June 26th, 2017

MIFF day sixteen: My Wedding and Other Secrets, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Melancholia

My Wedding and Other Secrets (Roseanne Liang, 2011)

My Wedding and Other Secrets (Roseanne Liang, New Zealand)

In 2005 Roseanne Liang released a documentary called Banana in a Nutshell, chronicling her upbringing as an ethnically Chinese girl born in New Zealand and her relationship with her boyfriend, Stephen, a white New Zealander. Liang’s parents disapproved of non-Chinese boyfriends, so their relationship blossomed in secret and caused a quantum cultural clash within her family, until Stephen learned Mandarin and won Liang’s father’s permission to wed her. The documentary premiered at the 2005 New Zealand International Film Festival and, though I haven’t seen it, received some decent reviews.

Banana in a Nutshell has now been adapted by Liang into a narrative feature film called My Wedding and Other Secrets, which tells the story of an ethnically Chinese girl (Michelle Ang’s Emily) who falls in love with a white New Zealander boy, the conflict that occurs in her traditional Chinese family as a result of their relationship, and the making of a documentary film about the whole thing which premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival. It’s a fictionalised story about the making of a documentary, but which is actually based on a real-life documentary that tells the same story as the fictional one. Larry David would be proud of that level of art imitating life imitating art.

But the problem is, the film is not very good at all. It is sickly sweet, and while I’m aware that I’m completely outside the film’s target audience, I had to turn away from the screen to cringe multiple times.

The script, penned by Liang herself, seems to have come from the Gilmore Girls school of story-telling:

  1. Come up with a love story with the requisite conflict, and then cram as many references to films, TV shows and musical acts into the dialogue as possible; and
  2. There is no step two.

Within five minutes there were references to Fellini and Kurosawa crow-barred into the dialogue so obliquely that it was distracting, and the characters are so ironically eccentric that they just come off as annoying: James (Matt Whelan) does his absolute best Pauly Bleeker distanced-but-deep-thinking young man impersonation; and Emily constantly irritates with her permanently quizzical/focused face, ironically unfashionable glasses and yays and likes and ohmygods. That’s all it is, really: annoying characters saying annoying things and giving each other annoying hipster gifts like plastic fruit wedding rings and dozens of packets of lollies.

The cultural-clash aspect of the story is the film’s strength and, though it is unrealistically simplified, it was nice to see such issues addressed in a film. I’ve had to deal with many of these parental conflicts before, so the film should have spoken directly to me and my experiences, but with such paper-thin characters and dialogue it missed the mark by a mile.

Rating: 1.5 stars

Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2010)

Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, United States)

Chess prodigy; superstar; anti-American crackpot. In roughly that order, so Bobby Fischer’s topsy-turvy life can be summarised. The story of his life traverses ups and downs so extreme – U.S. Chess Champion at 14, World Chess Champion at 29, unwelcome in his home country at 49 – that even a totally conventional biographical documentary would be captivating.

But instead of just telling Fischer’s story in isolation, Bobby Fischer Against the World explains that champion chess players – who must possess not just extraordinary intellect but extraordinary dedication as well – are susceptible to mental illness, and asks the question: was Bobby Fischer’s chess genius the cause of his eventual descent into madness?

This sympathetic documentary is superficially similar to Client 9: they each chart a driven, successful man’s rise to their professional peak and then their fall from grace; and they’re both told in similar ways. The big difference is that Eliot Spitzer’s behaviour, whatever the underlying cause, was deliberate and controllable, while Fischer had mental illness thrust upon him. It’s interesting how each film uses similar techniques in very different contexts, and both documentaries are ultimately successful at doing so.

If Bobby Fischer Against the World has one weakness it’s that it is too detached from its subject, treating Fischer more like a scientific subject to be observed and not a human being with thoughts and opinions himself. Footage of Fischer during his later years in Iceland exists, and some of it is in the film, but I found myself wanting to hear more from the man himself about his life and thoughts. Sometimes the best way to understand a person (and the gravity of their mental illness) is to just let the subject speak.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

Forget the controversial press conferences, the self-aggrandisement, and “persona non grata”; Lars von Trier has hit one out of the park.

The paralysing force of depression is laid bare in this misanthropic, achingly personal disaster story, meditating on a subject no less confronting than the end of the world as we know it.

Justine (Kirsten Dunst) spends most of her wedding with Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) in the throes of crippling depression, describing it to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as feeling like she has vines and roots tangled around her body, dragging her down. She spends most of the night hiding from her own guests and successfully sabotages both her marriage and her job, allowing her the freedom to completely wallow in her self-hatred, which she does over the next few weeks as a house guest of Claire and her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their palatial estate.

Meanwhile, the rogue planet Melancholia is hurtling towards a collision with Earth, although the amateur astronomer John authoritatively assures the family that it will fly past without harm. (The audience has seen, during an incredibly spectacular prologue, that the planets do collide, and in this sense it shares the “dancing on a volcano” theme with the terrible Innocent Saturday.)

The doomsday prospect affects Claire and Justine in very different ways: Claire is overwhelmed and erratic, worried for her son Leo (Cameron Spurr), and Justine takes it with the steely rationality of someone who wouldn’t have cared if the world had ended during her wedding anyway. John has to deal with the gravity of his self-assured, but mistaken, certainty that Melancholia would miss Earth, and a parallel can be drawn between John’s character and climate change deniers who steadfastly hold their comforting beliefs despite overwhelming, and potentially devastating, evidence to the contrary.

The final part of the film, where these four characters must all confront their ultimate demise, hits with such a force that when the credits started rolling I noticed that I’d been holding my breath for minutes. Its power is hard to describe, but just imagine right now, really imagine, that the world was about to end and ask yourself how you’d react. That is the feeling you get when viewing this film.

The story goes that von Trier wrote Melancholia while severely depressed himself, and the depiction of depression on film is as raw and debilitating as the real thing. Dunst’s performance deserves all the accolades she receives for it; it’s patently clear that her motivation must have come from personal experience with the disease, because she’s incredibly true to life as the alternately bubbly and lifeless Justine.

I’ve said before that von Trier is a truly brilliant technician who lets his ego ruin his films, but there’s none of that here. The breathtaking slow-motion prologue demonstrates his incredible eye for composition, perhaps second only to Malick as a photographer, and the vast spacescapes will draw comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Light on subtlety and heavy on symbolism, but without the artificial provocativeness of some of his earlier films, even von Trier’s haters will find it difficult to deny that Melancholia is a masterwork.

Rating: 5 stars

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

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