Joachim Lafosse's Nue propriété (Private Property, 2006) is exactly about that--a piece of property, the question of its ownership, and the suffering people undergo when the issue is raised, again and again.
Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two sons Thierry (Jeremy Renier, who also starred in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant) and Francois (Yannick Renier, Jeremy's real-life brother) in a lovely countryside mansion owned by their father (and Pascale's former husband), Luc (Patrick Descamps). Thierry and Francois are overgrown puppies, a tad too frisky for poor Pascale--when she goes out dressed they make fun of her clothes; when she mentions having talked to their next-door neighbor Jan (Kris Cuppens), the two brothers burlesqe the neighbor dry-humping their mother.
Pascale isn't amused; in her eyes, she's wasted years raising these two, and she deserves something of her own--in effect, a little bed-and-breakfast joint, run by her and Jan (who really is her lover), financed by the sale of the beautiful countryside mansion their father left to the two boys.
Lafosse keeps everything teetering in a delicate balance; no one has clear claim to our affections, no one deserves our total enmity. Pascale might seem to be a monster of a mother, but her scenes with Jan reveal just how frustrated and lonely she is, what a deeply unhappy woman she has become; likewise, the two boys can easily be seen as the victims, only it quickly becomes clear how spoiled they are, how callow and selfish they can be. As Pascale becomes even more desperate, leaving the boys behind to stay at a friend's apartment, her abandonment is balanced by Thierry's ever more naked contempt for his mother (Francois on the other hand is the single sweetest person in the film, but one can't help feeling a little contempt at his passivity).
The film contains a different other level of irony, something I couldn't help but notice looking at all three onscreen, then later at the father: Thierry, who hates Pascale but is close to Luc (their father), seems to resemble Pascale; Francois, who dearly loves his mother but is indiffeent to Luc, resembles Luc.
The odd correspondences seem to confirm so many things people say about relationships--that like does repel like (Pascale hates Thierry's--her own, in effect--stubborness; Thierry stubbornly refuses to understand Pascale's needs), that predesposition does transmit itself across generations (Francois' tenderness towards Pascale evoke the feelings Luc at one point must have harbored for her; Thierry's bond with his father looks to be a distant echo of the attraction Pascale once felt for Luc). When they yell and suffer and inflict pain on one another it's doubly distressing, because you can see the genetic and behavioral similiarities in all four, similarities that they either pointedly ignore, or remain utterly unaware of.
The film ends with a long-take shot that gives an eloquent sense of closure to the story, puts everyone's questions and demands into perspective, and gives us the true value of the property in question, compared to what had just been irrevocably lost.
Chrigu is a documentary on the simplest, most potent subject matter I can think of: one's own mortality. It's Christian Ziörjen's coverage of his own exprience with cancer, and inevitable demise--a well nigh unbearably weighty topic, you might imagine, except for the protagonist's insistence that "the movie shouldn't be sad." It isn't--it's amiable, funny, courageous, anything but. The director (with the help of co-director Jan Gassmann) stuffs his film with footage of his travels (a beautiful interlude in India, and on the River Ganges), some early music-videos he directed (you might call this his audition piece), scenes of time spent with friends and family. He manages to keep most of the film remarkably free of the self-pity and pathos it could potentially have, and even displays a sense of irony (at one point he notes that a quiet moment in the film is actually filler to pad out the running time). Not much else one can say: it's undisputably powerful stuff; at some points somewhat self-indulgent--but when someone is making his first and final feature, one can hardly begrudge him the time spent or the minor flaws (I would have loved to know more, for instance, about the reasons behind his tight-lipped policy towards his mother--there's some affection there, all right, why wasn't there more? And didn't he have a girlfriend?). All in all, I wish I could leave as well-made a Last Statement.
