54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: The Highlights

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, central Europe's premiere celebration of cinema, offered up a number of delights in its main competition strand this year, while its expansive Youssef Chahine retrospective overflowed with treasures

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 Jul 2019
  • Patrick's premiere at the 54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

When it comes to international film festivals, Karlovy Vary is the platonic ideal. Situated in a sunny spa town where every view looks like the cover of a chocolate box, it gets right what many film festivals get wrong. It feels glamorous without being elitist; its youthful audiences are lively but also respectful; screenings are hoaching but you don’t have to queue for hours on end to get in; and if a screening is sold out, just find a spot on the floor. The atmosphere feels closer to a music festival than a stuffy art cinema gathering. The programme, meanwhile, is both a celebration of the best of contemporary world cinema while also giving a platform to local talent and gems dusted off from the archive.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of KVIFF, though, is its sense of humour. Each screening begins with a wry short film featuring a past winner of the festival’s top honour – the Crystal Globe, which depicts a woman made of gold holding a crystal globe above her head – that gently takes the piss out of the award. In one we see the great Czech director Věra Chytilová hastily reassembling her smashed statuette using glue and sellotape. In another, American actor Casey Affleck is seen trying to sell his off at a pawn shop along with some junk from his garage, but the seller already has three other identical trinkets that she can’t offload. Helen Mirren, meanwhile, appears in a short where her Crystal Globe seems to be haunting her because she hasn’t given it pride of place on her shelf next to her Oscar.

In among the party atmosphere and self-deprecation, the films are pretty great too. Of the new work, the standout was undoubtedly Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (★★★★★), one of the few films in recent memory to emerge from Cannes robust enough to live up to the wave of critical hyperbole it received in the south of France. Set in modern Seoul, it concerns a brood of penniless grifters insinuating themselves one-by-one into the lives of a well-to-do family who live in a beautiful modernist mansion. The first half plays like a sprightly heist flick, as the shameless working-class family put their ingenious, well-oiled plan into action, which Bong films in thrillingly virtuosic vignettes and hilarious montages. The second half is even better, as the black comedy turns a shade or two darker, into a fierce class satire that's as compassionate as it is caustic. Best Palme d'Or winner in at least a decade, no question.

Of KVIFF’s main competition slate, we were most swept up by Monsoon (★★★★), British-Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou’s gorgeous follow-up to his delicate debut Lilting. The film asks that age-old question: can you ever go home again? Henry Golding is Kit, a Vietnam native who left aged six when his parents fled Saigon for Britain post-Reunification. He’s back three decades later to find a spot to scatter his parents' ashes, but finds a country he barely recognises. As well as being lost in a foreign land, Kit also appears to be unmoored in life. Khaou's film evocatively channels the sense of loneliness one feels as a traveller and the disorienting effects it has on your mind and body. Golding, so blithe and golden in Crazy Rich Asians, is a revelation as the discombobulated protagonist.

Well received among critics and KVIFF’s jury (it won three awards) was Lara (★★★★), which saw Oh Boy director Jan-Ole Gerster return with another 24-hour odyssey in Berlin. Where the earlier film concerned a feckless 20-something on a quixotic journey around hipster Kreuzberg, Lara follows the title character’s mission around upmarket Charlottenburg on the day of her 60th birthday. Today is also the day that Lara’s son, a prodigious pianist, is due to perform his debut composition, and Lara has bought up all the venue’s remaining tickets and is going around town awkwardly pressing them into people’s hands while also settling old scores. The film has a central mystery: what makes Lara tick? As we slowly get to know her the film unfolds like a thriller, building to some sort of showdown at the concert that night. German acting stalwart Corinna Harfouch (Downfall) is mesmerising as the prickly protagonist and gives little away, which only draws you in closer.

The biggest surprise of the competition is Flemish director Tim Mielants’ feature debut Patrick (★★★★), a tender and funny tragicomedy set in a crummy naturist campsite in Belgium. It takes about a minute to get used to all the bobbing appendages on screen, but once you acclimatise, Patrick is a joy. Credit to Mielants and his co-writer Benjamin Sprengers, who resist the temptation to centre all their jokes around the nudity; instead the film plays like a Coen brothers-esque caper where everyone just happens to be naked.

