Now in its 5th year, the Terracotta Far East Film Festival once again offered an exciting celebration of Asian cinema. Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin report on their festival highlights.
Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
This year’s Terracotta Festival opened with a very special treat, Stanley Kwan’s 1988 sumptuous, melancholy ghost story Rouge, in homage to its two late great leads, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Mui plays Fleur, a beguilingly beautiful hostess in a Hong Kong ‘flower house’ (brothel). When one night, dressed as a man and brilliantly sassy and insolent, Fleur performs a song for young heir Chan (Cheung) and his companions, it is love at first sight. But when his family objects to their union, they decide to commit suicide. Fifty years later, Fleur reappears in modern Hong Kong and tries to place a missing person ad in a paper to find Chan, who never showed up in the netherworld. Helped by the newspaper’s owner and his girlfriend, she forlornly wanders around a soulless Hong Kong, where the gorgeous theatres of the past have been replaced by ugly underpasses, trying to discover what happened to Chan. Visually exquisite, the film contrasts the splendour, elegant rituals and repressive social conventions of the past with the harsh, sordid reality of a mediocre, but less confining present, through the depiction of both the city and the characters’ lives. A superb and poignant film, it truly deserved to be seen on the big screen. VS
The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, 2012)
Within the fictional Japanese prefecture of Nagashima, an earthquake causes a nuclear meltdown at a local power plant. As a consequence the population of this small provincial district are forced to uproot. Local farmer Yusuhiko and his wife Chieko refuse to leave the contaminated area, while their son and his pregnant wife struggle to start a new life in a neighbouring town, having to face ineffectual authorities and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, a young couple, Mitsuri and Yoko, wander the devastated wasteland that was once Yoko’s hometown, desperately in search of her parents.
The Land of Hope will be released on Blu-ray + DVD in the UK on 26 August 2013 by Third Window Films.
From horror oddities such as Exte: Hair Extension(2007), where various victims are attacked by their hairstyles, and the epic story of love, religion and panty-shot photography that is Love Exposure (2009), to the brutal dystopia of Himizu (2011), Japanese director Sion Sono has gained a formidable reputation for having an exceptionally unique approach to filmmaking. The Land of Hope is a slight departure from his usual extremes, without being completely bereft of his surreal sense of humour and the occasional excursion into overtly symbolic imagery. Throughout this poignant domestic drama, Sono succeeds in achieving a restrained and proficient balance between naturalism and the visually poetic as he tackles head on a monumental disaster and its tragic repercussions. The only problem with the film is his overbearing use of classical music, which often feels cheap and unnecessary. But skillfully avoiding spectacle, the director’s heartfelt authenticity is unquestionable, making this his most accessible and personal film to date. RM
Watch the trailer for The Land of Hope:
Cold War (Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk, 2012)
Hong Kong prides itself on being one of the safest cities in Asia, but over the course of one night, it’s about to become one of the deadliest. When a planted bomb tears the centre of the city apart, it’s initially assumed to be a terrorist attack – that is until an Emergency Unit vehicle carrying five police officers mysteriously disappears without a trace. A merciless gang of hijackers are claiming to be the culprits and demanding a hefty ransom. The race is on to hunt down the suspects and save the hostages. But it’s a perilous mission that not only poses a threat to the citizens of Hong Kong, but also begins to tear away at the hierarchical fabric of the police department.
First-time directors Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk give it everything they’ve got with Cold War, determined to prove themselves as main contenders in the Asian cinema stakes, from the majestically cinematic aerial shots of the opening scenes to the gracefully composed but nerve-shredding action sequences. Their tactics have certainly paid off, with Cold War receiving nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film, director, screenplay, cinematography and editing. But, unfortunately, an otherwise lucid plot loses momentum during the last half-an-hour as the film tries to establish itself as a franchise. Nevertheless, this is Hong Kong action cinema at its most slick and visceral, re-establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. RM
The Berlin File (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2013)
When an illegal arms deal in a Berlin hotel escalates into violent chaos, a surveillance team expose one of the escaped survivors as a North Korean ‘ghost agent’ (Ha Jung-woo), whose involvement remains unclear. Following on his trail, South Korean intelligence operative Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) is determined to discover the agent’s true identity and prerogative. An intense investigation gradually unveils an international conspiracy involving Middle Eastern terrorists, the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, a deadly assassin, a shady ambassador and a female translator.
