If you are a film fan in the great city of Melbourne, August is the most wonderful time of the year. The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is in full swing and for the cinephiles of Australia’s cultural capital, this is our very own winter wonderland. Escaping the chilly, miserable rainy city streets to bask in the warm glow of the cinema screen and immersing yourself with quality cinema from all corners of the world. There is nothing better.
For me, MIFF is heaven. Over the next few weeks, I will be watching a plethora of films and covering them right here on MovieBabble. Here’s a look at what I have caught so far:
One Child Nation
We are all aware of China’s radical effort to solve its escalating population crisis with the implementation of the One-Child Policy (1979 -2015). But how much do you really know about how this policy and its personal, social and political consequences have affected the country and its people?
Documentarian Nanfu Wang (A child born during the policy) returns to China as a new mother to uncover and explore how the policy has affected not only her life, but also the lives of her family members, others from her community and around China.
One Child Nation goes beyond examining the insane propaganda and unseeable, horrific images of dead fetuses in landfills. The personal approach Wang implements with the experiences of her own family and how they were affected by the policy gives so much humanity to what is an incredibly confronting and horrifying subject matter. While Wang and the film overall’s stance on the policy are firmly in a very negative light, she does not place judgement on those who believed otherwise. Even if the policy had caused them so much pain and trauma, it highlighted the crippling, bleak hopelessness people faced during this 36 year period the policy was in place.
Outside Wang’s family, she interviews some incredible people dedicating themselves to righting the wrongs the policy had inflicted. From a family in Utah helping Chinese children adopted into international families find their birth parents, a journalist forced to flee to Hong Kong for attempting to expose the policy and a midwife who performed over 50,000 sterilizations and abortions during the policy treating infertility patients to “atone for her sins”. All of these people have such fascinating and incredible stories that Wang interweaves perfectly into this very personal and cathartic film.
It’s not an easy watch, but important films such as One Child Nation rarely are. This is a part of history that China and the rest of the world simply just cannot ignore and pretend it never happened, and Nanfu Wang’s film will certainly make sure of that.
House of Hummingbird
The Film Festival experience is one that not only showcases top-notch cinema by legendary auteurs of their craft, but also the new and emerging talent breaking into the world of feature films. Enter the Berlinale award-winning debut film from South Korean filmmaker, Bora Kim, about a year in the life of a 14-year-old girl named Eunhee (Park Ji-hoo).
Set against the backdrop of 1994 Seoul, House of Hummingbird is a truly compassionate and honest portrait of growing up and all the pressures, anxieties and uncertainties that comes with adolescence. Much like the titular avian species, Eunhee is wandering through life, searching for a taste of sweetness wherever she goes. Neglected and abused by her family, she develops a strong bond with her Chinese teacher Young-ji (Saebyuk Kim), the only adult in her life that truly understands her.
Kim beautifully directs this emotional rollercoaster ride of a film. We are right with Eunhee through every bump and roadblock and we feel her pain. Whether it’s broken friendships, the weight of expectations and pressure to succeed in studies, blossoming romances with male (and female) classmates or a mysterious lump growing behind her ear, Kim places the audience right there by her side through all of it. We are with every step of the way on Eunhee’s very personal and emotionally resonant journey towards self-discovery and self-acceptance.
At a surprisingly lengthy 138 minutes, not a single frame of this film feels extraneous. House of Hummingbird is one of the strongest directorial debuts of 2019. A warm, naturalistic coming-of-age tale about a young girl that learns to love herself, despite her always being put down. Straight out of the blocks, Bora Kim has established herself as a filmmaker to watch. Tissues will be required.
Hang on. This film sounds familiar. A film about a fictional characterization of the writer/director of the film played by an actor who is a staple performer in the work of that filmmaker? Unfortunately, this is not Pedro Almodovar’s highly acclaimed Pain & Glory starring Antonio Banderas in his Cannes award-winning performance (I’ll be checking that out later in the festival. Stay tuned). Instead, Abel Ferrera made a very similar film starring his muse, Willem Dafoe.
Tommaso sees Dafoe as the titular character, an aging American filmmaker living in Rome with his considerably younger wife and daughter (played by Ferrera’s real wife and daughter) as he tries to put a life of alcoholism, addiction, and poor life choices behind him and start a new life with his family. As always, Dafoe is great. The character is extremely unlikable, but the scenes in the AA meeting where he gives these impassioned monologues about his past and his problems are captivating.
As for the rest of the film, Tommaso is just dull, self-important, aimless drivel. When the most interesting thing that happens in your screening is the theater staff stopping the film 5 minutes in because the subtitles weren’t working, spend 10 minutes trying to fix the problem, only to realize the omission of subtitles in the scenes where Italian is spoken was an artistic choice (a pointless one, as it turned out), that speaks volumes.
There easily could have been 20 minutes shaved off this runtime, especially with the absolutely ludicrous and baffling directions Ferrara takes in the film’s latter stages. It cements Tommaso as a film you can safely miss at the festival. Your two hours will be better spent elsewhere at MIFF.
Matthias & Maxime
For the last decade, Québécois Indie darling, Xavier Dolan has become a festival favorite and an established name in queer cinema. After a number of acting stints in stateside films such as Bad Times at the El Royale, Boy Erased and the upcoming It: Chapter Two and his disastrous English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan is back in his wheelhouse in this Montréal set drama, Matthias & Maxime.
Best friends since childhood, Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime’s (Xavier Dolan) paths in life are starting to diverge. Matthias is working hard to climb the corporate ladder at his law firm, while Maxime is about to move to Australia on the search for more job opportunities. But when they are made to do an on-screen kiss for a friend’s short film, it unleashes a whirlwind of suppressed emotions simmering tension between the two.
Matthias & Maxime has everything you have come to expect from Dolan. A lot of yelling, overwrought melodrama, queer romance, Dolan playing a character with severe mother issues and Anne Dorval playing such a cold, distant nasty parent. It’s all there. It’s very familiar to his early work, but Dolan hits these beats so well. He creates an environment for these characters that is very tense but still allows for the tender and heartfelt story to blossom.
Dolan’s films are often criticized for being overly melodramatic and taking themselves too seriously. While Matthias & Maxime has its fair share of melodrama, it is also surprisingly funny. Scenes where Matthias and Maxime are just hanging out with their friends on a patio, telling jokes and talking shit fast and loose to each other feel very genuine and improvised, as if they just let the camera roll on a group of friends. The constant use of English internet slang terms within French conversation from one character never failed to land.
While not his best film, Matthias & Maxime is Xavier Dolan back in his comfort zone doing what he does best: a gentle tale of unbreakable friendship and suppressed desires with standout lead performances. A welcome return to form for Dolan.
Plenty more MIFF coverage to come. More mini reviews coming soon. Until then, I’ll probably be at catching a movie (or several movies) at the festival. For more information on MIFF and to view the full program head to miff.com.au
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