Melbourne Film Festival: What’s In The Darkness

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James Bartlett finds out What’s In The Darkness, which screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival.

In the wake of the unexpected success of The Wailing, audiences are even more open to films from South Korea and China, especially when they’re based around horror and the supernatural – something filmmakers from here seem to do with great suspense (and often not a little confusion too, for Western audiences at least).

Though it was made in 2015, Chinese effort What’s In The Darkness debuted at Berlin earlier this year and is likely to see the light of day as a result. Also, like other films of this genre there’s certainly mystery – but it isn’t necessarily the focus of what’s happening.

It’s May 1991 in a small Chinese town, and shy young teenager Jing (Su Xiatong) is struggling with her anonymous life. She’s a good Party supporter, just like everyone else, but Zhang (Lu Qiwei) is much more popular in class, and seemingly with the boys too – what with her curly hair and painted nails, something that the strict society frowns on.

Jing’s cop father Qu (Guo Xiao) resists any sense his daughter is becoming an adult with all his might, and her overly-critical mother making Jing’s life a misery too.

Qu’s recent schooling in forensic investigation has made him intrigued about the death of a teenage girl, whose raped body is found in the dense rushes of a local park, and an overhearing Jing is curious about it too – perhaps partly as a wish to be closer to her dad.

Despite there being many potential suspects – a creepy old man who asks Jing to read him erotic literature and a limping local man who watches all the schoolgirls – the investigation isn’t however as front and centre as you might expect.

When a second body is found in the rushes, the pressure increases on the inept cops. They see Qu’s theories and questions as a waste of time, because in this repressed and rigid society, the implication is that this is just what happens, because all men are predators.

Meanwhile, Jing has befriended Zhang and even acquired an admirer of her own – a sweet boy who finally gets up the courage to talk to her and then innocently sneaks away with her to sing and dance to Chinese pop songs – but even he falls prey to temptation.

Jing’s sexuality is emerging too – much to her confusion – and when Zhang disappears and her rebellious James Dean-esque boyfriend is lazily arrested, it seems the future for Jing is far more uncertain.

The 2016 Melbourne Film Festival took place 28 July – 14 August.

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Melbourne Film Festival: The Family

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James Bartlett checks out Rosie Jones’ documentary about the secretive cult led by yoga teacher Anne Hamilton, which screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival.

With the Manson Family still regularly in the news and often fictionalized on our screens (August 9 was the 47th anniversary of the shocking murders), it’s inevitable that people will be drawn to this new documentary about another cult utilizing the same moniker.

In this case though, the bizarre “family” lorded over by Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill in Victoria, Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, really was an attempt to be an ersatz family: supporters of the cult handed over their children to these new “parents” and “aunties,” and there was even deliberate fraud in obliterating the history of adopted and unwanted children; more members who could be ready for what they came to see as Judgment Day.

Shockingly, many of Melbourne’s political and intellectual elite were open followers, and colluded in squashing the police investigations and arranging and hiding the illegal adoptions – leaving ultimately lone policeman Lex de Man clutching at straws, a 1987 raid on their isolated lake compounded removing six kids but bringing little more justice over the years.

In many ways, the story is familiar: an unnaturally charismatic, beautiful blonde who dabbled in mysticism and drugs in a search for the truth in the late 1960s became a kind of earth mother, seen by her devotees as the reincarnation of Christ, and assembled around her the children and teens she felt could be prepared for the day when the apocalypse came.

Dying the kid’s hair blond, dressing them all alike – and administering LSD and other drugs to them, as well as regular beatings, an authoritarian regime that included vitamins, exercise and isolation – you can see the red flags flying from miles away, right?

Wrong.

It took years before police could finally take definitive action on the sect whose motto was “unseen, unheard and unknown,” as the poor, desperate kids wanted nothing more than their “parents” love, and only a few brave ones escaped (or were banished) began to talk.

This documentary talks to a number of these damaged now-adults (there were apparently 28 in all), and shows how the Hamilton-Brynes escaped to upstate New York, always sitting on a fortune of money signed over by their followers (money that allowed them to pay for expensive lawyers).

