Interview with Hisayasu Sato

Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the Zipangu Festival on 27 November 2010

Director: Hisayasu Satô

Screenplay: Naoko Nishida

Based on the book by: Atsuhiko Nakamura

Original title: Namae no nai onna-tachi

Cast: Hirofumi Arai, Natsumi Kamata and Ryônosuke Kawai

Japan 2010

105 mins

Hisayasu Satô is best known as one of the ‘Four Devils’ of pinku eiga, one of the four directors who rocked the Japanese soft porn industry in the 1990s with their extreme erotic films such as The Bedroom (Uwakizuma: Chijokuzeme, 1992), Love – Zero = Infinity (Iyarashii hitozuma: Nureru, 1994) and Naked Blood (Nekeddo burâddo: Megyaku, 1995). He has also made films in the non-pink industry, contributing the acclaimed ‘Caterpillar’ section to Rampo Noir (Rampo Jigoku, 2005), adapted from the work of mystery writer Edogawa Rampo.

A fictional story based on a non-fiction book about the Japanese porn industry, Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano (2010) continues to explore the themes of identity, alienation and communication that run through Satô’s work. The film focuses on a meek, bespectacled young woman, Junko, who tries to escape from an abusive mother and a dreary office job by becoming a porn actress. She constructs an alternative porn identity as the comic character Lulu and strikes an unlikely friendship with the streetwise, fiery Ayano, but soon the tension between her two lives becomes impossible to manage.

Satô attended the premiere of the film at Zipangu Fest, a new, innovative festival of Japanese cinema, and talked to Virginie Sélavy about what Lulu and Ayano reveals about the Japanese porn industry and Japanese society in general, the motivation behind his most extreme films and the influence of Kôji Wakatmatsu.

VS: Could you tell me a bit more about the book Lulu and Ayano was based on?

HS: The book is a collection of interviews with unknown porn actresses who work in the type of films where you learn on the set what you have to do that day. The interviews are about their motives, what drives them to do a job like that.

Are they actresses from AV (Adult Video, the equivalent of hard-core porn), pink film or both?

The girls interviewed in the book are strictly AV actresses, not pink actresses. There are over 100 interviews with girls working in that particular porn industry.

You said in the Q&A that followed the screening that the idea of adapting this book came from a producer, but you weren’t sure you wanted to do it at first. Why did this producer think you’d be a good person to direct the film? And what decided you to do it?

The producer started as a casting producer and Lulu and Ayano was the first film he worked on as a film producer. He became interested in working with me after seeing an old film of mine. Before we decided to do Lulu and Ayano, we were talking about doing another film together, which was a historical piece. But it was difficult to get the funding for that film, we worked on the project for two years but it didn’t work out. So the producer got the licence for the Lulu and Ayano project and he approached me and asked if we could do that one together. He showed me the book and when I read it, I thought it was tough material, they were talking about things like domestic violence and incestuous relationships. The main theme underlying the stories of the girls was the search for identity in the middle of the cruelty that they experienced in their daily lives. To exactly adapt the original book into film would have been too difficult, and it would have been hard to get funding. So I decided to take two or three girls from the book and turn them into characters, fictionalise them. My aim with the film was to show what it’s like to work in the lowest possible form of the porn industry. I didn’t want to make a film about this being a special or particular area, I really wanted to show that this is a normal problem for girls today in Japan and that the weakest members of society get affected by this social phenomenon, and I wanted to depict how they overcome this.

Did you draw on your work in the pink industry to make this film?

Of course I directed pink films and I also directed AV films until four or five years ago, films that actually included rape scenes, and the actresses I encountered on the sets were sensitive girls who were thinking about what they wanted to do in their lives. I thought it was really interesting and I wanted to focus on this in my film.

Do you think your film is a realistic description of the porn industry, not just in the depiction of the actresses, their work and the way they are treated, but also in the characters of the stalker and the scout?

Stalkers and scouts are now a social phenomenon. Porn scouts go to Shibuya, the shopping district in Tokyo and look for girls who have a void in their hearts. They look for the little wounds that will draw them into the porn industry. Stalking especially is an important phenomenon of today’s society. It’s really different from 10 years ago, with the internet it’s possible to communicate with someone you don’t really know. And I think in a way it really depicts this problem of communication, not being able to communicate with each other anymore.

This idea of communication is central to your work, together with characters who are loners or alienated from society. Do you feel Lulu and Ayano continues this theme?

Yes. I came to Tokyo when I was 18 and I personally experienced this gap between society and one’s self. Since then it has been a topic in my films and it is there again in Lulu and Ayano.

What’s interesting is that the film is clearly critical of the way the women are treated in the porn industry but at the same time there is a contrast between the bright world of porn and the dull, repressive office environment.

The office life is what Lulu’s mother wants for her and I took it as a metaphor, a symbol to depict her identity crisis and her conflict with her mother and with what society wants her to be, this nice girl working as an office lady. In a way you could almost say that when the scout approaches her it’s a positive moment; this offer to work as a porn actress seems like a ray of light because it enables her to escape from the expectations of her mother and of society.

Although the film is realistic in some ways, there is also a very stylised aspect, with a great work on colours.

I pay a lot of attention to the colours, the lighting and the set. I’m a photographer, so the look of the film is as important to me as the script and the writing. I always imagined how the film would look like. There is a colour choreography in the film. At the beginning, there are no colours, which should be taken as a metaphor for the situation of the girl at that point, and when she’s asked by the scout to become a porn actress the colours start to come in, in particular in the cosplay scene, but at the very end it returns to black and white. It reflects the inner situation of the characters and the final scene in black and white is like a restart, and it’s also supposed to be a message, a provocative question to the audience: what will happen when Lulu leaves the AV world?

It’s a very female-focused film, and you clearly have a lot of empathy for the actresses. At the same time, some scenes are filmed in a way that could be deemed titillating, for instance the scene where Lulu and Ayano throw beer at each other and take all their clothes off. What was the purpose of that scene and why did you choose to film it in that way?

Lulu and Ayano are two characters who have problems communicating with each other and with other people. I just wanted to show that through their friendship they find they share common points and this scene for me depicts the climax of their friendship. They literally strip down and connect in a way. That’s what it’s meant to be.

Compared with your earlier films, it’s not an extreme film at all, apart from maybe the splatter scene at the end.

For me, film necessarily reflects society, so it would be great to have a world without violence but as I observe it, there is a tendency towards more violence. Now maybe it’s different types, like psychological violence and inner violence, and I don’t know how my films will develop, maybe I’ll depict this inner violence. It’s interesting for me to see how society develops.

Why did you start in pink film? There have been a number of Japanese directors who were attracted to pink film as a faster way of becoming a director and because it allows a lot of freedom. Was it the same for you?

I felt a connection with pink film. Compared to Hollywood, they had very small budgets but films by, for example, Kumashiro Tatsumi, Kôji Wakamatsu and Tanaka Noboru, touched me more. So I felt I wanted to work in that area.

In what way did Wakamatsu influence you?

I wouldn’t say I was directly influenced by him but when I was younger I watched a lot of pink films and older films, including films by Wakamatsu, and I thought that they showed a way to express the repressed anger I felt towards society at the time.

Does that anger explain some of the more extreme imagery in some of the films, such as the self-cannibalistic woman in Naked Blood or the sado-masochistic experiment in Fuga Music for Alpha and Beta (Alpha to beta no fûga, 1989) or the vibrator torture in The Secret Garden (Himitsu no hanazono, 1987)?

Yes, in a way, you could say it reflects the anger I felt at the time, but the anger I express in my films is not very clear. With Wakamatsu, it’s clear that it’s the anger he feels against the political system, but what bothers me more is this invisible violence we experience every day, the individual being suppressed by the system, and this is the violence I’d like to express and which I feel angry against.

Do you feel that the more extreme films you made were connected to a particular time?

Of course society has changed, and so have I. But there was also the criticism I got from cinemas and producers who thought that there shouldn’t be so much violence in pink films. It wasn’t my aim to be so radical, but some of my younger fans always talk to me about this particular aspect, Naked Blood in particular.

In a way, some of your earlier films could be described as horror films. Would you agree?

I’m not so much into genres. Everybody said that the splatter aspect of my early films was very strong but I wasn’t really aware of that. I wasn’t thinking I was making a splatter film or a horror film. For me to show all this blood was necessary to express what I wanted to say. After I was criticised by producers there were a couple of films where I tried to find other means of expression, to find an antithesis to the violence.

In which films for instance?

Love-Zero=Infinity and Rafureshia (Sukebe tsuma: otto no rusu ni, 1995) for instance. Love-Zero=Infinity is a vampire story set in contemporary society. It was a metaphor: I wanted to show that the Japanese society of today is a society of vampires. The imperial system is the backbone of Japanese society as I see it. So the background of the film is the Shôwa era, which is when I grew up. This Shôwa era is what defines me and I wanted to reflect that in the film. I was born on August 15, 1945, when Japan lost the war. I wanted to show the political atmosphere of the era I grew up in. My life started with a prayer – to peace and war veterans – after we lost the war.

