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The Berlinale Blog: The new normal

What's happening in this year's race for the Teddy award? Zhuo-Ning Su takes a look at two contenders from Panorama.

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The Panorama section of the Berlin has always has a strong focus on LGBT films and this year’s no exception. A sample of the Teddy contenders from the 2015-lineup reveals the interesting trend that sexually graphic portrayal of the gay lifestyle is no longer the mark of queer cinema. On the contrary, homosexuality is increasingly used as just another plot element to tell a story, drive a narrative. 

First case in point is previous Teddy winner Marco Berger’s Mariposa (Butterfly), a parallel-reality drama/romance that features a group of young people from rural Argentina in two sets of amorous constellations – as the extended consequences of an act of (non-)abandonment. A boy and a girl who would have ended up as adoptive siblings become strangers in a separate/imagined universe and are thus free to pursue their desire for one another. This deviation leads to a chain reaction where friends, acquaintances all inhabit a different version of themselves and their game of hearts finds a whole new outcome – or will it?   

In short, it’s a Sliding Doors / The Butterfly Effect revisit, only with a homosexual angle. In comparison to Berger’s Ausente (Absence) or Hawaii, however, that aspect is significantly toned down here. Although there are still unmistakably homo-eroticized scenes and one might argue the playful, sexually easygoing, somewhat fatalistic tone is altogether gay-friendly, the curiosity and attraction between two male characters is treated here as no more than one facet of a larger plot construct. In so doing, lust, whether hetero, homo, bisexual or even semi-incestuous, all gets its share of attention and a kind of stigma is quietly lifted.

On a technical level, the editing of the film is obviously of vital importance and it didn’t disappoint. After a pretty rough start, where the constant switching between the two storylines gets a little mundane, the cuts get ever more confident and inventive, letting the alternative narrative pick up at unexpected places. The direction is also effective, especially in those many moments of tingling uncertainty. So even though the film’s ultimately a rather pointless exercise in imagination, at its laziest it’s a lot of harmless, flirty fun.

Hailing from Thailand, writer/director Josh Kim makes his feature debut with How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), a coming-of-age drama centered around 11-year-old boy Oat. Growing up parent-less, he’s dependent on big brother Ek, who’s the very symbol of worldliness and competence to his young eyes. As the date for the military draft lottery draws near and Ek faces a real possibility of having to leave home to serve, however, Oat learns not only about the fragility of his lifelong protector/idol, but also the dirty, disappointing workings of the adult world.

Once again, the homosexual element of the story is prominent but not zealously harped upon. The fact that Ek has a (rich) boyfriend and one of their best pals, Kitty, is a transgender person is taken as a given, enacted without much fanfare. Plot details such as Kitty’s special treatment at the military draft lottery do inform one of Thailand’s liberal awareness regarding sexuality. But that’s also used mainly as general backdrop and not a focal point of the story. The film concentrates instead on the relationship between the two brothers and the loss of innocence that would shape the character of a child. 

As refreshing as the normalcy afforded to homosexuality is, this movie comes up short in most technical aspects. The cinematography is patchy. Aside from the overall warm, pinkish-earthy tone of the imagery, the camera operation is less-than-inspired. Both the editing and the acting are rough, unable to shake the cartoonish out of the funny or find a more fluid rhythm. That said, the subject matter is well chosen and, at a festival with all kinds of high-minded auteur works, something that wears the heart on its sleeves like this actually offers a welcomed respite.      

Mariposa (Butterfly) screens Feb 9, 23.00 (Cubix 7 + 8), Feb 14, 19.00 (Zoo Palast 1).

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) screens Feb 9, 20.30 (Cubix 7 + 8), Feb 10, 14.00 (International), Feb 15, 21.30 (Zoo Palast 1).