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