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Filmfestival Hamburg 2007 Film Reviews - Part I
by the KinoCritics

A Hebrew Lesson
David Ofek/Ron Rotem, Israel
(Birgit Schrumpf, BT, KB, BS, MW)
See festival coverage

A Perfect Match ****
Miel Van Hoogenbemt, Belgium/the Netherlands
Mr. Direx is newly retired and alone. His wife died long ago. His adult son avoids him, preferring to play professional Scrabble instead. His middle-aged cleaning lady returns to Romania, but not before announcing that her niece, who needs a time-out from problems at home, will replace her temporarily. Mr. Direx, with the help of his computer-savvy neighbor, contacts potential partners online. In the end, he falls in love with the young niece, re-evaluates his relationship with his son, and decides to remain single, at least for the moment. The experience has helped him become more sympathetic to the plight of others. In the end there is no “perfect match” but the film certainly is wonderful in its simplicity and the well-roundedness of the plot which works perfectly from beginning to end with three main actors and one main venue. I loved watching Direx and his dates with the most diverse bunch of woman imaginable – all hilarious, and all no different from our own acquaintances. (Becky Tan)

A Schoolgirls Diary *
Jang in-hak, North Korea
This film was done in the typical communist propaganda style, portraying a family of two children, a mother and grandmother who are trying to maintain the family home while the father works day and night in the factory. The story is told from the girl’s point of view in order to show her family’s struggle, in contrast with the up-and-coming richer families of her schoolmates. Envy and jealousy must be suppressed while humility and honoring the family is of utmost importance. The film was often repetitious so that the audience could clearly understand the message. In doing so it became a rather boring film, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, coming as it did from North Korea. Interesting is that it reminds me of the China I visited some twelve years ago. Now, in China, this communistic sense of values and culture has completely vanished as its people race to embrace capitalism. It will be interesting to see where North Korea will be in the next ten years as we see the communist world shrink. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer, BT, BS)

Afghan Muscles****
Andreas Mǿl Dalsgaard, Denmark
As far as documentaries go, you pretty much have to pick a good subject to keep the audience engaged: Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard chose the realm of body-building. Although mildly interesting to the Western world, this topic becomes highly original subject matter chronicled in the setting of war-torn Afghanistan, a country searching for the means to gather some semblance of functionality and honor. Afghan Muscles follows the stories of a handful of Afghani body-builders, competing for the title of “Mr. Kabul”, a revered crown that will instantly instill honor to the winner and his family. This event is a rowdy affair complete with heckling, taunting and vigorous cheering for favored contenders. The next step is “Mr. Afghanistan”, eventually leading to the “Mr. Asia” title, in Dubai, where competition standards are elevated to a professional international level.

The popularity of body-building appears to be in stark contrast to Afghanistan, a country which was ruled for a decade by the religiously fanatical, anti-western Taliban. From the rubble of that crumbled regime spring the hopes and dreams of young men, living in devastation and poverty, searching for a way to gather personal respect and pride. Body-building is the physical manifestation of discipline, beauty and power to these championship hopefuls. The added presence of American military occupation has introduced a new market of high protein food and drinks and muscle- building steroids, along with images and videos of a glorified, 1980’s Arnold Schwarzenegger body. These enticements dangle like a carrot before a horse as the body-builders search for the financial means to attain these lofty heights. Sponsorship from a gym/manager becomes a necessity, and is often traded for the amount of 15 eggs a day, the poor-man’s bulking diet.

Disqualification for an improperly-fitting thong, sleeping at the Dubai airport, the haggling of egg allotment, and the dilemma of mosque vs. gym time are informative and sometimes humorous documentary excerpts; none of these scenes are relevant unless shown through the eyes of Afghani muscle men. With the recent literary wave of best-selling novelists trying to keep a finger on the pulse of this complex and down-trodden nation (The Kite Runner, Bookseller of Kabul, 1000 Splendid Suns), Afghan Muscles offers us a new view of Afghani culture developing before the camera: a hopeful glimpse at the struggle for self- improvement, and in turn, the country itself. With this well-made and non-patronizing film, Dalsgaard shows us a warmly documented piece without a thread of exposé, steering clear of social judgment and Western bravado. (Kirstan Böttger, BT, KB, BS, NT)

Atonement (Abbitte) ***
Joe Wright, Great Britain
Starts November 8
Spoiled 13-year-old upper class Brit Briony (Saoirse Ronan) just finished writing her first play to the proud satisfaction of her doting mother. Briony wants the play read to entertain the adults that evening, including an important guest of her older brother. Briony\'s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) seems annoyed to learn that her brother has also invited their house-servant\'s son, Robbie (James McAvoy) to join them for the evening. Robbie had the privilege of studying at university and has just returned to the manor. Robbie is mooning over Cecilia and writes several variations of love notes, one of which is quite pornographic. Robbie decides to send Cecilia a love note and passes it on to Briony to take it to her. Too late Robbie realizes he mistakenly sent the sexually explicit note. Of course the curious Briony reads it. When Cecilia reads the note, she is more amused than shocked. Robbie meets Cecilia in the library and wants to explain but they instead act out a variation on the note only to be interrupted by a horrified Briony.

Later that evening some children are missing on the manor grounds and everyone searches the dark woods. Briony happens upon her teenage cousin Lola (Juno Temple) apparently being sexually assaulted. Briony concludes it must be Robbie. She tells the police and Lola goes along with the story. The rest of the film, with the use of flashbacks, details the consequences against a backdrop of World War II.

Perhaps it is best to read the book of the same title by Ian McEwan before seeing this adaptation to truly appreciate the transition of Briony from confused child to dutiful nurse to autobiographical author (played by Vanessa Redgrave) trying to atone for her calamitous mistake. But without that background, reality and fiction seemed to blur through the war scenes, flashbacks and hospital wards so that the final, second ending was more a relief than a tragedy. (Mary Wienke)

Bis zum Ellenbogen (All the way to Ellenbogen) ***
Jusstus von Dohnányi, Germany
Starts November 1
Sven, Achim and Willi have nothing in common except for the fact they all happen to be vacationing in an idyllic mountainous spot in Switzerland at the same time. Their paths cross when Achim (Jan Josef Liefers), on his mountain bike, collides with Willi (Stefan Kurt), leaving Achim with a concussion and Willi with a ruined tent. Sven (Justus von Dohnányi, who also directs), who is renting a cabin just down the road, comes to their rescue and invites the two to stay with him. Achim, who’s taken one too many chances in his father-in-law’s company, and Willi, an unemployed electrician and erstwhile inventor, are like oil and water, but Sven, a bank employee in a dead-end job, is delighted to have company. He serves as mediator and after a few days and as many bottles of wine, the three share a nice camaraderie. Unfortunately, a freak accident leaves Achim and Willi confronted with Sven’s corpse. They decide to fulfil his wish for a burial at sea at Ellenbogen, the northern tip of Sylt. Achim, however, has an ulterior motive. Prior to his death, Sven told of his boss at the bank and the illicit funds that are stored in the safe there. Achim has his eye on the money and conceives a plan to get it.

So they hit the road, traveling from Switzerland to the northern tip of Germany. Along the way Achim and Willi make their way in and out of several sticky situations trying to keep Sven’s “condition” under cover, dealing with everything from a curious border patrol guard to a psychotic neighbor to a rude waiter. But three quickly becomes a crowd as Sven’s body begins to decompose and rigor mortis sets in. Undaunted, Achim and Willi carry on, hopeful that their somewhat far-fetched plan to get at the cash will succeed.

Made on a shoestring budget, Ellenbogen is a clever film using modest means to create a black comedy that is part road-trip film, part buddy film and part heist film. The three protagonists were all colleagues at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, and their close work together on the stage enabled them to recreate their intimacy and camaraderie on the screen. They give straightforward, character-driven performances with just the right touch of craziness to make them sympathetic. The situational comedy, while somewhat absurd, is carried out with incredible ease, and there were numerous laughing-out-loud moments throughout the film. While the viewer has to allow for considerable suspension of belief in many of the scenes, the characters are so guileless, that it’s easy just to sit back and enjoy the comic timing and dialogue. This entertaining and good-natured film, full of sunny mountain and ocean shots, may be just the thing to give you a break from the grey and rainy fall/winter weather. In German. (Erica Fox Zabusky)

Blind Mountain (Mang Shan)****
Li Yang, People’s Republic of China/Hongkong
Human trafficking is thriving. In China today hundred of thousands of young women are kidnapped as “brides” and sold off as child-earing sex slaves. The traditional Chinese ethics are in danger of a total collapse due to the rapid development of the cities providing sudden opportunities for people with money. Love and empathy take a back seat as greed seems to take over.

