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Gdynia Blues on the Baltic

Alex Deleon, Sept. 15

Although there are no international or Hollywood stars prancing around the
premises there are enough Polish film celebrities and industry VIPs in
attendance, and the 30th Jubilee mood is so high that the local papers have
picked up the catch-phrase "Cannes on the Baltic". One reason for the
upbeat atmosphere is the announcement by festival artistic director Maceij
Karpinski, that after many years of quibbling and struggling the new Polish
Cinema Law has finally gone into effect whereby significant government
funding will once again be available for worthy film productions. In the
Communist Daze the government supported all film products which were able to
pass the censors partially accounting for the fact that Poland became a land
of Auteur Cinema because everyone could make the film they wanted to make.
In the nineties, after the political changes such funding faded and
filmmakers were faced with the prospect of finding private financing which,
during the chaotic transition period, was not easy to come by. As a result
even top directors like Jerzy Hofman, had to wait years to make long awaited
blockbusters like “Fire and Sword” (1999). It is expected that the new law
will give many young filmmakers the opportunity to inject fresh blood into
the struggling industry and restore Poland to its earlier position of
preeminence in Eastern Europe.

Press conferences and film notes:
Two big press conferences were held today, the "Lovers of the Year of the
Tiger" delegation headed by Jacek Bromski, and Zanussi's "Persona Non Grata"
team. Bromski's film set in Manchuria near the Siberian border has a
certain resonance with the famous Kurosawa opus "Dersu Uzala" (1975) which
was set in the same general area and told the story of a Russian army
explorer rescued and befriended in the wilds of far Eastern Siberia by a
rugged Asiatic hunter of the indigenous (non-Chinese) Goldi tribe. There are
of course major differences, but Bromski admitted that in order to get a
feeling for the taiga landscape and atmosphere, he reviewed the Kurosawa DVD
many times. In Bromski´s oriental wilderness it is a Polish man (popular
matinee idol Michal Zembrowsi), who is saved by a rugged Chinese hunter, but
from there the stories diverge completely.

So, how did a Polish director come to be invited to shoot a film in China?
To this Bromski explained that his connection with China goes way back, that
his films have been shown in a number of Chinese film festivals, and that,
for this reason, when the Chinese decided they wanted to make a
co-production with Poland, it was Bromski who was invited to undertake the
job. He was given carte blanche to do any kind of film he felt like, as
long as it had a strong Chinese connection and was shot there. At first he
could not think of an appropriate subject and was about to resign from the
deal until one night in his Beijing hotel room the inspiration came to him
for an original story. The film opens in the year 1913 when two Polish
prisoners at a Russian labor camp in the Siberian far east near the Chinese
border break away and swim over the Yalu River to the Chinese side where,
hopefully, freedom awaits. Only one of them makes it and the survivor,
(Zembrowski) wounded and unconscious, is found on the far shore by a rugged
Chinese hunter who speaks Tonto-style broken Russian and takes him in. The
hunter has a lovely 16 year old daughter (heh-heh) but, in order to make
sure no funny stuff happens between handsome blue-eyed foreigner and
innocent woodland lass, he has her hair cut short and makes her dress like a
boy. Well, the inevitable eventually does happen when lass reveals her
luscious actualities under coarse masculine attire to love starved Polak,
whereupon the outraged father, in no mood for a shotgun wedding, sends young
blue-eyes packing in a small wooden boat downriver and back to civilization.
Ninety years later the Eurasian issue of this outback one-night stand turns
up at the Polish embassy in Beijing hoping to get a visa to visit the
fatherland of his father, about which he has only dreamt but obviously never
seen. Touching little yarn in an idyllic forest setting, but a bit thin to
flesh out a full-length large-scale feature.

The "Persona Non Grata" press conference was literally packed to the rafters
as Zanussi is really a big name, this is easily the biggest film production
of the year, and the film features four major Polish stars (Zapasiewicz,
Stuhr, Olbrychski and Chyra) and also a major Russian star, Michal
Konchalkovsky. One of the first questions fired at director Zanussi was,
why, since he is such an old established director with so many prizes
already behind him did he choose to enter this film in competition against
much smaller films, rather than have it shown as an honored special
screening. To this he answered that it was not so much for himself as for
his staff and actors who he feels should not be denied a shot at the
individual prizes. As to why distant Uruguay was chosen as the location for
this fictional story of political intrigue, he said that since the film
involves sensitive political issues between Poland and Russia which are
still in the air today he wanted to shoot it in as neutral a location as
possible, and Uruguay, the “Switzerland of South America is as neutral as
you can possibly get”. Of course it could also have been shot in
Switzerland itself or any one of many other “neutral” countries in Europe,
which leads me to suspect that perhaps the real reason was to give himself
and his VIP film friends a nice paid vacation in South America – but let’s
keep that under our hats –shush-shush. In any case, the film shot in
glistening color by ace Polish cameraman Edward Klosinski, looks great and
has enough polit-thriller type shtick going for it, not to mention loads of
star power, that it is likely to be a good sized hit in Poland. Whether it
will travel any further is hard to say because these excellent actors are
not really know outside of Poland and the Russian-Polish issues involved are
not likely to be of much interest beyond the Polish pale.

