Film Postcard: Edinburgh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 1:25pm

Whenever you're in Scotland, you can't help but think about the elements - the rain, the wind and, occasionally, the sunshine. The Edinburgh International Film Festival, which ran on June 19-30, seemed determined to remind us of man's insignificance in the face of Mother Nature. Indeed, one of the festival's so-called pathways - thematic guides designed to help audiences discover likeminded films - was even dubbed "The Sea".

Most stirring in this strand was the world premiere of Fire in the Night. British filmmaker Anthony Wonke made this documentary about the Piper Alpha, the North Sea oil rig that caught fire 25 years ago, causing the worst off-shore disaster ever known - 167 deaths. Mixing skilful re-creations of the event with harrowing recordings and new interviews from survivors, Wonke evoked powerful feelings of both heroism and helplessness.

Another amazing true-life tale - here told as a dramatic feature - was Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur's The Deep. Set in 1984, it's a baffling story of survival after a fishing boat sinks off the coast of Iceland, killing all but one crew member. The survivor, Gulli, is overweight and hardly athletic, yet he endures almost nine hours in the sea before swimming to shore. Kormakur brilliantly recreates this - even if the film's final one-third, as Gulli is turned into a medical phenomenon, lacks the drama of his icy escape.

There were films out of Britain - all competing for the festival's prestigious Michael Powell Award - that broached the same terrain. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's mesmerising documentary, Leviathan, accompanied a real fishing trawler in the Atlantic Ocean. Paul Wright's For Those in Peril, which opened in Cannes, is a drama that poetically deals with one young man's guilt when he returns as the lone survivor of a fishing boat accident in which five people died, including his brother. And director Stephen Barnes' The Sea, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by John Banville, stars Ciaran Hinds as an alcoholic who returns to the Irish seaside village of his childhood.

Now in his second year as artistic director of the film festival, Chris Fujiwara is clearly doing a solid job under difficult circumstances (given that, in 2011, the festival was in disarray after funding cuts and personnel changes). This year's retrospectives - of French director Jean Grémillon and US filmmaker Richard Fleischer, the man behind The Boston Strangler and Soylent Green - were intelligently programmed. Other strands were devoted to films from South Korea and Sweden.

Having previously lectured on film at the University of Tokyo, Fuijwara has a comprehensive interest in East Asian cinema. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho ( The Host) was invited to sit on the international jury, and the six-film strong strand featured Ryoo Seung-wan's thrilling conspiracy actioner The Berlin File - which played at the Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year - and Jeong Ji-yeong's National Security, which tells the true story of a tortured pro-democracy activist.

Fujiwara's East Asian selections also included Hideo Nakata's apartment-set horror work The Complex and mainland filmmakers Zheng Kuo and Sun Yang's indie gangster pic Burned Wings. Hong Kong was also well represented: Soi Cheang Pou-soi's 2012 police drama, Motorway, Adam Wong Sau-ping's hip-hop musical drama The Way We Dance and mainland filmmaker Wang Bing's Hong Kong-France co-production Three Sisters all received their British premieres.

What was lacking were the in-person talks that have, in the past, been highlights of the festival. This year, Robert Carlyle was drafted - after he had pulled out last year for personal reasons. As entertaining as the Trainspotting star is, it almost felt like an apologetic offering from the festival. If it wishes to re-establish its old reputation - and there was a lot of talk that this year's festival had achieved that - then it certainly needs to reintroduce a little of the red carpet glamour that gets audiences excited.

Still, the spirit of the festival is very much in evidence, judging by the annual ceilidh - which brought together plenty of good Scottish cheer (whisky and haggis, of course) and formation dancing in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. On a rainy night, it was the perfect way to banish those bad-weather blues, and show us that the elements don't always have the upper hand.