Returning to its traditional early-July slot after two editions disrupted by Covid, the 56th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival felt very much like business as usual. The renovated pool was open and the music was blaring as the festival ran from 1-9 July in the picturesque setting of the chocolate-box Bohemian spa town.

Returning to its traditional early-July slot after two editions disrupted by Covid, the 56th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival felt very much like business as usual. The renovated pool was open and the music was blaring as the festival ran from 1-9 July in the picturesque setting of the chocolate-box Bohemian spa town.

The pool wasn’t the only thing to get a revamp, the programme also saw some fundamental restructuring with the East of West and Documentary competitions – making way for a new one: Proxima – a place for bold visions from stalwarts and new blood alike.

Below is a selection of highlights from across the festival’s various strands, including both the Crystal Globe and Proxima competitions as well as non-competitive strands like Horizons, Imagina and Out of the Past. As in most years, there were several notable films from Cannes that also appeared in the KVIFF line-up which, having been written about on the site already, have been omitted from the below: Ruben Östland’s Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness; Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave; Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage; Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future et al.

A Little Love Package

Gastón Solnicki’s first fiction film since 2016’s astonishing KékszakállúA Little Love Package is a paean to Viennese coffee house culture in the wake of a 2019 smoking ban. Narratively discursive – if you can even necessarily claim there is a fully formed narrative – this is a film that feels more like a complex symphony, than a recognisable story. Characters, images, and motifs recur, largely to explore a notion of a growing distance between people. Most notably, Carmen Chaplin plays an interior designer who becomes increasingly frustrated with her picky client (Angeliki Papoulia).  Through these and other such sequences, the convivial, energising social interactions of the kaffeehaus seem to fade into the smokeless distance.

Borders of Love

The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s KVIFF was Tomasz Winski’s debut feature, Borders of Love. A drama about an attractive, apparently happy young couple who decide to spice things up by experimenting with an open relationship. While this might lead to the odd steamy scene, Winski’s film quickly shows it is interested more in the complications that arise from such an arrangement, using the scenario as a way to contemplate trust and honesty between partners. This is less erotic thriller than complex character study, but it is all the better for it, as its knotty quandaries expand into something more universal.

The Night

Over the past decade, Tsai Ming-liang has shown himself to be something of a master of the meditative short, not least through his collaboration with Lee Kang-sheng on the ‘Walker’ series. His latest foray into this same milieu is something a little different, a rhythmic, respiratory observation of Hong Kong after dark, taking a moment to quietly reflect during a period of civil strife and days filled with protest. The result is The Night which watches bus stops, street crossings, storefronts, and underpasses with no specific focus other than the peacefully subdued cadences of the sleeping city. An old Chinese song plays on the soundtrack – “What a tender night it was… over too soon” – as Hong Kong takes a deep breath and thinks nostalgically of its past while it rallies together for its future.

Pamfir

Ostensibly a familiar-looking Eastern European crime drama built around the tired ‘one last job; motif, Pamfir is in fact thrilling, rich, and beautifully shot, littered with perfectly observed ethnographic details and compelling performances. Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s film is built around its hulking protagonist, Leonid (played by first-timer Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) who returns to his home on the Ukraine-Romania border from working abroad. When his son accidentally burns down a local church, Leonid has to go back to his smuggling past to clear his debt. The constantly moving camera seems to imitate Leonid’s bristling energy that could erupt into violence at any moment, while the film ruminates on local corruption and rites of passage as the annual Malanka festival approaches.

The Prague Executioner

One of the highlights of KVIFF is when you get the opportunity to see a restored 35mm print of a silent classic in the grand surrounding of the Karlovy Vary Municipal Theatre. This year, that experience was reserved for a screening of Rudolf Měšťák’s swashbuckling adventure film from 1927, The Prague Executioner, which was presented with live accompaniment from an ensemble headed by musicologist Vlastislav Matoušek. A specialist in Czech medieval music, Matoušek’s score provided a fitting complement to one of the first Czech films to take on the historical epic. Described in the synopsis as “an intricate tale of love, betrayal and revenge,” it was at times perhaps too intricate, but it made for incredibly fun mid-festival viewing and was luminous in its beautifully reconstructed colour washes, all overseen by the National Film Archive.

A Provincial Hospital

After the past couple of years, the prospect of spending a couple of hours watching an observational documentary about the Covid ward in a Bulgarian hospital might not sound immediately appealing. However, Ilian Metev, Ivan Chertov, and Zlatina Teneva’s A Provincial Hospital is well worth making the time for. It’s a Wiseman-esque institutional portrait but with much more interest in the perseverance of staff and patients alike. While it does track the stories of certain individuals at times, the film most ranges about, instead creating a cumulative portrait that is, in reality, about far more than just the individual hospital in front of its lens, it’s about the debt we all owe to the tirelessness of healthcare professionals, particularly since 2020.

Utama

Utama is the elegiac tale of an elderly couple of indigenous Bolivian llama farmers attempting to resist the impacts of global warming and remain in their home on the Altiplano. A feature debut for photographer Alejandro Loayza Grisi, this quiet and often understated drama is no less impactful for it its subtlety. Centring on Virginio and Sisa (played by the real-life, non-actor couple, José Calcina and Luisa Quispe), the film lays bare the difficulties they face as the local well dries up and dehydration becomes a serious threat to them and their herd. It’s a stunningly shot and impeccably observed portrait of love and perseverance, sprinkled with a pinch of magical realism in its observation of tradition and renewal.

The Woodcutter Story

A surreal directorial debut from Mikko Myllylahti – the Finnish poet and screenwriter who penned the breakout hit The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki – The Woodcutter Story seems to both comply with and defy convention. Snowy landscapes and deadpan humour are, unsurprisingly for a Finnish dramedy, the order of the day, but this tale of an unfailingly positive woodcutter (Jarkko Lahti, who also played Olli Mäki) being battered by the winds of circumstance also plays with lofty philosophical ideas. Including a singing medium and several supernatural insinuations, this story of a small village’s economic collapse is equally an engrossing existential meditation.

Special Mentions

Ofir Raul Graizer’s follow-up to The CakemakerAmerica, is an unapologetically colourful and emotional drama about companionship, love and duty that demonstrates a great deal of poise and emotional maturity. And Then There Was Love… follows a middle-aged and lonely woman as she drags her daughter to a “therapeutic séance” – a mix of cynicism and candour, the resulting conversations make for fascinating dialogues about intergenerational pain.  In the cleverly constructed short, Catcave Hysteria, three vignettes happen simultaneously in three separate cubicles of the same women’s toilet in a nightclub.

Whether it’s sisters, lovers, or bitchy friends, tensions and emotions run high. Temperatures are what are running high in Sara Dosa’s explosive documentary Fire of Love, about the volcanologist couple, Katia and Maurice Krafft. An energetic re-telling of their lives and tragic death, it’s an inventive spin on the typical archival documentary. An award winner back at Sundance earlier in the year, Dania Bdeir’s Warsha is a euphoric short that not only examines but seems to embody, a moment – and act – of liberation. Unforgettable.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson