From a neo-Nazi send-up to a nuclear meltdown, Czech fest Karlovy Vary gave us a heavy dose of sizzlers
Lightning storms in the sweltering heat meant the sky was putting on its own impressive show in the spa town of Karlovy Vary last week, while inside the cinema halls the best of new cinema screened. It was the 50th anniversary of the famed Czech film festival, which is one of the world’s oldest and the biggest film events in central and eastern Europe. It alternated years with Moscow’s festival in its early days when the Communists were in power and had its programme entirely controlled by the political establishment. With times much changed this edition it held a retrospective of Larisa Shepitko – one of the great Soviet-era directors the regime tried to hold down. Here’s what we rated.
TANGERINE – SEAN BAKER
Sean Baker has followed up Starlet, his fresh low-budget indie about an off-duty porn actress, with another wonderfully human depiction of the seedy underbelly of LA. Shot entirely on an iPhone 5, Tangerine premiered at Sundance and careens around the streets with two trans street workers, Sin-Dee and Alex (first-time actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor), who are down on their luck but have attitude to burn. A cheating dealer boyfriend who uses a donut shop as his office and an Armenian taxi driver with a risky crush add to the hilarious lo-fi mix.
THE ASCENT – LARISA SHEPITKO
Larisa Shepitko is one of the criminally underseen Soviet greats. Her bold, uncompromising vision obstructed by the censors, she only made a few features before dying aged 41 in a car crash while location scouting. One of these was The Ascent, about the struggle of partisan rebels in wartime Belarus to retain their idealism in a brutally harsh winter as the German fascists close in. Stunningly shot in black and white at temperatures below minus 40, it’s an extreme world of ridiculously handsome martyrs with snow-coated lashes and others quick to sell out their allegiances when it comes to the crunch.
KRISHA – TREY EDWARD SHULTS
An addiction relapse triggered by the stress of a family gathering means Christmas gets catastrophically messy in this at times funny but ultimately gut-wrenching debut from Trey Edward Shults, which was a breakout hit at South By Southwest. Substance problems run in his family, and he nails a raw naturalism drawn from personal experience. He shot in his family home in Texas with actual relatives and himself playing the beleaguered son. All is seen through the perspective of royally not-together Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) who combines elements of the director’s relatives who have struggled to stay clean.
MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART – JIA ZHANGKE
An undertow of melancholy runs through bold Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, which premiered in Cannes and ambitiously sprawls over three sections set in the past, the present and the future. A love triangle sees long-term friendships flounder as newly moneyed businessman Zhang and miner Lianzi vie for the same woman (played by Zhao Tao). The choice she makes between them reverberates across time in broken bonds and yearning, as her son Dollar must navigate family history and fate.
KOZA – IVAN OSTROCHOVSKY
A financially hard-up former boxer is driven to return to the ring to fund his girlfriend’s abortion, even as he sustains serious injuries, in this downbeat, impressively shot drama from Slovakian director Ivan Ostrochovsky. Non-professional actors add to the raw naturalism of the film, which stars Peter Balaz, a flyweight boxer who competed in the Olympics in the 90s. The breakthrough feature shows Ostrochovsky as one of central Europe’s strongest new filmmaking talents.
HEIL – DIETRICH BRUGGEMANN
German director Dietrich Bruggemann opts for a complete shift in style from his austere, Berlinale-awarded Stations of the Cross with Heil, a comic, over-the-top satire of Neo-Nazism. A black writer is co-opted by the far right for PR purposes when amnesia causes him to mindlessly parrot what others say, as the group launches an invasion of Poland. Nothing is sacred in a film which will divide audiences on whether sensitivity should render some jokes off limits. But from a nation stereotyped as lacking a sense of humour, it’s a bold and fresh riot of subversion.
PIONEER HEROES – NATALYA KUDRYASHOVA
Frederic Chaubin’s photographs of cosmic Soviet architecture influenced the striking look of Russian director Natalya Kudryashova’s semi-autobiographical debut feature Pioneer Heroes, in which she also stars and which laments a society of empty spectacle. Three 30-somethings who went to school together look back on a past that offered grand hopes in glory-infused propaganda. Though they are materially successful, their dreams have now evaporated.
STOP – KIM KI-DUK
Kim Ki-duk is at it again. With Stop, the highly prolific South Korean provocateur makes the most bizarre plea for environmental caution you’re likely to ever see, bringing his characteristic grotesque horror and surreal humour to the story of a couple who fear the effects a nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukishima plant may have had on their unborn child. As they clash over whether or not to abort it, a plot to black out energy-sucking Tokyo by shutting off all its electricity adds further mayhem to this mad mess.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT – CIRO GUERRA
In beautifully shot, shimmering black and white, Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra shows with poetic poignancy the devastating consequences of colonial exploration in the Amazon, as a shaman reluctantly agrees to lead a gravely ill white man and his guide to the only rare plant that can cure him. A second expedition decades later as the shaman helps an American search for the same plant shows the ravages of plundering that have been wrought over time.
I AM BELFAST – MARK COUSINS
Mark Cousins brings his signature lilting Irish narration to a portrait of the Belfast in which he grew up. The poetic mesh of images, sounds and memory is presided over by a 10,000-year-old woman (played by Helena Bereen) who embodies the city and leads him on a walking tour of its streets. Capturing the capital’s everyday beauty while also acknowledging the darkness that has tinged its history, Cousins pours his palpable affection for this place into this idiosyncratic and personal vision.