The Borderlands: Interview with Jennifer Handorf

The Borderlands
The Borderlands

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 March 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Elliot Goldner

Writer: Elliot Goldner

Cast: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Luke Neal

UK 2013

89 mins

Rural Britain is a place of dread and mystery in Elliot Goldner’s debut feature The Borderlands. Following two priests and a technology expert (the inimitable Ben Wheatley-favourite Robin Hill, star of Down Terrace), who are sent by the Vatican to an isolated country church to investigate reports of ‘miraculous’ activity, the film begins in starkly realistic mode before weaving an increasingly disquieting, creepy atmosphere around its characters. The unhinged local priest, the sinister villagers, a sickening incident outside the investigators’ house, an eerie walk through the fields at night, supernatural manifestations, and the descent into the ancient church’s subterranean vaults, all unnervingly rack up the tension, sustained in no small part by terrific sound design, before culminating in a startling, inventive, horrific ending.

Producer Jennifer Handorf talked to Virginie Sélavy about the merits of filming in a bat-infested church and refraining from having a full-on Lovecraftian ending.

Virginie Sélavy: The film has a great sense of the moody, ominous British countryside in the tradition of The Wicker Man. There has been a resurgence of the British rural-horror genre in recent years, with Ben Wheatley’s films, and most recently In Fear. Did you consciously try to make the film fit this sub-genre?

Jennifer Handorf: No, we didn’t. And weirdly it was one of the only things that wasn’t prescriptive about the film. It was made with distribution in mind, in partnership with Metrodome. So they had things that they wanted us to include, like the found footage, the church, the Vatican – that was the brief. The rural element seemed to work for the story, but it wasn’t preconceived. And as we were developing the film, the local youths became more important. But we had lots of meetings where we said, ‘We don’t want them to be the creepy Wicker Man villagers’. So we were not even really aware that we were falling within that genre until after the fact, although we were conscious about many other things. Obviously we’ve got Rob Hill, who’s in Down Terrace, which is one of Ben Wheatley’s films, and he edited Kill List, so we were wary of coming off as copying anyone, but I think the film just naturally fell into that sub-genre.

How did you decide on the location?

Initially the director had thought about shooting at Brent Tor, which is down in Devon, on Dartmoor. But it’s tiny, it’s about the size of a shoebox, so it’s completely impractical to film in. So I was set with the task of looking at 15 to 20 churches that had the elements we needed, with a bell tower, that were on a hill, and were quite remote. When Elliot walked into West Ogwell Church in the south west, he said it was the only one that felt creepy – the other ones felt quite joyous. And I think there’s a very practical reason for that: there’s a native bat population living in the church. You not only get these strange noises of the bats fleeting around, but they also go to the bathroom wherever they are, so you get this sort of green mould all over the walls – it’s a bit gross, but I think that the strangeness and the colouration and the mouldiness and the sounds in the rafters – the life that was inherently in the building – is what made it that much scarier.

The Borderlands is released on DVD by Metrodome on 7 April 2014.

It feels like the church is a presence in itself in the film.

It really is. A lot of that is the sound design. Martin Pavey, who is Ben Wheatley’s sound designer, did it all, he’s an incredible artist. He added a lot of life to the church, with creaking rafters, and wind, adding things to make it a proper character in the film.

Were there any real creepy stories or legends about the church? What’s its history?

It was built in the 13th century, but the interesting thing we discovered is that it was likely built on a former druid site of worship, which is relevant in the film. The fact that it’s on a hill and that there are oak trees to the south is in keeping with their sites. And the church was built during the era when the druid sites were being taken over and their gods being done away with by Christianity. There were also some amazing folktales about nearby graveyards, like the possible origin story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. When this horrible local magistrate died they buried him in an above-ground mausoleum and they put iron bars around it so that he couldn’t get out. Supposedly if you go and say the right incantations on a full moon or something, his dogs will rise and chase you out of the graveyard. It actually burned down because some immature Satanists lit lots of candles and set fire to it in the 80s.

Found footage is a very popular sub-genre in horror at the moment. Were you wary of not re-treading ground? How did you approach it?

Absolutely. Strangely enough, it was one of the few things that was part of the brief initially, and when the film was finished, the sub-genre had become so passé that the distributor was begging us to distance ourselves from it in any way possible. So even at script stage, we were dead set on there being a firm justification for why the characters were filming, and how they were doing it. And that’s where the head-cams came from: they weren’t holding them, they were actually mounted to their heads. So they don’t drop them when they get scared. They’re not even aware of where they’re pointing the camera at sometimes, because it’s just their head movements. We even surveyed our friends and other film fanatics about what they hated the most in found footage, and a lot of the time we just got back: ‘Everything, why would you bother? It’s a dead genre.’ So it was exciting that people responded really well to our treatment. And, of course, in the edit it created a world of problems, because you don’t have a master shot, and cutting just on-head cameras can become quite difficult. While we were filming we were very aware of that, so we would make a character look somewhere so we could catch something on the camera. It was all very stringently planned, and very carefully considered throughout the process. If you put the work in and you’re really conscientious with the way you do things, it doesn’t have to be lazy, it doesn’t have to be a throwaway choice.

