Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 6: An Australian Classic and a Chinese Debut

Believe it or not, I'm now over halfway through my festival screenings. Out of the 22 films I have scheduled, I've now seen 13 of them, including the two in today's post. And if I'm being completely honest, I'm exhausted. The next couple of days will only have one or two films each, so these posts will get shorter.


Today was the world premiere of a new restoration of The Boys (grade: A-), the 1998 Australian crime classic. The film picks up with Brett's (David Wenham) release from prison, where he was serving a sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He returns home to his mother (Lynette Curran), brothers Stevie (Anthony Hays) and Glenn (John Polson), girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette), and Stevie's new girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise). It doesn't take long, however, for Brett to settle back into his violent ways, encouraged by (and encouraging) his brothers in a series of escalating confrontations between the men and women of the house.

More after the jump.


Needless to say, the film is a remarkably dark affair. The family's rough edges are emphasized by director Rowan Woods' decision to shoot on 16mm film, giving the film the grainy aesthetic of a homemade video or snuff film. Woods also doesn't show Brett and his brothers being violent to anyone outside of their family, even though several such acts occur offscreen over the duration of the film. In fact, the focus here is the divide between the aggressive men and the women who fear them, turning the film into a frightening study of toxic masculinity in a society in which criminals are treated with odd fascination.

It's also, it should be noted, an incredible showcase for Wenham. The actor has appeared in a number of films and television shows over the years, including 300, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Top of the Lake, but here he takes center stage and refuses to relinquish the spotlight. He plays Brett with a barely contained rage that's constantly threatening to boil over, and frequently does. It's an intense performance that should have made him an even bigger star.

"Intense" and "barely contained" are the antithesis of Life After Life (grade: B), the debut feature from Chinese filmmaker Hanyi Zhang. Set in a rural village in Shaanxi, the film follows Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) and his son, Leilei (Zhang Li), after Leilei is possessed by the spirit of his deceased mother, Xiuying. Xiuying asks for Mingchun's help in moving an ancestral tree to a new location, as this will help her find closure in the afterlife. Moving the tree, of course, will not be that easy.


The film is remarkably restrained, gently taking its time over 80 minutes to show Mingchun's and Leilei/Xiuying's efforts to find someone to help them move the tree. Hanyi takes a few detours through the film to comment on the creeping industrialism in rural China, particularly the forced migration of villagers into growing cities so that they will work in the newly-built factories. There are also a few welcome moments of absurd comedy, such as a herd of goats ending up in a tree or a group of men moving a very large boulder down the mountain. Even in these moments, though, no one raises their voice or emotes more than general dissatisfaction.

In fact, Hanyi's debut immediately recalls the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the famed Soviet auteur who specialized in experiential cinema. Hanyi, like Tarkovsky, employs numerous long takes that emphasize the environments and a soundtrack that often places precedence on the blowing of the wind rather than dialogue. This is not to say that the two are perfectly similar: Hanyi's film does have the same cumulative impact that Tarkovsky's do, nor are his actors as effective (Mingjun and Li are first-timers, and it shows). But as far as influences go, emulating Tarkovsky well in your first feature is not a bad way to go. I'll be looking for more of Hanyi's films in the future.

Tomorrow: another restored Australian classic - this one a satirical take on advertising - and Adam Driver drives a bus for Jim Jarmusch.

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