautiful widow (Chatterjee); together they drive literally off the beaten path and into the unknown. Of course they find the inevitable comedy, danger, and romance, or it wouldn’t be a road movie. But Benegal takes the elements of that tradition and shapes a quirky film that continually surprises. It’s charming, often hilarious, but also marked by a deliberate, observational pace, and anchored in a ground-level view of life in India.

The device of the journey allows Benegal to comment on Indian society: the middle-class city kid Vishnu rejects his upbringing and, once out on the road, discovers India as experienced by the poor: wandering, sleeping out in the open, worrying about the next meal. He meets people who have never seen a movie, people who have to fight for drinking water.

But Benegal nicely develops a sense of shifting destinies; as the journey continues, the open road takes on overtly mystical qualities, and eventually the characters arrive in a desert place, far away from everything else, where time seems to work differently and anything can happen.

The spectacular desert locations in Rajasthan provide a glimpse of a different India than usually depicted onscreen. Rather than being crowded, noisy, ornate, and saturated with color, Road, Movie is wide open, quiet, spare, and beaten by the sun. It’s still very colorful (this is India after all), but in a muted palette suggesting watercolors. It’s a gorgeous film.

The van is really something; it’s practically a character in the film. An enormous rickety old aquamarine thing, every square foot covered with custom art and detailing in tribute to Bollywood, it carries a projector, a screen, and a dusty, badly-kept store of prints, along with a few amenities for living and Vishnu’s hair oil. It’s part mobile cinema and part magic bus. Thankfully Benegal doesn’t get bogged down in cute self-reflexive references to film history or the filmmaking process (something I normally can’t stand). Instead the scenes in which Vishnu projects movies in ramshackle settings for downtrodden people are a fresh tribute to the childlike wonder the movies can inspire.

With the van as a comic base, and buffered by terrific acting from the leads, Benegal takes the film in many directions, mixing up moods and styles and borrowing from films east and west. Jim Jarmusch is obviously a strong influence, having practically invented the absurdist indie road movie. (This film, however, is stronger than anything Jarmusch has done in years.) There’s a satirical action sequence reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez. One haunting scene filmed on a dry salt flat in Rajasthan is a neat reminder of the Turkish director Derviş Zaim’s metaphysical thriller Dot.

Benegal is trying to do a lot here and is mostly successful. Sometimes the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, the plot twists a little too wacky. But I gave Road, Movie a mile of leeway for its originality and heart, and liked it on many levels. I sincerely hope my Indian friends will give this one a chance and help make the world safe for adventurous Indian cinema.

The creators of the brutal, genre-mashing Australian thriller Red Hill have good timing. Ozploitation has been hip lately. Critics and audiences are reassessing the cycle of low-budget, often violent Aussie genre pictures that saw their heyday in the 1970s (as glorified in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood). Meanwhile a new breed of Ausie cult film has been thriving on the festival circuit and in video outlets. SFF 2010 features a few including The Loved Ones and Caught Inside. And the target clientele should be well pleased by this entry.

But Red Hill is no mere cash-in; writer-director Patrick Hughes comes out guns blazing in his debut, aiming high, going for a new kind of Australian cult film. Part Western, part horror, paying canny tribute to genre classics with lots of style and confidence, Red Hill is also ambitious enough to engage in Australian mythmaking.

Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) plays Shane, a young cop from the city who transfers with his pregnant wife to the town of Red Hill (pop. 120) in the high country of Victoria — a place where people actually get around on horseback. He quickly finds more than he bargained for amongst the suspicious locals and working under the hard-bitten, spiteful sheriff (Steve Bisley). Then all hell breaks loose when an apparently psychopathic escaped convict (Tommy Lewis) — a local Aboriginal cowboy put away for murdering his wife years ago — hits the town gunning for retribution.

The expository stuff is not the strength of this film — in fact, a few moments early in Red Hill resemble any other thriller found on late-night cable with choppy story editing and sometimes unsure acting. But the film hits its stride when the convict Jimmy arrives on the scene and starts shooting the place up. Hughes has clearly learned the elements of violent action mise-en-scène from masters like Walter Hill, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez, with a big helping of horror à la John Carpenter. As the action escalates, each well-executed sequence employs gritty suspense and quiet restraint before its bloody payoff. And it’s always a pleasure when a genre piece nods at more upmarket fare; in this case, Hughes treats us to a knowing pastiche of No Country For Old Men. For fan-types this film will be a lot of fun to watch.

But there’s also a surprisingly powerful emotional element that deepens as the film goes on. Shane’s impending fatherhood and his questionable courage under fire resonate as the stakes increase; and as we find out more about the town’s dark past it becomes a key to the violence. The legendary quality is augmented by the nicely-shot rugged exteriors — big open spaces isolating the characters from civilization, from the present, and from each other.

Red Hill has plenty of awkward moments, but it comes together well before it reaches its wrenching climax. Hughes has crafted a grim tale that’s uniquely Aussie but should have broad appeal in any hemisphere. This is quality cult fare with welcome pretensions; and if Hughes can build from here he’ll be mentioned in the company of his influences one day.

The 2010 Sydney Film Festival formally opened at the State Theatre on Wednesday night with the world premiere of South Solitary, directed by Shirley Barrett and starring Miranda Otto, Marton Csokas, and Barry Otto. Barrett directed the Cannes-prizewinning Love Serenade (1992), also starring Miranda Otto, which happens to be playing in a restored version here at SFF; but she had not been active for the better part of a decade.

As I’ve stated a couple of times recently, I’m a relatively new but enthusiastic fan and supporter of Australian cinema. And it was heartening to see SFF opening with an Aussie prestige picture featuring popular and beloved local talent. So I’m very sorry to report I didn’t think it was a great film. Its heart is in the right place, and it has nice moments; but it suffers from poor execution and lack of an overarching vision, and is quite tedious at times.

South Solitary is set in 1927 on a remote island off New South Wales. Meredith (Miranda Otto) is a mousey single woman with lots of bad luck and no prospects, obliged to accompany her crotchety elderly uncle (Barry Otto), who has been put in charge of the lighthouse station on the island. There are only a handful of other people living on the ramshackle, maddeningly lonely station, and all of them are dysfunctional or abusive in one way or another. Indiscretions, ill-will, and bad fortune lead to Meredith being trapped on the island in a storm with Csokas’ character, an antisocial lighthouse keeper traumatized by the war. Whether they can learn to console each other’s pain and loneliness becomes the central issue.

Barrett admitted in her comments during the opening ceremony that the film had been completed the day before the premiere. Sadly it shows. The editing is quite rough, and the tone uneven. Some of the dialogue seems stilted (especially Barry Otto’s rants). A couple of major plot points are revealed in a confusing way; others produce groans. To the credit of the filmmakers, Solitary works hard. No fluffy historical epic, it’s refreshingly unromantic, and paints challenging portraits of difficult people. The bleak, grimly beautiful locations are an effective motif for the minimal plot and the emotionally stunted characters.

But things never quite come together. Where the film tries to be edgy, it merely seems murky and unformed; and where it could have used a pinch of romance or narrative drive to elevate it there is usually awkwardness. Miranda Otto is a good actress, and she does her best here. Her curiously neurotic Meredith is nonetheless sweet and charming, only hinting at depths she is too shy or browbeaten to share with most people. We end up caring for her, and are disappointed when the film provides so little else on which to anchor that feeling.

A friend who saw the film with me liked it a lot more than I did; so maybe she’s the target audience and I’m being as fussy as Barry Otto’s character. I’m glad an Australian filmmaker is working outside the box of standard historical romances — but this is a flawed film and I’m looking for more from Barrett’s next effort.