If you had the choice, would you rather make pink or non-pink film?

There is a crisis of independent cinema in general in Japan, including pink film. Cinemas are closing and the production opportunities are diminishing. If pink films are shown on TV, the violent scenes are cut. But as I want my films to be seen by as many people as possible, I try to not be so focused on pink films.

Read our report on the Zipangu Festival.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy, translation by Maria Roemer

Freeze Frames and Stasis in La jetée

La jetee

[This article contains spoilers.]

Chris Marker describes his work La jetée (1962) as a photo-roman in the opening titles. This apt form is used to tell a fragmented story of love, memory and abstracted time travel. Marker optically printed black and white photographs onto cine-film and added a narrator and sound effects for this 28-minute piece. Often mentioned, there is one fleeting moment of moving image in the film, which originated on 35mm and acts as a punctum to the still images. It is difficult to say what Marker’s film is and what it isn’t, as it is so open, but the photo-roman form allows for a very particular and illuminating relationship with the content.

The photo-roman, the photo-story, the comic strip and even the current trend for PowerPoint slide presentation uploaded to YouTube are all a way of bypassing the labour of filmmaking. All, I would say, are a convincing way to communicate a visual story. A scene can be summed up with a part of the whole and the viewer’s mind is activated and invited to form their own conclusions in the spaces between the stills. The tradition of the photo-roman dates back to the medieval period where scrolls of text or phylacteries were incorporated into religious painting. These phylacteries originate as the small rolls of Torah carried by observant Jews as aides-mémoires. The term phylactery went on to be used to indicate the speech used in graphic novels or any kind of protective amulet. In La jetée, the narrator, in the place of a phylactery, takes part in our piecing together of the stills, guiding us in their interpretation. As we engage in this film our own memory may be stirred: of war crimes; a romance; a non-linear relationship with time; the way a film image becomes entwined with our own personal traces and fundamentally our freedom to think.

‘The man’ in La jetée is a prisoner some time after the Third World War in Paris. The victors have colonised underground galleries to escape the upper world riddled with radioactivity. A group of military scientists are running experiments in their search for an emissary into the future who can return with resources to ensure the well-being of the human race. The man is haunted by a childhood memory of a woman at the end of the main jetty at Paris-Orly airport and of a man being shot as he walks to meet the woman. The scientists, judging he is of robust enough mind to visualise the past in this way believe he can endure the trauma of visualising the future. Photographs of scientists are layered with the sound of whispering in German, sometimes there is the sound of a heartbeat that is indiscernible from the sound of military marching. During the trial, the man ‘travels’ back in time to a pre-war period where he enjoys an idyllic romance with a woman he recognises as being the woman from the jetty. Their world is described as ‘dateless’ and a time of affluence. This part of the test accomplished, the scientists think he is ready to go forward in time. He does so and meets the survivors of the human race in the future, who have thrived as a result of his own mission. He returns with a source of energy for Earth and as his reward, these future citizens give him a choice of what period to live in. He chooses to return to the moment on the jetty that has haunted him. On returning, he sees the woman, but as he approaches her, it is him who is shot by one of the victorious assailants who has followed him through time.

Within the story, the man doubts whether the pictures in his mind are dreams, memories or visual derivations of stories he knows. The narrator tells us: ‘Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments.’ The narrator directs us through this photo-montage and suggestions are made as to what we are looking at, but what the viewer understands to be a memory could be a real-time event, real time could be an implant, memory could be a dream. The man is also disorientated and a strong theme of doubt emerges. Part of the man’s mental experience is a sequence of close-up images of the woman lying in bed. Stills of her face dissolve into one another and surreal, ambiguous shapes are created on the transition: an eye slips down the side of the cheek, mouths are doubled, the body is dislocated. When I look at the film on YouTube there is even more motion created from the artefacts from low-quality compression. This strange animation of the stills shifts again when the only moving shot plays out: an uncanny moment when the woman blinks. Marker sets up a conflict between the animation of the stills and the moving clip of the woman. She seems re-animated as she is released from her own stasis as a still image, but arguably she was already ‘moving’. With this interplay of still and moving image Marker throws into question the nature of the scene placed before us.

The narrative vehicle for our experience of this disorientation is also a type of stasis that the man believes himself to experience during the experiments. Marker uses the science fiction concept of stasis to both suggest that the man might be transcending his physical bounds but that he might also be simply having a range of disordered thoughts and memories. Either way, Marker refers to the motif of ‘cheating death’ that stasis invokes. Stasis allows the body to be shut down to a semi-human state where individuals can travel for long distances or durations. Often cryogenics is employed, where the body is frozen and then resuscitated unharmed. This concept can be traced back to the wild imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe. I think particularly of ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (American Whig Review, 1845) where a man at the point of death from tuberculosis is placed in a hypnotic trance by a mesmerist, who is the unnamed narrator of the ‘case’. Poe presented the story as a factual scientific experiment where Valdemar defies death and remains in this unearthly state between life and death for seven months. When released from the trance he immediately decays into a ‘liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence’.

Links can be made between Poe’s text and the photo-roman as both Marker and Poe reflect with some resolve that death cannot be outdone. In Marker’s piece, death is also linked with the authority of the scientists. Both impose metaphysical and political limits, the epitome of this in La jetée being the restrictions on the man’s romance with the woman. He can visit her, he is ‘her ghost’, but he is always pulled back. Marker suggests there is always a greater power watching over our being; within the narrative of the film this is the apocalyptic victors. Indeed, the film reflects on the subjugation of the individual to superstructures, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the film was made in the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the height of the Cold War. When the man is killed off by one of the underground servicemen, the grandiose testing of his mortality comes to an abrupt halt. The cyclic scene of the man’s death, that always followed him, suggests that his life was always at risk.

In many ways stasis, a concept that allows for such ideal concepts of mental wanderings through time, is revealed in science fiction film to be colonised and controlled by bureaucracy. The dilemma, typical to the genre, of freedom of the imagination versus the institutions and structures that aim to limit our minds is taken on by Marker in La jetée. This dynamic resonates in both the content of the film and in its form. The photo-roman form, however, breathes air into these themes of restriction. Marker trusts in the viewer’s capacity to fill in the gaps between the still images, and to me this is the work’s overarching power. While commenting on the possibility for mind control, ultimately, La jetée offers an alternative.

Nicola Woodham

Zipangu Fest 2010: Review


Zipangu Fest

23-28 November 2010

London and Bristol

Zipangu Fest website

Zipangu Fest was created by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp to challenge yakuza-and-Godzilla clichés about Nippon cinema and with a programme that encompassed 60s experimental cinema, horror underground animation, new and old features as well as documentaries about subjects ranging from a mysterious porn actress to graffiti and Japanese rock, the inaugural edition of the festival easily succeeded. One of the best things about the festival was that, unlike so many bigger festivals, it wasn’t just a more or less random programme of recent feature films, but many of the screenings were carefully curated events around a theme or a specific type of film. This curatorial attention and the impressive knowledge Sharp and his team have of little-known, fascinating areas of Japanese cinema made the festival a very special and hugely enjoyable event, despite some technical problems.

Sarah Cronin, Virginie Sélavy, Tom Mes, Helen Mullane and Pamela Jahn report on the programme and feature highlights of the festival.

Zipangu Fest Opening Night

I fell in love with PyuuPiru. It was a cold November night in London’s Brick Lane, and I was huddled up on a leather sofa in Café 1001 for the opening of Zipangu Fest. The event promised to be an evening full of fascinating, unknown films, and the programme easily exceeded expectations.

Before my introduction to PyuuPiru 2001-2008 (2009), there was Suridh Hassan’s RackGaki (2008), a visually arresting film devoted to Japanese graffiti. Made by London’s SRK Studios, it uses time-lapse photography and a trip-hop soundtrack to totally immerse the viewer in Japan’s street scene. The audience was also treated to a selection of shorts, involving a house party filled with weird and wonderful creatures in Dotera Asayama’s PsychoMediaParty (2007); a hideous, red claymation creature hunting down a poor little girl in Takena Nagao’s Bloody Night (2006); a boy who is visited by a carp in Taijin Takeuchi’s 2010 A Song Like a Fish (I recommend watching his terrific stop-animation short A Wolf Loves Pork on YouTube); and a samurai film made in Tunbridge Wells, Taichi Kimura’s Spiral (2010).

