Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: A Work in Progress

American Torso

Edinburgh International Film Festival

15-26 June 2011

EIFF website

The 65th edition was a year of transition for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Under a new directorial team, the festival had teething problems, including a dearth of international guests, an unambitious film selection, technical issues (wrong projection format, out-of-synch subtitles) and venues impractically spread out across the city. On the positive side, however, there was a dynamic attempt to open up and diversify the festival experience, and interesting efforts to look at film in relation to other areas, including music and science.

Among those initiatives, Project: New Cinephilia was a multi-platform venture aimed at stimulating debate around film criticism, curated by Kate Taylor and Damon Smith. It culminated on June 16 in day-long talks between critics, writers, bloggers and filmmakers. Electric Sheep took part in the panel discussion on new tools for film criticism, which involved comics, blogs and video essays. Thought-provoking talks and interaction with the audience made it a very energising and inspiring event. As part of the project, Mubi published a series of essays, including the video essay created especially for the event by Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Michael Koresky from Reverse Shot, on a special section of their website – a visit is highly recommended.

Improvising Live Music for Film was part of the Reel Science initiative. Norman McLaren’s hypnotic animations from the 1940s, 50s and 60s were given new soundtracks by members of the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, who responded to abstract ‘dot’ and ‘line’ films as well as the anti-war parable Love Thy Neighbor and dance film Pas de Deux. Featuring impressive guitar from George Burt, the mini-orchestra’s improvisations were warm and accessible, with nods to the jazz styles of McLaren’s era. The promised discussion on film music’s neurological impact, while introduced well by Edinburgh University Reid Professor Nigel Osborne, didn’t have time to fully materialise – a shame, given the fascinating subject matter.

One of the unquestionable highlights of the festival was the presence of Hungarian master Béla Tarr, who was there to introduce his latest film, Turin Horse. An austere film, and a hard watch in some respects – it is very long, slow and deliberately repetitive – it is also extremely rewarding. The film is an oblique take on an anecdote about Nietzsche, which recounts how the philosopher protested at a man who was beating his horse in Turin. The story has inspired many interpretations; Tarr chooses to focus on the horse, the man who owns it and his daughter. Set in a bleak, constantly wind-swept landscape, it is a soberly apocalyptic tale, a sort of creation story in reverse, as the characters’ world is gradually diminished and restricted over the course of six days until total darkness engulfs them. Tarr has said that it was his last film, and the disappearance of light at the end makes it a particularly poignant farewell to cinema.

Béla Tarr was also one of the guest curators (together with Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant) asked by the festival to choose a small selection of films. He picked three black and white Hungarian films with an interest in film language, which had clear connections with his own work. The best known was Miklós Jancsó’s 1966 The Round-Up, about the detention of political dissidents in Austria under an authoritarian regime. Gábor Bódy’s American Torso (1975) was a wonderful film, centring on a Hungarian map-maker fighting in the American Civil War. Full of references to literature and history, playful and poetic at the same time, it is a spellbinding meandering that loosely connects war and revolution, the development of map-making, Hungarian exiles and a mysterious, death-defying devil of a man at its heart. György Feher’s Passion (1998) is a take on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, made to look like a 1930s film. Feher’s approach is both elliptical and drawn out, as if he had only kept the essential moments of the story, and extended and deepened them. It is a very evocative film, in which the contrast between darkness and light and the positioning of the characters in the frame are more important in conveying emotion and mood than dialogue or narrative.

Convento

This year, the festival had also decided to celebrate its historic interest in documentary. One highlight was Jarred Alterman’s Convento, a lyrical, beautifully shot film that shines an intimate light on an artistic family living in a restored convent and nature reserve in Portugal. It’s a gorgeous place, tenderly cared for by its inhabitants: Geraldine Zwanniken, a former dancer, now artist, and her two sons, the nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, who creates kinetic sculptures using found materials, often the bones of dead animals, reanimated in a sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous way. Alterman’s almost poetic visual style allows us a fleeting chance to share in the family’s extraordinary lives.

Stylistically, James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim, is a more classic documentary. Using interviews and archival footage, Marsh pieces together the remarkable and disturbing story behind Project Nim, the misguided experiment to teach sign language to the eponymous chimpanzee, raised from infancy by a human family in New York. It’s a heart-breaking story; Nim was a victim of unbelievable hubris, and while loved by the people who cared for him, he was also abandoned when he became less like a human child and more like a wild animal. It’s an intriguing film, but the people interviewed (Nim’s original family, the scientist who devised the experiment, other researchers), with one or two exceptions, are just so unlikeable, and some of their actions so unconscionable, that it’s impossible to identify with them.

The same can’t be said of the subject of Calvet, Dominic Allan’s engrossing documentary. While describing someone as larger than life may sound like a cliché, the phrase surely applies to Jean-Marc Calvet – runaway, legionnaire, vice cop, bodyguard, alcoholic, drug addict, and now painter. Allan lets Calvet do all the talking, the camera following him as he revisits locations from his tortuous past; the artist is a fascinating, charismatic character, given a near-miraculous opportunity for redemption when he decides, with Allan discreetly following, to find the son he abandoned years ago. It’s a remarkable film about a remarkable man, who, in his words, has been to hell and back.

One of the most enjoyable documentaries was Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fisher against the World, about the rise and fall of the American chess master who became caught up in Cold War politics when he was asked to compete against the Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik. The film is worth watching for the meticulously detailed footage from the incredibly tense, nerve-wracking games leading up to Fisher’s victory, which ended 24 years of Soviet domination of world chess. It also provides an interesting insight into Fisher’s upbringing and troubled state of mind, exploring the fatal relationship between genius and insanity and asking whether the former can ever exist without the latter.

Life in Movement offered another well-crafted glimpse at what it takes to be a talented, ambitious and passionate individual. Its subject is Australian choreographer Tanya Liedke, who died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 29, the night before taking up the position of Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Theatre. Like Bobby Fisher, this simple yet moving portrait by producer-director duo Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde would have benefited from slightly tighter scripting, but both documentaries managed to capture the charisma and unique personality of their central character, and remained compelling and informative throughout.

Screened on the last weekend of the festival, Hell and Back Again, by first-time director Danfung Dennis, will probably be discussed mostly for the impressive daring and visual beauty of its ’embedded journalism’ and its filming of troops in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But in fact, the film follows the slow recovery of a seriously wounded sergeant, with the combat footage relegated to flashbacks. Mainly free of political commentary, the film only lapses into sentiment and borderline propaganda with an ill-judged Willie Nelson song over the end credits.

Phase 7

It says a lot about this year’s edition of the EIFF that one of the most high-profile screenings was David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a mismatched couple who, much to their own surprise, fall for each other as the world falls apart during an epidemic. The mysterious disease causes people to lose their senses, one at a time, which is followed by temporary and uncontrollable outbursts of sorrow, anger or hunger. Other than taking a more personal approach to the apocalyptic genre, the film does not have much to offer, and although it is largely sustained by the lead actors, the flaws in the script ultimately make it a tiresome watch.

An unnamed epidemic also hits in Nicolás Goldbart’s Phase 7: residents of one quarantined Buenos Aires apartment block are up against not only a killer virus, but also their neighbours in this witty, low-budget horror. Coco, a peaceable young dude trying to keep his pregnant wife safe and well-fed, forms an unlikely alliance with Horacio, the maté-drinking, gun-toting conspiracy theorist next door, when the intentions of the other residents – humorously drawn as both impeccably bourgeois and utterly ruthless – become clear. Phase 7 offsets the gore and tension with a sharp script and a cool John Carpenter-esque soundtrack by Guillermo Guareschi.

Latin America offered another futuristic tale with Alejandro Molina’s By Day and by Night, from Mexico. Tackling the timely theme of over-population, the film is set in a world where people have to live under a dome that protects them from the ‘exterior’; due to the limited space, half of the population has to live during the day, while the other half lives at night. The film follows a mother’s search for her daughter after the child’s ‘shift’ is inexplicably modified. Visually, it’s a cross between Star Trek and Solaris, and Molina’s nostalgic, minimalistic, slow-paced approach and sparse use of dialogue are a welcome change from recent slick, pompous 3D sci-fi blockbusters; but the result is mostly a joyless, soporific and sentimental cinematic experience that is not as deep as it pretends to be.

