Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a masterclass on how a melodramatic story need not necessarily make for a melodramatic film. Consider the hyper-hysterical building blocks of this sweeping narrative: the death of a son (reminiscent of the traumatic accident in Ordinary People), an extramarital affair, factory workers being laid off, a deadly disease (a tumour that swells like the secret that forms the big reveal at the end). But all this event is leavened by the gentle upheavals in China. Looking out of the window of a cab, Liyun (Yong Mei) — who is returning to the city she used to live in – remarks, “There is no trace of our past.” As if on cue, we see a flash of the McDonald’s golden arches sign, a fleeting glimpse of one of the many ways in which there is little trace of Liyun’s past. The film is filled with these markers: the TOEFL exam, Boney-M, the 1970s Cultural Revolution, new ID cards with a chip installed, housing developments, and, of course, Mickey Mouse.
It’s not just in terms of length that the three-hour So Long, My Son is reminiscent of Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (which ran almost four hours). It’s also the gentle immersiveness in a changing culture, a changing landscape. The unobtrusive camera hovers outside doors, as though eavesdropping on some three decades of a family’s trauma resulting from the Communist Party’s one-child policy. And the screenplay slips across time – past and present – in a pattern that is at once a little confusing but also indicative of how the price paid by individuals (in relation to a government’s draconian policies) isn’t always evident at first. Liyun and her husband, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun), are practically symbols for the oppressed, those who weren’t enterprising enough to cash in on the country’s ensuing economic boom. So Long, My Son takes its time to build, but the pieces come together very satisfyingly – the final portions are enormously moving. The farewell in the title isn’t just for a person. It’s for a time that even outsiders couldn’t have expected to feel so strongly about.
Alexander Gorchilin’s Russian drama Acid opens with a young man jumping to his death. He’s high on something, but the title isn’t so much about the drug as the stuff you find in chemistry labs. An artist in the film creates new works of art by dipping old Russian sculptures in an acid bath – this may be a metaphor to how the present-day Russian youth needs similarly transformative (and painful) experiences to find themselves. Pete (Alexander Kuznetsov) actually drinks acid. His best friend Sasha (Filipp Avdeev), thankfully, is more moderate. He has circumcised himself. If none of this makes “sense”, it isn’t supposed to. The film’s key line is this: “You know what our problem is? The fact that we don’t have problems.” I was reminded of Shaitan. Take away the accident, and we are left with a similar set of malcontents. Aimlessness and angst are deadly bedfellows.
Armando Praça’s Greta – about an ageing gay nurse (Pedro, played by Marco Nanini) in Brazil, his dying transgender friend and a fugitive — is based on Greta Garbo, Who Would Imagine, Ended Up in Irajá, a play written in the 1970s. At the time, the only way this material could be treated was in a comedic manner, the director said. But now, he thought “it would be interesting to adapt this comedy into a drama, and portray this drama in a more contemporary way. My interest was no longer that they would laugh at these characters, and how marginalized they were, but that they would understand and identify with these characters.” The “identification” he talks about is not necessarily about sexuality but about the far more universal condition of loneliness. The film’s title comes from Pedro’s idolisation of Garbo and her most iconic line: “I want to be left alone.”
But Pedro doesn’t really want to be left alone. He ends up giving shelter to the fugitive, for whom he makes sandwiches, like a loving wife. Greta looks ready to chart this old man’s desperation, but the surprise is that the much-younger fugitive, too, is alone — and proves open to a relationship with Pedro. The sight of the two men in bed — one whose flesh bulges and sags, the other who is firm and young — is enough. No further lines are needed to convey their existential state. The film comes at an especially important time in its country’s history. Brazil’s new (and democratically elected) president, Jair Bolsonaro, has publicly attacked the LGBT community. Praça says, “This is a difficult moment. [But] More than ever, we need to look at these characters with empathy and compassion.”
When Zhu Xin, all of 22 years old, introduced his film as “a maze” and “very different from other features you have seen at the festival”, the audience laughed indulgently. “It’s different”, after all, is the mantra of every filmmaker, mainstream or art-house. But Vanishing Days, a Mandarin dream-drama set in the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou, does set itself apart. 14-year-old Li Senlin (Jiang Li) needs to come up with an essay topic for a school assignment. She gets inspired by a visiting aunt (Huang Jin), who narrates strange tales that hover in the space between sleep and wakefulness. (The festival notes describe the film as “a Chinese midsummer night’s dream”.) I can’t say I loved it unconditionally, but the director does succeed in locating magical places amidst the mundaneness of a girl’s existence dotted with roller skates, baby turtles and bright red flags.
Die Kinder der Toten, set in Austria and directed by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, is based on Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, The Children of the Dead. The critic and poet Michael Hulse, who translated two of Jelinek’s novels, said: “There’s a dense wordplay or deft pun or neologism in every sentence.” How, then, to capture this spirit on screen, especially in an absurdist narrative that involves starving Syrian poets, a dead Nazi’s widow who opens a movie house, and possibly the first ever striptease by a fleshy, middle-aged female zombie? The directors do something ingenious. They abandon all sense of language. This is a silent film. We get background noise (say, the clatter of cutlery in a restaurant). We get background music. But communication is distilled to the barest of intertitles. (“God, I hate this place.”)
This is my last day at the Berlinale, and I just heard that this film won the FIPRESCI Award in the Forum section. The jury said, “The actors are amateurs, as well as the directing, the makeup looks cheap, the directors didn’t even read the novel they were adapting. Everything could have gone wrong with this film, but it did not fail.” On the contrary, Die Kinder der Toten succeeds gloriously. It’s one of the most unique, inventive films I’ve seen. In the story, the dead come back to haunt the living. This turns out to include dead Nazis, dead Jews, even a now-“dead” film format. (It was shot in Super 8 film, which was once the staple of home videos.) The jury continued, “The result is hilarious, edgy, at times confusing, funny and something not everyone will agree on. But this is cinema: We need to disagree!” And that’s a great note on which to end these Berlinale notes. Until the next festival, then. Danke, auf Wiedersehen.