It seems like an awfully long time since I was in the Polish city of Wroclaw for the 11th New Horizons International Film Festival, so much has happened over the past two weeks. In fact July was such a busy month in general that I didn’t even get a chance to put up any info about this mammoth festival in the Events section of this website, but seeing as I organised a fairly major strand within it, I just wanted to give a quick overview of my brief time there.
So, as I wrote on 23 June, to celebrate the publication of my book in Polish, I was invited to curate a ‘Behind the Pink Curtain’ retrospective of some twenty Roman Porno and pink films as part of New Horizons. It was a very exciting prospect, because it was the largest selection I’d ever had a chance to programme since my book originally came out in English in 2008, and also because as the festival would be soft-subbing the films into Polish anyway, it gave me the chance to think outside the box a bit and choose titles for which English subtitled prints didn’t already exist, thus giving a chance to screen others than those that usually seem to get aired at such events – instead of a surfeit of Kumashiro films, for example, titles by Sachi Hamano and Yumi Yoshiyuki, probably the first time women directors have ever been represented as part of a pink retrospective at a Western festival. Due to lack of time, I never did get the chance to publish the full lineup, though I linked to it in my previous post of 24 July, but by then it was already three days into the festival.
Yes, sadly, with such a busy schedule throughout June and July, I ended up only able to spend less than four out of the ten days the festival was running in Wroclaw, and am still regretting it immensely. The programme was pretty interesting, featuring a complete retrospective of Terry Gilliam alongside focusses on Norwegian cinema and the ‘Red Westerns’ retrospective of Soviet Westerns that played at Rotterdam earlier the year, among many other offerings. However, I was pretty much absorbed with introducing my screenings, conducting Q&A sessions afterwards and doing a bit of press for my book (if you can read Polish, here’s an article I wrote to promote it, and here’s an English-language video interview of me talking about the pink retrospective), so I didn’t catch as many films as I’d have liked. I was more or less straight off the plane on the Wednesday 27 July and introducing Yumi Yoshiyuki’s delightfully-titled 2007 film Widow Apartment: Big Tits’ Aching Night at 8pm, then after grabbing a quick beer it was back to introduce Takahisa Zeze’s masterful Raigyo (1997) at 10pm, a film I’d not seen in some time, but which impressed me a lot more on the big screen than I remember from previous viewings – a really atmospheric, intelligent work. Amazingly, both screenings were sold out, a pattern that seemed to hold for the whole of this retrospective, and all the more amazing when you consider that out of the ten screens in constant operation throughout the festival, a further two were occupied with similarly well-attended screenings of The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai and Angel Guts: Red Classroom at the same time as Raigyo. The Q&A sessions were also lively, with some genuinely intelligent questions from audience members who had never seen anything like these films before, particularly after the Friday night showing of Yasuharu Hasebe’s demented Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976). In a nutshell, the season appears to have been a huge success, and according to the staff, my book was the top-selling title of the festival, which makes me very happy.
Yumi Yoshiyuki was also a guest at the festival, but she didn’t arrive till later that night after this initial screening of Widow Apartment, and I only bumped into her early the next morning at breakfast, shortly before I had to dash off to introduce Wakamatsu’s mesmeric Running in Madness, Dying in Love (1969). Our busy schedules meant our paths barely crossed over the next few days, although we did find time for a few drinks here and there. She’s a lovely woman, and the Wroclaw crowds also seemed to warm to her and her two films, especially the more overtly-comedic Miss Peach (2005), which showed the following night at 10pm.
Saturday was the real killer, with the day kicking off with a packed and sweaty screening of the lewdest and crudest of all the titles on display, Sachiko Hamano’s Greedy Housewives (2003), followed by Mamoru Watanabe’s Secret Hot Spring Resort: Starfish at Night (1971), Masao Adachi’s Gushing Prayer: 15 Year Old Prostitute (1971) and Tatsumi Kumashiro’s Lovers Are Wet (1973). These were all but a small fraction of the full programme, which you can check out here.
