The High Life: Interview with Zhao Dayong

The High Life (Image provided by CIFF)

Format: Cinema

Director: Zhao Dayong

Writer: Zhao Dayong

Cast: Xiu Hong, Liu Yanfei, Dian Qiu

China, 2010

93 mins

For more information on the film go to the Lantern Films website.

Screening as part of: 7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

For more information go to the CIFF website.

Zhao Dayong’s The High Life is an unflinching portrait of the human condition in the city streets and prison cells of Guangzhou, China, and it marks the director’s move into narrative cinema following two acclaimed documentaries, Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008). Although the intersecting narratives of The High Life are entirely fictional, the casting of real-life prison guard and aspiring poet Dian Qiu as himself serves as a reminder of Zhao’s documentary roots, while Dian’s world-weary presence effectively bookends the film with a combination of authority and humanity. The mid-section is devoted to the story of Jian Ming, a small-time scam artist who takes advantage of migrant workers via his fake employment agency, creating a collage with the photos from their application forms on his apartment wall. Jian Ming’s life begins to unravel when he develops feelings for Xiao Ya, a young woman from the countryside who he has placed in a sleazy hair salon, and makes the mistake of becoming involved in an ill-fated pyramid scheme. The narrative strands inform, but do not necessarily impact on, one another, creating an authentic representation of one of Guangzhou’s most dilapidated districts. Zhao Dayong spoke to John Berra at the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing.

JB: As you have a background in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to feature the prison guard and poet Dian Qiu as a character in a fiction narrative rather than documenting his daily routine?

ZD: I chose to make a narrative feature because documentary is restrictive in that it has to respect reality. With fiction, you have the freedom of representation and can be more subjective. Because the prison guard is a symbol of power, it is more powerful to represent this character through fiction. Dian Qiu and I have been friends for a long time, I know him very well. Therefore, his real life gave me lots of inspiration. I combined his life with my original story about the slum and they became one movie. I originally had a story in which an outsider comes to this environment to find work and tries to survive. Although this story was in my mind for a long time, I decided that if the movie only told this story, it would not be interesting enough.

The film features two living spaces, the slum and the prison, and you make cultural and institutional comparisons between them.

Yes, they have similarities. Because this old slum is almost like a prison; it’s surrounded by high-rise buildings, which are like a prison wall. Within this space, the people are free, but it’s a superficial freedom because they have to deal with lots of invisible control. On the other hand, the prison is an enclosed space, too. The people within it, both the prisoners and the guards, are also oppressed. Dian Qiu tries to find ways to resolve his oppression; poetry is one way, conversation with the female prisoner is another.

The character of Jian Ming runs a fake employment agency and becomes involved in a pyramid scheme. How did you research this kind of illegal activity?

I was actually involved with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) when I first came to Guangzhou, more specifically with Amway, which was a very famous MLM network back then. This was around 1995, in the early days of MLM. My friend invited me to a meeting and I saw some Westerners on the stage talking about ‘the legend of Amway’. I was told that I could earn millions within a year but I immediately said that it was all bullshit. However, I have since been fascinated by these events and I would later look for opportunities to go to them because I am always interested in the people who attend. They always look very serious, thinking that they will become millionaires the following day. The actor who plays Jian Ming has also been involved in MLM before, but he is now a chef in real life.

Did the police ever raid a meeting that you attended, as seen in The High Life?

I was involved when everything was legal. MLM was a pyramid scheme for selling real goods in 1995, so the police were not paying any attention to it. In recent years, MLM has become a scam. Therefore, the government has declared that MLM is no longer legal and sometimes the police will arrest people for engaging in such activities. However, they have managed to continue operating by changing their business description to ‘Direct Selling’, which is essentially the same activity, but considered legal.

I was wondering why Jian Ming puts the photos up on the wall of his apartment. Is it because of feelings of guilt from tricking these migrant workers? It seems that he could help these people to find jobs if he really applied himself as he recognises their potential and has a connection with them on some level.

You are too involved in the story! You can interpret this in many ways; you can interpret this as his achievement, you can also interpret this as his understanding of human beings. There are many storylines in the film, so it is also intended to mislead you.

The High Life is reflective of reality in that it does not have a big climax and certain stories, such as Jian Ming’s burgeoning relationship with Xiao Ya, are dropped just as they seem to become significant.

This is more real, because life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason. This film has four storylines and each story is an individual story. If I followed the Hollywood style, The High Life could be separated into four movies. But at some point, each storyline stops and transforms into another storyline, then a surprise ending appears. This represents the real world. The film also shows the goodness that is in the world, but the characters can never get hold of it. For example, Jian Ming and his lover are one step away from being happy together, but that storyline ends with separation. Jian Ming also looks for hope through his relationship with the girl in the salon.

But they are both on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder, so they cannot help each other.

Yes, happiness always slips away. But misfortune can come at any time.

The character of Jian Ming evokes the film noir archetype of the small-time criminal on a downward spiral. Were you influenced by any Western genre films when writing the screenplay?

Not really. I watch very few films because my background is painting and I have not had any training in the field of filmmaking. The film is based on my life experiences and my observations of the world. I do not borrow from, or imitate, other filmmakers because I believe that my life experiences are sufficient for creative inspiration. It is important that a director is instinctive and intuitive; if someone has no instinct, he is not suited to being a director. Narrative filmmaking is very much related to documentary filmmaking. When you make a documentary, you observe and capture people in order to make a story from reality; you have to train yourself to unconsciously observe reality. I have always said that, if you want to make a feature film, you must make a documentary first.

The High Life has a richly textured aesthetic. How did you achieve such a striking visual style on a relatively low budget?

My background is in advertising and I work with a very good team. This film has cost 800,000 Chinese yuan. However, in order to achieve the same level of quality, other directors might need three or even five times that budget. People who have good resources are rather rare within the independent filmmaking sector in China. All my productions follow professional procedures. Although the budget is low, everything from the camerawork to the lighting, the set dressing, the editing and sound recording are all up to the same standard as a blockbuster so that the film can be shown in the cinema. But I am open-minded. If anyone asked me to make a commercial movie, either domestically or abroad, I would go for it as I would like to make commercial movies as well.

Interview by John Berra

Transatlantic Trauma

Two Evil Eyes

Format: DVD

Release date: 10 May 2010

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: Dario Argento and George A Romero

Writers: Dario Argento, Frranco Ferrini, Peter Koper, George A Romero

Based on short stories by: Edgar Allan Poe

Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Bingo O’Malley, EG Marshall, Harvey Keitel, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, Julie Benz

Italy/USA 1990

120 mins

Horror cinema thrives on the authorial stamp of the especially skilled filmmakers who work within the genre; from the independently-produced shockers of the 1970s, to the video rental boom of the 1980s, to the genre revival in the late 1990s, the names of certain directors have served to guarantee a high level of quality to loyal audiences, and also to critically legitimise films that would otherwise not be taken seriously within the cultural mainstream. It may seem strange that the Italian director Dario Argento has struggled to succeed in the American market as his name arguably carries as much clout in genre circles as those of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and George A Romero. Aside from his lack of familiarity with the workings of the studio system, or the commercial requirements of independent financiers specialising in horror fare, Argento’s apparent inability to cross over to the American market is partially due to the distinct differences between the interrelated genres of the giallo and the slasher film. The giallo, as exemplified by Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), is the cinematic extension of Italian literary thrillers and, as such, places an emphasis on mystery, keeping the identity of the killer hidden until the final reel, while the violence is heavily stylised and vividly realised. The slasher film, which came to commercial prominence with Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), is comparatively realistic, tapping into fears of physical violation as victims are dismembered in a crudely calculated manner by a masked maniac with a backstory that is briskly established before the mayhem begins. These differences aside, Argento has also had the misfortune of working with American production partners who have simply wanted to cash in on his name value rather than to act as ambassadors for his undeniable artistry.

