NOT: Antichrist, Greater Union, 131 Russell St, Melbourne

MIFF #14: Lars von Trier’s latest film Antichrist has been dividing viewers ever since its debut at Cannes this year. Some seasoned critics at Cannes walked out, outraged by the genital mutilation presented in squeamish detail, yet Charlotte Gainsbourg won the best actress award at the same festival.

With its reputation of graphic violence, initially I wasn’t too keen to make it one of my MIFF film picks. However, RM pointed out that it was unlikely that such a film would receive general release in Australia without censorship (although I note Britain has allowed the uncut version to be screened), and if you were going to criticise it then at least you should see the full version to make an informed decision.

Well, having sat through 105 minutes of darkness and horror, my informed decision is that this is not a good film. I could almost forgive the scenes of torture and mutilation (look away now) – bashing a penis with a heavy object so that it ejaculated blood, cutting off a clitoris with a pair of scissors and tunnelling a screw through a leg. It’s the kind of violence that invades your memory and makes you feel miserable and dirty, long after the credits roll. It’s just that those graphic scenes overwhelmed the film so much that there was no sense of emotional authenticity in the relationship between the two grieving characters or Gainsbourg’s descent into madness. In addition, the dialogue was fragmented, the plot was implausible and at several points during the film, the audience actually laughed at the ridiculousness of it (cue fake-looking CGI fox snarling ‘Chaos reigns’). It probably didn’t help that the night before I’d seen The Loved Ones, which also featured a sadistic female using power tools and heavy objects as instruments of torture, but in a completely camp manner.

As RM said afterwards, it’s evident that the film is not a work of a sound mind (von Trier was hospitalised for chronic depression before the film). It’s also clear that von Trier holds extremely misogynistic views, as he pretty much casts Gainsbourg as the antichrist and blames the death of her child on her fickle femaleness.

There’s been lots of press about this film, but I think this Times review sums it all up pretty well.  The four differing reviews in the Independent are also worth reading.

HOT: The Loved Ones, Greater Union, 131 Russell St, Melbourne

MIFF #13: The Loved Ones was one of a handful of Australian films receiving their world premieres at MIFF and the raucous crowd screamed, clapped, laughed and cheered their way through this gruesome and macabre film in appreciation.

Brent (Xavier Samuel), a good looking teenage boy, has a beautiful sexy girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine), and they make plans to go to the school formal together. However, quiet Lola (Robin McLeavy) has become obsessed with Brent and jealous of his relationship with Holly so she enlists her father’s help to kidnap him on the eve of the dance.

What unfolds is shocking and gory, as mad Lola and her equally mad Dad set up their own version of the formal with twisted forms of torture involving hammers, power tools and hot water.  Several times Brent looks like he’s going to escape and the audience cheered him on every time, with the lady next to me screeching ‘look behind you’. Despite the sadistic turns, the film rocked in its hyper-real ambience and was an enjoyable horror romp. Just don’t watch it alone!

HOT: The Kelvin Club, Melbourne Place, Melbourne

I’ve never understood the need for men to have spaces like private clubs or sheds. Women don’t seem to require those same physical boundaries and RM has not been able to explain why men need it to my satisfaction.

The Kelvin Club opened is a private members club for men and women, but the decor is very much that of an old-money mens’ club – leather couches, billiard tables, a long wooden bar, maroon carpet and moose antlers on the wall. The club is currently open to MIFF members during MIFF (you get a free drink too), so I thought I’d take the opportunity to visit it as it’s not likely that I’ll ever be invited.

On the HOT side, the ambiance was cosy and the service was very personal and friendly – Sam the waiter had written on our bill ‘Enjoy your film and life’. On the NOT side, the food was poor. I tried a thin sour-tasting curry soup ($7.50) and four insipid spinach and ricotta pastries ($4), neither of which were very good. I guess though that if you’re going to a members club you’re probably not going there for the food, and for that the club gets a HOT.

HOT: Silent Wedding, Greater Union, 131 Russell St, Melbourne

MIFF #12: My second Romanian movie of MIFF was very different to the first, but both were equally amusing in a quirky way.

Silent Wedding (Nunta muta) is set in a Romanian village in 1953, near the beginning of Communist rule. The peasants live an idealistic rural life in soft summer light and have gathered together for a wedding celebration. Just as the feasting is about to begin, the Russians arrive to tell them that Stalin has died and there will be seven days of mourning. There will be no laughing, no football and no weddings – no exceptions. The wedding guests decide to resist by holding a silent wedding under the cover of darkness. Glasses are silently clinked, people laugh mutely and the gypsy band pretends to play. Every noise brings increasing tension, until the bride’s father pronounces that people must dance and music must play and the building hums with noise and happiness.

The film cast a warm tone and the audience audibly enjoyed many amusing moments in the film, including the ‘Chinese Whispers’ passing of messages around the banquet table. When the harsh and brutal ending came I wasn’t quite expecting it, but it lent a poignancy to what could have been a frivolous film.

