The boy who was a king

The 35th GIFF (Part 2)


One disadvantage of being a dedicated Gothenburg International Film Festivalian is the headaches you sometimes wake up with. They’re the consequence of craning your neck for hours in uncomfortable cinema seats. But it’s all worth it (he says, knocking back the aspirin).

[BTW, the embedded video here to the right is the GIFF vignette from last year. I’ll embed this year’s at the beginning of Part 3.]

Sunday 29th January I only had one film to look forward to. I was going to see Death of a Superhero in the evening, but had other things to occupy me during the day. My good wife Mrs SC, on the other hand, was set up for a full day – getting up early and coming home late.

Her first two films were back-to-back Chinese documentaries. The 90 minute The Interceptor from My Hometown (director Zhang Zanbo) and the 2½ hour Fairytale by Ai Weiwei. Fairytale documents Ai Weiwei’s week long installation in Kassel in Germany in 2007 with 1001 Chinese people and the process of selecting them and bringing them to Germany. (Fascinating and positive says Mrs SC, though the first half about the selection process was the most interesting.)

It’s The Interceptor from My Hometown, though, which has most frequently come back in family conversation since GIFF. The Interceptor… is about a civil servant, a man from Zhang Zanbo’s home town, a former schoolmate, whose job it is to help the Chinese local authorities save face by stopping citizens submitting petitions of complaint to the central government in Beijing. The people have the legal right to petition the central government, but when they do they shame the local administration. More than this, the central government would find it impossible to function if it was forced to deal with every infringement of people’s rights and livelihoods made by the local authorities. Consequently the local authorities employ people to ‘intercept’ petitioners, and bring them back home (where they can expect to be punished for their temerity in trying to exercise their legal rights). The central authorities turn a blind eye to this practice.

Death of a Superhero  - Sangster Serkis

My headache had cleared by the time I got to see Death of a Superhero in the evening. I wanted to see this film because the principle character is played by Thomas Sangster who you’ll remember from Love Actually as Liam Neeson’s stepson Sam, the little drummer-boy in love. It had completely escaped my attention that Andy Serkis was heading the cast list, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him as well.

Death of a Superhero is charming about teen angst and anger, moving about cancer and funny about all three. Fifteen-year-old Donald (Sangster) is dying of what I take to be leukaemia. Certainly a cancer. He is undergoing chemotherapy, has lost all his hair and sports a variety of t-shirts with macabre comments (“One more PET scan and I’ll glow in the dark”). The boy is a cartoonist and graffiti artist (a good one) – though the book on which the film is based doesn’t seem to be a graphic novel, which was my first thought. The film is about how Donald, his family, schoolmates, girlfriend and thanatologist (death therapist – Serkis) cope with his illness and inevitable death.

Very good acting. Believable story (up to a point – still in two minds about the high-class call-girl and the thanatologist’s role in paying her for services unrendered). Well-made film though. Worth seeing.

Monday 30th January I was busy all day with work and my cineaste self got put on the shelf. To make up for that, on Tuesday 31st I managed to see four films.

Tickets for GIFF are not cheap – just one fifth below the price of the regular, expensive cinema tickets and no cheaper than the tickets for screenings at the not-for-profit cinemas. But there is the daypass option. The GIFF daypass is a flat rate ticket that gives you free entry to any film starting before 4pm on weekdays. If you see at least six films with the daypass, you begin to ‘save’ money. This year I only had four days in which to use the daypass, and Tuesday 31st was my first. I got off to a good start and used it to see my first three films of the day. The fourth, which was an evening screening, I had to pay extra for.

My first film was Iris, a Finnish-Swedish costume drama which was showing at Draken, the festival’s core theatre. It was a popular showing, but Draken is a real, old-fashioned film theatre and can swallow 700 people or more, so it was not overfull by any means.

Iris turned out to be a children’s film. Very nicely made, pretty good child actors, and the story was good overall, though I thought it a bit uneven in places. It wasn’t quite the film I’d expected to see. I had misinterpreted the description in the catalogue and was expecting an historical drama about the experiences of a turn-of the century Finnish-Swedish artist and her family. The film turned out to be an account of a summer in the 1890s when Iris (Agnes Koskinen), the eight-year-old daughter of artist Ester (Maria Salomaa) is sent away to the Åland Islands to live with her uncle and his wife while Ester visits Paris. The Ålands are an island group lying between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea; they belong to Finland but speak a form of Swedish called Finland-Svensk.

