Today saw the first, but certainly not the last Romanian screening of the festival. As some of you may be aware, Romania is producing consistently superb cinema right now, and that streak seems set to continue with a number of the titles set to screen at the festival this year. One noticeable trend I’ve identified about the films from the Romanian New Wave is the common depiction of a prolonged, difficult situation, stretched out in most cases over the course of the entire film. These seemingly eternal occurences are used to mount increasing tension (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), awkwardness (12:08 East of Bucharest), humour (California Dreamin’), or sometimes all of the above (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu).
The Happiest Girl in the World (Radu Jude, Romania, 2009) takes one irritation and stretches it to its fullest extent, taking us from laughs to exhuastion to exasperation in the space of just 90 minutes. We spend the film’s entirety observing said ‘happy’ girl, Delia, as she tries her hardest to act in an advert for a brand of fizzy drink; she’s required to get in a car, take a swig and speed away, all the while smiling to the camera. What sounds simple enough eventually grows into a few dozen takes, and in between we’re given a glimpse into corporate meddling and familial struggle.
We never look at this girl through the lens of the film crew’s demanding camera. Their intentions do not belong to us. Instead we observe from afar, in wide shots that look past all of the artifice and pick up on the reality of the situation, the real emotions behind the ‘happiest, luckiest girl in the world’. While this wouldn’t rank near the top of my favourite films that have emerged from the Romanian New Wave, it’s nevertheless a strong offering that will continue to uphold the reputation of the country’s current output. The remaining Romanian features of the festival can’t come soon enough.
Walking at a brisk pace from one venue to the next, I barely made it in time to catch the opening credits of Bunny and the Bull (Paul King, UK, 2009), a film from the creators of The Mighty Boosh. The story consists of two friends, who look like dead cert surrogates for Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (the latter was actually sat a few seats along from me at last night’s Cold Souls screening), both deciding to embark on a wacky backpacking adventure through Europe.
The whole procedure seems very Boosh-lite, even down to most of the character interactions. Each set is inventively imagined, twisting and turning and changing before our very eyes as the characters traverse their various locations. The journey serves as Boosh with actual, if poorly constructed, character development, as our key protagonist, Stephen, drags us along for the most uninteresting, uninspired romantic subplot in recent memory that never quite gives us reason enough to care. Such a predictable course drags the narrative down, and with the remaining plot outline consisting of weak, quirky, occasionally humorous episodic mishaps akin to a road trip comedy such as Harold and Kumar, there’s just not a lot on offer besides the welcome cameos from Barratt, Fielding and the always-hilarious Richard Ayoade aka Dean Lerner aka Thornton Reed, who could well have stolen the show with the best line of the entire film. Assuming the role of a guide in a Shoe Museum, he asks, “What is a shoe? It’s a hot topic that’s for sure, and the debate will certainly rage on.”
I had my intial reservations about Departures (Yojiro Takita, Japan, 2008), winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. I assumed that for a film to take the prize in that category it surely has the potential of doing something horribly wrong. Sure enough, the film began with possibly the worst penis joke ever, effectively setting the standard of quality – note, not the tone – for the rest of the film’s humour. Daigo Kobayashi plays cello for a living, until one day he is told that the orchestra he is a part of has now been dissolved. Daigo must now find a new way to earn some cash, so he turns to the directory where he conveniently stumbles across an vacancy ad for ‘Departures’. Don’t make the same mistake as Paul Giamatti, Daigo! Believing it to be a travel agency, he eagerly signs up. Oh, how hilarious! Isn’t he in for the shock of his life! As it turns out, ‘Departures’ is in fact an encoffinment agency, where new recruits are required to ‘dress up’ corpses, making them look nice and sexy for their open-coffin funerals. Cue another half hour of terrible, terrible humour.
I think I see how this won an Oscar.
The style and execution of Departures is ordinary, almost non-existent. There’s little-to-no camera movement; instead we see the same standard static framing and an overabundance of reaction shots that say little for the filmmaker’s creativity behind the camera. There’s no trace of a unique visual style; indeed, the importance of visuals are subsided in favour of weary dialogue and a hideous, overbearing string score that attempts to push the emotional buttons of the audience as hard as it possibly can.
Now I see how this won an Oscar.
As we come to the end of the film, most plot points that had previously dangled now find themselves comfortably reconciled, as would be expected from such a stale, predictable product. The final scene of the film takes things to the next level, possibly even higher, with the music reaching an unwarranted level of manipulation, as if the film is bludgeoning the audience into submission, literally begging for us to cry our eyes out. The woman sitting to the left of me was too weak, essentially imploding, drowning in a sea of her own tears. It just goes to show how weak one film can be – how little it has to offer – when it takes one unnecessary element such as the score and turns it up to 11, just to elicit a strong reaction, however forced that reaction may be. Sentimental dreck.
Now I see how this won an Oscar.