HOT: Food Inc, ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne

food_incMIFF #11: As you’ve probably gathered by now, I feel very passionate about food. And one of the less salubrious aspects of the abundance of relatively cheap food choices we are fortunate to have in the Western world is the advent of industrial food production.

Ostensibly, the aim is admirable – to produce a lot of food, on a small amount of land, at an affordable price. Food Inc is a documentary exploring the less desirable consequences of the industrial food system in the US.

Many Americans still imagine that they live in an agrarian society, where food is grown by farmers and is ‘all natural farm fresh’. The reality is that a supermarket can contain approximately 47,000 different products which are produced by a handful of powerful multi-nationals, the seasons don’t exist and a farmer can be prohibited from saving his seed.

The film was sold out – unfortunately, from the gasps and groans from the audience, I suspect it was preaching to the converted. Obviously the tone of the film was quite one-sided as it was trying to convey a particular message, and there was liberal use of  evil-sounding conspiracy music. Nevertheless, some thought-provoking issues:

  • McDonalds are the largest buyer of minced beef in the US, and one of the largest buyers of potatoes, chicken, pork, lettuce, tomatoes and apples. That means that even if you don’t eat McDonalds, the company (and other such companies, McDonalds isn’t solely too blame) wields an enormous amount of power over what produce is available and how it is produced. These powerful companies demand food which is cheaply produced in large quantities, uniform and  available all year round and so the food industry responds by using intensive, inhumane farming methods and chemicals.
  • Industrially farmed chickens tend to be reared in dark tunneled buildings, which prevent them from resisting capture and to force them to focus on just eating, eating, eating. Such chickens are given feed which contains antibiotics so that they can grow to killing size twice as fast as is natural. The antibiotics also means that they grow extra-large breasts because consumers prefer breast meat. Because their bones and internal organs cannot keep up with their accelerated growth, we watched as their feeble legs snapped under the weight of their body and they died paralysed in the mud.
  • To make any money from industrial chicken farming, a farmer needs to have a contract with a large company. The capital investment and improvements required by a multi-national can be up to $500,000. A chicken farmer will earn around $18,000 a year. The documentary makers contacted many chicken farmers for their research, most of whom declined to talk because they were effectively beholden to their masters.
  • The food processing  industry is notorious for exploiting the desperation of illegal immigrants in their workforce. When there is an immigration crackdown, the executives who are turning a blind eye to these practices are never arrested – it is the immigrants who are handcuffed, fifteen at a time, so as as not disrupt the factory production lines.
  • Eating well costs more. You can buy a hamburger for $1. A head of broccoli costs $1.29 and you still have to cook it. That’s partly why rising obesity levels and the rapid increase in early-onset diabetes in children are most prevalent in lower-income levels.
  • 30% of the US’ arable land is planted with corn. Government policy effectively subsidises for over-production, which means that corn and corn-derived products find their way into the most unexpected food stuffs.
  • It also means that cattle, which are designed naturally to eat grass, are all of a sudden eating a lot of corn. Cheap corn feed = cheap meat. The problem with corn-eating cattle is that E coli can evolve and breed in such an environment in a cow’s stomach. The solution?  Treat the meat using ammonia.
  • Is E coli actually dangerous? In 2001, two-and-a-half year old Kevin Kowalcyk died after being poisoned by E coli in minced hamburger meat. We meet his mother and grandmother as they try to push through ‘Kevin’s Law’ a food safety law which, amongst other things, permits the USDA to regularly check that meat and poultry plants don’t exceed government limits on harmful bacteria and to give the USDA the power to shut down plants that consistently fail to meet food safety standards. Common sense, right? The law didn’t pass until 2009.
  • Many key appointments in the good regulatory agencies such as the FDA and USDA have come from executives and lobbyists from food industry multinationals. In 1972 the FDA conducted around 50,000 food safety checks. In 2002 the FDA conducted around 9,000 food safety checks. Is it possible that our food has become so much safer than there needs to be less regulatory control?

It would be easy to dismiss these issues as problems only relevant to the US, but most Western countries have an industrial food system which uses some of these practices. The key issue is whether you believe this way of producing food is desirable.

Fortunately, the food industry is one of the few industries where the small actions of individuals can create a change. The industry responds to the marketplace – every time you scan products at a supermarket or support growers at a farmers market,  you are effectively casting a vote. If consumers demand free range eggs, then the industry will produce free range eggs. If consumers demands cheap chicken breast, then you will get meat which contains chemicals and produced in an inhumane manner for $5 a kilo.

If you want to find out more, check out

NOT: Members of the Funeral, ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne

funeralMIFF #10:  My first NOT of MIFF. Members of the Funeral was a macabre Korean film telling the backstory of three guests who attend a funeral for a young teenage boy. The disjointed film never really captured my attention properly – I drifted off to sleep at various points and so I didn’t really grasp the convoluted, interwoven story lines and the relationships between the guests. The characters were all strange or hateful and their motives and behaviours, while explained, were just one step too far removed from being believable and realistic in the circumstances.

