Still going strong at 37, TIFF (as everyone there knowingly calls it) delivered everything that it usually does: the Hollywood A-list pack, who love Toronto because it is: a) ‘just like America’, b) even better – America without the guns and violence, and c) a fairly short hop to make for a gilded weekend and fan adulation. That’s the first few days. Then reality sets in as the really important people appear for the next couple of weeks: independent filmmakers and world cinema directors/performers, with a cornucopia of interesting films – not always masterpieces, but more often than not full of surprises. In the main, it is these screenings that bear waiting around for. And though this piece will take a look at a representative range – Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air (Apres mai), Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (Rebelle) and Brian De Palma’s Passion – it would be a disservice not to mention some other ‘surprises’ that caught the eye of this writer. Chief among them – and some of the best of the festival – were the wholly absorbing cinematic tales, Blancanieves by Spanish director Pablo Berger, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food by Greek director Ektoras Lygizos, which is a timely spin on Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, and the weirdly interesting, over-cooked and indulgent tale directed by Nick Cassavetes, Yellow – in which he puts definitive clear blue water between him and his father, John. His mother, Gena Rowlands – always welcome on screen – appears in the film.
But it is to Kim Nguyen’s film War Witch that I first turn my attention. This Canadian–Vietnamese filmmaker has made a compelling, and at times distressing, film that addresses the grim reality of the child–soldier, in this case a young girl (forced to shoot her parents) who is seen to have mystical powers that can foresee trouble in battle. Though she is often physically and mentally beaten, her will to survive triumphs, and she soon meets a like-minded young boy. When they attempt to escape from this horrific life, marriage and pregnancy soon follow. I shall say no more about the plotline after this point, but suffice it to say that though violent and downbeat, this is an important film with important things to say about conflicts in several African countries, and the seemingly low value in which human life is held in some quarters. A tragic story, though with glimmers of hope and courage. The actress who plays the 14-year-old, Rachel Mwanza, won the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.
Something in the Air visits territory beloved of left-leaning Euro directors – the events and aftermath of ‘that’ moment in French history, May 1968. The story concerns the political, artistic and sexual coming-of-age of the protagonist Gilles (presumably the director’s alter ego), as he and his friends juggle love, hate, make-up and break-up. Gloriously shot and well-meaning, there is a feeling of Truffaut, Rohmer and Bertolucci in the mix, as yet another director of a certain age composes a retrospective love letter to their past.
Something in the Air is released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 24 May 2013.
Two very attractive actresses: one a cool and driven careerist, the other her assistant, a shy-ish, reserved type who harbours some deep sexual desires. Bitchiness, humiliation and rivalry ensue. A sub-text (rather forced) of sensuality and sexuality bubbles. The plot twists. The film looks beautiful. It is not exactly Hitchcockian but is a remake (of sorts) of Alain Corneau’s 2010 Love Crime (Crime d’ amour). Sounds to me like a new De Palma film. It is. And like other master filmmakers of late (i.e. Bertolucci, Coppola) this is a great disappointment and merely re-visits past glories without the panache or depth. Much ado about nothing, Passion is passionless.
Kôji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, like many films of the early 70s, opens with a song. In a darkened nightclub, while four conspirators plot their mission, Rie Yokoyama’s Friday sings an unidentified Japanese fôku song, accompanied by a plaintively plucked acoustic guitar. ‘I throw a tiny flame,’ she sings, ‘towards bright crimson blood / In any barren field / Burn the dawn / Burn the streets to the dawn’. Her distant-eyed delivery makes a curious counterpoint to the surreal, sometimes violent lyrics of the winsome, enka-esque melody and, as there is no further music for the next half an hour, the lines stick in your mind like an ear worm, becoming the unvoiced refrain of all the action that follows.
When the first bit of non-diegetic music does come in, it is every bit as violent as the intervening action. Clangorous piano chords burst in over a montage of newspaper headlines detailing the terrorist acts of the young revolutionary group. Drums skitter in freefall, as Yosuke Yamashita’s piano-playing veers from modal jazz to free atonality, switching dance partners from Alice Coltrane to Anton Webern.
Yamashita remains one of Japan’s most famous jazz musicians. He started playing with his elder brother’s swing band before he’d left school and by the 1960s he was spending every Friday at legendary Tokyo basement club Gin-Paris. One of his earliest teachers was Fumie Hoshino, a woman who played stride piano along to silent films in old cinemas, and Yamashita himself would go on to work on a number of films, from 60s pinku films by Wakamatsu and Noriko Natsumi to Shohei Imamura’s award-winning Dr Akagi. All the while carving out a distinctive live playing career as one of Japan’s most celebrated jazzers, with frequent comparisons to Cecil Taylor (his acknowledged idol) and one German critic – just a few years after the release of Ecstasy of the Angels – coining the phrase ‘kamikaze jazz’ to refer to his group’s wild musical antics.
Nowhere is the comparison to Taylor more apt than in the present film’s final scene. We are back in the same nightclub from the opening scene, but now one of the four conspirators is missing and the cool, collected spirit of their earlier meeting is long gone. At first we find Friday once more, singing the same song about a ‘silent battlefront’. But then, as if at the click of someone’s fingers, she and her accompanist disappear to be replaced by Yamashita’s trio, seen on screen for the first time. Akira Sakata’s soprano sax is squealing and honking like Ornette Coleman, Yamashita is pounding frenetically at the keyboard and Yuki Arasa’s section leader, Autumn, sat over at the table, is screaming hysterically as her empire crumbles around her.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: A great year
Ah, dear Brothers of the Order, a revelation occurred during my daily flagellation session, administered so graciously and zealously by my Redskin Brothers up here in the North Country of Our Great Dominion of Canada. After securing, at great savings (and in support of the entrepreneurial activities of our Noble Savage charges), a carton of contraband All Natural Native cigarettes at Bertha’s Smoke Tent, I ventured deep into the woods to meet my trustiest flagellator, John Ramsay.
He stripped me naked with considerable savagery, tossed my Black Robe into a bonfire, forced my legs apart and insisted my arms stretch to the Heavens. In an ‘‘X’’ stance, my hands and feet were brutishly tied twixt two Maple trees. My dear, loyal, and ever-so-willing John Ramsay began tearing flesh from my back with a switch fashioned from several bramble bushes. During the intensity of these Jesuit Relations (of a decidedly different brand), the streams of my blood, fertilizing the soil of the Niagara Escarpment, inspired additional notions to cascade along my fevered cerebellum.
With each stroke, with every new rivulet of blood formed, and every gnash of the teeth to stop me from betraying my inherent crying grandmother-hood of pain ready to pierce the quiet of the wilds, I began to formulate the opinion that this had indeed been a great year for cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. One gem after another passed before my eyes.
Without further rumination, allow me to illuminate you with a clutch of encapsulated commentaries from one of the world’s largest film festivals. I indulged in several days of sweet cinephiliac flagellation. Here then, for your edification, are a few high and lows.
