Westen (West, 2013)

A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.

West film posterCREDITS
Director Christian Schwochow; Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck); Cinematographer Frank Lamm; Starring Jördis Triebel; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015.

殭屍 Geung si (Rigor Mortis, 2013)

I mainly wanted to post a quick review here for my New Year’s resolution (it has a female screenwriter), which is the reason I made it along to an 11pm screening of this film (one of only two in London upon its ‘release’ — I guess the distributors are focusing on the home and VOD market). Those who are more knowledgeable about the horror film form may find more to like here than I did, and there’s a hint at some metatextual thought about acting and narratives: the central character is a down-on-his-luck actor, and scenes play on this self-referentiality. For myself, I found it a struggle to stay engaged, and though the effects have a pleasing visual grittiness, they are so manipulated as to suggest more of a comic book, dissipating any sense of terror (again, this is speaking for myself). Still, there is a really tactile sense of decay in the central setting of a crumbling housing estate, and an occasional voiceover monologue suggesting a more deranged Wong Kar-wai film.

Rigor Mortis film posterCREDITS
Director Juno Mak 麥浚龍; Writers Mak, Philip Yung 翁子光 and Jill Leung 梁禮彥; Cinematographer Man-ching Ng 伍啟銘 [as “Ng Kai-Ming”]; Starring Chin Siu-ho 錢小豪; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Friday 1 May 2015.

The Turning (2013)

The source for this film was a collection of short stories by the Australian writer Tim Winton, so the producers took the decision to make it a collection of short films, each directed and written by someone within the Australian arts world. Therefore you wouldn’t really expect it to hang together so well, but somehow — perhaps thanks to the strength of the underlying short stories — there’s definitely a thread that connects them all, not just thematic but in tone, too. There’s a sort of understated elegiacal atmosphere, of pregnant pauses and long lingering shots of the sky: this is a film very much invested in a vision of its part of the world, with laconic and weary characters. Each shares a story that deals with some kind of turning point in their lives, quite often young lives, but not exclusively. And despite the number of different works, there’s nothing that really stands out as particularly weak or out of place, given that sense of unity I mentioned earlier, though there’s one brief animation that opens the film (“Ash Wednesday”), a contemporary dance piece towards the end (“Immunity”) and another short film takes the form of almost documentary-like testimonies rather than acted scenes per se (“Boner McPharlin’s Moll”). It adds up to a strange, compelling view of Western Australia, though one that runs rather long.

The Turning film posterCREDITS
1. Ash Wednesday (dir./wr. Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (dir./wr./DoP Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (dir./wr. Jub Clerc, DoP Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (dir. Robert Connolly, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (dir. Anthony Lucas, wr. Kris Mrksa, DoP Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (dir./wr. Rhys Graham, DoP Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (dir./wr. Ashlee Page, DoP Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (dir. Tony Ayres, wr. Marcel Dorney, DoP Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (dir./wr. Claire McCarthy, DoP Denson Baker); 10. Sand (dir. Stephen Page, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (dir. Shaun Gladwell, wr. Emily Ballou, DoP Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (dir./wr. Mia Wasikowska, DoP Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (dir. Simon Stone, wr. Andrew Upton, DoP Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (dir./wr. David Wenham, DoP Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (dir./wr. Jonathan auf der Heide, DoP Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (dir./wr. Justin Kurzel, DoP Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (dir. Yaron Lifschitz, wr. Circa Contemporary Circus, DoP Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (dir./wr. Ian Meadows, DoP John Brawley); Writers as above (based on the short story collection by Tim Winton); Length 172 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015.

A Vida Invisível (The Invisible Life, 2013)

I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.

The Invisible Life film posterCREDITS
Director Vítor Gonçalves; Writers Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Filipe Duarte; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015.

かぐや姫の物語 Kaguyahime no monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2013)

I’d never actually seen a Studio Ghibli film before, which seems like quite an oversight, especially given that this film by one of the studio’s founders, Isao Takahata, is so delightful. It uses a traditional folk tale about a bamboo cutter who chances across a mystical baby (and huge wealth) while out at work. The baby grows at a rapid rate, eventually being hailed as a princess and relocated by her now-avaricious father to the city. The film itself, for all its narrative incident, unfolds at a relaxed pace that allows for lengthy sequences such as the Princess choosing from her suitors. However, just as it has plenty of openness to its narrative structure, so the visual style has a beautifully balanced sense of space, with impressionistic use of watercolours and charcoal shading, which at times (such as a scene of the Princess running across the countryside) is pushed into an almost abstract dimension. There’s little attempt to restrain the story’s mythical qualities, such that the ending is surprisingly similar to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as the expansive running time should suggest, this film is less about how the story is concluded as about the telling, which is immersive and yet meandering.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya film posterCREDITS
Director Isao Takahata 高畑勲; Writers Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi 坂口理子 (based on the folk tale 竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”); Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 25 March 2015.

