Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

NZIFF 2021: ドロステのはてで僕ら Droste no Hate de Bokura (Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, 2020)

In marked contrast to the very long and very melancholic films screening at any given film festival, not least last month’s Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, is this Japanese film. It has a short running time and a very high concept, so there’s not much to it (certainly not much in the way of budget) but it’s made with love, an old-fashioned amateurism with all the etymological meaning of that word, and the enthusiasm shows.


This is undoubtedly a slender film, and not just in its concise running time. It’s a classic high concept premise elaborated on a shoestring budget (the closing credits show behind the scenes views of the filming setup) and feels rather like an extended short film in some senses. Like any time travel film, thinking about it too deeply is probably a mistake, but it throws so much energy at the screen that it’s hard to find time to do that thinking. Generally, it has the feeling of a farce put on a theatre company (which it may well be, after all) and the narrative follows its repetitious journey with small changes each time until eventually it’s all you can do to keep up with the almost infinitely recursive loops of time it creates. It’s as clever as it is silly, and would outstay its welcome if it were any longer, but it has a certain something.

Droste no Hate de Bokura (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Junta Yamaguchi 山口淳太; Writer Makoto Ueda 上田誠; Starring Kazunari Tosa 土佐和成, Aki Asakura 朝倉あき, Riko Fujitani 藤谷理子; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 15 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: La Nuit des rois (Night of the Kings, 2020)

Again travelling around the world, and at any film festival I always try to make space for some African films. Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival featured a few of these, and though my favourite was probably Lingui, the Sacred Bonds by Chadian master Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, this Ivorian film certainly is diverting. I didn’t fully understand it, but there’s a deep and tangible sense of mystery to it that’s quite compelling.


This is a strange and oblique film that has a certain intense power despite (or because partly because of) its sense of mystery. It’s the mystery perhaps of religious observance, with a hint towards a ceremony where servant and master are reversed as it is in the prison which is the film’s setting. Here it seems the prisoners are in charge (though still prisoners) and where when the red moon rises a storyteller holds court and takes them through to a new day where order is (violently) restored. We follow the young man who becomes the Roman, or storyteller, and the unmoored narrative feels sometimes as close to science-fiction as it does to folk tale: certainly all the names and titles, ancient enmities and conflicts, a sense of impending doom (or perhaps release), could be from any given fantasy film set in any era, although this one is also firmly in ours. I don’t really have many of the tools necessary to fully engage with it (plus it was late and I was quite sleepy) but it certainly has something compelling to it.

La Nuit des rois (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Philippe Lacôte; Cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille; Starring Koné Bakary, Isaka Sawadogo, Steve Tientcheu; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 12 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie (Never Gonna Snow Again, 2020)

Following up with the last few reviews from films screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, this Polish-German co-production has had a UK cinematic release recently, and it’s certainly the kind of diverting, prettily shot and slightly magical comedy-drama that could do well. In the context of a festival, it feels like a little bit of whimsy, but we all need that from time to time.


When you see the title and hear its words spoken (right at the start of the film), you know that it definitely is going to snow at some point, and the dreamily distanced tone suggests clearly — again, pretty early on — that not only will it snow, it will be metaphorically Meaningful. This film has the carefully composed artfulness of a Kieślowski film, though it strikes a far more magical realist tone in being about a mysterious man (Alec Utgoff) who seems to have supernatural powers, and its hinted that it has something to do with his childhood near Chernobyl. But for the most part it plays out as something of a satire on the bland, depressed and heavily medicated nouveau riche middle classes, living in cookie cutter houses at the edge of some industrial city, presumably in Poland (where it was made and filmed). The film has a contemplative tone, a bit like Donnie Darko perhaps if not even a bit meditative like Tarkovsky, and even if it does have that heavy metaphor weighing down on it, it still makes for a pleasant film about wealth, class and privilege punctured by the post-war histories of Eastern Europe embodied in our man Zhenia.

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie (2020) posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert; Cinematographer Englert; Starring Alec Utgoff Олег Утгоф, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 19 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).


It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.

The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.

Quo vadis, Aida (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.


I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Shiva Baby (2020)

Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.


The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.

Shiva Baby (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Sisters with Transistors (2020)

I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.


This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.

Sisters with Transistors (2020)

CREDITS
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Gagarine (2020)

Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).


It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.

Gagarine (2020)CREDITS
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.