Like its host city, the Viennale is steeped in history, prestige and almost overwhelming choice. The 51st edition of Vienna’s chief film festival only ended last week, and boasted some of the most esteemed prize-winners on this year’s circuit – films that premiered in Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, Venice and elsewhere. Though every film festival has its fair share of duds, the Viennale’s position in the calendar year allows festival director Hans Hurch ample time and space in which to gather a sense of what’s worth promoting on the international film scene. While some of these films will struggle to receive a theatrical release in UK cinemas, the Viennale has for many years now been the go-to harbinger of good taste.
Though it didn’t rain cats and dogs in Vienna till the final days of the Viennale, this year’s programme had a high feline/canine quota. Take Malaysian maestro Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, a film in which a homeless Taiwanese family share a shower-soaked dilapidated dwelling with a group of abandoned dogs. A mysterious epic driven by some superlative digital camerawork and a moving performance from Tsai’s regular actor Lee Kang-sheng, Stray Dogs is a film for the ages, and its screening in Vienna’s Gartenbaukino will count among this writer’s cinema-going highlights for many a year to come.
Elsewhere, you could delight in a charming cat in the recently restored 1973 documentary Le Cousin Jules. A prizewinner at the Locarno Film Festival that year, Dominique Benicheti’s dialogue-free documentary about an ageing French farmer is absorbing in how it details a daily life of self-sufficiency. There are two freeze-frames in the film: one when Jules looks directly at the camera (the last time we see his wife, who died during production), and one when his pet cat also looks at the camera, startled.
There was a fluffier kitty in the idiosyncratic chamber piece The Strange Little Cat, by German debutant Ramon Kürcher. This tightly-worked, claustrophobic comedy about the small joys and underlying frictions that characterise a middle-class family’s daily interactions shows that Kürcher has talent and confidence to burn – and he’s seemingly an excellent director of child actors (young newcomer Mia Casalo is the standout). Repeated use of “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows – a band whose more recent albums will be familiar to fans of record label Anticon – enlivens the domestic frissons with an emotional charge.
In Medeas, the California-set feature debut from Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro, a pet dog suffers the scorn of the patriarch (Brían F. O’Byrne) who enforces a strict, religious regime upon his deaf wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and several children. Having premiered at Venice, Medeas is an unsettling if irksome drama that unfolds in prolonged silences, fragmented scenes and increasingly heavy symbolism. Fans of Carlos Reygadas (and his 2007 film Silent Lightin particular) should be on the lookout—and in the way a certain degree of menace creeps in, the film also recalls 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Family tensions abound. In addition to those found in The Strange Little Cat and Medeas, there were familial frictions in The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s ambitious follow-up to A Separation (2011), and in La Paz, by Argentine director Santiago Loza. Though the first begins as an engaging drama set around the upheavals of a French woman’s divorce and subsequent remarriage, it drifts in its second half into a mystery concerning why another character has committed suicide. If the shift doesn’t quite work, it’s not for a lack of excellent performances from Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim and Ali Mosaffa, all of whom are upstaged, like the adult performers in The Strange Little Cat, by a much younger co-star – in this instance, Elyes Aguis is the standout as a boy confused and angered by the his mother’s absence.
In Loza’s film, domestic stresses have different results. A character study of Liso (Lisandro Rodriguez), La Paz concerns itself with those minutiae that have contributed to a young man’s nervous breakdown – and how parental pressures prevent his rehabilitation. The film is sensitively handled and boosted by a strong central performance from Rodriguez – who’s especially effective in those scenes with his parents’ Bolivian maid. And just when you think it’s heading towards a downer, optimism blooms.
If La Paz is about one man’s ongoing negotiation of social pressures, it found its sisterly counterpart at this year’s Viennale in Our Sunhi, the new film by South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (who makes films at such a formidably prolific rate that his recently released Nobody’s Daughter Haewon also screened at the festival). Hong’s latestis about a female film graduate called Sunhi (Jung Yoo-mi), who wishes to study abroad. Confused and hurt by a flimsy letter of recommendation from her teacher, Sunhi quickly discovers that just about every man in her life abuses – in different forms and to varying degrees – the gendered authority he has over her.
On first glance, Our Sunhi’s whimsical charms might be mistaken for minor storytelling, but Hong’s trademark use of repetition gathers a poetry that lingers and invites you back. In fact, the film’s cyclical rhythms resemble Vienna itself, with its Ringstrasse (the ring road that circles the city centre) and the iconic Ferris Wheel from The Third Man (whose dozen or so carriages still run today). Like Hong’s film, this terrific city – and its film festival – will make you long for repeat visits.
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