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The Cotton Wool War

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

To regard the high-energy music sung by Brazilians in The Cotton Wool War as being the sound of the city’s heartbeat would be apt. It is the product of a flourishing Brazilian culture that is unable to contain their appreciation for freedom. The extent of their passion knows no limit; even in the absence of instruments, it would not deter folks from slapping their bodies like a drum to create background music.

As rampant as this cultural expressionism runs throughout Brazil, so too lies an inherited sexism that – despite previous women’s liberation efforts – continues to exist as an everyday reality for Brazilian women.

The Cotton Wool War understands the potential that these toxic attitudes have on progress and explores their existence under an objectionable gaze.

With a reference to Virginia Woolf’s work in both title and subject matter, The Cotton Wool War focuses on unconscious sexism rearing its ugly head.

Dora (Dora Goritzki), a teenager who has been raised in Germany, is forced to stay in Brazil under the supervision of her estranged grandmother, Maria (Thaia Perez). Dora is unknowing to the reason for her visit to Brazil, nor does she know much about her grandmother. This creates most of the tension throughout The Cotton Wool War’s brief run-time and sets the film up to become a well-thought-out dissection on gender inequality.

Dora’s German upbringing causes people to never see her as Brazilian enough – a result which sees her having to prove herself as Brazilian. Dora’s need to rationalise her familial and cultural identity further complicates circumstances, with The Cotton Wool War successfully managing to juggle a broad scope of issues without feeling overbearing; a feat which is more impressive considering the brevity of the film.

Despite their characters’ affluence, both actors leave lasting impressions due to their ability to make the struggle feel relatable. Dora’s mounting resentment towards her family finds her engaging in regrettable behaviour. If not giving the silent treatment, Dora is curt in response and often aggressive towards her soft-spoken grandmother. The differences between the two juxtaposes the hardships faced by women of different generations and helps establish The Cotton Wool War as being more than just a film with an angst-ridden teenager at the helm.

Marilia Hughes and Cláudio Marques manage directorial duties with subtlety and aplomb. Their handling of the characters with sincere respect, warts and all, results in a nuanced piece of filmmaking that celebrates the significant contributions made by feminist pioneers.

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David Park: KOFFIA’s Significant Milestones

It’s the hundredth-year anniversary of Korean cinema, the March 1st Movement and the provisional establishment of the first Korean government, all celebrated on the ten-year anniversary of the Korean Film Festival in Australia.
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Scenes from a Film Festival

Our roving FIPRESCI juror has filed a report on the recent Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund. You’ll have to read to the end to find out who won.
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The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The undercover-cop-and-gangster dynamic gets turned on its head in the gritty Korean crime-thriller The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil.

A slew of murders in the South Korean city of Cheonan forms an unlikely partnership between a cop and gangster-crime lord, brought together by a shared desire to nab a perp whose actions are as violent as they are random.

While operating with a sense of non-disclosure to their organisations, the cop and gangster pairing are not undercover in the conventional informant sense a la The Departed. That would be banal. Their arrangement is strictly ends-orientated, with whoever can catch the assailant left to enact justice as they see fit. Just exactly how they execute “justice” differs between the two men with The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil offering an exploration of criminal ethics while also being an enjoyable, bloody frenzy.

While not precisely When Harry Met Sally, there is something fundamentally romantic about the idea of cop and gangster working together and having the two men – hardened by their professional career – developing a respectful relationship founded on compromise. Their differences are fewer than you imagine, with the two leads delivering a chemistry that would have you believe that in another life the two would be laughing up a storm and swinging down soju in a bar until the wee hours of the morning.

Their moral conduct is their clearest divider, with the two men operating with a stern forcefulness that prevents them from swaying from the direction set by their moral compasses. The cop (Kim Mu-yeol), tough as nails and unable to let bad things happen in front of him even if it means being late to a crime scene, is complemented wondrously by the gangster crime-boss (Ma Dong-seok aka  Don Lee), an imposing figure who could easily save money on security by doing the job himself.

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil switches gear into action scenes quite spontaneously, with a warning for those who are squeamish to prepare themselves. Where delivering a shoot-em-up would be taking the easy route, Director Lee Won-tae focuses the action in TGTCTD on hand-to-hand or knife-to-pokie-machine (!) combat to elicit tension. This decision works a treat in highlighting the actors’ athleticism and delivers solid, albeit stabby, choreography.

