The LFF Experimenta strand provided the first opportunity for UK audiences to see collage artist Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori series. Composed of mid-century American imagery such as advertising and comic books, Prolix Satori is loosely structured around a repetition of visual motifs and thematic threads: melodramatic cartoon couples, post-war interiors and pop songs are woven into variations on love, loss and death. Prolix Satori is an ongoing series, and the films presented at the LFF ranged from 8 to 23 minutes, the shorter ones being part of a sub-series, ‘The Couplets’. The Couplets explore the interaction of image and sound through the repetition of imagery paired with different soundtracks, creating surprising shifts in mood and feeling. Klahr was present at the screening, and the Q&A that followed the films offered fascinating insights into his elaborately constructed work.
As Klahr explained, the starting point for Prolix Satori was False Aging, a film he made in response to the suicide of his friend and fellow experimental filmmaker Mark LaPore (there were other works dedicated to LaPore in the Experimenta programme, by David Gatten and Phil Solomon). The film starts with a quote from Valley of the Dolls, as a woman’s voice talks about the climb up Mount Everest to reach the Valley and the feeling of loneliness during the journey, followed by her desire for new experiences. This segues into the ‘Theme from the Valley of the Dolls’, whose unusual lyrics imbue the first part of the film with feelings of longing, confusion and loss of certainties about one’s self and the world. The song colours our perception of the imagery, which includes quaint, flowery wallpaper patterns, a yellow bird cut from another wallpaper and coins – maybe small mementoes of home – as well as intimations of a journey: a cut-up globe, markings on a road, a suitcase and a car.
The next section, introduced by the label ‘Poison’, sees a cartoon couple, a bike, locks, doors, a medical diagram of a human torso and a chart for endowments at age 30 accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Lather’, the lyrics of which revolve around ageing – more specifically turning 30.
The final section is constructed around a number of substitutions, using extracts from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, in which Cale quotes from Andy Warhol’s diary, voicing what Warhol once said about him: ‘What does it mean when you give up drinking and you’re still so mean?’ The recounting of a nightmare on a snowy night and quotes such as ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I died in this dream?’, ‘I’m so scared today’ and the final ‘Nobody called’ transpose the poignant sense of anxiety, bitterness and loneliness of Warhol’s diaries on to a cartoon blond man looking at an American cityscape. That character is Illya Kuryakin, from the Man from U.N.C.L.E comic, and this is another substitution: Kuryakin stands in for LaPore, as Klahr explained during the Q&A, ‘because he was a handsome man’ (the comic representation of the character is also a substitute for the actor David McCallum).
Klahr commented that False Aging initiated a new way of working with lyrics and images, with motifs that recur throughout Prolix Sartori; for instance, a caterpillar seen crawling in some of the earlier films finally turns into a butterfly before getting captured and killed in Lethe.
Lethe stood out from the selection not only for being longer at 23 minutes, but also for being more narrative than Klahr’s other films. Evoking the feel of classic Hollywood melodramas, this tale of doomed love in a sci-fi setting was fashioned out of 1960s Doctor Solar comics. The original comic centres on the impossible love story between the radioactive Doctor Solar and his blonde assistant. They also work with an older scientist, and the physical similarity between him and Doctor Solar prompted Klahr to twist the story line so that in Lethe, Doctor Solar becomes younger through the experiments they conduct. Doctor Solar’s transformation continues until he becomes pure energy and his lover has to shoot him, a scene that segues into her shooting at an eclipse, in one of the most poetic moments of the film.
The cold modernist décor and the recurrence of a strange clock throughout the film, with odd symbols indicating time, create an otherworldly atmosphere and the impression that we are in some sort of parallel world. After another scene replays the traumatic moment when the blonde woman shoots Solar (this time he has turned into a hairy monster) and then puts the gun to her head, she is seen driving around, lost. A police officer asks her, ‘Where did you cross over?’ reminding us of the underworld river evoked in the title. She then crashes the car and the strange clock goes backwards. Both she and Doctor Solar go through several deaths, as if the moment of death was constantly replayed, maybe to make sense of it, so that they finally realise they have been dead all along.
Lethe is set to a Gustav Mahler symphony, which guided the composition of the narrative through its dramatic moments; Klahr called these ‘peak moments’, to which he felt he had to respond. The filmmaker chose Mahler because the symphony reminded him of the score to Vincente Minelli’s melodrama’s The Bad and the Beautiful. This is another instance of the substitution process that seems so central to the construction of Klahr’s work, as well as of the use of music as a structuring device.
The Couplets use substitution in a different way. Nimbus Smile, loosely centred around the thematic motif introduced by the speech balloon, ‘I haven’t been sleeping too well lately’ (which recurs in Lethe), sets imagery of comic characters, a man and a woman, to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. Interestingly, the film didn’t seem to work initially, because all the emotion just came from the song, rather than the imagery. This was followed by Nimbus Seeds, which sets the same imagery to rain fall and other sound effects. This completely changed the perception of the images, removing the pop video aspect of the previous film and making the visuals more mysterious and evocative. The third Couplet, Cumulonimbus, uses the same soundtrack as Nimbus Seeds, but with different imagery. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. uses this substitution device within the same film, the Shangri-Las’ ‘I’ll Never Learn’ initially accompanying cut-ups of 60s comic images of a couple, before it is repeated to score images of pure colour and abstract patterns. Across the Couplets, the variations of visual and aural motifs wove a remarkably evocative, intricate fabric that suggested a complicated web of thematic, formal and romantic interconnections.
Prolix Satori was one of the highlights of LFF, not just in the Experimenta section, but across the whole festival. It was great to see the NFT cinema packed with curious film-goers with appetites for unconventional, adventurous, poetic filmmaking. They were rewarded with a particularly rich and memorable experience that was augmented by Klahr’s engaging presence.
Cast: Monica del Carmen, Gustavo Sáchez Parra, Armando Hernández
Australian Michael Rowe’s Leap Year is a claustrophobic, disturbing little gem, set almost entirely within a small apartment, with a tiny cast of characters. A freelance journalist working from home in Mexico City, Laura (Monica del Carmen) is lonely and isolated. She watches any couples with hungry eyes, deals with her distant mother by phone, indulges in a series of unsatisfying one-night stands, and crosses off the days on the calendar. But then the sadomasochistic Arturo (Gustavo Sáchez Parra) turns up. Alternately brutal and caring, he awakens something in her, and a weird relationship starts. He returns again and again, subjecting the willing Laura to ever more degrading sex acts, as spanking leads to choking leads to whipping, and the film takes a dark, strange turn… The film has a clever, ambiguous script, and del Carmen’s fantastic performance makes Laura a wholly believable, complicated and troubled woman that you can truly care, and fear for.
Mark Stafford interviewed Michael Rowe during the London Film Festival, where they discussed directing his first film and his minimal aesthetic.
MS: It’s an amazing, brave and intimate performance by Monica del Carmen. How the hell did you get her to trust you considering that it’s your debut film?
MR: Good question, it wasn’t easy, actually. In the casting, she did the same two scenes as the other 37 actresses, but when she did them I had to leave the room. She made me cry, it was just really upsetting. So it was quite clear that I wanted her, but she only knew those two scenes, one where she blew bubbles, one where she got fired. The question was, when she read the whole script, how would she react? So she read it and I met up with her the next week. I asked her what she thought and she said, ‘Um… It’s a very strong script…’ (laughter) And I said, ‘What would you say if I told you that you had the part?’ She said, ‘I honestly don’t know…’. So she went home, she talked to her boyfriend, to her mum and to a couple of female feminist theorists and then she came back to me and said, ‘I’m in, let’s do it’. I think it was a complete leap of faith for her to trust me because she’d never seen anything I’d done, nobody had ever seen me direct. I think the sensibility in the script perhaps led her to trust me. Her mum told her, ‘Do whatever you think is right, but whatever you do, don’t do it with fear’. She was the most amazingly committed actress I’ve ever seen in my life.
Was the whole film on the page, or did she come up with bits and pieces?
We worked together on the script for two months beforehand. And we didn’t rehearse at all. We went through the script with a fine tooth comb before we got to the set. She would say, ‘Why is she looking up here, not down?’ ‘Why is she cooking this and not that?’ ‘Why is there a comma here and not a full stop?’
There are little things she does, waggling the pencil in front of her eyes…
That I actually came up with on set. That’s one of the few things that wasn’t scripted. She was doing something else, just looking out the window or something and I suggested it.
It’s odd what works. After the press screening I attended, chatting with other journalists, that gesture got mentioned a few times. It’s just such a human thing. Did the actors improvise anything?
Bits. When her little brother puts his feet up on the bed, I wasn’t expecting that, they cooked that up between the two of them. I think they didn’t tell me because I’m a screenwriter originally, so I’m a bit strict about following the script because I sweated over it, the format, and every full stop that’s in it, for weeks. So they didn’t ask, they just did it and thought, ‘We’ll see what he says’. And it worked. There were a few things that Monica was very clear about, where she knew the script almost better than I did. For example when she shaves her pubic hair, I’d scripted the first part of the process, not the end, I just had her starting out. She said, ‘It would be way more effective if we had the bare skin’. I was unsure, but I thought let’s do it, and when I saw it I thought, ‘of course!‘ You need to see the finished project.