Although his films had received attention outside of Italy and often featured American or English actors as a means of enhancing their international appeal, Argento’s first conscious effort to court the American market came with Phenomena (1985); Jennifer Connelly was cast as Jennifer, a student at a Swiss boarding school that is being terrorised by a serial killer. After discovering that she has special powers that enable her to control insects, Jennifer tries to uncover the identity of the murderer with assistance from a wheelchair-bound entomologist (Donald Pleasance), eventually summoning a swarm of flies to defend herself against the killer. When Phenomena received an American release through New Line Cinema, it was re-titled Creepers and 30 minutes of footage was cut, notably a scene in which Connelly’s character talks about being abandoned by her mother on Christmas Day, a reference to Argento’s childhood. To add insult to injury, the home video edition of Creepers was marketed with cover art that depicted Connelly’s heroine as a one-eyed zombie, an image that had no relevance to the content of the film. Argento’s version was well-regarded in European territories and remains one of his most popular titles at the Italian box office, but the American cut was treated as an exploitation item and was granted a drive-in, rather than art-house, release before making a swift trip to video stores.

Following the fairly successful Two Evil Eyes (1990) – the portmanteau collaboration between Argento and George A Romero that was financed by Argento’s company ADC but filmed in Romero’s home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Argento would return to the United States to shoot Trauma (1993), a $7 million co-production between ADC and the US-based Overseas Film Group. Argento’s production partners had dabbled in the horror genre with the unpleasant possession shocker Retribution (1987) and the unnecessary franchise entry Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993), but had yet to work with a filmmaker of significant stature. Although the screenplay for Trauma was written by regular Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini and Gianni Romoli, it would be re-written at the insistence of Overseas Film Group by the horror novelist ED Klein, who has yet to achieve another screenwriting credit. The plot is pure giallo, with anorexic teenager Aura (Asia Argento) going on the run after witnessing a serial killer decapitate her parents with a portable guillotine; she becomes romantically involved with sympathetic television news sketch artist David (Christopher Rydell) who links the murder of her parents to other killings and tries to warn those who may also be on the killer’s list. The protagonists of other Argento films have been afflicted by a variety of ‘conditions’, but Aura’s anorexia has little relevance to the plot and is explained in awkward passages of expository dialogue delivered by one of David’s co-workers. Trauma was shot in Minneapolis, a location that could best be described as nondescript, meaning that many scenes have a televisual look despite Argento’s trademark roving camera. Argento’s operatic tendencies are largely reined in, with the exception of a séance that comes complete with thunder, lightning, and a tree that crashes through a window, although this sequence is rendered unintentionally hilarious by the hammy performances of Frederick Forrest and Piper Laurie. Although Trauma was conceived with the American market in mind, it would only emerge as a straight-to-video release in April 1994, more than one year after its successful theatrical run in Italy.

Argento would return to Italy to alternate between projects with international appeal, such as his surprisingly faithful version of The Phantom of the Opera (1998), and thrillers for his domestic following, such as The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and Sleepless (2001), even taking a detour into television with Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), but remaining wary of involvement with American financiers. However, his curiosity was piqued by the screenplay for Giallo (2009), which concerns a Turin-based serial killer who uses an unlicensed taxi cab to abduct beautiful women; when a model falls into his trap, her sister Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) teams up with Italian-American detective Enzo Avolfi (Adrian Brody) in order to locate the killer’s lair before her sibling becomes his latest victim. As the title suggests, Giallo was conceived as a tribute to the Italian thrillers of the 1970s, but its narrative machinations, and the style that they force the director to adopt, suggest that American screenwriters Jim Agnew and Sean Keller merely have an awareness of the genre, rather than an actual understanding of it. There is little sense of mystery as the identity of the killer is revealed relatively early on and the killer’s modus operandi (mutilating his victims before murdering them) forces Argento to go slumming in the realms of torture porn, thereby entailing that Giallo has more in common with the gratuitous gore of Saw (2004) than it does with the vibrant violence of Deep Red (1975). Argento walked away from the $14 million project following post-production arguments with American backer Hannibal Pictures and has subsequently disowned the producer’s cut.

Argento has expressed mixed feelings about working on American productions; he has praised the work of the cast and crew of both Trauma and Giallo, finding them to be very professional and receptive to his methods, but has expressed contempt towards the producers who have denied him final cut. Despite the director’s efforts to maintain control over the material, post-production interference ultimately forces Trauma and Giallo to conform to the American realist model in which any sense of the bizarre or the unexplained is jettisoned in favour of a perfunctory narrative and death scenes that have been trimmed within an inch of their cinematic life to secure the all-important ‘R’ rating. The essence of Argento’s work is his visual style, his emphasis on atmosphere, sets, locations, décor and the extravagant manner in which the victims in his films (often entirely innocent, as opposed to the sex equals death principle of the American slasher) meet their demise; Trauma and Giallo are diluted to the point that play like imitations of Argento, lacking sufficient visual flair to compensate for their frequent lapses in logic. While the presence of Dario Argento’s name above the title usually promises something special, in terms of his American misadventures, it is merely a case of false advertising.

John Berra

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts

Go to Peter Whitehead’s website and the Nohzone website for more details.

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts marks the welcome return to filmmaking of Peter Whitehead, the documentarian who captured the historic first meeting of American and English beat poets with Wholly Communion (1965) and the 1968 student rebellion at Columbia University that occurred in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King shooting with The Fall (1969). In recent years, Whitehead has been active as a cyber-novelist, and through his website has published the Nohzone trilogy, of which Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first instalment. After attending a tribute to his career at the 2006 Viennale Festival, the director decided to shoot the self-financed film version on location in Vienna and developed a fragmented narrative that follows the attempts of Michael Schlieman, an MI6 agent who has gone rogue, to make contact with the elusive Maria Lenoir, an eco-terrorist who is wanted by the British government. Schlieman has come to identify with Lenoir, but finds it difficult to navigate the elaborate network of contacts that surrounds her, even with the assistance of Sophie, the alluring archivist at Vienna’s Third Man Museum. Although this summary suggests a relatively straightforward conspiracy thriller, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is a defiantly non-linear experience as voice-over, imagery and on-screen quotations serve to deconstruct cinematic time and narrative form in a disorientating manner. Peter Whitehead spoke to John Berra about the development of the film and the multiple readings that are presented by his unorthodox approach.

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first film you have made in 32 years. How had the landscape of independent filmmaking changed in that period?
I knew absolutely nothing. I had not paid any attention to independent filmmaking since 1973; I have no idea about what has been done, I never watch films, I only write novels. The film is based on my novel, and that is the only reason I decided to make it. I was already starting to think about making a film, I was going to finance it myself and it was going to be based on my three novels that are on the web, the Nohzone trilogy. I attended the Viennale, where I had some fantastic dialogues, and I met Samantha Berger; she was sort of a Peruvian anarchist filmmaker, and I decided to take the first of my three novels and make it in Vienna with Samantha.

How did the narrative and themes develop in collaboration?
The film is clearly a homage to my great hero Jean-Luc Godard, who is a very difficult person to have as your hero; I had a publishing company in the 60s and I published all of his screenplays. I didn’t set out to do a ‘Godard’, that was provoked as much by the people who I became involved with to make the film. A lot of my films are made in collaboration with actresses, which is very Godardian. I made Daddy with Niki de Saint Phalle, and I made Fire in the Water with Nathalie Delon, so I like to be inspired by creative females, it energises me in the sense that I can make a documentary or semi-documentary. It is documentary in that it is about the person, but it’s more often about their fantasies, their ideas, their relationships. So I started making the film with Samantha, who was a correspondent for a magazine in Peru called Godard. I told her that I was making a film of my novel Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts and that it has a character who becomes a terrorist and it’s about an assassination. I then met Nina Erber, who is the bass player in Who Killed Bambi, and I thought she would be great as Maria Lenoir and I thought I had the perfect situation because, as I got close to Nina, I discovered that she was also a total Godard freak. Unfortunately, I have a bad gene that leaves me prone to an auto-immune disease, which I had in 1968, and I was struck down for a second time in Vienna, so I had to get back to England and it took six to nine months for me to get better. When I went back to Vienna, I found Sophie Stroemer, who I had met at the Viennale, and discovered that she was working in the Third Man Museum, and she gave me what I needed, which was the narrative of a disappearing Maria Lenoir. The film became entirely what it is due to my relationship with these three different girls.

Although the film uses a third-person narration, it also plays with aspects of first-person filmmaking as it is shot largely from Schielman’s point of view. He encounters several physically similar femme fatale characters, and it is suggested that they all could be Maria Lenoir because he is capturing aspects of their personalities that he believes to be facets of the woman he is pursuing.
All the girls in the film are Maria Lenoir; as far as I’m concerned, there are only two people in the film, one is Maria Lenoir, and the other is Michael Schlieman. If you start talking to me about ‘characters’ in a film you’re talking about Hollywood; I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the archetypal. The two archetypes are the man and the woman and the archetype of the female, which I’ve called ‘Maria Lenoir’, is the modern female, and she and Schlieman have a dialogue about technology and the rape of nature and God knows what else. It’s about that total split between the male vision and the female vision. For the female it is all about revenge and rejection, self-sacrifice and suicide. I hope it’s clear that Michael Schielman identifies with these females; there is a mention at one point that he identifies so much with Maria that he too might be Maria. In other words, there is an archetypal yin and yang in all of us; the yang is that male thing, which is to do with technology, and that is why I have the sequence that says ‘Welcome to the machine’. The female thing is the development of this virtual web of total connecting, gossipy little fragmented bits of communication; the world of the female is a conspiracy.

The film keeps returning to the two tram lines in Vienna, and the possibility of an overlap, or collision, between related forces or events. At times, the film itself plays like a collision between your real-world concerns and an evident enthusiasm for classic narrative cinema, as exemplified by The Third Man, and literary pulp fiction. It seems to be deconstructing narrative and space.
It is totally and deliberately doing that. Part of that is the deconstruction of the single character because only a single character can give you that linear line from A to Z, and I’ve just disintegrated it. I’m fascinated by the Ringstrasse because it’s a circular thing, you go right around the city and you see the entire history of Vienna. Tram number one goes one way, and tram number two goes the other way, they just go around constantly, and they’ve been doing that for 40 years. I thought that was perfect for me because the film is about entanglement; I imagined all these characters linking like a cyclotron, one going one way and the other going the other way, so the narrative is a double circle. Entanglement is where you split a proton and it goes off into two halves, and they go round two circles, and then they collide. I like the idea that he is reflecting on his past, because he is about to die, and she is trying to look to the future. One is the past and one is the future, one is memory and the other is imagination.

When discussing the production of The Third Man, Sophie observes that, ‘Film doesn’t play by the rules of space. It makes quantum leaps’. It’s interesting that film can capture a city to some extent, but it is also always cheating the audience by jumping to other locations of studio sets.
That’s the reason that I wanted her in the movie. I went to the Third Man Museum and she started to explain how she was taking people around the city to show them how the film was a complete lie because half of it was shot in London, and half of it was shot in Vienna, and that’s what fascinates her; how time and space in film can become something totally different. The idea was hers, she brought it in at that moment, but I had already talked to her about entanglement and physics, so I had encouraged it.

Interview by John Berra

Terracotta Festival 2010


Accident

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

6-9 May 2010

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

The Electric Sheep team reviews the highlights of the 2010 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

Accident (Soi Cheang, 2009)
The term ‘high-concept’ was coined to describe Hollywood blockbusters that can be summarised in a single sentence; however, it could also be applied to Accident, a Hong Kong thriller about a team of assassins led by the intensely disciplined Brain (Louis Koo), who disguise their hits as ‘accidents’ so that nobody realises that a crime has actually been committed. Produced by the prolific Johnnie To, Accident exhibits an icy aesthetic that keeps the audience at an emotional distance but serves to maintain suspense during the sustained set-pieces. The unexpectedly romantic score by French composer Xavier Jamaux, who previously collaborated with To on Mad Detective (2007) and Sparrow (2008), aims for a tragic resonance that is undermined by the comparatively one-note characterisations of Brain’s crew, but Cheang’s psychological approach towards pulp material ensures that Accident has a meditative quality that is rarely found in upscale action cinema. JOHN BERRA

Vengeance (Fuk sau, 2009)
Vengeance marks a return to what Johnnie To does best – stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. The plot is simple – a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord. As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. It’s their simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, with a touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd. RICHARD BADLEY

Antique (Min kyu-dong, 2008)
When arrogant yuppie Kim decides to open a cake shop, assuming that such establishments will offer plenty of opportunities to meet available women, his search for a pastry chef leads him to former high school classmate Min, who has become known as ‘The Gay of Demonic Charm’ after being sacked from numerous bakeries following flings with co-workers who find him irresistible. Somehow, this simple set-up serves as the springboard for multiple narrative strands to the point that there are three films competing for audience attention; Antique is ostensibly a comedy about the unusual professional relationship between Kim and Min, but it also takes a darker detour into thriller territory and flirts with the form of the musical through dizzying montages. There are some hilarious moments scattered throughout this adaptation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s popular manga, and the themes of friendship and forgiveness are effectively conveyed amid the colourful chaos. JOHN BERRA

