Locarno on the cutting edge

Forget the glitz of Cannes. Locarno is the film buffs' festival, with a British debut, a brilliant Icelandic sex comedy and a surprise from China.
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The 53rd Locarno International Film Festival has just ended, with something of a bang. The film which won its top prize - the Golden Leopard - just happens to have been banned in its native China since it was made four years ago.

The 53rd Locarno International Film Festival has just ended, with something of a bang. The film which won its top prize - the Golden Leopard - just happens to have been banned in its native China since it was made four years ago.

This "surprise film", discovered at the last minute by enthusiastic festival director Marco Muller - who is relinquishing his post this year - joined the 18 competition entries from countries as diverse as France, Hong Kong, Iceland, Britain, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Japan and the US.

The 11-day event, long regarded as a festival for film buffs, eschews the glitz and glamour of Cannes or Venice in favour of a more personal approach, and places the emphasis on low-budget, independent cinema.

Minimalist would be an apt description for Jamie Thraves's directorial debut The Low Down, the only British entry in the festival. Frank is a restless young man in his late twenties whose life revolves around his friends and his work. He is aware that he needs to move his life into another gear, but unsure how to go about it. An aspiring artist, he makes props for commercial TV shows - he'd like to concentrate on his art, but lacks the confidence to take the plunge. Frank decides to move out of the flat he shares with his friend Terry and starts looking for a new place. He becomes involved with estate agent Ruby, but their relationship flounders because they can't really communicate.

Thraves employs a freewheeling, cinema-verité approach to his subject, giving the film a naturalistic, improvisatory feel, but he can't disguise the flimsiness of his material. The lack of substance, though, is to some extent compensated for by the lively performances from his two young protagonists - Aidan Gillen (from Channel 4's gay drama series Queer As Folk) as the indecisive Frank and Kate Ashfield as the optimistic Ruby.

What do you do when the woman you have seduced takes a new lover - your mother? This is the dilemma faced by the hero in Baltasar Kormakur's smart and sexy Icelandic comedy 101 Reykjavik, which was the most enjoyable film in the festival. Hiding behind his glasses, 28-year-old Hlynur, who is unemployed, still lives with his mother and is determined to avoid adulthood at all costs. Despite his various sexual conquests, women, as far as he is concerned, are creatures from another planet, best avoided during daylight hours.

When Lola, an explosive Spanish lesbian and friend of his mother, comes to stay, it is the start of an emotional maelstrom from which there is no easy way out. Despite her sexual orientation, Lola and Hlynur end up in bed. Meanwhile his mother, unaware of what has happened, announces that she is Lola's lover. The situation becomes even more complicated when Lola announces that she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby.

Kormakur's remarkably assured, superbly shot first feature portrays a Freudian nightmare - a city driven by sexual madness. Aided by a sharp, ironic script and fine performances from Hilmir Snaer as Hlynur, Hanna Maria Karlsdottir as his mother and Victoria Abril as Lola, this wickedly funny film kept me smiling long after I had left the cinema.

It's not hard to see what upset the Chinese authorities about Wang Shuo's main prizewinning film Baba ( The Father), for the power wielded in the heart of a family here is emblematic of the power wielded in the heart of Chinese society. Adapted from an early 1990s novel by the "bad boy of Chinese literature" Wang Shuo, this is a comedy exploring the difficult relationship between a widower and the son he is raising by himself.

Ma Linsheng, a minor bureaucrat, is inconsistent in the way he treats his sensitive teenage son. President of the workers' committee, he hides his romantic dreams under a veneer of macho insensitivity.

One day, Ma Che makes a mistake at school. His father writes a self-criticism for him, but the boy can't accept this image of himself and refuses to sign it. From then on, their already stormy relationship becomes a battle of wills, with Linsheng trying a number of ways to manipulate the boy, striking every attitude from indulgent dad to implacable authority figure.

Providing a thorough deconstruction of authority, the film adopts a tragi-comic tone full of ironic allusions to the regime and contemporary Chinese society. Just as importantly, the framing, stylised lighting and use of haunting and evocative music to alternately counterpoint and underscore the action mark radical departures from the predominantly naturalistic approach of China's younger generation of film makers.

One should add that the picture was banned by the Film Office before it even reached the Censor's Office. But this little gem of a film certainly deserved the recognition it achieved at Locarno.