A gentle start to the first real day of MIFF due to my hungover state on Friday - I really shouldn't have had that glass of absinthe at the after-after-party, damn it.
I watched two films on Friday night, the first a restrained Polish/German co-production about teenage prostitutes, the second an unrestrained western set in small Australian town.
Set in the early 1990s on the border between Poland and Germany, this surprisingly subtle but sometimes clichéd film from director Robert Glinski tells the story of Tomek (Filip Garbacz), a skinny 14-year old with an interest in astronomy who falls into a seedy world of teenage rentboys when he tries to earn money with which to impress his gold-digging club kid girlfriend, Marta (Anna Kulej).
The film is grittily realistic thanks to the screenplay by Joanna Didik, who lived for 20 years in the same town in which Piggies is set. Glinski has wisely chosen to underplay this potentially overblown material, crafting a film that is cool and reserved instead of an overblown melodrama.
Focussing predominantly in an adolescent millieu, the adult characters in the film are either ineffectual or brutal, save for Tomek's caring but helpless German teacher; while the story arc reminds us of what cruel beasts teenagers can sometimes be. It also points out how easily the oppressed can become an oppressor.
The majority of characters - such as Tomek's soccer-obsessed father (Bogdan Koca), his preening, shallow sister (Katarzyna Pysznska), the leering pimp Borys (Tomasz Tyndyk), and Tomek's handsome but unhappy best friend Ciemny (Daniel Furmaniak) - are, alas, sadly one dimensional, but as the complex Tomek, Garbacz is tremendous: a deserving winner of the Best Debut Actor award at the Polish Film Festival.
Piggies (dir. Robert Glinski, Producers Witold Iwaszkiewicz & Eike Goreczka, Germany/Poland, 2009)
Rating: Three stars
The debut feature from Australian director Patrick Hughes is a robust contemporary Western, set in a dying small town in Victoria's high country and starring Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) as the appropriately-named Shane Cooper, a young cop whose first day at a new posting is violently derailed when an escaped murderer (Jimmy Conway, played with excellent menace by Tommy Lewis) rides into town.
An enthusiastic crowd - the first sold-out session at MIFF this year - gathered for the film's Melbourne premiere, following excellent word of mouth from previous screenings in Berlin and Sydney, and judging from the responses of those around me, it seems most enjoyed Red Hill immensely.
I liked it a lot, but despite its kinetic direction, strong performances and beautiful cinematography, I wasn't entirely blown away. Like all good genre films, part of the fun comes from seeing how familiar tropes are handled, and on this account Hughes does well - traditional elements of the Western film are very inventively presented in the startling terrain around Omeo in East Gippsland - but other elements of the story, such as a nod to the traditional legend of the Gippsland panther, are distinctly jarring, and as a metaphor for the damaging effect of colonialism in Australia, heavy-handed in the extreme.
That said, as a story about vengeance and redemption that gives the nod to such diverse cinematic classics as Shane (1953) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and as a calling card for Hughes' obvious grasp of dramatic tension, screen violence, atmosphere and mood, Red Hill is great fun indeed.
Red Hill (written, directed and editor by Patrick Hughes, produced by Al Clark, Australia, 2010)
Rating: Three and a half stars