When is a film too perfect? We may be about to find out when the fate of Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s continent-spanning love triangle “Past Lives” is decided on Saturday night by the international jury which hands out the Berlinale’s Golden Bear award for best film.
Playwright Song’s debut feature is a semi-autobiographical story about the relationship between Korean-born Nora (Greta Lee), whose family moved to Canada from Seoul when she was young — as Song did — and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the boy she left behind. He never forgot her, even though she has become a playwright, like Song, in New York City and has married Arthur (John Magaro), a Jewish writer from Brooklyn whom she meets at a writers’ retreat on Long Island.
Hae, who has never married and earns what he describes as a modest living as an engineer in Seoul, meets up with the married Nora in New York. They see the sights, including a cruise to the Statue of Liberty, and the links between them are strong, but how strong?
The opening scene, in which the two Koreans and Arthur are having drinks at a posh New York City bar, is a gem. People observing them in an off-camera voiceover try to figure out what the relationships among the trio are. The payoff in the final scene is even better.
On her journey there, Song never insults the viewer’s intelligence — a 1960s vintage Bob Dylan record played by Nora’s father when she comes home from school cues that the family will be departing to a different culture in North America. The film ticks all the boxes, stylishly, but that is indeed what some festival attendees have held against it. It’s almost too good — but what’s wrong with that?
The same could not be said of Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer’s “The Survival of Kindness”, which seems to be set in the aftermath of a plague that has killed mostly white people, but never clarifies this. The film is nevertheless a standout, if mainly for the one-person miracle that is first-time actress Mwajemi Hussein.
Hussein, who got to Australia as a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo and is on screen for almost the entire hour-and-a-half running time, plays the otherwise unnamed BlackWoman. We meet her when she is hauled into the desert by white men wearing gas masks, to protect them from the plague, and is left there in a cage to die.
She seems doomed to be scorched and starved in the blinding sun, but finds a way out of the cage and into the equally hostile surrounding wasteland. Her Dantesque trip through a hell in which gas-masked white people stone and shoot Blacks, and world order seems to have collapsed, is a nightmare that is not for the faint of heart, but could make for a winner.
In the Spanish film “20,000 Species of Bees”, eight-year-old Aitor (Sofia Otero), whose family calls him Coco, wrestles with the feeling that something went wrong in his mummy’s tummy and he came out the wrong sex. The transgender subject, particularly as it applies to young people, has become a hot-button issue in the United States and elsewhere, but director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s beautifully acted and filmed feature treats the pros and cons with delicacy.
Coco’s religious grandmother in a small Spanish town near the French border thinks his mother, who lets him wear his hair long and takes him into the female changing room at the swimming pool, is too indulgent. His aunt, who introduces Coco to apiculture, to which he takes a shine, says that like bees, there are many different types of people. The film comes to a satisfying conclusion for those who sympathise with Coco’s quandary, while it may anger those who don’t.
Those are my picks of the best in the competition for the top prize, but what do I know?
I do know that some films for which there were high expectations have fallen short. Helen Mirren playing the chain-smoking, cancer-riddled Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in “Golda” at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when an Arab attack caught Israel off guard, was formulaic.
Meir is ushered into meetings of her all-male cabinet or military top brass and no one stands. She outfoxes then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber) and gets him to eat borscht prepared by her housekeeper by whispering in his ear that she was a Holocaust survivor.
The film saves the best for last when Golda Meir herself is shown in a vintage clip taken at the war’s end. That woman, despite her cancer and travails, had a vitality and presence that could burn a hole through the screen.
See it for a dramatised overview of a dire moment in Israeli history, cherish it for the finale.
By Michael Roddy