Festivals: Berlin Blog #3
It wasn’t until the festival’s penultimate day that the Competition delivered a film truly worth raving about: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Shot over a period of almost 12 years, Boyhood charts the life of the protagonist Mason from elementary school to his first day of college. Far from being a whimsical experiment, the gamble fully pays off, allowing Linklater—who won the Silver Bear for Best Director—to paint a portrait of youth every bit as delicate and expansive as the adult relationships he realized in his Before trilogy.
Eschewing a conventional narrative arc, Boyhood maintains a sense of purpose as it moves forward one year at a time, gathering snippets of life that would be largely inconsequential on their own, but cumulatively add up to a thoroughly involving trajectory. The passage of time occurs with perfect fluidity and, as in real life, Mason’s early years are more difficult to distinguish. Once he enters puberty, the jumps become more distinct, not only due to the obvious changes in his appearance but (more interestingly) because of his evolving individuality as an adolescent.
The film is less successful at capturing the specificity of each time period. There are plenty of chronological signposts, such as the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, the first Obama campaign, and the proliferation of social media. However, unlike in Dazed and Confused, where Linklater so ably integrated the Seventies zeitgeist into his characters’ personalities, here the indicators feel more decorative. While this heightens the story’s universality, it also relinquishes a certain degree of character complexity. By contrast, the evocation of sense of place is superb: the Confederate flag in a Republican neighbor’s garden; the polo shirts tucked into cargo shorts favored by Mason’s stepfather; the grandparents’ gift of a bible and a shotgun for Mason’s 15th birthday; the social significance of playing lacrosse or belonging to a sorority; the shared dorm rooms of college. Every aspect of the film is firmly anchored in American—specifically Texan—culture, marking Boyhood as the latest and richest chapter in the director’s career-long ethnography of his home state.
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Another distinguished latecomer was Dio Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, which went on to win the Golden Bear at Saturday’s award ceremony. In the film’s first part, set in 1999, police detective Zhang investigates the discovery of severed body parts in various coal factories around a small town in northern China. Things come to a head in a bloody and wonderfully staged showdown at a hair salon in which both suspects and two policemen are killed, resulting in Zhang’s suspension from service. Fast-forward to 2004 and Zhang is a hopeless alcoholic working as a security guard. After an old colleague reveals new evidence regarding the murders, he takes it upon himself to finally close the case, kicking off a serpentine plot fitted with all the trappings of the neo-noir genre.
In its first half, the film is excellent. The unkempt, unorthodox detective, the sudden bursts of violence and acrobatic action, and the dark, incongruous humor, all of which are strongly reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s work, move the story along at a brisk, captivating pace. As Zhang sleuths his way to the truth, however, this momentum disappears. The primary reason for this is sloppy storytelling, which makes the increasingly complex chain of events confusing instead of intriguing. When Zhang eventually cracks the case, the drawn-out resolution is deeply unsatisfying. Nevertheless, the film is visually striking throughout, consisting almost entirely of night scenes lit in acid neon colors and maintaining a brooding and ominous atmosphere that goes a long way towards making up for the weak narrative.
Blind Dates, by Georgian director Levan Koguashvili, was one of the highlights of this year’s Forum sidebar. In the film Sandro, a single schoolteacher in his forties who still lives with his parents, falls for Manana, the mother of one of his students. Although she too is taken with him, it turns out that her husband, a fiercely jealous man incarcerated for crimes of passion, is about to be released. In one of the film’s many delightfully absurd scenarios, Sandro offers to drive Manana to the prison to pick up her husband. The latter, oblivious to their relationship, ends up hiring Sandro as his driver, and the two spend the day together trying to settle the husband’s various scores, including an extramarital affair.
The film offers a heartfelt reflection on middle-age loneliness and nice guys finishing last without ever turning into a wallow. The tactful approach and abundant deadpan humor evokes Aki Kaurismäki’s but without any trace of acerbity. With his hangdog demeanor, Andro Sakhvarelidze excels as Sandro, giving dignity and credibility to a character whose genuine and unwavering kindness could easily have lent itself to pathetic caricature. Rendered in carefully constructed yet unobtrusive shots and a muted color palette well suited to the film’s mood, Blind Dates is slow-burning, unpretentious, and irresistibly charming.