But the night’s highlight was PyuuPiru, an irresistible, moving portrait of a unique and eccentric artist whose personality is deeply intertwined with his art, directed by friend and collaborator Daishi Matsunaga. Matsunaga and PyuuPiru met when the future artist was making his own flamboyant outfits for the club scene, and this superb documentary charts his artistic and psychological evolution. The film perfectly captures PyuuPiru’s creative process – a dress-like cone made of thousands of paper cranes is incredible – but the documentary also captures a physical and mental transformation. Uncomfortable living as a man, PyuuPiru starts hormone therapy, eventually taking ever-more drastic steps to turn himself into a woman after falling in love with a straight man, until plastic surgery becomes a part of his art and personality. Despite the pain he puts himself through, he remains a generous, warm-hearted and incredibly charismatic artist. Daishi’s film is a work-in-progress, and it will be fascinating to see what direction he and PyuuPiru take next. Sarah Cronin

Nippon Year Zero

The previous night, as a pre-opening night warm-up event, Zipangu had presented a programme of 60s experimental Japanese cinema in collaboration with Close-Up at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Transformed into a makeshift cinema with a projector whirring at the back of the room, it was the perfect setting for an evocation of a turbulent, volatile time of political unrest and intense creativity. The selection of films by Donald Richie, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masanori Oe was meant to establish a dialogue between Japan and the USA, with Richie providing an American viewpoint on Japan, and Oe articulating a Japanese perception of American society. The differences between the films were not merely down to nationality, but also style: Richie’s poetic, meditative filmmaking was contrasted with the frantic editing, experimental use of sound and image, and sensory overload of Jonouchi and Oe’s films.

In War Games (1962), Richie wordlessly follows the actions of a group of small Japanese boys who find a goat, crafting a visual tale of cruelty and innocence framed by the eternal ebb and flow of the ocean. Opening with a quote from a poem by Mutsuro Takahashi, Dead Youth (1967) was a homoerotic cine-poem set in a Japanese cemetery, in which Richie’s almost tactile filmmaking, with its focus on physical textures – skin, fur, hair, sand – was developed in a more sexual manner.

This was followed by Jonouchi’s chaotic, kinetic Shinjuku Station (1974), which evoked the district at the centre of Tokyo’s art scene and political rebellion through a fast, shaky montage of various images of the area – the station, protests, the police, etc – accompanied by the filmmaker reciting sound poetry. Later, this frenzy of tumultuous images and sounds gives way to longer shots of nature before the screen goes black and the film ends with a long, purely musical section. In Gewaltopia Trailer (1978), Jonouchi juxtaposes images of mushroom clouds, children running, Hitler, a political rally and student demonstrations with scenes from King Kong and Nosferatu, and images of words (in Japanese) inscribed on parts of an actor’s naked body. The remarkable soundtrack mixes voices talking and moaning with drones, rattling noises and blowing wind, creating an oppressive, unnerving, sinister atmosphere that connects and unites the images.

The last film on the bill, Oe’s Great Society (1967), was an ambitious split-screen piece that investigated American society through six simultaneous strands of images. News footage showing the Kennedy assassination, civil rights demonstrations, Ku Klux Klan members, fast cars, American sports, festivals, a rocket launch, Vietnam and mushroom clouds, among other things, was compiled to a soundtrack of iconic 60s musicians including The Byrds, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane. The six screens interacted and contrasted with one another, sometimes forming a united picture, sometimes divergent ones, with some of the screens at times left blank, creating a complex, contradictory and dynamic picture of the USA in that crucial decade. Virginie Sélavy

Live Tape

Live Tape ‘Live’ Night

Zipangu’s rock night on November 25 presented two music-themed documentaries and a live performance at Brick Lane’s Café 1001. Rock Tanjo (‘The birth of rock’) sounded promising: a chronicle of the birth and growth of ‘New Rock’ – a wave of Japanese bands heavily inspired by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, which in the early 1970s replaced the previous generation of Beatles-influenced ‘Group Sound’ combos.

The vanguard of this movement was formed by the Flower Traveling Band, whose heavy, psychedelic magnum opus Satori a few years ago formed the soundtrack of Takashi Miike’s Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. (Recently released on DVD in the UK by Arrow, Rekka also features the band’s founder/mentor and its singer, Yuya Uchida and Joe Yamanaka, in supporting roles.)

Great bands and a fascinating musical scene unfortunately never get their due in Rock Tanjo, a plodding documentary whose interview/performance format soon grows repetitive, due to a lack of narrative or dramatic build-up and songs that are rarely among the bands’ best work.

Vastly more successful was the evening’s second film, Tetsuaki Matsue’s Live Tape, which already gathered praise both at home and at festivals abroad (Nippon Digital award at Frankfurt’s Nippon Connection festival last April). In a single, uninterrupted 90-minute take, it follows tousle-haired busker Kenta Maeno as he strums his way through the crowded streets of Tokyo’s Kichijoji suburb on New Year’s Day. As Maeno belts out his repertoire, the interplay between subject and director lends the film first a great sense of tension and eventually a touching personal and emotional core.

Just as Live Tape culminates in a full-band performance at a park bandstand, the evening at the 1001 climaxed with the interruption of Kenta Maeno and Chinese harpist Yuki Yoshida, in mid-performance after having replayed the Live Tape set-up in Brick Lane. Like a certain rat-catcher, Maeno drew additional crowds off the street and into the café, where he continued with an amplified set of the most memorable songs from the film. Tom Mes

Ero Guro Mash Up Night

This selection of grotesque, supernatural or horror-inflected animated films from underground filmmakers Naoyuki Niiya and Hiroshi Harada offered an insight into a strand of Japanese animation that is rarely seen on Western screens. Niiya’s Metempsychosis (Squid Festival, 1993), plunged us into an underground universe of darkness, interspersed with the lights of a mysterious celebration, possibly the squid festival of the alternate title. Next came Niiya’s Man-Eater Mountain (2008), which used paper theatre to tell a gruesome folk tale. Serial killer Tashiro is taken to the mountains to find the bodies of his victims, but soon the police inspectors and their guide face the demons of the mountain. The beautifully atmospheric black-and-white drawings emphasised the nightmarish, Bosch-like horror of blood-sucking trees, impaled animals, bodies torn apart or eaten by demons. Closing the programme, Harada’s Midori: The Girl in the Freak Show (1992) is a 52-minute film following the misadventures of a young girl who is sold to a travelling circus and mistreated by its freak performers. Violent and disturbing, elaborate both in the cruelty of the story and the beauty of the images, it was a memorable ending to the evening.

Another Harada short, The Death Lullaby (1995), screened before NN-891102 (see review below). The tale of a boy bullied for his protruding teeth, it was an abrasive and powerful film. Set in Narita, showing the destruction of the old city to make room for the airport, The Death Lullaby suggests a parallel between the abuse of the boy and the abuse of the Japanese people by the government. Persecution, despair and violence lead to total destruction, but the boy’s revenge is followed by an apparent reversal of the devastation of Narita. Virginie Sélavy


Jasper Sharp is the author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema and his knowledge of pink film was reflected in the choice of the feature films selected for the festival, among which was ‘Four Devil’ Hisayasu Satô’s latest, Love and Loathing and Lulu and Anayo, which focuses on a shy office clerk who becomes a porn actress, as well as a documentary on porn actress Annyong Yumika.

Annyong Yumika

Hayashi Yumika is a name well known to those who frequent a certain type of cinema in Japan. The Tokyo native was a prolific actress in the country’s pink and AV movie industries (equivalent to soft and hardcore porn), most famous for her role in the critically acclaimed Lunchbox, and the star of 400 other films. She died in 2005, the night of her 35th birthday celebration.

Tetsuaki Matsue’s moving and humorous documentary is clearly a labour of love, as the director journeys to unravel the mystery of Junko: The Story of a Tokyo Housewife, an obscure video and one of the earliest examples of a Korean/Japanese pornographic co-production in existence, starring Yumika. The film is amusingly inept with some pretty painful acting – so far so cheap porn, but the mystery stands: what on earth is one of Japan’s premier porno actresses doing in this film?

The question is tackled through interviews with Yumika’s former lovers and colleagues, and is handled with a light hand. Annyong Yumika never takes itself too seriously, but also never treats its subject with anything but respect and reverence. Matsuo’s low-fi, scrapbook style contains quirks that are at times jarring, but ultimately complements the film’s intimate feel. By the end of the documentary you are left with the feeling that even those closest to Yumika couldn’t unravel the mystery of this enigmatic woman, who remains intriguingly elusive to the end. Helen Mullane


‘I want to become a sound particle in the explosion,’ says the troubled central character of Go Shibata’s NN-891102 (1999), one of the two retrospective screenings in the festival. Having survived the bombing of Nagasaki – on 9 August 1945 at 11:02am – as a child, he becomes obsessed with recreating the sound of the explosion. We follow his efforts throughout his life, from early attempts to his ground-breaking experiments as a sound engineer. Dark and enigmatic, beautifully shot in high contrast and with a remarkable soundtrack mixing noise and music, NN-891102 builds a fragmentary, evocative, complex picture of unspeakable trauma and grief. Virginie Sélavy

Confessions of a Dog

The festival closed on a high note with Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog, in which a simple, honest beat cop wins the confidence of the Head of the Criminal Investigative Department and works his way up, finding out as he does how corrupted the system is. Too committed to his job to reject an order, Takeda (Shun Sugata) soon sees himself embroiled in the daily transgressions of the force, from seedy back room dealings to blackmail and brutal violence, which not only jeopardise his life but also cause him to become increasingly detached from his wife and daughter.