Was it always going to be set entirely within her apartment? Not, I hope, a decision made for entirely budgetary reasons…
Yes it was, but in the sense that I conceived this script because I was 37 years old, I was a screenwriter who hadn’t had a feature credit, I’d been trying to get somebody to produce and direct my first feature film for 10 years without success and I thought, ‘OK! It can’t be that complicated!’ and read two books on how to direct movies, quit my day job and bought a small HDV camera, biggest and best I could afford, five grand’s worth or something, and tried to round up the equipment I needed to make a decent film. I sat down and wrote a script designed for my budget, which was nothing. Two people in a room. I spent about six months chewing it over. What I was looking for was a story that would actually gain in power from the fact that it had a reduced number of characters, rather than one that would be weakened by that, so it was conceived out of necessity.
Your budget is your aesthetic, as they say. We just saw Blue Valentine, which apparently has been given an NC-17 rating in the States. What are the chances of your film being released over there considering the subject matter?
It’s been picked up by Strand Releasing, and it’ll be released in April.
I can’t see it being advertised in local papers or stocked in Wal-Mart, because it’s pretty strong meat.
It’s not that bad!
No, no it isn’t, but considering a film like Blue Valentine gets an NC-17, and we were all going ‘What?!!’
The Americans are a bit nutty. We’ll see, I haven’t had contact with that whole conservative element yet.
What’s the reaction to the film been like so far, any feminist reactions?
There’s been one reaction like that, unfortunately from a critic who saw it in Toronto, writing for the New York Times. She dedicated about four lines to it and said ‘it’s been said that this film has a lot to say about solitude and the human condition, but frankly I find it difficult to take any interest in a film which portrays the brutalisation of a woman’, and that was it, full stop, that was the end of it. I just thought that wasn’t very professional. She’s not doing her job. Her job’s to talk about the film, not about her prejudices. And another review talked very badly about the film, ignoring that everything they mentioned was justified within it. Saying that movies that are shot a certain way with fixed cameras are wrong, it was all just their taste and prejudices.
It’s your first film, and in many sequences it’s oddly framed. Did you develop your own visual aesthetic as you went along? Have you always, when you were writing, pictured things a certain way?
I write the shots into the screenplay, I mean I don’t write a technical script, a shooting script, but the shots are implicit in the way the sentences progress. Every time I set up a new shot I change a paragraph for example. This is just my personal discipline as a screenwriter, I know not everyone does it. I always have a clear view of what’s going on. Funnily enough, in the pre-production process I changed the aesthetic. I originally had about six or seven camera movements, but about a week before shooting I took them out. I actually left one in and shot it, a dolly back, but it looked silly because it jumped out so much.
Because the camera is locked in static compositions all the way through?
I strongly believe that what you need is a good story and good actors and that’s it, just with some kind of machine that tapes the images. So I wanted to reduce the other elements as much as possible. Let the audience concentrate on the actors and give the actors the greatest possible chance to perform their art without the hindrance of manipulation in terms of music, or camera movements…
The reaction to the film seems to be good. Are you going to be a director now?
I am now, yes. I love directing. It’s funny, I resisted for so many years. I thought directing was something else. I thought directors had to yell a lot, that they needed to know a lot about cameras and light meters and lenses, that it was all technical. Anything with a lot of buttons scares me away. What I found was that, after 20 minutes of directing the first scene I was imbued with a deep, deep sense of peace. I felt (relaxed sigh), ‘My God! For the first time in my life I’ve got a job where I know all the answers. This is what I do’.
It wasn’t what you feared.
No! All you have to do is sit there and they come up and say, ‘Sir, um… Red or blue?’ and I say, ‘Blue’. I’ve seen it here (taps temple). And they say, ‘Sir, this view on the camera, or lower?’ and I look and say, ‘Up and to the left’. Because I’ve already seen it, all I have to do is tell everyone what’s in my head. It’s the best job in the world. Once you’ve written a screenplay you know how to direct a film. I think 80% of directing is casting. If you get the right actors and let them work, don’t interfere with them and give them all the tools they need, trust them. And get a cameraman who knows what he’s doing… what else is there? I really think that 90 or 95% of camera movements and indeed cuts within a standard movie are the result of accepted convention or attempts at emotional manipulation of the audience, rather than a result of genuine attempts to tell the story in a better way. I think it’s an enormous boon for me not to have gone to film school, in that sense. If I’d been to film school I would have had a whole heap of shit in my head that wouldn’t have helped.
Compared to the film festivals that are held regularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the annual China Independent Film Festival is a relatively low-key affair. Largely organised by volunteer staff, screenings take place at the two main campuses of Nanjing University, the Gulou campus in the downtown area of the city, and the more recently developed Xinlin campus located on its outskirts, with related gatherings at nearby art galleries and eateries. As not every film in the line-up has received the stamp of approval from the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), this celebration of Chinese cinema occurs under the political radar, and the lack of the promotion means that many students of Nanjing University are not aware that an important film festival is taking place on their campus until a few banners appear in the days leading up to the event. However, the festival organisers somehow manage to make this ‘invisible’ festival sufficiently noticeable and 2010 screenings were well-attended, leading to a series of productive Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in attendance and valuable networking events.
Although the festival programme split the selected titles into the two distinct strands of feature films and documentaries, three films almost defied such categorisation. Emily Tang’s spellbinding Perfect Life (2008) juxtaposes the fictional narrative of a woman working in a somewhat seedy business hotel in Shenyang with documentary footage of a Hong Kong resident who is undergoing a messy divorce and struggling to support herself as a dancer-for-hire in a tacky club. Jia Zhangke served as the executive producer of Perfect Life, and the fusion of fact and fiction recalls his masterpieces Platform (2000) and 24 City (2008), but Tang steps out of the shadow of her financial benefactor by imbuing proceedings with an element of magical realism as the real and the imagined eventually come to co-exist. Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010) features Dian Qiu, a real-life prison guard and ‘trash poet’ who insists that prisoners read his verses aloud as a means of raising their spirits, but does so within the context of a fiction narrative. This recreation of the artistically inclined prison guard’s routine serves to bookend an entirely fictional mid-section about a small-time scam artist who runs a fake employment agency and seeks meaning through the opera routine that he performs on his rooftop. The behaviour of the inhabitants of the crowded city slum in which The High Life is located is as morally questionable as it is economically desperate, but Zhao also finds evidence of the human spirit amid the urban squalor. Li Luo’s Rivers and My Father (2010) is beautifully shot in black and white and echoes the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the director weaves together a series of family recollections of childhood. The final third of this meditative experience consists of comments and criticism that Li’s father made about the film after seeing an early cut, a lovely touch that emphasises the manner in which memory is altered when filtered through the medium of cinema.
The other features were more clearly defined in terms of narrative, but were no less innovative or insightful. Liu Jian’s edgy animation Piercing (2009) takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and follows the misfortune of a young man who loses his factory job and is then beaten up by supermarket guards after being mistaken for a thief. Although overly bleak at times, Piercing creates a credible world where bribery, poverty and police brutality work in tandem, and no good deed goes unpunished. Some much-needed humour was provided by Hao Jie’s hilarious Single Man (2010), which episodically explores the sexual activities of the bachelors of a small village. Hao works wonders with amateur actors and a scene in which the villagers gang up on a pair of tight-fisted watermelon buyers serves as both a comedic set-piece and a commentary on village mentality in situations of conflict. The only disappointment in the feature strand was Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (2009), a drab drama about a small-town traffic cop dealing with familial responsibilities. Yongshong served as cameraman on Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003), arguably one of the best films from mainland China in the past decade, but Tangle was less aesthetically and thematically sure-footed.
The documentary strand found filmmakers adopting a variety of perspectives – communal, environmental, individual and institutional – to examine modern China. Zhou Hao’s Cop Shop (2010) was at once remarkable and mundane; the filmmaker had managed to secure permission to shoot for 15 days in a police station in Guangzhou Railway Station, but the audience becomes as hardened to the daily grind as the officers that Zhou is documenting as they deal with petty disputes and repeatedly explain that they cannot help to secure train tickets. Chen Xinzhong’s deeply moving Red White (2009) chronicles the efforts of the survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to overcome personal grief and rebuild their community; Chen picks up on personal approaches to dealing with tragedy (a Taoist worshipper tries to prevent another earthquake by comforting the spirits of the dead, an elderly man cuts hair in a makeshift salon to avoid dwelling on the loss of his grandson) but also considers how the town has been failed by the state in terms of preparing for such a disaster. Yang Yishu’s On the Road (2010) was filmed during the snowstorm that swept through Southern China in early 2009 and follows two truck drivers as they set off from Nantong to make a delivery in Guizhou, only to find that one road after another is closed due to treacherous weather conditions. A compelling study of how friendship is tested under pressure, On the Road captures the alternately dangerous and tedious nature of the drivers’ predicament as they navigate an increasingly risky route or take refuge from the storm in cheap motels. While each of these documentaries dealt with a microcosm of contemporary Chinese society, Guo Xiaolu’s superbly realised Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) is a comparatively sweeping state-of-the-nation study; 12 vignettes, including an old peasant who has lost his land, a weapon factory worker who wishes that Mao was still in charge, and a disillusioned flower-arranger in a high-class hotel, form a mosaic of modern China that considers the impact of economic reform on the individual.
The 7th China Independent Film Festival served to emphasise that alternative production in China is very much in a state of transition, moving from an ideologically charged ‘underground’ movement to a self-sustained ‘independent’ sector. Although still politicised, the sector is not only showing signs of the formation of its own industrial networks but an awareness of how to work around the state, rather than to stubbornly work against it. This is evident in the manner in which a wider political context was absent from many of the films and documentaries in the festival, although this presumptive measure to side-step the restrictions of SARFT is also a political statement in itself. Some of the films at CIFF had already secured DVD and VOD distribution in the United States, while Single Man was reportedly warmly received at San Sebastian in September and could be a contender for crossover success, but other titles are less likely to find screen time beyond the festival circuit. As such, it may seem perfectly reasonable to wish that this particular festival was able to enjoy more exposure, but in order to maintain the quality of the 2010 event, to continue to hide in plain sight seems like the more suitable strategy.
Zhao Dayong’s The High Life is an unflinching portrait of the human condition in the city streets and prison cells of Guangzhou, China, and it marks the director’s move into narrative cinema following two acclaimed documentaries, Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008). Although the intersecting narratives of The High Life are entirely fictional, the casting of real-life prison guard and aspiring poet Dian Qiu as himself serves as a reminder of Zhao’s documentary roots, while Dian’s world-weary presence effectively bookends the film with a combination of authority and humanity. The mid-section is devoted to the story of Jian Ming, a small-time scam artist who takes advantage of migrant workers via his fake employment agency, creating a collage with the photos from their application forms on his apartment wall. Jian Ming’s life begins to unravel when he develops feelings for Xiao Ya, a young woman from the countryside who he has placed in a sleazy hair salon, and makes the mistake of becoming involved in an ill-fated pyramid scheme. The narrative strands inform, but do not necessarily impact on, one another, creating an authentic representation of one of Guangzhou’s most dilapidated districts. Zhao Dayong spoke to John Berra at the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing.
JB: As you have a background in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to feature the prison guard and poet Dian Qiu as a character in a fiction narrative rather than documenting his daily routine?
ZD: I chose to make a narrative feature because documentary is restrictive in that it has to respect reality. With fiction, you have the freedom of representation and can be more subjective. Because the prison guard is a symbol of power, it is more powerful to represent this character through fiction. Dian Qiu and I have been friends for a long time, I know him very well. Therefore, his real life gave me lots of inspiration. I combined his life with my original story about the slum and they became one movie. I originally had a story in which an outsider comes to this environment to find work and tries to survive. Although this story was in my mind for a long time, I decided that if the movie only told this story, it would not be interesting enough.
The film features two living spaces, the slum and the prison, and you make cultural and institutional comparisons between them.
Yes, they have similarities. Because this old slum is almost like a prison; it’s surrounded by high-rise buildings, which are like a prison wall. Within this space, the people are free, but it’s a superficial freedom because they have to deal with lots of invisible control. On the other hand, the prison is an enclosed space, too. The people within it, both the prisoners and the guards, are also oppressed. Dian Qiu tries to find ways to resolve his oppression; poetry is one way, conversation with the female prisoner is another.
The character of Jian Ming runs a fake employment agency and becomes involved in a pyramid scheme. How did you research this kind of illegal activity?
I was actually involved with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) when I first came to Guangzhou, more specifically with Amway, which was a very famous MLM network back then. This was around 1995, in the early days of MLM. My friend invited me to a meeting and I saw some Westerners on the stage talking about ‘the legend of Amway’. I was told that I could earn millions within a year but I immediately said that it was all bullshit. However, I have since been fascinated by these events and I would later look for opportunities to go to them because I am always interested in the people who attend. They always look very serious, thinking that they will become millionaires the following day. The actor who plays Jian Ming has also been involved in MLM before, but he is now a chef in real life.
Did the police ever raid a meeting that you attended, as seen in The High Life?
I was involved when everything was legal. MLM was a pyramid scheme for selling real goods in 1995, so the police were not paying any attention to it. In recent years, MLM has become a scam. Therefore, the government has declared that MLM is no longer legal and sometimes the police will arrest people for engaging in such activities. However, they have managed to continue operating by changing their business description to ‘Direct Selling’, which is essentially the same activity, but considered legal.
I was wondering why Jian Ming puts the photos up on the wall of his apartment. Is it because of feelings of guilt from tricking these migrant workers? It seems that he could help these people to find jobs if he really applied himself as he recognises their potential and has a connection with them on some level.
You are too involved in the story! You can interpret this in many ways; you can interpret this as his achievement, you can also interpret this as his understanding of human beings. There are many storylines in the film, so it is also intended to mislead you.
The High Life is reflective of reality in that it does not have a big climax and certain stories, such as Jian Ming’s burgeoning relationship with Xiao Ya, are dropped just as they seem to become significant.
This is more real, because life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason. This film has four storylines and each story is an individual story. If I followed the Hollywood style, The High Life could be separated into four movies. But at some point, each storyline stops and transforms into another storyline, then a surprise ending appears. This represents the real world. The film also shows the goodness that is in the world, but the characters can never get hold of it. For example, Jian Ming and his lover are one step away from being happy together, but that storyline ends with separation. Jian Ming also looks for hope through his relationship with the girl in the salon.
But they are both on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder, so they cannot help each other.
Yes, happiness always slips away. But misfortune can come at any time.
The character of Jian Ming evokes the film noir archetype of the small-time criminal on a downward spiral. Were you influenced by any Western genre films when writing the screenplay?
Not really. I watch very few films because my background is painting and I have not had any training in the field of filmmaking. The film is based on my life experiences and my observations of the world. I do not borrow from, or imitate, other filmmakers because I believe that my life experiences are sufficient for creative inspiration. It is important that a director is instinctive and intuitive; if someone has no instinct, he is not suited to being a director. Narrative filmmaking is very much related to documentary filmmaking. When you make a documentary, you observe and capture people in order to make a story from reality; you have to train yourself to unconsciously observe reality. I have always said that, if you want to make a feature film, you must make a documentary first.
The High Life has a richly textured aesthetic. How did you achieve such a striking visual style on a relatively low budget?
My background is in advertising and I work with a very good team. This film has cost 800,000 Chinese yuan. However, in order to achieve the same level of quality, other directors might need three or even five times that budget. People who have good resources are rather rare within the independent filmmaking sector in China. All my productions follow professional procedures. Although the budget is low, everything from the camerawork to the lighting, the set dressing, the editing and sound recording are all up to the same standard as a blockbuster so that the film can be shown in the cinema. But I am open-minded. If anyone asked me to make a commercial movie, either domestically or abroad, I would go for it as I would like to make commercial movies as well.
We are very excited about the forthcoming Zipangu Fest, a UK festival devoted to Japanese cinema curated by Jasper Sharp.
Here’s what they have on offer:
Zipangu Fest begins on Tuesday 23 November with a special event entitled Nippon Year Zero: Japanese Experimental Film from the 1960s-1970s, presented in collaboration with Close-Up at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. This retrospective programme will introduce audiences to the early Japanese avant-garde filmmaking scene with rare screenings of works by three landmark figures, Donald Richie, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masanori Oe, who captured the period they were an intrinsic part of, articulating themselves in ways that range from the poetic to the abrasive.
The festival officially gets underway on Wednesday 24 with the Zipangu Fest Opening Party at Café 1001 on Brick Lane, featuring the UK premiere of Pyuupiru 2001 – 2008, Daishi Matsunaga’s moving documentary charting the physical, psychological and artistic metamorphosis of the flamboyant transgender artist Pyuupiru. The evening will also feature a selection of shorts and a screening of Rackgaki: Japanese Graffiti, a documentary examining Japan’s explosive graffiti scene, and concludes with a set from London’s top Japanese DJ Tomoki Tamura + SUPERMETHOD.
The following evening, on Thursday 25, Zipangu Fest will continue at Café 1001 with the Live Tape ‘Live’ Night at Café 1001, a music-themed evening that sees the UK premiere of Rock Tanjo: The Movement 70s, a documentary looking at the birth of ‘New Rock’ in 1970s Japan featuring interviews and performances from bands including the Flower Travellin’ Band, and the UK premiere of Live Tape, the award-winning one-take concert film featuring singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno that has been making waves at festivals around the world. The festival’s special guest, Live Tape director Tetsuaki Matsue, will be in attendance to introduce his film, which will be followed by a live set by Maeno accompanied by Yuki Yoshida on the Chinese harp.
Friday 26 November sees Zipangu Fest moving to Genesis Cinema in Mile End where the main festival programme begins with Yuriko’s Aroma, Kota Yoshida’s humorous portrait of an aromatherapist besotted by the scent of a sweaty highâ€schooler, and ends with the UK premiere of Gen Takahashi’s epic Confessions of a Dog, a gripping indictment of corruption within the Japanese police, as the closing film on Sunday 28th November.
Other UK premieres include Annyong Yumika, an innovative documentary homage to legendary Japanese pink film actress Yumika Hayashi who was mysteriously found dead after returning home from her 35th birthday celebrations, and the second title by Zipangu Fest special guest Tetsuaki Matsue, Love & Loathing & Lulu & Ayano, a revealing drama about exploitation and abuse in Japan’s Adult Video industry, directed by the infamous Hisayasu Sato, who will be in attendance to introduce the film; the all new Mutant Girls Squad, from Noboru Iguchi, director of the hits The Machine Girl and RoboGeisha; and Footed Tadpoles, a quirky coming-of-age drama from Tomoya Maeno.