HOT: Prodigal Sons, Greater Union, 131 Russell St, Melbourne

sonsMIFF #9: Kimberly Reed’s documentary about her unusual family Prodigal Sons had so many twists I don’t even know where or how to begin. Perhaps the easiest way is to just set it all out in a list [spoiler alert!]:

  • Kimberly used to be Paul. She’s now a very attractive blond-haired woman – I would never have guessed she was transsexual unless you had told me. While Kimberly is now a woman physically, she’s still attracted to women, so her girlfriend is a lesbian;
  • Kimberly has an older adoptive brother, Marc, who had a car accident in his early 20s and had to have part of his brain removed;
  • Marc has always had an inferiority complex around Kimberly/Paul because they grew up attending school in the same class. Paul was the quintessential popular high achiever – the high school quarterback who got straight As, the man that Marc always wished he was. Kimberly and Marc have been estranged for many years, mainly because Marc couldn’t accept that Kimberly had become Paul;
  • Marc decided to find out about his natural parents and discovered that he was the son of Rebecca Welles, the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth; and
  • As a result of Marc’s accident, he now has to take medication for his violent mood swings. In a fit of rage he punches Kimberly when she visits his home for the first time, and he wields a knife at the family on Christmas Eve. He voluntarily admits himself into a psychiatric hospital.

RM thought the film was quite exploitative, as Reed had a camera with her everywhere and filmed even the most intimate moments. Personally I thought that beyond the sensational revelations, the film was an interesting study of families, siblings, love and acceptance.

HOT: My Magic, ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square, Melbourne

My_Magic--large-msg-121259703916MIFF #8: The opening scenes of My Magic made me wonder whether I’d be spending half the film with my eyes squeezed shut. An enormously overweight man (who reminded me of my nightmarish ex-boss – argh!) sat at a bar alone and kept asking for his liquor glass to be topped up. When the bartender refused to serve him any longer, he roared with anger then broke the glass with his teeth and crunched it up in his mouth like ice!

Francis is a former magician (played by Bosco Francis, a real magician) who is now drunkard and neglectful single father. Shamed by his son’s stoicness (doe-eyed Jathishweran) and their decrepit living quarters, Francis decides to return to magic to earn money for his son’s education.   His quest to earn more money leads to him agreeing to cruel and unusual torture at the hands of sadistic mafia henchmen, leading to tragic consequences.

There were many squirm-worthy moments in this Singaporean film, including the swallowing of razorblades, piercing skin with spikes and having darts thrown into flesh. However, I’m glad I stayed for the whole film. The ending was beautifully poignant and Francis redeems himself at the end. Plus the sweaty, dirty and dingy patina of the film was far removed from the sanitised scenery of Singapore that I’d encountered, and as I left the cinema I wondered how Singaporean audiences reacted to their country and countrymen being depicted in this way.

HOT: Hansel and Gretel, Greater Union, 131 Russell St, Melbourne

hanselMIFF #7: Despite the fact that I’m not generally a fan of horror movies, every year at MIFF I seem to gravitate to at least one Korean horror film (oh god, the nightmare of the octopus-eating scene in Old Boy). This year’s offering was the creepy Hansel and Gretel with its evil twist to the fairytale.

Eun-Soo crashes his car and finds shelter in the woods when he is led to a beautiful house ‘House of Happy Children’ which is inhabited by picture-perfect parents and three cute children.  The next day when he tries to leave, he discovers that the parents have disappeared, the bright colours hide shadows in the house and the adorable kids have started to become stranger and angrier. Things become increasingly bizarre as Eun-Soo discovers secret doors in the woods, violent story books and the terrible secret of the children, culminating in a violent confrontation.

Althought RM thought The Orphanage did the oeuvre much better, the film reinforced the kind of aesthetic that I like about Korean films – the dark storylines, the twisting plots and the shadowy aesthetics.

HOT: All Around Us, Forum Theatre, 154 Flinders St, Melbourne

All Around Us_posterMIFF #6: Oh, I was completely enraptured by this Japanese gem.  All Around Us (Gururi no Koto) was a beautifully measured film about a young Tokyo couple finding their way through their early years of marriage.  The carefree Kanao and fragile Shoko got married because Shoko fell pregnant and at first their relationship is stiff and strained. As the years pass, we follow their challenges in the face of personal tragedy, the impact of their work in their lives and their changing relationship with family.

The film was marked by a delicate, spare style where the director Ryosuke Hashiguchi was able to convey whole storylines and emotions with just a few shots. The two leads, unbelievably both first timers, were pitch-perfect.

I was misty-eyed for most of the 140 minutes and the film was at times quietly witty, terribly sad and very real in its exploration of the poignancy of ordinary happiness.  It’s my highlight of the film festival so far and I’m disappointed that I attended the last screening so others won’t be able to experience it now.