My Name Is Salt (2013)

In many ways, it’s documentary films which prove there are still plenty of stories to tell in the world and plenty of ways to depict them. This particular documentary seems at first glance to be rather slight — watching as a family arrive in an arid desert and, before the land is drowned once again during the monsoon season, go through an eight-month cycle of preparing, making and harvesting salt. There is no voiceover or contextualisation (aside from some paragraphs at the end of the film), so as viewers we must rely on what we pick up from what the family say as they’re working and what we see happening. For the first half-hour or so it’s not even clear what exactly is going on, as they seem to be just mucking around in the dirt and mud. However, in a series of landscape tableaux interspersed with close-ups of weather-beaten faces and small domestic scenes, it all builds rather neatly and affectingly, with some breathtaking and beautiful images captured on film. The measured structure allows us to slowly get a sense of the sheer physical extent of these salt beds, and the exhausting work required to make and harvest such a seemingly plentiful and ubiquitous product.

My Name Is Salt film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Farida Pacha; Cinematographer Lutz Konermann; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 22 March 2015.

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)

Continue reading “February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.

Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)

Continue reading “January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Pelo malo (Bad Hair, 2013)

One narrative strategy that’s been quite successful for smaller, less-industrialised and more socially conservative filmmaking nations (I’m thinking Iran in the 1990s) has been to focus a story around a child using what is outwardly a fairly whimsical conceit — in this case that Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) doesn’t like his frizzy hair and wants to straighten it — and use this to make trenchant comments about a range of fairly weighty societal issues. Because Junior’s search for a hair straightening solution here is merely a source of occasional comedy. More to the point is what it implies about Junior’s place in society: he’s something of an outsider, as his now-departed father was black, so his hair is a marker of his difference from his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who struggles to hold down a job and take care of her two kids (including a distinctly more-loved baby from a different, equally absent, father). Junior’s focus on his appearance is also contextualised within a mediated world of body image obsession, which affects both him and particularly his (apparently only) friend, a chubby young neighbour girl who likes princess dresses and whose mother holds fat-loss clinics in her flat (though they look more like exorcisms for all the good they achieve). This in turn prompts Marta to a mild homophobic panic about her son’s sexuality, which you can track in off-hand comments as well as Marta’s suspicion at both the local shopkeeper and the interest shown by Junior’s black aunt. After all, none of these themes are in any way forced by the filmmaking, which largely avoids melodrama and retains its subtle domestic focus, building up its themes gradually by being observant of the actors and their interactions. Along the way you get a sense of the lives of ordinary, poor Venezuelans, exposed to a lot of the same media messages while struggling to hold down jobs or relationships. For all the almost documentary ease with which it is put together, then, Pelo malo is a very carefully-structured and crafted film, and a very fine one at that.

Bad Hair film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mariana Rondón; Cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa; Starring Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.

Enemy (2013)

I forget sometimes how weird and creepy Canadian films can be. There was a period in the 90s, on the back of Atom Egoyan’s festival successes, when a bunch of them made it to cinemas, but aside from David Cronenberg’s singular oeuvre, there have since then been only occasional examples that have made it through — most recently for me, 2012’s Upside Down. This film, too, is written by a Spaniard (based on a Portuguese novel), but thankfully it’s far better, while still retaining that brittle sense of cabin fever that so many Canadian films inspire, as if created in reaction to the blandly reassuring mainstream cinema from over the border (there’s a similar quality to New Zealand cinema, too, sometimes, which is where I grew up).

The central conceit, like last year’s The Double, concerns a person who meets their doppelgänger (both here played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal), but where that film (disappointingly for me) toyed with black comedy, Enemy is far more insidious. The film wastes no time in plunging us into a strange dreamlike world of alienation and dread dominated by an unsettling spider metaphor, so after those initial sequences have passed, there remains something a bit existentially bleak about our hero Adam’s life as a Toronto university lecturer delivering lectures about fascism and control to his students.

The introduction of his double Anthony, an actor, allows for a bit of back-and-forth between them, but aside from one dust-up, this is mainly a sort of psychic transference, as they begin to covet one another’s partner (Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent, also superficially similar in appearance), while each starts to lose control and the two identities become less clearly differentiated. The film toys at a formal level with the doubling theme, repeating scenes, and looping back on itself a little, but always presents itself with a cold aloofness signalled by its yellowish colour filters and series of bleak, modern locations. The spider metaphor continues to reappear through the film, and results in an uncanny final scene, without which the film might have passed from my mind quicker, but its very opacity and inscrutability (as well as the suddenness with which it takes place and then ends) makes it something of an unexploded mine within one’s mind, and so the film sticks with me a week later, as I continue to ponder what it all means.

Enemy film posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Javier Gullón (based on the novel O Homem Duplicado by José Saramago); Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 10 January 2015.