Zipangu Fest is also proud to be presenting a selection of some of the finest in Japanese independent animation. The Zipangu Fest Ero Guro Mash Up Night features three nightmarishly morbid works in the ‘erotic grotesque’ tradition from the underground animators Hiroshi Harada and Naoyuki Niiya, while the Beyond Anime: CALF Animation programme features recent envelope-pushing works from Mirai Mizue, Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada and TOCHKA.
Also featuring as part of the main programme are the Zipangu Retro screenings of two classic but very different titles rarely shown in the UK, Children of the Beehive (1948) and NN-891102 (1999). Directed by one of the masters of Japanese cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu, Children of the Beehive relates the journey of a group of war orphans (in real life all orphans taken in and raised by the director) as they are taken under the wing of a nameless soldier and set out across a shattered, postwar landscape in search of a more certain future. NN-891102, the debut feature by cult hero Go Shibata, depicts a traumatised Nagasaki survivor’s obsession with recreating the sound of the atomic bomb.
Following the festival, a selection of titles from the programme will be screened at the Arnolfini in Bristol, from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 December. The Arnolfini programme consists of Annyong Kimchee, Children of the Beehive, Footed Tadpoles, Live Tape, NN-891102, Confessions of a Dog and a selection of shorts.
Full details and descriptions of the films and other events can be found on the Zipangu Fest website .
Final round-up of London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford, Pamela Jahn, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy.
End of Animal (Jimseung ui kkut)
2010 wasn’t a particularly strong year for Korean Cinema, at least on the basis of the selection of films in European festivals (although the London Korean Film Festival somewhat changed that perception), but End of Animal surely stands out as one of the most stupefying and uniquely different Asian titles this year. This debut feature by Jo Sung-Hee has a gripping and suspenseful story line that follows a pregnant woman as she wanders through a desolate countryside after a strangely uneventful apocalypse caused by no major (visible) incidents brought all electricity and phone networks down and left no cars on the road and almost no soul in sight. Despite being guided over a radio by a mysterious character who pretends he wants to help her, the few survivors crossing Soon-Young’s way are mostly mean, selfish and greedy characters, so that a new horror starts for the fragile woman at every new encounter.
A well-acted, intensely shot film, End of Animal is structured into more or less discrete episodes, but it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Jo Sung-Hee builds a humane but critical picture of lives with no trust and no prospect in sight. Although arguably not ‘one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history’ as claimed in the festival brochure, it’s an impressive piece of work that raises hopes for more great films to come from young Korean directors in the near future. PJ
Never Let Me Go
Alex Garland writes a screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Mark Romanek directs. A slow-burning nightmare, as a strange boarding school in a timeless limbo England raises children for a sinister purpose. It’s a film about the evils that can be concealed behind politeness and bureaucracy, and the horrors society is prepared to tolerate if it suits our purposes.
If I was the ridiculous smart arse that I clearly am I’d try to draw parallels between the film’s theme, where official euphemisms (‘donors’, ‘completion’ etc) are used to make all manner of nastiness acceptable, and the film itself, where a quality cast, a string quartet soundtrack and a little cinematic restraint can be seen to be covering up the fact that this is essentially The Clonus Horror/The Island with a university degree.
But I won’t, because it’s actually pretty bloody good, the tastefulness and restraint making the nasty stuff all the more horrible and moving. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling all do good work, Carey Mulligan is great. I think the film loses something and becomes more clearly an adaptation of a novel after it leaves the weird bubble of Hailsham House. But it still weaves a disconcerting spell. MS
Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined, but their bodies are stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naÃ¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing, unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to FranÃ§oise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garÃ§ons et les filles de mon Ã¢ge’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.
Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth, (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in the film as The Engineer), and while Attenberg is a very different film, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations. SC
The legendary Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski gave us one of the best films of this year’s festival with Essential Killing. Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed Afghan (or maybe Iraqi) fighter, the film opens as he is captured by American soldiers among barren mountains. After a brief, politically charged depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in his flimsy orange suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like. Virtually dialogue-free and stunningly expressive visually, this universal tale is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience. VS
Last year Delepine and Kervern’s Louise-Michel was a taboo-buggering, capitalist-killing delight, and now with Mammuth I think they’ve become my favourite French filmmakers. Coming across like Aki Kaurismäki without the instruction manual, Delepine and Kervern’s films are unabashed hymns to the losers and freaks, the detritus washed high and dry by politics, economics and society, the unpretty and unskinny hordes who wouldn’t fit in an Eric fucking Rohmer film. Bless them.
A vanity-free Gérard Depardieu gets in touch with his inner lunk as Serge, a lardy, hairy retiring abattoir worker who finds he has to track down affidavits from his former employers to qualify for a pension, and sets about doing so on the motorbike he rode in his youth. Shot in glorious high-contrast colour, Mammuth is full of sick humour, outrageous sight gags and impeccably timed bits of silent comedy. And amid all this oddball pull-back-and-reveal business it finds time to get a bit soulful and contemplative with Isabelle Adjani as a ghost from Serge’s past. I loved it. MS
It might be clichéd to say that the landscape is the star of the film, but it is undeniably true of Womb, an ambitious, genre-blending drama set in one of the bleakest, windiest and most harrowingly beautiful parts of Germany – the North Sea coast. Amid the impressive scenery, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf imagines the love story between Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith), who secretly loved and sadly lost each other when they were kids, only to meet again as adults and live happily ever after. But soon destiny takes another cruel turn, and loss and grief lead Rebecca to give birth to a cloned copy of her dead lover. Aesthetically and conceptually Fliegauf aims high, but while he impresses on the former level, he is not quite as successful on the latter. Edited with tranquil precision, the film takes its time exploring the parameters of the new family life and falters only when Thomas (who turns out to be the spitting image of his predecessor not only in looks, but, rather annoyingly, also in habits and behaviour) falls for a girl who joins and ultimately destroys the intimate togetherness of mother and son. Superbly photographed as it is, Womb, like Fliegauf’s previous films, is a piece of dark cinematic poetry that requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, although this time, his grasp of emotional dynamics seems much more skilful, making for a strangely moving film. PJ
There are dozens of rites of passage films about good teenage boys going off the rails and joining gangs, but none that I can bring to mind go quite as far or get as intense as Peter Mullan’s tale of ‘Non Educated Delinquents’. Normally the youths at the centre of such things only take part in enough anti-social activity for them to learn a ‘valuable life lesson’ and walk away. Here John McGill turns into a seriously nasty bastard, a proper head case, and his story doesn’t follow any conventional arc.
Mullan as writer/director does impressive work here, creating a convincing 70s Glasgow world of ineffectual teachers, aggressive police and the thousand tiny tests of machismo, loyalty and class by which McGill is judged. Mullan has time for everybody, the leads are well observed, and even minor characters are vividly realised, in the Loach/Clark tradition, but he also has an eye for the grotesque and absurd, and NEDS is full of arresting images and moments of startlingly odd behaviour. Great stuff. MS
Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)
Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the pessimistic spirit of Suicide Club, with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish shop. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are brilliantly observed, the direction is controlled and well-paced, and there are great touches of macabre and strangeness. With not one sympathetic character, the film offers a downbeat view of mankind, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is not devoid of black humour. Just as Suicide Club, Cold Fish initially may leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity and reluctance to propose obvious meanings, and on reflection it has become one of the highlights of the festival for me. VS
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
Documentary attempting to get under the Poe of Dope’s skin, as various talking heads pontificate away about the man under various animated chapter headings (sex, junk, guns, and so on). It positions Burroughs very well as a punk/countercultural totem, but seems less interested in his status as a literary figure. All perfectly fine, mainly notable for the insane quality roll call of the heads (John Giorno, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Genesis P. Orridge, Jello Biafra, etc etc etc. ) and some great stories, and great footage… Music by Sonic Youth, of course. MS
As someone who’s listened to the band for years, it’s a little hard to be objective about Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. For anyone who became a fan after the band’s 1999 album 69 Love Songs (and that’s probably most people), the film is a much-needed and affectionate introduction to their earlier years, from their first shows in Boston to their eventual move to New York; more importantly, it’s a revealing look at the creative and personal relationship between Merritt and Claudia Gonson – chanteuse, piano-player, manager and mother figure. Mixing live footage, old photographs and interviews with band members Sam Davol and John Woo, and contributors like accordion-player Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), the directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix have given the audience a terrific sense of Merritt’s almost perversely charismatic personality and his enormous talent as a singer-songwriter. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that at 82 minutes it feels somehow incomplete, as if a film devoted solely to their live performances should be just around the corner. SC
There’s a cruise ship. There’s a garage. There’s a llama. There’s some people. Everybody speaks. In ‘Navajo’ English. A bit like this. Oh look. There goes Patti Smith. Something about Africa. Something about elections. That llama again. We go to. The new Godard. To say that that we’ve seen. The new Godard. How long. Does this one last? Oh, it’s over. Can someone tell JLG that if he doesn’t want to make films anymore, he doesn’t have to? MS