Astonishingly, a handful of followers still meet regularly and Anne, now 95, suffers from dementia. And she lives in a nursing home in Melbourne. Yes, in Melbourne. She never served a day in prison.
These extraordinary circumstances are looked into, and this recent history clearly still resonated powerfully with the locals here, as when de Man was called out of the audience at the Q & A afterward, the sustained ovation he received was almost unlike any reaction I have ever seen.

Sadly the documentary – while happily showing that some of the ex-children have gone on to have their own children, and even discovered whom their parents really were – struggles to dig deep and leaves many questions unanswered, such as what happened to all the local well-heeled and big-wigged Melbournians who supported this insanity.

Instead, after a while the relentless stories of child abuse become numbing before there’s much discussion of what was done to stop it all, but nevertheless this is head-shakingly compulsive overall, the many pieces of home movie footage of these twisted Von Trapps in their apparent “innocence” always chilling.

It also shows that while Capturing the Friedmans and the hippy-dippy cults in Los Angeles seem to make this an American problem, evil and abuse masked under by the cloth of goodness and (non-official) religion flourishes everywhere in the world.

 

The 2016 Melbourne Film Festival took place 28 July – 14 August.

 

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Melbourne Film Festival: Mahana

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James Bartlett continues his coverage from this year’s Melbourne Film Festival with a look at Mahana from New Zealand director Lee Tamahori.

 

1960s New Zealand and Grandfather (Temuera Morrison) is the patriarch of the Mahana family. He rules with an iron fist, but there’s no velvet glove underneath. This multi-generational family split the work on a huge farm according to his rules and whims, relying heavily on the annual sheep-shearing contract that sees them butt heads against the rival Poata family.

On the business end of grandfather’s hard-knock life is his grandson Simeon (Akuhata Keefe), who is starting to rebel against his dictatorship – and even (barely) trying to catch the eye of one of the sweet Poata daughters.

When Simeon finds a photograph that suggests the family history is quite different from what they’ve all been told – and he starts asking questions of Nana (Nancy Brunning) about her marriage – he steps over the line and he, his parents and siblings are banished to a decaying shack.

It’s not certain whether they’ll make it – though it’s certain Grandfather will never forgive – but as Simeon grows in confidence and time passes, other family members join them and Nana visits regularly. It’s as if the Mahana family is waiting for the moment when the truth can be revealed.

This was an age when Maori men and women – despite the strictly defined social roles – all worked with axe and sickle when it was required, yet in the eyes of the (white) law their voice was literally not heard, and many scenes here show not only the beauty of New Zealand, but the blood and sweat that went into making it what it is.

A slow-burning drama that has enough conflict and strong characters to even support a television series, Mahana sees director Tamahori – again working with a Witi Ihimaera’s novel, as he did in his earlier film Whale Rider – adding to his impressive and eclectic resume that includes the Devil’s Double, xXx: State of the Union, Along Came a Spider, Mulholland Falls and even a Bond – Die Another Day.

But here he’s back in the past, and he seems to suit those days. Then there’s the brooding, violent presence of Morrison some 22 years later after his turn in Tamahori’s breakout Once Were Warriors; Morrison never gives an inch as Grandfather and dominates every scene; Simeon even fetches the hated Mr. Poata when there’s an accident on the farm – not him.

The melding and changing of Maori culture, the restlessness of teenagers and the wisdom – and tragedy – of advancing years conclude in a tear-inducing finale, and though it’s languorous at times, this is powerful and evocative stuff. Intense too, such is the power of families, guilt, obligation and love – something everyone can relate to, even if it might have lightened things to give more time to the Romeo and Juliet possibilities here, as Keefe deserved to shine a little more.

 

The 2016 Melbourne Film Festival took place 28 July – 14 August.

 

 

 

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Melbourne Film Festival: 11 Minutes

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James Bartlett clocks in 11 Minutes, which screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival (28 July – 14 August).

With a simple premise – the lives of several unrelated people are intertwined over 11 minutes in Warsaw, Poland – this was a hit at the Venice Film Festival, getting a special mention in the Vittorio Veneta category and being nominated for the Golden Lion too; a seeming triumph for veteran writer/director (and even occasional actor) Skolimowski.