What do you think the technique brings to the film? How different would the story be if it’d been filmed as a conventional narrative?

Thematically, the idea of whether or not you can believe what you see, and the truth of the image, was a big thing. We realised in the process that it really suited the story, because if we’d filmed it straight, then if we showed you a string or a trick, you would think that it was shonky filmmaking, or you would think that it was obvious that we were showing you a trick. But if you do that with found footage the audience thinks, ‘Did I see a string, was that the movie or was that this guy faking it?’ All that stuff fits the genre better – the questioning of the image, the questioning of whether you can believe your eyes, really suited it thematically.

Watch the trailer:

There are a couple of particularly creepy, unsettling scenes, like the one where Father Deacon walks through the fields in the dark, and the scene in which some local youths gruesomely tease the priests.

I think the reason why those scenes work is because of what you can’t see. I’m a big believer in ‘Don’t show, imagine!’ You never properly see the youths until they get their comeuppance. And that really works because, in the light of day, they are these harmless kids, but at night, when you wonder who they are, what they are – and we keep them faceless until that point – your mind wanders to a very dark place if you allow it. And with Father Deacon walking around at night, again, he’s the character whose eyes are playing tricks on him, or he thinks his eyes are playing tricks on him. And I think we’re all used to that sensation of being somewhere dark, and suddenly the hairs on your neck stand up and you start to wonder, ‘What was that, what’s that sound, what’s that shape?’ and despite the fact that you know you’re alone, and you know there’s nothing sinister, your mind creates all these narratives. It’s also a lot about the sound design, because you’re informed by what you’re hearing, as you can’t see anything. So you can hear something but you can’t match it with what you’re seeing, and that’s very unsettling.

The relationship between Robin Hill’s jolly techie character Gray and Gordon Kennedy’s tormented priest Father Deacon is one of the great pleasures of the film.

It really is. The film wouldn’t be what it is without the chemistry that exists between those two. There are a lot of scenes that are straight improv from the two of them. When they’re looking at the map and picking out the different places, Gordon, who is a comedian, and has written comedy, is actually being forced to play the straight man by Rob, who won’t let him be serious for a minute. They’re a real treat.

One of the interesting things about the story is that it’s about priests who have a remarkable lack of faith in the miraculous, when you think that their whole belief system is based on just that.

Exactly. I come from a very religious part of America and I grew up surrounded by people who had tremendous faith, and for me it never made sense. But hearing those people talk about it as fact, they clearly get great comfort from it, it’s a big part of their lives. And then you look at the Catholic Church as an institution and you realise that not everybody within that institution has to have that absolute faith, as long as they act as faithful men – that’s all that really matters, a lot of it is politics. So it was really interesting to explore that. The character of Father Mark is meant to be by the book, he follows the rules, and then it’s revealed that he’s the one with the least amount of faith. And he makes this point: ‘Am I not a good man? Do I not follow the teachings of Jesus? Why do I have to believe in magic to be a good Christian?’ I found myself asking that a lot when I was a kid, and it was interesting to see it treated in the script. Then you have Father Deacon, who is someone who started off with a really strong faith, but through experiences in his life has learned that man’s inhumanity to man surpasses miracles. So he’s had it beaten out of him, where Father Mark never believed in it. It was a vital part of the film. Funnily enough, we’ve had a really bad reception from Italy because they think we’ve portrayed the Church as too nice, we haven’t made the priests sinister enough. So I’d quite like to see the Italian remake of this!

[SPOILER ALERT Stop reading if you don’t want to know anything at all about the ending.]

The ending is fantastic. Without revealing too much, what was the idea behind it?

Initially the ending was a lot more explicit, a lot more Lovecraftian. And it became one of those wonderful evolutions: because of the way you’re making a film there are restrictions put on you, and you can’t do what you initially intended, so you’ve got to come up with another solution. Keeping things a bit more subtle, having the guys just walk into it, showing that all they had to do was turn around and walk out, but they don’t, because they wanted that proof, because they needed to see it, and eventually they do, but the price they pay for that is obviously quite large.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014

The Distance
The Distance

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

22 Jan – 2 Feb 2014

Rotterdam, Netherlands

IFFR website

Every year, the new cinematic calendar kicks in with International Film Festival Rotterdam, and its mix of the new and unseen, and the only-just-recently-seen at some of the previous year’s festivals. Which highlights an increasingly difficult area for programmers: snagging that elusive international premiere in a festival marketplace that is saturated. But Rotterdam’s commitment as a showcase for authorial and independent films that might slip through the commercial net of larger festivals is to be admired.

Overall, it was a solid, if a little lacklustre, collection of films, and if there were any themes to be discerned from the selection that I viewed, it was the disenchantment in various national cinemas with the flagging EU project, the sorrows, tragedies and problems of migration and the consequent human exploitation.

