BY Anthony Hawley in Film | 11 MAR 21

The Highlights of this Year’s Berlinale Film Festival

The most exciting works of the first online edition of the festival look at strategies of care and ways of refusing neoliberalism

BY Anthony Hawley in Film | 11 MAR 21

‘I have never seen a hot air balloon I made floating in the sky before,’ says Mien (Khuong Thi Minh Nga), one of the four Vietnamese women with whom Nigerian footballer Bassley (Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga) lives in Lê Bảo’s obliquely-told debut film Vị (Taste, 2021). There is very little dialogue in this film, but the emotional longing in these lines almost perfectly encapsulates the complex struggles at the core of it. Taste, which received the Special Jury Award in the ‘Encounters’ section at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival, is as much about the failed promises of globalization as it is about the strange beauty of basic human existence. An immigrant in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Bassley works occasionally for four female factory workers. When he gets terminated from his football team because he breaks his leg, Bassley’s already-challenging existence becomes even more so. Together with the four women, he moves into a massive concrete warehouse, hunkering down in its daunting spareness and scale. Once relocated, they spend most of their days naked – cooking, washing, caring for each other and having sex. Bảo presents communal care-giving activities with the perfect balance of humility, mystery and dignity.

Lê Bảo, Vị (Taste), 2021, film still. Courtesy: © E&W Films, Le Bien Pictures, Deuxième Ligne Films, Petit Film, Senator Film Produktion

Watching upwards of 27 films this past week from my studio in the Bronx via a new online portal created especially for this year’s Berlinale – which was moved to the web due to COVID-19 – I was struck by how many of the most compelling films wrestle with the fallout of the past 40 years’ worth of global economic integration and expansion. Subjects include the promise of increased wages and labour abroad with the spread of neoliberal ideologies, or the repercussions of being constantly connected to billions of people via the internet.

Perhaps the most pressing, unruly work is Radu Jude’s Golden Bear-winning Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, 2021), a fabulously over-the-top film – part-parody, part-pastiche – which falls somewhere between a Shakespearean comedy of errors and a jeremiad. The film is structured in three distinct parts and follows the story of schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu), whose reputation is at stake because of an amateur porn video she makes that gets leaked on the internet. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn starts with a graphic sex scene between a masked Emi and her husband, as they film the video in question, but no sooner do they get hot and heavy than we hear Emi’s parents in the background pestering them with banal questions. The absurdity of the moment is characteristic of the highwire act Jude’s work performs.

Radu Jude, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, ​2021, film still. Courtesy: © Micro Film; photograph: Silviu Ghetie

After its pornographic opening, the first vérité section of Jude’s movie finds Emi wandering the streets in the aftermath of the video gone viral. This part sets up section two: a semiotic exploration titled ‘a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders’. Here, Jude plays brilliantly with symbolic slippage by riffing off words and their assumed or inherited meanings. Does ‘French Revolution’ maintain its revolutionary spirit when it’s adopted for a fancy bakery called ‘French Revolution Eclairs’? There’s an intense distrust of all things orthodox in this part that is at the heart of the film’s agitation with the moral high-grounding by school parents who put Emi on literal trial in section three. But Jude’s short dictionary also admits how hard it is to navigate digital flows that flatten out everything from authoritarian agendas and religious extremism to sex-cams and web searches.

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces by Shengze Zhu
Shengze Zhu, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Burn the Film

Each year, the ‘Forum’ section of the Berlinale delivers a rich array of filmic meditations and explorations – often enough to warrant a separate festival. One of the most subtly layered offerings from this year, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021) by Shengze Zhu, meditates on the city of Wuhan, the bridges constantly being built along the Yangtze River and humanity’s unstoppable expansionism. Her film fuses truly breathtaking long and fixed shots with a handful of anonymous notes that the director presents as on-screen texts. These are letters from loved ones to dead relatives who passed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Add to this a soundscape especially attuned to capturing minutia both within the frame and at a great distance. Few films so poetically and impartially portray the havoc human progress wreaks on the environment, the beauty of that labour and our continuing need to go about our daily routines.

It’s an odd sort of feeling in March 2021 to think back to the promises held by the freedom of the early internet during the 1990s and to the alleged worldwide unification of those years. If we’re more united than ever before it’s in the constant surveillance of nearly every region of the planet and the increasing number of very real walls shoring up nationalist sentiments. One of the strengths of this year’s Berlinale is that, at best, its repertoire of experiences and genres refuses dogma. The films themselves range from wordless lyric essays and ironic how-to manuals to fleeting episodic folk tales and grotesque thrillers inspired by the Italian gialli horror films of the 1960s and ’70s. Perhaps one of the best ways forth from homogenizing global policies is a disobedient array of cinematic forms as eclectic as Jude’s ribald film itself.

The 71st Berlinale Film Festival was on view for professional from 1 – 5 March. Berlinale audiences will be able to see the majority of the films selected by all the sections in numerous cinema screenings in Berlin in the Summer Special from 9 – 20 June 2021.

Main image: Lê Bảo, Vị (Taste), 2021, film still. Courtesy: © E&W Films, Le Bien Pictures, Deuxième Ligne Films, Petit Film, Senator Film Produktion

Anthony Hawley is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in New York, USA.