Cow

Cow (Dou niu, 2009)
In Chinese director Guan Hu’s Cow, set in 1940, a village simpleton emerges from hiding to discover that his fortress home has been destroyed by Japanese soldiers. The narrow lanes are eerily quiet; the dirt in the square stained with blood. Confused and terrified, he discovers that the only other survivor is a ‘foreign’ cow that he’s promised to care for. Cow unfolds in a series of flashbacks, mixing humorous scenes of village life with the simpleton’s harrowing struggles to keep himself and the cow alive as his home is overrun by returning Japanese soldiers, the Kuomintang, and fellow refugees. The result is a tragic black comedy about the futility of war, told from a unique point of view in an already crowded genre. Initially curious and captivating, it’s a shame that the film starts to drift in the second half once the novelty of the plot and set-up start to wear thin. SARAH CRONIN

Summer Wars (Samâ wôzu, 2009)
This new animé from director Mamoru Hosada is more satisfying than his previous offering, The Girl Who Leapt through Time, although its promising beginning and beautiful animation are equally marred by a fairly simplistic message. The story revolves around a young boy, Kenji, who, while staying with the family of a classmate he has a crush on for the summer, accidentally helps a hacker crack the code to the ‘OZ’ network, a Second Life type of virtual world used by everyone, from private users to government and military institutions. As the mysterious attacker wreaks havoc in OZ with potentially disastrous consequences in the real world, Kenji has to find a way to stop him. The animation is excellent, with two contrasting styles used to represent real and virtual worlds, and the tone is charming and humorous. But while the story is initially captivating, it quickly descends into a basic good versus evil battle underpinned by an unsophisticated, conservative belief in traditional values. VIRGINIE S&#278LAVY

Phobia (See prang, 2008)
As with most horror anthologies, Phobia is a mixed bag. A quartet of ghost stories from Thailand that vary in stylistic tricks and genre clichés, they seem like extended 10-minute shorts hastily jammed together with no particular format. Some of the stories are linked by references to other characters but there’s no common theme or central thread, and the title itself is misleading: this isn’t an exploration of different phobias, just a straightforward play on people’s understandable and natural fear of ghosts. Last Fright is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, a slow-burning chiller that doesn’t rely on ropey effects, just old-fashioned storytelling. But the anthology’s stand-out is In the Middle, not because it’s particularly scary but because it keeps a tight, coherent plot, revolving around a group of lads on a camping holiday who are haunted by a friend after he’s drowned. RICHARD BADLEY

Read full reviews of Vengeance and Phobia, out on DVD in May 2010.

Nippon Connection 2010


Island of Dreams

Nippon Connection

Frankfurt, Germany

April 14-18, 2010

Nippon Connection website

Nippon Connection is now firmly established as the biggest festival of Japanese cinema held annually outside of Japan, and 2010 marked the 10th anniversary of the event with a diverse programme that ranged from major studio releases to independent films and digital video productions; the line-up included Toshiaki Toyoda’s psychedelic jidaigeki The Blood of Rebirth (2009) and Shûichi Okita’s warmly received documentary The Chef of South Polar (2009), while Momoko Ando’s Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009) maintained its festival profile en route to potential crossover success. Appropriately enough for a festival in its 10th year, the Nippon Retro strand revisited some of the highlights of the past nine years, such as Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital (2004) and Michael Arias’s Tekkon Kinkreet (2006). Festivities were sadly undermined by the eruption of a certain Icelandic volcano, although the variety of films and other events (workshops devoted to voicing animé and shiatsu massage, lectures about Japanese television drama and Haruki Murakami’s latest literary opus), not to mention the generous hospitality of the Nippon Connection team, meant that few were particularly concerned about their flight arrangements until the festival was winding down. Hopefully, some of the following films will make the move from the festival circuit to general release in the next 12 months.

A Big Gun (Hajime Ohata, 2008)
When their ironworks is threatened with closure due to a lack of clients, the owner and his brother accept a proposition from a local gangster: to manufacture 10 copies of a revolver and to deliver the weapons by a strict deadline. When they are then expected to make more guns despite not receiving payment, they take matters into their own hands. For the most part, A Big Gun is a sparse, intense examination of the financial difficulties facing businesses in small communities, and the desperate measures that some resort to in order to stay afloat, although the realism is somewhat undermined by a climactic lurch into ‘splatter film’ territory. A Big Gun was programmed alongside the altogether less focused Schneider (Yusuke Koroyasu, 2009), which explores how tensions in a small town community are accelerated when the owner of a restaurant goes missing. Schneider also features some shocking violence in its third act, and once again questions the effectiveness of law enforcement in rural areas.

Crows Zero II (Takashi Miike, 2009)
Crows Zero focused on a cast of teenage thugs whose ability to miraculously heal from even the most savage beating made it inevitable that they would all be back for a sequel that would up the ante in the brutality stakes. Genji (Shun Oguri) is now the top dog at Suzuran High School, but he has yet to fully unite all the factions, and must now face challenges from outside the institution. Takashi Miike delivers a testosterone-fuelled, youth-orientated action movie, which fully subscribes to the rule that sequels must be bigger, longer and louder – but not necessarily better – than their predecessors. With one particular fight sequence running for 27 minutes, there is little time for character development, and nominal hero Genji only manages three scenes with his love interest, the club singer played by Meisa Kuroki, between hyper-kinetic punch-ups and the navigation of plot machinations, which may not be entirely clear to those not familiar with the original manga.

Island of Dreams (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2008)
A young man works on Dream Island, an artificial wasteland in Tokyo made entirely of trash, and becomes a terrorist bomber. A police detective is assigned the task of tracking him down, and struggles to grasp the motivations for his crimes. Clearly influenced by the thrillers that Seijun Suzuki churned out in an almost unbelievably prolific manner in the 1960s, Island of Dreams is a rare Pia film that works as a genre exercise rather than as a social statement. The police procedural dialogue is leaden, and this is yet another thriller where the detective cracks the case by using Google and proceeds to provide exposition by reading from his laptop screen, but Island of Dreams excels when it is on the move; a foot chase through crowded city streets that takes in an underground club and the climactic race against time are both superbly handled.

Kaiji (Toya Sato, 2009)
Kaiji is a noncommittal job-hopper who lives month-to-month with little concern for his long-term financial security. When he suddenly finds himself burdened with a debt of two million yen due to the non-payment of a loan that he casually co-signed for a friend, Kaiji is forced to play a high-risk game onboard a cruise ship to try and clear it. It’s an ingenious premise, one that recalls the sinister escapism of David Fincher circa The Game (1997) and comments on current economic conditions in recession-hit countries where people are paying the price for taking out ‘easy’ credit. Unfortunately, Kaiji is undermined by an irritating central performance by Tatsuya Fujiwara, which makes the titular protagonist pathetic rather than emphatic, while Yuki Amani is merely window-dressing as the initially icy, ultimately sympathetic credit collector. An over-reliance on fast edits and swirling camera movements makes Kaiji an unfortunate case of a neat idea undermined by erratic execution.