Alessandro Angelini's L'Aria salata (Salty Air, 2006) pretty much has you in a death-grip from the start, and doesn't for the length of the film let go. It follows Fabio (Giorgo Pasotti) as a social worker in a penitentiary--he has high standards, but he never puts on airs; most convicts like him and confide in him. When he's confronted by Sparti (Giorgio Colangeti), his father--a man he's never seen, who has spent the past twenty years in prison for murder--he's confronted by an unenviable dilemma. Should he tell his father who he is? Should he treat him like any other prisoner? Less kindly, perhaps? More?
Angelini directs in a straightforward manner, keeping to medium shots that suggest the claustrophobia of prison, and simple staging that at one point turns into a bravura sequence (inspired, I suspect, by something similar in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) where Sparti enlists his fellow prisoners in an impromptu skit that humiliates the prison warden. Angelini relies on a strong script (which he wrote, with the help of Angelo Carbone) and even stronger acting--I don't know where Colangeti came from, and I've seen only one other film in which he's appeared (his debut in fact, in Pasolini, un delitto italiano (Pasolini, an Italian Crime, 1995)). Don't remember him in it, unfortunately, but I'm hardly about to forget him now. As Sparti, Colangeti is amazing; he incarnates the hardened convict, by turns arrogant and subversive, and only by increments and tiny moments do you eventually notice the cracks spreading over his facade, caused by his son. Part of the power of Colangeti's performance is that you're never quite sure how he feels about this, whether he's delighted or dismayed, excited or wary, invigorated or enervated, and you feel you need to know. One of the best films in the program, and my fellow jurors Mr. Jiri Menzel and Mr. Lee Yoon-ki thought highly enough of it to give it a special mention, to which I readily agreed.
Ying Liang's Ling Yi Ban (The Other Half, 2006) starts off looking like a documentary, with people directly addressing the camera; turns out they are consulting lawyers about the merits of their respective cases, which run the gamut from marital problems to malpractice to potential industrial disasters.
Ying Liang (who directed the film and wrote it with producer / companion Peng Shan) likes to mix these testimonies with the story of Xiaofen (playing herself), a law clerk in the same office, whose loser boyfriend Deng Gang (also playing himself) is constantly getting into trouble--at one point poor Xiaofen finds herself being interviewed by one of the office's lawyers (concerning, of course, the no-good Deng Gang), and awareness of the incongruity (I should be sitting on the other side of this table) seems to make her every bit as uncomfortable as relating the actual circumstances of the case.
Documentary mixed with drama, fictional footage mixed with nonfiction (at one point the threatened industrial disaster does happen, and Ying Liang inserts actual footage of the true-life incident), with Ying interchanging episodes of grim reality (the industrial disaster) with doses of absurdist humor (one client petulantly tosses her tea drink at the lawyer/camera). Ying's film is based on actual details, but he's not averse to resorting to a freely experimental spirit--the final shot seems inspired by something Rene Clair did in Entr'acte (1924), only here it's meant to emphasize something else entirely different: no matter what all the king's horses and men will do, Humpty Dumpty will not be put together again.
Some critics have complained about the final revelation, how it seems a tad too optimistic for the film's overall tone, but I for one have no problem with it--I think that it too is representative of what's happening in this swiftly changing society. Wild coincidences and listless lives and great disillusionment and major disasters will commingle with crude slapstick and sudden success stories, and this isn't too much at all, it's China. Nor are they--or we, for that matter--out of it.
It took some discussion, but on our last jury meeting Mr. Menzel, Mr. Lee and I eventually agreed on the Indie Vision winner, and wrote our justification thusly:
"The motto for this year's JIFF is 'Freedom, Independence, Communication.' All 12 of the Indie Vision films are we believe exemplars of these elements--they are independent of mainstream cinema, they are expressions of the filmmakers' will towards freedom, and they communicate these values with a strong voice.
"For the winning film, we believe it is an excellent portrait of the problems faced by modern society, and that it carries a strong environmental message; we also believe it makes inventive use of the voiceover and stylized acting. For these reasons we give the Woo-suk Award to Ying Liang's The Other Half."