In my four years attending the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this was the first time where tickets for screenings weren't sold out for every film by 10 a.m. the day prior. The economic wallop that briefly made its presence known at last year's festival was brutally felt this year in some near-empty screenings, among them a program for avant-garde short films that included David Gatten's awe-inspiring By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging. The lack of a surfeit of people robbed the screenings of their sense of urgency—that very specific do-or-die feeling you get at a festival when people are elbowing you as they try to shove their way through narrow doors and into the theater at the same time, rushing to find their seats. But the mellow atmosphere didn't preclude the discovery of a few very good films.
While, as always, there were many worthwhile films by filmmakers new and old, two of the finest were by bona fide auteurs: Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster and Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History. I'll leave the opining about the latter to those who are both more familiar with Diaz's career and Philippine history, because my great admiration and consideration for it has only barely broken the surface of what is a whoppingly dense work of cri de coeur intervention in the historical moment, carefully balancing nihilism and humanism, visions of heaven and hell.
The Grandmaster, which premiered earlier this year at Berlinale, is an expectedly exquisite work which reveals its author's fingerprints in every frame, motion, and emotion. It tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a martial-arts master whom Bruce Lee trained with, and covers the turmoil of China's occupation by Japan. It also gives us compositions filled with slowly, sensually unraveling smoke; fight sequences that are breathtaking in the rhythmic precision of their shot construction and sound design; many shots of feet (because, as Ip Man explains, it's important to remain standing in martial arts, whether you're vertical or horizontal); tableaux so carefully textured and colored that the eyes go mad trying to register it all; and, of course, much slow motion.
Ziyi Zhang plays the daughter of a famous martial-arts master from the north, and is the spark that lights up one of Wong's pet themes: the suppression of love in favor of propriety and social decorum. Like the stone ruins in In the Mood for Love that bear silent witness to unfulfilled desires, a button becomes the sole guardian and manifestation of the unspoken love between her and the married Ip Man. The sublimation of emotion is given visual equivalence in the constraint of movement. Most of the fight sequences are set indoors in heavily furnished rooms that limit the physical range of a fighter's motion.
Having recently discovered a zeal for Russian cinema, my self-imposed mandate was to see as many of the Russian-language films playing as possible. Some, like Intimate Parts and The Sea, gave the impression that their markers never bothered to think past the first draft of their scripts. Two works, did, however, stand out despite their flaws. Aleksey Fedorchenko's Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a curious and beguiling film. As with his prior Silent Souls, Fedorchenko explores the myths and traditions (of his own invention) of a small subset of contemporary society in a remote region of northern Russia. However, instead of taking the more traditional approach of Silent Souls in employing a three-act structure and developing a single story throughout its running time, the film treats us to a series of sketches, some as short as a minute, that have little to do with one another. What does connect them is that they all feature ginger-haired women whose names that start with the letter "O" and are either directly or indirectly centered around sex, women's bodies, or women's relationship to men.
The result is a hodgepodge of quickly constructed anecdotes, some revelatory and droll (a girl prays to a forest god for less moles on her body, because she doesn't find them attractive), others uncomfortable in what seems like regressive female politics (a young girl falls ill because she was groped by her boyfriend near a tree, whose spirit takes offense at this and curses her with unshakable fatigue). While the accumulation of stories and incidents never results in being more than a sum of its parts, Fedorchenko is a strong voice in contemporary Russian cinema and one to keep a close eye on, not least of all for his ability to capture the Russian landscape in all its variant seasonal beauty.
Perhaps the greatest chronicler of long-lost (and, as with Fedorchenko, invented) customs of peoples found within the expanse of the former Soviet Union was Sergei Parajanov. Paradjanov, Serge Avedikia and Olena Fetisova's biopic of the oppressed master, doesn't attempt to trace his life from the cradle to the grave, instead dropping in just before the filming of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The film suffers from a lack of historical details, never really elaborating on just why the government felt that Parajanov was a subversive antagonist, single-mindedly pursuing the artist with the goal of putting him behind bars (finally succeeding in doing so on charges of homosexuality). The filmmakers then show the indignity of his sojourn in jail, and his unremitting yen for an artist to create no matter the circumstances. In the absence of a camera, Parajanov takes up drawing.
Since there isn't the same type of familiarity with Parajanov as a character as there is with, say, Welles or Kubrick, the historical murkiness of the filmmakers can be overlooked for the sheer joy of watching the roguish, egomaniacal, hilarious, romantic man come to life in the body of Serge Avedikia. Seeing him throw a fit and threaten to quit the picture when his co-director on The Legend of Suram Fortress tries to squirm out of giving him what he wants (peacocks, god damn it, there must be peacocks!), challenging his cameraman on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to a duel, and regaling a much amused Marcello Mastroianni with self-mythologizing stories, one's left with an impression of Parajanov as a hedgehog happily and endlessly rolling down and up a mountain. Perhaps this film is too enamored with Parajanov to view him critically (his petulant tantrums are nothing but endearing), but sometimes cinema suffused with love for its subject is okay too.
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran from June 28 to July 6.