Although ticking in at a bum-numbing 195 minutes, the film’s length implicitly adds to its gripping intensity, allowing the viewer to become fully immersed in the correlations between crime, police corruption and the complicit media. Confessions of a Dog thrives on its deft pacing as much as on the towering lead performance given by Shun Sugata, who is increasingly unnerving as Takeda becomes trapped in the dirty business that goes all the way to the top of the force. It’s a mesmerising psychological ride that builds up to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as the broken Takeda has to face the consequences of his actions.

The fact that Takahashi has dared to tackle such a controversial subject and has turned it into one of the finest and most devastating films about the everyday politics of corruption has unfortunately led to the film being only marginally released in Japan. But Confessions of a Dog is a film that deserves to be seen widely, and thanks to Third Window Films it will be released on DVD in the UK in March 2011. Pamela Jahn

Aston Gorilla

Aston Gorilla

An odd and frightening apparition, with the body of a football fan and the face of a gorilla, steps out of the shadows and into a young boy’s waking nightmare. The beast then starts to dance. Frenetically jerking from sharp elbows into monkey looseness and aggression, it’s a jumble of hooligan poses and simian swings. Partly comic, technically brilliant and distinctly creepy, Tom Browne’s short film Aston Gorilla may resolve in a place of sanctuary, where men can protect their children from the world, but the aftertaste is still discomfiting.

The film has already found acclaim at the 2010 edition of moves, a Liverpool-based film festival that fuses dance film with experimental moving image, screening as part of their Alternative Routes tour. But while the skillful choreography could see the film win fans on the screen dance circuit, the fictional elements and flashes of horror are also akin to the likes of filmmaker Robert Morgan and should find an audience at short film festivals interested in a more experimental approach to storytelling. It’s certainly unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.

Filmmaker Tom Browne has mined dark territory before. His previous short Spunkbubble featured a grotesque mélange of violence and sexual brutality. Starring Aiden Gillen as a man whose encounter with hotel pornography is cruelly interrupted, it features a vengeful duo searching for La Freaque, a supernatural figure whose sexual magnetism leads men to lose their minds. A deeply uncomfortable watch, it marked Browne as a bold voice, with clear stylistic confidence, a strong crew of collaborators and a penchant for extremity.

In person he is disarmingly unguarded and frank about his ideas and increasing personal focus on filmmaking. The first striking thing about the process of production for Aston Gorilla is the velocity of its inception. It seems that a common thread in Browne’s films is the speed at which they are thrown together. ‘I hadn’t really imagined anything beyond making it,’ Browne starts. ‘The way it came about was very quick. The camera man from Spunkbubble called me up at short notice to say that he had the use of a Canon 5D for a weekend, and did I want to shoot something? I said yes without thinking what it might be. That night I went to see a dance performance from the Hofesh Shechter Company in Brighton. As I was coming back on the train I had the idea for Aston Gorilla. I literally thought you could do it like that. It would be very easy to make. I got hold of a hall very quickly, and we just shot it in a day.’

As to inspiration, the jumble of elements seems to be another hallmark. Browne explains, ‘I think you always know you’re on to a good thing when lots of disparate things in your head come together. That was one of my son George’s favourite jokes: “What team does King Kong support?” “Aston Gorilla”. And my brother-in-law supports Aston Villa so we had a team top. Then in the programme from that evening of dance was a picture of Hofesh in a gorilla mask. Further feeding into the mix, George was having terrible nightmares at that stage. So I was thinking about his nightmares and about how you see your father sometimes, as very strong but also very weak. All those things together in one. That was its genesis.’

The father/son dynamic is amplified by the fact that George stars as the son in the film. It’s a trick Browne’s repeating with his youngest, in a new film shot in Kew Gardens that has a similar punchline-driven narrative, regarding a slug that gets mugged by some snails. ‘Shooting People just held this competition where, if your treatment was selected, you got to shoot in Kew Gardens, which is a wonderful botanical garden. I had this joke in my head that I always thought would be good for a father to tell a son. It’s a sort of shaggy dog story, but the punchline is his mum saying, “Oh my darling, did you see what any of them looked like?” And he says, “No, it all happened so fast”.’

As well as making films Browne earns a living as an actor under the name Thomas Fisher, and has appeared in films such as The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing and Shanghai Knights. He has also collaborated in more experimental territory with director Ben Hopkins, notably on The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, which he both acted in and co-wrote. It was an experience that involved some deep research for a character who was addicted to alcopops.

They seem to have completely gone from life now, Browne muses. ‘I found our tasting notes the other day. There was one called Strobe, which was really ferocious. It had a skull and crossbones on it and I think it was just sugar and caffeine and alcohol. You could get white, red and blue, but I can’t remember what they called the flavours. Then there was one called Barking Frog, and that was also extreme. They’re basically like Special Brew with caffeine, and even stronger alcohol. After a night of that you were completely in a terrible sugar-rush headache. You felt awful.’

This seems to illustrate Browne’s organic approach to collaboration and the drawing together of haphazard influences. ‘We didn’t watch a lot of films,’ Browne explains. ‘Ben’s seen more films than anyone I know. But we didn’t sit around watching films saying, “it should be like this, or it should be like this”. We did a lot of other stuff, which was only vaguely related to what might happen. I’m very bad at drawing things together in my head without the need to. So I don’t quite know what my inspirations are until they suddenly appear.’

For his next film, Browne is aiming at something technically complex: ‘It will be six minutes long and the camera will travel 360 degrees in 360 seconds.’ Meanwhile, Fisher can be seen in Jamie Thraves’s new feature Treacle Jr, which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October.

Kate Taylor

Watch Aston Gorilla:

Aston Gorilla from hangman on Vimeo.

Cine-City 2010

Film Is a Girl and a Gun

Cine-City 2010: The Brighton Film Festival

18 November – 5 December 2010, Brighton, UK

Cine-City website

Neil Mitchell reports on Cine-City 2010.

Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du mal)

Flowers of Evil (2010), the debut of director and co-writer David Dusa, is a vibrant contemporary take on a boy-meets-girl narrative, blending fact and fiction in a touching love story with political, social and cultural overtones. Taking the 2009 Iranian election protests as its catalyst, Flowers of Evil sees a young Iranian, Anahita (Alice Belaïdi), sent to Paris by her parents to avoid the trouble engulfing her homeland. A troubled, tender and emotionally charged romance blossoms with hotel porter Rachid (Rachid Yousef), a free-spirited dancer who posts videos online under the alias ‘Gecko’. With Anahita checking YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for updates on the violence affecting her family and friends, Dosa’s film adroitly highlights how the power of the internet can both foster a sense of community and conversely allow for a passive abdication of responsibility.

Actual footage, mobile and video shots, hand-held camerawork and onscreen titles give Dosa’s film a docu-realism immediacy. The soundtrack, blending traditional Arabic music and European dance tunes with the recurring use of John Cage’s piano piece A Room, adds to the eclectic, fragmented nature of the film. Flowers of Evil is a timely, engaging and intelligent dissection of democracy, free speech and dispossession.


Former Magazine and Bad Seeds bass player Barry Adamson, who devoted his solo career to creating ‘soundtracks to imaginary films’ incorporating noir-ish jazz, ominous electronica and big band tunes, has finally made a foray into the world of filmmaking. With numerous soundtrack credits to his name, most notably for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), it’s no surprise that Adamson’s film is cine-literate, dark and artistically, as opposed to commercially, driven.

A dual narrative unfolds as a Polish woman, Monika (Iza Sawicka), searches for her twin sister while budding filmmaker Bigger (Ray Fearon), working on a script about disturbed twins, pays a confrontational and potentially deadly trip to his therapist (David Hayman). Are these separate events or are the two somehow mysteriously connected?

The overtly Lynchian and Hitchcockian narrative, with worlds within worlds, murderous intentions, dangerous blondes and nightmarish flashbacks, creates a disorienting atmosphere where reality and fantasy bleed into one another. The film is technically proficient and displays Adamson’s obvious love for cinema, but unfortunately Therapist (2010) is pastiche rather than homage. A predilection for audio trickery and a reliance on visual symbolism cannot mask a paucity of original ideas. If Adamson is to seriously consider filmmaking as the next step in his long career then his own identity will have to be stamped onto future projects.

Film is a Girl & a Gun (Film ist a Girl & a Gun)

Taking its title from the quote attributed to both Jean-Luc Godard and D.W. Griffith, that ‘all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’, artist and filmmaker Gustav Deutsch’s latest found footage project is a remarkable collage of archive material and film clips assembled to form an exploration of history, memory, war and the ongoing battle of the sexes. The clips, taken from the silent era through to the 1940s, range from Victorian-era pornography, documentary and nature footage and fictional excerpts lifted from melodramas and comedy films, and are given new life and new context in Deutsch’s hands.

