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Vengeance Triumphs in Locarno

Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl in Edwin’s Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021)

Last summer, when organizers were still trying to figure out how to run a film festival during a pandemic, Locarno came up with an innovative solution. Ten international and ten Swiss filmmakers—including Lucrecia Martel, Wang Bing, Lisandro Alonso, Lav Diaz, and Helena Wittmann—were invited to pitch the projects they were working on when the outbreak halted production. Each filmmaker also selected a film from the festival’s history to screen. This year, Locarno’s new artistic director, Giona A. Nazzaro, brought the festival back as an in-person event, presenting more than two hundred films over eleven days.

When the seventy-fourth edition wrapped over the weekend, the jury presided over by director Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) awarded the top prize, the Golden Leopard, to Edwin’s Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. For Jessica Kiang, writing in Variety, “the film is among the best exemplars of Nazzaro’s avowed ambition to shift the Locarno selection toward more genre-inflected fare. Yet as a work of social relevance from an internationally established filmmaker, awarding it is also a nod to the auteur-driven arthouse tradition for which Locarno has until now been better known.”

Edwin worked on the screenplay with Eka Kurniawan, who wrote the 2014 novel about an impotent Javanese underworld fighter, Ajo (Marthino Lio), who falls for a beautiful bodyguard, Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). When the English translation of Vengeance came out in 2017, Tim Hannigan, writing for the Asian Review of Books, called Kurniawan “the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature: a brash wunderkind, delivering gleeful references to pulp fiction, lashings of stylized violence, and an array of characters and scenarios that far surpass the tropes and clichés which inspire them.”

As an adaptation, the film “ambitiously seeks to combine humor, action, thrills, supernatural elements, and even, in the final reel, tropes from the trucker-drama subgenre,” writes Neil Young in Screen. “But while numerous narrative gears are attempted in turn, none of them fully connect.” In Variety, though, Jay Weissberg finds this “withering critique of masculinity” to be “enjoyably gritty if over-obvious.”

Vengeance is set in the late 1980s, which, as Edwin points out in his conversation with the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough, was “the peak of the Suharto military regime, which glorified masculine and machismo values. That’s why all those action movies are celebrated in our pop culture. The violence was embedded in Indonesian culture during that period. That period and the ideas from that period are still very present and still very powerful in Indonesia today. So this is a very current film. It’s not nostalgic at all.”

Critic and programmer Shelly Kraicer was pleased to see Qiu Jiongjiong’s A New Old Play win the special jury prize. “I haven’t seen a more aesthetically (and historically) daring, brilliant independent feature from China in years,” he tweets. Another film set in the 1980s, A New Old Play centers on Qiu Fu, a renowned clown and Sichuan opera performer who, upon death, is escorted to the underworld. MUBI’s Daniel Kasman—who found this year’s competition to be “tepid” and senses that the festival as a whole is “in trouble”—is nevertheless wowed by A New Old Play, which “spans epochs” of Chinese history “yet is brought to life within the limitations of a small movie set. The scope—inspired by Qiu’s own theatrical family—is impressive, starting with the troupes’s creation during the chaotic period of the 1920s before passing through war with Japan, the nationalists’ struggles, war with the ascendant communists, a trip to Taiwan, and a gradual dissolution of the players before Mao’s secured reign. For such an expansive tale, Qiu shows himself [to be] both cagey and inventive.”

Abel Ferrara won the award for best direction for Zeroes and Ones, starring Ethan Hawke as JJ, an American soldier stationed in Rome during a pandemic. There’s a war raging, too, but it’s unclear who’s doing the fighting. Zeroes and Ones is “a hazy, almost half-assed genre picture with a peripatetic protagonist ensnared in an entirely inscrutable plot that seems to draw endlessly upon an unspoken history beyond the boundaries of the film,” writes Patrick Preziosi at In Review Online. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich notes that Sean Price Williams’s “scuzz-noir cinematography and Joe Della’s reverb-heavy drum and guitar score fill the empty streets of the Eternal City with a post-apocalyptic emptiness that makes room for all sorts of oblique insinuations.” At the Film Stage, Ethan Vestby suggests that Zeroes and Ones “comes close to what you’d imagine if Ferrara’s friend Michael Mann were working on a paltry budget and allowed to see his macho abstraction to its fullest.”