As I said, this punishing, all-consuming schedule, while a lot of fun, didn’t afford me a whole lot of time to see much else in the festival line-up, but still, I made it my goal while I was there of not watching anything made West of Warsaw. Not being terribly familiar with Polish cinema, I thought it only polite while in the country to fit in at least one film by one of Poland’s master filmmakers, Andrzej Munk, the subject of a pretty major retrospective at the festival. The Men of the Blue Cross (Błękitny krzyż, 1955) was a beautifully-filmed tale of wartime derring-do shot in a quasi-documentary style and portraying a famous rescue mission undertaken by a group of Polish mountain rescue volunteers on the Slovakian slopes of the Tatra Mountains. At 55-minutes, it could barely outstay its welcome, which is more than one can say for Bakur Bakuradze’s The Hunter (Okhotnik, 2011), a recent Russian film that seemed to have been made purely for the festival market. A portrait of a pig farmer whose life slips slowly out of harmony with his family and the natural environment he inhabits, the film reminded me a lot of Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996), consisting of over two-hours of impressionistic, slice-of-life scenes of its characters going about their daily business of washing up, mucking out the sties, driving into town etc, out of which emerges, if not a sense of narrative then at least one of character. This sort of ‘slow cinema’ presents a welcome change of pace for those with busy festival schedules, a couple of hours of mental breathing space to free associate within rather than submit to the tyranny of more rigorous plotting, especially as it was a relatively early screening at 10am, but I just wish the film was about half an hour shorter. (And to prove just how little I was paying attention in my mid-morning fug, I only just noticed from reading a few online reviews that main character’s son Kolya apparently only had one arm!)
That just leaves two final titles, both of which belonged to the intriguing Red Westerns section. I have more than a passing interest in Russian cinema, or at least the entertainment side of the Soviet era, rather than the self-conscious modern art cinema of the likes of The Hunter. I don’t know very much about the subject and would certainly not claim any degree of expertise, but I am also fairly content not knowing that much about it and just enjoying the individual films for what they are. In this respect, I found the whole concept of Eastern Westerns absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t the pastiches or homages from Czechoslovakia such as Oldřich Lipský’s Lemonade Joe or Horse Opera (Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera, 1964), or East German productions such as Richard Groschop’s Chingachgook, the Great Snake (Chingachgook, die große Schlange, 1967) that appealed as much as the Soviet attempts at transposing an all-American genre to a similarly outlaw context on the other side of the world within a very different political reality – which is why I’m especially frustrated that I only caught two of films in the programme, because god knows if I’ll ever get a chance to see any of the others in the near future.
Of these two titles, it has to be said that The Elusive Avengers (Neulovimye mstiteli, Edmond Keosayan, 1967) falls into the “interesting, but not very good” category. The story is that John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) enjoyed such popular success in the Soviet Union that the powers-that-be decided it must be ideologically unsound and withdrew it from circulation. Several years later, Mosfilm produced The Elusive Avengers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, essentially reworking the Hollywood original (of course, I don’t really mean “original”, but one can assume that Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai hadn’t had such an impact in Soviet Russia at this point) into “a socially correct film in retort to capitalist mass culture”, according to the festival catalogue. It is basically a kids film, colourfully shot, but with some excruciating musical numbers and not really a lot there for me to recommend it – although if you are interested there is an English and French-subtitled DVD from Ruscico which you can order here.
The same cannot be said however of Ali Khamraev’s The Seventh Bullet (Sedmaya pulya, 1972), which again takes The Magnificent Seven as its model although looks more like a Sergio Leone film, with the action relocated to 1920s Uzbekistan as Communist reformers take on Islamic traditionalists in Central Asia. As Peter Rollberg wrote in the Rotterdam festival catalogue, reproduced for Wroclaw, the film “belongs to a peculiar sub-genre, sometimes referred to as the ‘Eastern’, a Western-style action film with an explicit pro-communist propaganda message, usually set during the 1920s civil war. The Eastern typically features a Bolshevik superman as its central character, a man just as apt at delivering ideological arguments as in handling guns and martial arts.” That said, The Seventh Bullet does have its fair share of gun-toting and fist fights, but it is the Uzbek landscapes and the portrayal of its inhabitants that are most memorable. A real revelation, this film, and I’d like to see more like it. I couldn’t find a Ruscico DVD of this one, but apparently there was a retrospective of Khamraev’s work fairly recently in the US entitled Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev, and he appears to have made several more films like this one. I want to see them!
So in conclusion, a great festival jam-packed with interesting films and lively crowds, and I’m frustrated I didn’t stay a bit longer. If they ask, I’ll be back like a shot, but in the meantime I’d like to say a big thanks to everyone who helped make my stay so pleasurable (not the LOT Polish Airline staff!), and to everyone in Poland who bought my book.