MDQ Fest Round-Up 4: Western, Wajib, Invisible & The First Lap

Notes from the 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Benjamín Harguindey

The 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival runs November 17-26 and we continue to review the movies competing in the festival’s International Section. The final round-up includes Western (Valeska Grisebach, Germany), Wajib (Annemarie Jacir, Palestine), Invisible (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina) and The First Lap (Kim Dae-Hwan, South Korea).

Is Valeska Grisebach‘s Western actually, you know, a Western? If not in style, it’s definitely in spirit. The movie takes us to a land of frontier towns and unwelcome strangers; our hero even rides into town on a horse. The movie sees German workers occupy the Bulgarian countryside under contract to built a water plant, but are quickly harrassing the local women and at odds with the populace. From the Germans springs out the affable Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a loner with a mysterious past who reaches out to the Bulgarians and finds in them a better sense of kinship than with his countrymen.

Tension mounts between the two bands and Meinhard is caught in the tug of war, disliked or envied by the Germans but not quite trusted by the Bulgarians either. You’d think the movie is building up to a final confrontation between the two sides – as you’d expect from a Western – and that Meinhard will have to pick one and fight the other. But this isn’t the kind of movie to blow up like that, nor is Meinhard, and it’s hard to separate one from the other. Neumann gives a terrific, subdued performance as the mystery “legionnaire” who seems to be acting up around a gaping wound in the deepest of his being. It’d be silly to say the movie is all creeping tension and no pay-off, but it’s a discrete pay-off, and it works on a level of internal conflict rather than an external or social one.

On the other hand there’s Wajib, a tenuous comedy whose central conflict operates on a number of levels. The story centers around a Palestinian father and his son (played by real life father-son acting duo Mohammad and Saleh Bakri), Abu and Shadi, who reunite in Nazareth for the wedding of Abu’s daughter Amal. Shadi’s been over in Europe for years and has an established life abroad, but to his father it’s all a farse if it doesn’t happen at home, within the  confines of rigidly set tradition. As the two have a day-long urban road trip across Nazareth, hand-delivering dozens of wedding invites, they will bicker about pretty much everything.

The movie is written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, who has the honor of being the first Palestinian female director. Despite the subject matter and the nuptial background, she never falls for cheap melodrama; instead she presents the clash of two constrasting ideologies (old and new, traditional and progressive) in such a way that we understand the psychology behind each position and we read further into the petty feuding between Abu and Shadi. The acting of the Bakris is full of little nuances and gestures that suggest the kind of familiarity between two people who’ve become used to sorting their mutual grievances for their eventual use. And through them and their unsolvable feud, Jacir ends up speaking about Palestine overall.

Invisible is one of three Argentine movies (together with Primas and To the Desert) competing on an international level. It deals with the angst of a teenager (Ely, played by Mora Arenillas) who finds out she’s pregnant and though she’s quite sure she wants to abort, doesn’t know how to go about it, since abortion is illegal in Argentina. Like the good confused teenager that she is, she enlists the support of a friend and they go running over to Google for answers. Ely keeps her pregnancy on the down-low from the father, her boss at the pet store, and her shut-in mom. She wants to sort it out on her own, even if that only creates more barriers for her.

The movie is a decent, fairly realistic portrayal of the plight of unwanted pregnancy in Argentina and elsewhere that might penalize abortion. But the screenplay isn’t as clever as the story needs it to be. Ely is offered a way out of her troubles more than once and keeps needlessly complicating things for herself. Fear, insecurities and all that might handwave the gaping holes in her logic, but they take away any sense of stakes or tension from the story, which all in all goes pretty easy on its protagonist. As for Arenillas, she’s directed into giving the kind of contained, monotone performance that never feels spontaneous or authentic and has become a staple of a certain kind of “film festival movies” in Argentina: dry, meek and austere.

Finally there’s The First Lap (orig. “Cho-haeng”), a tender study of a young couple of 30-somethings which proves it’s no fun going against social expectations in South Korea. Su-hyeon and Ji-young have been living together for 7 years and are about to switch houses once more, but remain unmarried and without child; Su-hyeon hasn’t even finished college yet and his biggest project is considering if they should get a cat or not. But the waters stirr up with the possibility that Ji-young might be pregnant, prompting them to visit her parents and, eventually, his own – whom Ji-young has never met. We only find out at the end why.

The story about this quiet, lovely couple is riddled with awkward moments where their elders tease and reproach each in their own particular way. While Ji-young’s father casually grills his son-in-law, proving the fiscal viability of their union, her mother flat out berates her for not giving her anything to boast about to her friends. We think they’re overbearing until we meet Su-hyeon’s estranged folks. Poor Ji-young and Su-hyeon, we feel bad enough for them as it is. On top of parental pressure, they already have to bear with their innermost fears of becoming like them. The First Lap charms us with its leading couple, played by Hyun-Chul Cho and Sae-byok Kim, because of their reason and equanimity. For them we hope the best. And in its final shot the movie finds a perfect metaphor for the state of their relationship, and all the good or bad that it entails.

And with that we’re done with the 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival. It’s back to dumb superhero flicks and the rare gem for this page.

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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