National film festivals are one of the lesser-known growth industries in Australia. The big attraction is still the French Film Festival, but every year the German, the Italian, the Japanese and the Spanish seem to grow a little larger. Coming up quickly are those festivals devoted to films from Korea, Russia, Israel, Mexico, India, Iran, China, Serbia, Africa … Am I missing anything?
At the moment, in different parts of Australia, audiences are enjoying the Russian, Korean and Israeli festivals. I’ve seen a little of each, although not enough to draw any firm conclusions about the nature and quality of each country’s offerings.
There are, however, a few observations to be made about festivals. They testify to the strongly multicultural nature of Australian society, as the obvious audiences are expatriates living in this country. I remember watching Australian films during winters in London, and feeling the same kind of nostalgia that Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton must have got from burning gum leaves.
The festivals also compensate for the lack of repertory cinemas nowadays – those places where one could go to watch vintage, arthouse and independent films. Finally, they are a kind of antidote for the predictability of mainstream cinema.
For expatriate audiences these festivals provide an opprtunity to see films that have been enormously popular in their country of origin but stand little chance of an Australian release. A classic case is Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive, in the Russian festival. Vladimir Vysotsky (1932-80) has been called the Russian Bob Dylan, although he sounded more like a croaky Jacques Brel. This bio pic was a huge hit in Russia, earning US$21.3 million within its first ten days. Part of the attraction was the way Vysotsky was recreated on screen by an unidentified actor utilising a mask, make-up, and a little digital manipulation to reproduce his features exactly.
The only problem is that the disguise makes the screen Vysotsky look like he has overdosed on Botox. The drama is also pretty creaky – by turns static and sentimental. It’s unlikely that anyone who isn’t Russian will ever understand Vysotsky’s undying popularity from this film.
Perhaps the greatest drawcards in this year’s Russian Resurrection festival are the old movies. These include Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1967); the silent film, 1812 – made in 1912, the first centenary of the Russia’s victory over Napoleon; and two films based on stories by Chekhov – The Duel (1973); and Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano (1977), by acclaimed director, Nikita Mikhalkov.
The Koreans are also delving into the past, with screenings of Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003), Hur Jin-ho’s Christmas in August (1998) and Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … And Spring (2003). The bulk of the program is an up-to-the-minute mix of genres. I missed the opening night feature, the historical action film, War of the Arrows, but caught Hong Sang-soo’s very peculiar, whimsical In Another Country, starring Isabelle Huppert, as a French tourist having a crash course in the mentalities of Korean men and women.
The Israeli films I saw were supposed to be uplifting, but only managed to feel depressing. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to the entire program, but it’s tempting to generalise about national character from the kind of movies a country makes. On this basis, Israel seems preoccupied with death and trauma. With the Holocaust in the background, and the constant threat of conflict in the present, it’s not a far-fetched idea.
It’s harder to explain why so many Australian films are just as dark and grim, or strangely pointless. One suspects that in our case it’s not an accident of history, but a consequence of decisions made by film funding organisations.
Russian Ressurection Film Festival: www.russianresurrection.com
Korean Film Festival in Australia: www.koffia.com.au
Israeli Film Festival: www.aice.com.au
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 01, 2012