Benedikt Erlingsson's Woman at War.

NZIFF: Woman At War, Blue My Mind, Angels Wear White, Minding The Gap

The ninth installment from our team film critics swarming the cinemas of Auckland and Wellington for the 2018 NZ International Film Festival.

Woman At War

If I had one free reviewer’s wish for this festival — “Every person within range of a screening shall attempt to buy tickets to a movie of your choice, and the festival will schedule more screenings, and they will all sell out” — I’d use it on this. I have many more films still to see and I don’t care. This is it, this is the one. Icelandic comedy-drama for the win. Yet again.

But now of course I’ve raised your expectations. The issue with this is that Icelandic films, in my not nearly extensive enough experience, share something of the Scandivanian comic sensibility, which we in more temperate climates so easily mistake for a longing for quietness and death. Like Benedikt Erlingsson’s previous film, the lesser though still sublime Of Horses and Men, Woman At War does a great deal by doing just enough: these are disciplined, restrained films, and if you go into them looking for visible signs of greatness you may miss the greatness that is, in fact, right there in front of you.

Then again, those spectacular opening shots. The way the joke about where the film’s striking and effective music is coming from keeps being repeated and yet somehow never gets old. Halla, the eponymous central character, and her splendid “alleged cousin”, and her strange, perfectly deployed sister. I am attempting to enthuse without actually saying too much, because I want you to sit down in front of this thing and let it unfold in its own time, but if you need a little more detail… Erlingsson has made an intelligent, funny, clear-eyed, heartwarming though also potentially heartbreaking story about a character trying to take selfless action on an issue of global importance, who discovers that it may cost her the future she wants for herself, and has to decide what to do about it.

The cinematography is unshowy but of the first rank, the acting likewise, and the political and environmental thinking underwriting the story is sophisticated. This is a grownup film for grownups, and I cared more about Halla and where her story was going to take her than anything else I’ve seen in this festival so far… and I’m going to stop there, because there are still a couple of Embassy screenings to come, and I need to go track down everyone I know in Wellington and ask them whether they’ve bought tickets yet. /David Larsen

LIsa Bruhlmann’s Swiss coming-of-age film Blue My Mind

Blue My Mind

If, like me, you’re a sucker for coming-of-age films, this slice of Swiss teen-angst could be just the genre bender for you. Building its thrills around a solid dramatic core, Blue My Mind proves more ‘occasionally gross’ than ‘scary’. Lisa Brühlmann’s debut feature treads similar thematic water to Celine Sciamma’s excellent 2014 drama Girlhood, albeit with an excellently icky puberty-metaphor conceit all its own. As well as memorable use of a blue-tinged colour palette, both films immerse the viewer into the milieu of a tight clique of high school-aged girls, firmly focused on life outside the classroom.

Both films take the POV of an outsider struggling to gain admittance to, and acceptance by, a social circle that offers as much risk as it does the vital sense of belonging they crave. Blue My Mind’s distinctiveness lies in its central character Mia (a believably raw performance from Luna Wedler), whose ‘highly unusual’ personal circumstances are messing with her ability to navigate already tricky developmental waters. Brühlmann’s story and character development might not quite be at the level of Sciamma’s (a high bar to be sure!) but this is fresh, quality storytelling nonetheless. /Jacob Powell

Vivian Qu’s white film noir Angels Wear White.

Angels Wear White

It’s exciting and daunting to write about a film I respected this much. Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White is an astounding piece of cinema. I can’t remember a film I’ve been this impressed and inspired by in a long time. It restored in me a hope for the political power of drama and fiction. I was left desperately trying to work out how Angels Wear White does what it does. I’ve seen so much documentary and read so many essays about the war on and for the feminine body but somehow Qu’s film seemed to strike the core of the horror more resoundingly than almost anything else I’ve seen or read.

The film begins with the rape of two twelve year old women at a seaside hotel. Qu’s structure passes the perspective between one of these women, Wen, and a woman working at the hotel who witnesses a key moment of the attack on CCTV, Mia. Early on and firmly, rape is represented as a crime of power not sex and Angels Wear White is, in a way, an exposure of how this same power manifests in the lives of all the women of the film – and by extension, I felt, all the women of the world. There are several women in the film and each of them navigates the violence and danger of this power in different ways with the limited success that I think all women experience.