The film is structured in the shape of a Greek drama, with five distinct sections (Genesis, Paradisio, Eros, Thanatos and Symposion). A virtually wordless piece with a breathtaking score, taking in classical, minimalist and industrial music as well as hypnotic chanting and a cappella choir works, Film is a Girl & a Gun captivates and inspires with its experimental form and the inquisitive nature of its director. The effect is akin to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), in a fascinating ‘video essay’ that muses on the nature of birth/rebirth, femininity/masculinity, sex, violence and death.


Welsh director Marc Evans, whose eclectic output has taken in the horror film My Little Eye (2002), the crime thriller Resurrection Man (1998) and the romantic drama Snow Cake (2006), turns to the road movie genre for his latest film, Patagonia (2010). Coriat and Evans’s screenplay concerns two journeys, made independently of each other, whose parallel narratives converge to address issues surrounding history, memory and belonging as the characters face a combination of emotional trauma, failing health, crises of responsibility and oncoming maturity.

A romantically attached couple, Rhys (Matthew Gravelle) and Gwen (Nia Roberts), head to the panoramic plains and Welsh-speaking enclave of Patagonia, Argentina, while the elderly Cerys (Marta Lubos) and her neighbour’s teenage son Alejandro (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) head in the opposite direction to the green and rainy valleys of Wales. As one couple face a disintegrating relationship in the heat and distractions of unfamiliar territory the other, faced with similarly disorientating surroundings, gain succour, understanding and companionship. The striking, and strikingly different, landscapes complement the distinct narrative strands, while the film overall is touching, often very funny, and richly imbued with a sense of the dynamics of human relationships when placed under duress.

Neil Mitchell

The Shining’s hauntological score

The Shining

‘You are the caretaker, you have always been the caretaker.’

Very little of the score Stanley Kubrick commissioned Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind to compose for The Shining made it into the final cut. Instead, Kubrick returned to the Eastern European modern classical music that had transformed our expectations of the sound of outer space in his earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey, namely that of György Ligeti, and in addition, perhaps even more importantly, Krzysztof Penderecki. The resulting sonic landscape of the Overlook Hotel – the 1930s popular songs of Al Bowlly soaked in reverb as they echo and refract around the hotel corridors, the rumbling whistling drones and spectral harmonics of Penderecki and Ligeti, and the few remaining snatches of Carlos’s electronics and Elkind’s ghostly layered vocals – became representative of a certain trend in recent music that critic Simon Reynolds and theorist Mark Fisher have labelled ‘hauntological’.

The term, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993), refers to the ambiguous ontology of ghosts, an absent presence of half-buried traces, familiar fragments made strange by their post-historical (lack of) evocations. Among those artists labelled ‘hauntological’, along with Philip Jeck, The Focus Group and Ariel Pink, we find The Caretaker, a project by James ‘V/Vm’ Kirby specifically inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in Kubrick’s film.

Most previous discussion surrounding sonic hauntologies have tended to focus on just two elements of The Shining‘s music: the ballroom ballads of Al Bowlly and the analogue electronics of Wendy Carlos. What is less often remarked upon is the use of Penderecki’s music in the film’s dénouement, when Jack Torrance is chasing his son Danny round the snow-caked maze.

According to music editor Gordon Stainforth, while filming this scene Kubrick played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the cast and crew through a little portable cassette player. However, there is little evidence that Kubrick ever intended this to remain in the final cut, and, though Stravinsky’s ballet score may well have given those on set the requisite sense of violet energy, it is unlikely the scene would have been so chillingly effective had this music stayed to the final cut. In fact, the final choice of music for this scene appears to be one of the few moments in the film where Kubrick directly insisted on the specific works used, rather than leaving the individual choices – out of a wide selection made previously by the director – down to Stainforth, as happened for most of the rest of the picture.

The scene actually layers several different tracks of music on top of one another, all of which, however, are taken from the second half of Penderecki’s Utrenja (1969-71). The piece is scored for strings, percussion and choir, and the composer has compared the orchestral effects used to the kind of sonorities associated with electronic music. The text, taken from the Orthodox Christian liturgy, is concerned with the resurrection of Christ.

One could easily make too much of the Christian symbolism in The Shining – the Faustian pact Torrance makes with the hotel when he offers his ‘good damn soul’ for a drink; the suggestion, at the end, that he may be the resurrection of a man in a photograph from 1921 who shares his face. What is significant, though, is that the action of the film ends with a piece of music – whose uncanny effects are produced by stretching the technique of ‘natural’ acoustic instruments until they sound electronic and inhuman – which reminds us that Christianity is essentially a religion of the undead rising from the grave; a religion of ghosts.

Robert Barry

The Big Chill


The winter season provides American independent cinema with the ideal backdrop for explorations of characters that catch a chill no matter how many layers they wear to wrap up warm. As the languid summers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Jonathon Levine’s The Wackness (2008) are replaced by the biting winters of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing (2005) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), the underlying tone of American independent cinema conforms to the chilly climate suggested by the consistently snow-covered aesthetic; whether these films concern the fractured families of Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) and Green’s Snow Angels (2007) or the self-destructive police officer of Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998), they all feature characters who are, to some extent, frozen in terms of their emotional stance towards the people and the world around them. When the seasonal shift is filtered through the lens of American independent cinema, affluent suburbs, small towns and trailer parks prove to be icy environments inhabited by individuals who are prone to a severe case of the winter blues for a variety of reasons; however, all attempts at hibernation prove futile, especially when confronted with familial dysfunction, personal obsession or economic desperation.

American families have frequently found themselves in the cinematic deep freeze. The Ice Storm takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban sanctuary circa 1973; two neighbouring families – the Carvers and the Hoods – struggle to reconcile the tumultuous social-political climate of the period with their comparatively comfortable existence. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) has embarked on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while their children are engaging in alcohol-fuelled sexual experimentation. Ben’s daughter Wendy is less interested in improving her relationship with her father than she is in sowing the seeds of punk, ‘thanking’ the Lord for ‘letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed’ when saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. While the Hoods and the Carvers seem to be heading for a nuclear meltdown, their fundamental failings are instead crystalised by the titular ice storm that assists with their suburb’s natural progression from emotional stagnation to still life. After encountering tragedy, Ben weeps uncontrollably, but the Hood family has grown apart to such an extent that this outpouring is clearly just the beginning of a long thaw.

The holiday season also serves to emphasise the deeply rooted differences of the dysfunctional family of The Myth of Fingerprints; Hal and Lena (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) live in an old house in New England; their four children visit for the obligatory Thanksgiving celebrations, but bring a lot of emotional baggage. Mia (Julianne Moore) is a gallery receptionist with artistic ambitions who is prone to making cynical statements due to professional frustration and sibling rivalry with her tomboyish sister Leigh (Laurel Holloman), while Warren (Noah Wyle) is brooding over a lost love and Jake (Michael Vartan) arrives with his overly passionate girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). Although a family secret is revealed and a few long-standing resentments are discussed over the dinner table, relationships within the household remain as frosty as the surface of the nearby lake.

If the detached manner of Ben Hood or Hal makes them less than ideal father figures, the tough-love attitude of Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction is as harsh as the New Hampshire winter during which the film takes place. Affliction focuses on Glen’s son Wade (Nick Nolte), a policeman whose increasingly obsessive investigation of an apparent hunting accident is influenced by his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father, his difficult dealings with his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and daughter, and the recent death of his mother from hypothermia. While the stonily silent Hal is defined by his relative absence, Glen is notable for his sheer presence, which reaches its peak in volcanic fits of anger. Recognising his own potential for such rage, Wade keeps his true feelings towards his father, ex-wife and fellow police officers on ice, until the combination of the professional fallout from his botched murder investigation and a particularly nasty case of toothache provoke his inner demons.

The father-daughter dynamic of Winter Passing is equally chilly, if ultimately less combustible; Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress living in New York City, is approached by a publishing agent who offers her $100,000 if she can provide a series of letters written by her father and late mother, both famous writers. Returning home as the autumn leaves are falling, Reese discovers that her father Don (Ed Harris) has taken in two houseguests – Christian musician Corbit (Will Ferrell) and literature student Shelly (Amelia Warner) – and moved into the garage. Don, Corbit and Shelly have formed a makeshift family unit as a means of collectively dealing with individual pain, but Reese initially refuses to respect their fragile yet functional arrangement; she behaves coolly towards Shelly and responds to Corbit’s rejection of her sexual advances in a condescending manner, although she warms up a little after reading the letters exchanged between her mother and father. Winter Passing frames grief as a season that will eventually change, with the characters seeking solace in artistic pursuits, heavy sweaters and warm food.

