Sunday, February 21, 2010

Speaking Your Language

I don't know if it's just me, but the 2009 slate of foreign language films was incredibly weak, wasn't it? Oh sure, there were plenty of well-loved films from countries far and wide, but with fewer and fewer getting a release it seems like this "genre" (if you want to call it that) was all but a dry well this past year. I saw far less foreign language films from 2009 than I have in years past, and many of those that I did see were disappointing (Coco avant Chanel, still the highest grossing foreign language film at the US box office for 2009) or good-but-not-great (The White Ribbon, to be released in May this year).

Of course, A Prophet has allowed 2010 to start off strong but other buzzy festival titles from 2009 such as The Maid (seen by me at MIFF09, it's quality, but so far unreleased), The Milk of Sorrow (as yet no word on a release, despite it's Oscar nomination), Police, Adjective (no word on a release) and a good 95% of the rest of the Academy Award submission list all seem to be taking the incredibly slow path to a direct-to-DVD release. Not that there's anything wrong with that these days as anyone who has seen Joachim Trier's Reprise can attest to.

Nevertheless, I did manage to see Chan-wook Park's Thirst earlier this week. I have only seen two Park films and one of them ranks very highly (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) and the other ranks very, very low (Oldboy) so I wasn't sure what to expect from this very arty take on the vampire tale. Thankfully it was closer to the former and not the latter as I ended up enjoying Thirst very much. I liked how it became a completely different movie in the final 40 minutes. I loved the three lead performances by Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim and Hae-sook Kim (apologies if I have typed their names incorrectly, but I am merely going by what IMDb tells me). I loved how Chung-hoon Chung's camera is always moving or investigating something, whether it be a lump on a vampire's face or a wrinkle on a mother's face. I liked how Young-ook Cho's score was always taking me by surprise, throwing in an assortment of instruments and arrangements that I didn't expect from an Asian vampire film.

Overall it is just a wonderful film. Sure, there is so much going on there in the background - and, let's face it, the foreground too - that my simple brain can't possibly comprehend, but it is a slickly made and thought-provoking film. B+

Now, if only we could finally get a release of some kind for Joon-ho Bong's Mother, or Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani's Ajami, or Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo or...


DaveAA said...

I loved Thirst too. Unlike you I was a bit disappointed by Lady Vengeance - I loved Old Boy and his earlier films, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Joint Security Area.

Did Thirst remind you of Pedro Almodovar? Apart from the Catholic Guilt theme, the almost operatic melodrama of Thirst put me in mind of a film like Matador.

Anonymous said...

A film publicist friend of mine just told me that The Stoning of Soraya M will be released nationally in cinemas on May 27, albeit a limited release. I have heard good things about the film which may divide audiences.

bradley.nguyen said...

Almost half of our top 20 from last year were foreign films.

But yeah, it's a shame how little foreign films make it to Oz.

Glenn Dunks said...

DaveAA, can't say Almodovar ever popped into my mind during Thirst.

Anon, that's actually good news if true. I've wanted to see that one for ages. Was hoping it would be at MIFF last year, but it wasn't. Nice to hear somebody snapped it up.

Brad, nice looking list. Glad to see Samson & Delilah on there. I think I saw 35 Shots show up on Foxtel a while back, but it's unavailable on DVD so I dunno what's going on with that one. I unfortunately didn't see Mother at MIFF and Summer Hours is on my DVD queue. I don't include MIFF titles as being "released" though which causes issue especially for something like The Maid.

Paul Martin said...

Your post aroused my curiosity and prompted me to check my database to test my experience. The results:

35 films I'd give 4 or more stars
18 or them were foreign language
6 of them had cinema releases

34, 15 & 3 as above

I saw about the same number of films both years - 275 in 2008 and 269 in 2009 - so the only conclusion I could draw (though I think my experience is anecdotal) is that there are just as many good foreign language films but with so many film festivals proliferating and attracting good audiences maybe they're filling that need.

Glenn Dunks said...

I think that might be a good point, Paul. It's obvious that the arthouse market is dying (or, flailing is probably a better word since it'll never actually die outright, obviously) and the cinematic market for movies like even the more high profile ones that I mentioned is drying up and perhaps distribs are taking note of the numbers that festivals like MIFF get and have decided that a large number of the audience will have already seen them.

Still, it's absolutely shocking to think that it'll be a year since The White Ribbon won the Palme d'Or to it actually receiving a cinema release here. A whole year for a Michael Haneke movie (it happened with Hidden to, actually).

I wrote at another blog that if even directors like Haneke or Almodovar can't do all that well then we're never going to see movies like The Maid get anything other than a DVD release. What hope does a movie like that have of any sort of success.

