Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Five


Easily one of the highlights of the festival, this mammoth omnibus out of Germany combines three 90-minute features, each one exploring the escape of a convicted killer from different angles. The first part, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, focuses on the hospital orderly whose carelessness allows the killer to escape. The murderer is barely a presence in this part of the trilogy—he’s less a tangible villain and more a phantom, haunting the orderly’s intense relationship with a troubled hotel maid. It’s a marvelously compact film, as powerful as anything else Petzold has done, and it captures young love with a potent mixture of sensuality and violence. The two lovers regularly traverse the forest where the killer supposedly hides, and that walk becomes laced with a dread and uncertainty that stands in for all the terrors and traps of their doomed relationship.

Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around is comparatively lighter on its feet, and may well be the highlight of the trio for me (it’s a toss-up between this and Petzold’s offering). While the first and third films maintain an icy style built around control and stillness, Graf’s contribution is loose and lively, a quick sketch drawn on 16mm. Our focal point this time around is Johanna, a police psychologist brought in from outside of town to help the investigation. Fascinatingly, Graf smuggles several different genre stories into the mix, including the manhunt and even some business about police corruption. But these all occur in the margins, similar to the police sirens that periodically roar through Petzold’s earlier film before disappearing into the forest. Graf’s real interest is the relationship between Johanna and her old friend, Vera. The pair discovers that they once dated the same man, years before they ever met, and the implications of that one coincidence play out in increasingly surprising ways in the lives of both women. The film turns out to have been a mystery all along, just not the one we were expecting.

The final part, One Minute of Darkness by Christoph Hochhausler, is a comparative let-down after the strength of the first two films, but that may be simply because the director takes on the greatest challenge of all three films. While Petzold and Graf benefit from having easily identifiable protagonists, Hochhausler splits his film between two equally inscrutable, reserved characters: Frank Molesch, the escaped killer, and Marcus Kreil, the police officer hunting him down. Between the man in the woods trying to hide and the cop brooding on how to find him, the film spends much of its time watching men in isolation. It’s a static film, in other words, but not without its own merits. Hochhausler plays on our prejudices against the killer—built up by two films where he was essentially a bogeyman under the bed—and twists around our expectations of who he should be. The film takes on an unreal quality and becomes a fable in which our own contempt for the man turns him into a monster. Hochhausler skews our perspective of everything that came before, provoking the viewer to return to the beginning and delve deeper into this complex and strange world. Any film that can do that after nearly five hours is a success by any measure.

Life Without Principle 

Johnnie To turns Hong Kong’s recent financial turmoil into a high-energy crime farce in Life Without Principle, an often funny film about economic corruption and greed on every level of society. Everything is set in motion by the murder of a loan shark—seemingly the only character not fretting about money in the wake of global financial chaos—with the killing examined through multiple, increasingly amusing angles. The plot is densely woven and rich in character and incident, and To keeps everything moving briskly, pausing only for the occasional oddball detail. The film works as a derisive response to the stock market and all its attendant greed: smart people fail, while fools flourish. But I’m not entirely sold on the ending, which essentially rewards the greed of the sympathetic characters, while ensuring that the expected villains get what they deserve. If the system is truly as random and senseless as the film makes it out to be, surely To’s favoured characters need to suffer as much as the rest? The director backs away from the harsher implications of his story, and the film’s satiric edge dulls noticeably in its final moments.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The best parts of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lie in the first half of the film. A man has confessed to murder, and the police, town prosecutor and a doctor now drive through the countryside in the dead of night, trying to find the body in the featureless grasslands. These scenes border on Beckett-like absurdity, with all the village authority figures forced to wander the desolate night roads while the self-professed killer tries to remember where he hid the body in his drunken rage. The black comedy continues even when they discover the body: while making his official statement, the prosecutor inexplicably describes the victim as looking like Clark Gable, leading to much teasing all around. But the tone twists in the daylight, and while the film remains worthwhile, it also seems to shed some of its more intriguing idiosyncrasies. Ceylan moves away from deadpan existential comedy to a more earnest, at times even sentimental drama about the nature of justice and the truth. It’s still a compelling film, shot and performed with great skill, but be wary of what you wake to find in the harsh morning light.

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