8-16 February 2008

This year, the true beauties of the Berlinale film festival remained on the margins: in the final days of the cine-marathon, a cinema far away from the buzzing festival centre presented a late-matinee screening of Wakamatsu Koji’s stunning exploitation classic Ecstasy of the Angels (Teshi no kokotsu), a visually stunning head-on collision of explicit violence, political revolt and soft-core porn. Part of a mini-tribute to Wakamatsu’s work – whose latest film United Red Army premiered this year in the International Forum section – this early feature tells the story of a left-wing terrorist faction planning an all-out attack on Tokyo. Despite all the kinky sex and ferocious brutality, Wakamatsu’s main concern is to explore the sacrifice and self-destruction that the revolutionary process requires from the young radicals, and to observe how they ultimately turn against each other instead of combining their forces to fight the odious system.

United Red Army, which I’d seen only a few days before, then almost felt like a remake of Ecstasy, which he made in 1972. In his new film, Wakamatsu sets out to reveal the full history of the militant student movement that rocked Japan during the 1960s in a challenging three-hour docu-fiction drama, staged as a chamber play in the group’s mountain hide-out. Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of both films is an oddly engaging energy and a genuinely disturbing quality, which was absent from most of the works presented in the three main festival sections. That said, leaving the blatantly commercial and rather underwhelming films in the Official Competition aside, there were some welcome surprises in the other two main sections – Forum and Panorama.

Only vaguely related to the festival overall music focus was the wonderfully refreshing Russian feature Mermaid (Rusalka) by Anna Melykian. A freely adapted, near-surreal version of Antonin Dvorák’s eponymous opera, the film follows the bizarre life of an idealistic girl from childhood to maturity. While the tone is at times perplexingly downbeat, the film radiates a wonderful, bitter-sweet and light-hearted spirit that opened this year’s Panorama with a ray of light. Two fairly impressive documentaries offered musical experiences of different sorts: Steven Sebring’s rewarding Patti Smith: Dream of Life and the way more off-centre Heavy Metal In Baghdad, a touching portrait of an Iraq heavy metal band after the fall of Saddam Hussein, whose members struggle with the impossibility of living peacefully as long-haired head-bangers in a war-torn country.

Moving into low-budget, queer territory, the weirdest and undoubtedly most indigestible film was Bruce LaBruce’s latest provocation Otto; or Up with Dead People, which follows a depressed gay zombie through the streets and dark rooms of Berlin. Screened in London as part of this year’s Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the film mixes horror, hard-core porn, silent film and documentary into a mercilessly sensationalist shocker. Queer activist Rosa von Praunheim’s new documentary Dead Gay Men and Living Lesbians (Tote Schwule – Lebende Lesben) was disappointingly dilute, and didn’t live up to its promising title. Quite different from Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s debut The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, which sounded like a semi-improvised fairy tale about a Filipino ‘lady boy’ who meets her sleazy porn chatroom boss for a hanky-panky weekend in Paris, but turned out to be a charming first feature, once the faux documentary style had established a vivid, convincing world.

Although there was no readily identifiable new trend at this year’s festival, a loose group of films by Asian women directors all refreshingly focused on quotidian inconsequence. Kumazaka Izuru’s wonderful life-affirming feature Asyl (Asyl – Park and Love Hotel) – which deservedly won the Best First Feature Award – centres on the bizarre life of a middle-aged woman who runs an unusual love hotel in Tokyo, with a beautiful little park on its rooftop which is open to the public. Deliberately sullen and rather dark in tone, the film paints a complex portrait of the landlady and of three other women who rent rooms at the hotel, carefully revealing how their defiant spirit collides with false pretences and loneliness.

Equally remarkable for its acute attention to detail, Naoko Ogigami’s Glasses (Megane) was primarily a wonderfully detoxifying treat. Set on a nearly untouched island, the film takes time to explore the almost excessively relaxed insular mentality, and Ogigami skilfully handles the slow pace by filling her script with just the right amount of deadpan humour and ineffable sensuous delight. Both films share a heartfelt desire to step back from big themes and melodrama to look for new ways to uncover meaning in the transitional ebb and flow of everyday lives. Likewise, two multi-character features from Taiwan, Zero Chou’s Drifting Flowers (Piao Lang Qing Chun) and Singing Chen’s God Man Dog, presented elegant, episodical views of everyday life and love steeped in social realism and artistically shaped in a poetic narrative.

Among the vast quantity of new titles, these were the films that afforded the greatest pleasures. A few glorious works from the archives provided extra thrills: Peter Geyer’s Jesus Christ Savior (Jesus Christus Erlí¶ser) is the long-lost filmed record of an incredible theatrical monologue by Klaus Kinski, held in 1971, which turned into an aggressive altercation with the hostile audience. Elsewhere, Charles Burnett’s re-released 1983 My Brother’s Wedding authoritatively demonstrated what truly independent filmmaking really looks like. Cut down by Burnett himself to 81 impressively rich, deftly choreographed and toughly funny minutes, it was a wonderful, startling discovery that alone would have made the trip to Berlin worthwhile.

Pamela Jahn