Let us pray…
ANTIVIRAL (dir. Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)
Accompanying me to the TIFF screening of this first feature from David Cronenberg’s son was Julia Klymkiw, my 11-year-old Cub Reporter at the Klymkiw Film Corner. Upon leaving the theatre, I asked what she thought about it. ‘Well, I kind of liked all the blood, but the movie itself was pretty fucking stupid.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’ll let the child’s summation stand. To elaborate, Antiviral was indeed one of the worst horror films I’d seen in quite a while. This moronically pretentious poppycock about a world where celebrity diseases are marketed to a public that can afford them plods along dourly with no evidence of panache, humour or filmmaking talent.
The picture has excellent production value (a no-brainer given that producer Niv ‘The Red Violin’ Fichman is Master of Canadian Eye Candy – nobody makes better-looking movies in the Dominion than Mr Fichman) and features a couple of amusing supporting performances from Malcolm McDowell and Nicholas Campbell, neither of whom seems at all embarrassed to be in this landfill site of a movie. The son of Canada’s True Master Filmmaker neglected to take a shot of his dad’s talent disease. Antiviral is the result.
Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)
Everybody at TIFF loved Argo and this adulation continued during its subsequent theatrical release. Directed by Ben Affleck, who affably plays CIA ‘extractor’ Tony Mendez, it’s a competent fictionalised portrait of the real-life rescue of American embassy workers in Iran, who were hidden in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Alas, the film’s racism and ethnocentrism are both aimed squarely at Iranians with typical Hollywood vengeance. Representing the entire populace as savage, devious and, as a bonus, stupid grinning bozos, too enamoured with American popular culture to do their jobs properly, the picture made it impossible to succumb to its offerings. America’s greed, deception and need to control the rest of the world to serve its elite of corporate rulers is afforded a tiny mention at the beginning of the movie, then discarded. It’s as if this nod to the historical slow boil America instigated 30 years before the events depicted was disingenuously designed to please liberal audiences who could feel good about marching shoulder to shoulder with the right wing as they all commingled to worship America’s superiority. It’s time for Oscar to come calling.
Baby Blues (dir. Katarzyna Roslaniec, 2012)
Nobody makes movies quite like Katarzyna Roslaniec. In Baby Blues, the spirited Polish director tackles everyday challenges young teenage girls face in the modern world. Her touch is never juvenile, clichéd, didactic, humourless, nor rife with the dour bludgeon of political correctness, or worse, the moralistic, ultra-conservative, by-the-numbers-after-school-special-styled dreariness so prevalent in similarly themed works from North America. Her movies rock! Big time!
Baby Blues focuses on a teenager with a baby sired by her unwitting slacker boyfriend. She is bound and determined to keep it, but on her own steam, thank you very much. Roslaniec injects the picture with a verité nuttiness, allowing her to take a whole lot of stylistic chances, yielding one indelible moment after another. One of several sublime sequences is unveiled just after Natalia (Magdalena Berus) experiences a harrowing encounter with judgemental health care workers. Roslaniec holds on a shot of the teen, now looking more like a little girl than a burgeoning young woman, huddled on a metro train with her sick baby clutched tightly in her arms. She holds and holds and holds on the shot and when it feels like she’s going to finally cut out, the shot holds even longer.
Other moments are equally powerful, most often in scenes where Natalia and her amiably clueless dope-smoking boyfriend Kuba (Nikodem Rozbicki) are navigating the unfamiliar waters of domestic life and parenthood. Roslaniec so beautifully and truthfully captures how these two young people try adapting to the responsibilities that come from being parents. What she finally evokes is truthful – infused with life itself.
End of Watch (dir. David Ayer, 2012)
This surprise treat at TIFF turned out to be the best cop picture I’ve seen in years! Hanging by the slenderest of plot threads, this mostly episodic belly flop into the maw of every harrowing moment the brave boys in blue face daily made for an always-jolting ride. Writer-director David Ayer follows two loyal partners, beautifully rendered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as they go about their daily grind in South Central Los Angeles. The close pals eventually stumble upon something much bigger, finding themselves on a drug cartel hit list.
The opening minutes are shot through a patrol car’s windshield-eye-view of the cops’ turf, accompanied by a portentous reality-TV-styled voice-over. At first you think Ayer’s gone nuts until he reveals that Gyllenhaal is a part-time law student putting himself through university as a cop and studying filmmaking as an elective. As such, he’s shooting everything on the job to make a documentary as a class project. When he’s not shooting, the rest of the film is mostly pieced together with a variety of surveillance views and hardware wielded by young digi-cam-obsessed villains. Add great dialogue, superb realist detail, actual locations plus magnificent performances and it adds up to harrowing slam-bang entertainment.
Krivina (dir. Igor Drljaca, 2012)
Not a single shot is fired in director Igor Drljaca’s stunning feature debut, but the horror of war – its legacy of pain, its futility and its evil – hang like a cloud over every frame of this powerful cinematic evocation of memory and loss. The film’s hypnotic rhythm plunges us into the inner landscape of lives irrevocably touched by inhumanity in a diaspora of suffering that shall never escape the fog of war.
Miro (Goran Slavkovic) lives in the New World. That is to say, he’s an immigrant to Canada. Having left the former Yugoslavia when civil war broke out, he’s moved from city to city, job to job and home to home. Hearing that his childhood friend Dado might be alive, Miro leaves the grey, lifeless Toronto – a world of cement and darkened office tower windows – a city so cold, so strangely inhospitable that a reconnection with his homeland, his past, his memories of a time when his own country was at peace is what grips him to embark upon an odyssey like no other. The land of his birth is rich with natural beauty, but also shrouded in mystery. It haunts Miro, as it haunts us. As he talks to one person after another, we see the toll of war etched into their ethos. This clearly affects Miro as it does us.
Director Drljaca uses the poetic qualities of cinema and plunges us into an experiential work of art that affords the unique opportunity to find within ourselves the sense of loss that war has instilled in the characters, the world at large and, in fact, all of us – whether we have experienced it or not. Supported by an evocative score, soundscape and cinematography, Drljaca is a filmmaker to watch. He will continue, no doubt, to deliver great work.
The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
I can’t ever recall the same electricity in any screening of any movie in the 25-or-so years I’ve been attending TIFF. Hundreds of scribes packed the hugest auditorium of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox complex. The pre-screening buzz in the cinema was low, not unlike the sounds emitted from a hive of happily prodigious bees. The lights went down and the house went completely and utterly silent. Then it began. Anderson’s insanely provocative exploration of post-war America reels you in. You feel a bit like ‘Bruce’ the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, chomping on a sharp hook that Robert Shaw’s mad-eyed Quint keeps hitting, taunting, tugging, twisting and pulling. You try to escape, you fight madly not to succumb, but succumb you do.
Inspired by the mad Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson weaves a hypnotic tale of a young veteran and his mentorship under a charismatic cult leader. If you are lucky enough to see the film as it’s meant to be seen in 70mm, you get the added bonus of diving into Anderson’s masterly use of the medium. It is an epic scope, but an intimate epic with Anderson’s eye examining the rich landscapes of the human face. And what faces! Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern suck you deep into their eyes and, ultimately, their very souls.