You’ve got to be prepared: there are only seven shots in 121 minutes in James Benning’s haunting homage to the German Ruhr area which, even though it was selected to be European Capital of Culture in 2010, retains the heavily industrial feel and look of the past, flecked with coal mines, factories and steel works with noisy, steaming furnaces and smoke-pouring chimneys. But of course there is more to explore in each of the fixed-frame takes Jennings has chosen for his first foray into high-definition video. The focus of interest shifts from a car tunnel with almost no cars driving through, but sporting an eye-catching zigzag lighting tube on the ceiling to a self-regulated production line in a steel-rolling plant and the constant praying in a mosque filmed from an awkward perspective that is alternately blacked out by the backs of the worshippers. Some of the images and the soundtrack have been digitally manipulated to increase the fascination and bizarre attraction of the images – and it works. By the time Ruhr enters into the final view, a tower belching out an impressive cloud of steam every 10 minutes for the remaining hour of the film, you are so taken by the power of the plain imagery and soundscape Jennings creates that you leave the cinema feeling slightly dizzy, yet again marvelling at the way things slowly reveal their own beauty and meaning if only you take the time to look at them for long enough. PJ
Le Quattro Volte
Life. What’s it all about? Um… charcoal, apparently. Michaelangelo Frammartino’s mesmerising, dialogue-free film follows the rhythms and patterns of life lived in a small Italian village, witnessing the life and death of an ageing shepherd, a new-born kid in his herd (a reincarnation?) and the fate of a tree in a series of long takes. While this sounds like it could be arse-numbing torture, Frammartino has come to the praiseworthy realisation that if you’re going to have long long takes, then it’s best to have something of interest happen in them. Thus we have human actors who look like live-action Chomet animations, unfamiliar rural rituals to puzzle over, and a feast of different textures and sights and sounds. Best of all we have goats, a whole herd of boisterous and amusing and inscrutable goats, in the best goat performances I’ve ever seen. Love them goats. That dog deserves an Oscar, too. MS
Solid genre entertainment, but a curiously straightforward offering for Takashi Miike. After his wacky homage to the Italian Western in Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike gives us a classic samurai tale heavily influenced by Kurosawa. A remake of an obscure 1963 film, 13 Assassins follows the efforts of retired samurai Shinzaemon as he assembles a team of assassins to kill the cruel and degenerate Lord Naritsugu, half-brother of the Shogun, before he rises to power. It is epic in scope and lavishly produced, with impressive large-scale battle scenes, beautiful candle-lit interiors and atmospheric landscapes shrouded in mist. But given Miike’s anarchic and iconoclastic tendencies, it is rather surprising to see him go for the traditional end-of-an-era nostalgia and to see him unquestioningly let the characters accept the samurai’s rigid code of honour. A few grotesque touches remind us of the director’s presence, mostly in the opening scenes depicting Lord Naritsugu’s evil deeds – in particular the piteous display of one of his victims, the horrifically mutilated daughter of a rebellious peasant. But all in all, the violence is fairly restrained and conventional for Miike and it is further blunted by a strong impression of déjÃ vu. Fun, but not exactly memorable. VS
Drifting and dreamlike, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film consists of a series of lazy, tightly choreographed 360-degree pans and dollies circling Ms Carola and her family and servants in a gorgeous house and garden located in the moneyed area of La Paz, Bolivia, of the title. At first, as they dine, shag and shop, Carola’s spoilt clan seem to be as appalling and eminently mockable as the family of Altman’s A Wedding, or BuÃ±uel’s bourgeoisie, but soon enough the cracks begin to show in the carefully maintained faÃ§ade and they increasingly come to resemble inmates in an asylum, a bubble sealed off from the brutal world outside. Sun-bleached, funny and visually enchanting, it’s a strange and wondrous thing. MS
Together with Clio Barnard’s The Abor, Self Made, by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, sounded like one of the most interesting films in this year’s British Cinema strand, but it turned out to be a less cathartic cinematic experience than expected. The documentary records a theatre project that Wearing initiated together with a Method acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. After placing an ad in the newspaper that simply said, ‘Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character’, the duo selected seven non-actors to become participants in a 10-day Method workshop. On an empty warehouse set, Rumbelow pushes the group to explore their inner selves and to act out their suppressed feelings and experiences largely through psychological performance exercises that are, at times, as disturbing to watch they must have been to enact. The film sometimes diverts from the austere, straightforward recording style Wearing has adopted. Interwoven with the acting masterclass set-pieces are five short films, each developed and performed by one of the participants as they learn to let go. Some of these mini-episodes are better than others with regards to performance, set-up and narrative, but compared to the intense emotions played out in the skeletal workshop theatre scenes, they seem rather like a waste of energy. Ultimately, this mismatch makes Self Made feel like a work-in-progress itself, yet with the potential to grow towards the art of unobtrusive, fine-tuned characterisation. PJ
The Parking Lot Movie
What happens when you give an undemanding service sector job working in the booth of a pay parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a group of overeducated, underfunded philosophers, anthropologists and theologians? You get a lot of bitter, acerbic commentary on class, capitalism, human nature, America, and the behaviour of rich drunken douchebags. Apart from an ill-advised hip hop interlude, Meghan Eckman’s documentary is a very watchable piece of kit, full of interesting characters and smart observations. Ex-booth attendees include members of Happy Flowers and Yo La Tengo, and the Parking Lot Movie could make slacker heroes of the rest. MS
The Temptation of St Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine)
Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St Tony had been brought to our attention last year and it was great to see it selected for LFF. The film is worth watching for its opening scene alone: a funeral procession moving towards the sea, filmed in a beautifully austere black and white that makes it seem more like a mental landscape or dream than reality. This unreal-ness infuses the grim, grey Estonian setting as the main character Tony journeys through a series of puzzling events that follow his father’s funeral. Although the latter part of the film, set in a decadent, hellish nightclub called ‘The Golden Age’, feels too contrived and self-conscious, the sense of the absurd that imbues the film feels entirely genuine. St Tony may be flawed but it has a strong visual identity and atmospheric quality, convincing menace and paranoia, and a warped sense of humour. It conjures up a striking image of Estonia as a hopeless wasteland where promises of a better life haven’t been fulfilled. VS
For those who have been hoping that celebrity-hugging dollar-magnet artist Julian Schnabel would come a cropper with his film career (and had to admit through gritted teeth that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a damn fine piece of work), Miral will come as blessed relief. It’s an ill-disciplined, uninvolving trudge of a film, filled with dull exposition, humourless on-the-nose dialogue and baffling creative decisions. In Diving Bell, the various camera techniques were brilliantly used to represent the effects of a specific medical condition. Here the patented Squiffy-Camé seems to be wheeled out at random, and any time is right for a hand-held freakout. What’s Willem Defoe doing here? Why that Tom Waits song there? Why don’t I care?
Based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical account, the film traces the lineage of Palestinian girl Miral, and the story of the orphanage where she was raised. We skip from 1991 to 1947 to 1973 in a fragmentary mosaic of lives lived under Israeli rule. There’s abuse and war and radicalism and police oppression and terrorism in there, as encountered or committed by various women, and it should be a welcome change to hear from this unfamiliar viewpoint, but Miral doesn’t really have much to say that I couldn’t have guessed. It has its moments, and isn’t truly awful, it’s just a bit of a dud. MS
Cast: Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble
Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes festival, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film has the magic of a fairy tale and the simplicity of a folk tale. Wonderfully immersive, slow and dreamy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives centres loosely around a sick man in rural Thailand and his relatives, alive and dead. His journey towards death is interspersed with episodes that involve a water buffalo, a princess, a talking fish and a monkey ghost. Part of the director’s larger Primitive project, which depicts the north-eastern region of Thailand through a mixture of film and installation, Uncle Boonmee blends spiritual meditation, political references, a ghost story and moments of intense beauty into a mesmerising reverie.
Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure of interviewing Apitchatpong Weerasethakul during the London Film Festival. The director discussed the mix of tones in the film, the references to old Thai cinema and the reasons for his stronger concern with politics in the Primitive project.
Read the review of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
VS: Uncle Boonmee seems to be concerned with the crossing of various boundaries, whether between life and death, humans and animals, nature and the human world.
AW: Yes, in fact that’s also true of my other films. They’re about all these borders, life and death, light and darkness, all these things that co-exist.
Why are you interested in that?
I think because I live in Thailand – it’s a place that is so full of contrasts. It’s a very beautiful country but there are many ugly things, like violence. It’s a mixture of progress, because it’s a developing country, and animist and Hindu beliefs within Buddhism, which propels the country in such a strange way. You have people who have all the gadgets, but at the same time they use them in a very primitive way. During the recent protests in Thailand, you had people screaming for their rights and for democracy, but at the same time they used these backwards practices: they asked for the blood of all the protesters, threw it in a bucket, asked for a Brahmin to come and chant and then threw the blood in front of the Prime Minister’s house. And it doesn’t feel strange, it mixes very well! So my film also reflects this co-existence.
Uncle Boonmee seems more openly political than your other films. Why is that?
This film is part of the Primitive project, which is a survey of the north-eastern area where I grew up, and it’s a very politically charged background. In my previous films I focused on my direct experience, something that I know, like love, my parents, my friends. But this film is a portrait of the place, so I felt the need to present this aspect of what happened to the land. The weather is very harsh and people are poor and have to work in other regions. The education system is not well developed, so the people are prone to political manipulation. So this Primitive project has many elements. One of them is an art installation and that’s more focused on politics. Also, the north-east has a big influence on, and is a big factor, in the current political turmoil. But I chose to reflect on the past, which is not so different because the key institutions play the same role now.
There’s a scene in which Uncle Boonmee says that his disease is due to his karma, because he killed too many communists. What does that refer to specifically?