Anastasiya Krasovskaya won the best actress award for her performance as a Russian university student who works at night at a strip club in Gerda, the third feature directed by Natalya Kudryashova—who won an acting award herself in Venice in 2018 for her lead turn in Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova’s The Man Who Surprised Everyone. Krasovskaya is “exceptionally gifted,” writes Matthew Joseph Jenner for the International Cinephile Society (ICS), and Gerda is “a fascinating combination of gritty social realism and haunting psychological thriller, with the director finding the balance between the two polar extremes in her pursuit of some deeper truths hiding just out of sight in this nightmarish but enticing version of a post-Soviet world.”

The award for best actor went to Mohamed Mellali and Valero Escolar, two of the three leads in Catalan director Neus Ballús’s third feature, The Odd-Job Men. Mellali, Escolar, and Pep Sarrá are actual plumbers with whom Ballús worked for two years, honing their improvisational skills. Talking with Ballús for Variety, John Hopewell notes that The Odd-Job Men “plays out as equal parts situational comedy and observational relationship drama, engaging with what Ballús describes in a director’s note as ‘one of the more pressing challenges of our time: How to understand one another.’”

The jury honored two films with special mentions. Lorenz Merz’s Soul of a Beast, in which a teenage father falls for his best friend’s girlfriend, is “a pulsating affair set in a crumbling urban world brought to life using special effects, and incorporating a trippy mix of animal symbolism and Japanese fairytale influences,” writes Will Thorne in Variety. Chema García Ibarra’s The Sacred Spirit is “a rare, singular gem that skirts all attempts at pigeonholing and hangs in a volatile space,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “The film is about many things—a clan of alien enthusiasts, a tapas bar, a transnational crime syndicate, a dysfunctional family, a missing girl—but mostly, it’s about a place, García Ibarra’s hometown of Elche, and the people stranded therein, their rituals, beliefs, and cosmogonies.”

Concorso Cineasti del presente

Literally translated as the Filmmakers of the Present Competition, the Concorso Cineasti del presente offers a selection of first and second feature films. This Golden Leopard, awarded by three jurors—actor Agathe Bonitzer; director Mattie Do; and Vanja Kaludjercic, director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam—went to Francesco Montagner’s Brotherhood, which Neil Young calls an “intimate and empathetic study of three Muslim siblings working as shepherds in rural Bosnia.” Hleb Papou wins best director for Legionnaire, a drama centering on the single Black officer in an elite Roman police unit. Writing for Sight & Sound, John Bleasdale calls it “a rich and complicated picture of the incomplete integration of Italy.”

With her debut feature, Our Eternal Summer, the winner of the special jury prize, Émilie Aussel “urges us to think about the brutal reality of dealing with loss at a young age,” writes Muriel Del Don at Cineuropa. Sabrina Sarabi’s No One’s with the Calves is a “drab coming-of-age story,” but Saskia Rosendahl, who wins the best actress award, is “remarkable,” finds Eren Odabaşı at the ICS. Best actor goes to Gia Agumava, who plays the owner of a bar in a village by the Black Sea and the secret lover of a man who is found hanged in Georgian director Elene Naveriani’s second feature, Wet Sand.

Charlotte Colbert’s She Will premiered out of competition but won the first feature award. Following a double mastectomy, an actress retreats with her nurse to a patch of Scotland where witches were burned in the eighteenth century. For Jessica Kiang, “as a superbly crafted, thematically rich fable,” She Will “administers a potent dose of #MeToo vengeance, all while wearing its nasty sense of humor like a red-lipstick grin applied to a perfectly masklike face.” A special mention goes to Araceli Lemos’s Holy Emy, a portrait of a Filipino immigrant in Athens that “manages to masterfully combine social drama, Cronenberg-style horror, mysticism, and modernity,” writes Muriel Del Don.

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