Miyoko

Miyoko (Yoshifumi Tsubota, 2009)
Shinichi Abe became a well-known manga artist in the early 1970s due to his stories in Garo magazine, expressionistic portraits of doomed relationships that mirrored his own partnership with Miyoko, his regular model and later girlfriend and wife. This quasi-biopic of Abe represents the continuation of two trends in Japanese cinema: films about artists, either real or fictionalised, and films about long-suffering wives who stay with men who leave them unfulfilled. Miyoko moves at the same measured pace as Takeshi Kitano’s superficially similar Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), but is more lurid in tone and, by the time that Abe has acknowledged his schizophrenia, the audience probably feels as far removed from him as his strangely devoted spouse. The hermetically sealed world of Miyoko may not be particularly easy to engage with, but the film effectively blurs the real with the imagined as comic book panels fade in and out and the dual identities of Abe and Miyoko are emphasised through graphic re-enactments of the narratives that were published in Garo.

Oh, My Buddha! (Tomorowo Taguchi, 2008)
Jun is a first-year student at an all-boys Buddhist high school, who is more interested in listening to Bob Dylan and writing songs than he is in studying. He travels with two friends to the island of ‘free love’ for his summer vacation, hoping to lose his virginity, but things do not quite go to plan, and on his return to school he still struggles to break free of his middle-class constraints. Tomorowo Taguchi’s second feature is ostensibly a teen sex comedy, but Oh, My Buddha! is actually a much more culturally acute coming-of-age movie, mainly due to its copious references to pop culture; there are comparisons to Dylan ‘going electric’ as Jun listens backstage as a raucous rock ‘n’ roll group excite the crowd gathered in the high school gym, and realises that his heartfelt folk songs need more of an edge if he is going to compete. It is not clear whether the title refers to the three men who mentor Jun at various stages (his hippie tutor, the proprietor of the youth hostel, his father) or the counter-culture figure of Dylan that he worships, but Oh, My Buddha! is a genuine crowd-pleaser that blends brisk pacing with warm nostalgia.

One Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Lightweight but likable, One Million Yen Girl finds writer-director Yuki Tanada following previous festival successes Moon and Cherry (2004) and Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008) with the story of Suzuko, a 21-year-old who moves from town to town, trying to conceal the fact that she has served a short jail sentence for a minor offence. Suzuko lives and works in each town until she has saved up one million yen (the amount needed for rent, deposit and fees in her next temporary home), and tries to avoid forming attachments to those she encounters. The irony of One Million Yen Girl is that, for all her moving around, Suzuko finds much the same experience in each town; a mundane job, the discovery of some ‘hidden’ talent, and a potential boyfriend. Tanada’s humour is mostly of an observational nature, although there is a hysterical scene in which a town council demands that Suzuko become their ‘peach girl’ and represent the community in an advertising campaign. Yû Aoi is almost defiantly low-key in the title role, building on her turn as a pizza-girl-turned-recluse in Bong Joon-ho’s segment of Tokyo (2008), and convincingly conveying the burden of a young woman who feels that she has brought shame to her immediate family.

Toad’s Oil (Kôji Yakusho, 2009)
Kôji Yakusho directs himself as Takuro, a private trader who takes great delight in earning – and even in losing – vast sums of money on the stock exchange, but has become somewhat disconnected from his family. When his son Takuya falls into a coma due to a collision with a van, Takuro learns about his offspring’s life through the history in his mobile phone. Making contact with his son’s girlfriend, Takuro keeps the youthful romance alive through a series of conversations and deceptions. Just as the film seems to be playing as an extended advert for the benefits of cellular technology, Toad’s Oil embarks on a wayward road trip when Takuya passes away and Takuro and his son’s best friend Saburo make the journey to Mount Fear to lay his remains to rest. There is a great running joke about the amount of money that Takuro pays in taxes, and the patriarch’s encounter with a black bear is also fitfully amusing. The more contemplative moments do cause pacing problems, but Toad’s Oil is a heartfelt directorial debut that offers some rich insight into Japanese familial life amid the occasional indulgences.

Zero Focus (Isshin Inudo, 2009)
In 1957, the naïve Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) enters into an arranged marriage with Kenichi, a Tokyo-based employee of an advertising agency. Seven days after their wedding, Kenichi takes a business trip to Kanazawa, his previous posting, but when he does not return, Teiko becomes suspicious and launches her own investigation. Upon arrival in Kanazawa, Teiko encounters two other women who may hold the key to her husband’s disappearance; Sachiko (Miki Nakatani), the socially prominent supporter of a female candidate for the role of mayor, and Hisako (Tae Kimura), a company receptionist who was appointed despite lacking the required qualifications. It is debatable as to whether this second adaptation of Seicho Matsumoto’s novel (following the 1969 film by Yoshitaro Nomura) is entirely necessary, although this latest cinematic incarnation of Zero Focus is impeccably crafted; the story may deal with a particular period in Japanese history, but its cinematic reference points are Douglas Sirk and Hollywood dramas aimed at a largely female audience. The lead actresses are uniformly excellent, with Nakatani offering a chilling portrait of rural royalty and Hirosue subtly conveying Teiko’s shift from optimism to disillusionment.

John Berra

The Virtues of Restriction: The Hide and Other Cinematic Enclosed Locations

The Hide

Format: DVD

Date: 11 January 2010

Distributor: ICA Films

Director: Marek Losey

Writer: Tim Whitnall

Cast: Alex Macqueen, Phil Campbell

UK 2008

82 mins

On the Isle of Sheppey, birdwatcher Roy (Alex Macqueen) settles into a remote hide in the hope of spotting a rare sociable plover to add to his checklist of ornithological species recorded in the British Isles. With his buttoned-down appearance, use of a pen that was given to him by his mother, and habit of talking to a photograph of his wife, Roy does not seem like someone who is well-suited to spending time with others, but he soon has company in the hide when he reluctantly takes in the mysterious Dave (Phil Campbell) during a downpour. The two men engage in awkward exchanges, which are indicative of their opposing social backgrounds, although they eventually bond over chicken paste sandwiches. However, it soon becomes apparent that his new acquaintance may not merely be a man out for a stroll without the appropriate attire, although Roy’s own behaviour is odd enough to suggest that audience loyalty should not be too readily placed.

The concept of strangers engaging in a combative, yet subtly humorous, game of psychological cat-and-mouse in an enclosed location is by no means new, but with its barely concealed class warfare, Marek Losey’s debut feature The Hide makes for a particularly British addition to a rapidly growing sub-genre. The Hide was adapted by Tim Whitnall from his own play, and the roots of this cinematic tradition could be seen to be theatrical; Wait until Dark (1967), in which an Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded woman who is terrorised by a trio of crooks searching for the stash of heroin that they believe to be in her apartment, originated as a 1966 play by Frederick Knott. Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play, was filmed by Joseph L Mankiewicz in 1972, then again by Kenneth Branagh in 2007, and revolves around the battle of wits between an ageing mystery writer and his wife’s young lover, with their psychological duel taking place around the former’s country estate. Robert Altman’s screen version of Donald Freed and Andrew M Stone’s Secret Honour (1984) concerns one man in his office, with the man being Richard Nixon (Phillip Baker Hall) and his stream-of-consciousness monologue taking in the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation.