There was more dystopian science fiction on offer with Xavier Gens’s apocalyptic action thriller The Divide, which had generated some hype after screening at the Cannes film market earlier this year. After New York is destroyed by unidentified causes, a mismatched group of eight adults and a young girl are trapped inside a basement. As they try to survive not only the outside menace, but also one another, the film’s annoyingly stereotyped cast and unconvincing plot twists fail to maintain interest, despite fairly energetic directing from Gens.

A sprinkling of horror films included Troll Hunter, directed by André Øvredall, which follows in the mockumentary footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Øvredall’s scenario isn’t exactly bursting with ideas, but it does play imaginatively with its single premise. The trolls themselves are rather splendid, and the film is very handsomely photographed amid spectacular Norwegian scenery, all looming mountains and misty meres. To its credit, the film never gets caught up in trying to make its absurd conceit plausible, and derives a lot of enjoyment from the bare-faced silliness of it all.

By contrast, The Caller was just a pile of derivative trash. After separating from a violent ex, Mary moves into a new apartment. But soon, she starts getting strange calls from a woman named Rose, and events from the past appear to influence the present. The premise seemed interesting; sadly, the realisation is entirely incoherent from a narrative and thematic point of view and chock-full of clichés.

Although not a straightforward horror film, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus had elements of the genre. The Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship are treated with de la Iglesia’s customary outrageousness, the film starting with an army of clowns in full make-up roped in to fight against the General’s forces. One of them has a son, Javier, who decides to follow the family tradition after his father is caught by the Franquists. Silliness and quixotic heroism, outlandish humour and hideousness mix in this exuberant response to a dark period of Spanish history. But despite inspired moments (a particular highlight is Javier, treated like a dog by an officer during a hunting party, biting the hand of an ageing Franco), the film prefers to focus on an uninteresting, hackneyed romance between the sad clown and the beautiful trapeze artist, rather than really sinking its teeth into its historical context.

Our Day Will Come

Among other films worthy of note, Pablo Lorrain’s Post Mortem particularly stood out. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is an emotionally stilted functionary at the city morgue, who becomes an inadvertent member of the military regime as the body count rises dramatically in the days surrounding the death of Salvador Allende. While the film starts slowly, tension builds as Mario falls pathetically in love with the troubled Nancy, a cabaret dancer who disappears when her father is arrested – although Lorrain refrains from showing much action. Instead, the sounds of a violent struggle are heard off-screen as Mario showers in his house across the street, oblivious to the brutal crackdown that is taking place around him. When he leaves for work, the streets are empty of people, cars bulldozed by the tanks that have swept through, crushing everything in their path. The film’s very deliberate, subtle pacing leads to a troubling climax, and while the surprising final scene is easily read as a metaphor for the oppressive, dehumanising regime imposed by Pinochet, it’s no less tragic.

Anyone who has seen the video for MIA’s ‘Born Free’ will be familiar with the basic set-up in Romain Gavras’s original debut feature, Our Day Will Come: red heads are second-class citizens, tormented and persecuted for their looks. In the bleak Nord-Pas de Calais region, Rémy (Olivier Barthelemy) is treated like a joke, ostracised by his family and football team, while his only ‘real’ relationship is conducted online in a gaming forum with someone he’s never met. But then, like a warped knight coming to his rescue, Patrick (a terrific Vincent Cassel), a psychologist and greying red head, decides to take Rémy under his wing and teach him a few life lessons. Over the next 48 hours, they buy a Porsche, get hammered in a supermarket after hours, check into a luxury hotel – where Gavras amusingly subverts the usual male-fantasy group-sex scene – and Rémy discovers that Ireland is the red heads’ spiritual homeland. The slightly absurd subject matter makes the film a bit of an oddity, but it’s confidently directed, entertaining and humorous, and laced with sinister undercurrents.

In Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman, a veteran (Garrett Dillahunt) from an unnamed war shows up unannounced at the remote home of the man who saved his life during a firefight (Franklin, played by Donal Logue). One man has a medal for bravery, the other a gaping scar across the back of his skull. The injury has left Sherman a bit slower, a bit dimmer, and certainly unable to cope with the social niceties demanded of him by Franklin’s wife. Redford, with the help of a chilling performance from the eerie Dillahunt, creates a palpable air of tension in the remote household, keeping the audience guessing what direction the volatile reunion between the two men, with their completely different lives, is going to take. It’s a bleak, disturbing and ultimately engrossing picture.

Yoon Sung-hyun’s debut feature Bleak Night was the only Korean entry in this year’s selection. It follows a grieving father as he investigates his son’s closest friends to piece together the events that led to the tragic accident in which the teenage boy has died. Although Yoon Sung-hyun’s assured directing style and the convincing performances from his young cast create a disquieting tension in the first half of the film, the atmosphere and mystery that initially sustain it dissipate gradually, and what remains feels like a plodding analysis of teenage discontent.

Overall, although there were a number of interesting films in the programme, they were too often films already scheduled to have a UK release in the near future. The desire of the directorial team to revitalise the Edinburgh festival is entirely laudable, and it is to be hoped that they will be able to propose a more original and daring film selection next year.

Festival report by Sarah Cronin, Pamela Jahn, Virginie Sélavy, Frances Morgan and David Cairns

Poetry: Interview with Lee Chang-dong

Poetry

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: ICO/Arrow

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Original title: Shi

Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Hira

South Korea 2010

139 mins

Lee Chang-dong is a Korean novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and even a former Minister of Culture and Tourism. Poetry, his fifth film, is about an ageing woman who must cope with the distress of discovering that her grandson is implicated in a horrific crime, and its fallout.

Sarah Cronin interviewed Lee Chang-dong by email and asked him about the death of poetry, the beauty of small things and the importance of ‘seeing well’.

SC: Where did your inspiration for the story come from? Was it the rape and suicide of the young girl, or the character of this older woman facing dementia?

LCD:It started with a sexual assault case that had actually happened in a small town in South Korea, which was committed by a group of juveniles. But the real case was a bit different from the film; the girl, the victim, didn’t commit suicide. However, this case had penetrated into my mind and did not leave. And although I wanted to talk about this issue through my film, I was not sure about the means. Of course, there would be easy ways that I can think of. For instance, have the victim fight for justice with difficulty, or have a journalist or a police detective, or a third person striving to search for the hidden truth, etc. However, I didn’t want to adopt those conventional ways. This case eventually became the story for my film when I came across the main character, a woman in her 60s wishing to write a poem for the first time in her life, who faces Alzheimer’s disease. To sum up, this story was finally born from a combination of different elements: the sexual assault case, the suicide of a girl, and the lady in her 60s writing a poem.

Why did you choose to build the film around the central theme of poetry?

While I was trying to figure out a way to deal with this sexual assault case in a film, I was travelling in Japan when I happened to watch a TV programme intended for the sleepless tourists in my hotel room one night. Watching the typical landscape visuals with meditation music-type sounds of peaceful rivers, flying birds, fishermen throwing their nets, it suddenly occurred to me that the title of the film dealing with this cruel case should be Poetry. The film character and plot came to my mind at the same time, along with the title. All these things didn’t come through logical thinking but instinctively and intuitively. But perhaps my old questions and thoughts suddenly found their small resolution at that moment. Questions of what? Questions like, why do I write novels and make films; and to what extent my writings or films can affect the world. Art is a pursuit for beauty and there is the question of how it is related to the filth and vice of the world. The question is similar to what Theodor Adorno had asked: is it possible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz? The character Mija in the film asks those questions instead of me. She may be old, but she is naive enough to ask them. Like all beginners are naive.

One of the poets that Mija meets says that ‘Poetry deserves to die’ – is there some truth in that? And why do you think film and poetry are dying?

People nowadays do not read or write poetry. Do you see any young people who write poems around you? Students learn poetry as if they are learning archaic words. People would ask back, ‘Can you make a living by writing poetry?’ They’re right. Poetry doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee any pleasure or desire. It has no value economically. Maybe it exists only in a form of advertisement copy. Poetry is dying. If poetry is an act of pursuing hidden beauty or truth, an act of questioning our lives, it can also be another form of art, it can be cinema. In this regard, cinema is also dying. While some films are massively consumed as ever, other films, films that I’d like to create, films I’d like to see, are becoming more difficult to find. Films that make people observe the world with different eyes, to feel invisible beauty and to question life. Do those films still exist? Do you wish for those films to exist? These are the questions that I want to ask.