So, to business. Herewith, a brief overview of some of the films showcased in Rotterdam during January. The Thailand/Hong Kong/China co-production – involving the prominent names of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong – of Lee Chatametikool’s Concrete Clouds (Pavang rak) was an entry in the Tiger Awards section, which focuses on emerging talent in world cinema. With such powerhouse producers on board as collaborators, I had high expectations for this film. Absorbing some of the unusual narrative and visual strategies of his colleagues, but without their firm grasp, Lee’s film is one of those that ‘has its moments’ but no momentum. Promising scenes are established that often don’t completely gel or sustain development. This is the story of two brothers – one of whom returns home from living in the United States – who are re-united after their father commits suicide after the Asian markets crash, and must deal with the aftermath. The older and younger brother’s love lives are contrasted by the parallel telling of each one’s affairs and though interesting, neither one’s difficulties add up to much individually or add much to the overall feeling of this underdeveloped and unconvincing film.

Much more interesting, unusual and satisfying is Sergio Caballero’s The Distance (La Distancia). It is one of those films that is difficult to describe. And I won’t even try, as to enter cold into this film’s world would be the best advice I could give. The director of Finisterrae has concocted a terrific mulligan stew of a film, which plays slyly and enjoyably with genre, and various narrative and spatial codes of cinema. The characters don’t speak but telepathise, and they telepathise in a lingua franca made up of Russian, Chinese and the German of the bizarre Joseph Beuys-like artist. The distance referred to in the title is, as has been suggested, the ultimate MacGuffin – that obscure object of desire that the characters seem to be pursuing but that the audience is in ignorance of. What is lost (not) in speech is more than compensated for by the superlative soundtrack, which figures in the very form and structure of the film, not surprisingly as Cabellero is deeply involved with the Sónar music festival and co-wrote the mesmerising score. Weird, surreal, unique, rewarding, it’s a film that stays in the mind even after days of watching dozens of other films. The catalogue called it ‘inimitable and intriguing’, to which I say, ‘Hear hear’. Cross your fingers that it gets a release.

Watch the trailer for The Distance:

Of less concern for a release was the world premiere of the USA/Mexico/France (such are the economic times) co-production L for Leisure, a film about a bunch of students in the 1990s chillin’ in the sun and hangin’ out talkin’ trash, arguing, making love and waterskiing. Co-directed by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, it is an exercise in inertia and indulgence, which has been likened to Baywatch and Melrose Place – say no more.

The Kenyan film Ni Sisi (It’s Us), directed by Nick Reding, had its European premiere in the Bright Futures strand of the festival. This biting satire and comedy (essentially the film of a touring play of the same name, by theatre company S.A.F.E.) is designed to play in villages and towns, with the aim of raising consciousness about the futility of tribal violence and the need to work together to resist political manipulation. It’s a hard-hitting – but not without humour – story-within–a-story about individual responsibility and tolerance, and looking at the bigger picture rather than fixating on the local. Warm, human, timely and featuring an arresting cast, Ni Sisi manages to be – in spite of its tragic historical narrative – delightful and affirming.

Watch the trailer for Ni Sisi>:

Also in this strand was Three D, a film shot on a shoestring and on the fly during the three days of the Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente de Cosquín in Argentina. Rosendo Ruiz has directed a small film about two cinephiles attending the festival who, while doing interviews with participants, find themselves falling for each other. Set amid the rhythms and cycles of that liminal space, the film festival, Ruiz has assembled a small, intimate, character-driven film where not a lot happens – which is the perfect tone for this small and charming set-piece.

Finally in this strand was the world premiere of the far less rewarding Japanese film The Pinkie, directed by former advertising and video game writer Lisa Takeba. Like a manga come to life, the opening sequences – the best in the film – focus upon the male lead Ryosuke, who has been stalked by the love-obsessed Momoko since they were five years old. So committed to him is she that she has had her face surgically changed to suit his taste – to no avail: he only has eyes for a gangster’s moll. But when the big boss discovers this affair, he has Ryosuke’s baby finger chopped off, which flies slo-mo in the air and magically falls into Momoko’s hands, enabling her to have it cloned into an alter-ego Ryosuke, whom she can finally have for herself. And this is only the start of the absurd, sometimes violent, insubstantial (in terms of content) and superficial visual spectacle that is The Pinkie. A frippery with not a hint of soul, which genre-hops for the sake of genre-hopping… sorry, but been there, done that.

Watch the trailer for The Pinkie:

In this year’s downbeat State of Europe section were two films that focused on the anxieties, from both sides, around issues of migration. Sexy Money is an interesting and unusual genre piece, a musical documentary about Nigerian women who find themselves fleeing poverty in their homeland only to end up in prostitution in Europe. Some of them return to Nigeria, but find that they have just as difficult a time there, as they are cheated and given false promises, while their former professions beckon in order to survive and feed their children. This description, which could apply to a hundred similar films, does not do justice to the optimism, zest for life and sheer resilience that these women show. It is not a feel-good movie, but it does make one feel good. Directed by Dutch filmmaker Karin Junger, it’s a story of injustice and the struggle endured by these strong women, who are not made out to be angels or victims, but somewhere in-between. Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders also focuses on the problems inherent with migration as it affects the island of Cyprus, a favourite of people smugglers for its ease of access to Europe. Five stories are told here, of Kurds, Palestinians and Iraqis all caught in a no-man’s (or woman’s) land of promised residence permits and catch-22 rules and regulations, while in the background, nationalist right-wing goons survey the migrant districts.

