Sydney Film Festival: Dispatch #1

We kick off our Sydney Film Festival coverage in style, with reviews of Slow West, The Chinese Mayor and The Daughter.

We kick off our Sydney Film Festival coverage in style, with reviews of Slow West, The Chinese Mayor and The Daughter.


Slow West

Harry Welsh reviews.

SEE for Wes Anderson meets redemptive violence.

Contemporary re-imaginings of the Western have netted the established attributes of this genre with other cultural ingredients, i.e. ultra-violence and satire in Django: Unchained, the slow grind of an art film in Salvation, and, to some extent, feminism and the threat of the apocalypse in Mad Max: Fury Road. The winner of the 2015 Sundance WorldCinema Dramatic Grand Jury prize, Slow West, is another addition to the contemporary collection of hybrid-Westerns. The debut feature from Scottish director John MacLean follows a young nobleman (also Scottish), Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as he traverses the harsh American landscape in search of his beloved Scottish flower, Rose. But the key relationship in the film is not between Jay and said love interest, but between Jay and his lonesome escort, Silas (Michael Fassbender).

MacLean provides a narrative space for his characters to develop onscreen, but the actors firmly position themselves in immovable roles, where no matter what obstacles or tragedies they face, they seem to have the same expression and outlook as they did in the opening five minutes. The performances are entertaining, and the mentor/mentored relationship between Silas and Jay easily evokes some degree of investment in the story. Ben Mendehlson may have been typecast as a villain but there are plenty of good reasons for this. Sadly though,  he gets about 12 minutes of screen-time, and the bandits in his troupe become more personable than he.

The kitsch aesthetic and episodic introduction of quirky characters points to Wes Anderson as an influence (let’s call it ‘West Anderson’ [sorry]), but that said MacLean does retain a clear sense of originality in this interpretation of the Western.

In the moments when your enthusiasm for the protagonists’ success seeps in, MacLean quickly reminds you of the brutality of the Wild West and the malleable nature of human life. With characters who fail to pry the empathy from the audiences skeptical hands—always expecting tragedy—it becomes hard to truly care about the events on screen; all the while entertaining, but nothing tapping into your emotions.



The Chinese Mayor*

Jonathon Parker reviews.

SEE for its vital depiction of a society consumed by the paradox of illogic and progress.

During the first five minutes of Friday’s screening of the documentary The Chinese Mayor, the lights in the State Theatre would not stop glowing. Once the lights had been dulled, the Sydney Film Festival staff played the film again from the start – only to find the sound system had failed. Before the third (and, ultimately, successful) attempt to screen the film began, audience members around me, privileged by democracy, were declaring the screening an unmitigated disaster, before finally leaning back to enjoy a film about real urban depravity.

The Chinese Mayor centres on Geng Yanbo, the controversial mayor of the one-time Imperial capital of China, Datong. Geng’s plans to invoke a cultural renaissance in Datong, building a city based on art and tourism, are predicated on the relocation of half-a-million residents and the demolition of their homes. As an ideologue, Geng is sympathetic: for a city to delay its inevitable ephemerality, it must embrace its cultural past. Yet this is a society where big government reigns supreme, rendering the property, autonomy and even children of its citizenry subordinate to the will of the state. The wall might be down in Berlin, but Geng is quite literally building a new one around Datong’s city centre. It seems that in order to build a future based on the past, one must obliterate the present.

The machinations of the communist state, as depicted in the film, are so absurd they are almost unintentionally satirical: elections are merely a formal process, as each government position only has one candidate. The citizens of Datong are polarised, and despite their ultimate powerlessness, there are various people who regularly plead Geng not to relocate them. These motifs work as an intellectual exercise in displaying how individual thought is not totally subservient to the state, and sometimes even as instances of schadenfreude; though director Zhou Hao sometimes bypasses the emotional resonance his film needs. Moments of true intimacy between filmmaker and subject, like Geng’s reflection that he once wanted to be a journalist (so still a government employee in China), are revealing but seldom.

Though this makes the film feel slight at times, the film works as a wry and fascinating portrait of destruction and renewal.

*Tickets courtesy of the University of Sydney Curiosity Season: 



The Daughter

Victoria Zerbst reviews.

Just SEE it.

Based off his 2011 play The Wild Duck, inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same title, director Simon Stone told Honi that he aimed to create a ‘splintered and elliptical version of [Ibsen’s] quite linear play’.

The Daughter takes place in a dying logging town in rural New South Wales. Christian (Paul Schneider) returns to his family home for his father Henry’s (Geoffrey Rush) wedding and reconnects with his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who has stayed in town working at Henry’s timber mill and is now out of a job. As Christian gets to know Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young) and father Walter (Sam Neill), he discovers a secret that could tear Oliver’s family apart.

When you watch the film it isn’t surprising Stone wrote his script for stage with the screen in mind. From the beautiful establishing shots of rural New South Wales complete with meandering mist to the layering of detached audio over intense close up shots, Stone has masterfully woven together an arsenal of cinematic techniques to create the moments ‘lying in the subconscious behind the text’ as he puts in his own words.

My only misgiving with the film was my initial problem with the representation of women in the film. The female characters were either portrayed as deceptive, unfaithful or suicidal. They are far less developed than the strong and complex male characters who are given the majority of screen time. As Stone said himself, the film has ‘dysfunctional men at the core of it’. Henry (Rush) is marrying a housemaid young enough to be his daughter and Oliver and Christian get hella drunk at a bar in UNSW and end up having a chat with two female students.

The central character Hedvig, however, is a spirited, multifaceted and intelligent girl, whose presence offers a wonderful light contrast to the shadow of secrets and tension slowly creeping through the film.

The entire cast is so on point. The masterful acting on all accounts makes the heightened family drama incredibly real and authentic. This is definitely a film you need to see. The Daughter is an affecting story told very well on screen. There is also a duck in it.