A violent quartet from the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival. By AMY BROWN.

LIFE ISN’T always a barrel of laughs; in fact, “if you’re happy for more than ten minutes in a row, you must be an idiot”. This is a line from Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic dramedy, White Night Wedding, but it could apply to any of these four films from the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. Patriarchal Korean family life, adolescence in an Essex housing estate, disastrous marriage on a small Icelandic island, and a bomb disarmament squad in Iraq, provide completely different perspectives on the violence and disappointment that inevitably comes with some human interaction.

The adage about family (can’t live with it, can’t live without it) appears to be internationally relevant. In each of these features, protagonists make realistically foolish decisions in order to escape the damaged situation provided by their relatives. In the best example of this recurring theme, I was left at the closing credits, and during the tram ride home, unsuccessfully trying to find alternative paths that the script could have taken for the better.

My pick of the bunch is Breathless or Ddongpari (which literally translates as Shitfly). While the digital, mainly hand-held cinematography is unremarkable, the excellent script, performances and music by The Invisible Fish (a “post-noise-folk” Korean band) put this well above average. Impressively, it is the writing and directing debut of actor, Yang Ik-June, a jack-of-all-trades who may become the Korean Takeshi Kitano.

Sanghoon (Yang Ik-June) is a debt collector, whose forté is violence – both physical and verbal. In the opening scene, he punches a man who has been beating his girlfriend outside a cinema. Leaving the boyfriend whimpering, Sanghoon gives the girl a couple of slaps, scolding her for not fighting back. Somehow, the audience is now on the protagonist’s side. Sanghoon beats up bullies – including his hired thug colleagues, to the displeasure of his boss – and encourages the weak to fight for themselves. This violent philosophy comes from childhood, when he witnessed his father murder his mother and sister, during a bout of domestic violence that, the film suggests, is a common side effect of patriarchal Korean society. The father, who was imprisoned for 15 years, now spends time with Sanghoon’s stepsister, a recently divorced victim of domestic violence, and nephew. This arrangement disgusts Sanghoon; his father is undeserving, and his stepsister weak.

The only person who impresses Sanghoon is school girl Yeon-hee, who demands that he clean the spit off her tie when he hoiks in the street. Surprisingly, he agrees, but he doesn’t do the job properly, so she slaps him. This unwarranted attack deserves some retaliation, so Sanghoon punches her. However, he waits for her to come around and then buys her a beer. Yeon-hee, also from a violent, broken home, delights in taunting her older gangster friend – saying that he has a baby’s name, scolding him for his “fucking foul mouth” and demanding that he treat her. They become an incongruous couple, and one of the only consolations Sanghoon’s life. Another consolation is his boss and friend, Mansik, the effeminate manager of the debt collection agency, who keeps a tidy office, gives his staff lunch and cash for after-work drinks. “Nobody does this job for fun!” Mansik says, when Sanghoon gives his notice, having finally discovered a peaceful life with Yeon-hee and his family. Hired thugs, to Mansik, are simply a necessary part of life.

Violence, as catalyst, response, catharsis or mindless action, is central to Breathless. Although often the serious damage is just out of shot, the diegetic sound is queasily real. This effect used to be achieved by punching a side of ham; I don’t know what Yang used, but the result is successful. The only shockingly graphic shot is saved, appropriately, for the brutal climax.

Considering its subject, Breathless has many laugh-out-loud moments; a woman in front of me even kept involuntarily clapping, probably due to the combination of shock and relief that comes from finding yourself laughing at such a grim situation.