Watch the trailer for Sexy Money:

That’s Rotterdam in a nutshell. If film reflects the culture, then comedy and humour are in short supply, and the overwhelming issues of financial crisis, migrant movements, human exploitation and national anxieties are at the fore: a downbeat opening to 2014.

Read our previous Rotterdam coverage here.

James B. Evans

The Robber: Interview with Benjamin Heisenberg

The Robber
The Robber

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2014

Distributor: Filmhouse

Director: Benjamin Heisenberg

Writer: Benjamin Heisenberg, Martin Prinz

Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba

Germany, Austria 2010

101 mins

Based on the real-life case of the Austrian serial bank robber who became known as ‘Pumpgun Ronnie’ in the late 1980s, Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber (Der Rä;uber) tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), a successful marathon runner and confirmed criminal, who is driven by a constant, uncontrollable need for speed and adrenalin rushes. Shortly after being yet again released from jail, Rettenberger inevitably falls back into his old habits, raiding and running, soberly measuring his heart rate after any physical strain. He even breaks records as an athlete at local competitions, but neither the sport nor the unconditional love he receives from his girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz) can bring his troubled mind to rest. Following a man permanently on the move, Heisenberg succeeds in capturing the inner turmoil of Rettenberger’s animal-like spirit with the same meticulous precision and steely determination that his character puts into his strict training scheme, which gives the film an unsettling intensity and unfaltering energy.

The Robber premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, where Pamela Jahn caught up with Benjamin Heisenberg and talked about the challenges of filming a character who is constantly running, communicating his self-destructive energy and approaching the story like a wildlife documentary.

Pamela Jahn: Do you run?

Benjamin Heisenberg: No, but I thought that I should maybe start now. I have tried jogging a couple of times but I didn’t last very long.

In The Robber you are reworking the criminal case of Pumpgun Ronnie, aka Johann Kastenberger. Your film is based on the actual events but the script is largely drawn from Martin Prinz’s source novel. How much of the film comes from your own and Martin Prinz’s imagination and how much from actual fact?

We started off with the book because Martin, who was also my co-author, wrote the novel but he let me go off with it and extract the action parts around which I wrote a treatment. And then, parallel to writing the first draft of the script, we started researching the real character in detail. We met up with people who knew Kastenberger as a runner and also with people who knew him as a criminal, and with family members. We collected all this material and weaved all these elements into the script. Most of it is close to the real story, although the real man was probably more psychopathic than our main character. But I have to admit that working on the script was pretty tough and we changed it twice, completely. We used to have a lot more back and side stories in the second version but, in the end, we decided to limit it and we came back to an earlier version, which you now see on screen.

How did people react when you tried to talk to them about the case?

There were people who didn’t want to talk to us because they had enough of it. In Austria in the 1980s it was a big thing, and quite a few people who were closely involved with the man were simply fed up with the press and people interrogating them, and asking them where the money went. And we respected that. By the end of the day, he was a character who was fairly easy to understand. That energy that was inside him, you get that immediately when people talk about him, and that’s what fascinated me most with the character and kept his story alive for us during the writing process.

His energy and inner determination are almost infectious.

I have to admit there was a point where I thought I couldn’t do it. It was 2007, so about a year after I had started working on the project, I had some sort of crisis. I was really in bad shape, because I realised that I couldn’t go on writing this character – he was getting too close. [SPOILER ALERT] I had the feeling that I had to write another ending because I couldn’t let him commit suicide, it had to be different, and I panicked. [END OF SPOILER] But then there are elements in his character that I could relate to from the very first moment and that I find incredibly intriguing, which are the strength he has inside him and that kind of animal-like instinct that drives him.

Watch the trailer:

Where does this drive come from?

He’s looking for situations that take him to his absolute limits, it’s an urge that burns inside him, that he can’t resist. At the same time, he radiates an remarkable ease and rigour when he is in these situations. It’s that combination that is so powerful and intriguing, but on the other hand it is extremely self-destructive.

Andreas Lust, in the lead role, captures Rettenberger’s troubled mind and nature quite effortlessly. How did you develop the character together?

Andreas is someone who has this same sort of energy inside him and he sometimes can be off-camera like the character he’s playing. And that’s why we cast him in the first place. The funny thing was that, in the beginning, he wanted me to give him more back story and psychological explanations and for some scenes we did that. But most of the time I tried to tell him that a huge part of this character is an animal, he is like a wolf. That’s why I planned to make parts of The Robber like a kind of wildlife documentary, even though it was staged and dramatised. I said to Andreas, if you are a wolf, you have to be that wolf, you can’t play it, you can’t fake it, because then it becomes implausible. And then Andreas really identified with the character and he dived into it. There was a moment when we were filming him running, and I said, ‘Could you run a bit slower?’ And he said, ‘No, why? This is how he does it, and I do it the same way’. And we had an argument about it. It was really tricky to find that balance. But for me, Andreas really combines those two sides of Rettenberger: he can be pretty determined but he also has a very fragile, vulnerable side.