Often Angels Wear White is a film about young women standing up to powerful men and #metoo is referenced in some of the publicity to the film, but this seems like a far too simplistic view of what the film is saying and doing. Mia’s situation is severely complicated by her undocumented status and Wen is young – neither women have the power to exploit any kind of easy hashtag moment. There are some heroic actions taken but they often feel just like the inevitable acts of surviving a world which is dangerous and in which you hold no power. Choice is almost an impossibility in the film and each character is forced into more and more desperate situations, until the final scene which comes as a revelation, like none I’ve seen in a long time.

As a non-Chinese viewer I’m sure I missed a lot in this film. I was for instance, unaware of the importance of a medically-defined virginity until a scene in the film brought this home. And even now, because of my ignorance, I’m not sure if this was important to these particular characters or whether it has a real effect on a woman’s status in wider Chinese culture. I may be missing other important elements of the story, which I apologise for. What I responded to in the film was the powerful story which brought into the light the ways women live from day to day in the global rape culture.

The performances, the script, the structure of the storytelling are vital to the power of this work but they would all be dead in the water was it not for the direction of photography of the seaside setting for Angels Wear White. The film begins with a shot up the skirt of a giant Marilyn Monroe statue which stands on the sand of a beach and throughout the film the colour white and blondes are referenced in a way that echoes the desire for and control of feminine virginity. Blonde hair is a complicated sign in the film, seeming to reference at once purity and wordliness – Jian, one of the ‘villains’ has blonde hair, and Wen is wearing a blonde wig (which Mia steals) the night she is raped.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the film takes place when Wen finds herself in a hive of brides being photographed at the beach. The image of the bride in white has been forever de-familiarised and made horrific for me by the film’s relationship to the colour. The film is interested in steps and different levels and one of the most exciting settings is the water park which is under construction. There is something about the pipes that echoes something visceral and internal – the phallic transformed into the virginal.

This film had a profound effect on me and I don’t seem to have done it justice in this short review. It feels like words fail in the complete success of its execution. /Pip Adam

Bing Liu’s coming-of-age film Minding The Gap.

Minding the Gap

There’s a bewitching immediacy to Bing Liu’s debut documentary feature. Right from the opening skateboarding sequences you can sense that these are people who have shared significant time and experience. An intimate portrait of friendship in all its messy, complicated fullness, Minding the Gap observes the lives of the filmmaker and his two longtime skateboarding buddies: Zack, the unpredictable, self-confessed ‘clown’ (who bears no small resemblance to Robert Pattinson, in both physical appearance and natural magnetism) and the younger, less in-your-face but no less engaging Keire. The fact that relative introvert Bing – hiding away behind his camera for much of the film – has been filming his skate crew like, forever, means that there is a comfort with the camera, which is difficult to fake.

Perhaps the poor, urban cousin to Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s (also excellent) 2012 documentary Only The Young, Minding the Gap likewise investigates the shifting nature of friendship, the encroachment of age, and the inevitable change this brings. However, Minding the Gap is also a highly personal exploration of the shared histories of three young men, each from difficult backgrounds, who found solace in the thrill of rolling together on the streets, and a sense of community in each other otherwise lacking from their lives.

As Bing says at one point to Kiere, “I’m making this film because I saw myself in your story”. As age and responsibilities mount (in the form of parenthood or seeking and holding down a job) the boys find themselves having to confront their painful pasts, and the reality that life doesn’t always work out the way you hope it will. Liu’s storytelling is never overblown. He maintains a palpable, sometimes uncomfortable honesty with himself as well as with his friends and family. The level of trust and openness he engenders in even the more peripheral interviewees is evidence of his own candor and sensitivity, to the obvious benefit of the film.

A point is made of revealing production elements throughout the film – extra cameras, boom mics, crew, and interviewee questions to the director about what’s happening, all make appearances – making the audience feel a part of this creation rather than maintaining a pretense of impassive observation. And damn it if this ‘kid’ can’t shoot and cut like a mofo. The cinematography and editing in Minding the Gap is leaps and bounds beyond typical documentary fare (though, to be fair, a quick check of Liu’s IMDb credits shows decent camera department experience on some significant projects — Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s television series extension of Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience; Spike Lee’s 2015 feature Chi-Raq; and The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending).

To general technical excellence Liu adds visual artistry and a good sense of where to give space to the dialogue – this really is some impressive filmmaking. And as a sometime (if much shittier) skateboarder myself, I appreciate that the skateboarding sequences are mint. These boys can really skate, and much of the action (often shot by Bing skating along with the crew while holding a camera) would be at home in a commercial skateboarding video. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that Keire has ended up as a sponsored rider. The pulling together of the narrative threads at the end of Minding the Gap is the only part that really clunks a little (and only a very little) but our investment in the stories of these friends is such that this minor misstep doesn’t detract from what is an enthralling cinematic experience. /Jacob Powell

Michelle Saville’s short film BATs.