Iris is a sweet film about the culture clash when town-bred, bohemian Iris has to adapt to a rougher, working-class life in the country. It’s hardly a new subject, but apparently this is the first time a children’s costume drama has been made in Åland, so it’s been a big thing for the Åland community. Scandinavians are generally very good at making children’s films, and Iris is no exception, but it’s not an exceptional film. Kids might like it.

My second film of the day was the Belgian-Togolese Blue Bird. Also a children’s film, in the sense that the protagonists were two children, five or six-years-old, but so very much more. Blue Bird is based on a play, L’Oiseau bleu, from 1908 by the Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck. In fact, though the film and play start in the same place (the children are playing with a blue bird which escapes), the film quickly departs on its own journey and weaves an independent – though still symbolic – story out of the lives, games and improvised performances of the Togolese actors, none of whom are professionals. Filmed entirely through a blue filter, the heat and the light of sub-Saharan Africa (which I know also from personal experience – myself a six-year-old) was transformed in shades and tones of blue. This contributed to the mystical, magical quality of the film.

Now, at the time of writing five weeks later, I think of all the films I saw at this year’s festival, Blue Bird was the one that left the greatest mark visually. I dreamed in blue the night after seeing it.

After Iris and Blue Bird I was a bit dazed, but I had another film to see. Definitely not a children’s film this one, but after the previous two, I was perhaps less than receptive to Characters.

It seems the South Korean director, Kwang-Ju Son, has made a number of short films before, but this is his feature film début. Well, it looks like a long film made by a short film maker. I’m still not really sure what Characters is about, beyond depicting a couple of handful characters in various constellations. There’s more than a nod in the direction of Pirandello here (Six Characters in Search of an Author), but I don’t think the director is able to pull it off.

Each of the characters has his or her story, some brief and clichéd, some more complex though fragmented. Some of the stories link up: the popular film maker trying to make a film to please the critics; the scriptwriter with family problems. At the end the scriptwriter phones one of her own characters (played by the same actress), who then walks away into a wasteland that turns into the sea. Pretentious? Mmm…

You’ll be pleased to know I took a break between Characters and my final film of the day. I rested my eyes (and my neck) and then met up with my wife and, as it happened, our niece in the student bar at Chalmers, the technical university. We had a meal and a drink and prepared ourselves for The Boy who was a King, a Bulgaria documentary. Mrs SC and I met in Bulgaria and have a soft spot in our hearts for the country. At GIFF, if there’s a Bulgarian film being shown, we try to see it together. This year there were two films from Bulgaria, but I wasn’t able to see Tilt, so that left …

The Boy who was a King is a weird, weird documentary about Simeon Saxcoburgotski who was the last Tsar (king) of Bulgaria. He inherited the throne after the death of his father Tsar Boris III at the age of six in 1943. Exiled in 1946 by the post-war communist government, Simeon lived in various places, eventually settling in Spain, his wife’s homeland, where he lived the life of a playboy or a businessman, depending on who is telling the story. In 2001 he became the first former monarch to be elected by popular vote as Prime Minister of the country he had once ruled as king.

Although the film starts conventionally enough, with clips of newsreels and amateur films showing the young prince in the palace grounds, gradually the feeling grows that something is not quite right here. The first interviewees, long retired palace servants are straightforward, though they are filmed from a distance, sitting in chairs or wandering through the rooms, apparently talking to themselves. From there the film gets increasingly peculiar. It’s as if the director, Andrey Paounov, has gone out of his way to track down the most extreme people to interview. The taxidermists in the natural history museum, the ‘white-trash’ Bulgarians who dive from the wreck of the royal yacht, the founders of a royalist club, the Japanese immigrants who sing their self-composed paean of praise for him, the seamstress who has made a suit for him with a record number of pockets (and who thinks he is a giant of a man, over six feet tall, when he is clearly not much taller than his cousin Prince Charles in the clips where the two of them are seen together).

Simeon himself comes across as far and away the most normal person in the film. And I’m still not sure if Andrey Paounov is out to ridicule Simeon and his followers, or if he is trying to make a Bulgarian film in imitation of the sort of pseudo-documentaries that get airtime on commercial TV.

This is one I don’t need to see again.

The boy who was a king

End of Part 2 – Part 3 to come!