Similarly funny and depressing is Andrea Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning feature, Fish Tank. Filmed on Marsdyke Housing Estate in Essex, Arnold’s film is an exemplar of that very English genre, the kitchen-sink drama. Mia (Katie Jarvis), an angry 15-year-old, lives with her young mother and little sister in the fish tank that is the housing estate. Life’s only consolation is hip-hop and break-dancing until Connor (Michael Fassbender), mum’s latest squeeze, moves in. In stark contrast to Breathless, having a father in the house initially appears to solve everyone’s problems. Everything is tidier and happier. However, Connor’s affectionate encouragement of Mia’s dancing is from the start more sexual than paternal. Out of revenge toward her mother and genuine attraction to Connor – the only person to compliment her – Mia is willingly seduced. “Your mother’s passed out upstairs,” Connor says to Mia. “Yeah, she does that,” Mia replies, and soon after dances in her pyjamas to his favourite song, Bobby Womak’s ‘California Dreaming’. So begins the extremely realistic sex scene that was always going to and never should have happened.

One of the joys of Fish Tank is that, except for moments when Mia is seen through Connor’s eyes, it is so plausibly from Mia’s point of view. The audience is forced to look at things her way – the skanks dancing suggestively on the estate basketball court, the skinny horse that needs saving from the derelict yard down the road, jeans sitting low on Connor’s hips, the poster of the white tiger on her bedroom door and the touchingly pathetic “I luv you” snow shaker on her bedside table (more likely a gift from her sister than her mum). The filming, Katie Jarvis’s perfect performance (never mind that she isn’t a trained actress, but a homeless, high school drop-out discovered in Tilbury train station fighting with her boyfriend) and the script packed with exquisite dialogue all contribute to the strong characterisation of this fairly average teenage girl. Yes, she is a good dancer, but not unusually talented. Yes, she’s gutsy, but also rather silly and vulnerable. She is violent – giving a skilful Liverpool kiss within the first five minutes of the film – rude, and expelled from school. That the audience is made to care so deeply about this ordinary character is a testament to Arnold’s direction.

Clearly a strong actor’s director, Arnold elicits brilliant performances, not just from Jarvis and Fassbender, but from Kierston Wareing, Mia’s mother, the young actor who plays Mia’s sister and, in a tiny but hilarious role, the actor who plays the auditioner at a strip club that Mia naively thinks she wants to work for. While this is a small film, it is almost pitch perfect and not simply a kitchen-sink drama that you feel like you’ve seen before. In one of the film’s final scenes, we see Mia, her mother and her sister, dancing in sync to one of Mia’s CDs (Nas singing “life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high; ‘cos you never know when you’re gonna go”). Dancing is a substitute for an affectionate farewell before Mia leaves home. The song, which sums up so succinctly both Mia’s and her mum’s motivations, acts as an implicit truce between the two.

Moving North to the tiny, stunningly scenic island of Flatey in Iceland, but keeping with the theme of seduction and clumsily committed infidelity, we have Baltasar Kormákur’s, White Night Wedding. The only of one of the quartet billed as a comedy, this film strangely enough had the fewest laughs and left me most dejected.

Loosely based on Chekhov’s play Ivanov, this film follows Jón, a once literature professor now unsuccessful golf course manager, preparing for his second wedding. His wife-to-be, Þóra, is 18 years his junior and an ex-student. Worst of all, she is the daughter of a couple whom Jón owes a lot of golf course related money. Weaving between the present-day lead-up to the fraught wedding and his past relationship with artistic, depressive wife, Anna, White Night Wedding presents us with, in a Woody Allenesque manner, an intellectual who is hopeless with women.

Despite being urged by the island’s priest (well played by Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, from Noi the Albino) to attend to his sick wife, Anna, Jón spends more and more time with Þóra, the friendly daughter of the local shopkeeper/publican/opera singer. Perhaps it is because Anna insisted that they return to the island where she grew up that Jón resents her, or perhaps he’s had enough of her mad ways (piling the bed with seaweed, talking to the terns, spending all day sketching). One way or another, it leads to his seeking solace with a younger woman and, unfortunately, being caught in the act by both his wife and priest. The embarrassment is compounded by the fact that they live on an island of approximately 30 people, who talk. The embarrassment turns to crippling guilt when Anna rows out to sea in a leaky boat and drowns herself. Þóra, wanting to help Jón through this difficult time, suggests that they marry.