When I left the cinema, I couldn’t explain to myself what I had just seen and why it so powerfully knocked me on my ass. What I can say is that I can count on one hand the number of films that were not only hypnotic, but in fact, seemed to place me in a literal state of hypnosis. The Master is one of these films. I saw it a second time – riveted, yet wondering if I still loved it. I queried George Toles, my old friend, mentor and screenwriter of Guy Maddin’s masterworks, about his experience, explaining, of course, my recent dilemma. His response was this: ‘The movie neither asks for my love, nor wants my love, but I give it my love anyway.’ A third viewing corroborated this for me.
Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher, 2012)
If you’re a movie geek, you’ll immediately get the significance of this engaging feature documentary’s title. If you aren’t, you’ll learn it refers to a room in an isolated old hotel where something horrific happened (and likely will again) in Stanley Kubrick’s crazy scary, creepy and hypnotic 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
A cool blend of cine-mania and conspiracy theory, Room 237 is not a traditional making-of documentary or even a critical appreciation in the usual sense. Using a treasure trove of clips and stills from all things Kubrick, director Rodney Ascher interviews five people who’ve spent an unhealthy number of waking hours over an ever MORE unhealthy number of years, dissecting hidden meanings they claim are buried within Kubrick’s scream-fest.
Whilst I’m a tad sceptical that The Shining is an apology to the world from Stan the Man for faking the entire Apollo moon programme, some of the other fruit-loopy theories (subliminal Holocaust allegory, anyone?) are not without interest. The most intriguing postulation (backed by its believer’s meticulous reconstructions) asserts that one specific room on the set could not exist within the architecture of the Overlook Hotel. Ascher never makes fun of the cinematic conspiracy theorists and, cleverly, they appear off camera in voice-over. The images are virtually all Kubrick all the time and provide visual evidence to bolster said theories. The movie also makes you ponder Calumet Baking Soda. Please discover that nugget on your own.
Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, 2012)
Nature, nurture and the manner in which their influence upon our lives inspires common threads in the telling of tales that are in turn relayed, processed and synthesized by what we think we see and what we want to see are the ingredients that make up Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director.
Her Oscar-nominated Away from Her was a well-crafted dramatic plunge into the effect of Alzheimer’s upon a married couple. Take this Waltz blasted a few light years forward, delivering a film that’s on one hand a wonky-plonky romantic comedy and on the other, a sad, devastating portrait of love gone awry, and all the while being perhaps one of the most progressive films about female passion and sexuality made in a modern, contemporary North American (though specifically Canadian) context.
Stories We Tell is something altogether different and, in fact, roots Polley ever so firmly in contemporary cinema history as someone who has generated a bona fide masterpiece. It is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant, passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. It is a documentary with a compelling narrative arc, yet one that is as mysterious and provocative and profoundly moving as you’re likely to see.
Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that we’ve all felt at one point or another. We experience love within the context of relationships most of us are familiar with: a husband and wife, a mother and child, brothers and sisters (half and full), family and friends, and yes, ‘illicit love’ (at least within a specific context in a much different time and place). Mostly though, Stories We Tell expresses a love that goes even beyond our recognisable experiences of love and runs a gamut of emotions.
The film is often funny, to be sure. It is, after all, a film by Sarah Polley and is infused with her near-trademark sense of perverse, skewed, borderline darkly comedic, but ultimately amiable sense of humour. The great American author of Armenian heritage William Saroyan titled his episodic novel (and Oscar-nominated screen story) The Human Comedy, something that coursed through his entire canon and indeed is the best way to describe Polley’s approach to telling stories on film. She exposes truth and emotion, and all the while is not willing to abandon dollops of sentimental touches – the sort we can find ourselves relating to in life itself.
There is a unique sense of warmth that permeates Stories We Tell, and by so employing it, Polley doesn’t merely tug at our emotions: she slices them open, exposing raw nerve endings that would be far too painful if they were not tempered with an overall aura of unconditional love, not unlike that described by those who have survived a near-death experience. The emotions and deep feelings of love in Polley’s documentary are so enveloping, I personally have to admit to being reduced to a quivering, blubbering bowl of jelly each time I saw the film.
Four screenings later and her movie continues to move me unconditionally – on an aesthetic level, to be sure (her astonishing blend of interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations so real that they all blend together seamlessly), but mostly on a deeply personal and emotional level.
At the heart of the film is a courageous, vibrant woman no longer with us. Polley guides us through this woman’s influence upon all those she touched. Throughout much of the film, one is reminded of Clarence Oddbody’s great line in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ I try to imagine the lives of everyone Polley introduces us to and how if, like in the Capra film, this vibrant, almost saint-like woman had not been born. Most of those we meet in the film wouldn’t have been born either and the rest would have lived lives with a considerable loss of riches.
And I also think deeply on the fact that this woman was born and how we see her effect upon all those whose lives she touched. Then, most importantly, I think about Clarence Oddbody’s line with respect to the child that might not have been born to this glorious woman – a child who might have been aborted. I think about how this child has touched all the lives of those in the documentary. The possibility that this child might have never been born is, within the context of the story relayed, so utterly palpable that I can’t imagine audiences not breaking down.
I can’t imagine the loss to all those people whose lives this child touched. And the world? The world would genuinely be a less rich place without this child.
THEN, it gets really personal. I think about all those in MY life who could have NOT been born – people who are very close, people (two in particular) who have indelibly made a mark on my life – people whose non-existence would have rendered my life in ways I try to repress.
And I weep. Kind of like Brando says as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: ‘I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother.’
Most of all, my tears are reserved for the film’s aura of unconditional love, its incredible restorative power. Sarah Polley is often referred to in Canada as a ‘national treasure’. She’s far more than that.
She’s a treasure to the world – period.
And so, finally, is her film.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
Most film festival reports follow a fairly established formula: a brief history of the event, followed by a run-through of the highlights of that year, with some concluding thoughts on its position in festival culture and consideration of how it might develop in the future. However, this report of the 9th China Independent Film Festival breaks from critical formula by being a report of a festival that did not happen, and may not happen again due to official intervention. As such, this is perhaps less of a report than an obituary, but one which will try to celebrate the significant achievements of CIFF while bemoaning its sudden demise.
CIFF was founded in 2003 with the intention of providing a platform for Chinese filmmakers whose work was unlikely to receive a mainstream release in their home territory due to strict media censorship. It soon became a vital event for anyone with a genuine interest in features or documentaries that combined formal innovation with unflinching social observation. Although most of the organisation team was based in Beijing, the hub of China’s independent film scene, CIFF was held in Nanjing, the South-East former capital, away from the watchful eye of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). As with most events of this type, the audience for CIFF was comprised of academics, cineastes, critics, distributors, programmers from other festivals, and students, with attendance gradually increasing to the point that many were standing throughout last year’s screenings in the allocated classrooms at the Communication School of Nanjing University.
To say that 2012 has been a difficult year for festival organisers in mainland China would be an understatement, as the government has reacted decisively upon realising the cultural capital that such events have gradually built up by keeping their activities under the popular radar. In August, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was interrupted when the power was cut mid-way through the opening screening, prompting organisers to implement their back-up plan and relocate to the less public venue of Songzhuang Art District on the outskirts of the city. Considering the tense political climate in a year of government leadership change, the programme planned for CIFF was certainly ambitious. In addition to the usual 10 narrative features and 10 documentaries, the 2012 Asian Experimental Film and Video Festival would have run alongside the main event, with more than 30 films scheduled in conjunction with talks from leading academics in the field. This correspondent was concerned that CIFF would struggle to go ahead around the same time as the 18th National Communist Party Congress. Internet reports stated that handles to open the windows of Beijing taxis had been removed to prevent demonstrators from spreading anti-Party propaganda on the streets of the capital, while the cancellations of the Yixian International Photo Festival and Bishan Harvestival suggested a severe clamp-down on all arts-related activities. CIFF had defied the odds before, running relatively smoothly in 2011 despite the cancellation of several Beijing events a few months earlier, so I remained hopeful and cleared my schedule for a week of screenings.
Sadly, the day before CIFF was due to start, I received a phone call informing me of the festival’s cancellation, then watched a television report on the appointment of China’s new cabinet while waiting on a subway platform. With the planned venues and back-up options falling through due to political pressure, CIFF was unable to go underground. Organisers, filmmakers, and attendees who had already made the journey to Nanjing prior to the cancellation announcement were left to socialise for a few days around the university district, with festival founder Zhang Xianmin of Beijing Film Academy proving to be a truly gracious and good-humoured host under difficult circumstances by arranging these activities. The ‘opening up’ of China is often discussed in relation to its national cinema, with Jia Zhangke’s state-approved productions The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and I Wish I Knew (2010) cited as examples of SARFT’s gradual acceptance of art-house cinema with social ideologies that do not exactly toe the party line. However, the situation is actually more complicated, with the degree of official tolerance shifting annually, meaning that windows of opportunity for provocative filmmakers can open when the state sees the benefits of cooperation with the independent sector, only to be slammed shut again if the political climate becomes too sensitive. CIFF succeeded admirably in providing a forum for the kind of filmmakers who do not want to wait for script approval, and will hopefully rise again, probably under a new banner and in a different city, but with the same unwavering sense of purpose.
Original title:11-25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tachi
Cast: Arata, Shinobu Terajima, Hideo Nakaizumi
‘If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death. No death may be called futile.’ – Yukio Mishima
In 11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate, one of his last completed films, the late Kôji Wakamatsu turned his attention to the final years of Japanese writer, critic and nationalist Yukio Mishima, who espoused traditional values based on the Bushido code. On 25 November 1970, Mishima, along with four members of his own private army – the Tatenokai – went to the Self Defence Forces headquarters in Tokyo, tied up the commander and took to the balcony to call upon the assembled military outside to overthrow their society and restore the powers of the Emperor. When he was jeered, he returned inside to commit suicide, leaving behind a set of controversial writings, including short stories, plays and novels, and a mystery that echoes to this day.
Pamela Jahn took part in a group interview with Kôôji Wakamatsu after the premiere of his film on Mishima at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, to find out more about Wakamatsu’s take on Mishima and the reasons behind his actions.
Question: What was your motivation for making the film?
Answer: I first thought about it when I was shooting United Red Army. There is one scene where the Red Army marches during a very strong blizzard and it was actually a real blizzard that we were facing at that time when making the film. The Red Army was a formation of left-wing extremists. But I knew that there were also right-wing activists, young people who wanted to change the society just as much, even at the cost of their own lives, like Mishima, who formed his private militia – the Tatenokai, or ‘Shield Society’. I felt that portraying only one side of the whole spectrum wouldn’t be sufficient and that I should depict both extremes and I decided to make a separate film about the Tatenokai. First it was just an innocent joke. I’d tell my actors on the set of United Red Army that my next project would be on the extreme right for a change. But I knew that making these films in a row would be rather hard on me, so in the middle, as a sort of easy play, I shot Caterpillar . Both films turned out to get a very good audience and attendance that provided enough money for 11:25, and also two other films, Petrel Hotel Blue and The Millennial Rapture.
Your last visit to Cannes was just over 40 years ago when Sex Jack was shown at the festival in 1971. How does it feel to be back here after so many years with yet another film that is highly politically charged?
It doesn’t have any special meaning or significance. The only special thing back then was that on the way back I went to Palestine to film a documentary [together with Masao Adachi], and because of that, I was labelled as terrorist and declared a persona non grata in the United States, Russia and other countries. And the Japanese government also questioned me quite severely 15 or 16 times. It that sense, it was quite a memorable visit.
Arata Iura, who plays Mishima in the film, is very well known in Japan. You don’t usually cast stars like him.
He also had a part in United Red Army and I thought he was very good in it. I got to know him as an extremely hard worker and somebody who’s able to deliver great performances with consistency. I’m the type of person who feels strong gratitude and obligation towards those who give me something. Arata was very well known already, but he agreed to do the job on my terms and follow my method. I asked him to come alone, without any manager or personal assistant. On my set I use no make-up artists, script girls or secretaries – he had to accept that. I had several people in mind for Mishima’s part, but I finally gave it to Arata. Looking at the film only reassures me that I made the right choice. I never cast stars to attract a bigger audience. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s someone as famous as Arata or an amateur. As long as you have a heart, you can act. If cinema was only about attracting audiences with star power, I wouldn’t be making films anymore.
Both films, 11:25 and United Red Army, show a deep sense of comradeship that is essential to the development of any revolutionary movement but also more generally speaking in Japanese culture.
To put it very simply, the Japanese culture is not individualistic. The focus is not on the individual but on the community. Whatever we do, we always consider our neighbours, family and friends. For example, if you’re making dinner and it turns out really delicious, it is natural to offer it to your neighbours, to share. These cultural differences between Japan and Europe or the United States may be rooted in religious concepts of Christianity and Buddhism and, therefore, some behaviours or rituals might be harder to comprehend for a viewer from outside of our culture.
The only female figure in this otherwise male-dominated film is Mishima’s wife. She’s spoken of rarely, appears in one scene and barely has one line. How do you see her character in the film?
I believe that the very consciousness of her existence was necessary for the film. During the research stage, when reading through all the materials and documents available, I found many proofs of her role and influence in the Tatenokai, even though she acted behind the scene. But for example, every time they went to a training camp, she would come along and give pep talks to the trainees. Also in the household, her presence was natural. In Japan, the wife’s position is behind her man, in the background. It would have been difficult to bring Mishima’s wife into the spotlight because she would never have stepped out. She’d support him silently, like she did. Again, that’s a cultural thing that be might more difficult to understand for Westerners.
Your name is inevitably associated with the pink film genre (pinku eiga) that first appeared in Japan in the early 1960s, but actually soon after it became popular you stopped making that kind of films.
I was the first director of pink cinema, and everybody else followed me and copied what I came up with. But their imitations were focused only on showing naked women, sex scenes and so forth. Soon after, pink cinema went down the drain and became the mainstream. There were so many pink films around that I didn’t feel it was interesting for me to continue that path. If you compare pink cinema from the time when I was active in that genre and contemporary pinku eiga, they are entirely different. All the directors who made pink films back then have disappeared with the exception of Mr Takita, who became very successful. His film Departures is known around the world. To others, pinku eiga was just an easy way to make money. They’re too scared to be anti-establishment. For me, making a film means to throw a stone at the establishment, and what happened to pink cinema is that it became conformist entertainment.