While the families of The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints and Winter Passing are able to deal with their differences amid environments of material comfort, the protagonists of Snow Angels and Frozen River exist at the other end of the social-economic spectrum. Indeed, the cold, grey skies of both films feel perpetual rather than seasonal as the wintery landscapes lend a fatalistic pall to their respective proceedings. The nondescript small town community depicted in Snow Angels is as close-knit as it is uncommunicative, with events revolving around the estranged couple of Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie works as waitress and is having an affair with the husband of one of her co-workers, while Glenn is an alcoholic who is aiming to stay on the wagon with the assistance of religion. Glenn is trying to prove to Annie that he has achieved sufficient balance in order to see more of their daughter Tara, but an accident that echoes the tragedy in The Ice Storm sends him on a misguided path for ‘redemption’.

Frozen River is more thriller than drama but, as with Affliction, it deals with someone who keeps emotion in check as a means of getting through the day; Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to raise two sons when she discovers that her compulsive gambler husband has disappeared with the funds she had saved to purchase a mobile home. To make the payment, Ray begins trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States with the assistance of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlour employee. Ray’s crossing of the frozen St Lawrence River serves as both a suspenseful narrative device and a metaphor for the impenetrable exterior she develops to deal with her financial difficulties, but she is unable to maintain the façade of a tough trafficker; after smuggling across a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila backtrack to rescue a discarded duffle-bag when they realise that it contains a baby rather than bombs, and Ray ultimately surrenders to the police to prevent Lila from being excommunicated by the Indian community.

Of course, the frozen emotions of American independent cinema are not exclusive to films that take place at the time of year when the days are short and the nights are long; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) all deal with characters who struggle to relate to one another and bypass emotional engagement in favour of passive-aggressive exchanges or intellectual reference points, displaying a calculated coldness regardless of whether the temperature has them wandering around in a T-shirt or an overcoat. However, the aesthetic potential of the winter season has enabled certain filmmakers to fully embrace the poetic potential of their material by placing protagonists in physical landscapes that are every bit as glacial as their personalities; the climax of The Ice Storm shows a Connecticut suburban that is completely frozen over due to a sudden burst of bad weather, a truly cinematic sequence that speaks volumes about the vacuum that its characters are inhabiting without resorting to vehement verbal sparring. The best examples of this sporadic sub-genre – The Ice Storm, Affliction and Snow Angels – are as visually beautiful as they are thematically bleak, painterly portraits of people whose emotional moods are so in synch with the season that they may actually resent the arrival spring.

John Berra

Attack of the Frozen Things!

The Thing

In the Paul Auster-scripted film Smoke (1995), William Hurt recounts an anecdote about an alpine skier who is caught in an avalanche and lost, presumed dead. His son grows up and he also becomes a skier and one day, while out skiing, he finds a body frozen in the ice. At first he thinks he is looking into a mirror but then he realises he is seeing his father’s body, his father who is now a younger man than he is. The frozen parent has the power of a parable, illustrating the curious paradox of our travelling through time and outliving that which came before. What is disconcerting in the story is the fact that the father has stopped time travelling and so allowed his son to overtake him.

The uncanny nature of the frozen is a commonplace in science fiction. As in Auster’s story, the frozen is never genuinely dead so much as stopped/suspended. In H.P. Lovecraft’s novella from 1936, At the Mountains of Madness, an expedition to the Antarctic uncovers the remains of a prehistoric race of monstrous life forms, the Elder Things. One of the recovered specimens comes alive and wreaks havoc. The horror plays on the anxiety caused by the theory of evolution. Older civilisations have ruled the earth and will rule again. Humans are just a temporarily dominant species without a permanent foothold and with no particular claim, or purpose. It was partly to direct the film version of the Lovecraft story that Guillermo del Toro eventually passed on The Hobbit (announced for 2012). Lovecraft has had an unhappy relationship with the cinema. Mined by Roger Corman once Edgar Allan Poe had run dry, or schlocked up by Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon for films like Re-Animator (1985), perhaps he will receive a more serious approach from del Toro. Although how exactly del Toro will render the ten-foot-tall blind penguins that inhabit the underground city without veering into camp remains to be seen.

For Lovecraft, the frozen represents an ancient other, an attack of the old on the young. To add to the sense that we are doomed comes the additional horror of realising it was ever so; our destruction was simply waiting for us to uncover it. This idea is borrowed in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) remake, which somewhat implausibly insists that the alien machines were already buried, frozen, thousands of years ago, ready only to be activated and piloted at the moment of invasion.

As in Lovecraft’s story, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is also set in Antarctica and features a scientific expedition going badly wrong. Campbell’s story is an extreme exercise in group psychology. The isolation of the setting and the hostility of the environment ramps up the tension, as a shape-changing alien frozen in the ice hundreds of thousands of years earlier is defrosted and comes to life. The ancient and alien other for Lovecraft represented a blow to humanity’s ignorant self-importance, but the Thing challenges the very notions of identity and the integrity of the self. The men discuss their predicament with clarity. If the Thing copies you perfectly, including your thoughts and prayers, your memory and your knowledge, how would it be different from you, the men ask. Would you even know you had been copied?

Ostensibly an adaptation of Campbell’s novella, Howard Hawks’s The Thing from another World (1951) jettisons much of this discussion and reduces the angst-ridden paranoia with a far safer and more straightforward fear of the other. The Thing is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster, unchanging, safely malignant and freshly alien (he’s just crash-landed the night before). Partaking of a post-Hiroshima distrust of science, the mad (or at least deluded) scientist is seen as being as much of a threat as the creature he seeks wrong-headedly to protect. Rather than the full-throated anxiety and cannibalistic madness of the original story, Hawks’s Americans are a can-do citizen army of practical solutions, replete with a quick-fire banter lifted straight from the screwball tradition exemplified by Hawks’s own His Girl Friday (1940). There is a racy romance in the offing and the beanpole journalist says ‘Holy cat!’ far too often. Even the way the alien is defrosted is framed like a joke: an electric blanket is mistakenly left on the block of ice containing the alien. The nascent Cold War allows for no internal divisions and Hawks’s army are a loose and relaxed set of chums, with the exception of the scientific party, but even there the scientist is conveniently dispatched by the monster. The captain himself is the opposite of Campbell’s anguished Garry and is content to follow the best ideas of his men rather than ordering and inspiring (or indeed leading) himself.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a far more faithful rendering of the original story, restoring the paranoia, the mutating alien and the names of the characters from Campbell’s version. There are no quipping girlfriends. The captain is despised, the men are all dysfunctional and get on each other’s nerves before the intrusion of the other even takes place. The Thing is now once more the ancient Lovecraftian creature, frozen in ice for thousands of years. Its indeterminacy is, as one of the characters points out, a possible result of its history. It has adapted to so many forms on so many planets that we never see it as itself. Even in its monstrous manifestations it could simply be replaying a copied enemy, complete with tentacles and jaws, claws and what not. Rather than the ‘intellectual carrot’ of Hawks’s version or the blue-skinned three-eyed monster of Campbell’s, we never see the creature actually frozen in the ice. Carpenter’s film is preceded by the attack and massacre of the Norwegian base. The Thing we first see is a dog. Its original history as a frozen artefact is discovered after the fact by MacReady (Kurt Russell) when he discovers a sarcophagus of ice at the deserted Norwegian base.

Whereas the ending of Hawks’s film issues a call for vigilance which is essentially optimistic, leaving the characters and the audience forewarned and steeled to any coming conflict, Carpenter poses a hopeless and paranoid dilemma. Is MacReady or Childs the Thing? Or are they both? Or are neither of them (this obviously being the least satisfying)? Thankfully the projected sequel to Carpenter’s film has never been made, although a prequel (relating what happened to the Norwegians) is currently in post-production. The only happy ending we can imagine for the Carpenter film is that they both die without further contact with other people, thus averting an apocalypse. Of course, given that the creature has already survived freezing and given the nature of the frozen generally in science fiction films, it is more than likely that the creature has already won.

As the most famous frozen dad of film, Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), reminds us, for something that is frozen it is only a matter of time.

John Bleasdale

A Serbian Film: Interview with Srdjan Spasojevic

A Serbian Film

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 December 2010

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Venues: key cities

Director: Srdjan Spasojevic

Writer: Aleksandar Radivojevic and Srdjan Spasojevic

Original title: Srpski film

Cast: Srdjan Todorovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Sergei Trifunovic

Serbia 2010

95 mins

After provoking heated debate at festival screenings around the world, A Serbian Film came to the attention of the British public in August, when it was pulled from FrightFest following a decision by the BBFC to cut it by nearly four minutes. UK audiences will now be able to see the film, albeit in its censored form, in theatres this month. The only opportunity to see it uncut was at an invitation-only screening in October, organised by the Raindance Festival to circumvent the BBFC’s ruling. The issues surrounding the censorship of the film have been discussed at length in our blog since FrightFest, but it is worth pointing out that the BBFC’s decision is symptomatic of a general reluctance among certain British institutions to consider film as art. It is because the British censors can only see cinema as entertainment that their understanding of A Serbian Film remained shockingly literal, and that they misconstrued the film as a violent spectacle, instead of seeing it for the denunciation of violence that it very clearly is. It is profoundly worrying and dispiriting to see such levels of cinematic illiteracy among the people entrusted with judging what the adult British public may or may not see.

