Berlinale 2020: Top 5 films
Nota bene: At my first Berlinale I missed several titles, including Rithy Pahn’s film, “Irradies”; the Golden Bear winner, the Iranian film “There is No Evil”; “Never Really Sometimes Always” by filmmaker Eliza Hittman. The first Berlinale experience can be a little confusing (especially since you spend more time standing in queues than actually watching films, so this list could have had even more daring titles if 1) I would’ve chosen movies screening at the same theater; 2) I haven’t made my choices based on a stubborn instinct which eventually led me, among other things, to the worst film in the competition, “The Salt of Tears”, by the ultra-known French filmmaker Phillipe Garrel. So, my top 5 is just a small part of the festival, hoping that some of the other titles will be presented at TIFF. (“First Cow” is not on this list, since I’ve already written about it in more detail here; nonetheless, it would’ve had a tie with the other film on the 1st place).
- Red Moon Tide / Lúa vermella (dir. Lois Patiño, Forum)
Lois Patiño, the Spanish director known for the documentary Costa da Morte (2013), goes for an avant-garde cross-talk between horror, film-essay, observational documentary and surrealism in Red Moon Tide: a village where the disappearance of several men out at sea is connected with the existence of a bloodthirsty sea monster that is believed to swallow them alive and then spit them on the shore. But Rubio’s body, a hero sailor, is not to be found. In the village there are also witches who offer to look for Rubio in caves, forests and by the waterside – but as the search goes on, the inhabitants are becoming more and more catatonic and spellbound by the color of the moon. Covered with white sheets (the metaphor that both Sergio Caballero and David Lowery use in their films, Finisterrae and A Ghost Story), is getting harder and harder to distinguish between the living and the dead. Thus, Patiño talks about the helplessness and horror of knowing your closed ones are dead, and you can’t mourn or bury their bodies.
- Dau.Natasha (dir. Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Jekaterina Oertel, Competition; Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to cinematographer Jürgen Jürges)
Dau.Natasha is the first film in a much more ambitious and Cyclopia-like project, which unfolds on a 42,000 square meters surface, a huge set built in Harkiv, Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of people have literally lived a Truman-Show: for three years, semi-professional and amateur actors lived together in what was supposed to be a Soviet experimental science institute. Without this information, Natasha could easily be watched as an anti-Soviet film about the horrors of the regime, and could be included in the traditional series of grotesque films about the regime, such as Khrustalyov, My Car! (dir. Aleksey German, 1998). The ‘fly on the wall’ technique, impeccably executed by Jürgen Jürges (Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution), makes things seem even more gargantuan.
Throughout the film, Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya), some sort of canteen administrator, and Olga (Olga Shkabaryna), her subordinate, two women who work at the institute canteen, are visited by men at the institute, they feed them with a variety of fish dishes and get them drunk, and after-hours they come together once again for another sexual and culinary celebration. But this feast turns out to be very burlesque: salted fish are tossed around, since no one wants to eat fish anymore, they sing and dance on the tables, break glasses and plates. It’s an excessive world, that has reached saturation; and although it’s a closed-door institution, it’s quite clear that behind its gates there’s an authority, a petty system that recruits snitch and informants.
On the other hand, there’s an air of impermeability and a lack of sensitivity to the film – which makes it at times pointless and self-sufficient: for example, in a very difficult sequence to watch, Natasha is subjected to an interrogation that results in physical and verbal violence. The film is valid from another point of view, the relationship between the two women. In an obsessive routine, when they get extremely drunk after work, some sort of connection appears between them both: it’s clear that Natasha is reflected in Olga, who’s much younger and repeats Natasha’s youth mistakes. This thing is irritating and difficult to grasp for Natasha: most of the time, their cordial discussions lead to scandal and insults. For example, in one of the first sequences, Natasha asks Olga to mop up, but she refuses, and what follows is a ridiculous hand-to-hand combat which goes all around the canteen.
- The Calming / Ping Jing (dir. Song Fang, Forum)
The Chinese film The Calming has an easy-to-follow narrative (but that’s not at stake here, the film rather relies on a sum of poetic observations on life): Lin (Qi Xi) is a film director and builds contemporary installations – she tours with her film in Japan, but rather runs from the reality at home, where she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is forced to start again. The film consists of her encounters with nature and less with people – while gathering material for the following films, Lin goes on a self-discovery journey in some of the wildest places, traveling around by train. As the title also suggests, there is an atmosphere of calm and peace in the static shots, which either catch her looking around or falling asleep, while on the train. At the same time, the relationship between her and her parents has a very warm dynamic: once at home, she makes tea for her ill father, and after he gets back on the feet, they go for a walk in the park and reminiscence about her childhood. It’s an awareness that, as we grow older or become more mature, we still have the same joys – and parents, no matter how weak with age or distant they might be, will give us comfort without saying too many words.
- Days / Rizi (dir. Tsai Ming Liang, Competition)
In a very similar light, Days, Tsai Ming Liang’s new movie (who in 2013 announced that he will no longer make fiction films after Stray Dogs), takes slow-cinema to an even more extreme area (it’s a film without subtitles, with few lines): the not so significant narrative of the film consists of a number of static shots of two men. One of them, Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), has an illness around his neck, a condition he’s trying to treat with herbal remedies, acupuncture or electroshock. Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is a much younger man, who dedicates himself to cooking or, as we guess on the way, to erotic massage. Their activities before they meet are completely shown in a documentary style: Tsai follows Lee walking around his garden, listening to the birds chirping, watching the rain or going to treatment sessions (sessions that are run by Lee himself, since he has that particular illness, and which are previously filmed by Tsai); Non, a real-life cook, is in turn asked if he wants to cook Tsai a meal which he would film. Their meeting, which is staged, is some sort of healing and connecting for the two – without words, a very strong bond, followed by a very sudden break-up.
In the end, Days doesn’t necessarily propose an immersive experience, but rather lets the viewer enter a state of grace – a complete state of relaxation; it’s as if the camera itself is lost on its thoughts; after a character leaves the hotel room, the lights go out, but the film continues its course as if nothing had happened, by also keeping us in darkness. It’s some sort of celebration of the mundane life, and that’s it – after all, who takes so much time to wash the salad in several waters or cut the vegetables for soup?
- The Woman Who Ran / Domangchin yeoja (dir. Hong Sang-soo, Silver Bear for Best Director, Competition)
Although The Woman Who Ran is not the best film made by the South Korean director, it was by far the best film in the competition (alongside Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow). Sang-soo follows Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) going on an unusual journey, during which she revisits friends she hasn’t seen in years: as she gives herself a repeatable disclaimer, after getting married she hasn’t stayed away from her husband not even a day. The real reason for Gam-hee’s trip is not revealed: although at first it seems that she’s on a search for a new home (so we can believe that she has separated from her husband), Gam-hee is actually trying to imagine another kind of life for herself, by immersing into the lives of her friends. From one point it’s clear that Gam-hee is a drifter – and the white lies she tells support my argument. The fragments of life to which the protagonist is a witness, seem to present a lifestyle without men (or at least one where men are either ridiculous or annoying, always shot from behind). If the first friend is ultra-conservative, the second is in an open relationship; it’s a control over one’s own life and home Gam-hee doesn’t have and wishes for.
There’s an apparent simplicity to The Woman Who Ran which subtly reveals an extremely profound and vivid life, but things are never actually said, they’re only sensed on intuition. The exaggerated politeness of the protagonist keeps her from confessing herself to any of the characters in her odyssey, because that would mean admitting to herself that she has run from home.