11 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Thursday and Friday

Unfortunately, my ability to attend the first three days of the festival was severely hampered by the fact that I work evenings. As such, I was completely unable to see any of the films screened on Wednesday, including Takashi Miike's chanbara 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku, Japan 2010), much to my dismay. Thankfully, the events stretched out a bit more on Thursday and Friday, affording me the time to see a film after work. In fact, I also had the time to see Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006), a documentary about a Danish comedy troupe touring, of all places, North Korea. However, when I went to purchase tickets, it was already sold out.

At any rate, the two films I did manage to get in on Thursday and Friday were Sasha and Troll Hunter respectively.

SASHA (SAŠA, 2010)
Director: Dennis Todorović
Country: Germany
Languages: German, Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian

At its core, Sasha is a comedy about conflicting cultures, with the main conflict occurring between the "machoistic" Yugoslavian family in which Sasha is raised and the gay community to which Sasha longs to be a part. This film would be hard to completely localize in America due to the focus on cultures, but I suppose a way to help people understand the basic conflict would be to compare the basic tension to the kind of tension you'd expect in a film about a family moving from Kentucky to San Francisco, and the youngest son is a closet homosexual.

The first scene of the film sets up the basic tension excellently. During a rest stop on the family's trip back to Germany from Montenegro, Sasha enters a convenience store that sells porno mags. The film opens at this moment, as Sasha glances over the "normal," hetero porn, then looks out the window at his family, then slowly wanders over to the gay porn. As he tries to surreptitiously pull one out to look at it, the door opens and he panics, causing the entire rack of magazines to fall onto the floor. He hurried tries to collect them, but thankfully the person who just entered is a worker, who tells Sasha not to worry about cleaning it up. "Do you want to buy this one?" she asks. Sasha blurts out, "No!" then, after a pause, gives a far more timid, "Yes."

Overall, the plot largely concerns Sasha's crush on his piano teacher Mr. Weber. When Weber tells Sasha that he has finally gotten a job as a professor in Austria, Sasha becomes incredibly distraught. He finally confesses his sexuality to his best friend, a Chinese girl named Jiao who (unbeknownst to him) has a crush on Sasha. However, after her initial disappointment and anger, Jiao proves to be a true friend and tells Sasha that he needs to tell Weber how he really feels. What follows is, largely, Sasha's quest to accept himself and find acceptance from those he loves and cares about.

Of course, this all sounds like quick the drama, and that's very much what I expected to get when I attended. Sure, there might be some humour here and there, but I imagined a lot of melodramatic scenes revolving around the relationships between the characters. What I got was far, far more comedic. In fact, even in the film's absolute darkest and bleakest moment, the film is still throwing out jokes. To put it bluntly, one of the characters could have just died, but the film is still cracking jokes. A lot of the humour is directly referencing Sasha's homosexuality, and the more subtle jokes involve a lot of irony. For example, while at a gay bar, Sasha gets punched in the face, splitting his lip. When he returns home, his father assumes Sasha got hurt while fighting to defend Jiao's honour (who the family believes is Sasha's girlfriend).

Some of the other jokes involve cultural differences. For example, their Bosnian uncle who is visiting to make repairs to their bathroom repeatedly mishears Jiao's name as the Serbo-Croatian word for "devil." This joke is further carried to Sasha's brother Boki, who gets a tattoo of a devil on his right shoulder and who just so happens to have a crush on Jiao. (Wow, there sure are a lot of crushes in this movie, huh?) There was also a bit of toilet humour, which could be the most universal humour as it got the biggest laughs at the festival.

Still, the humour does not get in the way of character development and interrelationships. In fact, the humour is the main way that the film explores these ideas, using it to create a more light-hearted atmosphere in which to explore the interaction between gay cultural and society as a whole. Overall, the film was very well done and seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and it's comedic take on the growing importance of gay culture in the world as a whole was well-executed.

Director: André Øvredal
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

As with Sasha, I was once again surprised by just how comedic this movie was. The film is described as a horror film in the mode of a mockumentary, but I'd say it's the other way around. The film seems far more interested in creating a humorous "documentary" about a man who hunts trolls then in actually scaring the audience, but obviously some tenser moments arise, considering how dangerous a job troll hunting must be.

The film begins with a college-based news crew filming a story about a rogue bear poacher who has been killing bears without the official license or sanction of the government. (Norway is a very nature-loving country, so only specialists are allowed to hunt bears, and only when the bear has been deemed a threat to humans.) The crew finds the suspected poacher and follows him across Norway, periodically trying to confront him. However, the man is very reserved and refuses to discuss anything. Finally, they follow him out one night as he leaves camp in his Jeep. When they finally catch up to him, he is running the opposite way. He screams, "TROLL! RUN!" What follows is one of the film's more frightening scenes, due in large part to the increased sense of confusion from the film crew, including the camera man (who is eternally our POV for the film). This scene in particular is the most evocative of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Having been found out, and feeling partly responsible for the fact that one member of the crew was bitten, the troll hunter Hans decides to allow them to continue filming what he does, if they still want to tag along, on the condition that they do everything he says. The crew agrees and the rest of the film focuses on Hans as he hunts trolls and tells the crew more about exactly what his job is.

As I said before, this film was much more comedic than I was expecting. Fans of horror cinema will likely not be particularly frightened or scared by the film, though I'm sure some people who are a bit jumpier may disagree with this comment. Still, it's far more of a parody of the "documentary" horror films than anything, so I would place it squarely in the genre of mockumentary. I'm not entirely sure how much of it was improvised, though certainly there would be a lot of room for ad libbing. You frequently feel like some of the conversations are done completely improv, with the actor playing Hans generating the "facts" about trolls as they go.

The audience seemed to appreciate a lot of the humour, though I sometimes wondered just how much and to what extent. For example, they make a rather obscure reference (for the United States, anyway) about a fairytale involving an eating contest with a troll, and the joke got its share of laughs. Did they catch the reference, or did they just catch the sense of timing that cues you in, "This is a joke"? Likewise, people seemed to enjoy Hans' stipulation that nobody Christian could come along because trolls can smell the blood of Christians. Culturally, Christianity (and religion in general) is on the decline in the Nordic countries, to the point where jokes about being ashamed of being a Christian are more socially relevant there than they would be in the States.

Interestingly, one joke flew in Madison far better than I'm sure it was intended to. At one point, the film crew asks Hans why he is letting them film. After all, it is a government job and he is committing treason by divulging these closely-guarded government secrets. He replies how the government job has shitty hours, shitty pay, and shitty benefits. Not surprising, given the current political climate in Wisconsin and in Madison in particular, this joke got huge roars of laughter from the audience.

Overall, Troll Hunter was probably the most outright entertaining film I saw at the festival and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a film with a bit more of an offbeat sense of humour.

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