What appealed to you the most about Mija’s character, and also Yun Jung-hee? Mija is this very feminine older woman, who also seems very enigmatic. You never explain anything about why her daughter left, or what happened to her husband.

When I first thought of the character Mija I wrote her down as ‘Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic’. The description ‘like a girl’ was important in showing her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside. She is innocent and naive, like a child who wonders about everything that the child sees for the first time. A beauty that goes against time, like a dried flower. An unrealistic character who still feels and talks like an immature girl, despite her age. Which are also the characteristics of the actress Yun Jung-hee. I named the character Mija because I couldn’t think of any alternatives. Though the name Mija is old-fashioned and it is not common nowadays, it has the meaning of ‘beauty’ in it. Anyway, Yun Jung-hee’s real name turned out to be Mija. I didn’t think it was coincidence, but fate. Mija’s past life might not have been easy. Maybe she has been abandoned by a man. Maybe her daughter was following in her footsteps. However, I didn’t want to describe their backgrounds directly to the audience. Rather I wanted the audience to feel and understand them through their present.

The poetry teacher stresses that the ‘important thing in life is seeing’ and ‘to see well’. Do you feel the same as a filmmaker – that it’s your duty to see what’s around you, and reveal it on film?

That comment made by the poetry teacher represents my thoughts to some extent. ‘To see well’ is a fundamental aspect in writing poetry or making films. Films show the world on behalf of the audience’s eyes. However, the films that we make, what kind of eyes are they in showing the world to the audience? Some films make us see the world differently, while some make us see only what we want to see. And some films do not let us see anything.

Do you believe that it’s important to always find beauty in small things – the apricot that’s fallen to the ground, for example? Is that something you also try to express in your films?

To discover hidden beauty and meaning in small and trivial things is the fundamental element, not only for film, but also for all art genres. The problem is, beauty doesn’t exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it’s visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Apricots need to fall down to earth to create a new life. Therefore, art is an irony as itself. As so are our lives.

Your films often feature characters who are disabled – in this case it’s a man who’s had a stroke. Why is his relationship with Mija central to the film?

They are mostly characters with communication barriers, rather than being physically disabled. I always dream of communicating with audiences through my films. So, those characters in my films, in a way, represent the part of me that is not communicated, that longs to communicate. However, the old man character in the film having a fit of apoplexy represents disabled masculinity. That is, the macho man’s sexual desire, which makes him beg to ‘be a man’ for one last time after becoming ill and helpless, despite the money and power that he achieved in the past. And when Mija accepts that desire, she defiles her own body like the dead girl.

It’s very disturbing that the fathers care so little about the gang rape and death of the girl. Is this attitude – pay off the mother, the school, newspapers – common in Korea? Are you trying to make a wider comment on corruption?

I admit that parents in South Korea tend to be overprotective of their children. However, I believe that all societies have similar attitudes to sexual violence, although there are variations. People, especially men, think revealing the problem never helps anyone, even the victims. That is why they do not seem to feel guilty in covering up the problem.

Mija’s poem, ‘Agnes’s Song’, turns out to be a beautiful, poetic suicide note, written from the young girl’s point of view. When you started the script, did you already know that was the form the poem would take? It’s an incredible moment in the film, when the young girl’s voice takes over the narration.

Agnes is the Christian name of the dead girl. Mija is eventually able to write a poem after she accepted the pain of Agnes as her own, the life of the girl as her own. Therefore, the one poem that Mija leaves in the world is the one that she wrote on behalf of the girl. Mija speaks out with the voice that the girl would have wanted to leave behind. The two become one through the poem. When Mija’s voice changes into Hee-jin’s, the audience can feel that the destinies of Mija and the girl are overlapping, and that the two characters are united as one.

Why did you choose to close the film with a shot of Agnes turning to look at the camera, rather than a scene with Mija, or Wook? It’s a very powerful, but also very open-ended conclusion.

I wanted the audience to face her directly at the end of the film. I wanted people to remember her faintly smiling face and expression directly looking into the camera, and to accept her emotions along with Mija’s poem. Mija has gone after she has finished writing the poem. I wanted to make people feel Mija’s absence while listening to her poem. Where did she go? I left the answer up to the audience. I pictured the film to have much space, as poems do. Blanks that the audiences could fill in. In that sense it can be seen as an ‘open’ film. The conclusion will be in the audience’s mind.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

Confessions of a Dog: Interview with Gen Takahashi

Confessions of a Dog

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2011

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Gen Takahashi

Writers: Gen Takahashi, Yû Terasawa

Original title: Pochi no kokuhaku

Cast: Shun Sugata, Junichi Kawamoto, Harumi Inoue

Japan 2006

195 mins

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

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

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

Sarah Cronin caught up with director Gen Takahashi on his visit to the UK last month and he told her about the complex motivations of Shun Sugata’s bent cop, the reality of police corruption and the reception of the film in Japan.

Sarah Cronin: Why did you choose to make a film about police corruption? Is it based on real events?

Gen Takahashi: Because I hate the police, and yes, it’s all true.

Why do you hate the police?

Because they trick people out of money. The things that you see in the film are just one part of what they do – they actually do a lot more than what is shown. They are civil servants, they live off our taxes, but because they are the ones in charge of law enforcement, if no one knows about the things they do, they can get away with it. So they’re very sly in some respects, and I don’t like sly people. The yakuza, on the other hand, I’m not saying I like them, but I feel closer to them, because if they do something wrong or commit a crime, they are charged and they go to prison.

How closely do the yakuza and the police work together in Japan?

They don’t collaborate, apart from possibly on a personal level, although the police need the yakuza, but the yakuza don’t need the police. They both use each other.

Can you explain the delay between the completion of the film in 2005 and its release last year? Did you come under pressure to change or re-edit the film?

Not at all. I wish I could say that, it would be quite cool. But nothing. I’m asked that question a lot, by Chinese people, by Europeans, but I think they’re making the mistake of thinking that Japanese people have a cultural and mental awareness level that is higher than it actually is. Because even the police don’t do anything about a film like this. I’ve never been threatened or been at risk. My phone has been tapped occasionally, but that’s about it. I just haven’t been proactive in promoting the film. The first distributor I brought it to took it on, so it’s not like I’ve been applying to lots of places that have been turning it down.

There’s a tradition of American cop movies from the 70s and 80s like Serpico, Dirty Harry, Bad Lieutenant that all expose police corruption. Why do you think this type of film never took off in Japan?

One reason is that in Japanese culture you’re not allowed to criticise the police. There have been a lot of characters in films who were corrupt policemen, but they are fictional characters. In Japan, people either trust the police or they’re scared of them, and they don’t want to be blacklisted by the police.

Were you inspired by any of these films while making Confessions of a Dog?

No. Everyone says Serpico, Serpico, but I’ve not actually seen it.

So what did inspire you?

There are no particular films that inspired me with this. There are filmmakers I like, like Martin Scorsese, people who bring real life into the world of film. I’m inspired by the 60s and 70s in Europe, Italian neo-realism, by new cinema in the US and the UK. Cinema rather than movies.

Why do you think corruption is so rampant in the police and the judiciary? And why isn’t there a stronger moral code?

That’s a very good question. And it’s not just the police in Japan, but all civil servants. Whatever they do, they won’t get sacked, so they’re all corrupt.

I suppose in the West we learn our history of Japan through the samurai warrior or the salary man. I think we have this idea that people are actually very moral. I don’t think we associate corruption with Japan.

The Japanese people are very moral, but it’s the civil servants who aren’t.

Because it’s so easy to get away with it?

It’s because the civil servants create society, they make the rules that benefit themselves. So nowadays you hear that there are no jobs for young people coming out of university. The average wage is £20-30,000 for a young person, but for a civil servant it’s £60-70,000. It’s because the civil servants just decide that’s how much more they’re going to get paid.

The film is also very critical of the press, who seems to be guilty of self-censorship. Why are newspapers so obedient?

In Japan you have the kisha, or press club, and they write their articles based on what the police tells them. They actually have their offices in police stations, and the rent and the phone bills are paid for by the police. So if they were to criticise the police, they would just be biting the hands that feed them.

Is the character of the journalist based on someone you collaborated with?