It refers to the time from the 50s to the early 80s when the communists spread into the country from Vietnam to Laos. Laos is a neighbouring country that borders that region and it used to be full of friends and family, but Laos fell apart and many people migrated to Thailand. The idea of communism appealed to poor people and the Thai government’s method of getting rid of this ideology was backed by the Americans. It was very repressive and brutal, so people had to escape into the jungle. You were either on the government’s side or you were with the communist party, and Uncle Boonmee was on the government’s side.
As Boonmee is approaching death he says he can see the future, and this is followed by a series of still images that is very different in style from the rest of the film, and seems more closely concerned with contemporary society and politics. Could you explain the idea behind this sequence and its place in the film?
For me, it’s the place where Uncle Boonmee and I merge, because what he’s talking about is my dream. But my dream is more complicated, so I simplified it. I think it’s a very interesting dream, it’s about the future, but at the same time it has connotations of the present. In a way, we live in a totalitarian regime in Thailand, so I wanted to refer to this moment where the maker and the character merge. And when Uncle Boonmee goes back to the womb in the cave I wanted to take the movie back to its origins, before the image moved, before it became the moving image. At the same time it refers to New Wave filmmakers like Chris Marker and Antonioni. There is a reference to the future, which is what Chris Marker talks about, but it’s the future of the past. It’s the representation of the future but from the past perspective. I’m very interested in these kinds of time shifts.
You’ve said that your film is about the transmigration of souls, and you express your ideas about life and death entirely visually. Was that important to you, that it should be visual rather than verbal?
With this film yes, because you’re supposed to feel this relationship between man and nature, all these things that sometimes you cannot really put into words. The idea was to visualise this, to illuminate it and to open your mind, and for me to respect the audience’s imagination. Uncle Boonmee could be anything, he could be the sunlight… For me, it’s true that when we die we become dust and we integrate into nature. You will die, I will die, but we tend to forget that! But we transform, we don’t disappear, we just transform into another kind of matter.
The film can be very subtle in the way it represents invisible things like beliefs, ghosts and emotions, but it can also be very literal, as in the case of the monkey ghost in the monkey costume. Why this mix of styles?
It is a tribute to the old Thai filmmaking style, and this particular scene was in reference to old television, which was shot in 16mm in the studio, with cheap costumes and a certain kind of lighting. And the larger theme is how this guy, who doesn’t feel like he belongs, has to transform himself and escape the area, maybe like the communists.
Did you invent the monkey ghost or is that something that exists in Thai folklore or mythology?
I invented it, but it’s inspired by folk tales. And also, when I was in elementary school, a friend told me that he saw a big black man with glowing red eyes floating above his bed at night, and he could have been dreaming or he could have lied to me, but the image stuck with me and that’s what I sketched for the designer.
The jungle plays a very important role, much like in your other films, Tropical Malady in particular. Why is that?
It’s because the jungle is home. We tend to forget. Now when I go to the jungle, I get scared because of the sounds, things I don’t know. But it’s our home, our ancestors’ home. And I really believe that in the past people could talk to animals and could know what particular bird sounds meant. But we’ve lost that ability. So I like to take my characters back home. Another thing that is visually or conceptually different from Tropical Malady is that this jungle is artificial, it’s a cinematic jungle. We used the day for night technique, so there’s a fake quality to it, a green and blue tint. I threw my actors into this cinematic jungle that refers to past films.
The sound of the jungle is heard throughout the film, even when it’s not seen on screen, and it feels like the jungle is constantly present. Why did you use that device?
You have to feel the presence of life, the abundance of life, you have to know there’s a bird, there’s an insect that you can’t see, but you know are there. I don’t think my movies work on DVD, so I always say to people, if you’re going to watch them on DVD, at least invest in a surround system! The soundtrack is really part of the design.
The film combines many different tones and styles, and serious spiritual and political concerns are juxtaposed with humorous moments. Was humour an important aspect for you?
Yes, definitely. In all my work, I look for a certain type of humour, uncomfortable humour, awkward humour, where you’re not sure whether you should laugh or feel sad, or maybe you should feel both. It refers to old-style acting that was very popular in the past, the way the actors deliver the lines, which has a certain logic and innocence. But at the same time, from a contemporary perspective, it’s very funny, it’s out of time, and when you’re aware it’s from the past, and it’s gone, it can generate a certain melancholy.
The past seems very important to you.
Yes, especially with this film. It seems like a summary of what I do. The last scene reunites the characters from my first fiction film together. It’s a tribute to the land and to cinema in general.
Were there any specific films from old Thai cinema that influenced you?
No. I could have gone back to the film archive, but with my DOP we decided to work from our memories. We were inspired by a lot of horror films, which were shown on television after 7pm in the 70s and were always filmed in the studio, with that very rigid lighting.
So there’s a tradition of TV horror in Thailand?
Yes, there was horror and also love stories, but as a kid I was attracted to the horror films.
Do you think Uncle Boonmee is a horror film?
Yes, I think it can fit into many genres. In Spain it played in the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, and it got a prize! When it was put in that context, it made sense. The reaction from people is so diverse. That’s why I think in a way it can be called an open cinema.
Have you been surprised by the reaction from audiences?
Yes and no. Yes in the way that people interpret the film in different ways, and how deeply some people get into it. For example, there’s a guy from Paris who sent me a very beautiful picture of a teenage boy on the beach and he said, ‘this is my son and he died in January’. And when he saw Uncle Boonmee he said he felt at ease, he felt peace. This is better than the Palme d’Or, to realise that your film can do this. At the same time, there are people on the internet who say the film is rubbish, and it’s fascinating for me how you can divide the audience, how one person can be touched deeply and another feel very offended.
Although it has divided opinion, it is probably your most accessible and successful film to date. Why do you think that is?
I think it talks about things that we share, such as our last moments and how we want to connect with our loved ones. The dead wife and son could be a projection of Boonmee, maybe they don’t exist. I think that’s what the audience can feel. And even though there are references to old Thai cinema, we share the river of cinematic history, and old Thai films are influenced by the West. It’s universal but in the past.
Can you tell me more about the book that you adapted for the film?
The book was written by a monk in 1983. It’s a very thin book that was distributed to villagers, you can’t find it in shops. The monk met this guy who came to the temple and who told him this story that he claimed he could remember. There are several cases of people who say they can remember their past lives in Thailand, but it’s not a common thing. I travelled to the area and encountered two more cases, one dead, but his wife told me about it, and one who is still alive. It was really amazing.
The different strands in the film could be interpreted as past lives, but they can also be seen as fairy tales or legends, for instance the story of the princess and the fish. Where did that come from?
It refers to the royal costume drama that used to be on television at the weekend. They still have this sort of thing, but in a different production style, with digital effects. In the old days, it was slower and more innocent. It’s always about the hardships of princes and princesses in relation to a natural landscape, with animals that can talk. But they don’t end up having intercourse!
The film has so many different layers.
Yes, layers like our own mind works, drifting randomly.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m producing two films by other filmmakers and I’m making an art installation and developing a new feature film on the Mekong River. It’s near the same area as Uncle Boonmee. There’s been a recent outbreak of pig disease in the farms in the area and it’s about how people are dealing with it, and how man relates to water.
Place seems very important to you. Does it always start with a place?
Not always, but often. That’s why it’s hard for me to work in the West. I need to feel I have a direct experience of a place.
Read our previous interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul about the Primitive project.
Cast: Kalrheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley
When Peeping Tom was released in 1959 it provoked such fury in the press that it all but destroyed the career of the esteemed British director Michael Powell, who had until then enjoyed public and critical acclaim for works such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947). Among the avalanche of abuse, The Spectator dubbed it ‘the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing’, The Financial Times called it ‘frankly beastly’ while The Tribune’s Derek Hill surpassed them all with the spectacularly bilious: ‘The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.’
Fifty years later, the hostility has receded and Peeping Tom is now recognised as one of Powell’s best works. It has been the subject of numerous articles, which have focused mostly on voyeurism and/or Freudian analysis. The film itself encourages this, right from the choice of title. The particular perversion of the central character Mark Lewis is to film his victims as he kills them, and his films-within-the-film highlight the obsession with watching — and of course, with cinema itself. Mark’s psychopathic behaviour is explained in Freudian terms, a result of the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father. The film even introduces the character of a mildly ridiculous psychiatrist into the plot to give a helpful explanation of ‘scopophilia’.
There is no doubt that voyeurism and psychoanalysis are major themes. Yet, it seems that there must be more to Peeping Tom to fully explain its extraordinary impact on audiences, which is undiminished by the years. One theme that has been relatively neglected in the discussions is fear, even though it is so clearly central to the film — the abuse suffered by Mark is a result of his father’s experiments on fear. Is it not indeed because Peeping Tom is a relentless study of human terror that it is so disturbing? ‘Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?’ asks Mark. ‘It’s fear’. We, the audience, stand back in shock, forced to face the profound nature of our own fear. For what Mark is telling us is that there is no explaining fear away when the cause of fear is fear itself. The circular statement points to the disturbing irreducibility of absolute terror. Beyond all the rational explanations — of which psychoanalysis is one — there remains a pure, causeless fear. And what is truly fascinating about Powell’s masterpiece is that in its willingness to delve deep into this primal human fear Peeping Tom goes beyond the reductive Freudian framework and reconnects with one of the most archaic figures of terror in Western culture — the mythical figure of Medusa. In the film’s equation of seeing with dying, in its complex mirror effects, echoes of the deadly Gorgon resonate throughout.
