SIFF Day 1 – Grime and Conspiracy

My first day at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival kicks-off with rural Albanian ensemble drama MAYA and concludes with a healthy dose of Estonian rock’n’roll…

Rovena Lule Kuka, Genti Kame and Muzafer Ziflaj in MAYA

>>> MAYA (Albania, 2010, 98’) Dir. Pluton Vasi – DP. Ram Shani                          [Screening in Golden Goblet Award competition]

Gromas, a calm Albanian town overlooking a sprawling rural valley, is the paradigm of modern provinciality that houses the discontented citizens at the centre of MAYA. Into this community, recently disenfranchised by the closure of the local coal mine, enters Samiun (Genti Kame), an Albanian Muslim raised in Western Europe, who decides to take his father’s old home as his own after his father’s funeral. At first Samiun is merely a friendly face as the local hairdresser in a town where everybody knows everybody. But Samiun’s effortless charm and obvious worldliness rankles with Gromas’ men-folk, especially once rumor spreads that he is carrying-on with Maya (Rovena Lule Kuka), wife to his cousin Drini (Alert Çeloaliaj) and object of much affection in a community left wanting for beauty and free spirits. Most sinister of all Samiun’s counterparts is Bekimi (Muzafer Ziflaj), the hawkish town police chief and ambitious enforcer to a town in need of little policing. When the regional police commissioner sends-out a general order for greater vigilance to counter terrorism, Bekimi wastes little time in implementing a patient but relentless programme of insinuation and alienation to force Samiun to quit the community.

Pluton Vasi’s direction is most effective when it allows the characters speech and body language do the talking. At times Vasi’s choice to use choppy black and white flashbacks and daydreams to illustrate his characters’ inner monologue is unnecessary and jarring to the languid but sinister pacing and colour palette of Ram Shani’s unassuming camerawork, especially compared with the vibrant, fluid tableaux that colour the romantic element of the story (both told as it is and told as the town gossips would have had it). But the daydream sequences seem largely unnecessary because of the intense and tactile visual exploration of each character’s existence already present on screen. Objects move in and out of focus as their function and meaning to the characters using them shifts and re-clarifies itself (a particular highlight occurs when Bekimi passes-out during a blood donation and we are momentarily treated to the wide expanse of the valley behind Gromas before pulling focus back to Bekimi’s face as he revives). Ultimately it is perspective and the illusiveness of truth that is at the heart of the film, which slowly reveals that even the love between Samiun and Maya is held hostage by perspective. The philosophy enabling Maya to suppress her guilt at the transgression against her family is key to the actions that affect the community turning on Samiun: a poplar tree viewed from the ground is big and magnificent, but viewed from high in the air it is hardly even noticeable.

Though it could be pigeon-holed as a doomed romance, the story’s resonance lies in the circumstances leading to the departure of Samiun and the contrast between what Bekimi and the town gossips believed to be the final straw and what Samiun could not actually withstand. The final reel of the film is a deep-cutting culmination of the low-key vignettes of daily life (and all the lying, story-telling and acting there involved) that make-up the bulk of the film.

It is worth lingering on the film’s political dimension – set, as it is, in a country with cultural and economic ambitions at odds with an instinctual distrust of outsiders – but what is most affecting is the fact that Samiun’s affair with Maya was not corrupted by the conspiracy against Samiun, but rather unsustainable by its own impurity. In this respect Maya could be considered the antagonist, at once culpable and innocent of the havoc surrounding her.

Jüri Vlassov in FARTS OF FURY

>>> KORMORANID EHK NAHKPÜSKE EI PESTA (a.k.a. FARTS OF FURY) (Estonia, 2011, 115’) Dir./Scr. Andres Maimink/Rain Tolk – DP. Mait Mäekivi/Mart Raun – Prod. Kaspar Kaljas [Screening in the Spectrum block]

Sitting down to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of Estonia’s star-studded comedy, FARTS OF FURY, I expected seediness and lechery, but the most succinct description that came to mind on exiting the theatre was “nougatry” (if said nougat had been rescued from a beer-soaked barroom floor after a night of hard drinking and head banging). FARTS has few ambitions beyond rocking hard and delivering laughs, but by way of a tango of rises and undignified falls, tribute is paid to the pathos inherent in the subject of aging rockers clinging desperately to their boyhood dreams.

Kaiser (Guido Kangur) is the 60-odd-year-old frontman of the band that “invented Estonian rock and roll!”, the Cormorants. He lives with his mother (the achingly sweet Ester Pajusoo) and maintains the bedroom of a teenager born to “rock the shit out of a cat”. To rescue his faded past from obscurity, Kaiser decides to reform the band that made his name and stage a comeback. With a sputtering cash-flow and a crew largely past the years when they might have been considered savvy, Kaiser certainly has his work cut-out for him.

FARTS OF FURY never soars as an inspiring story or a laugh-riot, but it is accomplished in its ability to endear even the most pathetic and lecherous loser. The gross-out gags are plentiful but by no means out-of-place and one particular set piece involving a watermelon would nest comfortably within the canon of ridiculous legends surrounding real-life rock stars.  But sublime moments duck and weave between the monolithic riffs and piss-drinking to colour the daftness of the Cormorants’ rise and fall with some subtler tones. Particularly evocative of the need for a rock and roll spirit to shake-up the status quo (no pun intended) are the scenes where Kaiser’s beautiful young girlfriend, Liisi (Elina Pähklimägi), giggles over flirty text messages during class at a sewing school, in which attractive, intelligent young women receive lectures on the virtues of enslavement behind a sewing machine. Similarly the band’s dealings with Estonia’s new pop elite and their Swedish over-lords adds a sense of just how much Kaiser must adjust the scope of his ambition to stay on the level of the people he loves and the people willing to give him yet another second chance.

Perhaps most importantly, FARTS boasts a fantastic sound track, stocked almost entirely with vintage Estonian hits, which mix well with the David St.Hubbins-style hair-do of premiere Estonian bassist, Thunderbird (Jüri Vlassov), to ensure that the film never commits the unforgivable sin of failing to rock.

^ MAYA trailer (Albanian – no subs)

^ FARTS OF FURY trailer (Estonian – no subs)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Bye Bye SIFF 2011 | FOEC


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