A Serbian Film centres on Milos, a retired porn star with a wife and son, who struggles to make ends meet. One of his former co-stars introduces him to Vukmir, a mysterious filmmaker with powerful political connections. Vukmir is willing to pay Milos an astronomical fee to star in his new project on the condition that he agrees to shoot the film without seeing the script. Soon Milos is caught in a nightmare that drags him further and further down into the most revolting horrors. A Serbian Film contains extreme imagery and is certainly not for everyone. But those disturbing images and situations are the expression of a deeply felt anger against the moral corruption of authorities and the grotesque, absurd hell to which they subject the people they rule.

Virginie Sélavy talked to director Srdjan Spasojevic about censorship and the true meaning of exploitation and pornography.

VS: How do you feel about the fact that the film had to be released with cuts in Britain?

SS: Of course I cannot be happy about it, but then I can’t be too stubborn, and this is the only way for audiences here to see it.

How was the film received in Serbia?

Serbia is a very specific place, so we had lots of problems there but of a different kind. In Serbia we don’t have ratings, there is no law forbidding anything from being shown in a film and there is no law forbidding anyone from buying a ticket. But it’s a conservative country, and after all those years under a hard communist regime we have a kind of self-censorship. We tried to release the film theatrically in Serbia in February, but no one wanted to have anything to do with it. We couldn’t find any distributor or a theatre willing to screen it. So you don’t need any law for that. But after lots of festival screenings, and great reviews, and some awards, they softened, and we had an uncut theatrical release in September.

How did Serbian audiences react?

It’s the same as in other countries. There were different reactions, because there is no film that is for everyone. Some people liked it, some people hated it. Some people understood it, others didn’t. The biggest problem, especially in Serbia, is that part of the audience doesn’t know how to watch the film. They think that everything they see is something we promote, that I would like to do in my home. They don’t understand even the basic things from the film: you have a good guy and bad guys; the bad guys are doing bad things and the good guy is fighting against them. They don’t understand because the movie language that we use in the film is actually closer to that of Western films than to our own.

I think that was a problem here too, the censors didn’t seem to understand the film. They seemed to think that the violence in the film was meant to entertain and titillate.

Censors don’t try and don’t need to understand a film. It’s about following the rules in a purely bureaucratic manner. They’re not concerned about the meaning of the film, they’re just concerned about formalities. The BBFC ordered 49 cuts, and the problem with the version shown in the UK is that it’s been cut only by removing the shots that they marked, without re-editing, or without adding material to fill the gaps. I think half of these shots could be saved by re-editing them. For some shots, the problem is the meaning, their place and their combination with other images. But if you put them somewhere else, they would be OK. There was a problem with shots that, as they say, involve children in sex and violence. It doesn’t even matter to the censors that the film fights against the bad things that we’re talking about. Of course, it shows a lack of freedom of speech, but it also covers up crime. The film is a statement from the victim, but they’re not allowing us to talk about what happens. It’s not my fault, it’s not the victim’s fault that these things are bad. It’s my testimony and they’re forbidding me from telling it, because it’s too hard to watch. Well, I’m sorry, they should prevent the crime, not censor me. So we’re really not happy about this version, because the cuts were made in that way and the numbers are not justified. Four per cent is a big number. People from the Western world should understand four per cent – would you like your pay to be cut by four per cent? There’d be riots on the street. But for a film from Serbia, it’s like, OK, fine…

The extreme imagery in the film seems to come from anger, and this anger is directed at the state. The violence is committed by the state, essentially, and the authorities are responsible for the most immoral treatment of humans in the film.

Authority in general, yes, because first of all this film is an honest expression of the deepest feelings that we have about our region and the world in general. Concerning our region, the last few decades have been dominated by war and political and moral nightmares. The world in general is sugar-coated in political correctness, but it is actually very rotten under that façade. So we’re talking about problems in the modern world, only they’re set in Serbia. And it’s a struggle against all the corrupt authorities that govern our lives for their own purposes. So yes, there is anger in the film.

In the end, a new director takes over from Vukmir and continues the film, and this shows that what we’ve seen cannot just be attributed to one madman, but is part of a whole system.

Absolutely. Vukmir is just one of them. In a way, Vukmir is an exaggerated representation of all those corrupt authorities. The last scene that you mentioned is a culmination of some of the hard scenes in the film that are literally drawings of our feelings. Extreme scenes, such as the one with the baby, are absolute literal images of how we feel. I never thought, let’s make a shocking film, let’s make it controversial, let’s break the world record. That was never on our mind. We just wanted to express ourselves in the most honest and direct way possible. You’re raped from birth and it doesn’t even stop after your death: that was the point of the ending.

There has been a lot of talk about the violence against women and children in the film.

You cannot fight against that kind of violence if you don’t say anything about it. You will not prevent it if you say, for instance, ‘in this company you have to have 50 per cent of women managers’. Fine, but that will not solve the problem of domestic violence. In Serbia, in some rural parts of the country, we have big domestic violence problems. Women and children are treated like men’s property. Men can do whatever they want with them. Of course there are problems of that type all around the world, but in some regions it’s almost a tradition, and the written law is not helping, because in reality no one does anything about it. We wanted to talk about all the problems we experience. We wanted to face the demons of our time, including violence against women and children. Unfortunately, many people who say they are fighting against those problems and claim to represent women and children find this film too offensive.

At one point, Vukmir explains that ‘victims sell’ as a reason for making the film, and tells Milos he’s not a victim. But in fact Milos is a victim too, right?

Vukmir is a true believer in the things he does and of that society and industry. He is also an exaggerated representation of the new European film order. In Eastern Europe, you cannot get your film financed unless you have a barefoot girl who cries on the streets, or some story about war victims in our region. But of course, you should never go too deep, or show tough scenes, or point out the problems. Just say, it’s a hard life, we experienced war, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have any love, any family. And if you do that, you’ll receive $5 million. And that’s the only way you can get your film financed in Eastern Europe. So Vukmir represents that. He believes in this system, but he’s passionate, he’s going all the way, he wants to show a real victim. Also because the Western world has lost feelings, so they’re searching for false ones, they want to buy feelings. It’s like they’ll feel more human if they see victims and feel sorry, ‘oh we’re still human, we can feel sorry’ – but that’s a lie. That’s what Vukmir does, and he really believes that Milos is not a victim because he adores him, he’s his hero. He really believes he’s doing the right thing, that he’s a supporter of our region’s economy.

So it’s also a film about the perception that Western Europe has of Serbia.

Yes, of course. And we’re talking about those problems through the moving picture industry, because I don’t want to start about politics, it’s too complicated and crazy. European film funds and festivals, some of them, are looking for those kinds of films from Eastern Europe because it’s a problematic region with war and suffering. And that’s exploitation. Those films are real exploitation. It’s spiritual pornography.

There was a Serbian film called The Life and Death of a Porno Gang in 2009 that used pornography as a metaphor to talk about Serbia. How do you explain that?

Concerning A Serbian Film, it’s not about looking for a metaphor to present our way of life or my feelings. It came naturally, because after all these wars in Serbia, we have started to experience our lives as pure exploitation. In the kind of job you have to take to feed your family, you’ll end up being viciously exploited by your employer or the rulers. So pornography is used as an image for everyday life, it’s normal. If he did anything else, Milos would still end up with the same kind of problems. Anything in our lives and our culture is pornographic. I think the same thing happened with The Life and Death of a Porno Gang. It was probably the same idea, the same expression of the problems, although the approach and style were different.

The content of the film is so extreme that you expect a lo-fi, trashy kind of film, but it is in fact very well-made and stars famous, well-respected actors. Maybe it is this contrast that has made some people uncomfortable.

It was not the plan to combine those things. For me it was just a natural way to make the film, because that’s the kind of style I like. I was most influenced by American auteurs of the 70s like Friedkin, Peckinpah, Cronenberg, Carpenter, Walter Hill and others. Maybe you’re right, maybe some images are stronger and harder because the style is… nice. That’s a problem, because it’s almost a pattern in filmmaking. If you want to make a violent film, it has to be done in a dirty, documentary style. If you want to go to festivals, you have to have lots of long shots. In art, you’re not supposed to have patterns, and calculations of that kind.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Toronto International Film Festival 2010 – Part 2

Lapland Odyssey

Toronto International Film Festival

9-19 Sept 2010, Toronto, Canada

TIFF website

James Evans gives his take on TIFF 2010.