The film revolves around the titular Patrick (Kevin Janssens), the site’s 30-something sadsack handyman who still lives at home with his parents, the owners of the woodland campsite. When Patrick’s favourite hammer goes missing, the search for his tool sends him on a spiral of self-discovery and deep into the dark underbelly of the nudist camp's internal politics. Mielants honed his craft on TV shows like Peaky Blinders and Legion, but his visual instincts are deeply cinematic, with most of the inarticulate protagonist's emotions communicated through expressive use of the camera and evocative sound design.

Less successful in communicating its protagonist’s inner turmoil was Mosaic Portrait (★★★), Zhai Yixiang’s opaque study of Ying (Zhang Tongxi), an alienated schoolgirl in rural China who finds herself pregnant at 14. The film initially appears to be a procedural to uncover the mystery of who the father is, but even more of an enigma is our protagonist. We first meet Ying wearing a blindfold as part of an ophthalmology examination of her failing eyes, and later she’s interviewed by a journalist investigating her case who films her through frosted glass. There’s also a reference to the old proverb about the blind men and the elephant. These continual references to obfuscation never come into focus, though. Illusions to China’s destructive single-child-policy and the misogynistic attitudes it helped proliferate are hovering in the background of the story, but Yixiang’s impressionistic editing and dreamy visual style keep the film and its protagonist's secrets just out of reach.

Yixiang’s overly subtle filmmaking was preferable to the repeated sledgehammer over the head that was Arrest (★), Andrei Cohn’s long, repetitive and nasty examination of the kind of senseless brutality that flourished in Nicolae Ceaușescu-era Romania. Almost all of the film takes place in the prison cell where mild-mannered intellectual Dinu (Alexandru Papadopol) is being illegally held after being picked up by Ceaușescu’s secret police. He’s sharing the space with a particularly thuggish inmate named Vali (Iulian Postelnicu), who we see being told by the prison warden to get a confession out of his new cellmate (the crime Dinu is accused of is never made clear) in exchange for a reduced sentence. What then proceeds is a succession of escalating psychological and physical tortures, shot in the typical Romanian New Wave style of long, static wide shots. Watching, you quickly pass through stages of shock and revulsion before settling on boredom. Rather than leave you angry at this totalitarian regime, Arrest renders you numb.

The best thing about Karlovy Vary this year was that whenever you felt yourself flagging after a disappointing contemporary work like Arrest, you could always give yourself an espresso hit from the festival’s wonderful retrospective, a tribute to the great Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. This was reportedly the biggest Chahine retrospective ever in a festival context, and proved an endlessly compelling introduction to his eccentric filmography that covers neorealist films, romances, melodramas, film noirs, musicals, action films, satires and comedies… with many of his features taking the form of a lively mix of some or all of the above.

Of the Chahine films we saw, none were more genre-bending than the maximalist triumph of Alexandria… Why? (★★★★★), an epic autobiographical celebration of Chahine’s life growing up movie-mad in the bustling city of the title during World War II. The familiar coming-of-age story of a young man following his dream is spiced with an espionage subplot involving a tragic queer romance between a British soldier and a wealthy Arab man, debates on Palestine and Isreal between a Jewish woman and her Muslim lover, and an all-out satire at the futility of war as both Hitler and Churchill’s forces march towards the city. It’s a wonderful masala of ideas and images presented with formal audacity, with archive clips from WWII spliced into the action and a mosaic storytelling pattern where nimble editing skips us from subplot to subplot, but also backwards and forwards in time.

Each film we saw of Chahine’s were dizzyingly inventive and dazzlingly entertaining. Beyond his 1958 masterpiece Cairo Station (which screens at GFT on 30 Jul), his films are very difficult to see in the UK. We can only hope the success of this retrospective (most screenings were sellouts) sees some of these wonderful, recently restored films make their way on to the British repertory scene.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran 28 Jun-6 Jul. More details at www.kviff.com/en/homepage