On the day before the wedding, the closest thing to hilarity in the film ensues. Jón’s old friend Sjonni (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) arrives and organises, with the motley island characters, an alfresco dinner as a stag’s night. Because it’s summer solstice, as they get steadily drunker the white Icelandic light doesn’t leave. By morning, hopelessly hungover and unready for marriage, Jón attempts to jilt his young wife, but, quirkily, ends up getting wedded in the sea. If this were an American indie comedy, much of the zaniness would fall flat, but due to the exoticism of the setting, the comic elements succeed, just.

The moral of the story appears to be that marriage isn’t perfect, so you have to make do with what you have. The newly weds move off the island, Jón returns to teaching and Þóra’s initial devotion seems to be fast fading. If it weren’t for the superb setting and cinematography, the strong performances from the supporting cast and the music by Sigurður Bjóla and Jón Ólafsson, this “dramedy” would have been overbearingly grim.

The potentially grimmest film, The Hurt Locker, set during the Iraq war and focussing on a US bomb squad stationed in Baghdad, was the most enjoyable of the four. Intensely exciting and suspenseful, beautifully filmed and including convincing performances from Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, Kathryn Bigelow’s feature is up there with Apocalypse Now as a thought-provoking and entertaining film about war.

From the first nail-biting scene in which the original bomb specialist, Thompson (a cameo from Guy Pearce) dies in a slow-motion explosion (every particle of dust on the Humvee rising and quivering) this film is compelling. It has the emotive soundtrack, stock figures and dramatic setting of an action movie, but goes further than that and does justice to the war that is still going. Written and produced by journalist Mark Boal, inspired by his time with a squad in Baghdad, The Hurt Locker has a level of detail and emotional sophistication that a film of this sort could easily have lacked. While one or two scenes went on slightly too long and the dialogue occasionally lapsed into cliché, for the most part this film evaded both sentimentality and brutality, achieving a sincere and respectful portrait of the bomb squad.

William James (Renner), the “wildman” who replaces Thompson, is everything you could want in an action hero – cool, witty, talented and perhaps psychopathically fond of disarming bombs. If he weren’t such an adrenalin junkie, he’d be the best Sergeant alive. However, the addiction to problem-solving that allowed him to disarm 873 bombs so far overwhelms his interest in keeping the squad safe. His partner, Sanbourne (Mackie) is alternately infuriated and impressed by James’ nerve. There is a scene in which Sanbourne and his junior, Eldridge, are tempted to blow James up in a bomb testing situation. They don’t do it because neither of them enjoy killing people, as we see in an impressive earlier scene (incidentally featuring a good cameo from Ralph Fiennes), and because James is irritatingly useful.

Structured by a countdown to the end of their station at Camp Victory (it used to be Liberty, but “Victory sounds better”), Sanbourne’s and Eldridge’s main concern is survival. They hate the lifestyle of war – the discomfort, fear and brutality that they experience every day. James is different, he thrives in this setting, playing soccer with the local kid who sells him DVDs and calls his job “fun, it’s cool, it’s gangster” when he hears James is on the bomb squad. Without the war, James would be stuck at home – as we see in a later scene – faced only with the decision of what cereal to buy at the supermarket. Talking to his infant son, James explains that as one gets older the number of things that one loves in the world depletes, until perhaps there are only a couple of loveable things left in life. The implication is that James’ loves are limited to his son and his job. This is unfortunate for his family life, his wife, but lucky for the residents of cities laced with wires and ordinants.

War films tend to either glamorise or defame soldiers, especially US soldiers; one of the most satisfying aspects of Bigelow’s film is that her characters are easily recognisable as people underneath their uniforms and ranks. Although James is a relatively glamorous character, he isn’t unambiguously good, and this is important.

See also:
» Notes from the Melbourne International Film Festival 2007