I can imagine it being quite difficult to film someone who is constantly running, constantly on the move?

Yes, absolutely, because the camera can react to this in many ways: it can swivel, or stay static or move with him. So you have to decide what works best for the scene, so that you get a feeling for the movement, the speed, but also the space he is running in, his surroundings. And every time he runs, or is on the run, it’s a new challenge.

You mentioned Rettenberger’s vulnerability, and what really seems to make him human is the relationship he has with his girlfriend Erika.

I always thought of this whole story as a sort of Greek tragedy with a character who has a fate that is laid out for him. And the moving thing about their love is maybe that this woman, who is very independent and who knows what she wants in life in a very modest way, falls in love with him and deliberately allows it to happen. Erika knows how to deal with Rettenberger, who lives a very alienated life and doesn’t care about social niceties or anything. However, at the same time she has a kind of vulnerability, an inner secret and a pride that she protects. And that’s something that bonds the two individuals on many different levels. It’s interesting when, at one point, she says to him: ‘You have to make decisions, and if you don’t, it mean’s something.’ That describes her really well. And she decides to go for this guy who is very dangerous, but she also knows that she can’t hold him, that eventually he will run away – literally.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Nihon Noir: The Crime Films of Yoshitarô Nomura

Zero Focus
Zero Focus

The Crime Films of Yoshitarô Nomura

Format: Cinema

Screening at: Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF), UK

Dates: 27 March – 6 April 2014

Also screening at: ICA, London

Dates: 18-23 April 2014

At the height of its powers, the Japanese film industry produced over 500 hundreds films a year. As such, it is not uncommon for films, or entire filmographies of particular directors, to go overlooked or undetected for many years. This is certainly the case for director Yoshitarô Nomura (1919-2005), a name that is largely unheralded in international film criticism. However, decades after his most seminal contributions to Japanese cinema, Nomura is receiving his first ever international retrospective at this year’s Bradford International Film Festival.

Considered to be a pioneer of Japanese film noir, Yoshitarô Nomura may very well be one of Japanese cinema’s best kept secrets. Including over 80 films, his long career began at the height of Japan’s cinematic golden age, and his genre-centric filmmaking was widely popular with Japanese audiences in its day. He was best known for his film adaptations of stories by revered crime/mystery author Seichô Matsumoto, who, at his commercial peak during the late 1950s, was Japan’s highest paid writer. Politically left-leaning, Matsumoto’s downbeat novels were emblematic of the post-war pessimism experienced by the Japanese people in the turbulent years following atomic destruction, foreign occupation and waning nationalism. Bradford’s retrospective collects the five best examples of Nomura’s Matsumoto adaptations, including Stakeout (aka The Chase, Harikomi, 1958), Zero Focus (Zero no shôten, 1961), The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, 1970), The Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, 1974) and The Demon (Kichiku, 1978).

What is immediately apparent is that although Nomura’s films have never garnered much interest in the West, they demonstrate a clear interest in Western film conventions, particularly 40s and 50s American noir. This influence is perhaps best represented in Zero Focus, a strange and exhilarating fusion of duplicitous, Hitchcockian intrigue and post-war Japanese social commentary.

The story starts with newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) telling us, via voice-over narration, that her husband of a single week, Kenichi (K244ji Nambara), a successful ad agency executive, has been promoted to the company’s head office in Tokyo, but needs to travel cross-country to his former branch to tie up loose ends. However, after boarding the train to Kanazawa, he is never seen again. Concerned, Teiko heads to Kanazawa in search of him, with only a couple of photos and a lead at Kenichi’s old office to go on. As she makes her enquiries, Teiko realises just how little she knew about her husband as the remnants of a secret double life come to the fore. Digging deeper into Kenichi’s past, Teiko soon meets a woman who may have had reason to murder him.

Zero Focus revels in several standard noir conceits. The film is framed around Kuga’s matter-of-fact voice-over, but also relies on nefarious characters, dual identities, quick plotting and shock revelations. There’s even a bottle of poisoned whiskey doing the rounds – bumping off characters who know too much. But rather than merely emulating his American muses, in particular Alfred Hitchcock and Rebecca (1940), Nomura blends these propensities with a slightly skewered rendition of presentational Japanese filmmaking. As is the case with many films from this era, Takashi Kawamata’s cinematography features plenty of immaculate compositions. However, something looks and feels different here; stripped down and strangely mechanical. Zero Focus is not gritty exactly – it’s too pristine for that – but a certain rough efficiency prevails. This is partly due to geography, with Nomura largely eschewing the cinematic comfort zone of modern Tokyo and keeping much of the action in small, rural and, as yet, relatively undeveloped towns along Japan’s west coast, creating a more down-to-earth quality that belies Kawamata’s professional framing.

Watch the original Japanese trailer for Zero Focus:

Indeed, Zero Focus has a number of things to say about the modernisation process the country was undergoing at the time. The film seems to subtly criticise the centuries-old social tradition of miai, where the family of an individual tries to match them with a prospective marital partner, prefaced with a brief period of courtship to see if they nominally get along (a suggested marriage rather than arranged). It’s through this process that Teiko and Kenichi are wed, and the story relies on Teiko’s naïveté about her husband for the mystery of his double life to function, which may not have been the case if their relationship had been built over a longer, more organic period. In the background of its murder/suicide plot, Zero Focus seems to suggest that if Japan were to truly modernise, maybe it needed to abandon such long-held, old-fashioned values.

Such progressive thinking carries over into the film’s structure, which is laid out in two distinct sections. The first consists of relentless investigation, as Teiko dutifully seeks out the next person to question. The second depicts an extended cliff-top confrontation, where we learn what really happened to Kenichi. The first act is the winding up that precipitates the grand unspooling of the finale, where light-footed flashbacks flesh out and tie together the multiple story strands, coupled with differing assumptions of events in a way similar to both Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). And yet, Zero Focus is so nimble, so brazenly twisty, that it’s all too easy to get lost in its heaps of convolution. The film moves briskly through each scene, which doesn’t leave much room for the building and releasing of tension. On the flip side, there is something equally refreshing in its single-mindedness and tightly constructed sequences. Dense it may be, but Zero Focus is an interesting minor success nonetheless.

And if Zero Focus is characterised by deft poise, The Castle of Sand is its inverse cousin: a sprawling police procedural that is consistently identified by Japanese critics as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time. Based on a popular mystery serialisation Matsumoto wrote for daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, later published as the novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, The Castle of Sand sees two detectives – a veteran (Tetsurô Tamba) and a rookie (Kensaku Morita) – try to solve the murder of an elderly man found bludgeoned to death in a train yard.

Like Zero Focus, scant clues point to the countryside, which Tamba’s Detective Imanishi traverses via train – an increasingly key component to Matsumoto’s stories – and bus in the sweltering Japanese summer heat. Imanishi begins to track down characters from the victim’s past, who was a retired police officer well liked and deeply respected in the community he presided over. But just as Imanishi’s investigation starts to run out of steam, he begins to establish a connection between the deceased, Miki (Ken Ogata), and Eiryo Waga (Gô Katô), a famous classical composer with a buried secret.

Watch a trailer for The Castle of Sand:

Unfurling over nearly two and a half hours, The Castle of Sand front-loads its narrative with Imanishi’s investigation: following up leads, interviewing persons of interest, establishing motives, hitting dead ends, re-evaluating the evidence, finding new leads and so on. It’s very matter-of-fact and borders on being humdrum, executed in a plain, linear fashion that lacks the energy of, say, Zero Focus.

However, the film makes a noticeable gear change when Imanishi finally presents his findings, and the identity of the person he suspects is the murderer, to his department. All the loose ends from previous scenes start to tie together as he posits his hypothesis, which features an extended explanation to establish the connection between the murderer and the murdered. Imanishi’s presentation is intercut with scenes from a classical concert performed by Waga and his orchestra, which provides the backing soundtrack to a series of flashbacks concerning the murderer’s motivation – a childhood fraught with hardship and discrimination. These expositional scenes, where Ogata features as the still-alive police officer Miki, play out sans dialogue and, as such, are evocative of silent movie storytelling, with the sweeping symphony of Waga’s concert as musical accompaniment. It is at this point where The Castle of Sand reveals its hand, shifting from a mundane investigation to an engrossing character study enriched with pathos and complex emotional depth.

Nomura’s exploration of pathos and emotional complexity arguably reached its zenith with The Demon, perhaps the most downbeat and pessimistic of his Matsumoto adaptations. Based on one of the writer’s short stories, which in turn was inspired by a real-life incident, The Demon sees Nomura working again with Ken Ogata, who plays the put-upon owner of a failing printing business that he runs with his wife (Shima Iwashita). However, the story starts with Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa), the long-time mistress of Ogata’s Sokichi and mother of his three secret love children – Riichi (Hiroki Iwase), aged 6; Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), aged 3; and baby Shoichi (Jun Ishii).

When Sokichi is unable to continue with his maintenance payments, Kikuyo snaps, corralling the kids onto the next train to confront him and break the news about his secret family to his wife. Upon finding out that he has no more money to pay her, Kikuyo takes off, leaving the children in Sokichi’s care. Sokichi tries to take on the burden of having three new mouths to feed. His understandably peeved wife, however, is not so inclined, and becomes increasingly hostile towards the children. What follows is a difficult yet strangely engrossing watch, as Sokichi tries to shirk this new responsibility he can’t afford to take on. With no sign of his mistress, who has well and truly disappeared, Sokichi is manipulated by his belligerent wife to conceive ways of disposing of the children (after all, there’s no concrete evidence proving that they are indeed his). But his growing attachment to them makes this easier said than done.