Eight Uneasy Pieces

As I walked into this screening I saw Nic Gorman, whose 2017 feature Human Traces is just magnificent. Aotearoa makes complex, challenging and entertaining features but by crikey there’s a strong short format game being played. I kind of knew this. So much of the excellent work from Aotearoa I’ve viewed over the last year has been in the form of webseries and 48 Hour entries. It’s such a viable and exciting format for the rich talent which seems to be growing by the minute.

The thing that impressed me most about this selection was the incredible experimentation with narrative form on display. I think the ability to tell stories in fragmented and alternate ways is one of the elements which stakes the short film out as an art form in its own right. The other thing which seemed incredible to me (a film school drop out) was the degree of technical execution. Sound that wrapped you up and gave dimension and shape to the story. Images beautifully rendered building an individual and particular grammar for each of the films. Another thing that kind of blew my mind was the acting – there wasn’t a weak performance in the 80 minutes, which seems to suggest Aotearoa has an amazing depth of talent not only in acting but in directing.

I want to stop generalising now, because generalisation gets old fast and is really ineffective in describing this collection of work which had incredible range.

Jake Mahaffy’s short-short, Cul de Sac, shows what happens when you put pressure on story. The film funnels years worth of stress into its 4 minutes and even delivers a satisfying end. Cul de Sac hangs on the performance of its three actors (two of whom are children) and these talented actors are expertly directed by Mahaffy.

Niamh Peren’s emotive piece of cinema, The Crying Wind, works quietly through a landscape of loss but doesn’t slip into symbolism – the two elements of the story come together masterfully. Set on a sheep farm the film follows its single human protagonist through her work. It’s beautifully shot and hugely affecting with the lightest of touch.

Possibly the most ambitious and exciting in narrative form, Michelle Savill’s Bats is held together by feeling and sense. The story emerges from the neon images of a night out – it is at once exuberant and subtle. The sound track makes great use of music and the performances, which are so important to the barely-there narrative, are outstanding. Bats seems to demonstrate an extremely strong directorial vision executed by a talented team.

Papa directed by Ryan Alexander Lloyd is another example of experimental narrative which uses a distance between voice-over and image to tell a story that blurs the line between drama and documentary creating an effective and affecting shap-shot of a life while exploring how we remember.

The thing that stays with me about Steven Chow’s The Night that Holds You is the way the film uses colour to express mood. The story is held together by earth tones which eventually break out into fire and moonless dark. It’s an elemental film which appeals greatly to the senses to tell its story which is fractured by time and loss.

The Brother directed by Summer Agnew is epic. It’s really exciting to see the hugeness of the Southern Alps backdrop this intimate story of two men. I can’t remember a time I’ve seen the Alps filmed so well – the cinematography and directon come together to show the awe of the landscape in the Romantic sense. But it seems fitting that the final scene takes us back to the interior of a car and the tiny frame of a photograph.

The only animated short in this session, Paul James’ Trap is prefaced with ‘Based on a real story’ which makes the tension in this film even more potent. Animation is an interesting and effective choice for such a gritty story of hardship in real life. The visual expression creates an imagining of this story which allows the Gothic, fantastic and realist aspects to play against and with each other.

Lauren Porteus’ Under the Bridge is an extended cut of her 48 Hours prizewinning short which made me think about the great job 48 Hours is doing at giving space for short film-making. The film does it’s real work quietly almost behind the action which is taking place in the foreground. Under the Bridge has a sting in its tail which instead of settling the film into a resting place, opens the whole film up again which is a great way to end this beautifully crafted relational work and a great way to finish an exceptional showcase of short films from Aotearoa. /Pip Adam

See also:

Birds of Passage, First Reformed, Disobedience, 3 Faces

In the Aisles, The Image Book, Apostasy, Brimstone and Glory

You Were Never Really Here, Kusama – Infinity, Transit, Yellow is Forbidden, Piercing, Terrified, The Miseducation of Cameron Post

McQueen, Rafiki, And Breathe Normally, Good Manners

The Cleaners, The Heiresses, Searching, Liquid Sky

The Green Fog, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, Mirai, Chulas Fronteras / Del Mero Corazon, Let the Corpses Tan

Burning, An Elephant Sitting Still, Thelma, Border, The Atlantic

Last Child, Bisbee ’17, Dog’s Best Friend, Mandy, Skate Kitchen

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