In Peeping Tom, to film someone results in their death. The camera is like Medusa, its gaze deadly for whoever looks back. The parallel goes even further for Mark’s set-up is extremely complex. To his camera is attached not only a deadly blade but also a mirror. This is a rather strange contraption but think of the Medusa myth and it takes on a remarkable meaning. There are many variants to the story — in one, Perseus uses his shield as a mirror; in another he looks at Medusa’s reflection in water. In all the versions though, there is one recurrent idea — Medusa’s gaze has to be deflected. In Peeping Tom, the camera and the mirror are used exactly in that way, allowing Mark to look terror in the eyes without being turned to stone, like a modern Perseus. A highly transgressive figure, Mark goes one step further than the Greek hero, using his elaborate device not simply to confront the monstrous Gorgon but to record something that should normally remain beyond human experience. As he films his victims watching themselves die, Mark is able to catch the reflection of unspeakable terror in his camera.
Just like in the myth, not returning Medusa’s gaze is crucial. The character who can best fight Mark’s monstrous camera-mirror-spike is Mrs Stephens, a blind woman living in Mark’s building with her daughter Helen, who has befriended Mark. While Mark aspires to see the forbidden sight of absolute terror, Mrs Stephens sees what cannot be seen about Mark. Hearing Mark move upstairs in his room she knows that his filming is ‘unhealthy’. When she appears in Mark’s room, and it is indeed an apparition, a ghostly shape that manages to startle the murderer himself, the roles are reversed. As Mark walks towards her to make her leave the room, she lifts her sharp stick towards him in a striking echo of the spike on Mark’s camera. But when Mark starts filming her he is once again the aggressor. However, as she can’t see her own fear in the mirror, filming her is useless, and she is able to defeat Mark’s murderous set-up.
Made of elements that do not naturally belong together, Mark’s camera-mirror-spike is a monstrous composite being. The freak camera is Mark’s unnatural appendage and together they form a terrifying half-human, half-machine creature. The camera is an integral part of Mark, as is made clear when Helen calls it an ‘extra limb’. Mark’s camera, a 16mm Bell and Howell Filmo, is different from the other cameras that appear in the film. When Mark is moved by the new model Lorraine’s deformed lip in the photo studio, he takes out his own camera to film her even though he has been taking pictures with the 8×10 view camera until then. When Mark films the actress Viv in the film studio, he does so with his special camera rather than the 35mm Mitchell that is already on the set. (1) The deadly glare of the Gorgon does not come from just any camera but from the monstrous fusion of Mark with his personal camera.
The expression of intense terror on the victims’ faces is noted by the police, with the suggestion that it is caused by something worse than the realisation of their imminent death. Again the key here is the mirror, and through that mirror the film taps further into the deep human anxieties expressed in the Medusa myth. Because of the mirror the victims have the dubious privilege of watching their dead selves while still alive, if only for an instant. They are looking at their own image, but at the moment of death they no longer recognise what they see. This is because it is already other, transfigured by death. This, according to Jean-Pierre Vernant, is exactly what lies at the heart of the myth, the Gorgon representing ‘the extreme otherness, the terrifying horror of what is absolutely other, the unspeakable, the unthinkable, pure chaos’. (2)
It is this idea that makes the film so utterly fascinating. Through the camera-Gorgon, the film explores the boundaries between the self and the other, the dead and the living, the savage and the civilised, the human and the inhuman. It is explored through the victims, but also more complexly through Mark. In his dying victims Mark sees himself doubly reflected as ‘absolutely other’: other as female and other as dead. The most frightening thing in the film is not death, it is the terror of looking at oneself and seeing something unrecognisable. This is what explains the striking expression of terror on the victims’ faces.
The unrecognisable self is also the self that has lost its integrity. There is a noticeable emphasis on close-ups of details of the body in Peeping Tom, focusing especially on eyes and mouths, which reduce the characters to body parts. The victims’ heads are framed in close-up, effectively cutting their heads off before Mark stabs them in the neck. Through the close-ups the victim is symbolically dismembered, losing her human form, reduced to a head. Here again Peeping Tom strikingly connects with the ancient myth: the original Gorgon of pre-Greek myth is a bodiless head while in the Greek story Medusa is beheaded by Perseus. This, says Thalia Feldman, represents the primitive terror of dismemberment, a fear that is fundamentally important for primates, as experiments on apes have confirmed. (3)
The horror that comes from realising this loss of integrity is spectacularly expressed in one of the most memorable representations of the mythical figure, Caravaggio’s Head of the Medusa (circa 1596-98). The feeling of intense dread exuded by the painting becomes even more startling knowing that it may be one of the artist’s early self-portraits, painted using a mirror. In the painting, Medusa is therefore not a monster, but a human face, the reflection of the painter himself, his head cut off, engulfed in the horrors of the infernal snakes and the streams of blood spurting out of his neck. This has to be one of the most powerful depictions of the terror of being faced with one’s dismembered self, no longer human, transformed into a monstrous other.
Caravaggio’s painting highlights another essential aspect of the myth that is directly relevant to Peeping Tom. What makes the painting so unforgettable is the expression of pure horror on Medusa’s face. This means that Caravaggio represents Medusa, a frightening monster, as a frightened being. The face of terror is a terrified face. This touches on a fundamental aspect of the myth. According to Jean-Pierre Vernant, there is a strong link between frightened and frightener in the Medusa myth. Among many other examples Vernant mentions how, as Herakles was possessed by infernal powers, his face turned into the Gorgon’s face. Experiencing the most intense fear, he in turn provoked terror in those around him. (4) We should remember that of the three Gorgons, Medusa is the mortal one. It is no accident that one of the most potent figures of fear in Greek mythology should be mortal. Is it not precisely because she is mortal that she can represent so effectively the fear of annihilation?
So we are back to where we started: ‘Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?’ asks Mark. ‘It’s fear’. The reciprocity that is so central to the myth is at the heart of the film. Mark, scared by his father, scares his victims. Mark becomes frightening because he’s frightened. Terror is the emergence in oneself of the other, the ordered self disappearing to give way to a chaotic self that cannot be kept under control and in turn scares others. Nowhere is this reciprocity of fear clearer than in the scene where Mark shows Helen his father’s film of him as a child. Mark the killer watches Mark the scared child. When Helen screams, ‘Switch it off! Switch it off!’ Mark is incapable of moving, glued to the screen. Helen has to switch the projector off, breaking the spell. The most frightening character in the film is also the most frightened.
This is brought home by one of the most shocking images of the film. At the end, as an anguished Helen presses Mark to reveal what he did to the women to scare them so much, Mark lifts the camera to her face. The next thing we see is the distorted image of Helen’s face in the mirror. While the killings are shown with much restraint, Helen’s deformed face is brutally and unexpectedly thrust at the viewer, her fear making this the most disturbing image of the film.
The reciprocity and mirroring at the centre of the Medusa myth are amplified by the medium of film. The multiple films-within-the-film create a great deal of ambiguity, and it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between Powell’s film and Mark’s films. The blurring of the different films becomes explicit when a scene between Mark and Helen ends with the word ‘Cut’, the next scene taking place at the film studio. What does this ‘Cut’ refer to? Is it Powell filming the scene with Mark and Helen or is it the commercial director filming at the studio? There are in total four directors in Peeping Tom — Mark, the father, the commercial director and Powell — and four types of film, so that what is an apparently singular reality — the film, the director — is here vertiginously divided. The various films being made are intertwined; images are borrowed and repeated, so that the result is complete ambiguity as to the directorial authority of what we are watching. To start with, the images are clearly differentiated through the framing devices and the opposition of colour and black and white but, gradually, they dissolve into one another. What starts as mirroring ends up as blurring and fusing into one another. There are no longer any certainties about where one film starts and where another ends. There are no longer any certainties about where the self starts and where the other ends.
This is compounded by the fact that Michael Powell himself plays the role of Mark’s father while Powell’s own son plays Mark as a child. Powell thus faces himself: the director of Mark’s childhood films faces the director of Peeping Tom. This is very much a clue as to the ultimate meaning of this mirroring device. Powell’s camera is reflected as other in Mark’s camera. Powell is reflected as other when playing Mark’s father, turning his son into an other. Everything in the film, including Powell himself, faces Medusa, the unrecognisable other. Brilliantly, Powell comments on his own position as director of the film by reflecting himself in Mark’s father, a false figure of order attempting to impose an illusory rational explanation onto the deepest human fears at the expense of Mark’s mental health, causing ultimate, deadly disorder in Mark’s psyche. Is this what Powell thought he was doing to his audience?
It might well be, for the mirroring effect of the film means that, in the darkness of the cinema, the spectator himself, like the characters he is watching, faces his self as unrecognisable other. The complex mirroring device installed by Powell exposes and simultaneously protects the audience. Powell’s camera, redoubling Mark’s camera, affords us extra protection against the direct glare of the Gorgon, removing her, placing her at a safe distance, and allowing us to look at her without being petrified. However, audiences should not feel too safe for the first thing that happens to them in Peeping Tom is to be watched. The film strikingly opens on the close-up image of an eye, shut, as if sleeping, while we hear a jarring, dissonant music. After a few seconds the eye suddenly opens, wide with fear, the startling effect underlined by an abrupt change in the music. This is a violent reversal of positions. The viewer is brutally put in the position of the viewed. In keeping with the reciprocity central to the Medusa myth, the frightened eye frightens the viewer.