Although Ryoo Seung-wan’s espionage thriller lacks the dark menace of the Len Deighton, John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum adaptations that it’s unashamedly attempting to emulate, the film has enough of its own inventive energy and stylistic verve to stand its ground. The plot is ridiculously convoluted with an abundance of clichés involving poisoned ballpoint pens, murders on speeding trains, men in trench coats meeting in parks, self-destructing messages and blatantly obvious passwords.
But among its themes of loyalty and betrayal, the film’s greatest strength is Seung-wan’s complete respect and dutiful devotion to the spy genre and action cinema. Despite its flaws, The Berlin File races along at a relentless pace, with some truly astounding and dynamic action sequences meticulously choreographed by Jung Doo-hong. There’s also an eerie sense of melancholy generated from some very believable human relationships, in between the explosions and car chases. The Berlin File is an uneven but extremely thrilling and entertaining experience. RM
Festival report by Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin
Recently, a couple of my friends were having a light scuffle about music formats on Facebook. The conversation shifted from ‘Why are you listening to that?’ to ‘Why are you listening to that on CD?’ The suggestion was that any physical format for storing music was now absurd: ‘Why would you when you don’t have to?’ Such an outcry would be ignored by the boozy congregation that met earlier this month in Islington’s deconsecrated church The Nave. They were out in their legions to pay homage at the launch of the heavyweight 180g luxuriance that was the limited, double coloured vinyl edition of John Carpenter’s self-scored soundtrack to The Fog (1980), released by Death Waltz Recording Company, founded by Spencer Hickman in 2011. Also unveiled that night was renowned artist Dinos Chapman’s specially commissioned cover artwork: a spidery, skinless semi-human face that seems to emerge from a graphite fog and be consumed by it at the same time.
More information on Cigarette Burns Cinema can be found here.
Rare celluloid print screening masters Cigarette Burns, founded by Josh Saco in 2008, who co-hosted the event, treated us further to lurid trailers from 70s movies, including Burnt Offerings (1976) and Demon Seed (1977), getting us in the mood for the 16mm full scope projection of The Fog itself: Carpenter’s tale of 19th-century undead sailors who descend upon their old haunt, the Californian fishing town Antonio Bay, to avenge their betrayal. They were drowned when their ship was sunk by original Bay folk who were not keen on the sailors’ mission to establish a leper colony nearby. The eerie thick fog that heralds their anniversary visit is a portentous means of transportation. The fog is more than this though: its ubiquity and unearthly toxicity are incomprehensible. A motif perhaps, of the world beyond, an anarchic space outside society, that Carpenter evokes across his films. The Fog is certainly worth celebrating, and the dimly lit, smoke-filled arts venue provided some great visual echoes, especially during the scenes set in Father Malone’s church.
Carpenter is known for scoring and performing the music for his own film projects and The Fog’s soundtrack is indicative of his pared-down, minimal style. The detuned sense of foreboding puts me in mind of his outsider antiheroes, who are at odds with the dominant social forces. This includes my favourite Carpenter character, psychopath turned hobby bobby Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston in Assault on Precinct 13, who also turns up in The Fog as the coroner. Also, Michael Myers, played by Tony Moran, the slasher who gets to walk away unscathed at the end of Halloween. Whether Carpenter gives us the electro alienation of the Assault score or the agoraphobic mix of The Fog, these spaces are populated by drifters, the disenchanted and the vengeful.
Carpenter’s re-issued score would work on any format because it’s good, but I like Death Waltz’s double vinyl edition that can be handled and played on an analogue system. For me, this is part of the phenomenological pleasure of space, and objects that occupy three-dimensional space and reflect light. It’s also about an enjoyment of the residue of this: the whirring of the projector, cigarette smoke in a beam of light or the suspense of opening a double album, searching for inserts.
Cast (Faith): Maria Hofstä;tter, Nabil Saleh, Natalya Baranova, Rene Rupni
Cast (Hope): Melanie Lenz, Verena Lehbauer, Joseph Lorenz, Michael Thomas
Austria, Germany France
He is not bothered by the fact that people call his films ‘shocking’ and ‘extreme’, says Ulrich Seidl: ‘I am just trying to offer a realistic view of the world we live in.’ More importantly though, the Austrian director, who would have become a priest if his family had their way, prefers to think of love as one of the central motives in his body of work, which mainly comprises poignant and fiercely honest explorations of the incorrigibly odd side of society. Known for playing with narrative form by blending documentary style and drama in telling stories that oscillate between moments of raw (and frequently debauched) human behaviour and a dark, brutish sense of humour, it wasn’t until his 2001 film Dog Days (Hundstage) that Seidl found international acclaim, followed by his first appearance in competition at Cannes with Import Export in 2007. His latest project, which started off as an anthology film but ultimately turned into a trilogy called Paradise, revolves around three woman from the same family but with different quests and desires, namely sex, religion and true love.
Paradise: Love is released in the UK on 14 June 2013.
In Love, which marks the first instalment of the triptych, Margarethe Tiesel stars as Teresa, a chubby single mother in her fifties, whose desperate search for love and affection turns increasingly wolfish when she steps out of her hotel room at a holiday resort in Kenya, where her friend has assured her that sex is plentiful. At first reluctant to go for one of the many underage beach boys on offer, she soon can’t help but give in to temptation. However, Seidl here slightly tones down the brutal rigidity of his earlier work as he moves into warmer territory, both climatically and emotionally.
Paradise: Faith is released in the UK on 5 July 2013.
The centrepiece, Faith, concerns Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstä;tter), a fanatically devout Catholic, whose paradise lies with Jesus. She spends her vacation doing missionary work, taking a statue of the Virgin Mary from door to door around the countryside, in the hope of leading Austria back to the path of virtue. The tone is that of an uncompromising and mordant black comedy, which plunges into even darker tones from the moment Anna Maria is reunited with her Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian confined to a wheelchair, who comes home after years away to demand his rights.
Paradise: Hope is released in the UK on 2 August 2013.
The final act, Hope, revolves around Meli (Melanie Lenz), Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter, who she drops of at a diet camp before heading to Kenya. But instead of trimming and toning, Meli can’t help but fall in love with her handsome doctor (Joseph Lorenz), who seems strangely attracted by the girl but, aware of the consequences, tries to keep his hands off. Meli, for her part, with her mother away buying love for money and her aunt busy praying, relies solely on her ebullient roommates to read the signs and follow her heart.
Pamela Jahn: What was the driving force in your venture to make three films relating to ‘paradise’?
Ulrich Seidl: We have a notion of paradise as the place of desire per se, and my intention was to make a film about three women and their particular longing, but ultimately with the aim of reaching paradise, in other words: reach love, affection, sexuality, attention, comfort. Very roughly speaking, that’s what the films are about.
How much irony is there?
None. It’s meant very seriously. But added to this is the fact that ‘paradise’ is a term that is used very often in the tourist industry, which is why it was so suitable for the first part of the trilogy. In travel magazines, every place is called paradise, and in every holiday resort there is a bar on the beach called Paradise too. But then, in the second film, paradise is meant in a religious way, while in the third part it becomes a place of desire again.
How did you choose the running order of the films?
We decided the running order after a very long process and time spent at the cutting table. I’ve been working on the films for about two years. First, it was meant to be just one film that would link the three different stories together, but once we started shooting, it became clear that it would be too complex to do that in terms of the emotionality of watching and following the three different stories at once. Then I started thinking about splitting them, first into two films, then three films, and once we had decided that it would be a trilogy, we had to determine the running order. For a long time, I thought I would start with the story about the mother, but followed by the story of the daughter. In the end, I changed my mind and put that last.
As in saying, ‘hope dies last’?
Not really. It hasn’t got anything to do with the title, it was mainly because there was a dramaturgic element to it. All three women are somewhat caught in a prison: a hotel resort for the mother, a house in Lower Austria for the sister, or a diet camp for the daughter in the final act. Each place has its own universe surrounding it, with its own images and its own style, but putting the story of the mother at the beginning and that of the daughter at the end provided a sort of framework for it.
What exactly does ‘paradise’ mean for Teresa in the first film?
She is woman who has been disappointed by men in the past. She’s a single mother at an age when she can’t easily find the man of her dreams, because she feels like she is no longer as attractive as she used to be. So she is looking to satisfy her desires, she is looking for the promises that the word ‘paradise’ contains. She is going to Africa to find her luck, to find happiness, which is a total paradox given the highly charged social, cultural and political environment there.
In a way she knows that she is looking in the wrong place from the start.
Maybe, but she can’t help it. It may sound trite, but all my films are somewhat mirrors of our society. As a filmmaker, I am always interested in outsiders, misfits, because my whole youth was pretty much contingent on that. Therefore my films are concerned with what people call the essential things in life: love, sexuality, beauty, loneliness, mortality, death, power relations. And of course the fact that Teresa is suffering because she doesn’t match today’s thin-ideal standard of beauty is part of this. In Africa she feels accepted, because women of her stature are seen as beautiful, regardless of their age. And the question is, why? And in a way this also shines light on our society and the way we look at things. In the second film, there is a similar thread in terms of the conflict between Muslim and Christian worldviews. So, there are always different layers to each of the three films.
Men usually are given a hard time in your films. What is it that interests you so much in the female perspective?
I wouldn‘t necessarily say that about the men in my films, but it’s true that I find women more interesting than men. Why? I don’t know, but in general I think I have more sympathy for women when it comes to all those gender conflicts that my films are concerned with. And in this case it was a conscious decision I made to tell three stories about three different women, but I have also just finished a play which had only men in the cast, so it really depends on the project I am working on. Regarding the men in the trilogy, I have to say that male audiences don’t really like the films, maybe because they feel offended, because they have to ask themselves: Why do these women have to sleep with beach boys? Or, if you look at the third episode, it’s essentially a Lolita story, told from the perspective of the girl. But in the end, the man is stuck in a dilemma about whether or not he should give in to his feelings for Meli. And in the second part, the Muslim man feels ambivalent and somewhat trapped, because in the Western world he can have every woman he wants, which is different to where he comes from. But at the same time, he’s disgusted about it and thinks all these women are whores. This kind of inner conflict in Muslim men is something I have come across very often and which I find very interesting.
Is it the breaking of taboos that fascinates you in a way?
No, at least that’s not my aim. I am not making films to simply provoke people or anything, but sometimes the truth, reality as such, provokes a scandal, which is good. In my films, I only try to guide people to look at things that are ‘normal’, things that people sometimes don’t dare to look at, although, or because, they are presumably ‘normal’. To me, art means pointing people and audiences to something that helps them think about themselves or the world we live in. And every single one of us has a handicap, nobody is perfect! Every person has a deficiency in one way or another. So in a way, this is about all of us.
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration)
Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by: Joseph Conrad
Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederick Forrest, Albert Hall
Apocalypse Now is a modernist novel made film in more ways than one. The opening montage is a palimpsest of a Dante-esque, napalm fuelled hell, with Martin Sheen’s blank Hindu stare inverted and staring back; all to the sound of The Doors basically announcing ‘in the end is my beginning’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. It won’t be the last quotation.
From the mission-inciting Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) quoting Lincoln to Dennis Hopper’s veritable golden treasury of verse (Kipling and Eliot again), Francis Ford Coppola litters his film with literary associations like an anxious host leaving books scattered artfully around an apartment before a dinner party. In fact, the camera drifts over Kurtz’s bedside reading – From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Both books were vital to the writing of ‘The Wasteland’, almost as if Kurtz is Eliot and ‘The Wasteland’ the poem he is writing around himself, shoring up his fragments. He reads a stanza of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, tactfully neglecting the Conrad quotation at the front of the poem which reads ‘Mistuh Kurtz, he dead’. In searching him out, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) will basically read himself up the river, as he pours over the files and narrates with the jaded literary tone of Michael Herr’s tersely perfect Marlovian (though Chandler, more than Conrad) wit.
The film is based on the key modernist text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola reiterates in every audio commentary and documentary (see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991) that he took the book to the shoot instead of the script; that he read Brando the book from cover to cover as a way of getting him into the role; that he increasingly saw the book as his inspiration rather than the more straightforward war movie screenwriter John Milius had envisioned. (Ironically, Conrad also began writing basic adventure yarns, before making a move for something altogether more ambitious with this enigmatic novella.) Coppola was also aligning himself with Orson Welles, who had famously failed to adapt Conrad’s book for his debut film, the first of what was to become a string of tantalisingly failed projects. What’s more, his self-aggrandising myth valorises the confusion and chaos of the production as part of his process: every film Coppola makes somehow takes on the modus operandi of its subject and so Apocalypse Now becomes Heart of Darkness, becomes Vietnam.