However, some formidable cinematic talents were exploring the cramped confines of restricted space before the aforementioned theatrical transfers. One of the earliest examples of the sub-genre is Alfred Hitchock’s Lifeboat (1944), which concerns the survivors of a ship torpedoed by a German U-boat, which has also been sunk by engaging in combat with their vessel. The survivors pull another man out of the water, but when he turns out to be the captain of the German U-boat, discussion turns from how the group will survive to what they should do with the enemy in their midst. In 1954, the Master of Suspense would deliver Rear Window, a classic thriller concerning a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart), who spies on his neighbours out of boredom, only to come to suspect that the resident across the courtyard may have murdered his wife. The more socially conscious Sidney Lumet also weighed in with 12 Angry Men (1957), which takes place almost entirely in a jury room where 12 nameless men decide whether a teenage boy accused of murdering his father is guilty; Lumet employed telephoto lenses to enhance the sweaty atmosphere of the room as juror 8 (Henry Fonda) gradually persuades the others to reconsider their verdict.

The seemingly restrictive elements of films set in confined spaces (one location, small cast, emphasis on dialogue over action) has made the sub-genre extremely appealing to independent filmmakers working with limited resources. However, these films often break the unwritten rules of the sub-genre; James Wan’s Saw (2004) opens with two men waking up at opposite sides of a filthy bathroom, with a dead body between them, while Simon Brand’s comparatively little-seen Unknown (2006) begins with five men coming around in a locked-down warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. However, Saw segues into flashbacks to show how the captive men came to be in their predicaments, while Unknown alternates between desperate escape attempts and the parallel FBI investigation. Even Quentin Tarantino’s legendary debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), which takes place in an abandoned warehouse where a gang of sharp-suited criminals have arranged to rendezvous following the heist, is interspersed with flashbacks to the ill-fated jewellery store robbery and the assembly of the crew.

Two independently financed examples of the sub-genre that do not play as fast and loose with its conventions are Vincenzo Natali’s ingenious Cube (1997) and David Slade’s gripping Hard Candy (2005). In Cube, six strangers wake up in a cubical maze and have to use their combined skills to defy a series of death traps in order to escape, with Natali offering ingenious science fiction on a bargain-basement budget by utilising the same set repeatedly and simply redressing it. Hard Candy opens with an establishing scene in a trendy coffee shop as 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) meets up with charming photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) with whom she has corresponded on the internet, but soon relocates to Jeff’s suburban home, where his underage ‘admirer’ drugs and tortures him, convinced that he is a paedophile who uses internet chat rooms as a virtual hunting ground. Hard Candy flirts with the morally questionable ‘torture porn’ of the Saw franchise in a scene in which Hayley freezes Jeff’s body from the waist down in order to emasculate him but, as with The Hide, the film is more interested in toying with the sympathies of the audience, suggesting that Hayley may have accused the wrong man.

If the contemporary confined space films that have emerged from the independent sector have been conceived as vehicles for directors to prove their creativity, the major studio productions that have followed their lead have served as showcases for established stars, as with Rear Window and Wait until Dark in earlier eras. In Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002), Colin Farrell’s slick hustler unravels due to taunts from the sniper who has him in his sights, while in 1408 (2007), John Cusack’s cynical writer spends a night in a ‘haunted’ room at a New York hotel, encountering some instances of paranormal activity before descending into madness as the décor of the room comes to reflect the demons within his own psyche. Both stars acquit themselves admirably, although the studio trappings of Phone Booth and 1408 entail that the audience never has any doubt that the trapped protagonist of either film will not fail to find a way out of their respective predicament.

As indicated, films that take place in a confined space usually find increasingly frayed tempers resulting in irrational action, with John Hughes’s high school detention drama The Breakfast Club (1985) and Kevin Smith’s convenience store comedy Clerks (1994) standing out as rare humorous entries in a sub-genre that is better exemplified by the almost unbearable claustrophobia of Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic Das Boot (1981), which dives ‘down below’ with the crew of a German U-boat during World War II. It is also a sub-genre that, in contrast to most other forms of cinematic escapism, is becoming logistically smaller as opposed to bigger; 2010 will also see the release of Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up to find that he has been buried alive inside a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter to assist him. Although this thriller by Rodrigo Cortés sounds like the finale of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) stretched to 90 minutes, it does at least promise to add a political dimension to the sub-genre in that the trapped character is an American contractor working in Iraq. The Hide also offers some social-political commentary, with Roy’s discussion of his redundancy and how it has soured his marriage, but it works primarily as a taut, low-key thriller that utilises the confined space of its titular location – not to mention the sparsely atmospheric sounds of the moor on which it is situated – to unsettling effect.

John Berra

This article is part of our ‘Confined Spaces’ theme.

Life during Wartime: Interview with Todd Solondz

Life during Wartime

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 April 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho, The Gate, Renoir, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Todd Solondz

Writer: Todd Solondz

Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens

USA 2009

96 mins

A social satirist who returned to filmmaking with a vengeance following the studio interference that undermined his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), Todd Solondz has since experienced both ends of the industrial spectrum, flirting with mainstream acceptance when Happiness was funded by a studio sub-division in 1998 and paying for Palindromes out of his own pocket in 2000. While his audience has always been relatively marginal, fledgling filmmakers have certainly been taking notes; it could be argued that the scathing high school humour of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) paved the way for the more widely accepted Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Juno (2007), while Happiness is an early example of the ‘network narrative’ film that has become the format of choice for independent filmmakers seeking to comment on the social-political fabric of their nation.

Yet, while other films that have favoured the multi-stranded structure have contented themselves with the cleverness of their interlocking story-strands and superstar casting coups, Happiness was an unapologetically raw dissection of the underbelly of suburban society, which asked its audience to empathise with such characters as a paedophile and a verbally abusive phone pest. The frankness with which Solondz discussed such sexual themes led Happiness to be slapped with the restrictive NC-17 rating by the American ratings board, but more than 10 years later the director has returned to the scene of the crime with Life during Wartime, a quasi-sequel that integrates the post-09/11 climate into an already volatile mix, with uncomfortably amusing yet unexpectedly melancholy results.

John Berra spoke with Solondz about the reception of his work to date, the realities of ‘independent’ filmmaking, and his subversive approach to the ‘sequel’.

John Berra: Life during Wartime has a melancholy quality that I did not necessarily expect from a follow-up to Happiness. I read that the film was originally titled Forgiveness and I wondered if the title change indicated an intention to engage more directly with the social fabric of the United States and make a more political film.

Todd Solondz: It is certainly a more overtly political film than Happiness and, at the same time, it’s also very oblique in the way that it is political. The original title actually was Life during Wartime, the other title came about when I thought the movie would never be finished and I didn’t want anyone to know what the real title would be.