Hard to believe a year has passed since ES last reported on the Leviathan that is the Toronto International Film Festival. This year, a very different festival was experienced as the entire venue, from screens to press offices, from communications centres to hotels and hospitality – moved from its old uptown locale to its new home downtown near the lake. The reason for this move was the glittering new star of the festival, the purpose-built Bell Lighthouse, which now serves as the festival’s year-round HQ and new home. This state-of-the-art architectural monument to cinema has been years in the building and was officially opened during the festival this year. Sure to be the envy of many other film fests, the Bell Lighthouse houses six spanking new cinemas, cafes, exhibition spaces, offices and an exceptionally well-stocked library that will prove a boon to cinema researchers, students and writers. Also worth a mention was the fantastically organised and superbly run Filmmakers Lounge, which ran the course of the festival in a converted brick-built downtown loft space. Within days, the Lounge became the place for industry and press to meet and mingle and many a networking and friend-making evening was had – much aided by the sponsored free bar that ran every day. In previous years, the industry and press had been separated and both groups agreed that this year’s innovation was terrific.

Cinematically speaking, there were a few treasures to be found, and here is an overview of some of the best, worst and most interesting that this ES writer viewed.

First to impress – in the Contemporary World Cinema strand – was the Finnish film Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankarit) directed by Dome Karukoski (who gave us Forbidden Fruit, The Home of Dark Butterflies and Beauty and the Bastard) and written by Pekko Pesonen. What can only be described as a freezing cold slacker road movie is the 34-year-old director’s fourth feature film and his first comedy. Downbeat and low-key with some absurdist elements, Lapland Odyssey clearly has it roots in the same ground as those other oddball Finnish masters of the deadpan, Aki and Mika Kaurismä;ki. In fact, one character even sports a mad waxed hair-do resembling the style sported by the Leningrad Cowboys. It is set in the Lapland area where, as the director notes: ‘the unemployment rate is over 40%. In the winter you barely see the sun. In the summer it doesn’t go down, so people can’t sleep and go crazy. I always questioned how one can live in these areas. But when you meet the locals, you understand. It’s because of the Finnish “perkele”. Perkele has no translation. Sometimes it’s used as a curse word but it actually means something between stamina, willpower and damning the gods. That perkele is what the people of Lapland have. Inside the biggest loser, a hero can be found. Inside the biggest cynic you can still find hope.’ Lapland Odyssey displays a lot of perkele.

Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots was about as far emotionally and climatically as you could get from Karukoski’s. Filmed and set in the underbelly of Mumbai’s ‘massage’ district, the film follows the trials and tribulations of a bi-racial young woman, Ruth (Kalki Koechlin), who works at a massage parlour in a job procured by her boyfriend – she has no work permit – trying to earn enough to take care of herself while having to support her boyfriend’s drug habit. She is also on a quest to re-unite with her father whom she cannot forget although she has few memories of him. With the rougher side of Mumbai as the narrative’s backdrop, Ruth tries to find her independence, her roots and her self-respect as she gets sucked deeper and deeper into the darker recesses of the city’s hidden and unpleasant underworld. What she finally discovers is a devastating truth about her life, which is perhaps a little over-egged as a psychological concern in the narrative, but still makes the film an engaging experience. Kashyap’s previous six films – especially Dev. D and Gulaal – herald the movement towards a contemporary, edgy and critical filmmaking in India, far removed from the polished genres of Bollywood and the received images of Indian cinema that persist in many minds. That Girl in Yellow Boots continues that new spirit of Hindi independent cinema in both style and subject. His next two projects are eagerly anticipated: Bombay Velvet, a 1960s thriller to be produced by Danny Boyle, and Doga, based on the comic book super-hero.

Mamma Gogo is a film by the Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, who was nominated for a best foreign language film in the 1992 Academy Awards for his second feature, Children of Nature. Mamma Gogo is his ninth cinematic excursion and is a deeply touching, extremely even-handed and sensitive evocation of a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and the effects it has on her children and extended family – especially her favourite son, an unnamed film director played by Hilmir Snaer Gudnason who is having his own crisis, caused by the poor reception of his latest film. A moving meditation with a terrific performance by Kristjorg Kjeld as Mamma Gogo, this beautifully paced and thoughtful film will stay with you long after you have left the cinema and will be especially poignant if it has ever happened in your own family. A brave film that needed to be made about a subject that few want to deal with.

Among the films that opened in the Special Presentations strand were two American pieces directed by contrasting cinematic icons now both well into their 70s: Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. The former is an enjoyable enough bit of entertainment – and considering late Allen films, a decent effort – which follows an ensemble group through their various life and emotional crises. But stop me if this sounds familiar – one of the stories concerns the wealthy Alfie (played by Anthony Hopkins), who abandons his wife of 40 years for… how did you guess? A buxom blonde gal decades his junior. Another story follows a frustrated writer, Roy (Josh Brolin), whose eye wanders from his long-suffering wife to a beautiful young guitar player (Freida Pinto) with whom he falls madly in love. Not one, but two amours fous of older men for younger women – Woody, get over it! This is an undeniably charming, but ultimately lightweight tale about fate, existence, randomness and chance – which are hardly thematic departures for Allen. You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger ends (defensively?) where it began: all sound and (some) fury; signifying nothing.

By contrast, Eastwood’s Hereafter is a meditation on the anxieties and insecurities of contemporary life – and death. It is an engaging, and slow-burning tale with three parallel strands that serve to develop a narrative around the theme of the after-life and its ultimate unknowability. Eastwood sets the various stories in locales as disparate as London, Chamonix, Hawaii and San Francisco. All the characters have been deeply affected by death in some form or another and it has significantly taken their lives in various directions. At the beginning of the film, a French television reporter has a near-death experience as a freak tsunami hits her idyllic beach resort. This scene, like the rest of the film, is shot with impressive economy, conviction and assurance. This is a fine film by a filmmaker at the height of his powers and who, at age 79, is still taking risks with the material he chooses to film – a rather far cry from his compatriot Mr Allen.

Other American films that caught the eye were John Turturro’s documentary love paean to Naples, Passione, which guides the viewer through the life and times of this ancient and beloved city through one of its cultural gifts to the world, its music. The songs, stylists and performers of this music of passion, anger, hatred, social outrage, love, loss, jealousy and death provide striking examples of the huge gamut of Neapolitan music. Passione aims to do for the music of Naples what Buena Vista Social Club did for the music of Cuba, and while not succeeding as well, certainly persuades. Buried (dir. Rodrigo Cortes) is one of a recent cycle of films (Saw, Iron Doors) that position the protagonist in an unknown, confined and inescapable space – a contemporary Kafkaesque situation without benefit of The Trial. One wonders if the new world of the individual, non-communal interior capitalist space of mobile phones, iPods, and gaming is really the anxious subtext of these films. A surprisingly well-cast Ryan Reynolds does a bravura one-man Beckett-like show and carries the film, which is saying plenty as the whole movie is set in a coffin. The lighting and cinematography are to be given a standing ovation for the very ingenious way they are used in such a restrictive setting. A clever twist at the end makes for a very engaging film.

The USA also produced a music documentary: Thom Zimny’s near-hagiographic documentary of Bruce Springsteen circa 1976-1978, recording – no, building – his opus, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is one and a half hours of intimate detail and parallel editing of the original black and white footage interspersed with contemporary colour footage of the band reflecting on the album some 33 years on. Insightful, inspiring and at times, moving, this portrait of Springsteen and the making of the album is terrific, if over-long for non-fans. It is certain to turn up on BBC 4 soon on a Springsteen-themed night! A real labour of love – be sure to stick around as the credits roll for a very special band reunion and performance.

Finally, two highly contrasting international films are worth mentioning. The Last Circus (Balada Triste) is a wild and woolly film set in 1937 (shades of the Spanish Civil War), in the surreal and unsettling world of a circus. It fast-forwards to 1973 where the saddest clown, Javier (Carlos Areces), begins a hostile working relationship with a silly, and nasty, clown (Santiago Segura), with whom he later battles for the love of the dancer Natalia (Carolina Bang). The sure direction of Alex de la Iglesia and the black humour and set-pieces bring to mind a weird mix of Jodorowsky, Fellini, Buñuel, Argento and Almodóvar. The ending climaxes in a battle of wills at the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial that General Franco had built to honour the soldiers who died in the Civil War. The Last Circus is a sometimes absurd and over-the-top spectacle and is not without its problems, but is nonetheless well worth catching. By contrast, the understated and slow-burning Pelin Esmer film, 10 to 11 (11’e 10 Kala) is an honest and charming story of an elderly man (actually played by the director’s father) who obsessively collects the detritus and ephemera of his life in Istanbul, including countless audio tapes. He lives alone in his small apartment in a building about to be demolished and from which he does not want to move. He strikes up an acquaintance with the young caretaker of the building and the two become dependent upon each other for negotiating life in the contemporary city. A turn of events pointedly, but poignantly, ends the story. This is a beautifully paced film about time, memory, life and our own inevitable deaths.

All in all, a landmark year for TIFF.

James Evans