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The Berlinale Blog: Teddy contenders

Eve Lucas considers what qualifies films for inclusion on the Teddy programme – and hopes for an award-winning outcome for two (make that three) in particular.

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“White Night”

Does a film in which two men briefly discuss the difficulties they faced in establishing a formally recognized relationship (the 727 Days Without Karamo) or one in which Catherine Keener dons a suit and paints on a mustache (Maladies) really qualify them for a Teddy award? Relationships take place in societies that approve, sanction, tolerate, ignore or condemn – with many shades of grey in between. And shouldn’t the way gay relationships are physically expressed on film reflect these social frameworks? Two films on the Teddy programme hit both these targets, merging the specifically LGTB with a wider issue: how the repression of individuals affects society at large.

“So it starts and ends on the road”, says Tae-Jun to Won-Gyu in LeeSong Hee-il’s White Night, after the two men meet on an internet date in front of a Wooribank in nighttime Seoul: the implication being that this is where relationships such as theirs play out because there is no home territory.  Years ago, air-steward Won-Gyu was involved in a gay-hate incident in Seoul. Returning, despite a long-nurtured determination not to, his intentions for the night are clear: some hurried alley sex before he disappears back into the night and an early morning flight. His date, Tae-Jun, is a motorcycle messenger with more than sex to deliver. It soon becomes clear enough that Won-Gyu’s emotional scars are resistant to any kind of quickie fix. Almost despite his better judgment, Tae-Jun settles in for a night of violence and talk, distance and closure, exorcising the past as both men begin to unravel Won-Gyu’s demons.

In an effort to match progress in other developed countries, South Korea has gone some way towards improving gay rights legislation. Public attitudes remain less tolerant. The white (artic) night from which this film derives its name is eponymously endless, reaching far back into the past and ahead into a process of ongoing homophobia. The promise of whiteness is really only a promise, a hint of dawn as the two men separate after a dark night in which sex was too often just another way of perpetuating violence.

Tighter editing of dialogue and action would have put this message over even more effectively – as it does in Belated (Deshora) from Argentina, directed by Bárbara Sarasola-Day. A long opening tracking shot through tobacco fields in the Argentine highlands shows the back of a man bearing a heavy load, introducing us also to the burdened lives of a wealthy tobacco farmer Ernesto, his wife Helena and Helena’s cousin Joaquin, fresh out of rehab, who joins them to experience farm life and the salutary benefits of physical exertion. It introduces us also to the theme of dependence – on narcotics, but also on affection, status, convention.

Helena and Ernesto have been trying for some time to conceive, their lack of success has made them irritable and prone to half-hearted sex. But social context and the osmotic virility of ranch life shores up their marriage. Ernesto takes Joaquin to cockfights, high-end brothels and out hunting. ‘Animals can smell fear’ he says, as he shows Joaquin how to fire a rifle, embracing him from behind and releasing a far more elemental response: an attraction as undeniable as the grass on which they stand, yet beyond the pale of their environment. As Ernesto and Joaquin, Luis Ziembrowski and Alejandro Buitrago torch each other with looks – and one kiss that stands for a whole world of forbidden desires, transferred by both men onto an increasingly confused Helena (Maria Ucedo). The film rests almost entirely on this trio for whom the open spaces around them are a travesty of their confinement within allocated, self-perpetuated, norms. Stretched to breaking-point, they reach into the corners of their projected roles, opening old scars and drawing new blood from a society made vulnerable by prejudice. A personal favourite, Belated stands alongside A Fold in My Blanket as a Berlinale film that contributes not only to the artistic presentation of LGTB issues but also the political implications of ignoring them.