Category Archives: Check it out

Berlinale 2010: Dispatch 4


In her final dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on the Asian films in the programme, including new works by Zhang Yimou and Kôji Wakamatsu.

There is traditionally a strong Asian presence in the Forum section, and after last year’s inventive Korean features (including Baek Seung-bin’s debut feature Members of the Funeral) I was hoping for another batch of exciting films this year. Unfortunately, I missed the two Korean films on offer, but the most original of the four Japanese entries in the section was undoubtedly Sabu’s Kanik&#333sen. A witty, ferociously crafted screen adaptation of Takeji Kobayashi’s 1929 agitprop novel, the film mainly takes place on a battered cannery ship in imperialist Japan. The set is somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, and the film tells a similar story, focusing on a crew of downtrodden workers who eventually rise up against their tyrannical oppressors. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is known for fast-paced action-comedies and anarchic satire, Kanik&#333sen is informed by a pitch-black sense of humour that at times turns into slapstick; yet Sabu manages to make the novel’s fundamental and still relevant critique clear by keeping the right balance between theatrical elements, brutality and idiosyncratic ingenuity. Employing an anti-realist approach to the historical context, Kanik&#333sen is a bizarre and often claustrophobic cinematic experience where Brecht meets Chaplin on the high sea.

Diving into the abyss of modern Japanese society, Isao Yukisada’s Parade is an often comical but increasingly gloomy urban tale revolving around the phenomenon of people in their mid-20s who refuse to grow up and face life. At first, the narrative is driven merely by dialogue and the infrequent actions taking place in a household of four troubled Tokyo drifters, but it sparks up the moment a homeless teenage hustler suddenly takes over the couch in the living room. The film is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on one of the tenants and his or her private obsession, and the dark nature of the story is emphasised by the soundtrack and sublime twists that carefully hint at the film’s surprise ending. Although Parade lacks the drive, visual subtlety and thoughtfulness that made Yukisada’s 2001 teen drama Go such a compelling watch, just following these offbeat, gentle dreamers is a pleasure, and it made this somewhat overwrought film stand out as one of the wittier and more honest works on show in the Panorama section.

Excoriated as a ‘national disgrace’ in the Japanese press at the time, Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secrets Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) caused a stir when it premiered at the Berlinale in 1965, which ultimately helped push the pinku eiga pioneer to fame home and abroad. Forty-five years later, Wakamatsu’s eagerly awaited new feature Caterpillar – a loose follow-up to his 2007 monstrous docu-fiction drama United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) – was screening in competition, but although it confirms Wakamatsu’s credentials as one of Japan’s most fiercely independent directors/producers to date, the style and backdrop of his latest effort are quite different from his earlier work. Set in a rural village during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, Caterpillar tells the story of severely disabled war veteran Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) who returns home disfigured and dumb, and with no arms and legs, but highly decorated, with three medals paying tribute to his heroic deeds. For his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), however, he is less a ‘war god’ than a burden, as rude and demanding with her as he was before he was maimed, and while carrying out her duty as the docile peasant, sacrificing herself by caring for the glorified soldier and taking him out for public display, her meek patience is thinning rapidly and eventually turns into a desire for revenge. Caterpillar uses documentary war footage, radio propaganda and excessive, brutal imagery that hint at the violently, sexually and politically provocative spirit of Wakamatsu’s previous work, but the film is strongest in its meticulous depiction of the strained relationship between Kyozu and Shigeko. Overall, it makes a fitting addition to the 73-year-old director’s remarkable oeuvre, which now stands at 100 films.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)
Undeniably the most colourful entry in this year’s programme was Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – a remake of sorts of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple. Moving the action to northern China in the imperial age, the film follows Ni Dahong, the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, who pays a killer to murder both his unfaithful wife and her squeamish lover. It’s a shame that the banal slapstick and oddball jokes that Zhang decided to employ instead of the black humour of the original inevitably turn his ambitious venture into a comic farce as the plot rolls on, and it is only in the film’s showdown that he manages to get back on solid ground. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, including the wildly varied and exaggerated acting on display, but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nonetheless a visual treat throughout, from the luridly coloured landscapes and floral costumes to the film’s deft cinematography that are clear reminders of Zhang’s earlier work.

