Film festivals · Film reviews

A few days at DIFF.

Last week I made a quick visit to Dublin for one of the more exciting events in the calendar year. Dublin International Film Festival to be exact.

I saw six interesting films while I was there – all of which were foreign releases I caught up on from last year, and each from different countries including Italy, Finland, Brazil, the Philippines, and South Korea. DIFF lived up to its name this year as a truly ‘international’ film festival. Let’s briefly go through the six screenings I attended while there, all of which were held at the wonderful Lighthouse cinema in Dublin (other venues are available).

The Woman Who Left

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Along with Ma’ Rosa (one of my favourite films of 2016), this was one of two main contenders for the Filipino submission to Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. That it ultimately didn’t secure the country’s nomination may have had something to do with it being a 226-minute, black and white, incredibly slow paced drama featuring a female lead and dealing with what’s considered a major problem within the Philippines: kidnapping incidents targeting the rich.

Providing you have a comfortable seat though, this is a strangely beautiful and enjoyable film to watch on a big screen. Despite its lack of colour, you’ll often find yourself admiring the surroundings in each scene, so long as you have the benefit of a good quality HD picture. Admittedly, too, I’d recommend not watching it when you’re tired, because it could put you to sleep. Often the camera will sit motionless, watching a scene unfold in real time as characters move slow and methodically. Before you know it, ten minutes may have passed and all you’ve done is watched someone stand up and slowly walk around a corner. But hey, as someone who appreciates good filmmaking, and different kinds of filmmaking, I liked it quite a bit. The Woman Who Left is certainly not the kind of film you see released often (they’re usually eviscerated by an editor first).

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, based on the real-life person and true story, is a somewhat different take on the sports drama/ boxing genre. Central protagonist Olli Maki is a Finnish boxer in the midst of training for the biggest fight of his life; a world title fight to be held on home turf, the first of its kind in Finland. Media attention creates a furore of the occasion, unsettling the naturally introverted Maki. Yet that’s not his biggest problem. During a press conference, while he should be concentrating on the build-up to the fight, he realises he’s fallen in love.

Alpha males who prefer the testosterone-fuelled adrenaline rush of a Rocky movie may find this particular character getting on their nerves, especially as he seems less interested in the fight itself than he is in his love interest leading up to it. His trainer, Elis Ask, is the clear alpha male of the two. In the buildup to the fight it becomes obvious that he is living vicariously through Olli Maki, while he also has a lot personally riding on the success of the fight, evidently more invested in it than his athlete is.

I wasn’t aware of the story beforehand, and found the twists and turns pleasantly surprising, including the result of the final fight. Overall, an enjoyable experience. There’s also a cool reference to the real Olli Maki and his wife in the film’s final scene.

Like Crazy

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An Italian movie featuring two women who become friends in a mental institution and proceed to take an opportunity to escape into the outside world, where their attempts to reconnect with the past are met with mixed results.

Like Crazy is, for the most part, a light-hearted and humourous film. Considering its plot and main theme of mental health, that is to be somewhat expected, though there are moments when it gets surprisingly deep. The two protagonists are likeable enough, though I must admit the film’s overall tone didn’t particularly resonate with me personally. Having said that, I can’t help but be naturally intrigued when I hear of new film releases that tackle mental health and/ or illness; we still need more mainstream films that don’t shy away from this topic for the sake of avoiding awkwardness.

Heal the Living

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The best surprise of the films I saw at DIFF, French-Belgian drama Heal the Living is an emotional and passionate argument in favour of organ donation, showing how the loss of one life can directly save another under unique circumstances.

It does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of characters in different scenarios; parents who, upon finding out their son’s life has ended, have to make a quick decision whether to allow his body to be used for medical purposes; a mother who urgently requires a heart transplant before heart disease claims her own life. Neither scenario is there simply to arbitrarily serve the other. They each feel as real, urgent and heartbreaking in their own right. Ultimately the story weaves them together, while flashbacks help get you further emotionally invested in what is one of the most heartfelt, sensitive movies of 2016. Search it out and experience it for yourself, especially if you don’t mind a tear being brought to your eye.

Aquarius

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Aquarius created a fair amount of controversy in its native Brazil for its apparent political connotations, to the extent that Brazil’s Ministry of Culture refused to put it forward as the country’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars despite widespread critical acclaim from the international film community. It competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, while in Brazil it received both standing ovations and calls for boycotts upon release in September.

Central character Clara (Sonia Braga) is the last resident in her apartment block (‘Aquarius’), in which she and previous generations of her family have lived for many years. A construction company intends to replace Aquarius with a large edifice and, having already paid off other residents, finds itself frustrated by Clara’s refusal to sell, eventually resorting to underhand tactics in order to force her out legally.

The political context surrounds Brazil’s current presidency, the film suggesting the current regime achieved its rise to power through similar methods to the distasteful construction company in this particular story. It seems the varying positive/ negative reactions to the film in Brazil correlated directly with support for, or protest against, the current President. As a standalone film, I enjoyed it very much.

The Age of Shadows

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My most anticipated film of the festival was an action thriller set in Japanese-occupied Korea, as Korean rebels fight for the return of their nation’s independence. The Age of Shadows was considered by many to be one of South Korea’s two best movies of last year alongside The Handmaiden, which appeared on my ‘Best Films of 2016’ list.

Expect double crossing, second guessing, a fair amount of espionage and adrenaline-fuelled shootouts. The film opens with a chase through the streets that brilliantly sets the tone for what’s to come. There is a particularly memorable, 20-25 minute sequence taking place exclusively on a train, as Japanese police search for Korean rebels on whose presence they’ve been tipped off. Traitors lurk on both sides. That the film never threatens to lose pace despite a 140-minute running time is impressive. Absolutely worth searching out if you enjoy the action thriller/ espionage genre; you’ll find few other recent releases that do it better.

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