Yes, but he’s not one person in particular. The journalist in the film quits his job and goes freelance, and some people do that in real life as well, because if they have a sense of justice they will quit the mass media. They tend to follow the same path that the journalist in the film does – they’ll go to the internet where there’s less censorship and write their stories there. I know several people who have done that, so there was no need for me to do any special research into that aspect of the film, because I already knew those people in my life.

Why does Takeda allow himself to be used as a scapegoat? Why does he go along with it for so long?

That’s what I want to know. His mindset is the same as the kamikaze – although not quite the same, because the kamikaze pilots were ready to die for their country. Whereas this, rather than being real self-sacrifice, is a pretend self-sacrifice. They sacrifice themselves because they know that they will be rewarded later. [SPOILER] In the film, there’s the scene where the police boss says, when he gets out of prison, let’s make sure he gets a good job. There’s that sense that you’ll be rewarded. So even though you see him trying to commit suicide with the box cutter, he’s not actually trying to die, he’s not trying to kill himself – he does it in a way so that he knows he won’t die.

And they don’t want him to die either, I guess – is the whole thing an act?

Yes, it is put on. It’s all about who profits, so the lower-ranking officer can only profit by behaving the way he behaved, and the higher-ranking officers profit by treating their subordinates in that way, to have their dogs. And what I was trying to depict was that it’s not going to change. [END OF SPOILER]

In some ways Takeda is still a sympathetic character, despite his brutal criminality – was that intentional?

It is intentional. I worked together with the actor to make him a sympathetic figure. He sacrifices himself, and the audience feels sorry for him, even though he’s in the wrong. I wanted to point out to the audience that they are stupid for feeling sorry for him, being tricked by him.

I read that you do a lot of work in Hong Kong. Is it much easier to get films made there than in Japan?

I haven’t actually directed a film in Hong Kong, I’m more involved in the production side there. I chose Hong Kong because it has a history of being a launch pad into the international film world for Japanese and Asian people, so I’ve learnt a lot about the business side in Hong Kong.

Is it a better environment to work in?

The Hong Kong film industry is actually losing its power now. Setting aside the question of whether it’s easier to make a film in Hong Kong, it’s definitely more difficult in Japan.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

Zipangu Fest 2010: Review

Pyuupiru

Zipangu Fest

23-28 November 2010

London and Bristol

Zipangu Fest website

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

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

Zipangu Fest Opening Night

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

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

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

Nippon Year Zero

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

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

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

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

Live Tape

Live Tape ‘Live’ Night

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

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

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

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

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

Ero Guro Mash Up Night

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

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

NN-891102

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

Annyong Yumika

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

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

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

NN-891102

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

Confessions of a Dog

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

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

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

The Loves’ Film Jukebox


The Loves

The Loves are unashamed fans of 60s pop and rock, who throw in their unique, fuzzy, low-fi, comedic touches into the mix. The band, who formed in Cardiff in 2000, have decided to call it a day with the release of their fourth album, …Love You, released on Fortuna POP! in January, and will be breaking hearts with their last show on Valentine’s Day 2011. Their new single, ‘December Boy’, is out on December 6 on 7” and download. For more information go to the Fortuna POP! website. Frontman Simon Love tells Electric Sheep about some of his favourite films. SARAH CRONIN

1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Or What I Thought Being in a Band Would Be Like. Liars. One day I’ll make the indie A Hard Day’s Night and it’ll involve: not getting soundchecks, being bumped down the bill because another band brought the drums, not getting paid, sleeping on floors, late night toilet stops at service stations, playing to three people in Stoke and the never-ending challenge of getting your mix CD played next.

2. Head (1968)
The Monkees attempt to get rid of their teenybopper image but just end up getting rid of their teenybopper fans. I saw this for the first time late one Friday night, coming through the static on S4C, on a portable black and white TV. They’ve never looked cooler than they do when they’re all in white performing ‘Circle Sky’. Except for Davy. He never looked cool. Bless him.

3. Harold and Maude (1971)
Everyone I’ve shown this film to has at first balked at the premise (19-year-old Bud Cort falls in love with 79-year-old Ruth Gordon), but by the end they are either in tears or singing, ‘If you want to sing out, sing out and if you want to be free, be free’. Everyone though still curls their toes when it shows them in bed together. For more examples of Bud Cort’s ossum-ness see Brewster McCloud or choice number eight in my list.

4. The Wicker Man (1973)
The film I’ve seen the most times in a cinema, and I still get freaked out by the Hand of Glory every time. I love this film because there’s no happy ending, no police helicopters come over the cliff to save Sergeant Howie, he dies. Sorry for spoiling it if you’ve not seen it before. Other spoilers: he’s two people, he might be a robot, he was a patient at the mental asylum all along, but Ben Kingsley thought it’d be good for him to pretend to be a policeman and all M. Night Shyamalan films are shit.

5. Star Wars (1977-1983)
Before triple-chinned, badger-haired, one-idea-for–40-years-not-counting-Howard-the-Duck director George Lucas raped my childhood with episodes one to three of the ‘saga’, the three original films brought nothing but pleasant memories to me. Like the time my father got me out of school early to go and see Return of the Jedi, telling my teacher that I had a dentist appointment just so we wouldn’t have to queue, and the time we ‘rented’ The Empire Strikes Back from his friend who had it ‘on pirate’ in a double bill with ET. In the playground I was Han Solo and Gavin Naish was Luke because he had blond hair. Glory days.

6. Back to the Future (1985-1990)
As well as wanting to be Han Solo, I also wanted to be Marty McFly when I was a youngling. I had a sleeveless body-warmer like him (but mine was maroon and white, not orange) and I begged my parents for a skateboard for Christmas in 1985. Instead I got a hi-fi. When I did finally get a skateboard it was wonky. If you leaned left you went right and vice versa, and somehow I managed to rip the nail off my little finger while sat on the board going downhill at high speed. Like all right-thinking people my favourite film is Part II, and come 2015 I will wear my clothes inside out.

7. Clerks (1994)
The filmic equivalent of a garage band – all heart and very little style. I saw Mallrats first and then spent a small fortune (for me) on getting this on video. I’m glad I did. Why is Jeff Anderson not a massive star now? This clip is a million times funnier than anything Adam Sandler’s ever done. But then again, an orphan being injected with cat AIDS and then being set on fire is a million times funnier than anything Adam Sandler’s ever done. The man’s a dick. Anyway, I love all of Kevin Smith’s films. Even Jersey Girl. Seek out his ‘Smodcast’ podcasts on iTunes. Or better yet, seek out the ‘Tell ‘m Steve-Dave’ podcasts.

8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
This pick could be any of Wes Anderson’s films, but I chose The Life Aquatic because it was the first of his I saw in the cinema. All of his work has the things I look for in films : 1) symmetry in the shots; 2) captions or titles in the film (always in Futura in Wes’s case); and 3) brilliant soundtracks (his soundtracks piss on the ones put together by Justin Quarantino). Also The Life Aquatic stars Owen Wilson, who I am gay for. See this for further proof of Wes Anderson’s aceness.

9. The Sasquatch Gang (2006)
I’d read about this film a while ago because it was made by the producer of Napoleon Dynamite, but then heard nothing of it for a few years until I found it in CEX for £1.50. It’s the same story told from four different perspectives, and the timelines are all chopped up so everything only makes sense at the end of the film. The Loves watched it once when we had a night off from our gruelling tour schedule in Leeds and for the rest of the weekend we were shouting ‘Crap off!’ and ‘This bark smells’ to the bemusement of everyone who wasn’t us. It stars Justin Long (another person I am gay for) and has a cameo by the most excellent Stephen Tobolowlosky.

10. Superbad (2007)
I bought this because I had £15 burning a hole in my pocket, needed something to watch and loved Michael Cera in Arrested Development. I think it’s the film I’ve watched the most over the last five years, although I’m not allowed to watch it in company as I either laugh too hard or speak along with the characters, which annoys people. The comparisons of this and American Pie are ridiculous. You believe Cera, Jonah Hill & Christopher Mintz-Plasse would do the things they do for sex. The cast of American Pie looked like they came from an advert for Calvin Klein. Except for the pie fucker.

Honourable mentions go to Hudson Hawk, Chinatown, Hot Rod, Napoleon Dynamite, Starship Troopers, True Romance, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Double D POV.

London Film Festival Reviews 4

End of Animal

54th BFI London Film Festival

13-28 October 2010, various venues, London

LFF website

Final round-up of London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford, Pamela Jahn, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy.

End of Animal (Jimseung ui kkut)

2010 wasn’t a particularly strong year for Korean Cinema, at least on the basis of the selection of films in European festivals (although the London Korean Film Festival somewhat changed that perception), but End of Animal surely stands out as one of the most stupefying and uniquely different Asian titles this year. This debut feature by Jo Sung-Hee has a gripping and suspenseful story line that follows a pregnant woman as she wanders through a desolate countryside after a strangely uneventful apocalypse caused by no major (visible) incidents brought all electricity and phone networks down and left no cars on the road and almost no soul in sight. Despite being guided over a radio by a mysterious character who pretends he wants to help her, the few survivors crossing Soon-Young’s way are mostly mean, selfish and greedy characters, so that a new horror starts for the fragile woman at every new encounter.

A well-acted, intensely shot film, End of Animal is structured into more or less discrete episodes, but it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Jo Sung-Hee builds a humane but critical picture of lives with no trust and no prospect in sight. Although arguably not ‘one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history’ as claimed in the festival brochure, it’s an impressive piece of work that raises hopes for more great films to come from young Korean directors in the near future. PJ

Never Let Me Go

Alex Garland writes a screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Mark Romanek directs. A slow-burning nightmare, as a strange boarding school in a timeless limbo England raises children for a sinister purpose. It’s a film about the evils that can be concealed behind politeness and bureaucracy, and the horrors society is prepared to tolerate if it suits our purposes.

If I was the ridiculous smart arse that I clearly am I’d try to draw parallels between the film’s theme, where official euphemisms (‘donors’, ‘completion’ etc) are used to make all manner of nastiness acceptable, and the film itself, where a quality cast, a string quartet soundtrack and a little cinematic restraint can be seen to be covering up the fact that this is essentially The Clonus Horror/The Island with a university degree.

But I won’t, because it’s actually pretty bloody good, the tastefulness and restraint making the nasty stuff all the more horrible and moving. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling all do good work, Carey Mulligan is great. I think the film loses something and becomes more clearly an adaptation of a novel after it leaves the weird bubble of Hailsham House. But it still weaves a disconcerting spell. MS

Attenberg

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined, but their bodies are stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naïve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing, unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.

Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth, (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in the film as The Engineer), and while Attenberg is a very different film, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations. SC

Essential Killing

The legendary Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski gave us one of the best films of this year’s festival with Essential Killing. Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed Afghan (or maybe Iraqi) fighter, the film opens as he is captured by American soldiers among barren mountains. After a brief, politically charged depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in his flimsy orange suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like. Virtually dialogue-free and stunningly expressive visually, this universal tale is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience. VS

Mammuth

Last year Delepine and Kervern’s Louise-Michel was a taboo-buggering, capitalist-killing delight, and now with Mammuth I think they’ve become my favourite French filmmakers. Coming across like Aki Kaurismäki without the instruction manual, Delepine and Kervern’s films are unabashed hymns to the losers and freaks, the detritus washed high and dry by politics, economics and society, the unpretty and unskinny hordes who wouldn’t fit in an Eric fucking Rohmer film. Bless them.

A vanity-free Gérard Depardieu gets in touch with his inner lunk as Serge, a lardy, hairy retiring abattoir worker who finds he has to track down affidavits from his former employers to qualify for a pension, and sets about doing so on the motorbike he rode in his youth. Shot in glorious high-contrast colour, Mammuth is full of sick humour, outrageous sight gags and impeccably timed bits of silent comedy. And amid all this oddball pull-back-and-reveal business it finds time to get a bit soulful and contemplative with Isabelle Adjani as a ghost from Serge’s past. I loved it. MS

Womb

It might be clichéd to say that the landscape is the star of the film, but it is undeniably true of Womb, an ambitious, genre-blending drama set in one of the bleakest, windiest and most harrowingly beautiful parts of Germany – the North Sea coast. Amid the impressive scenery, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf imagines the love story between Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith), who secretly loved and sadly lost each other when they were kids, only to meet again as adults and live happily ever after. But soon destiny takes another cruel turn, and loss and grief lead Rebecca to give birth to a cloned copy of her dead lover. Aesthetically and conceptually Fliegauf aims high, but while he impresses on the former level, he is not quite as successful on the latter. Edited with tranquil precision, the film takes its time exploring the parameters of the new family life and falters only when Thomas (who turns out to be the spitting image of his predecessor not only in looks, but, rather annoyingly, also in habits and behaviour) falls for a girl who joins and ultimately destroys the intimate togetherness of mother and son. Superbly photographed as it is, Womb, like Fliegauf’s previous films, is a piece of dark cinematic poetry that requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, although this time, his grasp of emotional dynamics seems much more skilful, making for a strangely moving film. PJ

NEDS

There are dozens of rites of passage films about good teenage boys going off the rails and joining gangs, but none that I can bring to mind go quite as far or get as intense as Peter Mullan’s tale of ‘Non Educated Delinquents’. Normally the youths at the centre of such things only take part in enough anti-social activity for them to learn a ‘valuable life lesson’ and walk away. Here John McGill turns into a seriously nasty bastard, a proper head case, and his story doesn’t follow any conventional arc.

Mullan as writer/director does impressive work here, creating a convincing 70s Glasgow world of ineffectual teachers, aggressive police and the thousand tiny tests of machismo, loyalty and class by which McGill is judged. Mullan has time for everybody, the leads are well observed, and even minor characters are vividly realised, in the Loach/Clark tradition, but he also has an eye for the grotesque and absurd, and NEDS is full of arresting images and moments of startlingly odd behaviour. Great stuff. MS

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)

Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the pessimistic spirit of Suicide Club, with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish shop. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are brilliantly observed, the direction is controlled and well-paced, and there are great touches of macabre and strangeness. With not one sympathetic character, the film offers a downbeat view of mankind, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is not devoid of black humour. Just as Suicide Club, Cold Fish initially may leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity and reluctance to propose obvious meanings, and on reflection it has become one of the highlights of the festival for me. VS

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Documentary attempting to get under the Poe of Dope’s skin, as various talking heads pontificate away about the man under various animated chapter headings (sex, junk, guns, and so on). It positions Burroughs very well as a punk/countercultural totem, but seems less interested in his status as a literary figure. All perfectly fine, mainly notable for the insane quality roll call of the heads (John Giorno, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Genesis P. Orridge, Jello Biafra, etc etc etc. ) and some great stories, and great footage… Music by Sonic Youth, of course. MS

Strange Powers

As someone who’s listened to the band for years, it’s a little hard to be objective about Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. For anyone who became a fan after the band’s 1999 album 69 Love Songs (and that’s probably most people), the film is a much-needed and affectionate introduction to their earlier years, from their first shows in Boston to their eventual move to New York; more importantly, it’s a revealing look at the creative and personal relationship between Merritt and Claudia Gonson – chanteuse, piano-player, manager and mother figure. Mixing live footage, old photographs and interviews with band members Sam Davol and John Woo, and contributors like accordion-player Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), the directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix have given the audience a terrific sense of Merritt’s almost perversely charismatic personality and his enormous talent as a singer-songwriter. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that at 82 minutes it feels somehow incomplete, as if a film devoted solely to their live performances should be just around the corner. SC

Film Socialisme

There’s a cruise ship. There’s a garage. There’s a llama. There’s some people. Everybody speaks. In ‘Navajo’ English. A bit like this. Oh look. There goes Patti Smith. Something about Africa. Something about elections. That llama again. We go to. The new Godard. To say that that we’ve seen. The new Godard. How long. Does this one last? Oh, it’s over. Can someone tell JLG that if he doesn’t want to make films anymore, he doesn’t have to? MS

Ruhr

You’ve got to be prepared: there are only seven shots in 121 minutes in James Benning’s haunting homage to the German Ruhr area which, even though it was selected to be European Capital of Culture in 2010, retains the heavily industrial feel and look of the past, flecked with coal mines, factories and steel works with noisy, steaming furnaces and smoke-pouring chimneys. But of course there is more to explore in each of the fixed-frame takes Jennings has chosen for his first foray into high-definition video. The focus of interest shifts from a car tunnel with almost no cars driving through, but sporting an eye-catching zigzag lighting tube on the ceiling to a self-regulated production line in a steel-rolling plant and the constant praying in a mosque filmed from an awkward perspective that is alternately blacked out by the backs of the worshippers. Some of the images and the soundtrack have been digitally manipulated to increase the fascination and bizarre attraction of the images – and it works. By the time Ruhr enters into the final view, a tower belching out an impressive cloud of steam every 10 minutes for the remaining hour of the film, you are so taken by the power of the plain imagery and soundscape Jennings creates that you leave the cinema feeling slightly dizzy, yet again marvelling at the way things slowly reveal their own beauty and meaning if only you take the time to look at them for long enough. PJ

Le quattro volte

Le Quattro Volte

Life. What’s it all about? Um… charcoal, apparently. Michaelangelo Frammartino’s mesmerising, dialogue-free film follows the rhythms and patterns of life lived in a small Italian village, witnessing the life and death of an ageing shepherd, a new-born kid in his herd (a reincarnation?) and the fate of a tree in a series of long takes. While this sounds like it could be arse-numbing torture, Frammartino has come to the praiseworthy realisation that if you’re going to have long long takes, then it’s best to have something of interest happen in them. Thus we have human actors who look like live-action Chomet animations, unfamiliar rural rituals to puzzle over, and a feast of different textures and sights and sounds. Best of all we have goats, a whole herd of boisterous and amusing and inscrutable goats, in the best goat performances I’ve ever seen. Love them goats. That dog deserves an Oscar, too. MS

13 Assassins

Solid genre entertainment, but a curiously straightforward offering for Takashi Miike. After his wacky homage to the Italian Western in Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike gives us a classic samurai tale heavily influenced by Kurosawa. A remake of an obscure 1963 film, 13 Assassins follows the efforts of retired samurai Shinzaemon as he assembles a team of assassins to kill the cruel and degenerate Lord Naritsugu, half-brother of the Shogun, before he rises to power. It is epic in scope and lavishly produced, with impressive large-scale battle scenes, beautiful candle-lit interiors and atmospheric landscapes shrouded in mist. But given Miike’s anarchic and iconoclastic tendencies, it is rather surprising to see him go for the traditional end-of-an-era nostalgia and to see him unquestioningly let the characters accept the samurai’s rigid code of honour. A few grotesque touches remind us of the director’s presence, mostly in the opening scenes depicting Lord Naritsugu’s evil deeds – in particular the piteous display of one of his victims, the horrifically mutilated daughter of a rebellious peasant. But all in all, the violence is fairly restrained and conventional for Miike and it is further blunted by a strong impression of déjà vu. Fun, but not exactly memorable. VS

Southern District

Drifting and dreamlike, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film consists of a series of lazy, tightly choreographed 360-degree pans and dollies circling Ms Carola and her family and servants in a gorgeous house and garden located in the moneyed area of La Paz, Bolivia, of the title. At first, as they dine, shag and shop, Carola’s spoilt clan seem to be as appalling and eminently mockable as the family of Altman’s A Wedding, or Buñuel’s bourgeoisie, but soon enough the cracks begin to show in the carefully maintained façade and they increasingly come to resemble inmates in an asylum, a bubble sealed off from the brutal world outside. Sun-bleached, funny and visually enchanting, it’s a strange and wondrous thing. MS

Self Made

Together with Clio Barnard’s The Abor, Self Made, by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, sounded like one of the most interesting films in this year’s British Cinema strand, but it turned out to be a less cathartic cinematic experience than expected. The documentary records a theatre project that Wearing initiated together with a Method acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. After placing an ad in the newspaper that simply said, ‘Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character’, the duo selected seven non-actors to become participants in a 10-day Method workshop. On an empty warehouse set, Rumbelow pushes the group to explore their inner selves and to act out their suppressed feelings and experiences largely through psychological performance exercises that are, at times, as disturbing to watch they must have been to enact. The film sometimes diverts from the austere, straightforward recording style Wearing has adopted. Interwoven with the acting masterclass set-pieces are five short films, each developed and performed by one of the participants as they learn to let go. Some of these mini-episodes are better than others with regards to performance, set-up and narrative, but compared to the intense emotions played out in the skeletal workshop theatre scenes, they seem rather like a waste of energy. Ultimately, this mismatch makes Self Made feel like a work-in-progress itself, yet with the potential to grow towards the art of unobtrusive, fine-tuned characterisation. PJ

The Parking Lot Movie

What happens when you give an undemanding service sector job working in the booth of a pay parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a group of overeducated, underfunded philosophers, anthropologists and theologians? You get a lot of bitter, acerbic commentary on class, capitalism, human nature, America, and the behaviour of rich drunken douchebags. Apart from an ill-advised hip hop interlude, Meghan Eckman’s documentary is a very watchable piece of kit, full of interesting characters and smart observations. Ex-booth attendees include members of Happy Flowers and Yo La Tengo, and the Parking Lot Movie could make slacker heroes of the rest. MS

The Temptation of St Tony (Püha T&#245nu kiusamine)

Veiko &#213unpuu’s The Temptation of St Tony had been brought to our attention last year and it was great to see it selected for LFF. The film is worth watching for its opening scene alone: a funeral procession moving towards the sea, filmed in a beautifully austere black and white that makes it seem more like a mental landscape or dream than reality. This unreal-ness infuses the grim, grey Estonian setting as the main character Tony journeys through a series of puzzling events that follow his father’s funeral. Although the latter part of the film, set in a decadent, hellish nightclub called ‘The Golden Age’, feels too contrived and self-conscious, the sense of the absurd that imbues the film feels entirely genuine. St Tony may be flawed but it has a strong visual identity and atmospheric quality, convincing menace and paranoia, and a warped sense of humour. It conjures up a striking image of Estonia as a hopeless wasteland where promises of a better life haven’t been fulfilled. VS

Miral

For those who have been hoping that celebrity-hugging dollar-magnet artist Julian Schnabel would come a cropper with his film career (and had to admit through gritted teeth that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a damn fine piece of work), Miral will come as blessed relief. It’s an ill-disciplined, uninvolving trudge of a film, filled with dull exposition, humourless on-the-nose dialogue and baffling creative decisions. In Diving Bell, the various camera techniques were brilliantly used to represent the effects of a specific medical condition. Here the patented Squiffy-Camé seems to be wheeled out at random, and any time is right for a hand-held freakout. What’s Willem Defoe doing here? Why that Tom Waits song there? Why don’t I care?

Based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical account, the film traces the lineage of Palestinian girl Miral, and the story of the orphanage where she was raised. We skip from 1991 to 1947 to 1973 in a fragmentary mosaic of lives lived under Israeli rule. There’s abuse and war and radicalism and police oppression and terrorism in there, as encountered or committed by various women, and it should be a welcome change to hear from this unfamiliar viewpoint, but Miral doesn’t really have much to say that I couldn’t have guessed. It has its moments, and isn’t truly awful, it’s just a bit of a dud. MS

Read more LFF reviews: LFF reviews 2 and LFF reviews 3.

Raindance 2010: Japanese Strand

Symbol

18th Raindance Film Festival

Sept 29 – Oct 10 2010, Apollo, London

Raindance website

Sarah Cronin reviews the Japanese strand of the 2010 Raindance festival. The review of Symbol is by Alex Pashby.

In past years, Raindance has always been a good place to discover independent, offbeat Japanese films, with highlights including films like Love Exposure, Kakera, Lalapipo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and Fine, Totally Fine. But in 2010, the Japanese strand proved to be something of a disappointment, the films – with a few exceptions – lacking imagination and flair. It’s difficult to know if this has merely been a bad year for Japanese films: Tony Rayns, in his preview for Sawako Decides, which showed at the London Film Festival, describes 2010 as ‘a year in which the creativity in Japanese mainstream cinema all but curled up and died’. The same might be true for independent cinema.

There was something quite sentimental about many of the films; one of the more watchable was Lost and Found, in which the ensemble cast learn a series of lessons about love and life as their paths cross at a train station’s lost and found department. It was a tender, warm-hearted film, if a little trite. Less successful was Lunar Child. Told in three parts, it’s a film about troubled women all seeking love in some form. Despite a promising, visually interesting first sequence, in which a lonely, unhappy woman finds shelter for the night in the home of an enigmatic man with a debilitating illness, the rest of the film lacked style and creativity. Interesting stories could have been taken further: Mizuki betrays her girlfriend for a meaningless fling; Hikari, dissatisfied with her married life, provides a home and money for a boy barely out of his teens, who prefers men to girls. But the film lacked any sense of style, the storytelling was flat and lethargic, the tone, again, mawkish. This seemed to be a common problem with several of the films: a failure to match style and technical skill with ideas.

Another film that suffered from a similar problem was Yellow Kid. Although it was one of the better films in the strand, and worth seeing, it just didn’t quite hold together as a whole. The paths of a nerdy, timid comic-book artist and one of his fans, a bullied and lonely young man, cross at a boxing gym, their lives becoming intertwined, until the boxer blurs the boundaries between real life and the comic-book world of his favourite super-hero, Yellow Kid. It was a compelling story about frustration, anger and revenge, not to mention love and obsession, but there was almost too much going on, leaving the film feeling jumbled and incoherent (although it’s a good idea to watch until the very end of the credits). While it had a fantastic animated title sequence, the mix of manga and live action never quite lived up to expectations.

There was something else that struck me when watching these films – an over-reliance on a certain type of male character that seems to litter Japanese cinema. Similar to the comic-book artist, Tanishi in Boys on the Run is painfully geeky, utterly timid and a total failure with women – the only ones he really comes into contact with are prostitutes. He is the quintessential Japanese nerd, and his object of desire the usual pretty, timid young woman, who falls for the wrong man – a smooth-talking salesman at a rival company that also sells vending machine toys. The film started off feeling like a sex comedy (although women will be scratching their heads at men’s mind-boggling stupidity), but it lost its way when it turned into a coming-of-age film as Tanishi, vainly, tries to stand up for himself.

One of the more likeable films was Lost Girl, a very low-key short film that slowly draws the viewer into the story of a once-successful chef suffering from bulimia after she poisons someone at her restaurant. Instead of the gourmet French food she once prepared, she stuffs her face full of junk food, while her husband, also a chef, does everything in his power to tempt her to eat more refined fare. It was an unusual melodrama, with something charmingly subversive to it, despite its flaws.

Three very different films really stood out at the festival: Autumn Adagio, USB and Symbol. Autumn Adagio was the more grown-up of the three; a nun, on the verge of menopause, rediscovers her sense of self and the world around her when she starts to play piano at a ballet academy. It was an intimate, elegant and lovingly told (if sentimental) story, with a terrific performance from the musician Rei Shibakusa.

USB opens with a loud, incessant buzzing sound, as white light flickers on a black background. Yuichiro, a slacker in his mid-20s, decides to go to medical school after the death of his father, a doctor; a submissive girlfriend needs more attention than he’s willing to give; a demented friend goes on the run with the daughter of a local gangster, who also has a chilling hold over Yuichiro. Meanwhile, warnings of low-level radiation are broadcast to the public after an accident at a nearby nuclear power site, and soon people are being paid large sums of money for mysterious clinical trials at the local hospital, and the source of the buzzing becomes clear. It was a great mix of drama tinged with sci-fi, and a subtle re-imagining of a post-nuclear disaster.

In Symbol, a Japanese man (actor/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) in clown-like pyjamas wakes up in a big white room with no discernable exit. Meanwhile an out-of-shape Mexican wrestler prepares for a match his family fears will leave him injured. Could the two be related? After railing against his captors for a bit, the Japanese man discovers a knob in the wall, presses it and is suddenly swarmed by thousands of CGI cupids. As the cupids recede, it turns out that the knob and the now thousands just like it are in fact stylised cupid genitalia. With nothing else to do, the man presses another cupid penis, a hatch opens in an opposite wall and a random object falls out. Hundreds of presses and objects later, a door appears in a wall before disappearing again quickly. Hilarious scenes ensue, including one that gives the audience an insight into the man’s thought processes in the style of a manga (for some reason in English), as he tries to use the various objects now at his disposal to press the right penis, reach the door in time and escape. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Symbol is a very cheeky film with a great payoff, which makes the point that when it comes to what’s signified, one sign is as good as another. A definite highlight of the festival.

Read about the highlights of Raindance.

Sarah Cronin and Alex Pashby

No Politics: The New US War Film

The Hurt Locker

In the nine years since the launch of George W Bush’s ‘War Against Terror’ in Afghanistan, a number of war movies have been made in and out of the Hollywood system, from the little-known 2006 film Home of the Brave, directed by Henry Winkler and starring Samuel L Jackson, to the 2009 Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker by Point Break director Katherine Bigelow. But despite the various storylines and locations, there’s something that almost every recent American war film has in common – a virtual absence of politics and/or propaganda. With the exception of a handful of documentaries (like 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side), few of these films have been overtly critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the flip side, pro-war; they have instead focused their lenses entirely on the lives of American soldiers, often excluding the ‘enemy’ from the picture altogether. Some, like In the Valley of Elah (2007), The Messenger (2009) and Brothers (2009) are melodramas that have dramatised the often-traumatic return home. But others have focused more squarely on the troops, with directors almost battling each other to present the truest, most honest depiction of life in a war zone, elevating the soldier to mythical status while avoiding any thorny foreign policy issues (soldiers barely seem to know or care why they’re over there), or any accurate depiction of life in wartime for civilians.

It’s a far cry from the Vietnam days, when returning soldiers were met at airbases by protesters demanding an end to the war; controversial films like Winter Soldier (1972) documented hearings where soldiers denounced their participation in the war and confessed to war crimes, and Hanoi Jane hung out with communists in North Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma (whose 2007 film Redacted is perhaps an exception to the new rule) made films about the horrors of war; soldiers were dehumanised, unleashing pain on civilians under orders from the American government; war was hell; the US had no business being there.

The current fashion seems to have started in another desert arena with Black Hawk Down (2001), based on the book by the journalist Mark Bowden and set in Somalia during the disastrous UN humanitarian mission in 1992. In October of that year, a botched mission by elite soldiers in Delta Force and Rangers resulted in the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, prompting a disastrous rescue attempt (‘we will leave no man behind’) that led to the deaths of 19 troops and about 1000 Somalis. But produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down is not tragedy, but war as adrenaline-fuelled action adventure: two hours of almost non-stop videogame-style warfare as the troops fight for their survival in the crowded slums of the Somali capital. There’s a cursory explanation about why the troops were there in the first place (war-induced famine), but little in the way of politics. Instead, the film is all about honouring the cult of the soldier – it’s about the men’s bravery, their heroism, their respect and love for one another. As a character played by Eric Bana says: ‘Once that first bullet goes flying past your head, politics and all that shit goes out the window… We fight because there’s a guy next to us.’

A thriller with a smaller budget and fewer troops, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which was the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for best picture, drops the audience straight into Iraq, with little in the way of introduction. A bomb disposal unit sends a robot to check out a pile of rubble believed to be hiding an IED (Improvised Explosive Device); when the robot takes a tumble and loses a wheel, the team leader approaches to set it back on track – but an insurgent is ready and waiting. A violent, slow-motion explosion, an easily missed smattering of blood as the force hits the fleeing team leader, and his life is extinguished. His replacement is reckless, egotistical, arrogant; he endangers the lives of his two team mates, but he gets the job done, defusing bombs with an obsessive passion. There are plenty of confrontations between Sergeant First Class William James and the more responsible Sergeant Sanborn, who doesn’t enjoy needlessly putting his life on the line, and the obligatory, drunken homoerotic wrestling match, to prove who’s craziest and toughest. But apart from a gruesome scene when a young boy is used as a body-bomb, there’s little in the way of blood, or politics, or Iraqis. When the team stumbles upon gunmen in the desert, they are seen only in the sights of a sniper rifle. Later, a car bomb explodes in the middle of the night, the horrific aftermath completely obscured from view by smoke and darkness; the team flee the scene in a mad chase to track down the insurgents responsible, and the audience is spared from having to witness a semblance of reality. Again, it’s the relationship between the men in the unit that’s important; the war is little more than a sideshow.

Although not made for the big screen, HBO Film’s seven-part Generation Kill (2008), written by David Simon and Ed Burns, is possibly one of the most intense pieces of drama made about the war in Iraq. But like Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, its focus is on the troops. Based on the book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Recon Marines during the initial assault on Iraq in 2003, the film’s story ends after the first three months of the invasion, before the suicide bombings, insurgency and sectarian warfare plunged the country into the abyss. Admittedly more politically aware than either Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker (Sgt Antonio Espero rails against the White Man and imperialism, and at least the Geneva Convention gets a mention, while the troops are in the middle of breaking it), it’s first a drama about life in the Marine Corps, and secondly a drama about the war itself (it’s only really in the final episode, when they reach Baghdad, that the Marines fully realise the impact that the invasion is going to have on civilians).

A lot of the talk surrounding Generation Kill is about how realistic it is; about how real Marines can identify with what they see on screen; about how the drama captures war as it is, untouched by propaganda (for examples, see the comments on IMDB). The marines are desperate to ‘get some’, frustrated by the lack of supplies, frustrated by the lack of combat, frustrated by the chain of command; some are rednecks, racists; some are bright, intelligent, sensitive, dismayed by the deaths of civilians. And while it might be war as it is, and in a lot of ways Generation Kill is a truly great television series, with a lot of the sharp writing that made The Wire such an excellent series, it’s war as it is for Marines, not for civilians or anyone else (and certainly not for women, who aren’t allowed to serve in Recon – in fact, women are nowhere to be seen in any of these films).

Meanwhile, the latest talked-about film, out now in the US and awaiting a UK release, is the documentary Restrepo. The journalist Sebastien Junger and the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington spent months embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Their ‘Directors’ Statement’ is worth quoting: ‘The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.’ Well, it’s one version of reality anyway. It certainly typifies the current trend: explore the lives of soldiers, in as realistic a way as possible; ignore the rights and wrongs; ignore the civilians, ignore everything but the men.

There seems to be an ambivalence on the part of both filmmakers and audiences towards the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; audiences have largely stayed away, and filmmakers have mostly kept away from the politics (with sometimes surprising exceptions from Hollywood directors, like Paul Greengrass’s thriller Green Zone, 2010) and the George Clooney-produced Syriana (2005). Even Standard Operating Procedure (2008), by the esteemed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, refused to judge either the conflict or the soldiers at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, dissecting the controversial and downright disturbing photographs in a clinical, almost scientific manner.

There are no conclusions in these films, no judgements – just soldiers living and dying out on the battlefield. Naturally, it is easier to focus on the (all masculine, all American) experience of war than to engage with its grey moral and political areas. But this general reluctance among filmmakers to adopt a strong standpoint is troubling. Have directors been paralysed by the fear of being accused of ‘anti-patriotism’? Or is it simply indifference?

Sarah Cronin

Secret Cinema: Blade Runner

Secret Cinema: Blade Runner

Secret Cinema

June 2010, London

Secret Cinema website

Emerging from the escalators at Canary Wharf into an unseasonably cold and damp June evening, the first sight that greeted us was of two futuristic policemen standing guard, while air stewardesses in retro outfits guided ‘passengers’ to a Utopian Airways shuttle. After a few minutes on board, a man in a trench coat abruptly stopped the bus, alerting the passengers and crew that we were to be redirected to a holding station in the wake of a replicant rebellion. In case anyone hadn’t figured it out by now, we were on our way to a screening of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi film Blade Runner.

The bus reached its destination a few moments later, a desolate yard in the shadows of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers. Walking between rows of shipping containers, boys in uniform yelled at us to hurry inside the warehouse; we were harassed by refugees and disturbed by the site of three vertically challenged men taking baseball bats to a car. Inside was a stunning recreation of the film’s futuristic vision of LA, with its crowded stalls selling anything from noodles to replicant pets. Pole dancers, masks covering their faces, shimmied on top of scaffolding, overlooking the bar where Chrome Hoof, clad in gold, played a set of jarring, angular rock. Women with snakes draped across their shoulders roamed through the crowd. A woman in a see-through plastic coat sat at a vanity table applying make-up. An actress, dressed in torn stockings and a fur coat, wearing a blonde wig, wandered, oblivious, through the guests. Outside in the back yard, a fire-eater performed on top of an armoured vehicle.

While it was impossible to completely shake the feeling that it was all an elaborate set-up, the level of detail that went into organising the event was near genius. The army of actors, who portrayed nuns, strippers, police officers, Decker, Roy, Rachael, and almost everyone from the cast, were impressive in their ability to stay in character while surrounded by throngs of film-goers knocking back sushi and beer. A few drinks later, when we were finally ushered into the screening room, the recreation of J.F Sebastien’s apartment that greeted us was breathtaking; more actors and actresses dressed as his robotic playthings littered the remarkable set. By that time, the film itself was almost a side-show, the crowd even cheering at the scene when Decker and Rachael kiss. But there was still a surprise left in store for the audience: Decker and Roy, playing out their final scene, hanging off the brick wall of the warehouse, illuminated by a projection of the building’s façade.

Sign up to find out about the next event on the Secret Cinema website.

It was a remarkable night; and it’s almost impossible to imagine how Secret Cinema will ever top it. I’ll certainly be there next time to see if they pull it off.

Sarah Cronin

Cours Lapin

Cours Lapin

Cours Lapin are four film composers from Denmark, and their new, self-titled album is an evocative homage to cinema, lovingly performed in the French ‘chanson’ tradition. Louise Alenius provides the breathless, child-like vocals for the eleven theatrical, atmospheric songs performed by Peder Thomas Pedersen, Asgar Baden and Jonas Struck. The result is the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary film full of mystery, adventure and longing. The album is out on September 13 on Fake Diamonds Records, but in the meantime you can listen to their free track ‘Cache Cache’. Catch them live in London on July 7 at Death Disco, Notting Hill Arts Club and July 8 at Rough Trade East. For more information, go to their MySpace page. Below, they tell us about their favourite films. SARAH CRONIN

Peder Thomas Pedersen:

1. King of Comedy (1982)
De Niro is heartbreaking and sad, I’ve never seen him in a role like this.

2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
When I stepped out of the movie theatre I had a headache and no idea what just happened. But I loved it.

Louise Alenius:

3. Life of Brian (1979)
It is the best laugh ever – and it works for me every time. I’m not into comedies at all, they rarely make me laugh, but Life of Brian is just so extremely funny that I laugh just by thinking of it.

4. Goodfellas (1990)
Because I loooove men with attitude saying cool things. If I were a man I would definitely be a gangster.

5. Blue Velvet (1986)
I’m fascinated by the characters, especially this sad, sad singer and her fucked up relationship with the freak. I must admit that I find it really interesting to watch extremely cruel people abusing some weak person without any ‘scruples’. It’s a theme I often work with in my own music and lyrics, and many of the lyrics on the Cours Lapin album are also about the relationship between a person doing something really bad, and the victim… In Blue Velvet we also meet this prototype young and sweet girl. She is all good but also really boring, and she almost makes me forget that it’s actually a good thing to be honest and helpful. I just find the dark side of people more interesting. The music is also amazing.

Jonas Struck:

6. Naked Lunch (1991)
I like the way Howard Shore’s score understates the mystery and darkness in this fantastic movie. The mix of the symphonic score with free-jazz virtuoso Ornette Coleman on top is absolutely stunning. The movie is very abstract and Peter Weller’s performance as drug addict William Lee taking bug powder is really far out.

7. South Park (1997)
The title theme was composed and performed by Primus. This crazy ragtime tells us what to expect from the episodes – and it’s really a funny signature that sums up the madness of Kartman, Kenny and the rest of the kids.

8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
I love most of the Coen Brothers movies but this one is really something special. It’s very exciting, violent and super-tense, and funny in a darkly comic manner. It’s very meditative with almost no music at all – and it works without music. I don’t miss a single note and it makes it even scarier with just silence. Javier Bardem as psycho Anton is scary but also very funny.

9. City of God (2002)
This is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s about gang wars, drug dealers and young people growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It’s very shocking but there’s also a lot of humour in it – a kind of Brazilian Tarantino vibe. The songs selected and the 70s score by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes really set the right mood. The characters are absolutely fascinating and very endearing, and they are convincingly played by young, unknown actors. The story is well told, and is alternately funny and brutally shocking. The style of the film includes Tarantino-style time-jumping, freeze-framing and titles to indicate the different chapters of the film. It is a sort of Brazillian Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, but with its own unique flavour.

Peder Thomas Pedersen + Louise Alenius:

10. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Peder: Extremely beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle… It’s like you’re standing next to the movie and watching it in extreme saturation. Maggie Cheung isn’t exactly bad-looking in all those colourful dresses, and the score is happening too. Louise: 100% because of its music. After I saw this film I began to write music for classical instruments, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

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