Jun 062015



Day two was very good for daytime subscribers, who saw a very strong pair of feature films and two commendable documentaries.

After a few false starts thanks to technical difficulties, the day began with the reasonably successful documentary THE CHINESE MAYOR. The film’s greatest asset is the intimate access offered by its subject, Mayor Geng Yanbo, who seems to think the documentary will be a puff piece about his plan to attract American tourists by rebuilding the ancient city walls of Datong. Almost one-third of the city’s residents will need be relocated, and their homes demolished, to complete this work. We see many upset residents (some covered in suspicious bruises) complain to Geng about their unfair treatment, refusing to leave their homes.

In one curious scene, Geng meets with other mayors, and they brag to each other about the enormous number of homes they’ve each demolished in similar projects. The film does well to show us the other side of the story, too. Most of the population loves Geng thanks to his (near-dictatorial) anti-bureaucratic policies. The film has some unfortunate problems with repetition, making its points quickly and then slowing down to a drag. There’s little art to the presentation, but there’s enough to the story to earn a mild recommendation.

The title SLOW WEST is part of a charade, disguising the true nature of this western. The story follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he travels across the American plains in search of his lost love. He’s a meek man, accompanied for much of the journey by a cigar-chomping outlaw played by the ever-impressive Michael Fassbender.

In early scenes, the film presents the journey as a brutal slog through an unforgiving landscape, filled with horrific gunfights and little else. As it goes along, however, the film’s tone slowly shifts, becoming crazier and more playful, until it’s more or less a roaring action-comedy. There’s a sight-gag towards the end which would not be out-of-place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The film is effective in both modes, and I found the transition truly enjoyable. This one really took me by surprise.

The official competition is off to an incredible start with Simon Stone’s directorial début THE DAUGHTER, which is the best Australian drama I have seen for years. In this tightly-woven plot, the closure of a timber mill threatens to demolish a town, as suddenly jobless families move away, causing other businesses to close. The gap between the rich and the poor is explored, as the owner of the mill prepares an expensive wedding to a younger woman, while one of his newly unemployed workers tries to keep his life and his family together.

The film is a showcase of Australian acting royalty, with roles played by Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Ewen Leslie and Miranda Otto. The highlight, though, is Odessa Young as the pink-haired schoolgirl Hedvig. Her performance feels so natural that I never once considered that she might be acting. She feels like a person with feelings, not a character in a film, which is why this story connected with me so completely on an emotional level. I had tears streaming down my face for the final twenty minutes of the film, and the whole way through the credits, and any time I tried to talk about it for the rest of the day. It’s been a long time since a film did that to me.

The day closed out with the documentary PALIO, which showcases one of the world’s oddest and most exciting sporting events. Twice each year in Siena, Italy, a violent bareback horse race is held, putting the different regions of the city in fierce competition with one another. Seemingly every single citizen of Siena barracks fiercely for the rider representing their region. The riders don’t just whip their horses, but they are free to whip the other contestants as they race around the track. Bribery and collusion are also openly accepted as part of the strategy for the race.

The film showcases two races, and it cleverly draws us into the action by setting up a hero and a villain. One is a young up-and-comer who has never won the race. The other is smug veteran, who is hoping to match the record number of victories. It’s a really fun film to watch, and what we learn about the race is fascinating. The film avoids any discussion of animal cruelty, and has nothing to say about the horses that must surely get injured and killed in the event each year. We see a few major accidents in the film, and the horses pile into each other like race cars slamming into a wall. The only hint towards this is a single shot of a horse bleeding from whip strikes after a race, which is not commented upon. It’s a sensible omission for the sake of the film’s exciting tone, but I found it problematic.

Tomorrow the daytime subscribers have a shorter day, with just two films. We’ll be seeing a documentary about Marlon Brando and the competition film STRANGERLAND.

By Shaun Heenan