Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MIFF session 8: Play

A gang of five black boys in a Stockholm shopping centre. Two snow pale Swedish boys stroll down a walkway, innocently flaunting their affluence. The gang take in every syllable and after a voting game make their move, crowding in on the white kids and conning them out of their mobile phone. Cut to two white kids with their Asian friend, being sent off by their parents on a spending trip. The gang moves in. This time we follow them from stalking to the move and far, far beyond. Bullying at its finest.

As frustrating and angering the gang's behaviour gets (I'm talking white knuckle fury in the auditorium, here) it soon becomes clear how deliberate it is. This is paramilitary bullying and it works a hair short of the Stockholm Syndrome (association intended by me and the filmmakers). This gang knows the power of its numbers and the effect its ethnicity has on its victims down to the youngest and most childlike member (the eldest couldn't be more than fifteen). It is this effortless calculation that carriesboth the narrative and our wish for its momentum. These boys are monstrous. Their victims are increasingly pliant. Where can this end?

But the gang is a group of boys. They defend themselves against a blustering but ineffectual attack by a group of men while on a tram but lift their feet at a train platform when the cleaner trying to mop the foor asks them. There is no contradiction here. Adults who act like adults carry authority for them, be they ever so humble. Adults who act like schoolyard brigands are met with force. But, again, it is the victims and their continued subserviance that creates a mounting anxiety. They aren't constantly compliant but the few acts of defiance they are capable of only lead them further into the gang's control.

This is presented in a series of long takes by someone who knows how to use them. This is not Bela Tarr or Tarkovsky whose still canvases absorb you into a new cosmos; the camera is set up to record variously with a roving eye or a stubbornly held stare, at all times delivering narrative information (yes, if you've seen it, the Native American busker shots, as well). The opening scene of the initial scam is a single shot from a camera mounted on a mezzanine, expertly taking us to whichever point of attention we need. This is not shaky cam it is a Kubrickian determination that requires an expert hand with the coreography of extras and speaking parts alike.

The colour palete is rich and the image has a sheen and depth that adds a shiver of veracity to us observing. Stanley Kubrick would have loved the Red Camera. From genteel innercity Stockholm, through industrial sites to the forests and wastes, we are shown a setting that seems to offer the victims less and less hope. If you go in knowing that the Swedish colours are blue and yellow you will see a lot of that combination. A running gag of a wooden cradle abandoned in a subruban train provides some light relief but also suggests a lack of care that might have created the central situation. The cradle comes into play later and poignantly.

I've been mentioning Kubrick a few times in this review even though I think his name is over-called whenever extraordinary cinema is discussed. I'm not a huge fan of him but admire much of his output and ideas. One of the latter is his notion that a film should be made up of six or so non-submersible units, blocks of the world through the screen where the events seemingly must happen, keeping well shy of stepping in himself to help out, leaving that to his audience. Well, that's what happens here. A few large blocks of this reality (including a kind of denoument that Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noe might approve of) and a coda.

A film's coda ought to both provide a final flourish of what we have seen but also add something mysterious or uncontrollable, a little wafer-thin mint on the pillow that tastes of salt and vinegar. Well, that happens here, too.

I pick MIFF films from the copy in the guide. Often I'll charge into a favourite director (there are two Sion Sono films this year!!!). I'll always try to find a film that I fear to see (eg The Woman from this year or Dream Home from last year). And then I'll go looking for outside chances. These simply have something in their descriptions that appeal to me, no depth needed, just enough salt or sugar in the presentation and they're on the list. These have the highest miss rate, almost destined to disappoint. Play didn't.

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