63rd Sydney Film Festival - reviews in brief

Hotel Coolgardie

(Fri 10 June, 6:15pm, Event Cinema 9)

Crammed full of the social claustrophobia and tunnel vision that comes with a one-horse town full of miners, and reminiscent of the nightmarish, dust-laden cult classic Wake in Fright, comes the tale of two Finnish girls (well, actually one of them is half-German) “trapped” in Coolgardie, an isolated township west of Kalgoorlie. The Denver Hotel is its name, but "hell" all the same. The two young girls are desperate to save some money, having been ripped off in Bali. It’s simple bar work, but they are pounded by the bully owner, and hounded by the sex-starved locals, mostly young miners needing to slake their thirst. Lina and Steph’s contracts are for three months. Can they make it. 

Director Pete Gleeson, who also shot and edited the documentary weaves in a sly sense of humour. He’s essentially a fly-on-the-wall, and how he manages to get the locals to act so, well, local-like, is terrific. It’s warts-and-all as the two girls work shifts, and sleep in rooms above the pub. There’s sweet little else to do in the town. A few of the local lads try their darnedest to get their leg over, but the girls won’t have a bar of it. The pub owner is none-too-impressed with their attitude. But the girls are endearing, and, despite the crusty, hardened machismo that permeates the place, the doco steadily envelopes the viewer’s emotions. The epilogue is heartbreaking. 


(Sat 11 June, 6:15pm & Wed 15 June, 6:15pm, both Event Cinema 8)

Tubby, middle-aged Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou) arrives on a small Greek island as the new local GP. Summer is just around the corner, and the island comes alive with the smell of swinging, hedonistic young flesh. Kostis is a lonely man, and after being befriended by a small group of young European tourists, he falls for the most flirtatious of the group, Anna (Elli Tringou). She strings him along, but it’s obvious this isn’t going to bode well for either party. The endless nude beach romps and all-night imbibing in the island’s hotspots can only last so long. What has become an obsession for Kostis has only been a frolic for Anna. 

Director and co-writer Argyris Papdimitropoulos has fashioned a compelling modern fable on love’s bitter cruelty. Excellent performances, especially the two leads, combined with a subtle, but affecting score, and the director’s sly use of thriller technique, gives Suntan a surprising edge. The sun might be out in full force, but this is definitely a dark tale. I’d be more inclined to call the movie Sunburn, as there are definitely tears before bedtime, but in the end it’s all in the contrast; the juxtaposition of the fertile, supple young against the grasp and slip of the ageing. Stay for the end of the credits for a final, lingering image that bookends the narrative in disquieting, but satisfying style. 

Letters From War

(Mon 13 June, 6pm & Tues 14 June, 11:45am, both State Theatre)

One of the most beautiful monochromatic movies I’ve seen in a long time, deeply reminiscent of the high contrast luminescence of the 1964 docu-drama I am Cuba, and in many ways similar in style and tone. Director Ivo M. Ferriera’s romantic lament is a powerful tale of longing, told in a beautiful, sensual style. A voiceover (Maria José) reads the letters of Antonio Lobo Antunes (taken from his novel), one of Portugal’s most acclaimed writers who served in East Angola in the early 1970s for the Portuguese Army. His pregnant wife is occasionally observed, almost like an apparition, trying to cope with her husband’s absence, as he does the same, but is constantly distracted and embroiled in the machinations of war, and increasingly the corrupt politics that has fuelled the conflict. 

Like all the most affecting and memorable war movies, Letters From War manages to find a distinct sense of beauty amidst the chaos and carnage of the frontline. The high contrast cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the camerawork floats through the mise-en-scene like a butterfly. What lingers is an elusive, but profound melancholy; a romantic, tranquil sadness, if there is such a thing.