Rather stupidly I double booked my first film, Black Girl so my daughter-in-law went to see it instead. So my film fortnight began today. If you are familiar with my method, you will know that my choices rest very largely upon films from countries that are not likely to come to a cinema anywhere nearby any time soon, or at all. I am always very thrilled when that happens and it did with my favourite film from last year, Theeb which did come to the Curzon Group cinemas recently and will be out on BVD/BluRay in March 2016.
So my first film of the Festival was a South Korean offering in the LOVE Section called My Love, Don’t Cross That River. Directed by Jin Mo-young, this poetic and beautiful film follows an elderly couple in their last days together. Jo Byeong Man and Kang Kye Yeol have been married ever since she was 14 years old. We see them first, sweeping the courtyard of their house, then suddenly he picks up some leaves and tosses them over her, they play together like children tossing the dry leaves about and laughing, then they sweep them up again. Next we see them gathering firewood, it is clear that Jo Byeong Man is ailing and ageing. They meditate on how strong he once was as they sit in the sunshine discussing the changes in their physique and ability.
Their relationship is shown to us in small, telling scenes of their life. They play together in the snow, while also complaining of the difficulty in clearing the paths; we see them washing vegetables in the river which flows near their house, sometimes a burbling stream, sometimes a rushing torrent after rain or snow melt. Their love is palpable even after 78 years, and when they go out they dress in matching outfits walking hand-in-hand to the senior’s picnic outing.
There are family visits at New Year and birthdays and there is much emphasis on food. Kang Kye Yeol obviously loves cooking dishes for her husband, she says he likes his food and eats well when he is enjoying it. She tenderly places morsels in his mouth or balanced on his spoon of rice. When the family comes they bring a banquet of dishes with them to share, though on Kang Kye’s birthday this ends in quite a vicious quarrel, the usual sibling arguments about who does the most for their parents.
But Jo Byeong Man gets a chest infection, bronchitis and is clearly suffering greatly, they have to take him to hospital where eventually he fades away. This moment is most sensitively shown. Kang Kye Yeol has been preparing for this moment but even so, her keening grief (which is both the first image and the last) is painful to watch.
This sounds on the face of it as though it must be an intrusive documentary into something that is by its nature both private and personal, but this is to misunderstand the elegiac counterpoint: the panning shots that show the valley they live in, the river, flowers and birds that attract their attention, the changing seasonal weather patterns – rain, snow, thaw and sunshine. Their simple, rustic life led for such a long time so tenderly together, their childish playfulness and the hardships that she talks about.
We had to rely on sub-titles, but clearly most of the film was her thoughts about the impending end; her preparations – burning clothes for him to wear in the afterlife, burning clothes for six children lost long ago when she was poorer and unable to buy them pretty things; then carefully washing his winding sheet and shroud and pegging them in the sun to dry – these were moments of intense interiority, on her ancient face there was a glow of satisfaction of a job being well done, exquisite and painful.
After a suitable interval with a book and some food, I went to my second film of the day. Lost in Munich from the Czech Republic. This could not have been more different! It comes in the Festival’s LAUGH Section and yes, there was a lot to laugh about in the first premise which was that French Premier Edouard Daladier had a parrot who could “speak” in exactly his tones of voice. This parrot now 90 years old is taken to Prague on the 70th anniversary of the signing of The Munich Agreement, or accordingly to Czech history, The Munich Betrayal.
This goes back to the infamous “Peace in Out Time” meeting, where Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Edouard Daladier signed the agreement to the Sudetenland handover, which was supposed to mean that Germany would not overrun Czechoslovakia, but would only gain control over those lands that had a mainly Germany population. History proved otherwise, of course.
So the start of this film is archive footage of the dignitaries arriving at the meeting, the signing and the outrage that followed, mass strikes and mobilisation, followed by overrun…at the anniversary meeting however, the parrot upsets the press conference by repeating some of Daladier’s more unflattering phrases regarding the Czechs. The meeting breaks up in confusion and a journalist kidnaps the parrot. Returning to his office with what he assumes is a scoop, he finds that he has been fired, then to pile Pelion upon Ossa sees photographs of his wife with another man.
Grabbing the parrot he goes to stay with his friend, while there the parrot performs even more volubly and outrageously, so they arrange an interview on a Radio Show which then results in the parrot being invited to an interview on television; after several encounters the solution seems to be to exchange the talkative parrot for a silent one…this French Cultural exchange is not going according to plan.
At this point something rather strange happens, the film seems to de-construct into a film about the making of the “parrot” film. This format is familiar to people who watch nature films which now seem to spend the last fifteen minutes of each episode with a film of the film crew capturing the scenes (or some of them) that have just been viewed. But then something else happens…the whole film turns about and becomes a reconstruction of the political truth that lay behind the myth that President Beneš capitulated at Munich and was betrayed, not only by Germany but also by the French, the Italians and the British and that this is the same old story going back into time before and after the war.
So this film begins as a comedic turn, becomes a film about the making of a film and finally becomes a polemic about how everyone since 1938 has completely misunderstood the complex and subtle motivation of President Beneš, who far from betraying his country led it into a complex spider’s web of deceit and trickery, in which by becoming the perceived victim, his country ended up the victor by being on the side of the victor’s and by regaining territory after the war significantly larger than merely the Sudetenlands.
Petr Zelenka keeps the audience on its toes, concentrate children! This is revisionist history. Was what went before a myth? Or was is super-subtle diplomacy by a consummate gambler who was prepared to go to his grave vilified by his countrymen with his secret undiscovered?