The aggressive use of spotlights is a further visual assault on the audience. When Mark switches a bright cinema spotlight directly onto Helen’s face in his back room or on Viv in the film studio, the light is effectively turned on us, the audience. The blinding spotlight figures the deadly power of vision, of Medusa and of Mark’s camera, the audience being in the position of the victim. Mark’s camera is another weapon of vision used against the audience. In the opening scene with the prostitute, Mark turns his camera on and starts walking towards the screen, moving menacingly towards us. The camera is the aggressor, attacking the audience in an unconventional shot. In that scene, we are the victims while the camera has its deadly gaze on us but we become the voyeurs as soon as Mark’s camera turns on the prostitute. It is as if the camera-monster walked towards us to fuse with us, forcing us to identify with it. What is disturbing is not simply that the film highlights the voyeuristic position of the audience, but rather that the audience is alternatively made to identify with the victim and with the aggressor, with the frightened and with the frightener. In that way the spectators too are made to look into the mirror at their radical other self, their monstrous self — whether dead or murderous.
Peeping Tom may be concerned with the self-reflexive voyeurism of cinema and it may be explained in Freudian terms, but beyond that, it touches on something essential and universal: pure terror. It shows us the Gorgon, looking unflinchingly at what scares us most, making us experience that terror, and it is what makes the film resonate so deeply in all of us.
(1) For the technical description of the various cameras that appear in the film I am indebted to William Johnson, ‘Peeping Tom: A Second Look’, Film Quarterly vol. 33, no. 3 (Spring 1980), p. 3. (2) Jean-Pierre Vernant, La mort dans les yeux: Figure de l’Autre dans la Grèce ancienne (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1998), p. 12. My translation. (3) Thalia Feldman, ‘Gorgo and the Origins of Fear’, Arion vol. IV, no. 3 (Autumn 1965), p. 490. (4)Vernant (1998), p. 59-63.
Sarah Cronin reviews the Japanese strand of the 2010 Raindance festival. The review of Symbol is by Alex Pashby.
In past years, Raindance has always been a good place to discover independent, offbeat Japanese films, with highlights including films like Love Exposure, Kakera, Lalapipo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and Fine, Totally Fine. But in 2010, the Japanese strand proved to be something of a disappointment, the films – with a few exceptions – lacking imagination and flair. It’s difficult to know if this has merely been a bad year for Japanese films: Tony Rayns, in his preview for Sawako Decides, which showed at the London Film Festival, describes 2010 as ‘a year in which the creativity in Japanese mainstream cinema all but curled up and died’. The same might be true for independent cinema.
There was something quite sentimental about many of the films; one of the more watchable was Lost and Found, in which the ensemble cast learn a series of lessons about love and life as their paths cross at a train station’s lost and found department. It was a tender, warm-hearted film, if a little trite. Less successful was Lunar Child. Told in three parts, it’s a film about troubled women all seeking love in some form. Despite a promising, visually interesting first sequence, in which a lonely, unhappy woman finds shelter for the night in the home of an enigmatic man with a debilitating illness, the rest of the film lacked style and creativity. Interesting stories could have been taken further: Mizuki betrays her girlfriend for a meaningless fling; Hikari, dissatisfied with her married life, provides a home and money for a boy barely out of his teens, who prefers men to girls. But the film lacked any sense of style, the storytelling was flat and lethargic, the tone, again, mawkish. This seemed to be a common problem with several of the films: a failure to match style and technical skill with ideas.
Another film that suffered from a similar problem was Yellow Kid. Although it was one of the better films in the strand, and worth seeing, it just didn’t quite hold together as a whole. The paths of a nerdy, timid comic-book artist and one of his fans, a bullied and lonely young man, cross at a boxing gym, their lives becoming intertwined, until the boxer blurs the boundaries between real life and the comic-book world of his favourite super-hero, Yellow Kid. It was a compelling story about frustration, anger and revenge, not to mention love and obsession, but there was almost too much going on, leaving the film feeling jumbled and incoherent (although it’s a good idea to watch until the very end of the credits). While it had a fantastic animated title sequence, the mix of manga and live action never quite lived up to expectations.
There was something else that struck me when watching these films – an over-reliance on a certain type of male character that seems to litter Japanese cinema. Similar to the comic-book artist, Tanishi in Boys on the Run is painfully geeky, utterly timid and a total failure with women – the only ones he really comes into contact with are prostitutes. He is the quintessential Japanese nerd, and his object of desire the usual pretty, timid young woman, who falls for the wrong man – a smooth-talking salesman at a rival company that also sells vending machine toys. The film started off feeling like a sex comedy (although women will be scratching their heads at men’s mind-boggling stupidity), but it lost its way when it turned into a coming-of-age film as Tanishi, vainly, tries to stand up for himself.
One of the more likeable films was Lost Girl, a very low-key short film that slowly draws the viewer into the story of a once-successful chef suffering from bulimia after she poisons someone at her restaurant. Instead of the gourmet French food she once prepared, she stuffs her face full of junk food, while her husband, also a chef, does everything in his power to tempt her to eat more refined fare. It was an unusual melodrama, with something charmingly subversive to it, despite its flaws.
Three very different films really stood out at the festival: Autumn Adagio, USB and Symbol. Autumn Adagio was the more grown-up of the three; a nun, on the verge of menopause, rediscovers her sense of self and the world around her when she starts to play piano at a ballet academy. It was an intimate, elegant and lovingly told (if sentimental) story, with a terrific performance from the musician Rei Shibakusa.
USB opens with a loud, incessant buzzing sound, as white light flickers on a black background. Yuichiro, a slacker in his mid-20s, decides to go to medical school after the death of his father, a doctor; a submissive girlfriend needs more attention than he’s willing to give; a demented friend goes on the run with the daughter of a local gangster, who also has a chilling hold over Yuichiro. Meanwhile, warnings of low-level radiation are broadcast to the public after an accident at a nearby nuclear power site, and soon people are being paid large sums of money for mysterious clinical trials at the local hospital, and the source of the buzzing becomes clear. It was a great mix of drama tinged with sci-fi, and a subtle re-imagining of a post-nuclear disaster.
In Symbol, a Japanese man (actor/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) in clown-like pyjamas wakes up in a big white room with no discernable exit. Meanwhile an out-of-shape Mexican wrestler prepares for a match his family fears will leave him injured. Could the two be related? After railing against his captors for a bit, the Japanese man discovers a knob in the wall, presses it and is suddenly swarmed by thousands of CGI cupids. As the cupids recede, it turns out that the knob and the now thousands just like it are in fact stylised cupid genitalia. With nothing else to do, the man presses another cupid penis, a hatch opens in an opposite wall and a random object falls out. Hundreds of presses and objects later, a door appears in a wall before disappearing again quickly. Hilarious scenes ensue, including one that gives the audience an insight into the man’s thought processes in the style of a manga (for some reason in English), as he tries to use the various objects now at his disposal to press the right penis, reach the door in time and escape. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Symbol is a very cheeky film with a great payoff, which makes the point that when it comes to what’s signified, one sign is as good as another. A definite highlight of the festival.
In Rebecca Hunt’s well-received debut novel, Mr Chartwell, the ‘black dog’ of Winston Churchill’s depression is materialised into an actual black dog, a constant companion of the retired politician in his late years, and one who may also visit other people’s lives. Below, Rebecca Hunt explains why she’d be Ferris Bueller if she were a film character.
I think I’d choose Ferris Bueller as my alter ego. It’s not that I like him much as a character – I nearly dislike him in a curious way – it’s more that I admire his impossible, effortless sense of entitlement to luck, fun and success. In his famous day off we see him relishing a day of fast cars, art, fancy restaurants, the Von Steuben Day parade, and general triumph with his friend Cameron and girlfriend Sloane. Ferris is universally adored by everyone except his furious chump of a head teacher, Rooney, and his jealous older sister, Jeanie. Both, we are certain, will never succeed in their attempts to bring about Ferris’s downfall. We are also certain that attempts to destroy Ferris will only boomerang viciously back, leading to the humiliating defeat of anyone who tries. This is because Ferris is channelling a magical invincibility.
Watching his day off, it’s obvious that this particular day isn’t exceptional; it’s just a 24-hour taster of how all Ferris’s days are and will be in the future. The film’s parade scene is probably the most bizarre example of how fortune smiles on Ferris, when he disappears for five minutes simply to appear again on a parade float. Surrounded by beautiful dancers he lip-synchs along to ‘Twist and Shout’ as people pack the streets and go haywire. Clearly, if I tried to hijack a float and mime to songs it would be a different scene… an odd, unsettling scene. Even if my own sense of embarrassment and social obedience didn’t somehow spark off and prevent me from leaping onto the float, I’m pretty sure the dancers would.
But despite the enormous differences between us, there is a little innate Ferris-type in me which I remind myself to plug into when I see this film. I appreciate his confidence that it’s not all about slavish adherence to perceived duties; that it’s not all about – or even at all about – pleasing the Rooneys and Jeanies of this world. There is merit in fun. Inevitably, being Ferris Bueller, he’s right about this.
Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt is published by Fig Tree.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews