The year's best world-premiere so far, two Thai films, two Romanian films...
This sparks a new and hopefully recurrent feature on idFilm, wherein I gather capsules on films seen through my Festival Scope account that aren't due for theatrical release and/or are not coverable in other journalistic forms regrettably dictated by the chase for web traffic and daily topicality.
Quebecois filmmaker Frédérick Pelletier's debut feature boasts strong performances from still-underknown Chloé Bourgeois and Isawak Sawadogo, who has here as much if not more presence than he did in Nicolas Provost's debut feature The Invader (2011). Like that film, Pelletier's employs Sawadogo's obvious physicality as a sort of off-set to inner sensitivity. The talented actor plays Ivory Coast worker Traoré, who takes up boardings with single mother Fanny (Bourgeois) when the eponymous ship he works on breaks down and is stranded on the Saint Lawrence River. With a perfectly balanced narrative backdropped by a fittingly wintry chill and suggestions of a long-dead economy, Diego Star works its way to an outcome that is foreseeable from the outset - which in this financially ruined age is no detriment. (Premiere: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013.)
Another debut feature comes from Thailand's Visra Vichit-Vadakan, whose docudrama Karaoke Girl (Sao karaoke) probes the pertinent subject of itinerant labour with understated experimentation; on the whole, it is minimally evocative of space and character, and at less than 80 minutes is a digestible glimpse of an economic form of prostitution. US-born and Bankok-raised Vichit-Vadakan's direction is effective, resembling the quieter and more lingering moments of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003); as such, its perhaps too-aesthetically appealing backdrops may be justified as evocative of the big-city allure by which many girls like protagonist Sa Sittijun are duped. (Premiere: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013.)
While Vichit-Vadakan works effectively within familiar strictures, Nawapol Thamrongrattanari's 36 borrows too unrewardingly from its director's festival-favourite contemporary Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose formal strategies are mined to too complacent an effect here. In a non-event drama comprising (yes) thirty-six takes - each of which is preceded by a chapter heading-cum-quotation - a location scout visits various sites taking numerous photographs, and when her memory stick falters two years later, she finds herself longing for the art director with whom she shared such experiences. An intermittent acoustic guitar and a halfway-point credits sequence prime unfavourable comparisons to Thailand's chief filmmaker, and the film's self-reflexivity is either forced or banal. (Premiere: Busan Film Festival 2012.) [Thamrongrattanari's diaristic report on his film's premiere contains far more arresting images than the film itself, though his humble appreciation of the event makes me want to like his film more. Here's to the next one!]
Both a continuation of and a departure from the Romanian New Wave, Toată Lumea din Familia Noastră is a blackly comic, tightly-shot farce of an embittered and dramatically claustrophobic custodial battle. It begins with divorcé Marius (Serban Pavlu) forcing himself out of bed to cycle across Bucharest and pick up his eight-year-old daughter Sofia for a weekend camping excursion. Upon arrival, however, though he enjoys a catch-up with Sofia (a remarkable Sofia Nicolaescu), mother-in-law Coca (Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez) and possible-usurper Aurel (Gabriel Spahiu) are reluctant to let him leave before ex-wife Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu) returns home from her beauty parlour appointment. Outraged by the constraints put upon him, Marius kicks off. Though the build-up promises nuance, the film's second half becomes quickly hysterical as Marius takes his ex-wife and her husband hostage, and young Nicolaescu's absence is increasingly felt. A minor if solid entry into the no-longer-new Romanian New Wave. (Premiere: Berlin Film Festival 2012.)
Alexandru Solomon's low-key documentary, Kapitalism - Reteta noastra secreta, begins with the starting premise that Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu has returned from the dead to present-day Romania. On the face of it, the former front of Romania's "communist" regime, overthrown and executed in 1989 after two decades in power, would be distraught to see his country pervaded by the financial imperatives of capitalism. As Solomon patiently accumulates, however, Romania's prevailing system is upheld by former members of the Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, who exploited an entire nation's relief at ousting a tyrant in order to triumph both financially and politically. The strength of Solomon's documentary lies in its access to some of Romania's wealthiest tycoons, all of whom account, with varying degrees of frankness, for their current social position. Stop-motion interludes involving the director's son's Lego sets aid the argument, and the central contradition lingers: Romania has Europe's lowest GDP and yet its highest concentration of millionaires.