Brief notes on individual films:
“Mistrz”, (The master of knife throwing) was somewhat of a disappointment
because director Piotr Trzaskalsi, 32, is regarded as one of the great white
hopes of the younger generation. He scored heavily both in Poland and in
festivals with his small budget debut feature "Edi" in 2002, so that this
film was packing great expectations. Shot in cinemascope with gelt aplenty
the film opens strongly when a drunk Russian knife throwing specialist
starts releasing wild animlals from their cages in a travelling circus. He
is kicked out, but, still drunk saves a young prostitute from a brutal
raping and then goes on the road with her. From there, anybody expecting
another “Dolce Vita” would be sorely disappointed. It becomes a long shaggy
road movie with really shaggy characters and basically ends up going
nowhere. Call it the “sophomore jinx” and wish Pan Piotr better luck next
time. Probably more on the director’s rep than on the quality of the film
itself, “Mistrz” has been picked up by San Sebastian for its “Open Space”
new directors section.

Another disappointment was the highly touted "Call of the Frog", (original
title “Unkenrufe”, which is the German title of the Gunther Grass novel on
which it is based), directed by Robert Glinski, a Gdynia top prize winner
just four years ago. Though the film has its heart in all the right places
it just comes across as a mucky heart-string puller that is very melancholy
and doesn’t really have much pull. This is basically a German production
and the predominant language of the film is German. A number of Polish
actors are called upon to speak German with very mixed results. Krystyna
Janda who is married to German speaking cameraman Edward Klosinski, has
apparently had enough exposure to the language to barely stumble through,
but it is heavy going. One Polish actor who does quite well with the German
is Marek Kondrat, but half the time in the film one has the impression that
the actors are reciting phonetically memorized lines by rote. This, however,
is not the main problem. The entire love affair between German actor
Matthias Habbich and La Janda just seems very forced and the heavily
symbolic toads bopping about all over the place are -- well, just pretty
toady. There is one funny scene (though not intended to be funny) where a
toad confronts Hitler’s open car as Der Fuhrer is entering Danzig
triumphantly in 1939. After a brief halt, the car proceeds and squashes the
toad squishily and unceremoniously under the left front tire. Whatever else
can be said about this Gunther grass adaptation, it is most certainly no
“Tin Drum”, but more of a toady clunker.

Janda, who is still, more or less, the reigning diva of Polish cinema in a
career of nearly three decades with all top directors, also appears in
another festival film in which she plays the blind assistant of a well known
Polish poet, who was such a klutz in his personal life that he kept this
sightless admirer of his around just to keep his house in order. This one
is strictly for the Polish audience, but it’s main interest for me was to
see Janda in big black goggles, with restrained body language and halting
speech – the polar opposite of her usual high energy fiercely chain-smoking
roles in such films as “Man of Marble and "Man of Steel". The Japanese
would call this an “Image Change” but, from where I sat it just looked like
extremely mannered acting, or a Saturday Night Live satire on how to play a
blind woman on screen.

A very excellent competition film was Jan Kidowa-Blonski’s "Skazany na
Blues" (Condemned to the Blues) which is basically a rock music docu-drama
on the hectic and tragic career of Poland’s most famous rock star, Rysiek
Riedel, who was the charismatic lead singer of Poland’s foremost rock band
“Dzem” (“JAM”) but, unfortunately strung out on smack and other drugs, and
eventually did himself in much a la Jimmy Morrison, in 1994. The film is
packed with class Polish rock music performed largely by surviving members
of the DZEM ensemble, and actor Tomasz Kot’s reincarnation of Ryszek bears
comparison to the portrayal of Jimi Morrison by Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s
1991 film "The Doors". Against it’s a question of enlightened handling, but
this is a film which could travel because of the outstanding music, gripping
story, and above all, as a window on the little known but evidently high
level of Polish rock music culture.

Tomorrow we’ll know the results and surprises are to be expected. I’m
putting my zlotys on the long shot “Condemned to be Blue”. In Gdynia you
pays yer money and you takes yer chances ………


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