You are not only an influence on, but a mentor to, young Japanese filmmakers like Banmei Takahashi, for example. Is helping the new generation of filmmakers important to you?
It is true that many young filmmakers started their professional career on my set or thanks to my recommendation. But it was they who came to work for me in the first instance. Of course, I can help them, I can give some assistance or mental support. But the truth is, they are my competitors, or in other words, they are my enemies. But by creating my own enemies I become more enthusiastic. If one of them makes a really good film, that only makes me more passionate about it and drives my own motivation to be better. I think that the young directors in Japan today whom I mentored are my best, most inspiring competitors. In the mainstream I don’t see anyone I’d consider as such.
You are a very precise author, whose art is so particular, that sometimes it might come across as hermetic.
I think in Japan, and anywhere else in the world, there are many mysterious things. My work might sometimes seem difficult, but I am just doing what I do and I am just turning these mysteries in society, which are sometimes hard to understand, into images, into films. Each person is different, in terms of their looks but especially in terms of their thinking – there are no identical human beings. Take this bottle of water on the table in front of you, for example. It might seem just ordinary clear water to you, but there may be someone else who doesn’t perceive it in the same way, who might think it’s red. It’s not us longing to be each other’s clones, it’s the authorities, who try to make everyone as identical as possible.
You are an internationally acclaimed director but your position in Japan is still difficult, especially in terms of financing your projects.
The government does not recognise my films because in a way they rebuild the part of Japanese history they’d like to hide. My work is most problematic especially for the Cultural Agency. They hold the budget to subsidise filmmaking in Japan but they wouldn’t give any of it to me, even though I requested it many times. They’d rather fund films with far less value instead of mine, mainly because I am very straightforward and open with bureaucrats and I tell them what I think about them. But in any case, you couldn’t make a film about the United Red Army or Mishima with money from the government. They wouldn’t give a single yen for a film like that.
How do you feel about Mishima’s suicide?
People in Japan have been wondering about Mishima’s suicide for long after his death. The reactions in the public have been quite ambiguous. People talk about it according to their own imagination and equally I made the film based on my understanding and interpretation of the events. I think that Mishima had chosen the venue and time of his own death quite carefully – he died at 45. The date, the 25th of November, was also the date when one of his close friends from the University of Tokyo committed suicide. That friend was involved in a financial fraud; he couldn’t get out of it and felt so cornered and hopeless that he decided to take his own life by hanging himself.
Could you relate to his decision?
At that time, when it happened, I thought it was just stupid. I also had my reservations about his idea of creating an army of ‘toy soldiers’. I thought that Mishima, who was an accomplished writer and well-established citizen, eventually went insane. But as time passed and I went through many documents, including his writings about planning that event, my opinion started to change. I also sometimes drink sake with one of the surviving members of the Tatenokai and slowly my view changed: I came to think that actually he is a phenomenon in his own right. There are other films about him and about the Red Army, but the names have been changed. I refuse to do that, in my films I use their real names. People around me warned me that I’d be assassinated by the right-wing if I did that and I said, ‘Well, if they want to do that, that’s fine.’ But I met some of the people and I read a lot of material and I believe that I am showing both sides, the right and the left extremes of the spectrum, and that it’s a fair view on both sides. I am telling them both that they were trying to do something good, that they meant good for society, and that they shouldn’t be ashamed or live in hiding. And after I made those films, they actually thanked me for what I did. They came to see the films, they even helped selling tickets, and I think it’s because my intention is genuine.
The following text from my book Behind the Pink Curtain (2008) forms the introduction to the chapters on Kôji Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi and the various other characters involved in Wakamatsu Pro. I should point out that this text was written over five years ago, before the premiere of Wakamatsu’s United Red Army (2007) at Tokyo Film Festival introduced a whole new generation of overseas viewers to the director’s startling and provocative work.
At the time, the films of Wakamatsu were little discussed in the West, particularly in the English language, and the context in which he operated virtually unknown. (There have been a number of retrospectives subsequently, particularly in France). Behind the Pink Curtain was my attempt to remedy this, and the whole project was largely inspired by my early encounters with the films of Wakamatsu, which have proved an enduring influence on me personally. He shall be sorely missed.
Kôji Wakamatsu is a difficult figure to place within the broad history of Japanese cinema. While his films screened at a number of festivals in mainland Europe in the late 60s and early 70s – which in itself is enough to distinguish him from his contemporaries in the eroduction world – the general climate and context in which they were made, along with those he produced for other directors through his company Wakamatsu Pro, was not one treated with much significance by many Western writers at the time. There were those in France, like Noël Burch and Max Tessier, who wrote seriously about those few Japanese erotic films that began to appear in Europe in the late 60s and 70s, and consequently it has been this country that has provided a home for two noteworthy retrospectives of Wakamatsu’s films with the director himself in attendance, at the 1998 L’Etrange Festival in Paris, and as part of a season entitled ‘Sex Is Politics’, in the town of Saint-Denis in 2006. But, clearly uncomfortable with the spectacle of sexual violence against women, English-language commentators seemed at a loss when it came to interpreting the new phenomenon of the 60s, either ignoring it or dismissing it out of hand. Few took time to engage with the films even on the level at which they were intended to be consumed. It’s a stance Donald Richie has maintained until this day, as is spelled out by this classic snub of Wakamatsu relayed in a 1990 entry from his journals, published in 2004: ‘He makes embarrassing soft-core psychodrama (or used to), and Noël Burch led the French into seeing great cinematic depths in Violated Angels. It occurs to no one that the reason for making it (nurses skinned alive) was noncinematic. So Kôji was treated as though his junk meant something.’
Junk or not, Wakamatsu’s films do mean something, or at the very least are representative of something. While in the Japanese film industry at large he may be better regarded more as a particularly canny producer than for the level of craftsmanship to be found in his films, even in the capacity of a director his early work is stylistically distinct enough to at least merit some consideration. At its best, it is direct and abrasive, seething with an infectious energy and electrifying zeitgeist, its stark power immediately appreciable, even if hidden deeper meanings prove maddeningly elusive. At the very least his films serve as socio-historical documents; not only visual testimonies to an era of new sexual frankness and a deep-rooted uncertainty in which oblivion seemed to lurk around the corner; the development of Wakamatsu’s oeuvre, along with that of his close friend and ally Masao Adachi, also runs parallel with the development of the student movement and the growth of the radical left wing. Those looking back at this turbulent period and trying to fathom just how extremist political groups like the Communist League Red Army Faction (Kyôsanshugisha d^ômei sekigun-ha) – hereafter referred simply as the Red Army Faction – and the closely related groups of the Japanese Red Army (JRA, or Nihon Sekigun) and the United Red Army (URA, or Rengo Sekigun) developed as they did might well find clues in titles like Sex Play (1969), Shinjuku Mad (1970), Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), and the infamous Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971).