This film is based on the true story of one of these young girls. Bai Xueimei (Huang Lu), a 22-year old university graduate, looks for a summer job in the province of Sichuan. She is lucky to meet Hu, a friendly young girl who promises to help. Her boss buys medical herbs in the mountains and offers to take Bai along as an assistant. She is overjoyed and the three start a strenuous journey into the mountain where they reach a remote village. An hour later Bai waks up in the middle of the day in a strange, unfamiliar house. Her identity papers have been taken out of her rucksack and there is no sign of the friendly Hu and her boss. With horror she realises that she has been tricked and sold to Huang Degui, a bachelor farmer 20 years older. She is devastated and begs the Huang family to let her go free. This is indignantly refused as they have paid good money for her.

A wedding banquet is prepared, with the whole village congratulating Degui on his good fortune to have such a pretty young bride. When consummating his marriage, Bai throws a wild tantrum but cannot win against Degui and his mother. She is beaten and brutally raped. In the weeks to come Bai desperately looks for ways of escape but is closely watched, betrayed, brought back again and even chained. She has now become a slave in the house of the farmer. Not only the apathetic villagers turn a blind eye to her plight but also local officials and even the police refuse to help her.

When she falls pregnant, the old mother and her son are joyous, hoping that Bai will settle down and learn to accept her new life in the village. She learns that she is not the only kidnapped “bride” in this isolated mountain area. The peasants cannot understand why she is so unhappy. For them it is quite customary to buy wives, and if she were not behaving so rebelliously, life could be quite pleasant. Strong-willed Bai plays along but never gives up. With the help of a little boy she finally manages to contact with her family. Unbelievingly, this is not yet the end of her suffering.

Li Yang has told this psychological drama with a keen sense for the realities of rural China. He has chosen to work with local peasants in order to create an authentic feel. Throughout this remarkable film he builds up an oppressive sense of tension. One is surprised that the authorities in Beijing have allowed this film to be shot, since it openly exposes people trafficking and the unashamed corruption of Chinese officials. Li Yang explains, “It is a critique of both the money-reigns-supreme attitude prevalent in Chinese society now and also a relentless exposé of the ugliness, greed, brutality and treachery in human nature. It is a call for the return to basic human values, love and conscience in our society”. (Birgit Schrumpf)

Blue Eyelids *
Ernesto Contreras, Mexico
This is Contreras’s feature film debut and received a special mention at the Guadalajara film festival. It proved to be a disappointment, unfortunately, crawling along with little interest or suspense and wasting the potential of a promising storyline.  The two main characters, Marina (Cecilia Suarez) and Victor (Enrique Arroela) are lonely inarticulate people. They meet in a shop where Marina buys bread. Victor approaches her and insists that they were at school together. They strike up a friendship even though Marina has no recollection of him. Just when you think that a tale of suspense is about to begin, this part of the story comes to a dead end. Marina has just won a dream holiday for two at the beach. Now, who can she take to Playa Salamandra with her? Yes, you’ve guessed it – or have you? What this almost monosyllabic pair don’t say in words must be shown in other ways. A witty exchange is almost always more interesting than an occasional shrug of the shoulder or moody expression and because of the lack of engaging dialogue in this movie it turned out to be a bore. (Jenny Mather, MW, BS)

Bruno Manser – LAKI Penan ***1/2
Christoph Kühn, Switzerland
Started November 29
At this very moment our rainforests worldwide are currently being violated by powerful companies and indigenous populations and exotic plants and animals are at risk. Faced with these environmental issues, we are reminded of one of the early environmentalist pioneers: Bruno Manser. Who was he and what did he do? This film goes back in time to recapture the spirit of this quiet Swiss naturalist and his journey into the Borneo jungles. As a small boy he had dreamed and written in his journal that he would like to go into the jungle, find an indigenous culture and learn the skills of living a very simple life and being one with nature. This film covers 1984 to 1990 when he lives with the Penan in Sarawak, Borneo. Although it is a reflective documentary and covers much of his life through his journals and old footage of his time in the jungles, this film is anything but boring. Director Kühn really catches this passionate scientist’s life and his struggle to save the Penan people and the environment in which they live. It was at this time that the loggers began to destroy the rain forests and Manser, although a quiet man, was forced to become an activist and a leader in the Penan community.

