Dir: Pablo Larrain (Chile/U.S.)
Recontextualize Mad Men as a political thriller and it might look like this absorbing, thought-provoking film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain. A popular and critical hit at Cannes earlier this year, No is Larrain's third meditation on the fallout from the coup in Chile that toppled Salvador Allende's democratically elected government in 1973 to install a military dictatorship. The focus this time is on the famous plebiscite that a reluctant Pinochet regime, bowing to international pressure, held on its future in 1988. Gael Garcia Bernal plays René, a successful, brainy ad man who, after agreeing to oversee the anti-Pinochet side's TV campaign, finds himself pitted against his boss (Larrain staple Alfredo Castro), orchestrator of the pro-Pinochet campaign. A Google check will give you the referendum's result; nevertheless, Larrain keeps the tension high while casting a wary eye on the ambiguities inherent in the advertising enterprise.
Dir: Cate Shortland (Australia/U.K./Germany)
In Lore, Australian director Cate Shortland offers a remarkably sensitive, highly filmic and quietly subtle adaptation of The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert's difficult novel of German war guilt set in 1945. Turning the English-language Booker nominee into a German-language film full of exquisitely painful imagery, Shortland follows Lore and her four siblings as they trek across Germany to their grandmother's house, struggling to survive the absence of their Nazi parents, the dawning realization of who they were and the horrible realities of what they must now do to live. In the title role, Saskia Rosendahl is utterly convincing as a traumatized young woman experiencing a morally brutal coming of age.
Dir: Ulrich Seidl (Austria/Germany/France)
Ulrich Seidl's well-designed static camera style yields some memorable images, and his structured improvisation approach to drama is reliably disturbing. But this story – part of a proposed trilogy – about a middle-aged Austrian woman (Margarethe Tiesel) who goes to Kenya as a sex tourist grows progressively more grotesque to numbing effect. Seidl's repeated scenes of young Kenyan men trying to play up to middle-aged German women's grotesque racist fantasies makes an unpleasant point ad nauseam.
A Mere Life
Dir: Park Sanghun (South Korea)
You get an early hint of what sort of movie this will be in the opening scene, when Han Yurim, Park Ilrae and their son Yeongsu are going for a walk in the park. Han turns to her son at the side of a cairn, instructing him, "If you add a stone and make a wish, it will come true." Yeongsu adds a stone – and the whole cairn collapses. To say director Park Sanghun's film is unrelentingly bleak would be an understatement: every action Park takes is an ill-fated one. Unable to get or keep a job, he struggles to keep his family afloat. When a promising business deal goes awry, Park loses what little money he has. Ashamed, he brings pesticide home to poison his whole family – but somehow, he alone survives; a later attempt at suicide fails as the rope he hangs himself on breaks. As for the moral of A Mere Life – whether Park is a victim of circumstances or author of his own misfortune – that remains unclear to the bitter end.
When Night Falls
Dir: Ying Liang (South Korea/China)
When Night Falls is based on the true story of Yang Jia, a young Chinese man accused, convicted and ultimately executed for "an intentional killing" in the summer of 2008. But where the exact truth lies is a matter of great ambiguity. Initially, Yang is arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle on the outskirts of Shanghai. He makes repeated complaints about his treatment, but the police continue to harass him. Then, one day – according to the official account – Yang walks into a police station and methodically kills six police officers with a knife. Yang's story is told from the perspective of his mother, Wang Jingmei (in a heartbreaking performance by Nai An), who claims to have evidence that would prove her son's innocence. But before she can present that evidence at trial, she is promptly shipped off to a mental hospital, where her name is changed; she is released only days before Yang's execution. Director Ying Liang captures the perfidy of the Chinese justice system with austere brilliance and, in what is perhaps the ultimate tribute to his impact as a filmmaker, now faces arrest if he ever sets foot in his homeland.
– Reviews by James Adams, Liam Lacey, Matt O'Grady and Kate Taylor