Sunday, August 10, 2014

MIFF: Sunshine jinx?

I headed out Friday night for the only one of my four Melbourne International Film Festival screenings taking place at a multiplex. Although I was looking forward to the Chinese detective thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice -- enough that I paired it with a themed dumpling dinner at a nearby restaurant serving Taiwanese street food -- I must admit that on some level it felt a little less special that I'd be rubbing elbows with the regular Friday night crowd out to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Hercules.

Upon arrival, my concerns were alleviated ... but then replaced by other concerns of a decidedly superstitious nature.

See, the Hoyts theater at Melbourne Central has what one might call a "prestige wing," containing just two very large screens, each with a very large seating capacity. In fact, as this theater was renovated within the last decade or so, it wouldn't surprise me if these screens were designed expressly to enable participation in MIFF (which has been around since 1952, making it one of the world's oldest festivals).

But as I approached my theater, I got a bit of a sense of deja vu about this prestige wing, and this theater in particular.

It turns out, this was the same screen for my fateful showing of Danny Boyle's Sunshine back in 2007, on my first trip to Australia.

Why fateful? Well, what started as an incredible opportunity to see Boyle's latest movie six months before it opened in the U.S., with the director himself and one of the stars (Rose Byrne) in attendance, quickly turned into a disaster when the reels were in the wrong order from about the fourth one on, and one of them even started playing backwards. Long story short, despite 45 minutes of trying to fix the problem, they never got it right and we had to abandon the film unfinished. Boyle still talked to the audience about it, but it must have put him in a difficult position, as we had not technically seen the film.

I'm of course exaggerating if I imply that my arrival at this theater resulted in flop sweats and a recurrence of PTSD, but I did find it funny enough that I texted my wife about it being the same theater. "Hope that's not a sign!" she texted back.

Well, it was and it wasn't. I mean, Black Coal, Thin Ice projected fine, as you might expect in an era of mostly digital projection. Unfortunately, the narrative sometimes played as though it were being shown out of order, and ended rather abruptly.

But first, one more quick observation about the scene. I noticed something this time I hadn't noticed the previous Saturday at White God: what a production the festival volunteers considered this to be. It wasn't necessarily that there were at least three volunteers allocated to this screening, it was that all they really seemed to be doing was showing people to their seats. These not being assigned seats, it was something the audience could have probably figured out how to do quite well themselves. Yet the task required constant convening between the three volunteers to discuss strategy and other logistics. One of them was even speaking through an ear bud to someone elsewhere, presumably in a control room of sorts (more likely, the projection booth), and often looking quite intense. While it did provide me some level of amusement -- enough to write about it here, anyway -- at least the phenomenon you sometimes see in this situation did not rear its head: the volunteers getting all power-hungry and suffering from an inflated sense of their own importance.

Finally: Despite a somewhat poor sleep the night before, I turned out not to be at much risk of falling asleep, but I did have a whole bag of Starbusts with me just in case.

Okay, on to the movie.

It's got a pretty promising setup: A small clump of human remains wrapped in a blanket is found among a mountain of coal being processed at a plant in a town in northern China, and word soon spreads that other parts of the body are appearing at other coal plants. While following a lead, the detective assigned to the case (Liao Fan) is caught in a sudden shootout and hospitalized, leading to a downward spiral in his personal life that finds him pulling security detail five years later, and spending most of his time drunk. His ability to solve the cast becomes wrapped up in his distant hopes of redemption, and also involves trying to save the widow of the coal plant victim (Gwei Lun-Mei), whose subsequent romantic partners keeping dying in a way that can't help but seem related.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of those movies that absolutely sings during some of its finer moments, replete with beautiful camerawork, unexpected turns of events and a grimly engrossing wintry mood. Unfortunately, the collection of those moments never adds up to anything close to a whole. Oh, there's a beginning, a middle and an end, which gives lie to my previous claim that it felt shown out of order. But key narrative revelations are not properly set up, causing them to arrive abruptly and preventing them from feeling the least bit satisfying. The movie constantly tantalizes and almost never delivers. This grows frustrating the closer you get to the end, and the more certain you are it's never going to pay off.

I might be okay with the so-called "narrative chicanery" described in the write-up for this movie on the MIFF website if the movie weren't also dwelling in an area I find distasteful, which is its sexual politics. Some of this may be cultural, but even then it seems a bit morally irresponsible. Namely, most of the men in this movie are lechers. That would be okay, I guess, if this movie were taking a hard feminist tack and trying to put its finger on the vile repugnance of men. That's not what it's doing, though. The men here are almost incidental gropers and other creeps, as the hero himself is seen mistreating no fewer than three different women, including his ex-wife at the very beginning of the movie -- immediately after sleeping with her. This, mind, you is before he has fallen from grace, and things only get arguably worse after that. This is to say nothing of how Gwei's character is the constant object of the lascivious male gaze, resulting in acts of both physical and emotional violence against her, as well as forcing her to pay apparently undeserved consequences for her resistance to that gaze. But less academically, after a while it all just felt too icky to keep countenancing.

I guess you could say I liked the Black Coal part but not so much the Thin Ice part. I'm meaning that metaphorically, of course, but there's a literal application as well. The movie gets all caught up in a thematic tangent involving ice skating, which is probably its least well-fitting of a lot of ill-fitting parts.

Monday brings my first American film of the festival, Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves. So stay tuned for my next MIFF update, coming soon.

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