Golden Slumber (Goruden Suramba)
With no more major surprises to be expected after a week of enjoying an inspiring, yet patchy festival programme, my last choice turned out to be something of a lucky draw. Golden Slumber is essentially a Japanese indie man-on-the-run conspiracy thriller that follows the conventions of the genre, but the imagery of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is all his own. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver, is meeting up with his old college friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when the new prime minister is assassinated in a bomb attack during a procession through the streets of the Japanese city of Sendai, and, through some far-fetched coincidences, Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. Nakamura deftly hurls his unobtrusive hero from one hair’s breadth escape to another, filling in his background in comic-style fashion, and even though the story feels a bit longwinded in the middle, it lays the groundwork for the triumphant climax. A witty, refreshing genre treat, and arguably one of the most easily enjoyable films at the Berlinale this year.

Read Pamela Jahn’s first report , second report, and third report from the Berlinale.

Videos: Art by Chance 2009

ART BY CHANCE is the brand new “Ultra Short Film Festival” that will be aired in May 2010 all around the world. Films will meet with us unexpected, non-theatrical venues around the world on digital advertising screens located inside metros, busses, railways, public transport. We have selected three films from last year’s festival that we really like. See below for details of how to submit your short film.

ARTBYCHANCE09 Selection Dana Kasdorf Around the World from ART BY CHANCE Ultra Short Film F on Vimeo.

ARTBYCHANCE09 Selection Suleyman Yilmaz No More Overlap from ART BY CHANCE Ultra Short Film F on Vimeo.

ARTBYCHANCE09 Selection Sam Moorman Barnett Religious Experience from ART BY CHANCE Ultra Short Film F on Vimeo.

ART BY CHANCE is opened to movies of all kinds; fiction, animation, documentary and video art with the exception of training and advertising films. Enthusiastic and creative international filmmakers will be preparing 30-second long films on ‘Time’. Participants can also submit online from

DEADLINE: Friday 26 March

Feb 26-27: FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival 2010


FrightFest returns to the Glasgow Film Festival for 5th year and we like the sound of Belgian giallo homage Amer (Bitter), and to stay with the genre, the re-mastered, uncut version of the classic Lucio Fulci movie, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Also definitely worth checking out is the new film by Vincenzo Cube Natali, Splice. And if we were in Glasgow we wouldn’t miss the first Icelandic exploitation film, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre

More info on these films from the press release:

AMER (BITTER) – UK Premiere
Gialli fans will not want to miss co-directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s immaculately executed and flawless valentine to the 70s thriller genre popularized by Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Recreating the motifs, clichés and visual codes from the vintage Italian back catalogue (including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Suspiria and Deep Red), the Belgian duo unfold a virtually dialogue free tale of frightening obsession, sexual sensation and stunning black-gloved murder. Scored to recycled Italian soundtrack selections in the Tarantino tradition, the hypnotic and ethereal allure of the classic gialli lives again in this boldly imaginative cult phenomenon.

Enjoy this re-mastered, restored and never-before-seen fully uncut version of Italian gore-meister Lucio Fulci’s hippy, trippy 1971 giallo classic. Did rich socialite Carol Hammond (gialli goddess Florinda Bolkan) kill her nymphomaniac neighbour during a depraved orgy of LSD-induced sadistic sex? Or is she just being framed by her philandering husband? Swinging London decadence, scandalous blackmail, neurotic visions and gory throat slashing all wrapped up in one of Ennio Morricone’s finest scores. Quirky touches of Fulci fantasy horror make this stylish psycho thriller a quintessential masterpiece of the giallo genre.

SPLICE – UK Premiere
From Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube and Cypher, and visionary producer Guillermo del Toro, comes a new kind of monster movie. Rebellious scientists Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley defy legal and ethical boundaries and forge ahead with a dangerous experiment: splicing together human and animal DNA to create a new organism. Named ‘Dren’ the creature rapidly develops from a deformed female infant into a beautiful chimera, who forges a bond with both of her creators. But then that bond turns deadly in a Frankenstein fable for the modern era…

A group of tourists embark on a sightseeing trip aboard a whaling vessel with none other than Captain Gunnar (Leatherface) Hansen himself. It’s when the ship breaks down the terror starts because the day-trippers come under attack from a crew of deranged Fishbillies hellbent on mayhem and slaughter. Let the bloody sea battle begin in director Julius Kemp’s horror comedy hybrid with a strong surreal flavour, the first exploitation film ever made by the Icelandic Film Industry.

