Our faithful correspondent provides some random observations as he powers through the festival's second week.
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14 Jun 2012 - 4:22 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:30 PM

Deciding to leave Event Cinemas in the CBD to head by cab to Dendy Opera Quays to see the 1967 crime flick A Colt is My Passport (in the brief retrospective devoted to Japanese studio Nikkatsu) was a bad move. I abandoned my attempt to reach the venue after 20 minutes in gridlocked traffic, which turned out to be caused by crowds heading to Circular Quay for the final weekend of the Vivid Light Festival. Is there too much going in Sydney during June? No, but as I observed in an earlier post, greater collaboration between the two festivals would not be amiss. (The full 13-feature Nikkatsu retrospective will be screening in Canberra at the National Film and Sound Archive later in the year.)

A few days ago I noted the inadequate signage at Event Cinemas in George Street. This, thankfully, was quickly corrected and up to three long queues at a time are corralled with impressive efficiency into their respective screening areas, where the films all seem to begin on time. As I type this I realise there's probably already someone complaining this is bullshit and that this or that session failed to begin on time. It's almost impossible to make trustworthy generalisations about a festival the size of Sydney or Melbourne when no patrons see exactly the same films, and if they do, not in the same sessions.

That's an obvious function of five venues operating at weekday peak times and up to seven at weekends (not counting various activities at the official meeting place, the Festival Hub, at Lower Town Hall). This is not a bad thing, indeed the opposite. But it means an observation a friend and I made on Wednesday about the lack of filmmaker Q&As could be counterbalanced within a few hours by a colleague who volunteered how impressed he was by the “large number of overseas guests they've been able to bring in”.

New artistic director Nashen Moodley has kept the Freak Me Out sidebar introduced by his predecessor, Clare Stewart, but allowed its curator Richard Kuipers to expand its focus from horror to include the wilder reaches of cinema in a broader sense. This led to a session that, for me, exemplified what's great about festivals when they're operating at full tilt. US director Daniel Martinico's no-budgeter, OK, Good, about an actor getting increasingly confused between the intense emotions encouraged by his acting classes and his personal frustrations, was a genuine discovery – the kind of under-the-radar film that, as Kuipers noted in his intro, won't be bought for distribution or snatched up by Foxtel, but is very much worth seeing.

While Kuipers gave the impression we were about to watch a challenging, austere film (he called it “an extreme art movie”), the audience quickly picked up on its coal-black comedy and responded appreciatively throughout. You could still enjoy this film at home on a TV screen, but never would it be as memorable an experience as seen here with a like-minded audience.

My only walkout so far: the mannered Greek competition entry, Alps. Please don't ask for details, I'm trying to suppress the memory. Initially French rom-com Love Lasts Three Years (directed by Frederic Beigbeder) looked like another walkout trigger – but after a few dodgy opening scenes emerged as superior to many of the mediocre French comedies that gain cinema release here.

This is the type of more commercial picture more usually seen in the French Film Festival and I'm guessing some hardcore SFF patrons will object to its being in the program. But, I'd argue, it's all a question of balance; a smartly programmed festival encompasses a variety of different moods and styles of cinema, and rather a good rom-com than an average art film.

My sole director Q&A to date, Yuen Sang-ho, is the writer-director of competition entry The King of Pigs, a Korean tale of school bullying whose crude animation style was readily transcended by the power of the storytelling. After the screening, Yuen confirmed my strong conviction that this darkly confronting story must have been strongly autobiographical in its essence, though he added that he also researched the subject and used some of the milder cases he uncovered. Korean audiences had reacted with shock even to these.

You can understand that reaction. This is an adult film marked by acute emotional truthfulness. Its advantage over the similarly themed US documentary Bully, also in the program, is its recognition of the way that bullying victims can become marked for life – even becoming aggressors themselves.

That South Korean society is unusually marked by repression and its opposite, explosively violent impulses, has long been obvious from its filmmaking. But never have I had such a strong insight into how those conditions operate at the micro level, intensified by a rigid system of class stratification.

I admired Barbara, Christian Petzold's story of a rural doctor (Nina Hoss) in Communist East Germany planning her escape to the West while under constant surveillance, though with some reservations.

Petzold superbly recreates an atmosphere of paranoia, vividly depicting a life where privacy has almost entirely disappeared and suspicion smothers all social interaction. Yet for a director as generally subtle, cool and spare in his direction, Barbara has some alarmingly clunky moments, viz a conversation about a Rembrandt painting which is all 'let's stop the narrative here and point out a metaphor to the audience'. Or dialogue like “the patient's emotions have become disassociated from his thought processes…”, prompting the reply from Hoss' emotionally inhibited doctor, “Like me, you mean?” (I paraphrase from memory.)

Film Studies 101 – never spell out your major themes or character descriptions in literal dialogue. Even clunkier was the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer decision to play Chic's 'At Last I Am Free' over the closing credits. What a shame.