The story of this Irish/Polish co-production begins with Anna (Chapko) and her husband (Mecwaldowski) enjoying the first morning of their honeymoon, selfie/iphone filming themselves in bed. But then Anna is on her way to a hotel to meet Richard Martin (Irish actor Dormer), an apparent movie producer who is prepping the room by pouring champagne – and unplugging the phones.

Husband Mecwaldowski however realizes she accidentally took a sleeping pill he put in her drink, and begins a frantic chase to get to the hotel – where Martin is already creepily questioning and flirting with her.

Elsewhere, other people are going about their day. A hot dog seller (Chyra) is charming some nuns, a courier is delivering drugs and “servicing” a client, a couple are breaking up and handing over the dog, and a window-washer is having a bedtime break too.

We switch continuously between these stories, and lead inevitably towards a conclusion that will hopefully see them clearly come together; how we don’t yet know. The answer is a stunning and exciting slo-mo sequence that leaves you with a bang, but ultimately struggles to justify the 70 minutes or so it took to get there.

Despite the success of this film, it did at times seem grasping for symbolism with some David Lynch-style elements (the nuns; several pointless scenes viewed as if we were the dog; a girl inexplicably spitting in the hot dog seller’s face; the lack of character names; dissonant and loud noises and music; drug-induced shaky-scenes; a random suicide; a bubble floating), all of which made this seem quirky for quirky’s sake too often.

More than that, the constant flipping never allowed for any emotional momentum – let alone dialogue and narrative clarity – to ever build, so often it seemed we arrived too late, and then left again none the wiser. That said, the end scene is a cracker, and Dormer and Chapko dance around each other with some erotic fizz, but overall this seems too fractured and bumpy a ride to justify the time.

The 2016 Melbourne Film Festival took place 28 July – 14 August.

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Melbourne Film Festival: Kedi

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James Bartlett purrs his way through Kedi, which screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival (28 July – 14 August).

Instanbul has been in the spotlight recently – for all the wrong reasons – so it’s refreshing to watch this short and sweet Turkish-language documentary about the furry symbols of the capital city.

In Kedi we see a totally different side to the ancient city, specifically the feral felines that roam the ancient city. Instanbul is dominated by them, and they pad around the streets, roofs, shops, restaurants and even the underground, enjoying what seems to be an endless heaven of feeding, watering, stroking and tickling from the inhabitants, all of whom see them as much a part of the capital as themselves.

There’s no real narrative or structure here, jut explanatory voiceover and interviews with the local people. Few of the cats are kept as pets – they just come and go as they please – and some have names, while others don’t. If you’ve ever had a cat or even tried to befriend one, you’ll see that this makes sense: they’re discerning beasties.

The people explain how they met “their” cat, how “they” became a part of their lives, and, inevitably, how far some of them will go: cooking up pounds of chicken every day, feeding and even housing dozens of them, letting them run amok, and how they helped them come to terms with tough times in their lives.

Many of the citizens have open-ended tabs at understanding vet’s surgeries, such is the frequency they take wounded or sick cats for first aid, and while showing the streets in catcam (at cat-level) and how sneaky (and downright adorable they can be, the kittens especially), many of the cats earn their keep, often as ratters.

While some of the cats are clearly bruisers, the film gets amazingly close to the four-legged inhabitants, and we also get a sense of the beautiful, bustling Istanbul, its cramped alleys and stores selling the latest fashions, artisan jewelry, delicate pastries and fishing lines – the port an obvious favorite hangout. It gives the place a softer edge, and I certainly never knew how cats dominated the lives of people here.

In a world where dogs seem to have been deified way more than is necessary (I can almost see the raging emails of complaint already), it’s refreshing to simply listen and watch the world of cats that’s captured here.

Sure there are many moments that cause coos, awws and moans of adoration – and laughter – but it never gets too sentimental or slushy (even if we never find out what happened to the kitten taken to the vet for example; clearly it wasn’t good), but whether you’re a cat person, a dog person or neither, this is worth seeing as a snapshot and different view of an ancient place that, right now, certainly seems to need all the calm and happiness the anonymous cats can muster.

Yes, it’s easy to say that this is the ultimate cat video – MiaowTube deluxe, as it were – but there’s more to it than that.

 

 

 

 

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