No Zhang Yimou, but Berlin film festival still had a lot to offer

Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in a still from Synonyms, directed by Nadav Lapid, which won the Golden Bear at the 2019 Berlinale – the Berlin International Film Festival.

After 18 years in charge of the Berlinale, this 69th edition of one of the world's most venerated film festivals marked the final selection by artistic director Dieter Kosslick.

The festival has faced challenges over the years - it's not the premiere destination for filmmakers in the way Cannes is, nor is it the launch pad for films on the awards trail, unlike the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Rather, Kosslick has ensured the Berlin event seeks out unheralded talent, something incoming co-directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian must continue.

Admittedly, the 2019 festival had an underwhelming start, with the opening film Lone Scherfig's critically mauled The Kindness of Strangers. A New York City-set drama, it certainly felt more ragged than her earlier Berlin hits Italian for Beginners and An Education.

Zoe Kazan plays a mother-of-two who escapes domestic abuse from her police officer husband in the New York State city of Buffalo, with Andrea Riseborough, Bill Nighy and Tahar Rahim also starring. True, it's a naive, soft-centred film about homelessness, but Scherfig deserves some credit for delivering a story not drenched in cynicism.

Zoe Kazan and Tahar Rahim in a still from The Kindness of Strangers, directed by Lone Scherfig.

It didn't help Kosslick's swansong selection that Chinese director Zhang Yimou's One Second, a return to his art-house roots after commercial films like Shadow and The Great Wall , was pulled from its slot "due to technical difficulties during post-production", a statement that fuelled speculation the Cultural Revolution-set drama had fallen foul of Chinese censors.

The non-appearance of Zhang, a winner of the festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, for his 1988 debut Red Sorghum, meant only 16 films were competing for the festival's top prize. Fortunately, there was still much to admire.

The jury headed by Juliette Binoche awarded the coveted Golden Bear to Israeli director Nadav Lapid for his hugely impressive Synonyms, starring newcomer Tom Mercier as a young Israeli who turns his back on his country and heads for Paris to reinvent himself. Lapid, who recently saw his 2014 film The Kindergarten Teacher remade in the US with Maggie Gyllenhaal, must now surely be considered one of the emerging new voices in world cinema.

Israeli director Nadav Lapid celebrates with his Golden bear for best film for “Synonymes“ during the awards ceremony of the 69th Berlinale film festival on February 16, 2019 in Berlin.
Photo: AFP

François Ozon's By the Grace of God, winner of the Silver Bear, or Grand Jury Prize, is a compelling drama about three men who confront the Catholic Church years after they were all sexually abused by a priest. Closely inspired by the real-life case of Father Preynat, a priest in Lyons, France, the film felt utterly immediate; Preynat's trial begins this year and the priest has even tried to block the release of the film until after the court case is finished.

Comparable to Tom McCarthy's Oscar winner Spotlight , the forensic approach taken by Ozon felt like a radical departure for the director who is better known for more playful films like Potiche and L'Amant Double . Starring Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet and Swann Arlaud as the trio of victims - all from very different backgrounds - Ozon holds his nerve, passing the baton from one character to the next as he pieces together a complex and anger-inducing story.

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland also brought a true story to Berlin with Mr. Jones, a harrowing tale of the Holodomor, the devastating famine that wiped out millions in Stalin-ruled Ukraine in the 1930s.

James Norton gives a convincing turn as Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who exposes the crisis after he visits a decadent Moscow following the death of a fellow reporter. Holland is old-fashioned in her approach, but in the era of so-called fake news, this tale of journalistic integrity was most welcome.

Countering the disappointment of Zhang's non-appearance, fellow Chinese filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai's So Long, My Son saw its stars Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei take home the Silver Bears for best actor and actress respectively (echoing the feat managed by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay for 45 Years in 2015).

The film by Wang, a member of China's "sixth generation" of filmmakers, examines the impact of the Communist Party's one-child policy during the Cultural Revolution, and is a quietly intimate three-hour drama that unspools over three decades.

A film that, not surprisingly, went home empty-handed was Fatih Akin's latest, The Golden Glove. The Turkish-German director, who won the Golden Bear for 2004 film Head-On, returned with the stomach-churning tale of a real-life serial killer in Hamburg, Germany, Fritz Honka (played brilliantly by 22 year-old newcomer Jonas Dassler, under heavy prosthetics).

A booze-fuelled loner, Honka wound up killing four women and hiding their body parts in his filthy flat, and Akin revels in these details. It's the sort of film that leaves you feeling dirty.

Also somewhat disappointing was Hans Petter Moland's adaptation of Per Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses. The Norwegian director once again casts Stellan Skarsgard, his leading man from earlier Berlin entries A Somewhat Gentle Man and In Order of Disappearance, as a loner reflecting on a childhood disrupted by his parents' troubled marriage.

Hampered by convoluted flashbacks, the film never fully engages emotionally - although its Danish cinematographer, Rasmus Videbaek, was rightly awarded a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

Away from the main competition, the festival's Panorama section saw the world premiere of Casey Affleck's Light of My Life. His first narrative feature as director - following 2010's mock-doc I'm Still Here - it is the tale of a father and daughter (played by Affleck and Anna Pniowsky) living in a remote woodland.

Its start bears an eerie resemblance to Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, but as the story unfolds, it turns into a post-apocalyptic drama with the revelation that a disease has struck, wiping out many women. Affleck, an Oscar winner for his turn in Manchester by the Sea , shows the same sensitivity behind the camera as he does in front of it. His bond with Pniowsky's character Rag, in particular, is handled with assurance.

Anna Pniowsky and Casey Affleck in a still from Light of My Life.

If it doesn't boast the same tension as John Krasinski's A Quiet Place , which also dealt with the pressures of parenthood in extreme circumstances, Light of My Life shows Affleck is capable of puncturing this contemplative film with an unsettling feeling of menace.

Also showing in the Panorama section, and soon after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the US state of Utah, was British filmmaker Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir. The Archipelago filmmaker turns her lens on her own youth as a film student living a life of privilege in her parents' flat in London's exclusive Knightsbridge neighbourhood.

Called Julia here, she's played by Honor Swinton Byrne - the daughter of Hogg's old friend Tilda Swinton, who plays Julia's well-meaning mother. The real star is Tom Burke, who plays Anthony, a charming, well-dressed mystery man who becomes Julia's lover. Does he work for the "foreign office" as he claims? It's just one of the elusive elements in a film that deals with the unknowable in relationships.

Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in a still from The Souvenir.

Convincingly recreating early 1980s London, from the political turmoil and IRA terror attacks to the sounds of the era (The Specials, Bronski Beat), it's an impressively textured story from Hogg. The best news of all? She's planning a sequel.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.