It is immediately clear to the modern viewer that there is something very unique about these films that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill softcore. Wakamatsu himself denies that he ever really made pinku eiga, and indeed, it would be difficult to describe much of the output of Wakamatsu Pro, especially those films made by Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya, as representing the typical face of the genre. ‘All in all you can say that our films were underground films with a sexy touch. At least, that’s how we saw them,’ Wakamatsu later claimed. The eroduction world just provided a distribution system for him and his collaborators to exploit, and they therefore needed to tailor the content of the works, to some extent, to fit its requirements. The Kôji Wakamatsu titles best known today seem to bear this out, though this is also due to the director himself owning the rights to the majority of the hundred or so films in his back catalogue, allowing him to be selective about which titles today find themselves most regularly screened and accessible on DVD. Wakamatsu will also concede that there were many films he made in his heyday that are no longer readily available that were, in his own words, ‘not very interesting’. His filmography is full of titles, such as White Man-Made Beauty (1966), Black Narcissus of Lust (1967), and Kama Sutra: Love Technique (1970), that were more directly intended for the sex film market, and made mainly to earn money to finance more adventurous, experimental or personal projects. He also proved more adept than most when it came to selling his films to foreign distributors.
How successful really was Wakamatsu then? According to the director himself: ‘My films fared pretty well. Troublesome were the films of Masao Adachi. Since nobody wanted to buy them, we added my name on the billboard and advertised them as joint productions.’ However, according to Daisuke Asakura, the president of Kokuei – the company that produced some of his earliest works – Wakamatsu Pro’s films, ‘weren’t too popular… which is understandable because the scripts were written by people like Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya. But I think Waka was the first “name value” in the world of pink films… in a sense, he’s the one who led the world of pink film.’ There are other benchmarks of success apart from commercial performance, and in many ways Wakamatsu can be described as the most significant figure to emerge from the eroduction field. Not only has his name been cited as an influence by successive generations of pink directors, but he has also achieved a unique level of crossover success during the time Wakamatsu Pro was active, with his films accepted by critics and intellectuals from outside the seijin eiga world, including such pivotal figures from the creative avant-garde as Shûji Terayama, Jûrô Kara, Nagisa Ôshima and the ATG producer Kinshirô Kuzui.
So how exactly did this bumpkin from a poor uneducated farming background in the north of Japan make the leap from the low-budget sex film market to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, play a pivotal role in the most prominent foreign co-production of the day, and wind up tangentially involved in the pro-Palestinian cause?
Wakamatsu’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable when you take into account his humble roots. Born 1 April, 1936, in the small town of Wakuya in the rural Miyagi prefecture of the mountainous northern Tôhoku region, he was one of several sons of a farmer who specialised in horse breeding. His relationship with his father was turbulent, as it was with his teachers at school, and though naturally a bright student, he soon let his studies slip after discovering a channel for his energies playing baseball. After being thrown out of agricultural college due to a violent altercation with a fellow member of the judo club (who was later to become, somewhat ironically given Wakamatsu’s problematic relationship with figures of authority throughout his life, a police officer), at the age of seventeen he found himself, like so many of his generation, packing his bags and heading down to Tokyo in search of work.
Wakamatsu’s entry into the world of filmmaking was a convoluted process. After his initial arrival in the city, he worked in a variety of lowly positions, on construction sites, at a confectionery company making daifuku, and in a bar, before he somehow became involved in a local yakuza group. Soon, at the age of twenty-three, a brush with the law led to a six-month spell in Hachiôji prison. Wakamatsu emerged from the ordeal with an even deeper mistrust of authority and a resolve to tackle it in a more constructive fashion that wouldn’t end up with him behind bars for a second time. The most obvious solution was through fiction. After all, engaging in real-life crimes such as killing politicians, policemen and other such figures of repressive authority tends to land one in trouble; committing the same act as fantasy in prose or on film seemed a safer way of expressing feelings of dissatisfaction with the current state of society. Wakamatsu’s initial plan was to vent his spleen by writing a novel based on his life story so far, but not long into it he discovered that his early departure from the education system made this a trickier task than he’d first envisaged. Might his talents perhaps be better suited to a life in the movies?
It was then, and indeed still is now, a customary practice for film crews in Tokyo to ask permission from local yakuza groups rather than the police when it came to location shooting in a particular quarter. And so Wakamatsu’s first brush with the film world came through his old mafia connections, with him working as a scout in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, watching over the crew and standing nearby the shoot to indicate that they had mob approval. During this time he approached one of the television producers whom he was monitoring and asked to be taken on as an apprentice.
Within a very short time he was working as a director for Nihon TV, a route taken by many pink directors before embarking on their big-screen careers. As Wakamatsu tells it, his next step up the ladder was characteristically serendipitous. A huge row, after a last-minute order to change the script and all the cast members on a project he was then working on led to Wakamatsu attacking his producer with a chair and storming off set. Only briefly out of work, he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from an actors’ agent in a hurry to find a director for a new film project. What kind of film did they want made? ‘They gave me a free rein as long as it included some shots of women’s naked backs and some love scenes. At that time the label pinku eiga didn’t exist. The censorship exercised by Eirin was very severe, to the point where you couldn’t show pubic hair or women’s nipples: so you were obliged to film naked women from behind. I asked him if it was worth the bother, but he insisted.’ And so, in 1963, Wakamatsu came to direct his first theatrical work, entitled Sweet Trap.
Sweet Trap no longer exists in a viewable form. What appears to be his earliest film in existence, and his seventh as a director, (1964) tells the story of a podgy salesman named Mizushima (played by the actor Takuzô Kamiyama in his first and only leading role) who, when visiting the household of the Tsuchiya family, disturbs an assault on the lady of the house, Yûko (Daydream’s Kanako Michi), by her brother-in-law Toshio. Coming to her rescue, he nevertheless finds himself on the wrong side of the law when Yûko’s husband, an influential public prosecutor, frames him by giving false evidence in order to protect Toshio, his younger brother. When Mizushima is betrayed to the police by his girlfriend Akemi, who remains unconvinced of his innocence, he returns to visit Yûko and, after making love, the couple decide to flee together across the countryside, with the film climaxing in a memorable confrontation on the rim of a volcano crater. Playing far more conventionally than the director’s later, more enigmatic meditations on violence, subversive politics and sexual hysteria, if Red Crime can be linked to the new eroduction genre in any way, it is more by dint of its low-budget production circumstances than its actual content. With its lovers-on-the-run scenario reminiscent of Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), it in fact owes more to crime thriller conventions, and there are none of the overt addresses to contemporary political issues that would characterize his self-produced work.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which ran from 25 October to 7 November. Under the direction of Hans Hurch, it was a terrifically eclectic festival, very much aimed at audiences rather than the film industry. And as a city, Vienna is hard to beat for film, with a surprising number of excellent independent cinemas.
To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna-born director Fritz Lang, offering an opportunity to watch both the highs (1955’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and lows (1942’s Hangmen Always Die! ) of his staggering career. There was also a tribute to Michael Caine, and a very special evening with the experimental director Peter Kubelka, who presented his new work, Monumenta, in front of a home audience.
