LOS ANGELES, Aug 13, (RTRS): A jury that included high profile directors Olivier Assayas and Miguel Gomes has awarded Wang Bing’s unblinkered documentary “Mrs. Fang” the Golden Leopard at the 70th anniversary edition of the Locarno Festival, which ended on Saturday night. In keeping with the director’s usual stripped down, uncompromising style, the film focuses on the death of a woman with Alzheimer’s in an impoverished corner of China. The Special Jury Prize has gone to Brazil’s “Good Manners,” a werewolf story with lesbian overtones directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, while best director was awarded to veteran filmmaker F.J. Ossang for “9 Fingers.”
Rounding out the prizes in the international competition were best actress to Isabelle Huppert for Serge Bozon’s ironic comedy “Madame Hyde,” and best actress to Elliott Crosset Hove for Icelandic director Hlynur Palmason’s debut, “Winter Brothers.”
In the Cinema of the Present, Locarno’s section meant to highlight new voices and trends in the field, the top prize (worth approximately $41,600) went to Bulgarian-German coproduction “3/4,” the first feature by Ilian Metev following his highly-regarded documentary “Sofia’s Last Ambulance.” The jury, headed by Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, has given the Special Jury Prize to the French-Portuguese coproduction “Milla,” directed by Valerie Massadian, and the best new director award to South Korea’s Dae-hwan Kim for “The First Lap.”
The Variety Piazza Grande Award, selected by this magazine’s attending critics for the film that best combines artistic achievements with commercial potential, has been won by Jan Zabeil’s “Three Peaks,” a German-Italian family drama set in the mountains of Italy’s Alto Adige region.
Rounding out the main prizes, the Dominican Republic’s “Cocote,” directed by Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, won the top prize in the Signs of Life sidebar, a section “investigating experimental forms of narration and innovations in film language.” The Swatch-sponsored First Feature prize is given to the Georgian drama “Scary Mother” by Ana Urushadze, and the top Critics Week award went to Slovenia’s “The Family,” directed by Rok Bicek.
Industry events were once again a strong suit of this year’s festival, from the StepIn Forum discussing trends in the field, to the Open Doors co-production forum, this year highlighting projects from South Asia, and the First Look showcase for films in post-production, focusing on Baltic cinema. Media buzz was generated by the lifetime achievement award to Todd Haynes, and the Raimondo Rezzonico Prize for producers, which went to Michel Merkt, whose impressive line-up of films from the past three years has made him a real stand-out.
The festival’s 70th anniversary prompted the organizers to ask a host of industry players — actors, directors, producers, programmers, etc — to make a short film of no more than 70 seconds, based on the idea “The Movie of My Life.” Favorites were screened in the Piazza Grande before the features as well as at all press screenings, and prizes were given out for the best contributions. The festival closes with the world premiere screening of Kevin Merz’s “Gotthard – One Life, One Soul,” a documentary about the Swiss hard rock band Gotthard.
Who is Mrs. Fang? At the beginning of the Locarno Golden Leopard-winning documentary that bears her name, she is a Chinese woman in her sixties waiting in a hallway. We get no context here, nor in the next shot, as she reacts to a bad smell outside and darts off camera, nor in the next, when she’s standing in a dingy room with two beds in it as well as a fridge, while another figure bustles around with a kettle. Then, across a single, brutal cut, we’re with her some months later, and she now occupies one of the beds. Her advanced Alzheimer’s has shriveled the skin onto her bones, and her face is almost unrecognizable, lips drawn back in a constant rictus, teeth exposed like those in a skull.
Over the course of Chinese director Wang Bing’s atypically short but typically unflinching, challenging, provocative film, we will watch her die. This is filmmaking so unblinking, and so without sentiment that sometimes it requires an effort of will not to wince away from the screen, especially any time Wang returns to that closeup of her skeletal face. And he spends a lot of time with this shot, his camera’s dispassionate eye staring into her glazed ones, giving audiences a lot of time to consider not just the image, not just the woman dying behind those eyes, but the meaning of it.
This level of intimacy skirts the boundaries of prurience and consent. Mrs. Fang is for these last days unable to speak, unable even to move under her own volition, so how can we know how she feels about the filmmakers’ presence, if she’s even aware of it? But it also asks exceptionally uncomfortable questions of us, about why we are so unnerved by the naked evidence of this most natural and inevitable of human processes, about why we want to look away, and why we do not.
Respite from the intensity of these sequences comes in the business that goes on around Fang Xiuying’s prone form. Her adult son and daughter, and other assorted neighbors and relatives come in and out of the room, their plastic sandals scuffling on the cheap linoleum, and discuss her deterioration, her bedsores and breathing, in prosaic terms. There’s the man whose only contribution seems to be noting that she looks very much worse than the last time, the woman who frets about when to dress her in funeral clothes and the gray-haired older lady who stands silent as a sentinel at the foot of her bed. Out the back, the menfolk pull their T-shirts up over their sweating bellies and argue. Nobody ever says “hospital” and it is not until late in the film that the word “doctor” is mentioned, and then it’s a suggestion rapidly shot down.
In addition to being a portrait of death, “Mrs. Fang” is, like all of Wang’s films, concerned with economically challenged, marginalized Chinese life. This ramshackle and impoverished village in the country’s rural south is not a place of bucolic serenity, but scrappy make-do-and-mend. Even the night fishing that supports Mrs. Fang’s family, and which Wang covers in long, tolerance-testing, ultimately hypnotic unbroken takes, has no hint of romance to it. With pylons silhouetted in the background, the men push their little boat along the banks of the sluggish river, to the sporadic, unpleasant buzzing emitted by the sensors on their handheld fishing nets when they detect a catch.
The wilful anti-poetry of the unscored images; the slap of that cut back to Mrs. Fang’s face, which never loses the power to shock; the observation of the crowd that gathers round her bed and stares awhile before dispersing and waiting elsewhere for her to die. This is a merciless film, and whether the process of teasing its meaning out for yourself feels like a punishment or a reward will depend entirely on your patience and your point of view.