With its domestic tension and controversial subject matter that flirts heavily with child abuse, The Demon is certainly one of the toughest of Nomura’s films to stomach. But if there is only one thing that makes this fiendish and unsavoury tale palatable, even compassionate, it lies with Ogata’s fearless and mesmerising lead performance. While he doesn’t elicit sympathy exactly, Ogata does manage to convey a very real sense of conflict, hurt and desperation, with Iwashita’s wife character perhaps being more broadly ‘evil’ and antagonistic. Either could qualify as the ‘demon’ of the film’s title, and one could argue that Kikuyo, the mistress, is also not totally blameless. Playing the murder victim in The Castle of Sand, Ogata is, in his own way, playing a victim once again, torn between a lingering, unconditional paternal love and the cold reality of his wife and financial situation.

There’s the children to consider as well; all of whom perform admirably in the face of such terrible treatment (Iwase is a particular highlight as the precocious Riichi), with Nomura’s confident direction ensuring that the interplay between Ogata and his estranged kids is taut, unpredictable yet sensitive, and sometimes deceptively moving. The Demon, then, manages that rare trick in cinema of making you care about an absolute scoundrel. Ogata ended up winning the Best Actor prize for his efforts at the 2nd Japanese Academy Awards, securing a prestigious career playing unusual and/or challenging roles in films such as Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-bushi kô, 1983), where he won Best Actor again, and Paul Schrader’s multi-segmented Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

This modest sample of Nomura’s career strongly suggests a body of work that’s not afraid to retain its edges and venture places that threaten to render it unpopular. Hopefully, we will see more of his films released soon as a result of his rediscovery. To this end, the power of the film retrospective should not go underestimated. If it wasn’t for the retrospective curated by the late Donald Ritchie for the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, the films of Yasujir244 Ozu would have likely been confined to the position of niche curiosity, reserved only for the most dedicated of world cinema aficionados. Although it’s unlikely Nomura will ever receive the same admiration as Ozu, the fact that his work is finally having its moment in the sun at an international festival is cause enough for celebration.

Mark Player

Matt Thorne is Paul Hackett from After Hours

After Hours
After Hours

Matt Thorne was born in Bristol in 1974 and is the co-founder of the literary movement The New Puritans, whose manifesto ditched flashbacks and authorial asides, and called for simplicity and contemporary relevance in British fiction. He is the author of a critical study of Prince (Faber & Faber, £12.99) and six novels, including the semi-autobiographical 8 Minutes Idle (Phoenix, 2001), which has just been made into a film. The dark, romantic comedy, directed by Mark Simon Hewis, is set in a Bristol call centre, inspired by Matt’s stint manning the phones on the night shift; unlike the film’s hero Dan, Matt didn’t take up residence in the office stationary cupboard. Eithne Farry

8 Minutes Idle was released in UK cinemas on 14 February 2014.

I find it quite hard to identify with characters in most Hollywood films, as they tend to be men of action rather than procrastination. This runs in my family. I remember my father being disgusted when Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing smashed a car window to get to the keys inside, rather than fashioning a noose with a coat-hanger, hooking it through the window and trying to pull up the lock, no matter how much screen time this might have taken.

But there are a few characters I connect with. They tend to be the protagonists of noir films or screwball comedies; people who end up in trouble largely through no fault of their own. There were a few of these characters in the early 80s, like Tom Hulce’s C.C. Drood in Slamdance. I identified with Graham Dalton in Sex, Lies and Videotape, because he carries only one key as he doesn’t want to complicate his life, but I can’t choose him because I don’t go around videotaping women talking about their sex life.

So it has to be Paul Hackett (played by Griffin Dunne) from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. A ‘word processor’ in New York, he has a certain impatience with life (when a temp starts telling him about his literary magazine, he just gets up and walks away), but it’s hard to blame him when every reassuring thing around him turns out to be scary. [SPOILER] He meets a waitress in a café who shares his taste in literature, but when they go home together she tells him distressing stories about her ex and commits suicide. He meets a nice guy in a bar who offers to help him, but he turns out to be the boyfriend of the waitress. [END OF SPOILER] I’m not saying my life is quite that dramatic, but I identify with the regular guy using his wits to get out of a trap.

It was because of After Hours that I sought out an office job when I started to write, and my own experiences as a temp influenced 8 Minutes Idle. But whereas Paul Hackett was just trying to get home, Dan Thomas is homeless and forced to live in his office, and the experiences he goes through are even more comically extreme than those experienced by Hackett. I suppose I identify with characters who do nothing more daring than stay up late looking for love on the wrong side of town, only to discover that’s a far more daring adventure than anything Indiana Jones ever experienced.

More information on Matt Thorne and his books can be found here.

Matt Thorne

Gazelle Twin’s Film Jukebox

Gazelle Twin
Gazelle Twin

Fuelled by childhood nightmares and memories of a haunted house, Gazelle Twin (aka Elizabeth Bernholz) makes eerie, dark, distorted electronica. After her 2011 debut album The Entire City, she returns with Unflesh, to be released later this year. Continuing her exploration of the human body through costume and disguise, she has created a new persona, a hooded, faceless girl (inspired by The Brood), to accompany the creepy vocals and menacing beats of her new material. Her new single, ‘Belly of the Beast’, is released on 3 March on Anti-Ghost Moon Ray Records. It will be available for a limited time as a free download. For more information please visit Gazelle Twin’s website. Below, Elizabeth Bernholz picks the 10 films that have most thrilled and inspired her.

Watch a teaser clip from ‘Belly of the Beast’:

1. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
I’ll get straight to the point: Alien (1979) is a far superior film in every way possible, but because I encountered Aliens so young, it has a very deep nostalgic significance for me. Between ages 9 and 19, I used any chance I had to watch it. Anytime, anywhere. Now I’m 32 and I still talk about it on a daily basis. It is about as Proustian as a film can get – the sheer excitement I get from the rain-soaked, half-eaten donut, the motion tracker sound effect, the fatty gloop of the Queen laying her eggs, the click of the buckle on the ‘loader’, Bishop’s milky blood – I could go on and on… I now realise that there are many more elements that appealed to my subconscious as an ‘outsider’ kid, and later as I endured the lonely terror of puberty, like the feral, clever character of the orphaned Newt surviving alone against all odds, and Ripley, a powerful maternal role model with a flamethrower. The film planted many integral seeds in my brain, and they’re just starting to sprout.

2. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
I don’t know of a film as beautiful and heartbreaking as this. The story, the set design, the make-up, the acting… It’s a perfect film, and for me, the perfect subject matter. I based one of my costumes on Joseph Merrick’s silhouette through the sheer love of this film. I am always surprised by the fact that it was only made possible (and with Lynch’s final cut) because of the support of one of its ‘silent’ producers, Mel Brooks. If only the case had been the same for Dune

3. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
If psychosis took on a physical form, what would it look like? Of the horror films I’ve seen that feature child demons/monsters, I find this the most disturbing and visually lingering. There’s something extremely disconcerting about the brightly coloured snowsuits and matching, pastel, bedtime onesies worn by the ‘brood’. Together with their synchronised movements, they are the stuff of proper, unfiltered nightmares.

4. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
Aside from its industrial soundscape, visionary art direction and profound anxiety, what I love most of all about Eraserhead is that Lynch’s sense of humour remains present in all aspects, even the most physically disturbing scenes. And, like almost all of his films, the ‘making-of’ story behind it is just as thrilling as the thing itself.

5. Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988)
In his Decalogue, Jan Švankmajer claimed, ‘Obsessions are the relics of childhood’, and this is another of mine. There’s so much sensuality and imagination in this film, it’s as if Švankmajer is able to inject MORE life into his props than he could in real, moving things. I’m mostly obsessed by the foley, which sometimes seems to be at odds with the visuals (but that’s what makes it all the more appealing to me). The crunching, scuttling, dripping, ticking… the out-of-sync English overdubs on the close-up of Alice’s mouth (speaking in Czech)…

6. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The atmosphere of loneliness, panic and human weakness that is created in this film is unrivalled. The extreme horror is kept so brilliantly close to a comic-book portrayal of a story, with just enough comedy to maintain a balance. The Morricone score is one of my favourites, especially as it is still rooted in Carpenter’s minimalist synth drone world. I’ve made so many references to this in my own music that it’s verging on the obsessional.

7. Walkabout (Nic Roeg, 1971)
I have always been interested in the meeting point between tribal and urban life. This film makes something very special out of the collision of social circumstances, very particular to its setting. There are many more themes entangled in the story, most of which are never really made explicit. All the viewer ever really has to go on is Roeg’s compelling use of juxtaposition – universal harmonies and discordances.

8. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
It’s hard to accurately describe the nauseating, nightmarish, psycho-surrealist atmosphere this film creates, and all with complete subtlety and surprise. It’s a feeling close to sleep paralysis or a night terror – a sort of inert doom without any obvious source. It harbours pretty bold socio-political, anti-fascist messages that are revealed in pleasingly pagan-like symbols (mostly animals – alive, or the remains of) and is summed up best by Roger Ebert’s review from 1997: ‘They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac’.

9. Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976)
Somewhere in between The Wicker Man (1973) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), this film is possibly rendered more terrifying because of the time in which it was made. There’s something slightly MORE gruesome about 70s fake blood and 70s foley; films of this era seem to induce a particularly depressing effect on me (which I like). It’s the message in the screenplay that really intrigues me though. The idea of revenge as a collective instinct that has evolved out of the need to protect oneself, and revenge not just for personal trauma, but for humanity itself. I’m fascinated by studies of evolution in psychology, and this explores a hypothetical situation to the very extreme.

10. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
Bergman is one of my all-time favourite philosopher/directors, and this was his last feature film. He said it summed up his entire life, and so the full, five-hour version is a real voyage to experience. It has many similarities to Night of the Hunter (1955), which was a very strong contender for my tenth film. It’s a brilliant depiction of childhood, where dreams and fears merge with fantasy and desire, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish either.