It may have been a mistake having the Berlin Film Festival's competition's jury head, Wong Kar Wai, present his kung fu epic, The Grandmaster, as the festival opener this year, because his mish-mash of a film offers little hope for the quality of the winners he might choose.
“It was beautiful to look at,” was the consensus afterwards, as press and industry gathered for the opening night party. Still they couldn't understand what the film was about.
At the film's press conference the following day Wong said he hoped the film could bring audiences a new perspective on martial arts, kung fu and the Chinese.
“The film tells you about these martial artists and their world. What is their code of honor? What is their value? What are their philosophies? I think this is something that is really fascinating.”
The problem was he didn't know how to structure his material, especially at the end. Suddenly there are tacked-on scenes telling the early life stories of martial arts legend Ip Man (who taught Bruce Lee and played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and the young, headstrong northeastern fighter played by Ziyi Zhang. Shouldn't that have been at the beginning? There were other false endings, um beginnings, as well. A German journalist told me the German distributor was very worried, while the Australian distributor Village Roadshow wasn't prepared to pay for interviews for a film one imagines they might never release.
Nevertheless, writes the Hollywood Reporter, the suppressed affections between Ip Man and Gong Er doubtless will mesmerize festival audiences converted to Wong's aesthetics through In the Mood for Love.
As usual it took Wong a long time, some eight years, to finish the film, since the Hong Kong director was as exacting as ever. Initially the project had been a biopic of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's martial arts master, though it grew into a sprawling and possibly unwieldy account of Chinese boxing in the republican period of Chinese history. The film stars Leung as wing chun master Ip, South Korea's Song Hye Kyo as his wife, Zhang as a bagua pugilist and Taiwan's Chang Chen as a baji master.
Ziyi Zhang, who so displayed her action prowess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, like everyone else worked on the film for 20 months over three years. She says returning to work with the director was a mixture of love and hate.
“Kar Wai said it himself, 'I know you guys love me and hate me. What can I do?' I say, 'What can I do? I just love you.' We trust each other a lot and I don't care what he is doing. I just go for it and he knows I will give my best performance. There's such a great chemistry with Tony as well.”
Now that Zhang is a major star, was she able to say what she wanted more than before? She exudes a knowing smile. “I think Kar Wai never told us specifically what to do or where to go. He's not that kind of style. He just gives us some ideas, sometimes even no lines, we just go for it and that gives a lot of room for actors. It's a great opportunity for us. There are cameras burning money for you to practice, for you to raise your acting level. I think it's great. I love it. Sometimes I hear other actors complain, they are not used to doing it so many times and they don't know what they're doing. I always comfort them and say if you work with him you have to understand him a little bit more. That is just the way he directs.”
Australian films are figuring strongly at this year's festival with five features, two documentaries, seven shorts and Jane Campion's six-hour TV series Top of the Lake in the program. There is also a selection of Australian and New Zealand films in the section NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema.
All the Australian entries can be accessed via the Screen Australia website.
Australian actors are showing their talents in two films from foreign directors. Brazilian's Bruno Barreto has world premiered Reaching for the Moon, starring Australia's Miranda Otto (excellent) as New York Pullitzer prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop in the Panorama section. Set in 1951 it recounts her travels to Rio in 1951 to visit a college friend, Mary, and her falling in love with Mary's dashing female partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares (the remarkable Brazilian soap superstar Glória Pires) who came from a famous wealthy family and built the Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro). The three women form a kind of ménage à trois, with Mary very much on the outer, and ultimately the perpetrator of their undoing. The evocative emotionally charged film deftly re-creates the aesthetic beauty of the era and marks a return to form for Baretto whose 1977 film Four Days in September starring Alan Arkin had screened in Berlin's competition.
Meanwhile in the coming week Italy's Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) makes his English-language debut with The Best Offer, a stylish film about passions, neuroses and intrigue starring Geoffrey Rush as the managing director of a leading auction house who becomes fascinated with a mysterious woman after she asks him to sell her family's antiques.
The Berlin competition has so far produced two strong titles. Elles director Malgoska Szumowska has again mined a sexually-oriented story with her Polish film In the Name Of where leading Polish actor Andrzej Chyra (who performed at the 2012 Adelaide Festival alongside Isabelle Huppert in French-language version of A Streetcar Named Desire) delivers a strong and ultimately endearing performance as a gifted priest who needs sex in his life. He is strongly attracted to one of the delinquents in his care though Szumowska is quick to point out that the younger character (played by her real life much younger husband, Mateusz KoÅ›ciukiewicz, Poland's answer to Emile Hirsch) is of adult age, and that the film is not about paedophilia or in any way meant to be political. It's about one man's struggle.
While Chyra has emerged as an acting awards contender, so too has Pauline Garcia for Gloria, the Chilean competition entry directed, co-written and co-edited by Sebastián Lelio. Garcia plays a 58 year-old woman looking for love and finding her experiences less gratifying than she had hoped. The story unfolds against the backdrop of current political developments in Chile, and also incorporates events Chilean history spanning the past 40 years.
In The Hollywood Reporter's review of Gloria Australian critic David Rooney couldn't be more glowing.
"Funny, melancholy and ultimately uplifting, Sebastián Lelio's enormously satisfying visit inside the head and heart of a middle-aged woman never puts a foot wrong," he writes. Let's hope there are films in the coming days that might rival it.