This film traces the political career and then the final disappearance of Manser in 2000.
While investigating clues to his disappearance by interviewing the Penan people who knew him, Kühn brings backs the international awareness of this fight to save our rainforest, the same fight that Bruno Manser fought for while he was alive. His political demonstrations were often extreme and brought attention to his cause putting him in the limelight. As a shy man this wasn’t really his intention. Today the Penan tribes are still fighting to stop the illegal logging of their lands and are demanding respect and protection of their customs. There is a Bruno Manser Foundation that makes contributions to this cause. It is interesting to know that Switzerland is the second largest financial contributor after Japan. While reading the website which is an organization that monitors and is involved in trying to save the rainforests, An contemporary article from 2007 states that the Landak people are faced with the illegal logging of their lands. The largest palm oil company, Wilmar, claims to have land permits from the local government which gives it rights to bulldoze the rubber trees. This same company is also responsible for cutting the trees at the Tanjung Putting National Park where the orang-utans are located and are being threatened. Although the film was biographical it could have emphasised some of these other current issues dealing with Borneo and the rainforests in order to get people more involved in saving our rainforests around the world. Bruno Manser would have wanted to Save the Rainforest. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer, BT)

Cabal In Kabul ***
Dan Alexe, France/Belgium
Isaac Levy and Zabulon Simantov are apparently the last remaining Jews in Afghanistan. Instead of helping and supporting each other, however, they hate each other with a passion and haven’t spoken directly for ten years. These vicious old enemies live in medieval squalor in Kabul’s derelict synagogue and scratch a living by selling amulets to gullible Afghani peasants (Isaac) or making wine in filthy conditions (Zabulon). When they aren’t at work they visit the market which their forebears must have used for centuries past. Their journey to the market affords glimpses of the once proud and beautiful city which the Russians, then the Taliban and now forces sanctioned by the U.N. have reduced to rubble.

You may find yourself wondering why nobody seems to think of picking up a piece of rubble, placing it upon another piece and beginning the process of resurrecting the city. You may wonder, too, why a Red Cross ambulance is prepared to drive Isaac’s body to Israel for burial when there’s a perfectly adequate burial ground by the synagogue in Kabul. Red Cross money aside, surely this where Isaac belongs?

Isaac lived to be eight-one but Zabulon looks thirty years younger. What will he do without his old enemy to scream abuse at and where will he end his days? This is director Dan Alexa’s second documentary and he should be complimented for making a film which affects his audience so strongly. (Jenny Mather, SS, BS, MW)

Control  ****
Anton Corbijn
, Great Britain
Starts January 10
The story is as simple as a real person\'s short life can be. Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) and Peter Hook (Joe Anderson) live in North-Eastern England. They go to rock concerts, work at low-paying jobs and dream of playing in a band. One day they meet, write some songs, practice, hire a producer and work their way through the clubs under the band name Joy Division. Here the similarities with other young people end. They become a huge success in the 1970s with songs such as Love Will Tear Us Apart and She\'s Lost Control. They are on their way to
world fame; then it all falls apart.

The film focuses on Ian Curtis, the singer and song writer. He marries Deborah Woodruff (Samantha Morton) at age 19, has a small daughter and falls in love with a Belgian groupie/journalist. He suffers from epilepsy, depression, the expectations of two women, and the responsibility of family. Sam Riley portrays a young man who, with help all around him, still can not climb out of his black hole. Debby files for divorce. The band is booked to play a triumphant tour in the U.S. and Curtis commits suicide. He is 23.

This is Dutch director Anton Corbijn\'s first film. With 25 years of experience as a photographer of rock groups, he knew precisely where to place the camera to pinpoint the emotions, conflicts, and suffering of young Ian. Besides the famous Joy Division songs, others are added by New Order, the band which regrouped after the death of Curtis. Also on the sound track are Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, and David Bowie.

