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On this page: BLACK COAL, THIN ICE

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last update 17.Jun.15
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Black Coal, Thin Ice
dir-scr Diao Yinan
prd Vivian Qu, Wan Juan
with Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
liao and gwei
release Chn 21.Mar.14,
US Apr.14 tff, UK 5.Jun.15
14/China 1h46

london film festival
abu dhabi film festival
Black Coal, Thin Ice Chinese filmmaker Diao injects a very dry sense of humour into this police thriller. Fiercely original, it's an offbeat film that sometimes feels a bit plodding as it leaves the gripping mystery in the background to focus on the even more intense personal melodrama. But it's a clever, engaging inversion of the genre.

It's been five years since a 1999 investigation into the discovery of body parts in a coal factory went horribly wrong and detective Zhang (Liao) was shot and sacked. Now drunk and working as a security guard in the icy winter of 2004, Zhang meets up with former colleague Wang (Yu) and discovers that a recent double murder has links to Zhizhen (Gwei), the widow of the 1999 victim. Intrigued, Zhang starts following her, eventually making contact. As these two shattered people open up to each other, facts about both cases emerge where least expected.

The film is gorgeously shot and sharply well edited, using an offhanded style that allows diversions with in each scene. These Lynchian sideroads are often humorous, but continually reveal details about both the people and the various plot strands. They also allow much of the truth to remain unspoken between the characters, creating a superb sense of subdued chemistry that can shift directions at any moment. It's a complex, intense approach to storytelling that centres on the characters' conflicting mix of fear, mistrust and lust.

It also makes much of the dialog feel like it was captured surreptitiously in accidental encounters between people who are so exhausted that they're not expecting to discover anything. Violence erupts so suddenly that it's often comical, as is the flirtation and frustration. Liao is terrific as the weary Zhang, shouting, "I'm trying to help you!" as Gwei's Zhizhen remains elusive and combative. Both characters have a remarkable tenacity to them, and as the pieces fall into place it's fascinating to understand why.

Diao writes and directs this story on so many levels that it often takes the breath away both as a police procedural and as a dark character study. While the crinkly mystery is insinuating and creepy, this is actually the story of a disgraced cop who accidentally gets a chance to tie up a major loose end and maybe also find a way to finally move forward. And the way Diao touches on some very big themes while quietly revealing new possibilities is startlingly resonant.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Boys in Brazil
3/5   Do Lado de Fora •
aka: Pink Pact
dir Alexandre Carvalho
scr Andre Collazzi
prd Alexandre Carvalho, Maite Romao
with Marcello Airoldi, Luis Vaz, Andre Bankoff, Titi Muller, Mauricio Evanns, Silvetty Montilla, Rafael Lozano, Fernanda Viacava, Angela Ribeiro, Nara Sakare, Tatiana Eivazian, Tommy Germain
Vaz, Evanns and Lozano release Br 15.May.14,
US 8.Jun.15, UK 29.Jun.15
14/Brazil 1h32
Boys in Brazil With a broad, corny style, this Brazilian comedy tackles a series of big themes as its story gallops through a period of one year. While there are some astute observations about the layers of homophobia in general society, from expectations to violence, the film gets a bit preachy as it builds its various plot strands.

At Sao Paulo's Pride celebrations, giggly twink Mauro (Vaz) dives in to help Roger (Bankoff) when he's attacked by bigots. Mauro is there with his Uncle Vicente (Airoldi) and best pal Rodrigo (Evanns), and all four vow to come out before next year's Pride. But Roger has a pregnant wife (Ribeiro) and young son, plus growing feelings toward Vicente, who's hiding his sexuality at work. As Rodrigo starts a tentative romance with a school friend (Lozano), Mauro's fiercely religious mother (Sakare) makes it difficult for him to plan his debut as a drag diva.

All of this is fuelled by the lesbian journalist Marilia (Muller), who is writing an article on cross-dressing when she meets Mauro. So the characters swirl together in a flurry of farcical complications, including Vicente talking his friend Paula (Eivazian) into posing as his wife at a work event and Roger locking horns with his domineering mother-in-law (played by drag artist Montilla). Each person is dealing with heavy expectations and pressures that don't let them have the life they want.

The film is sometimes painfully smiley, with rather stiff actors overcompensating for their masculinity. The best plot-thread is the Vicente-Roger one, which is played with some nuance by Airoldi and Bankoff. Meanwhile, Vaz wildly overplays the girly Mauro, but then the entire film is so heightened that it almost works. Every scene is awash in innuendo, assumptions and arched eyebrows. But each storyline also has the nerve to get emotional too, as the characters must find the strength to be honest with the people who love them.

Tellingly, coming out is far more natural for the teens than the adults. And the film tackles these issues straight on, even if it never properly grapples with them. There's a lot about the absurdity of machismo, but not so much about the dark intensity of homophobia, harsh religious beliefs and lying to family and friends. Still, it's a rare comedy with some real bite. And the original title, which translates as On the Outside, is more astute than the English alternatives.

15 themes, language, violence
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Love at First Fight
3.5/5   Les Combattants
dir Thomas Cailley
prd Pierre Guyard
scr Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pape
with Kevin Azais, Adele Haenel, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Rouan, William Lebghil, Thibaut Berducat, Nicolas Wanczycki, Frederic Pellegeay, Steve Tientcheu, Franc Bruneau, Maxime Mege, Clement Allemand
hanel and azais
release Fr 20.Aug.14,
US 22.May.15, UK 19.Jun.15
14/France 1h38

Samba An offbeat sensibility makes this freeform drama impossible to predict, mainly because the characters themselves are so hyperactive. But the realistic approach and a gently comical undertone make the film enjoyable even if there isn't really a character we can root for.

In southwest France, hapless teen Arnaud (Azais) works with his brother Manu (Laurent) in the business run by their mother (Rouan) and late father. With military recruiters in town, Arnaud is considering a change in his life, but only decides to check it out when surly local girl Madeleine (Haenel) says that she's planning to join. Following her like a puppy dog, Arnaud heads off to a preliminary training camp. But while he takes it seriously, Madeleine continues to be complain bitterly. So when Arnaud has had enough of her grumpiness, he snaps.

It's intriguing to see Arnaud and Madeleine as two very different examples of disaffected youths. Arnaud deals with life's insults by going with the flow, while Madeleine continually fights with everyone she meets, which makes their blossoming friendship (with only slight hints of romance) surprisingly engaging. Especially as she brings out the fighter in him, as the title suggests. The problem is that Madeleine is so relentlessly harsh that she's impossible to like, so we really don't want Arnaud wasting his time with her.

Azais and Haenel create seriously sparky characters who never do quite what we'd like them to do. Their lives aren't bad at all, and yet they and their friends continually talk about escaping to be somewhere else, bristling against even the hint of authority and refusing to take their responsibilities seriously. One of Arnaud's surfer dude pals (Berducat) actually thinks his life will improve if he moves to Saskatoon. In other words, these are the perfect prey for army recruiters.

Filmmaker Cailley keeps everything feeling natural and earthy, letting scenes spiral through a variety of emotions with authentic rhythms and prickly reactions. And the way it's shot in a range of locations is fiercely clever. But aside from an exploration of clueless young people, not much is going on beneath the surface. There's certainly no real attempt to grapple with whatever it is that has caused their dissatisfaction, other than the fact that this is how teenagers are supposed to feel.

15 themes, language, violence
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3.5/5   Westen
dir Christian Schwochow
scr Heide Schwochow
prd Thomas Kufus
with Jordis Triebel, Tristan Gobel, Alexander Scheer, Jacky Ido, Anja Antonowicz, Ryszard Ronczewski, Carlo Ljubek, Polina Voskresenskaya, Hendrik Arnst, Andreas Nickl, Michael Benthin, Winnie Bowe
gobel and triebel
release Ger 27.Mar.14,
US 7.Nov.14, UK 12.Jun.15
13/Germany 1h42
west Introspective and character-based, this German drama eschews standard plotting for something more evocative. This approach makes the film involving even if the details remain eerily out of reach. But naturalistic performances and a clever recreation of the 1970s period hold the attention and provide a provocative kick.

In 1978 East Berlin, Nelly (Triebel) is tired of being interrogated by the Stasi. It's been three years since her boyfriend Wassili (Ljubek) died in Moscow, so she takes their 10-year-old son Alexei (Gobel) and sneaks into West Berlin. But life in refugee housing is difficult, while government bureaus inflict the same questions and examinations she thought she was escaping. Then an American official (Ido) hints that Wassili might actually be alive, which makes her afraid to trust anyone, including friendly neighbour Hans (Scheer) who has helped her and Alexei settle in.

Director Christian Schwochow brings a remarkable authenticity to the film, making it look like it was actually shot in the mid-70s without ever being fussy about it. And the actors all deliver natural performances that never over-egg the intense emotions. At the centre Triebel has the most difficult role: Nelly starts as a strong-willed woman taking control of her destiny, then is reduced to a state of frantic paranoia that jeopardises her and Alexei. Because the performances are so realistic, what happens has a heartbreaking rawness.

Gobel is also terrific as Alexei, a slightly too enthusiastic kid who doesn't quite grasp the gravity of most situations, yet always does what he thinks is best. Alexei's tentative friendship with fellow refugee Yelena (Voskresenskaya) is sharp and telling, as is the way he turns to Hans for stability. Scheer provides just the right balance of mystery and heroism in the role, while Ido is a striking change of pace as an American spy who doesn't really know very much, aside from the fact that Nelly is beautiful.

Heide Schwochow's script gets all of these characters circling around each other in very intriguing ways, leaving us unsure if the film is going to become a full-on action thriller, a sweet romance or a tragic political drama. But as the story's final scenes play out, it becomes clear that the filmmakers' point is that life isn't this easy to categorise. So even if it seems to head to an anachronistically cinematic ending, this is an engaging exploration of a journey, not a destination.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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