Berlin: Bright Nights and Non-Events

On the Beach at Night Alone

By Jordan Cronk

Arriving like a breath of fresh air five days into the 67th Berlinale, Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights salvaged what was by all accounts was another typically lacklustre Competition lineup. Perhaps it was the film’s crisp Nordic setting and perpetually sunny exteriors, but Arslan’s latest, with its unassuming setup and undemonstrative tenor, felt, if nothing else, directed by a consummate artist unafraid to let the work speak for itself. Starring Georg Friedrich (surprise winner of the festival’s Best Actor prize) as Michael, a divorcé who after the death of his father attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage son (Tristan Göbel), Bright Nights finds Arslan continuing to move away from the austere urban genre scenarios he and his Berlin School affiliates built their reputations on towards more ambiguous, existentially inclined narratives predicated on emotionally unmoored people navigating remote environments, an approach he first proposed with the impressionistic anti-Western Gold (2013). Like that similarly mistreated work, Bright Nights is a beautifully shot, episodically plotted road movie given to long bouts of silence and lengthy passages of languid, seemingly uneventful observation. (The film notably reunites Arslan with cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, one of contemporary German cinema’s most prolific DPs, whose stunning images of northern Norway’s expansive woodlands provide the film with much of its enrapturing atmosphere.) It’s as much a landscape film as a character study, as prone to lingering on the subtle expressions of its actors as it is willing to retreat from the primary narrative to proceed without consequence up a fog-enshrouded mountain road.

In few other contexts would a film as aggressively unaggressive as Bright Nights feel like something of a bold rebuke to the overly fussy, manipulative work typical of the international festival circuit. And while it’s doubtful that Bright Nights will ultimately be seen as a watershed in Arslan’s career, it did indeed reinforce a not-so-secret notion shared by critics, namely that the most worthwhile Competition films would likely come from the few still-relevant auteurs amongst the selection. Case in point, The Other Side of Hope, by Finland’s most prominent and consistently pleasurable misanthrope, Aki Kaurismäki (who took home a Silver Bear for Best Director). The second in a proposed trilogy of films focused on the European refugee crises, Kaurismäki’s follow-up to the warm and generous Le Havre (2011) is both of a piece with its predecessor and something a little looser and more unkempt. This time, the plight of his refugee, a Syrian emigrant named Khaled (Sherwan Haji), whose soot-covered face we see humorously emerge from a mound of coal in the film’s opening moments, is played as often for laughs as it is lament, though Kaurismäki never allows the gravity of Khaled’s situation to fall far from view. (Repeat visits to the immigration office, as well as violent run-ins with local skinheads, bolster the film’s drama.) As ever, Kaurismäki’s humour is of a mannered, viciously deadpan variety. In a welcome return, touches of the situational, quasi-surrealist comedy that defined both the director’s bastardized take on Hamlet as well as his beloved Leningrad Cowboys manifest themselves when Khaled crosses paths with the middle-aged Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a travelling salesman turned restaurateur who enlists the outsider to help out at his newest entrepreneurial venture, The Golden Pint. Splashes of violence are interspersed with an unexpected pratfall or odd visual gag—unable to sustain itself, The Golden Pint rebrands as a sushi restaurant; wasabi-related hijinks ensue—and The Other Side of Hope is one of the Finnish veteran’s most impressive balancing acts, a tragicomedy that feels urgent and yet manages to never lose sight of life’s inherent ironies.

Given the state of world affairs, The Other Side of Hope was, surprisingly, one of the only Competition titles to deal directly with a current political issue. (From a purely political perspective, the distance between last year’s Golden Bear winner, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, and this year’s, Ildikó Enyedi’s ludicrous lucid-dream romance On Body and Soul, should tell you all you need to know about the generally anodyne nature of the main program.) Things were only intermittently more topical over in the Forum, where, on a decidedly smaller scale, French artist Neïl Beloufa took a fanciful approach with his socially minded second feature, Occidental. Set almost entirely within a brightly coloured, blatantly artificial Parisian hotel, with riots happening just outside its front door, the film centres on the arrival of two possibly gay, possibly extremist Italians whose presence elicits widely disparate reactions amongst the hotel’s guests and its dysfunctional staff. Though predicated on present-day concerns, Occidental features a uniquely indefinable, ahistorical aura; full of fake fireplaces, Neoclassical-era wall art, chintzy special effects, and anachronistic music cues, the film from moment to moment calls to mind everything from Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy to Alain Resnais’ arch stage adaptations to the work of current polymorphous provocateurs Bertrand Bonello and João Pedro Rodrigues (the latter two associations additionally prompted by the presence of those filmmakers’ most recent collaborators, Hamza Meziani and Paul Hamy). Beloufa may take a more flamboyant (and ultimately more catastrophic) approach to his themes of discrimination and literal class warfare than those who might traditionally find themselves scaling the international festival ladder, but on the evidence of Occidental it’s not difficult to imagine him joining the ranks of the filmmakers who have covertly infiltrated the system on their own singular terms.