Thirst only got a Sydney release too for what it's worth. Still Life, which won Venice's Golden Lion and that I saw at MIFF three years ago, hasn't received a release of ANY kind. It's one of the best movies I saw all decade.

David said...

Do we even have arthouse cinemas in Melbourne any more?

The Palace chain all show films from the same pool - which includes (currently) Valentines Day, Shutter Island, It's Complicated, Up in the Air, Invictus etc. Hardly arthouse, these films are also showing at the big suburban chains, and currently no foreign-language films at all.

The other small cinemas in Melbourne are local cinemas showing the same films again. Only ACMI and Nova are showing films that you can't see in another cinema.

Glenn Dunks said...

I know, that does make it tough. Into the Shadows was a doco from last year that went into the closure of places such as the Lumiere here in Melbourne. Flawed doco, but important subject.

ACMI has become so incredibly necessary, hasn't it? It's the only place in Australia - I think - that played Erick Zonca's Julia theatrically before it went to DVD amongst others.

But you're right about "arthouses" not existing anymore and that the term "arthouse cinema" has taken on the broad spectrum of movies that wouldn't show at Village/Reading/Hoyts on a Saturday night no matter how mainstream-oriented they may seem.

Long gone are the days when the Lumiere would play movies like Gerry, Irreversible or Baise-Moi (which were all around the time that I was starting to get into regular cinema-going in Melbourne and right around the time the Lumiere was going bust, sadly).

Paul Martin said...

You know that the local distributors ganged up on MIFF a couple of years ago and raised the amount they get for one of their films to get a MIFF screening. It came with the recognition that for many films, the bulk of the target audience will see it at the festival, often to sold-out crowds, and then flop on theatrical release.

Festivals like MIFF and the French and German festivals are going from strength to strength. Increasingly, if there's something you want to see, you've got to catch it at the festival or you might completely miss it. I'm also flabbergasted that it's taking so long for White Ribbon to get a release.

Melbourne is unique because we have ACMI, which screens around 500 films a year, nearly double the no. of theatrical. So serious cinephiles here have a steady source of reasonable cinema fare.

While the Nova was the first of the arthouse cinemas to go commercial. It started many years ago when I think it was Village that took a 50% stake and injected money that saw it increase it's number of screens from about 4 to 10 or more. I'm not sure if they're open yet, but there's another 3 or 4 that were on the way, adding to the 11 or 12. Those new cinemas will all have digital projection and will enable many smaller films like The Maid to get a digital release. It's not ideal, but with only a small market, it's reassuring to know that a film can get some sort of theatrical release. In fact, I've noticed over the last year or so that Nova has been doing a lot of small screenings - including 2 weeks for small local films - that otherwise would not see the light of day.

As for arthouse films currently in circulation at Palace: A Prophet, Bright Star, Precious*, The Hurt Locker & The Road. You could also argue for adding In the Loop, A Serious Man, and even Shutter Island and Bran Nue Dae. In addition, Nova has: North Face & Fantastic Mr Fox

That's not a bad line-up, all things considered, though only two of them are foreign language. David, I actually don't begrudge Palace and Nova screening Avatar et al, if the box office for those mean they can afford to screen films that they will never make much money on. They're a business and have to survive.

We are coming into silly season for festivals. The French Film Festival is about to start, but not before the Chinese Film Festival. Then there's the Window on European Cinema, Queer, La Mirada, German, Human Rights and Spanish festivals, with not much breathing space in-between any of them. These festivals are by and large going to be taking a lot of bums OFF seats for cinema releases. ACMI also has a lot of various screenings during this time (like the Cardinale season currently screening).

Paul Martin said...

Still Life was one of my favourite MIFF films that year but it's also a hard film for a cinema to market. It really is a festival film, IMO. Julia is a film that 10 years ago would have been picked up by Kino, who used to do well with that sort of film. If not them, Lumiere or Nova at least. But you know, ACMI also screened JCVD and are screening Ricky (which is only getting a festival release elsewhere).
When the Lumiere closed (I didn't cry, but I was very saddened, and still am), I used to fantasise about resurrecting it. But then one day two years ago I walked past and the University of Queensland (who occupy the rest of the building) were gutting it and all the seats were being trashed. Anyway, if someone wants to support me financially, I'll bring back something like it (only with better customer service and better seating). I saw all three of those films at the Lumiere, Glenn. Others of note were Audition, Rififi, The Red Circle, etc. I like the way they had broad left-of-centre programming. Tiny Australian films that no-one had heard of, French New Wave, local political documentaries, cult urban/social horror (Audition and Irreversible are two of the most shocking films I've seen).