Putting the rumbling of the gigantic production to one side, the film is actually a remarkably tight and accomplished piece of work – especially when compared to the flabby, dissipated and unnecessary Redux released in 2001. After the hallucinatory, drunken visions of the opening, the film takes a brisk cold shower, lays on some riveting exposition and gets on the boat – and of course the boat, called the Erebus (not Marlow’s more prosaic Nelly), like the Orca in Jaws and the Pequod in Moby Dick is a symbol/cross-section of male America. On board, we have the relaxed, spaced out and utterly untrustworthy Lance (Sam Bottoms), the jumpy New Orlean Chef (Frederick Forrest), the black youngster Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chief Philips (Albert Hall), the father figure and conscience. Sheen’s Willard, on the other hand, is basically ‘American involvement in Vietnam’ embodied. He’s the reason they’re all where they are: he’s the one who refuses to turn back and he remains ambivalent to the purpose of his mission, unsure of whether he will fulfil it or not but morbidly, cynically fascinated by the journey. In this, he resembles Kinski’s Aguirre on Xanax, viciously unconcerned about the damage he is causing, casually murdering a wounded unarmed woman merely to speed up his mission. His wistful unperturbed gaze at the horrors and the self-satisfied rightness of his narration – ‘charging someone with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ – makes him the cool appraising judgement that Brando’s Kurtz is so neurotically afraid of. Willard has found the total freedom that comes with obeying orders (especially orders that don’t officially exist) and he has come to murder the more agonised freedom of Kurtz’s, making it up as he goes along. ‘You disapprove of my methods?’ Kurtz asks when they meet. ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ Willard waspishly responds.
Despite ‘the horror, the horror’ of Kurtz’s mad excess, Apocalypse Now is an unrelentingly beautiful film. Following David Lean’s lead in the famous poppy field scene in Doctor Zhivago, Coppola realises that war can be both brutal and gorgeous. The Ride of the Valkyries is justifiably regarded as one of the best sequences American cinema has produced, but Chef’s search for mangos and Lance’s LSD inspired wandering with Willard in search of a commanding officer are just as dazzlingly filmed. When Lance disposes of the chief’s body, the corpse almost dissolves in the molten and golden light of the river. The darkness is aesthetically luxuriated in as Brando’s wonderful pate dips in and out of it like warm water. And Kurtz himself is a knowingly theatrical presence, whose set decoration is too avant-garde for the authorities, but who at least has the opportunity to script and direct his own leaving of the scene.
Philip Hoare was born in Southampton and is the author of seven non-fiction books. His latest work, the magical The Sea Inside (published by Fourth Estate), is an invigorating tour of the sea, its islands, birds and beasts. Along the way, Hoare meets a cast of recluses, outcasts and travellers, from eccentric artists and scientists to tattooed warriors, as well as marvellous creatures, from a gothic crow to a great whale. Philip is a keen sea swimmer. Even in the depths of winter. Philip Hoare’s filmic alter ego is Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Eithne Farry
There is no contest as to my avatar. He is Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1976, when Nicolas Roeg’s movie came out, I went to see it three times at the cinema. I even took my cassette recorder and taped the soundtrack. I so identified with Newton that friends accused me of making my nose bleed in a Tube lift to emulate a similar scene in the movie. I also wore plastic sandals like Newton. I nearly fainted at the private view of ‘David Bowie is’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year when I came face to face with the black suit and white shirt Bowie wore for the film.
But it wasn’t just about my adulation for the Thin White Duke (whom I saw for the first time that year on the Station to Station tour at Earl’s Court; the opening act was Bunel’s Un chien andalou (1929), and Bowie performed in a similar black and white outfit, lit by Dan Flavin-like white strip lights). Roeg’s fantastical film has elements of Powell and Pressburger as much as it has of science fiction or surrealism.
The film’s references to Auden and Icarus echo Bowie’s shape-shifting personae (as well as 1970s dystopia). At one point, Newton is being driven through the American wilderness (a sequence inspired by the Cracked Actor (1975) documentary, which prompted Roeg to cast Bowie) when you suddenly hear a burst of hillbilly banjo and see, through a weird watery sepia, a vision of 19th century sharecroppers.
Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock, looking out to a green light and ‘the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’.
For someone addicted to swimming in the sea every day, often in the dark and lonely hour before dawn, Newton’s predicament still strikes me, long and deep.
More information about Philip Hoare can be found here.
The L.A. based collective Fol Chen describe their music as ‘opera house’, mixing beats and addictive melodies with lyrical storytelling to create soundtracks for an imaginary future. Their latest album, The False Alarms, is out on Asthmatic Kitty. Below, singer Sinosa Loa selects her top 10 favourite films.
1. Vibrator (Ryūichi Hiroki, 2003)
Set in beautiful industrial Japan in the snow, with two levels of internal monologue that you might think are happening in your own head. A couple of strangers run off together and it’s wonderful and heartbreaking in all the best ways. I love this.
2. Fucking Åmål (Lukas Moodyson, 1998)
If you’ve ever been a teenager, you know what it’s like to hate where you live, suffer for who you love, and in a few wonderful moments get a taste of life not being so awful all the time. The English title is ‘Show Me Love’, which is a pity.
Fol Chen play Point Ephemere in Paris on 4 June and The Shacklewell Arms in London on 5 June. More information on touring dates can be found here.
3. The films of Bas Jan Ader (1970–1975)
Mostly silent, some as short as seconds long, all the more haunting since he disappeared at sea. Also great is the documentary on his work called Here is Always Somewhere Else.
4. The Ambassador (Mads Brügger, 2011)
I don’t endorse Mads Brügger’s death wish, but the world he exposed is spellbinding. Possibly the realest danger someone has put themselves in, on purpose, on film.
5. The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975)
This was one of the first films I saw after I accidentally moved to Hollywood when I was 20. It had the unlikely effect of actually endearing me to the city and I found the tragedy of a million doomed dreams utterly romantic. I still love LA and all its fucked up charms.
6. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)
We all have our tricks to feel better no matter how sick, sad, lonely, or pissed we are. Here’s one of mine. You can have it, too. Enjoy crying from happiness.
7. Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013)
These movies caught me at all the right times. Also, I don’t care what anyone says about Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy is a queen.
8. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1979/Zack Snyder, 2004)
Zombie movies are generally great, with apocalyptic landscapes, political allegory, exploration of human nature. This one’s tops because it’s set in a suburban shopping mall. I also support the remake because the opening titles are fantastic, and 25 years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time for an update.
9. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
I really like this story of childhood friendship and the extra stuff that happens when one of you is a vampire. The ending is really sweet.
10. I am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
Sondheim’s dark operetta brought to life by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. One of the finest musical movies I’ve ever seen – the non-singer-but-singing actors actually manage incredibly well in what’s acknowledged to be one of the most challenging scores to sing.
As the priest and the private detective approach the window, a familiar motif strikes up on the soundtrack. Deep in the bass, a succession of notes alternate by a semi-tone to anxiety-inducing effect. It’s not an entirely original idea: it’s essentially a sped-up and harmonically simplified version of the leitmotif Richard Wagner uses to introduce the dragon, Fafner, in the opera Seigfried. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Wagner’s wurm-motiv became something of a Hollywood staple, used to signify the monstrous and the numinous in films from King Kong (1933) to The Thing from Another World (1951). But at this tempo it can’t help but recall to modern ears one of the most recognisable bits of film music of all time: the shark’s theme from Jaws, made in 1975, the very same year as this low-rent schlock-fest from Greek director, Kostas Karagiannis.
In the context of Land of the Minotaur (aka The Devil’s Men), however, this is by far the most conservative bit of the whole score, notable as one of the very few moments on the soundtrack to employ actual recognisable musical notes. For the most part, the music by Brian Eno avoids the question of tonality altogether in favour of a shimmering cascade of electronic murmuration. As strange things go on in a small Greek town, with cultists sacrificing licentious teens to a fire-breathing minotaur statue, Eno produces an eerie susurrus of humming and heavy breathing, echoplexed into a dense fog of sound.
Produced in the same year that the ex-Roxy Music synth player would record his second collaboration with Robert Fripp and earn a credit for ‘direct injection anti-jazz ray gun’ on Robert Wyatt’s second solo album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, it’s a reasonable assumption that he employed the same system of daisy-chained delay units. It’s a modus operandi Eno would accuse Terry Riley of copying from him – an accusation that would be a lot more plausible if only history travelled backwards – and is an early example of his now all-consuming passion for generative composition, inspired by the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, the process-based minimalism of Riley and Steve Reich, and the generative grammars of Noam Chomsky. But what sounds contemplative and quietly zen on its near contemporaries is here unearthly, unsettling, goose-pimpling stuff. One of the real highlights of Eno’s soundtrack career – and an unfortunate omission from his two Music for Films compilations.
Just like the weather – after all the most talked about subject in Cannes, besides the films and the red carpet hoopla – the 66th edition of the festival was a patchy affair. There were some true marvels that staggered people’s imaginations, interspersed with a number of average efforts, but thankfully very few real stinkers. If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour and J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (screening out of competiton) represented the most welcome and exciting surprises, then Takashi Miike (Shield of Straw) and François Ozon (Young & Beautiful) delivered merely mediocre, and quite possibly, their least thrilling films to date in the Competition. Likewise, the three major sidebar sections – Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week – proved as strong, unpredictable and adventurous as ever, with even one or two remarkable stand-outs and smaller-scale cinematic pleasures, which could have easily rivalled the big players in the official selection. Below, Pamela Jahn revisits some of the highlights worth looking out for in UK cinemas or at other festivals in the coming months.
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche does have a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.
Blue is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.
On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices.
The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)
Jodorowsky’s first film in over 20 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130-minute running time, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic but, sadly, the film meanders along a bit too nicely and gradually loses momentum in the second half. That is, of course, if you compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, which clearly does this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic a little injustice. Arguably, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might have been Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section alongside Jodorowsky’s feature film, and is an eye-opening, highly entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Certain parallels aside (Rome, the passive journalist protagonist, the lavish life-style), The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is no simple remake of La dolce vita, although it might ask the same big existential question about the meaning of life in a city that, as it appears in Paolo Sorrentino’s film more than 50 years after Fellini’s, is as dazzling and captivating as ever.
The Great Beauty is released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 6 September 2013.
An ageing art journalist, one-off bestselling author and tireless gigolo, Jep Gambardella (brilliantly played by Sorrentino’s favourite and long-term collaborator Toni Servillo) knows many a secret and the entire high society in Rome, but can’t seem to make sense of his own extravagant life. At his 65th birthday party, his façade of irony and ignorance slowly begins to crumble as he bemoans the lack of ‘true’ beauty in his world of excess, luxury, endless spiel and easy women, and blatantly shares his disgust with his so-called friends and enemies, as much as with himself. The film itself is somewhat exhausting, and might seem to some superfluous from the start and preposterous in the execution, but it’s also a beautiful film about loss, death and sacrifice, and about those special, unforgettable moments you share with others that make life worth living.
Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)
As soon as this year’s festival programme was announced in April, debates emerged about the lack of women directors in the Competition (there were none last year and only one this year), and in particular, the question over why a director as accomplished and exciting as Claire Denis would be screened in Un Certain Regard instead, which was once thought of as more of a discovery zone for new and emerging directors. And while Denis’s film clearly felt more at home in this section than Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring, which opened Un Certain Regard, Bastards (Les salauds) could have easily competed at the top level. Denis’s latest, about a man’s doomed shot at payback for crimes committed against his family, is a puzzle-like drama of family struggles and secrets, and lives destroyed by the power of money and a ruthless businessman with a taste for vile sexual entertainment.
Artificial Eye will release Bastards in UK cinemas in Spring 2014.
Delivering a rock-solid performance, Vincent Lindon plays Marco, the lonely cowboy (or in his case, supertanker captain), whose plans for revenge are frustrated by his own emotional desires as he starts an affair with his enemy’s long-term mistress. While Bastards has a dark, gloomy allure throughout, accompanied by an intriguing score by her frequent collaborators Stuart A. Staples and Tindersticks, the fragmented, non-linear structure and opaque character development run fatally dry towards the end. It might not go down as Denis’s best works, but it’s still a film worth watching if you are familiar with, or would like to explore, the director’s contrary, elliptical style, which is full of alluring shady textures and tones.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).
Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.
Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure.
Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
As expected, the latest offering from the Coens was one of the hottest tickets of the festival. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.
To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage.
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis :
Festival report by Pamela Jahn
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews