Pearls of the Deep: Highlights from the 54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Known as one of the most important film festivals in Eastern Europe, Karlovy Vary gives you the chance to observe recent trends in cinema by watching much-buzzed about movies that have screened at Cannes and Berlin. For my fourth year attending the fest, I tried to find a balance between watching zeitgeist and under-the-radar films. Here are my top-five movies that I saw; the list is quite eclectic and a testament to the variety that KVIFF has to offer.
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
As one who loved Memories of Murder (2003), was compelled by Mother (2009), and found Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) rather disappointing, Parasite took me by surprise. It’s a satirical fable that, at moments, recalls Shohei Imamura’s work, but with a splash of comedy. Timely for its depiction of never-ending class warfare, Parasite follows a poor family of opportunists who go to extremes to milk a wealthy, ignorant clan they just stumbled upon. Brimming with conspiracies and twists, Bong has an ace up his sleeve; while he entertains you for two-plus hours, he makes you think deeply about what went wrong. How and when did the social classes become so distant that one’s euphoria and intimacy during a downpour is another’s catastrophe? The movie asks such questions with a comic tone, though the answers are bloody and bleak.
Spoon (Laila Pakalniņa, 2019)
I’m exaggerating slightly, but you rarely see a documentary like Spoon. Laila Pakalniņa’s film is about the mundane object we constantly use, but never really think about. In her dialogue-free film, she records temps mort moments of plastic spoons in and around the factories that manufacture them. This bold move transforms Spoon from a predictably informative documentary to a poetic meditation on how everyday life and everyday routines block us from looking at ourselves and the things around us. Meticulously shot in black-and-white cinematography, with an appropriate ambient score by Malika Makouf Rasmussen, Spoon is a one-of-a-kind experiment.
Lara (Jan-Ole Gerster, 2019)
Every now and then, I google the names of filmmakers that I’d like to see new films by. Jan-Ole Gerster is one of them, the German filmmaker whose debut, A Coffee in Berlin (2012), was so mesmerizing that it found a place in my heart. Lara is Gerster’s second film in seven years, and, of course, another delightful surprise. An assuredly accomplished work, it features a bitter middle-aged woman who, on the day of her 60th birthday, tries to kill herself. But destiny has other plans for her. Impeccably portrayed by Corinna Harfouch in the titular role, Lara is a subtle response to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016) and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), for it’s a movie about finding yourself again and trying to live your life, even when nothing goes as planned and there is no chance of reconciliation with your partner, child, and neighbors.
The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz, 2019)
Personally, I am always skeptical about melodramas, but Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is such an engaging story of sisterhood that you cannot shy away from it. Evading sentimentalism while adhering to the conventions of serial novels and naturalism, Aïnouz patiently observes two sisters who are separated at a critical moment in their lives. Aïnouz probes the psychologies of his main characters, tracking their experiences over a few decades, exposing a cruel patriarchal world where women are treated as objects. However, the important thing in this magnificently shot film is that women are not victims, and they endure all the hardships by depending only on their resilience and imagination.
It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill (Juraj Jakubisko, 1992)
Juraj Jakubisko’s film, with its overly long title, is a tragicomedy about two women in the years after the fall of communism. Ester and Nona are two lonely women who strive for a bright future now that the powerbrokers are gone. However, it seems society is not ready for such hope and the women are forced to commit petty crimes to survive. Jakubisko’s sneer at the hollow optimism of post-communist society is still daring, his foreshadowing of Czechoslovakia’s separation utterly prophetic. The movie is certainly a neglected work of satirical social drama, and Jakubisko’s career is in dire need of attention.
The 54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival took place between June 28 and July 6.