Oscar contenders, Asian hits: 6 takeaways from Venice 2019

Director Todd Phillips (right) and Joaquin Phoenix with the Golden Lion for Best Film at the 76th Venice Film Festival.
PHOTO: Reuters

Comic book movies and film festivals can mix

While it's not the first comic book movie to play at a festival - the brooding X-Men spin-off Logan featured out of competition at the Berlinale in 2017 - Todd Phillips' Joker walked away with stellar reviews and, to the shock of some, the Golden Lion - Venice's top prize.

The film - in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely professional clown who gradually morphs into Batman's nemesis - is a compelling work, far removed from the usual spandex-filled superhero fare.

But it still amazes that studio backers Warner Brothers had the confidence to offer the movie to Venice's selection committee. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

NO CLEAR OSCAR FRONT-RUNNER

In The Shape of Water, Spotlight and Birdman, the Venice Film Festival has managed to pick three of the past five Best Picture Oscar winners.

Other awards favourites, including Gravity and La La Land , have also played at the festival.

But this year, there wasn't the feeling that a clear Academy Award contender was among the selection.

Despite its Golden Lion win, Joker will surely be too dark and morbid for the awards, while James Gray's sci-fi Ad Astra may be too intellectual for the voters (although there's every chance that Brad Pitt's taciturn astronaut could win him a long-overdue acting Oscar).

Of course, with Martin Scorsese's gangster epic The Irishman unfinished in time for Venice, the year's most anticipated film has yet to be seen.

NETFLIX: CANNES' LOSS IS VENICE'S GAIN, AGAIN

Once more, Venice welcomed Netflix with open arms. The streaming giant's ongoing spat with Cannes means that Venice festival director Alberto Barbera can cherry-pick the best of the company's original movie offerings.

Here, it was a case of three very different films: Steven Soderbergh's Panama Papers misfire The Laundromat, with Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep; Noah Baumbach's brilliant Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a New York couple going through an increasingly bitter divorce; and, out of competition, David Michod's solid-but-uninspiring historical drama The King, starring Timothee Chalamet as England's Prince Hal.

Whatever the individual successes and flaws, the festival was further proof that A-list directors and stars are flocking to Netflix to make quality, adult-oriented fare that the studios just can't be bothered with. Cannes really needs to kiss and make up for 2020.

TOXIC MASCULINITY IS HIGH ON THE AGENDA

If there was a (probably overused) buzz-phrase at this year's Venice, it was "toxic masculinity". In the post-#MeToo world, examining the corrosive effects of men in society has become a theme caught in the spotlight.

Ad Astra saw Brad Pitt's astronaut dealing with severe daddy issues in space.

Then there was The Burnt Orange Heresy, with Claes Bang playing a ruthless, greedy, misogynistic art critic.

Likewise, the adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians saw Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson as military commanders who lash out against savage hoards in an unnamed turn-of-the-century desert setting.

And, of course, Joker ploughed this very violent furrow too.

ASIAN CINEMA IMPRESSED

The festival opened with Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-Eda's The Truth, his first foray into European art house territory, aided and abetted by French acting royalty Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.

Chinese director Lou Ye also worked with Gallic actors in his black-and-white noirish Saturday Fiction, set in 1941 Shanghai. Gong Li was as luminous as ever in the lead.

But it was Hong Kong veteran Yonfan's return to filmmaking that caused the biggest roar with his first ever animation, No. 7 Cherry Lane - a strange and surreal love story set to the backdrop of Hong Kong's 1967 pro-Communist riots. The jury saw fit to award him the Best Screenplay award, a much-deserved turnaround after critics stung his last film, 2009's Prince of Tears.

DOCUMENTARIES RULE

Non-fiction is in rude health, judging by some of the films on show.

Alex Gibney's return with Citizen K was an illuminating tale about Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune in oil only to come a cropper after crossing Vladimir Putin.

The film is a fascinating examination of power and wealth; the same could also be said for Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker, a revealing documentary about the inimitable Imelda Marcos, who was first lady of the Philippines for 21 years. If all you know about her is that excessive shoe collection, then this film is a must.

It is a story that needs to be seen to be believed.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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