This year we’ve covered the film festivals in Cannes, Venice, and of course the Berlinale here at Exberliner. Was there any reason, then, to pay a visit to their younger, considerably smaller counterpart in Hamburg? Turns out there was. Cinephiles may not get the same roster of glitzy world premieres from A-list auteurs at the beautiful Hanseatic city, but the Filmfest Hamburg offers that rare opportunity to actually enjoy a thoughtfully curated programme featuring obscure arthouse hits and major award winners. Away from the stress of “See it here first!” and cushioned in the romantic chill of autumn, the comfort level of spending some days in Germany’s second largest city – and Berlin’s often-rival – getting drunk on cinematic highlights and discoveries of the year, is surprisingly high.
For those who couldn’t make it to Locarno or San Sebastián, the 23rd edition of the FFHH has scooped up a healthy sample of their competition lineup. Right Now, Wrong Then, the eventual winner of the top Swiss film festival, is a sweet, dizzyingly idiosyncratic mind trick from Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. Telling the tale of a chance encounter between a famous director and an aspiring painter that may lead to something more – not once, but twice – the two-parter bears all his signature quirks. Although it never reaches the strange, giddy heights of In Another Country or exudes the breezy, organic charm of Hahaha, this formally daring reflection on coincidence, perception and choice does intrigue with a bold expressive form and should delight Hong-loyalists everywhere.
Also crossing over from Locarno and later even winning the London Film Festival is Greek writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a wicked comedy set around six men on a fishing trip. Out of boredom the group starts to play a game where each of them devises a contest in secret and scores the others accordingly, in order to determine who among them is “the best in general”. As ambitious as it is ludicrous, the highly unusual premise picks apart modern masculinity in an often frivolous manner, hovering between broad gags and unsettling insights. While the film ultimately feels too unstructured to land any substantial, lasting impact, it may well count itself a worthy addition to the new wave of Greek cinema sparkling with conceptual brilliance à la Dogtooth or Alps.
Equally quirky, albeit more carefully mapped out is Dutch helmer Alex van Warmerdam’s comedy-noir Schneider vs. Bax. Featuring a hitman eager to get back to his own birthday party, another coke-snorting hitman doubling as a writer, an old prostitute dragged into a hit job by accident and other cuckoo characters that could have been lifted from a Coen brothers flick, it dances through an endless supply of plot twists and keeps you hooked on its deliciously macabre humour.
Not nearly as entertaining is the San Sebastián alumnus The Demons, a coming-of-age drama crossed with kidnapping thriller set in suburban Montreal. Canadian director Philippe Lesage has an eye for suggestive visuals and the nose for creepy atmosphere, but the film borders on the schizophrenic with its many subplots and tonal changes. Lacking a strong focal point to drive the whole narrative, we’re left to admire the undeniably effective camerawork and the moments of foreboding beauty it brings.
Other festival champs include Sundance winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a lively, tender and, above all, seriously funny tearjerker that actually deserves both your laughs and sobs. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon gets the healing power of comedy and delivers a refreshingly, brutally genuine take on the girl-dying-of-leukemia genre. His trio of perfectly cast actors, assisted by a terrific group of supporting players, also helps inject that air of inspired unsentimentality into the film.
While less innovative in its approach, French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Cannes hit Mustang proves to be a jolt of energy impossible to resist. Set around five sister growing up in a conservative household in rural Turkey, the girlhood drama vividly depicts the debilitating effects of female oppression and the indefatigable human need to break free. Glowingly photographed and showcasing some affecting, naturalistic performances from its young leads, the film doesn’t aim terribly high but breathes so much life it dazzles nonetheless.
So yes, the festival tent of the FFHH appears positively modest in comparison to the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the Palazzo del Cinema or the Berlinale Palast, but it’s never about that glammed-up hoopla in Hamburg anyway. Over there by the lovely Alster river, it’s more about appreciating good movies, special movies from all over the world that might have gotten lost in the shuffle even for avid festival-goers, as well as the opportunity to exchange ideas with the filmmakers in a relaxed environment. Honestly, what joy it is to (re-)watch gems like The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) or The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos) on a giant screen without the hassle of hour-long queuing; and where else do you get to speak with László Nemes (Hungarian director and Cannes Grand Prix winner for Son of Saul) at length without some demoralising journalistic jockeying? All things considered, the 90-minute ICE ride seems like an awfully reasonable bargain indeed.