* As an aside, I was at the Adam Elliot Desert Island Flicks event at ACMI this evening and something he said made me realise why I hated the experience of watching Precious. Elliot's films are sometimes criticised for being bleak but he says he always gives hope. What I found really down with Precious is that I never felt there was any hope whatsoever. I can't see that Precious will do anything different to her mother and that she would just perpetuate the cycle. So for me, it was all down. And to tell the truth, I felt a bit that way about The Road as well, but not to the same extent.

Glenn said...

That's interesting about the distributors hiking their fees up for MIFF. I mean, it makes sense (I said in my previous reply that so many would see the movie at a fest and then leave nobody left to see it theatrically - INLAND EMPIRE is a good example of that).

And, I'm aware that these festivals are gaining in popularity. So while more people are probably seeing these foreign films and documentaries at festivals, it means that they don't seem to be getting arelease in any other way. It's the DVD side of things that frustrates me. They can't even get them out on DVD!

I know Still Life would be quite horrendous to market to basically anyone outside of New York or Paris, but it sold out all of its MIFF screenings so why not a DVD release from somebody? Instead you have Asian Eye who release Asian genre efforts, but not much else.

Places like Nova going commercial is a necessity. They'd make more money on a Friday/Saturday night with something like Inglourious Basterds than they would an entire week from Three Blind Mice, but at least they're still out there championing these movies, especially the Australian ones that they've given special seasons to such as The Jammed, Three Blind Mice, Into the Shadows, Modern Love and Dogs in Space re-release.

I liked the story in Into the Shadows about how the Lumiere would basically fund their entire year of movies that barely anybody would see (a movie like Gerry for instance) on just a couple of big titles such as Baise-Moi that bring in massive box office (for the two weeks or so that it actually ran before getting banned).

Glenn said...

Also, I find it interesting that you think Claireece, in Precious is bound to follow the same cycle as her mother. I definitely didn't get that all. At least not from what they showed us on screen (sure, you can make any sort of future for them you like) since I think they definitely positioned Claireece as being the bigger man so to speak (and not a pun) who will try to fix the wrongdoings of her father and mother and bring her children up better.

Anonymous said...

Please note the local indie distributors did not gang up to increase their fees from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth Film Festivals. They were not getting ANY fee to begin with. So you had these small foreign gems that would get at least two packed screenings at MIFF and the distributor got nothing. So now, they are basically getting around 25% of the box office and then in some cases it is only for one screening only and not both screenings.

Paul Martin said...

You're right about Inland Empire - 2 sold-out sessions at MIFF, though I don't know how it went on its theatrical release. My favourite Australian film, Em 4 Jay also had 2 sold-out sessions at MIFF and bombed on its theatrical release. I spoke to the director who said he felt that with niche films, there's a limited audience, and sometimes it happens that everyone who is going to see it, sees it at a festival. Consequently, with his following film, he only had one screening at MIFF (which also sold out).

As for DVD, if I don't think in terms of local release. If you can't get it here, there's many options online. For many arthouse films, DVD is the only way they're going to recoup costs.

I was also a little surprised by that statement that Lumiere would fund itself all year on the success of one or two films. The funny thing is that Baise-moi, which did so well, is my all-time worst film (I don't even consider it a film per se but, rather, a triumph of marketing over substance that sold a cheap, shitty porn flick as gutsy arthouse cinema) while Gerry is a masterpiece.

The film never indicated that Precious would follow the path of her parents. As I recollect, it was at pains to indicate otherwise. But I think it would be naive in the extreme to think she could break free from her conditioning. She didn't know any better and would almost certainly emulate at least some of those destructive behaviours. I know I'm still struggling to break free from my childhood conditioning. I think we all aim to do better for our children, but whether we achieve it is another matter.

Anonymous said...

For your info, Inland Empire grossed about $15,000!

Glenn Dunks said...

Paul, INLAND EMPIRE was only at Nova for one or two weeks tops. In fact, the MIFF screenings were used to decide whether the film should be screened at all. Sort of a way to gauge, if you will.

I think the audiences some movies get at places like MIFF are only getting them because it is a festival. I doubt many at all those people at Hansel & Gretel at last year's MIFF would have gone to see it if it were released normally. I doubt many would even pick up the DVD.

The great thing about the Lumiere was that Baise-Moi didn't need to be good (nor did Romance or any other controversial title) for it to make money, but because it was French it could get away with being an art movie and not just, as you say, a vaguely disguised porn movie.

Paul Martin said...

Anonymous, I felt uncomfortable with my description of ganging up but I didn't have the time to think of something more appropriate. I note that Richard Moore was supportive of the move to pay distributors and thought if fair.

Glenn, I agree re: the Lumiere. What I liked was that whether a film was good or not, they offered diversity and took risks with way out films. The problem for cinephiles with cinema releases is we get Ladies in Lavender and other such monstrously mediocre films: Italian and French comedies and family dramas that are completely repetitive.