None of the actors from Happiness return for Life during Wartime. At first, I thought this might have been a way to communicate how these characters have changed and evolved through their experiences, but some of them do not seem to have changed at all.

When you cast the same actors 10 years later, it becomes all about mortality as people get older, and that of course is a very compelling interest, but that wasn’t what I wanted the movie to subliminally communicate. I was more interested in approaching these characters from a different angle and portraying them in a fresh light, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had cast the same people. That’s what made it much more interesting for me. It’s somewhat misleading to call it a ‘sequel’, because it makes people think that the movie is going to have the same kind of character as the earlier film when, as you pointed out, it’s more melancholy. It’s more of a jumping off point than a direct sequel, and more of a quasi-sequel than an actual sequel.

Sequels are usually made by Hollywood studios to follow films that have made obscene amounts of money, but you have made a follow-up to a film that had a comparatively marginal audience.

It’s very un-Hollywood to make a sequel to a movie that makes no money. It goes against the grain. But Life during Wartime is more a variation on the original. I never had the intention of making a sequel, but when you start writing, things come at you unexpectedly and you never end up writing what you plan to write.

Happiness was released at a time when American independent films were receiving a lot of media attention. Based on the controversy that surrounded the film, I was surprised to find that it only grossed $2.7 million in the United States. Was there really an ‘indie’ boom in the late 90s, or do you think it was more of a media myth?

This is a bit of a conversation; how one defines what is ‘independent’ is also something to be questioned. When the movie happened, it was financed by October Films, which was owned by Universal so, in that sense it’s hard to call Happiness an ‘independent film’. I was pleased that it made as much as $2.7 million. The distribution company that had been set up to release it had run out of money, so the movie was playing without any advertising in motion. But say we had a stronger distributor, how much more money could it have made? 10% or 20%? You’re still talking about a movie that’s only making $3.5 million. It’s always instructive when you get very excited about a movie, and all your friends are seeing it; you go and look at the numbers that Variety or the industry sources publish to tell you how much a movie made, and it’s something of an eye-opener. You will see what actually makes a dent at the box office and what does not, and the consequence at this point is that I have a new script but I don’t know if it will get made. It’s not so complicated and it’s not so expensive, but unlike the days of Happiness, the internet and television cover so many channels that it’s much less typical for this audience to go out and pay $12.50 at the box office, or whatever it is in England. That makes things a lot more difficult. You can count on your fingers how many American filmmakers are able to continue operating as ‘independent filmmakers’, making films that are not dependent on big studio corporations. You can make one film, maybe two, but not many can continue. It’s not a system that is able to support the marginal filmmaker. In France, there is a system set up to subsidise and support the national cinema and independent filmmakers, and that applies to other European countries, but there is absolutely nothing similar in America.

In 2007, Premiere listed Happiness among their ‘top 25 most dangerous movies’. It came in at number 19 in-between Gimme Shelter (1970) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). As your work strives for some understanding of individuals that would otherwise be demonised as ‘socially deviant’, do you feel that labels like ‘dangerous’ undermine what you are trying to do?

I didn’t see that article, but if that’s how people remember the film, I just have to take it as a compliment and leave it at that. People will respond to the film no matter what other people say; at the end of the day, if you are sitting alone watching the movie, you will have a unique connection to it. I’m happy if the movie has a life and I can’t control the way people will respond to the film and what they will say about it, but there are certainly a lot worse things to be called than ‘dangerous’.

Extreme Private Eros: Interview with Kazuo Hara

Extreme Private Eros

Sheffield DocFest

4-8 November 2009

Sheffield

Extreme Private Eros showed on 6 November 2009

Sheffield DocFest website

Although the Japanese director Kazuo Hara has insisted that he is anything but a political filmmaker, his 1974 documentary Extreme Private Eros (Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974) remains a fascinating snapshot of Japanese society at a time of transition. An account of the life of Hara’s ex-lover, Miyuki Takeda – a feminist who relocated to Okinawa and entered into a lesbian relationship with a bar hostess before becoming pregnant following a fling with an African-American soldier – Hara’s film directly addresses such issues as sexual liberation and racial discrimination. Extreme Private Eros was potentially inflammatory when first shown in Hara’s homeland and strict censorship laws regarding on-screen genitalia forced the director to recoup his production budget over an extended period by charging admission for private screenings. He would not complete another film until 1987: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On won awards at major festivals such as Berlin and Rotterdam, and earned the admiration of Errol Morris, the American director of The Thin Blue Line. Hara is now firmly ensconced in academia, teaching documentary filmmaking at the University of Osaka, but he recently attended the Sheffield DocFest to introduce a screening of Extreme Private Eros. John Berra met with him to discuss his landmark work and the fascinating female personality at its centre.

John Berra: You witnessed the explosion of the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s; were you influenced or inspired by the films of Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Ôshima?

Kazuo Hara: At that time in Japan, after the war, lots of young people tried to achieve power by rebelling against the government. I grew up in that era and I went to see those films to support that ideology and contribute to changing the government. Nagisa Ôshima and Shohei Imamura had made documentary films before me, but all their films showed how normal Japanese people did not have power, that they were struggling and controlled by the government. I thought that there must be a way to change that view, the idea that normal people are weak; I didn’t want to show the weakness, I wanted to show the strength of the people.

JB: Miyuki exhibits a powerful personality but also a very vulnerable side. She is contradictory in that she does not need anybody but also needs to be with someone in order to feel special. Did you see her as being particularly representative of a certain generation of Japanese women?

KH: She was very representative of Japanese women at that time, especially those who were involved in student activities. But she had more charisma than other women, she was stranger, you could not say she was ‘normal’, although she does represent a time of change for Japanese women.

JB: There is a disturbing moment after the birth of Miyuki’s child when she gives the news to her mother over the telephone, and her mother asks how ‘dark’ the baby is, and if she is going to ‘keep it’. Was her relationship with the African-American solider a political act?

KH: Miyuki was always interested in the power of lower-class people, which is why she went to Okinawa and lived in the prostitution area. There were army camps there, and black soldiers would come into that area, but she did not intend to have a black boyfriend at that point. One day, she became ill, and one soldier was really kind to her, so she spent the night with him. Their relationship only lasted three weeks, and she did not think she would have a baby with him, she just wanted an experience. Miyuki was very nervous when she spoke to her mother after giving birth. Her family were not very supportive but Miyuki was very much against racial discrimination in Japan and wanted to fight that aspect of society.

JB: When was the film first shown in Japan and did you experience any censorship problems?

KH: It was first shown in 1974. It was a big film in Japan that year because it was a shocking, self-portrait film, so a lot of people came to see it. At that time, the Japanese censorship law was that if you filmed someone’s private area, you would be arrested if you tried to show that film in the theatre. But because I had made the film myself, I could hire a venue and show it privately, which was not illegal. That’s how I was able to get past the censors. Some of the money for the film came from university research departments and friends, but we did get into debt making it. We were able to gradually pay back the money we had spent making the film by charging admission for these private showings, but it took three to five years to pay back the debt.

