Having missed a lot of MIFF this year I’ve been feeling really behind on my annual dosage of celluloid gloom – not that MIFF films are all grumbles, but it’s where I usually end up catching enough unremitting bleakness to last me another 12 months. Usually it’s by accident. Pick any baker’s dozen from the program and the odds are that at least one will turn out to be the most depressing film of all time. That’s just simple maths. But having failed to find myself involuntarily subjected to a couple of hours of grey, numbing bleakness this year I found myself oddly missing it and decided to try to find a film that would make up for this. A kind of supercharged movie of relentless despair that would pack all of the usual angst generated by five or six MIFF films into one powerful package.YAHTZEE!
I’d never heard of Ulrich Seidl before I saw his Import Export but he must be like the Michael Bay of miserable movies. This film is utterly, utterly depressing and quite impressive too. To give you a hint, we’re talking about a film that ends with a shot of a (real) hospital ward in which six (real) women in the last days of their life lie muttering, calling out, praying in the (very real) way that only someone whose body is finally losing its struggle can do, as an unmoving camera forces us to confront the imminence of death and the entirely unromantic, unaestheticised reality of what dying really is. And as the frame finally fades to black after two hours of wretchedness, it does so to the sound of one of the women automatically repeating a word that might not even have any meaning to her, the way she keeps saying it. Death. Death. Death.
The film has two threads to it – in one, a Ukrainian nurse is driven to leave her baby and emigrate west to Vienna in order to find sustainable work. Being Ukrainian, this means menial labour and, eventually, a job as a cleaner for a hospital in which she once could have earned a prestigious role. It’s incredibly hard to watch Olga brushing an old woman’s hair and seeing the (real) woman cooing and blinking contentedly, unable to form words but clearly appreciating the touch. And then to cut to a nurse berating Olga for overstepping her role as a cleaner and explaining that whatever she was back home, she’s not a nurse any more.
Import Export’s other thread follows Pauli, a muscle-bound Viennese dude who takes a job as a security guard until he is roughed up, stripped and humiliated by a local gang. He drifts around despondently, degraded further by thugs from whom he’s borrowed money, and tries to reassert his masculinity by buying a butch dog (which loses him his girlfriend) and robbing people on the subway (which ends up an embarrassment). He gradually drifts east with his nasty stepfather, delivering shitty gumball machines and outdated pokies to the eastern bloc countries that are the refuse piles of the west. And, finally, ends up in the very place Olga began.
This is a really hard film to watch at times. It’s all about exploitation – the exploitation which is at the heart of global relations today, played out through individuals whose very participation in the system requires complicity with oppression. Even those suffering most are guilty since the only way out of the pit is by stepping on others or leaving them in their wake.
Which brings me to the film’s (reality). Some of its most difficult scenes aren’t just troubling in an abstract sense. Seidl comes from documentaries, and the film itself feels like a real document. Is the filmmaker exploiting the elderly, apparently senile people who give the film such power? Is he exploiting the real underclass whose bombed-out ghettos he uses as backdrops to gut-wrenching scenes of impoverished lives? Is he exploiting the women who are mocked and sexually degraded in languages they don’t understand? I don’t know. Apparently Seidl is able to make actors appear like real doco subjects, and I can tell you that there are plenty of performances here that I simply couldn’t believe were anything but real. I don’t know. Either way, this is an amazing film that I would be uncomfortable recommending to anybody.
I kept hoping that this film would get better but it didn’t. Someone makes a joke early on about how the situation seems like an episode of Law & Order, but I wouldn’t go making those kinds of jokes in a film that makes TV cop drama look like Dostoevsky. The film follows a lawyer who delves into the Korean underworld of New York in order to solve a murder case being pinned on a 12-year-old. The Korean underworld seems to consist of a bar and about 15 people. The lawyer seems to consist mainly of a massive 80s haircut. I’m sure this film meant well and was hampered by budgetary limitations, but really, it was composed of scenes we’ve seen a thousand times before in better movies. The film does feature Grace Park who is fantastic in Battlestar Galactica but even pretending that her various co-stars are secretly robots can’t make this thing very entertaining. Maybe the script was written by a 12-year-old too.