Full programme at

Suspiria: Possessed Bodies and Deadly Pointe


Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Date: 18 January 2010

Distributor: Nouveaux Pictures

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Udo Kier

Italy 1977

98 mins

Any witches’ covens looking for a cover could do worse than a dance academy. Open the doors of your remote labyrinthine pile and waifs of good family will simply flock to be subjected to severe sado-masochistic discipline. As played by Jessica Harper with an unsurpassed 40-year-old-woman-in-the-body-of-a-14-year-old-girl oddness, Suzy Bannion is the natural prey of the sort of humourlessly leering Teutonic dykes and faded beauties made up to a grotesque parody of their former selves who run such establishments. Horrible as it is, Suzy accepts this situation as her lot: maybe this distracts her from the even more horrible truth.

It’s not as if there aren’t enough danger signals right from the off. Indeed, Suspiria almost doesn’t recover from a blistering opening 15 minutes. Horror movies generally take some time to establish a notion of normal life, gradually allowing the supernatural or murderous to infiltrate. Here, it’s all up in about 10 seconds. As the opening credits run, a bland voice-over tells us Suzy is coming to Germany to study dance. The arrival board flashes up, Suzy passes through security, and she is already saucer-eyed. Seconds later, she is soaking in a howling gale as Goblin‘s pulsing, hammer dulcimer-led theme kicks in. After an angsty taxi ride, out of the blackest storm there floats towards us a Gothic pile so ruddy it seems to be engorged. So this is the dance school. To make matters worse, as Suzy tries to get in, a deranged girl runs out. By now Goblin are drumming and howling fit to burst, and we follow the raving girl to a friend’s apartment block. It seems a dubious refuge: the bizarre, oddly-luminous panelling of the lobby itself seems murderous. And in a way it is. Knifed and noosed by an unseen assailant, the girl’s still twitching body plunges through the stained-glass lobby ceiling, stopped short of the floor by the tightening noose. As the camera pans down, we see her friend on the floor, her face bisected by a shard of stained glass.

From this point there has to be a retreat into some sort of everyday, but even then it’s a weird one. Suzy’s classmates – hissing, preening, would-be prima ballerinas – are witchy enough in all conscience. But even the more Chalet School moments are undermined by the weirdness of the sets. So oppressive is the academy’s gory facade, Argento struggles to make it look less scary in daylight. Suzy’s digs are brightly lit, and in black and white, marking a welcome release from the tyranny of saturated colour. But even here the wallpaper wants to coils its tendrils round you. Everywhere else is marked by strange geometric panelling, pulsating with light, as if to merge with the stained glass that crops up from time to time. All this is framed by glistening lacquered boards, panels, and art nouveau arabesques. The whole is frequently heavily filtered, with occasionally paradoxical lighting, as one part of a shot is bathed in warning red, another in bilious green, like the ‘before’ segment of an ad for a hangover cure.

Goblin’s theme music matches and amplifies the infested quality of the visuals uncannily. In fact, it seems almost immanent in the very air of the film, rendering conventional distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic sound moot. You find yourself wondering how Suzy can’t hear it, it is so evidently the sound of what is there before you visually. Despite the many quite apparent warning signs hinted at above, Suzy’s first serious realisation that all is not well at the academy comes as she encounters the stares of a whiskery hag and malevolently angelic Midwich cuckoo in Fauntleroy garb halfway down a corridor. A blinding flash from a strange pyramid of metal the hag is polishing physically strikes Suzy, leaving a sort of snowy cloud in its wake. As Suzy staggers on to the end of the corridor, she looks like she’s moving through treacle. Insanely loud, Goblin’s music is the thickness of the air she is moving through.

This scene is sandwiched between Suzy’s two forlorn attempts at actually doing some dancing. The dance studio is one of the few areas of modern décor, clean lines and surfaces, normal daylight and air. Yet, even here there is an odd counterpoint to the rest of the academy. What we see are bodies controlled by music, students prancing to a maddeningly jaunty piano waltz. It’s sinister enough in its way, and it proves too much for Suzy: she spends the rest of the film more or less bed-ridden. The nightmarishness of dance is confirmed in a brief respite from the academy when we follow the freshly-sacked répétiteur to a Bavarian beer hall. Here, in one of the most chilling scenes in the film, we witness – horrors – the synchronized thigh-slapping of group Lederhosen dancing. It is perhaps the pianist’s good fortune that he is blind. Were he not, this would be one of the last things he sees as, on his way home, he is mauled and eaten by his guide dog.

