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With its unique selections from Asia, especially East Asia, and its retrospectives, Brisbane offers a film festival thatís daring and different, reports Geoff Gardner (a Southerner!), while keeping track of the best of new Australian films.

The Brisbane International Film Festival has always run its own race and been prepared to strike into territory that others in Australia have overlooked and even forsaken. This yearís fourteenth edition was no exception. Itís a festival with depth as well as width. Artistic director Anne Demy-Geroe puts as much effort into assembling retrospectives and special events as she does to gobbling up the latest hundred hits touring the worldís fest circuit. Often of course, after the program note hyperbole has been absorbed, these turn into fifty hits and fifty big misses. And thatís in a good year. 

Brisbane does show plenty of new films from the usual festival sources (docos, US indies and European art flicks) and showcases a handful of films that will soon be screening in the nationís art houses. Any selection of these will always give a bit of a throb to audiences as well as selling lots of tickets and thatís what happened with Greg Arakiís Mysterious Skin, John Mayburyís The Jacket, Dylan Kiddís P.S. and Olivier Marchalís 36 Quai des Orfevres, all solid material for the hip crowd that wants to see things first. 

I canít confess to getting very excited about much of Europeís so-called quality film-making these days and the films BIFF showed that I saw didnít change this opinion. Jerome Bonnellís Pale Eyes (France) seemed typical. The story of a responsible school teacher, his wife whoís having a fling with a local antique dealer and his ratbag sister who disrupts their household has a terrific first half and then suddenly the film seems to run out of ideas. I probably shouldnít single out one film as an exemplar of all thatís wrong with European art films but having done so there doesnít seem much point in going any further.

"unique selections from Asia, especially East Asia, and its retrospectives"

Better to concentrate on the areas that BIFF has really made its own, its unique selections from Asia, especially East Asia, and its retrospectives. The latter this year ranged from a one-off screening of E. A Dupontís very spicy silent Piccadilly (UK, 1929) to a splendid slice of Malayalam cinema from the once-Marxist Indian state of Kerala. The selection ranged from 1954ís Neelakkuyil through to 2004ís Akale. In between were another nine features. All were put in context by some excellent program notes covering their socio-political background, a historical overview, some good program notes and biographical details on the films and the directors. 

There was as well a wonderfully entertaining evening with Australian radical documentarist David Bradbury whose career was honoured with BIFFís prestigious Chauvel Award. Bradbury had big things on his mind and a few things to get off his chest at the presentation and moderator David Stratton did a smart job in allowing Bradbury to go full steam about the subject of his new film which focuses on the likelihood of Australian troops being exposed, possibly, to weapons containing depleted uranium. 

However, BIFFís best moments occurred, as ever, within its selection of programs from East Asia. Comprising twenty seven features, almost all having their Australian premiere, itís here that some of the best film-making taking place anywhere today is on show. The countries concerned are often going through periods of considerable social, cultural and political change and the opportunities for film-makers to engage with this change seem limitless, especially as many quite happily shoot cheaply on digital video and donít trouble with permission from the authorities. 

Pan Jianlanís Good Morning Beijing, as crude as it is, typifies this impulse. Its set in the crevices of todayís Beijing. A guy hires a private eye to track down a blackmailer. A couple of hookers entertain some frazzled looking johns. Those are the entire ingredients for some modern Chinese noir, charting a course through a dark and occasionally very droll night. Much more sophisticated was the NETPAC prize-winner Spying Cam (Whang Cheol-mean, South Korea), a deeply mysterious film about two guys locked in a hotel room with only a copy of Dostoyevskyís ĎCrime and Punishmentí and a peephole into the next chamber to relieve the tedium. Is one a prisoner? Is there something queer going on? The maids think so. Then the mystery unravels in a car journey to the countryside and an ending which riffs off the final assassination scene in Bertolucciís The Conformist.

"the powerhouse of Asian film-making"

In fact the South Koreans, now the powerhouse of Asian film-making, also provided a second highlight in this section. Shin Sung-il is Lost is a debut feature made by 35 year old Shin Jane, a woman with a big career in front of her for as long as cinema audiences want playful parables and droll comedies about the poor and downtrodden. Itís the first part of a trilogy and its already something really special to anticipate.

Finally it should be mentioned that a number of the Australian entries had excellent receptions. Sarah Wattís Look Both Ways topped the audience poll and grabbed the highly regarded FIPRESCI prize awarded by the international criticsí jury headed by Klaus Eder. The reception for Kriv Stenders Blacktown suggested that the surprise success it enjoyed in Sydney looks set to be repeated on many fronts. Then there was Aaron Catlingís low-budget Mosaic, screened to a full house, ironically a short time after the censorship brouhaha over the alleged depictions of paedophilia in Mysterious Skin. Mosaic gives us a quite graphic portrayal of a young girlís life of abuse and misadventure at the hands of a series of what weíre clearly supposed to see as typical Aussie males. Near the start there is a scene, a long single shot sequence in which a forty something man intrudes himself into the bedroom of a friend's fifteen year old daughter and in one long agonising shot lasting ten minutes or more holds her down, clamps his hand over her mouth to prevent her screaming and rapes her. Itís very difficult to watch. 

For fourteen years now BIFF has devoted its resources to assembling some very fine selections of new, and old, films. Much of its best programming doesnít drag in crowds which is a pity really. Itís making one significant inroad by introducing its Cinesparks sessions, filling theatres with eager high school kids who seemed to love the challenge of working their way through exotica. Many were reading subtitles for the first time. There were smiles all round when a packed house sat absorbed through a triple bill of Alireza Ghanieís Lesson from Bam, Wayneís Blairís The Djarn Djarns and Dean Circopís Bloody Footy. All the film-makers were present and really got off on the kidsí appreciation. But BIFF still needs to address its age old problem of a conservative adult audience not yet prepared to take the plunge into some of the most exciting movies being made today. When that happens it will really have arrived and the streets, bars and cafes around the terrific Southbank venue will be throbbing. 

Published August 18, 2005

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