Also a sophomore feature, and along with Occidental the only Berlinale entry I’d consider a genuine discovery, South Korean director Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn (fresh from its premiere in Busan) is deceptive in its many virtues. A modestly scaled, boldly structured meditation on happenstance and the precariousness of human interaction, the film follows three characters whom we meet in the first scene, seated together on a subway train: Ji-hyeon (Woo Ji-hyeon), a young man retuning from an unsuccessful job interview, and a newly acquainted middle-aged couple, Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) and Se-rang (Lee Se-rang). After exchanging only the briefest of pleasantries, the characters proceed along two forking paths that in an ordinary film would seem fated to re-entwine, but here appear run parallel to one another at best. As he leaves the subway, Ji-hyeon catches a glimpse of an old friend whose name he can’t recall, a chance encounter that nags at his conscience to the point where he contacts the friend and weeps drunkenly over his social faux pas. Disenchanted, he also visits Cheongpyeongsa Temple and tends to menial tasks along the region’s vast riverbank—two locations returned to in the second story, wherein Heung-ju and Se-rang get to know each other over the course of a couple of days of eating and sightseeing. Jang films these seemingly banal moments in long, fluid takes (one memorable instance, running 12-plus minutes in length, plays out in stunning synchronicity with the afternoon sun as the couple share a quiet meal under a partially shaded canopy), in essence eavesdropping on a handful of privileged moments that slowly accumulate an emotional tactility befitting the lush landscapes in which these characters find themselves. “We sort of glided past each other,” Heung-ju states late in Autumn, Autumn, exemplifying the small but crucial moments this quietly perceptive film so casually captures.

Elsewhere in the Forum, four new features by Heinz Emigholz (the first in the director’s new “Streetscapes” series) revealed a surprisingly wily side to the veteran architecture enthusiast’s otherwise rather studied persona, as well as a range of interests not tapped since well before his extended foray into observational nonfiction. In that sense, the Godard-referencing 2+2=22 [The Alphabet] is not only an unexpected swerve into the realm of the music documentary (the film was shot in and around a suburban sound studio in Tbilisi as the German post-rock band Kreidler recorded their 2014 album ABC), but a slyly instructive cue for how to approach the series; reinforcing the rhythmic nature of Emigholz’s decoupage while casually suggesting a nascent cosmopolitan streak, the film is a hypnotizing reconciliation of setting, space, and process. Streetscapes [Dialogue], the third film, bookended on either side by the more familiar architectural studies Bickels [Socialism] and Dieste [Uruguay], takes things further afield, into something approaching meta-therapeutic memoir. Comprised entirely of re-enacted conversations between Emigholz and trauma specialist Zohar Rubinstein, the film—which features John Erdman and filmmaker Jonathan Perel in the roles of Emigholz and Rubinstein, respectively—acts at once as auto-portraiture and making-of documentary, with the actors chronicling Emigholz’s career and artistic principles across a variety of Uruguayan backdrops, a setting which goes on to take centre stage in Dieste. From a conceptual standpoint, it’s just about the antithesis of From a Year of Non-Events, in which the German duo of Ann Carolin Renninger and René Frölke turn 12 months of Super 8 and 16mm footage of 90-year-old hermit Willi Detert into a loving, delicate portrait of an ordinary man in the twilight of his life. Reminiscent of the early films of Ben Rivers, it was serene and enveloping enough to make the prospect of returning to the Competition a daunting consideration.

Thankfully, On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong Sangsoo’s 19th feature and first of 2017, provided the requisite balance of pain and pleasure long expected from the South Korean master, to a degree that this highly personal work was the easy standout of the festival’s main slate. In a rare twist for a critical summation of a Hong film, there’s far less to note here regarding the film’s structure or concept (which, allowing for a few Buñuelian strokes and a climatic dream sequence, is, by Hong standards, rather straightforward), and more to unpack biographically. That Hong’s well-publicized affair with his actress Kim Minhee, star of Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), has seeped thematically into one of his films isn’t in itself surprising; it stands to reason that most of the director’s narratives are to some extent informed by his everyday life and experiences, so often do they return to the familiar territory of drinking and romantic dalliances. What is notable is the seeming specificity with which Hong renders these surely traumatic details. On the Beach at Night Alone stars Kim as Younghee, an actress on retreat in Hamburg following an affair with a well-known director, who, we learn from conversations with her older friend and host, isn’t in any hurry to rendezvous with his lover in Germany, let alone take the relationship in a more serious direction back home. For much of the film’s first third (the story is divided into two numerical parts based on setting, the narrative’s only structural gambit), Younghee frets over the absence and non-action of her would-be partner, and even as she and her friend explore the local street markets, walk the city’s parks, and dine at the home of a pair of anonymous artist-types (played by Mark Peranson and Bettina Steinbrügge), there’s a nagging sense that Younghee will have to be the one to pursue her beloved if she is to find closure.

What she finds upon returning to South Korea is, in typical Hong fashion, a colourful community of female friends and idiotic male acquaintances, each of whom reacts to and treats Younghee in wildly different fashion. It’s also here, in these interactions, where Younghee’s own volatile personality, stoked at a moment’s notice by the slightest hint of alcohol, is fully revealed. As an actress and muse, Kim’s considerable talent—and, it must be said, bravery in playing a role that will widely be read as a transposition of her own character—is most dramatically on display in these increasingly awkward moments; Younghee is an angry, troubled character, and Kim’s torrents of fury find potent expression in the actress’ deft reconciliation of her gentle demeanour and fierce locution. (Kim deservedly took home the festival’s Best Actress prize, the first award ever bestowed on a female actor in a Hong film.) For multiple interconnected reasons, Younghee—and, as a personal creative prescription, On the Beach at Night Alone itself—feels like a logical summation of Hong’s increasing interest in female protagonists since Oki’s Movie (2010). Rather than a by-product of a reciprocal narrative device or logistical contrivance, where Younghee finds herself at the end of the film—on the beach and alone, but on considerably firmer soil than she had been for much of the preceding 100 minutes—is fully a result of her own will to persevere. She’s Hong’s most compelling character to date, which is appropriate, as he knows her best of all.

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