Working out the steps is, on the other hand, how Suzy starts to fight back. Here we enter what you might call the Nancy Drew phase of the story as Suzy, along with classmate Sarah, first figures out that the teachers only pretend to leave the school at night, and then works out their mysterious movements by noting the number and direction of their steps. Following the steps leads Suzy to freedom, and poor Sarah to a tangle with razor wire. But never mind the story: sit back and let the pullulating sound and vision crawl all over you.

Stephen Thomson

Buy Suspiria (Blu-ray) [DVD] [1976] from Amazon

Buy Suspiria [DVD] [1976] from Amazon

audio Listen to the podcast of the Dario Argento interview + Goblin Q&A led by Alex Fitch at the Supersonic music festival in Birmingham.

Watch the trailer for Suspiria:

Nightwatching: Interview with Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway (Photo by NOTV.COM)

Photo by: NOTV.COM

Nightwatching screened at the 16th Raindance Film Festival

Date: 2 October 2008

Venue: Cineworld

More info on the Raindance website

This year’s Raindance film festival included the premiere of Peter Greenaway’s new film Nightwatching, a dramatisation of the theory that Rembrandt included clues to a murder mystery within the imagery of his masterpiece, The Nightwatch. Prior to the Raindance screening, the director had created a ‘son et lumií¨re’ projection on the actual painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After the film, Alex Fitch caught up with the director and asked him about his two projects associated with the painting.

Alex Fitch: I first heard you give a talk about your Nightwatch project at the BFI a year and a half ago. You said it was initiated by a conference about the growing lack of art tourism that you’d attended; the Rijksmuseum were interested in having you project a film onto the painting of The Nightwatch and eventually that metamorphosed into this feature film.

Peter Greenaway: Well, some of this is true, but I think we have to rearrange that to be absolutely historically accurate. The year 2006 was the celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday – he was born in 1606 – and Amsterdam, where I live, is Rembrandt’s town. It’s a bit like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Godard’s suburban Paris! They say that The Nightwatch, painted by Rembrandt in 1642, is the fourth most famous painting in the world – number one is the Mona Lisa, number two is probably The Last Supper, both by Da Vinci, number three is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and number four is The Nightwatch. So, it’s a very important painting and it means an awful lot to the Dutch themselves.

In the 17th century, Holland was an incipient republic democracy surrounded by powerful monarchies who wanted to destroy it. It was the centre of the economic and political nexus for three generations, not just of Europe but of the whole world. They were at the very end of the Silk Road, so they were attached to China, and the country was the real, total depot of all the world’s goodies; and into all this came these amazing painters. There are supposed to be over 2,000 painters living in Amsterdam from about 1590 to the death of Vermeer, which was around 1673, and in that period there must have been over a million paintings painted. It’s extraordinary – never before or since have there been so many paintings painted in this little, tiny country – and it’s obviously the result of a burgeoning financial entity where it means there is a lot of spare money sloshing around…

AF: Like the Hollywood of its time?

PG: Exactly, including in the way in which a lot of those paintings were no good and a lot of them have disappeared… I think top of the pile would be two painters, Vermeer – who, personally, I actually prefer – and Rembrandt. But there’s no point in making a historical film unless you refer it to ‘now’ and there are many references – even to the death of Theo Van Gogh – in this film. We misuse the Voltaire quotation saying: ‘Democracy is ideal, as long as it is tempered by assassination’! You could say that about America in the Kennedy / Martin Luther King period – and it was certainly true here: when they got sick of democratically elected leaders, they used to kill them! And now in contemporary Holland, Pim Fortuyn, a very charismatic politician, was murdered, and a couple of years later, Van Gogh’s grand-nephew, a filmmaker who was associated with fundamental Islamic politics, also got killed. So, maybe again, it’s this notion of when democratic free speech reaches an edge, people can’t stand it anymore, and the only way to change that is by some violent act. If you listen very carefully to the soundtrack, all these things are built into the film. On a personal level, we’ve tried to play the game that Rembrandt is a proto-filmmaker; ‘Get in the light! Get out of the frame! Go over there and you won’t be properly colour coded!’ So in a sense, what a contemporary filmmaker does has been already preceded by many, many painters, and of course, by Rembrandt!

AF:When you originally projected your film onto the painting of The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum did you feel that you were kind of gilding the lily or was it something necessary to attract people to come and see the painting?

