Iranian filmmaker Khosro Masumi scored his second Golden Goblet for Best Film at the 2012 Shanghai International Film Festival.
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29 Jun 2012 - 11:27 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:30 PM

SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Now that Shanghai is over for another year, I'm pleased to report that Beijing Blues—which I praised in my second blog post—went on to earn Beijing-based Gao Qunshu a thoroughly deserved Best Director award. The main prize, however, was taken by Iranian writer-director Khosro Masumi, for his drama Bear.

Remarkably, it was his second victory at this festival, his 2004 feature The Tradition of Lover Killing having also earned him a Golden Goblet for Best Film. This one, set at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, saw a man return unexpectedly to his village one winter, having been presumed dead—a glorious martyr to the cause—for eight years. Immediately, he sets out to reclaim the love of his former wife, blithely unconcerned by the presence of the new husband with whom she's had two children in the meantime.

Proceeding inexorably to its tragic conclusion, this simple tale exerted a real fascination—not least, for its relentless testing of our sympathies. The woman's second husband might have been a brute, as she claimed—thoughtless, bad-tempered, a lousy conversationalist—but her first displayed a maddening sense of entitlement: breezing back into her life after almost a decade's absence, without so much as a flicker of doubt that he deserved to regain his rightful place at the table.

Nor did the woman in question, wavering tearfully between the two men, exhibit much in the way of moral clarity. Before long, every motivation was unclear, as if obscured by the same mist and snow through which the characters made their ways. The result was a strong, small film—hardly a major work, but compelling and quietly resonant, all the same.

Indeed, its foreign selection, at least, Shanghai seemed to specialise in these kinds of movies: small, assured works of the kind that larger and more prestigious festivals tend to overlook.

Certainly House With a Turret, from Ukrainian writer-director Eva Neymann, was a minor revelation: a short (77 minute) B&W tale set at the height of WWII, it saw a nine-year-old boy try, with heartbreaking devotion, to care for his badly ill mother—and then, after she died, wander aimlessly through a nightmarish purgatory. While, all around him, his countrymen made desperate, futile attempts to flee the approaching Wehrmacht.

Viewed entirely from the child's perspective, it offered a surreal and frightening vision of war—heightened by its measured tone and a classical, almost Soviet mise-en-scene, which recalled Russian filmmakers from Tarkovsky (Ivan's Childhood) to Aleksei German Jr. (The Last Train). And its power was only amplified with the discovery, as the end credits rolled, that the actress playing the mother had herself died since the film had been shot.

For a while, French director Damien Odoul was starting to look like a man who'd squandered his early promise. His dreamlike 2001 debut, Le Souffle, garnered fervent acclaim, but was followed by a string of sloppy, self-indulgent films. (His 2005 marital drama Errance, however—turning upon a tour de force performance from Laetitia Casta—remains badly underrated.) Critics turned upon him. His profile slipped; festival invitations dwindled…

It's pleasing, therefore, to report that his latest, Le Reste du monde (The Rest of the World), marks a significant return to form. A small-scale work, made for French television, it focused on the tribulations of a single family—specifically, three sisters, each unhappy in their own way. Eve, mourning the unexplained suicide of her lover, was startled to discover her unexpected pregnancy to him; even as her older sister Aurélie became convinced that she was actually the child of another man, and risked tearing the entire family apart to discover the truth. ('What is a family, anyway?' she sneered. “What's it for?')

In a film of uniformly strong performances, particular credit must go to a screen debutante, the Canadian-born model Marie-Eve Nadeau—and, especially, to Emmanuelle Béart. As Katia, the sluttish, alcoholic girlfriend of the girls' widowed father, she slurred and/or muttered every line from behind a smouldering cigarette ('Children always make a place shitty,' she sighed at one point), and handily stole every scene in which she appeared.

Odoul regular Pierre-Louis Bonneblanc, meanwhile—so monstrous as the father in Le Souffle—returned to play the patriarch here, and his eruptions of fury were as abrupt and terrifying as in that earlier film, which offered a child's-eye view of the incomprehensible lunacy and violence of adults. After one dinner party erupted into bitter recriminations, one of the extras—a small child—began sobbing, and you sensed it might not have been acting…

Rat King, a Finnish-Estonian co-production, screening in competition, only proved yet again that cinema has no idea whatsoever of how to represent the world of online gaming. Excuse Me, from Denmark (also in competition), started promisingly, with a young girl drifting into the backstage intrigues of a struggling theatre company, somewhat in the manner of Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure—only to lose its way amid 'jokes' about anal rape and an absurd subplot about a dead dog, whose personality the girl subsequently felt obliged to adopt.

And Collaborator, the first film written and directed by actor Martin Donovan—still best known for his early work with Hal Hartley—was an unwieldy chamber piece: essentially a two-hander between Donovan, as a struggling New York playwright, and David Morse, as a former neighbour in his former hometown, a ne'er-do-well who takes him hostage. Striving to say something profound about the Artistic Temperament, it wound up feeling stage-bound and contrived.

Though resolutely 'US Indie' in appearance, it was actually a Canadian production—and as such, was indicative of the dearth of US product here. Many American producers and studios, fearing possible piracy, are reluctant to enter Chinese film festivals. With DVD sellers on seemingly every street corner (and the old man, sitting near me in one screening, who surreptitiously recorded the entire film on a small handycam), their paranoia is not entirely unwarranted.

Yet in the absence of Hollywood product, other nations excelled—both South Korea and Spain in particular: the former with Sohn Young-sung's The Client, a smart, slick courtroom drama that demonstrated SK's fluency with mainstream Hollywood storytelling; and the latter, courtesy of two superb genre flicks—both screening, as it happens, in the forthcoming Spanish Film Festival across Australia.

Pulp auteur Enrique Urbizu—best known for his meticulous 2002 thriller Box 507—delivered his finest film to date with No Rest for the Wicked. Opening with a deadbeat cop's attempts to cover up his drunken murder of three people in a bar, it quickly expanded its focus to offer a harsh critique of institutional incompetence, with particular regard to the 2004 Madrid bombings. Yet for all its political point-scoring, it also functioned superbly as pure entertainment: complex, bloody and gripping… all held together by Jose Coronado's swaggering, indelibly anti-heroic lead performance.

And then there was Sleep Tight, from horror maestro Jaime Balagueró—which found him dialling back the gore and shock-tactics of his breakthrough hit [Rec], in favour of a more measured, at times almost Hitchcockian approach. The tale of a psychotic building superintendent, hopelessly obsessed with one of his tenants, a beautiful young woman, it built a mood of profound unease through slow, deliberate stages: the abuse here was strictly emotional, never psychical. Nevertheless, it managed to maintain extraordinary tension throughout. And its final scene—a coda, set a year after the main narrative—was like a kick in the stomach.