Control won two prizes at the 2007 Cannes film festival, also best British newcomer film and best actor at the Edinburgh festival. It was voted best film by critics at the 2007 Filmfest Hamburg. Yes, it is excellent, but the viewers who are totally swooning over this film, e.g., in Hamburg during the Filmfest and in the British Guardian newspaper, are those who grew up with the band. They know every song, still have their old Joy Division T-shirts, and delight in the nostalgia of their younger selves 30 years ago. If you fit into this category or even if you love rock music, see the film. (Becky Tan)

Crossing the Dust ****
Shawkat Amin Korki, Iraq/France
This small but effective film could play anywhere, but the fact that it takes place in Iraq makes it especially memorable. Two Kurdish men, Asad and Rashid, drive a truck down dusty roads. They wish to deliver big pots of food somewhere: to a restaurant, to a camp perhaps. Suddenly, they see a small boy at the side of the road. In this ruined and war-torn country, he could be temporarily lost, an orphan, or just playing, but he seems to be in need. Against the better judgement of Rashid, they take him along in the hopes of finding his parents. During their odyssey they are in phone contact with their employers who become increasingly impatient for the delivery. This small act of kindness backfires and in the end the delivery fails and one person is dead. It is amazing that this, probably low-budget film, can give such a strong message of the impact that war has on the lives of small and simple people who only wish to live in peace and do their jobs. If for no other reason, we should support film festivals in Hamburg, because there is no other opportunity to see worthwhile films such as this one. (Becky Tan, BS)

Johan Kling, Sweden
Can life be boring if you have a “bottomless” purse? Yes, if you are like Eva (Michelle Meadows), a young woman in her twenties. She and her boyfriend live in the hippest part of Stockholm. Life is a bore, with clubbing, shopping and endless discussions of trendy ski resorts. Eva is so bored that even a one-night stand (Mikael Lindgren) looks like a good diversion. Boyfriend Micke (Richard Ulfsäter) is not amused and leaves her. Her mother, whose money has kept her in good supply, stops payment and starts a new life with a new man. Suddenly Eva is confronted with the real world. What a shock: No money, no job – the luxurious flat no longer paid for.

We never saw Eva smiling when she was surrounded by her glamorous friends - who are now avoiding her. We never see her smiling now, looking for a job at McDonalds. This is understandable, when we watch her in close encounter with the meat patties and the piping hot frying pan. It is the not-so-young and not-so-handsome Bernard (Michael Segerström), who turns out to be the only one sympathetic and helpful. He was unemployed and divorced, past his fiftieth birthday and no stranger to the harsh world. This job gives him back his self-esteem and some of his good humour reflects on to Eva. At last we see her managing a tiny smile.

Her life takes another turn when a business woman from her previous life offers her a job in a boutique, unaware that she had fallen a few notches off the social scale. Eva’s sojourn into another part of town had not completely changed her but at least it has broadened her horizon and made her a touch more “natural”.     

With this comical and cynical portrait of an unsympathetic, cold and spoilt generation the director Johan Kling won the Nordisk Film Award. (Birgit Schrumpf, BW)

Die Katze (The Cat)*
Kaspar Heidelbach, Germany
Margret (Hannelore Hoger), a middle-aged widow, gets a little help around the house from Siegmar (Götz George), a former foreman. They have a few rather boring dates but nevertheless they decide to marry and move into her house. She is not happy, however, that he brought his cat. They start bickering. The cat disappears and is later found by Siegmar in the basement, dead from rat poison. Margret claims it was an accident but Siegmar refuses to speak to her and the two communicate by throwing little balled-up notes at each other. Margret invites an obnoxious friend which drives Siegmar out the door. He goes to a local bar and takes a room upstairs. Both characters are completely unsympathetic and their relationship makes no sense at all. Based on the novel by French criminal expert Georges Simenon, the point of this story must have been lost in translation. The cat gets a star for having a purr-sonality. (Mary Wienke, BS)

The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island ** 1/2
(Die Drei ???-Das Geheimnis der Geisterinsel)
Hayo Freitag, Germany
Starts November 8
(Kirstan Böttger, SS)
See festival coverag