Five female filmmakers were also honoured with a programme devoted to their films, which included the debut from actress Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), as well as rare films by the experimental filmmakers Colleen Fitzgibbon and Narcisca Hirsh, Mati Diop and shorts by Kurdwin Ayub. There was also a special focus on horror, ‘They Wanted to See Something Different’ (a line taken from The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), which saw double bills of The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951), plus a host of midnight screenings, including Alien (1979) and Deliverance (1972).
Although it was impossible to see even a fraction of the movies screening at the festival, three new features stood out, based in large part on some excellent performances.
Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which won the prize for best Austrian film, blurs the line between documentary and fiction to cast a light on an intimately revealing encounter between two very different men. Philipp Hochmair (both performers essentially play themselves) is a well-known theatre actor, his life consumed by the demanding roles that he adopts on stages in Hamburg and Vienna; the audience is given a glimpse of a life spent learning lines, rehearsing, performing. For Philipp, acting is a compulsion that overshadows the realities of everyday life. But the arrival of his estranged uncle, played by Walter Saabel – circus performer, knife thrower and bear wrestler – who is trying to reconnect with his family and his own difficult past, and his sudden involvement with a desperate neighbour force Philipp to engage with the real world. There’s a terrific chemistry between the two very charismatic actors, and with much of the dialogue improvised, the film feels like a rare, touchingly honest human drama.
Elie Wajeman’s impressive debut, Alyah, stars Pio Marmaï as Alex, who sells drugs in the Parisian suburbs to make money, mostly used to pay off his brother’s debts. Isaac, fucked up but still charming (perfectly played by the writer/director Cédric Kahn) is a burden, and Alex discovers an opportunity to escape when he hears about a cousin who’s opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. But first, he has to confront painful family ties and rediscover his neglected heritage in order to pass the ‘alyah’ and move to Israel. It’s a brooding, compelling film that charts its own path between the two poles of French cinema – the gritty, banlieue-set realism and the fairy-tale world of the Parisian elite – to conjure up something surprisingly original.
Rebecca Thomas’s Electrick Children stars Julia Garner as a 15-year-old who has spent her life living in a fundamental religious community in Utah. Her world is turned upside down when she finds a hidden music cassette, with only one song – a cover of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – shortly before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Either too traumatised or too naive to acknowledge who abused her, she convinces herself that the singer on the tape must be the father of her child, and runs away to Las Vegas to find him. It’s a compelling film that perfectly captures that moment in your adolescence when you heard that song, or saw that film, that suddenly seemed to change everything. And while the plot might seem a little absurd, Thomas does a brilliant job mixing humour with something much deeper, while Garner beautifully portrays Rachel’s wide-eyed innocence, and growing self-awareness.
Tanya Byrne, who has been short-listed for the New Writer of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards was born in East London, in the hospital where her mum and dad met. She went to an all-girls school, studied law, and then ended up working in events for Radio 4. Her dark and daring debut novel, Heart Shaped Bruise (Headline) tells the story, in diary form, of Emily Koll, who is in a young offenders institute, awaiting trial for a violent, revengeful crime. Her filmic alter ego is Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. EITHNE FARRY
If you’ve read my book, then you won’t be surprised by the character I’ve chosen. It was actually much harder than I thought because liking characters like Tyler Durden and Napoleon Dynamite is a very different thing from wanting to be them. OK. Being Superman would be amazing. Who doesn’t want to fly, right? But I’m a horrible liar so I couldn’t do the double life thing. Plus, I’m addicted to Twitter, so I’d probably get drunk and tweet ‘LEX LUTHOR, COME AT ME, BRO’ one night and the jig would be up. And being Ferris Bueller would be awesome, but only if I could be him on that day. Having to grow up again would suck. I didn’t want to do it the first time. Then there’s Randal Graves and Keyser Söze and The Dude and Jack Torrance and yeah, you get my point.
Plus, I wanted to pick a woman, but again, Clementine Kruczynski, The Bride, Holly Golightly, Ripley, all fantastic characters, but I wouldn’t want to be any of them. Being stranded in space being chased by aliens like Ripley? No thanks.
So I opted for Clarice Starling. That will probably horrify most people (when I asked Twitter, responses ranged from Gandalf to Cher Horowitz). Most people are captivated by Hannibal Lecter (as am I, of course), but it’s Clarice’s relationship with him that intrigues me. So if I had to be anyone else, I would be her. She’s bright and brave and while she’s out of her depth at times, she overcomes her fears in the end, which is all any of us are trying to do. Besides, if I couldn’t write about bad guys anymore, chasing them wouldn’t be so bad.
Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated follow-up to Kill List, is a comedic character study starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as a freshly in love couple who are setting out on a road trip across the north of England, which turns into something unexpectedly darker and fatally dangerous for anyone who dares to spoil their twisted idyll.
Pamela Jahn met up with the director at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May to talk about exploring the British countryside, romance and how women are sometimes the better killers.
Pamela Jahn: Sightseers is very extreme, like Down Terrace and Kill List, but feels more open and lighter.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, one of the major attractions to the story for me was to get out and explore some of the broader space of England, but also in terms of cinematic space… Sightseers is much more about figures and landscapes rather than just faces in frames.
And there is more humour.
Basically, I wanted to make a comedy after Kill List, because on the one hand, if I had made another horror film, everyone would have said I am a horror filmmaker forever and that would have been bad. The door would have just been shut and locked. We also felt depressed after Kill List, because it was just so horrible and it was such a hard film to make and to edit and to be involved in. And then you get this thing when you watch a film back, and you think, oh, well, I could have made anything, and I made this. Why did I do this? [laughs] So we thought, let’s just make something that feels lighter and happier, and more fun. And the other reason why we wanted to make this film is because we wanted to do something that is much more playful and loose. We knew that the movies coming up after this are going to be much more technical and difficult, so we wanted to be able to play a little more here.
The violence is still pretty shocking in places.
Yeah, but it’s not that shocking. Like Kill List wasn’t that violent, I mean not really. It’s just that you feel it because of the emotional kick, but physically and in terms of body count, it’s not that bad.
The script was co-written by the stars of the film, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Does it still feel very close to you though?
Amy Jump, who is credited with additional material, is my wife, and she co-wrote Kill List and edited on Sightseers as well. We restructured it a bit from their script and took things on board that we had learned from doing the two previous movies. So this way, we brought it into the family of the previous films. We also did the editing, and there is so much improvisation in it. There is actually a level of authorship that goes on top of the script, which comes purely from us.
There’s a line that seems to run through your films, that somehow refers to the extreme, or the animalistic in human nature. What is it that fascinates you so much about that?
Talking about England – but it’s the same in all of Europe, actually – it feels to me that there’ve always been layers of reality. Beneath the pavement is the earth, and there have been all sorts of things happening here for over thousands and thousands of years, and it’s all in us. And this is what we’re trying to show in these movies, that it is only a step to the left or the right and you find this stuff… Things aren’t as modern as we think.
What is it that attracted you in particular to this couple and their story?
When I first read the script and got to know the characters, what struck me was that they’re crossing over the boundaries of society, they’re not held back by modern manners. In a way, I could have been in the film, except I wouldn’t murder anyone, but I’d probably go back to the caravan, crunching my teeth, thinking ‘gggrrrrr’. And I think there is something about watching people who actually go through to the very end and break social rules and do it.