PG: I’ve always complained about the fact that we’ve got a text-based cinema, not an image-based cinema. In every film you can see everything is constructed around text. I’m trained as a painter and I believe that text has so many other media to play with – novels, theatre – that surely the extraordinary medium of cinema should be image-dominated. All my career, I think, has been pushing for a medium that speaks its meaning through images rather than text. I think that’s ironic because a lot of my movies are very wordy and full of all sorts of ideas that are text-based, but I think nobody could deny – whatever they think of my ideas – that there’s an incredibly imagistic imagination behind these movies!

The Dutch know I’m interested in light – I’ve been working in Holland for 25 years and living there for 12. They can see in my films that I have almost an academic interest in art history and they made it an invitation: ‘Mr Greenaway, would you like to come along and play with The Nightwatch, to make it more open, to make it more receptive, to explain to the media of the year 2006 what this painting’s all about? And I did! What was I doing? I was trying to put 8,000 years of painting into 113 years of cinema! Godard tried to do the same thing in Passion, but we got much, much closer because we were able to use the painting itself. We didn’t make a film and we didn’t animate it, but we looked incredibly scrupulously at how Rembrandt had created it, with its five light sources, with its characters and its colour coding, and through modern computer technology we were able to mask it and remask it. I’d like to show you what we did, but I could only show you a DVD, which isn’t the same as playing with the real iconic masterpiece. We manipulated the shadows, so in a sense we repainted the painting! It was so successful that we were invited to go to Milan to tackle Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and we’re about to start, in one month’s time, on Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. Then we have Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Picasso’s Guernica, a Jackson Pollock in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, a famous Seurat in Chicago, Monet’s Water Lilies in Paris… We might get more invitations, but I said: ‘Look, enough’s enough or I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life! We’ll do nine paintings – we’ll call it “Nine classic paintings revisited”.’

Now, in relation to your question: in the world at large there is a falling off of cultural tourism. 18% of Italians are no longer looking at their paintings! So this creates a new sort of excitement vis-í -vis art history. There are people around who are prepared to invite us to come along in order to get people to look at cultural heritage again.

AF: But of course you’ve taken this project one step further by making a film about the creation of the painting, that perhaps again will create new audiences for the painting itself…

PG: Cinema’s only been going for 113 years while this extraordinary heritage of amazing painting has been going on for much, much longer. I was trained as a painter and I often think, ‘what the hell am I doing in cinema?’ It was a series of accidents and mistakes, but it was music that interested me in cinema. I wanted to find a media where I could put music to image. I still do a lot of painting – I have a painting exhibition in Ghent, another one in Budapest coming up very shortly, another one in Amsterdam – but it’s that particular combination of image and music that brought me initially into cinema. In my films there are long relationships with people like Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk and Michael Nyman, recently Brian Eno, Vim Mertens, Louis Andriessen. So I’ve collaborated… Is ‘collaborate’ too strong a word? Let’s say I’ve worked in association with some extraordinary mid-20th-century composers.

AF: You said that editing was very important in your training as a filmmaker and editing with music can very much dictate the pace of a scene.

PG: Sure. The music on this particular production is quite lush and romantic, but it comes out of minimalist tradition. I think often that music or the art forms that are very important in your formative years tend to stay with you. I think we’re now in the fourth or fifth generation of minimalist composers, but I still have an emotional affiliation to that sort of music.

AF: You’ve spoken before about breaking the cinema screen because you find it very restrictive, and in that sense, The Last Judgment is your ideal subject matter, because it’s painted on a curved roof, in a place we’re not used to looking at for entertainment. Is that a first step for you towards making films projected on a screen that isn’t dictated by the history of widescreen cinema?

PG: Well, we do a lot of that stuff now; it was mentioned casually, that for my sins, we perform in a VJ context. I don’t think to call me ‘a VJ’ is very satisfactory. What I’m interested in is present tense, non-narrative cinema on multiple screens, to break away from the restrictions in the way we go to the cinema. I’m looking for 360-degree phenomena and I want to get rid of this notion of the single parallelogram, which is very archaic and old-fashioned. We’re pushing and pulling and we’re seeing a new phenomenon, which is the democratisation of cinema. YouTube is an amazing, positive event! We break though all those restrictive, elitist barriers of distribution – you can now distribute yourself! The balance in the equation between the maker and the receiver is becoming much more equivalent. The ideal situation is that every maker is everybody’s receiver and vice versa…

Interview by Alex Fitch