Ben Nicholson Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary 2019: Our festival highlights

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival returned to Bohemia this year with another feast of cinema from Europe and beyond. Running from 29 June to 7 July, this year’s festival was particularly notable for two excellent retrospective strands to complement their competitive programmes, including the always interesting East of West Competition.

As ever there were highlights from Cannes, including Bong Joon-ho’s blackly brilliant family crime dramedy (and Palme d’Or winner) Parasite, and much further afield. Below are some highlights and special mentions from across the festival.

Fire Will Come
Winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, Oliver Laxe’s third feature is probably his most narratively straightforward yet. However, plot is hardly the most important component of this immersive sojourn in the Galician countryside – despite the simmering tension created by the title and the protagonist Amador’s history of incarceration for arson. Much of the film follows the newly released Amador and his mother as they tend to their livestock, roam the mountainside or make breakfast. Stunningly lensed by Mauro Herce this is at once hypnotic and foreboding and when the promise of the title is realised, it is done in extraordinarily visceral fashion.

The Hidden City
Ostensibly another entry into the underground labour canon (see also the likes of Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI, Ben Russell’s Good Luck, Rati Oneli’s City of the Sun), The Hidden City charts the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and sewers that criss-cross the breadth of Madrid. In its quiet moments, it’s a study of the trachea and bronchial tubes that allow a sprawling modern capital to breathe and the labour of machine and man that maintain them. In other moments, it becomes a disorientating odyssey into the darkness, as interested in staring into the abyss as observing an engineered underworld. The camera glides over red glowing lights and the audience is enveloped in a soundtrack of alien pulses, throbs and groans.

Introduzione all’Oscuro
In a similar vein to his previous film, Kekszakallu, Gastón Solnicki’s Introduzione all’Oscuro takes its structural cues – and its title – from classical music. A documentary portrait without a real narrative, the film introduces and keeps returning to a number of thematic and formal movements and motifs as it searches for a way to celebrate a friend after their death. The friend in question was Hans Hurch, the former director of the Viennale who is heard in an audio recording advising Solnicki on the final cut of a previous film but who otherwise is conjured here through the places he went, and the things that he liked rather than through typical recollection and biography.

Memento Stella
Takashi Makino’s 60-minute marvel is pure experiential cinema. Layering thousands of images onto one another, he creates an abstracted journey to the outermost reaches of the universe and the innermost plains of the mind. Makino’s process of filming – sometimes representational landscapes, sometimes more oblique imagery – and then transforming the visuals into nonfigurative planes of light and colour is intended to allow space for interaction between the film and the audience’s imagination. There are moments that could be described as narrative – when Dutch avant-garde pianist Reinier van Houdt’s score seems to suggest drama or genre – but otherwise, this is a like going through the Star Gate. You can try to make some sense of what you see, or you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Monsoon
Picking up on familiar themes and tone from his feature debut Lilting, Cambodian-British director Hong Khaou returns with a meditation on the peculiarly singular dislocation of an immigrant returning to the country of their birth. Often captured in wide shots, framed through windows, or in reflections, Henry Golding plays Kit, a thirty-something in Saigon for the first time since his family fled Vietnam decades earlier. Channelling the Spartan existence of the long-distance traveller, and the enforced silence of a journey in a land with a language you don’t know, this is as much about a yearning to connect with a place as it is about Kit ‘finding himself’. Golding is unassuming and terrific.

Pwdre Ser: the rot of stars
Charlotte Pryce’s short film Pwdre Ser: the rot of the stars is a spectral blend of Kirlian photography – a technique that captures visualisations of electrical energy that has long been considered to have paranormal connotations – and hand-processed 16mm. A brief window onto the mythic past, a poetic encounter with the mysterious gelatinous substance star jelly (called ‘pwdre ser’ in the Welsh language).

Saladin (1963)
Selecting one film from the amazing retrospective of Youssef Chahine’s work at this year’s festival is almost impossible: The Sixth Day for Dalida’s magnetic central performance, surely? Cairo Station for its blistering Noirish take on toxic masculinity? AlexandriaWhy? for its biting political satire dressed up in the robes of a technicolour Hollywood musical? Instead, we’re going for Saladin, a romping, resounding historical epic that reframes the legendary leader in an allegorical treatment of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. A complex and adventurous action movie that is as visually dazzling as it is saccharine. Come for lashing of historical inaccuracy, stay for edge-of-the-seat spectacle, searing melodrama, overwrought performances and formal invention.

Smoke (1990)
At last year’s Karlovy Vary, one of the major finds was Alan Clarke’s dystopian rock-opera Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, and this year offered a similar discovery in the form of a barmy, booze-soaked satirical almost-musical called Smoke. Directed by Tomáš Vorel, the film was selected as part of the repertory programme ‘Liberated’ which included seven films made in the period between 1989-1992, following the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic. The strand programmer Pavel Sladký referred in an introduction to “the fruitful chaos of the 1990s” and that perfectly encapsulates Vorel’s grimy, budget opera which trades in petty rivalries, corporate malfeasance, disco dance-offs and surreal visual humour.

Special mentions: Thomas Heise’s 218-minute family history Heimat Is a Space in Time, which includes a sequence, featuring correspondence between the filmmaker’s relatives laid over concentration camp transportation lists, that is truly unforgettable. Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, a horror film devoid of horror that uses familiar genre conventions in a genuinely unusual way to unsettling effect. Peter Bo Rappmund and Adam R. Levine’s Communion Los Angeles, a snaking time-lapse road movie that finds community and dystopia along the route of the 110 in California. Laila Pakalnina’s Spoon, a documentary about plastic spoons that acts as a paean to human endeavour and a lament to human wastefulness all at once. A slow burn with a depressing punchline. Memory: The Origins of Alien, a fairly straightforward documentary that engages with some interesting subjects and offers some curious titbits but is at its most effective as an appetiser to a late-night festival screening of Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson