Another instalment in my whiz around the world with the Sydney Film Festival This time, to Russia (sort of), Hong Kong and Georgia (though mostly in English).
I saw Ballroom Dancer, a documentary that focused on beautiful, obsessive, narcissistic, gloomy Russian dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy. In his early twenties he was a world champion Latin ballroom dancer but ten years on, with a new, younger dance partner, Anna, who is also his partner in real life, he wants to return to competitive dancing. To describe him as driven is an understatement. Part of the drama of the documentary is that you suspect early on that his perfectionism will be a barrier to real success. They do well in competition; but are not the best, and inevitably there are strains in the couple's personal relationship as well as their dance partnership. This is a very good film - beautifully shot and expertly edited. But even though the centre of the film is Slavik's drive for perfection, rather than the dancing itself, I think I'm just not sufficiently interested in ballroom dancing to care deeply enough about the emotional journey it produces. 3 out of 5
Experienced Hong Kong director Ann Hui's film A Simple Life is almost a perfect film. Ah Teo was sent to work as a servant for the Leung family when she was a girl. Sixty years later most of the family are living overseas and Ah Teo continues to work and care for Roger - a moderately successful film director who works between Hong Kong and mainland China. When Ah Teo has a stroke that limits her movements, she decides to move to residential care. This could have been a grim film, but it isn't. The physical provision of Ah Teo's new residence lacks privacy and is very cramped by Australian standards, but the staff are kind, if pragmatic, and Roger visits willingly and regularly. While this is a film about being old, it's also a film about kindness, but without any saccharine sweetness. There's a great script, gentle humour, and understated, natural performances. Roger is played by Andy Lau, an immensely experienced, physically elegant Hong Kong actor with beautifully chiseled features. Having visited Hong Kong so recently, I was also struck by the everyday streetscapes. No glittering harbour here; just the busy streets and footpaths and crowded apartment blocks of most people's lives. It's clear I loved this film. 4.5 out of 5.
The Loneliest Planet was probably the most puzzling film of any I saw at the festival. A very clever title, as the much-in-love couple at the centre of the film are backpackers for whom (I imagined) the more challenging the travel destination, the more kudos. For this film they are in Georgia and decide to hire a guide to take them on a trek into the mountains. They're young, fit and pride themselves on their resilience, but the trip provides an encounter - a moment in which a choice must be made - that undermines their self-knowledge and relationship. It's a well-tried premise for a film about the consequences of an unreflective choice. The film was sold-out - I think mainly on the basis of charismatic Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal as the young man of the couple. But I wonder what most of the audience made of the film. It is just so slow. The camera l i n g e r s on beautifully framed shots of the landscape, of rocks, of cliff-faces, and you spend seemingly interminable minutes watching distant shots of the three figures emerging from one edge of the screen and walking till they disappear off the other. There are moments of brilliance in this film and vast stretches of boredom. 3 out of 5.