Berlin programmers are nothing if not consistent when it comes to choosing strands and retrospectives.
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19 Feb 2013 - 10:32 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:26 PM

Forged in the revolutionary ferment of the early 1970s, the heyday of the Red Brigade and the PLO, the Berlinale's Forum section—or, to give it its full name, the International Forum of New Cinema—has long been a nesting place, at a festival occasionally confused as to its own identity and place in the world, for the avant-garde, the experimental and auteurist.

It also used to be heavily political, though that strain has rather diminished in recent decades, replaced by a kind of airless, hermetic High Arthouse aesthetic—one that seems designed to test rather than reward the patience of its audiences.

This year, the twelfth under section programmer Christoph Terhechte, was no exception. There was a surprising emphasis on Greek cinema, with no less than five films programmed, which could have passed for a political statement, were the works in question not so bland and/or inscrutable. There was the now-drearily predictable Japanese retrospective strand—for the fifth year in a row!—which on this occasion was dedicated to Shochiku journeyman Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-1998). And there were the occasional, half-hearted nods to genre filmmaking, in the form of two 'thrillers', in name only, from Greece (The Daughter) and the US (A Single Shot). Each of which smacked of a missed opportunity.

But there were also a handful of unusually satisfying entries. Indeed, this year's Forum offered more consistent satisfactions than the typically lacklustre Competition, or the increasingly wayward Panorama sidebar, which has for years prioritised (homo)sexual politics over questions of quality.

An accumulation of small incidents, Nicholas Wackerbath's Everyday Objects juxtaposed a rather chilly, endistanced style with the languid summer heat and cloistered intimacy of its setting. A young woman, Merle, arrives at the Nice villa of her lover, only to find him away on business. It hardly matters, it transpires, since she's there mostly to look after his children, a sixteen-year-old boy and his thirteen-year-old sister—who soon appeared, and proved to be the most brattishly unpleasant offspring imaginable, repelling Merle's every attempt to forge a bond.

The boy, sulkily disaffected at first, gradually develops a fascination with his babysitter (notably, after watching her skinny-dipping in the villa's pool), until Merle's own mounting boredom and frustration impels her to accompany him to a house party filled with people his own age—where he attempts, none too smoothly, to seduce her.

This sequence, which occupies much of the final third of this short (80 minute) feature, was ominous and well-observed, and promised much . . . yet frustratingly, the film never capitalised upon it, seeming instead to fade away into nothing. In this respect, the film's original, German title—Halbeschatten, or 'half shadow'—seemed rather a better fit than the English one, conveying something of the ephemeral, almost ghostly nature of its pleasures. A first feature for Wackerbath, who in Germany is better-known as an actor than as a director, it signalled the arrival of a potentially interesting new talent.

Similarly unburdened by an excess of plot was the festival's sole Chinese mainland entry: a drama saddled with the awful English-language title Forgetting to Know You. (The original title—much better—roughly translates to 'Unfamiliar'.) Another first feature, this time for Jia Zhangke protegé Ling Quan, it charted the terminal stages of a marriage in a small satellite-town of Chongquing, as a husband suffers feelings of emasculation while trying to start his own business, while his wife—ironically, the former lover of the town's most successful businessman—finds herself tempted by a cab driver considerably younger than herself.

Jia produced the film, though it shared little, stylistically, with his own work; and it was shot—with quite astonishing beauty, all deep-focus compositions and burnished colours—by his usual cinematographer, Yu Lik Wai, who has a handful of directorial credits himself, notably on the great 2003 SF dystopia All Tomorrow's Parties.

Yet to my mind, the biggest influence came, not from the mainland, but from Taiwan, and the late master Edward Yang—whose death from cancer in 2007, at age 59, remains one of the gravest losses to befall modern cinema. Quan displayed a deep empathy with her characters and their predicament, coupled with an almost anthropological study of their milieu, reminiscent of early Yang features like Taipei Story and (in particular) That Day on the Beach. And while her talent for evoking mood and texture as yet outstrip her confidence as a storyteller—ironically, given that she's a novelist making her directorial debut—she's someone whose future work fills me with eager anticipation.

Yang's shadow also extended over the best thing I saw in Forum—an entry from Georgia, In Bloom, which charted the coming-of-age of two thirteen-year-old girls, best friends, in Tiblisi during the early 1990s. As in his masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, it's a world defined and dominated by male violence, which simmers around shy, geeky-looking Eka and her best friend Natia, disturbing their family lives and deforming their relationships with boys their own age.

Precious and beautiful, Natia attracts more than her fair share of male attention, and is finally married off to one of her suitors, the thuggish Kote, in a process reminiscent of the Rape of the Sabine Women: this, it seems, is how things happen (or happened) here. Unsurprisingly, she finds married life to be a disappointment; Eka, meanwhile, can only look on in impotent horror, knowing much the same fate awaits her. And then there is the pistol, given to Natia by the other boy who loves her, the dreamily handsome Lado—which is passed back and forth between the two girls, and may or may not fulfil its Chekhovian destiny by the end . . .

The film's set-pieces—notably, an incredibly expressive wedding-dance by Eka, shot in a single take—were extraordinary, attesting to the rigorous vision of co-directors Nana Ekvtimisv (who also scripted the film) and her German partner Simon Gross. And, as photographed by in-demand Romanian DoP Oleg Mutu (who shot the Cannes-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days) it offered a virtual masterclass in mise-en-scene: everything occurred within the frame (no reversals, no unnecessary cuts at all), yet scenes never dragged, or felt lifeless or protracted. On the contrary, individual sequences—like a scene with the two heroines and some of their girlfriends, smoking and gossiping and playing music in Natia's parents' apartment—fairly crackled with energy.

And behind it all, there was a sense that every shot was somehow completely and unarguably right: precisely composed, even inevitable. It might have been the best thing I saw in all Berlin, rivalled only by Shane Carruth's sui generis SF film, Upstream Color. For which no words will suffice.