Toe-to-toe with an ex-con, hitman, and would-be martial artist. By JOE SHEPPARD.

THIS YEAR’s New Zealand International Film festival saw (at least) three very different takes on that classic genre noir – one old-school, one surreal, and one farcical. First up are the mean streets and violent prison life of 1960s Sofia, in the bleak and hard-nosed Zift. The title refers to the thick, dark resin that convicted diamond thief Moth chews, but it’s also used for holding down pavestones and it’s apparently slang for shit in Bulgarian.

Built around a series of flashbacks and shot in black and white, Zift at first seems to observe the staples of the genre. Nothing is as it seems for the hapless Moth, who upon release from jail is immediately kidnapped by the Slug – his partner in the heist that landed him in the slammer, who has wormed his way up the Communist Party ranks in the years since the revolution and is still after the diamond that went missing in their botched gig.

And then it gets interesting. Moth is educated in the oppressive panopticon of the prison system by his cellmate, the boxer Van Wurst “The Eye” – but upon release finds himself a stranger to the new political and social structures that control his homeland. On the lam in an alien land, where baritones bellow communist folk tunes and everyone seems to have another bizarre vignette to share, Moth remains a loner trapped in a different kind of prison. The twists and denouement might be obvious by the end but that misses the point – like its protagonist, Zift is a brawny, gritty and unapologetically nihilistic rebel, with all the subtlety and impact of a Liverpool kiss.

By contrast not a lot happens in The Limits of Control, the latest surreal journey from indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, but that only leaves more time to linger over the exquisite visuals of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle and to enjoy another judiciously selected soundtrack. Isaach de Bankolé plays a cool and mysterious hitman, a consummate professional in control of his craft, who kills time at the national art gallery between meeting contacts in Madrid and Seville. Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal and John Hurt are the three most colourful of those contacts, all of whom share the same codewords and a keen interest in some question of aesthetics or metaphysics. In between these encounters, Jarmusch languishes on the most ravishing background details – the curves and scale of modern Spanish architecture, the stunning deserts and wind farms of the rural landscape, or the hot urban plazas, baking in the midday sun.

Jarmusch’s simple, less-is-more approach forsakes dialogue for gesture, tone and a calm space where meanings, analogies and allegories tempt and tease. Key images, scenarios and sound bites are repeated, reverberating throughout The Limits of Control like in a fugue (or perhaps at times like a broken record). As long as there’s evidence of some design – and very pretty too – does it really matter if it makes very little sense?

With The Higher Force Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson juxtaposes slapstick small-time gangsters with the personal tragedy that shapes their lives. The title comes from the martial arts series that luckless protagonist David has pored over his entire life – the moves from which he shadowboxes whenever something (finally) goes his way, and which he rather embarrassingly incorporates into clunky robot-dance steps.

The plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity, when David implies to his loan shark boss that his landlord Harald is a legendary but shadowy figure from the Reykjavík underworld, last heard of rotting in some Mexican prison. Poor Harald really leads a mundane life as an aging schoolteacher, but David – who could barely stand over a shadow, let alone a dawdling debtor – is looking to get ahead, so he doesn’t disabuse anyone of the mix up, even when the boss of bosses flies in from the States. The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli here treads familiar ground as the wiseguy know-it-all with the big mouth, but it’s German soldier Wolfie “The Hammer” who steals the show, spouting deadpan, heavily accented trash. (“Assumption is zee mothafucka of all fuckups!”)

The supporting cast are similarly colourful and ever so slightly odd, and there’s always an easy and entertaining undercurrent running beneath even the most horrible conflicts. But the taste of grief also lingers, for Harald is keeping another secret close to his lonely breast, potentially devastating to David, who is already confused enough. Smart, balanced, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, The Higher Force crept up on me with a king hit as the charming surprise of the festival.