But it’s also that kind of strange story about a couple who are throwing at each other what they like and what they don’t like. First, he shows her his darkest side, and then she can do it much better than he can, and that’s really depressing for him. So he’s crushed. I like that… For me that’s quite romantic.
Are women the better killers?
In this one, yeah, absolutely! But I don’t think she speaks for all women [laughs].
You don’t seem to be worried that people might take your films the wrong way and actually be inspired by them.
It doesn’t end well for them, so I don’t know… And I made Kill List. Jesus, if I was worried about that, I would have stopped there.
Did the success of Kill List come as a big surprise to you?
Yes, it did. But I don’t know how you’re supposed to react when that happens. You can’t really think about it, because it just chains you from doing anything else. And you can’t take any of it seriously, because if you did, you’d take yourself too seriously and that’s a disaster – it totally inhibits how you work. So I just say ‘thank you very much’ and move on. And although you can pretend that you’ve got a plan, you just end up making the films you make. This is the only way I know how to do things. In retrospect, you could look at the movies and probably slot them in and go, ‘oh it’s a bit like this and a bit like that’. But they’re never conceived like that.
Do you feel there is something particularly British about your characters or your films?
In Britain, it’s like everywhere, there are people who are very meek and there are people who are just really, really violent. You wouldn’t want to stagger around drunk on a Saturday night in a seaside town in Britain without your wits about you. And I guess there are still people shooting pheasants with shotguns somewhere, things like that.
What’s your favourite killing scene in Sightseers?
I really like Ian’s death, mainly because I like the parallel editing, you see lots of things happening at the same time, and cut to the music – I really enjoy those sequences. And we’re trying to make each of them different, but then use certain elements again for her murders and his murders.
Is there something you think you consciously have to do, or not do, if you want to be a good director?
I don’t know…But when I became an editor that ruined everything. So once you know how to edit, you’re fucked.
Have you ever been on a caravan trip yourself?
I have been camping a lot, but not in a caravan, no. And I don’t know if I will now, after sitting with a camera in the toilet of that caravan with a monitor on my lap. The caravan thing might be over for me.
Films about disastrous science experiments follow a familiar format: well-meaning scientists searching for immortality or age-defying cosmetics, for instance, step a little too far into the unknown. The result is a contortion of human life that is uncontainable unless, usually, it is killed. An initial moral dilemma about manipulating ‘nature’ is followed by extreme guilt and a perverse fluctuation between the pleasure of controlling new discoveries and the knowledge that what might surface from the void might escape your control. An interesting sub-genre features monstrous women at the centre of these crises. They include Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) directed by Nathan Juran, The Wasp Woman (1959), directed by Roger Corman, and Firestarter (1984), directed by Mark L. Lester and written by Stephen King. So what happens when the female of the species enters the equation? Girl sci-fi creatures in cinema are very enigmatic, and, to me, there is nothing more reassuring than a celluloid lady running riot.
In the language of conservative, mainstream film women are already unknowable, ineffable, irrational so they perfectly fit with stories about scientific experiments that venture into unknown territory. Often, the female characters are already presented as monsters in some way from the beginning. ‘Just who do they think they are?’ the filmmakers seem to ask. In two of the films mentioned, the narrative world of the film centres around women who are economically powerful. Janice Starlin in The Wasp Woman owns and directs a successful cosmetics company, Nancy Fowler Archer in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman supports her husband with her personal riches. Their ambition is presented as ruthless, they are outlawed for denying a ‘maternal instinct’. They are obsessive, jealous, neurotic and can’t be contained.
Then the mutations begin: traditionally, women are abducted by aliens or they get involved with hybrid experiments involving the ingestion of insect extracts, their DNA is spliced with an animal’s, or parts of their brain become overactive, and so on. The narratives of this sub-genre seem to suggest that this is the women’s comeuppance for their failings. Male scientists, doctors and those acting for the moral good see the monsters as a threat to national security. But this is intricately tied up with a general anxiety about the female body and the way it changes and develops. It is the non-human that impacts on these women’s already ‘unknowable’ and shifting bodies. In Firestarter, Charlie McGee is the lovechild of a couple involved in a drug test. The test left them with psychic abilities and Charlie’s quirk is pyrokinesis – she can think people and things on fire. The original doctor who held the test is convinced that her powers are caused by her overactive pituitary gland. They are due to get stronger with the onset of puberty. This ‘sleeping gland’ is about to wake up and she could be used to create explosions that may reach nuclear strength. Indeed, Charlie does erupt and avenges her parents’ death. Cue big fires, horses being released, fathers dying and other Freudian symbology.
Interestingly, the initial drug that Charlie’s parents were injected with was a synthetic copy of pituitary extract, something that re-appears in the other films. In Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Nancy Fowler Archer has an extraterrestrial encounter that involves being exposed to radiation. She later grows to 50 feet tall. Although it is muttered in the film, the doctor who treats Nancy says that while her condition is undiagnosed it can be related to an ‘overactive forward lobe of the pituitary process’ or something similar. Not quite so specifically, in The Wasp Woman, Janice Starlin enjoys a miracle preparation derived from wasp enzymes. This affords her temporary regeneration and seeming youth. She ODs, becomes psychotic and grows a hairy wasp head. But essentially she messes around with the natural ageing process.
So here’s the science: the pituitary gland is involved in homeostasis, the regulation of processes such as growth and sexual development. This gland is the epicentre for a scientific understanding of all the flux that women’s bodies present. The references are made in the films, I think, to indicate efforts to control and understand female bodies and the ultimate fear of a loss of that control. So in these films, women, monstrous by nature, are attacked by monsters that turn them into even scarier monsters: there does seem to be a glaring anxiety about women’s power here. The film’s narratives would have it that these aberrant women are out of control, but it’s also possible to read their extreme gestures as acting out a process of ‘taking control’. It’s this that might particularly appeal to a female audience.
The scenes where women are seen to do this are the most spectacular and entertaining in the films. Charlie McGee, in a trance with her hair flying around, appears to be in control of unearthly forces. She causes phenomenal explosions, cars burst into flame, three-pronged fireballs take out secret agents, brick walls are reduced to dust. She is allowed a certain amount of screen cool that is usually reserved for boys. The scenes are transporting and magical, and all the more because a nine-year-old girl, who would usually be largely invisible or performing a cutesy role, is the puppet master. When Nancy Fowler Archer decides to use her size to show her cheating husband just what she thinks of him she never looked so glamorous. She is suddenly blond, presumably from the radiation, and her clothes have been torn off her back to create a burlesque corset and mini skirt. She strides across the desert, glowing, to gloriously pull the roof of a hotel. Finally, perhaps when watching The Wasp Woman we can ask, ‘Who wouldn’t want to stay looking young, when this is viewed as one of the measure of success and power?’ Male CEOs can grow old gracefully but women in charge and in the public eye have a very different treatment. Although I personally think her killer queen look is fantastic, it’s ultimately a true manifestation of the monster within.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews