San Sebastian Film Festival: Day One

I Saw The Devil, Colours In The Dark and Neds

by Amber Wilkinson

Aside from its annual film festival, which notches up its 58th edition this week, San Sebastian is famous for its pintxos - tapas treats ranging from staple old favourites to wildly inventive creations that are designed to surprise. The films here fall in to similar categories, with plenty to suit palates who prefer familiar flavours - a terrific Don Siegel retropsective, for example, and the latest from established names such as John Sayles and actors such as Paul Giamatti and Ricardo Darin - but there is also an emphasis on new creations, with a section and award dedicated to new directors.

Certainly, the three films I saw my first day here, could scarcely have been more different. First, was the outrageously amped up I Saw The Devil, the latest from Korean director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale Of Two Sisters, The Good, The Bad, The Weird). Everything about his revenge thriller is "loud", from the over-the-top score - more crash than coherence - to the visceral, casual violence it contains.

The story concerns Soo-hyun, a secret agent whose wife is brutally murdered on her birthday by a serial killer (Choi Min-sik). Urged on by her retired police chief father, he sets out to take an intimate form of revenge and he is literally prepared to break people's balls (with a hammer) to get to the truth. After working out who her killer is, he undertakes a bizarre game of cat and mouse with the murderer, resulting in a series of blood-thirsty showdowns and the disappearance of any sort of suspension of disbelief.

The Grand Guignol-style theatricality will prove too much for many - and the squeamish should give this a miss, although it will doubtless become a staple of late night festival strands for the next year, it has more blood-soaked style than satisfying substance. Read the full review here

Certainly nuance is not a problem for first-time German director Sophie Helman, whose Colours In The Dark is a masterclass of subtlety even if, ultimately, a little too much is left unsaid. Her tale of a pair of sixtysomethings (veterans Senta Berger and Bruno Ganz) is a delicate study of 'old love' and commitment. When Fred (Ganz) is diagnosed with prostate cancer and begins to keep secrets, it ricochets around his family, with the film asking whether a couple who have been through a life together can also cope with considerations of death.

Beautifully acted by Ganz and Berger, Helman and co-writer Felix zu Knyphausen pare back the script so that there is the sense of both spoken and unspoken conversations being had simultaneously. The film's biggest problem is its last act, which is arrived at too suddenly to carry the viewer with it. There is a sense that by leaving the themes which lead to the film's climax unexplored by dialogue the audience is being emotionally cheated. While no one wants prescriptive films, the hard questions here are given too much of a body swerve. Still, it is a strong debut with performances that demand to be seen.

And it is performances that also enrich NEDS - the latest by Peter Mullan, who yet again proves he knows how to tell a good tale, while also finding plenty of room to ask some interesting socio-political questions. Mullan explores the baby steps that lead a rather sweet, nervous kid with a love of books and a wild-child gang-steeped brother to fight his corner, to turn into a confused and brooding teen, whose only real outlet is violence. Read the full review here. It is eight years since Mullan's Magdalene Sisters - but this has been well worth the wait.

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