The festival this year did well very on the audience front, less so with program.
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18 Feb 2014 - 12:01 PM  UPDATED 18 Feb 2014 - 2:16 PM

It's rare to find consensus at a major film festival, but on one thing at this year's Berlinale, every visitor could agree. The clear highlight of the entire event was the line of food trucks parked in a small lane off Varian-Fry-Strasse, just a few steps from two of its major venues, the Palast and the Cinemaxx. At any hour of the day, and into the night, the small thoroughfare would be packed with journalists, programmers, critics and buyers, all tucking into an assortment of cuisines: pulled-pork rolls, kimchi soups, soft-shell tacos. (In a gesture of deference to our host-country—or submission, perhaps—I favoured the käsespätzle.)

This initiative, at least, inspired a degree of passionate devotion. The films were quite another story.

It's become something of a tradition among critics and commentators to note that Berlin's competition is weak. It is. The reason is not hard to deduce—basically, everyone is keeping their best work for Cannes, just three months away—and the result is equally apparent: a shortage of 'name' titles, a large number of debut directors, and a surfeit of B- and C-list, George-and-Ringo auteurs: ancient Japanese bore Yoji Yamada, former Gold Bear winner Claudia Llosa... Unable to find much traction on the Croisette, these filmmakers return each year to the German capital with the dependability of geese flying south for the winter.

So bland was this year's lineup, though, and so arbitrary and random seemed the selection, that among my colleagues a certain speculation took root: exactly how were the competition titles chosen? (The winner, a British reporter, suggested that festival director Dieter Kosslick left it until the press started calling to ask what was in contention, whereupon he would just grab whatever DVDs happened to be lying nearest to hand: 'Well, we have... this. Which looks interesting. And, er... this one...')

Much of the competition films were distinguished by a kind of bland, workmanlike proficiency; anyone hoping for the stylistic audacity of a Tabu, or the infectious exuberance of Gloria, was sorely disappointed. The closest we came—and, no coincidence, the best film I saw at Berlin—was the latest from Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye: Blind Massage (pictured), a crowded ensemble tale of, yes, blind masseuses in Shenzen. Lou's direction was typically virtuosic (the subjective P.O.V. sequences, in particular, designed to replicate onscreen the experience of sightlessness, were dazzlingly inventive), and its multi-strand narrative, involving three parallel love triangles and 'difficult' romances, proved utterly compelling. Sad, beautiful and occasionally, startlingly erotic, the result was Lou's finest film since Summer Palace (2006).

The Gold Lion for Best Film, however, went to one of his countrymen: Diao Yinan, whose bleak, snowbound noir, Black Coal, Thin Ice, saw a disillusioned small-town cop try to re-open an investigation into the string of murders which haunted him five years earlier. Thrillingly undisciplined, and packed with film-geek references (to Jules and Jim, Beau Travail, The Third Man), it boasted set-pieces of real power—a chase across frozen ice, a sex scene atop a ferris wheel—while at the same time, serving up a blistering indictment of mainland corruption and amorality. But considered purely in genre terms, as a whodunnit, its tonal shifts proved bewildering (I'm still unconvinced that one or two sequences were intentionally funny), and its plotting insufficiently rigorous. It also suffered somewhat from miscasting, with Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun Mei slightly too abstracted and delicate to quite convince as a femme fatale.

Nine days of unremarkable movies take their toll. Passions go flat; there's little to love—and not even anything to hate, particularly. (I saw few out-and-out stinkers.) But even in this diminished milieu, special mention should be made of Güeros, the debut of writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios—a lighthearted, loosely-structured, amiable slacker comedy from Mexico, about the adventures of a teenage boy, packed off to stay with his older brother, a university student prone to panic attacks, in Mexico City.

Things happen to them, though not a lot—but then, that's not the point, here. Unashamedly inspired by the French New Wave (and even shot in Academy-ratio black-and-white), this was a film about revelling in the possibilities of cinema, and so was packed with moments of playful visual invention—as well as one of the most audacious soundtracks I can recall. Clearly a director of considerable talent, Ruizpalacios deservedly walked away with the Best First Feature award.

Similar rapture was found in the Forum's retrospective strand, with a three-film homage to Shochiku journeyman director Noboru Nakamura. The first, the sappy-but-sweet Home Sweet Home (1951), was notable mostly for a starring turn from Ozu regular Chishu Ryu—and its yer-what? climax, as a family are rescued from certain destitution, in the film's closing seconds, by the unexplained intervention of a mysterious benefactor. By the second, however—1957's When It Rains, It Pours—any such optimism had been extinguished. A melodrama about familial honour (or the lack thereof), it ground down its characters with a remorselessness that might have made Naruse uncomfortable, yet boasted in Mariko Okada a central performance of considerable depth and nuance.

But the real revelation was the last of the three, 1964's The Shape of Night: a widescreen drama, set among the hostess bars of Shinjuku, about a young girl's slow descent into prostitution at the urging of her ne'er-do-well boyfriend-pimp. Vividly coloured and neon-lit, and exquisitely composed, it was one of the most ravishing visual experiences I can recall. (It's hard to believe that Wong Kar-wai didn't have it somewhere in mind when he conceived In the Mood For Love.) And Miyuki Kuwano, as the naive, insecure Yoshie, was heartbreaking; seeing her lose her innocence, one abusive john at a time, felt like watching a house burning down.

Journeying to the city's west, and a screening at the recently re-opened Zoo Palast—the festival's longtime former home, now modernised and splendid—I was met with crowded lobbies and packed houses, a genuine sense of energy and occasion. And it suddenly dawned on me that Kosslick really doesn't give a damn about journalists, or reports like this one; the carping of his critics is an irritation, no more. The public keep turning out—330,000 tickets were sold this February—and so, by the only metric which matters to sponsors and funders, the event is considered a glowing success.

(A greater mystery is why Berliners keep shelling out perfectly good money to watch such substandard work? Of the nine public screenings I attended, not one inspired a round of applause that could be described as anything other than desultory—and on one occasion, no one clapped at all.)

Likewise, the European Film Market, which according to every buyer and sales agent I spoke to, this year occupied a space somewhere between 'quiescent' and 'dead'. (Tellingly, EFM chief Bekki Probst took to the pages of Screen International to defend its performance—never an encouraging sign.) 'All that people keep saying to me is, we'll talk to you in Cannes,' said one buyer. 'More and more, this seems like the meeting you have before the real meeting.' Another, an American, was more blunt: 'Between Cannes and AFM [the American Film Market, held in November], there's simply not enough product out there to sustain three major markets.'

Late on the final night, I returned to the Zoo Palast to see my final film: British screenwriter Hossein Amini's directorial debut, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Two Faces of January. Starring a trio of name actors—Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac, hot off Inside Llewyn Davis—and shot in Athens, Crete and Istanbul, it was subtle, elegantly made, intelligent... not quite The Talented Mr. Ripley, perhaps, but a gripping thriller, and a superior adaptation of a notoriously difficult writer. So why on Earth was it consigned to 'Berlinale Specials'—typically a dumping-ground for Eurotrash—and not in competition? A good question, but one only Herr Kosslick could answer.