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Hiff 2008: Part 1

September 30, 2008

Forewords

The 21st Helsinki International Film Festival, or Rakkautta & Anarkiaa (Love & Anarchy) as it is known in Finnish, was held 18-28.9.2008. Initially I found this year’s selection, especially from an Asian film fan’s point of view, a bit disappointing. However, with approximately 130 films playing in various theaters around the centrum of Helsinki for 11 days I found enough motivation to draw up a festival schedule and prepare for the movie marathon to come.

Friday

I’m sitting in a train, with a four hour ride ahead of me, and not feeling very good. The day has not gone as planned. I was supposed to attend a short test in Marketing Management in school this morning, and then skip the afternoon classes of Financial Accounting in order to make it to Helsinki in time. But yesterday, with a less than 24 hour warning, our class got the updated information; the order of the lessons has been switched. The test begins at 1 pm, my train leaves at 1:30.

I decide to give it desperate try; I appear in school with a huge backpack, and make a world record by finishing the test in 14 minutes, answering to most questions. Some of the question are too long and I don’t even have time to read them, let alone answer to them. My good luck is that the test is a brief one, actually a quiz, that you are supposed to complete in 60 minutes. The first of the many to come, in fact. Now, it’s time to run to the train station.

Due to mismatches in schedules between me and a friend of mine, who allows me to stay at his place during the festival, I have to carry my luggage with me the whole evening. It’s not a big deal – I much prefer doing it this way than causing extra inconvenience to my friend who’s already kind enough to provide me free accomomdation in the expensive city of Helsinki – but other festival visitors may wonder how on earth did a mountain climber end up in movie theater.

5:30. I arrive Helsinki. First I need to go redeem the tickets from two different theaters (representing different cinema chains). Bio Rex is hell, at least 40 people in queue. I decide to go to Kinopalatsi first. Hardly any people there. With the first 5 tickets in my hand I head back to Rex with hopes of making it to one of the 6:30 screenings. After 25 minutes of standing in queue I realize that isn’t going to happen.

The positive aspect of this unfortunate event is that now, while sadly missing gay zombies (Otto; or, Up with Dead People), I actually have time to eat. Later, while killing time in Kinopalatsi and wondering whether the Japanese photographer that passed me was a sign of a directors visit to come, I get the idea to write a festival diary. But enough about forewords, lets move in to the cinema.

As I suspected, Shinji Imaoka, a man of few words, is attending the screening of his half-recent pink fare Uncle’s Paradise (2006). While it could be a considered a dubious start for the festival on my behalf, the pic makes it to the positive side. Imaoka obviously possesses decent audio-visual skills, and some single scenes of pure insanity make comparisons to the works of Takashi Miike and Teruo Ishii seem at least half-justified.

There is – to quote a reviewer whose name I’ve forgotten – enough sex to put the main character into grave, but the film is humoristic and blessed with a sympathetic cast. The storyline follows and elderly man who’s too afraid of his horrible nightmares to sleep, and only finds consolation in overuse of vitamins, and occasional erotic adventures, mostly provided by his fisherman nephew’s cute girlfriend.

The evening continues in less perverse fashion with Shusuke Kaneko’s live action manga adaptation Death Note (2006). The transition from erotica to big scale blockbuster is actually more fitting than it may first seem; Kaneko himself is a former pink director. In Death Note the director stumbles a bit in the beginning – especially with one cgi generated character that caused some amusement in the audience – but the quality improves before long. The fantasy tale of a man who is granted an opportunity to take the justice into his own hands is surprisingly dark and captivating. Teen idols Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama both convince in the lead roles. Not being familiar with the source material the true success of the adaptation process remains a mystery, but as an enjoyable and occasionally silly mainstream effort Death Note more than does its job.

Saturday

Ahh, shower. God knows I needed it after carrying around my backpack all day yesterday. I slept well, performing a successful blackout around 3 am after watching the first 40 minutes of Werner Herzog’s stylish new documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007) at my friend’s place. We would finish the quality doc a few days later, yesterday I was too tired. My friend, the tough fighter he is, continued with an episode of Dexter after I had started taking the count. The first film will begin at noon, leaving me with just enough time to grab a cheese burger on my way to the movies.

My statistical competence as a reviewer takes left hooks as I enter Bio Rex to see yet another adaptation of a source material unknown to me; Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (2008 ). Hideaki Anno’s life achievement in anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, has been given a reworked cinema treating; 1.0 is the first of the four films to come, and covers the events of the first 6 episodes of the TV series. The opening is fast and confusing, but the pic soon finds its track and gets better scene by scene. The scifi action becomes secondary next to themes of war and loneliness. Carefully crafted characters provide a good grounding for the epic final battle.

After lunch break it’s more anime, this time Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) making its Finnish cinema premiere (later coming to wider distribution). While I consider My Neighbor Totoro (1988 ) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) delightful pieces of cinema, this Miyazaki doesn’t convince, apart from the opening scene. The dialogue is miserable, mostly repeating things that have already been already seen on screen and understood by the audience, and the preachy storyline doesn’t reach its end in acceptable time. Not even Joe Hisaishi score manage to stand out.

Director pair and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have gained some recognizition among art house audiences, which made me eager to see their latest offering. Lorna’s Silence (2008 ) follows and a foreign woman who marries Belgian drug addict only to achieve the country’s nationality. As expected, the film is a very European character drama with some slight crime film connections, but fails to achieve a great level of detail. It keeps your interest up till the end, and comes with adequate performances from the leads, but ultimately doesn’t leave you with much worth remembering.

Next comes what, according to the organizers, is the film this year’s festival will be remembered for. Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008 ) was the hot potato in this years’s Cannes, and reportedly considered a too risky pick for some international film festivals that decided to drop it from their selection. Laugier himself was meant to attend the screening with us in Helsinki, but unfortunately all we got was a polite letter explaining the man is stuck in L.A with Hollywood producers looking for a chance to work with him. What a shame.

The French have worked hard in the recent years to put out some of the most hard hitting horror movies on the market. But Martyrs needs a big warning stamp attached to its film reels; it is makes films such as Haute Tension and À l’intérieur seem harmless joyrides in comparison. The ultra strong thriller opens with montage showing its main characters, two young women, being tortured by an unknown organized group when they were children. The actual storyline picks up frome here and is better left unrevealed. Undeniably Laugier makes some bad misjudgements along the way, but the entirety, even described as existential by some, is fascinating. The experience is likely to be stronger than the last 100 movies you saw put together.

The last film of the night is Big Bang Love – Juvenile A (2006) by one of Japan’s most prolific madmen; Takashi Miike. This murder mystery set in prison, also going by a more lyrical title 4.6 Billion Years of Love, is loaded with gay themes and skilfully light images. It suffers from intentionally artistic outcome, but still manages to entertain even on repeated viewings. Masanobu Ando and Ryuhei Matsuda play the lead roles. Worth mentioning is also the ending, which is one of the best in recent memory. Perhaps it would soon be time to ask Miike to visit the festival; Hiff has a long tradition of screening his movies, often more than one per year.

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