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Extreme Job

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Not since Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices has there been as big of a secret in the fried chicken world as the undercover stakeout at the centre of Korean action-comedy Extreme Job.

Pressure placed on Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong) to advance in the ranks of the Korean narcotics investigation unit finds him and his ragtag crew of accompanying misfits go undercover as owners of a fried chicken restaurant. Under their surveillance is neighbour Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun); a resurfacing drug-kingpin who dreams of “an era of meth” in Korea.

The fact that a charming film like Extreme Job exists is a testament to absurd yet interesting ideas actualised in Korean cinema.

The motley crew assembled in the stakeout – including a newbie recruit keen to make his first arrest, a budding chef, a tough as nails operative, and a determined moustachioed gent – dazzle due to their well-meaning-but-clumsy nature, with their time on the job a comedy-of-errors.

The most exemplary failure made by the team is in their success as restaurateurs. A feat which renders them unable to focus on the investigation due to the insane demands of the business. You know that restaurant on Instagram that everyone goes to? This would be the one. Their struggles with popularity are the only stumbles of Extreme Job; like an overcooked piece chicken left in a fryer, the film spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on the narcotic unit’s inability to investigate.

Here, the action takes a back-seat in favour of pseudo-drama, drying out the meat on what is otherwise a tender film that focuses on family and classism. Extreme Job, however, regains balance towards the tail-end of the movie with director Lee Byeong-heon serving up a deliciously camp action set-piece that rewards the viewer’s patience.

Drugs. Stakeouts. Fried chicken. Extreme Job is a golden nugget of a film that is as unashamedly-ridiculous as it is entertaining.

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MIFF Blog: Day For Night

A cinema marathon can often result in a blurring of emotions, as our Melbourne International Film Festival blogger discovered with his latest feast of cinema.
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Inseparable Bros

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Written and directed by Yook Sang-hyo, Inseparable Bros [The film’s literal translation from Korean is “My Special Brother”] is a gorgeous tale of the yin and yang of co-dependent friendship.

When the movie opens, Kang Se-ha (later played by Shin Ha-Kyun) is a teenaged and quadriplegic boy confined to a wheelchair. With no immediate family left to care for him, his second cousin doesn’t want to be responsible and so foists him off on a local priest who runs a home for mentally-challenged youngsters. There, Kang Se-ha stands up to bullies with intelligence and scorn.

Also a resident of the home, his simple-minded “brother”, Dong-gu (Lee Kwang-Soo) helps him with daily tasks such as eating, going to the toilet and brushing his teeth for him, even assisting Kang Se-ha to read and get around.

We jump ahead to adulthood and see how Kang Se-ha negotiates his way through life by being the brains, while Dong-gu somewhat ineptly follows his minute instructions. Eventually, Kang Se-ha engineers a savvy business providing various services (such as translation and compiling reports) for cash while trading the skills of those seeking his help to assist others at a volunteer organisation.

Every time circumstances throw a new obstacle at him/them, Kang Se-ha has to use his wits to come up with a creative solution.

One day, the duo crosses paths with a young woman at the local swimming pool where Dong-gu loves to play. Always looking for ways to make enough money for them both to survive, Kang Se-ha engineers a meeting with Mi-Hyun (E Som) and offers her an irresistible and mutually beneficial proposal. She proves to be the only person to treat them without prejudice. Eventually, Mi-Hyun helps the pair broaden their horizons. The unexpected reappearance of Dong-gu’s mother upsets the balance of their friendship as she petitions to bring him back into their family circle, unfortunately at the expense of Kang Se-ha.

Sang-hyo’s visual style is beautiful but mostly pedestrian – that is to say, in service of his storytelling. Occasionally we see fun scenes such as the action-packed and vertiginous sequence where our enterprising duo deftly use strategic manoeuvers on a pedestrian ramp to outrace an elevator. The writer/director’s strengths lie in his candid dialogue that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter. His gifts are best displayed in his ability to present a tight trio of endearing characters who ingeniously navigate the stuffy constraints of bureaucracy and wrangle social and standard media to their advantage.

Shin Ha-Kyun gives an excellent performance despite his character being mostly immobile and restricted to his wheelchair, while Lee Kwang-Soo is especially endearing and convincing as the goofy Dong-gu.

Heart-warming and infused throughout with mild drama and gentle comedy, Inseparable Bros is an adorable film that champions love and family beyond blood-ties.

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Talking About Trees

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.