JB: When the child is born, there are a few minutes when it seems that he could be stillborn. How were you able to continue filming during what must have been a very distressing experience?

KH: The way the birth is presented in the film makes it seem very quick, but it actually took 12 hours. My mind became very cold, I was just a director, I was thinking about the film and nothing else.

JB: Before Miyuki leaves Okinawa, she makes a pamphlet and hands it out. What kind of statement was she trying to make with this material?

KH: In the film, it seems that she does not like Okinawa, but actually she loves Okinawa; like me, she is from the mainland and Okinawa is very different, with a lot of discrimination. When mainland people go to Okinawa, we can’t get into that society, even if we try, and it’s the same for people from Okinawa who go to the mainland, even more so in that era. Even though Miyuki loved Okinawa, she could not be in perfect harmony there, so the pamphlet was her love song to Okinawa, she wanted to leave something.

JB: What has happened to Miyuki and her son in the past 30 years?

KH: For about five years after I finished filming, Miyuki stayed in a commune, living with other women and their children; but Japan was still very conservative and mixed race kids, especially half-black, half-Japanese kids, were not accepted. The boy wasn’t happy at all so they decided to put him up for adoption and now he is very happy in America.

JB: Extreme Private Eros captures a very particular period of your life. How did you respond to the film when watching it at today’s screening?

KH: I did not watch the film today. I can’t watch it anymore; it’s too embarrassing, I was too young.

Interview by John Berra

I’m Dangerous with Love: Interview with Michel Negroponte

I'm Dangerous with Love

Sheffield DocFest

4-8 November 2009

Sheffield

Sheffield DocFest website

Michel Negroponte’s website

The documentary filmmaker Michel Negroponte was already familiar with the world of drug addiction before he embarked on I’m Dangerous with Love; his 2005 documentary Methadonia focused on the patients who frequented a methadone clinic on the Lower East Side of New York City, recovering heroin addicts living in chemical limbo as they swapped Schedule 1 substances for prescription medication. His latest project examines an alternative approach to breaking the cycle of addiction, one that is not officially endorsed or prescribed by registered health care practitioners. Ibogaine is a hallucinogen that comes from the root of a West African plant and has been used by shamans for centuries, but in the United States it is classed as a controlled substance and is therefore illegal. At the centre of Negroponte’s film is Dimitri Mugianis; a reformed addict who underwent an ibogaine treatment at an Amsterdam clinic following 20 years of substance abuse, Dimitri is now an ‘ibogaine provider’, trading chemically-induced highs for adrenaline-fuelled escapades as he works with an underground network to help other addicts kick the habit. Negroponte followed Dimitri over an extended period, becoming so involved with his subject that he tried ibogaine himself in order to fully communicate the experience and, after a treatment at a snowed-in Canadian home went wrong, travelled to Gabon with Dimitri to learn more about the hallucinogenic properties of the plant root. Laced with decidedly dark humour, I’m Dangerous with Love is both a compelling character study and an exciting excursion into an underground subculture. John Berra met with Michel Negroponte at the 2009 Sheffield DocFest, where I’m Dangerous with Love received its world premiere.

John Berra: In your opening voice-over for I’m Dangerous with Love, you state that you did not intend to undertake another drugs-related project. How did you become immersed in the ibogaine underground?

Michel Negroponte: My film Methadonia was shown at the New York Film Festival in September 2005 and then aired on HBO a month later. HBO is a fascinating channel for documentary filmmakers because it has a huge number of viewers; people who don’t normally watch documentaries will watch a non-fiction film on HBO simply because it’s there. The number of people who saw Methadonia stunned me and we received many emails, phone calls and letters. One email was from Nick, a young man from outside Chicago who had a heroin habit. He was about to try this experimental cure using an African hallucinogen, and he wanted me to film him going through the treatment. My first reaction to Nick’s email was to say that I had spent three or four years in the world of addiction, that I was still recovering emotionally and psychologically, and that I really wasn’t interested in doing a film about ibogaine, even though it sounded fascinating. But Nick wouldn’t let go. I started to do some research and quickly met many of the main characters in the ibogaine underground movement of New York City. Everyone I spoke to said, ‘You have to meet Dimitri’. When I finally did, there was something about his persona, his presence, and his intensity that made me think he could be the subject of a film. When you make these kinds of ‘present tense’ documentaries, it’s a tremendous act of faith because I knew very little about ibogaine, very little about Dimitri, and absolutely nothing about what might happen in the next several years if I committed to making a film. My underground adventure lasted four years.

JB: I’m Dangerous with Love has a tremendous narrative drive for a documentary; were you concerned when editing the film that it was too exciting and not sufficiently fact-heavy?

MN: First of all, I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing what’s happening in front of the camera than merely documenting it. Everything from the framing of a shot to the editing of a scene is important to me. I want the finished film to look intentional and precise. I want it to capture the essence of being there. Like most of my other films, I’m Dangerous with Love is character-driven. It’s portraiture. I may not include interviews with medical experts about ibogaine in the film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the information is important. While being too fact-heavy can weigh down the storytelling, I try to carefully weave information into my voice-over. It’s a stylistic choice. One of things I have found as I have made more and more films is that I shoot very little. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing scenes. I never turn the camera on until I’ve composed a shot through the viewfinder, and I think a great deal about the photographic elements.

JB: I particularly liked your detached, darkly humorous voice-over, which recalls the writing of Philip K Dick and Douglas Coupland. Was it important for you to find the humour in this painful world of drug addiction?

MN: The subject matter of the film is so intense and dark that some lighter or comedic moments seemed necessary. In the first 10 minutes of the film there’s a tough scene of Nick vomiting in a hotel room from heroin withdrawal, and I could imagine a number of people getting up and leaving the theatre or switching the channel. So I hope the occasional humour of my voice-over helps people stay with the story.

JB: In the first half of the film, Dimitri seems to be living for the thrill of being an ibogaine provider. Were you concerned that he had substituted one addiction for another?

MN: At one point, Dimitri looks at the camera and says something like, ‘I’m addicted to chaos. Things in my life are going very smoothly. I’m not using anymore, but I need to get my hands dirty’. He’s not nine-to-five and he likes risk. I was intrigued by his bravado, but I think the film captures a change in his personality. After the terrifying event in Canada, when a young man almost dies during a treatment, Dimitri is forced to reassess what he’s doing. By the time he’s been introduced to African shamans and we’ve returned from Africa, he’s a different person.

JB: I was very impressed by Dimitri’s belief system; the bad experience in Canada did not stop him from wanting to be a part of the ibogaine network, but he realised that he needed to learn more about the process and adopt a new approach towards his work.

MN: He’s obviously an incredibly resilient guy; he’s been close to death himself on a number of occasions because of drug use. It would have surprised me if Dimitri had decided after Canada that he never wanted to do another ibogaine treatment. The trip to Gabon reinforced his belief in himself and his mission. It changed his life and took the film in a direction I couldn’t have anticipated.

JB: What was your motivation to take ibogaine yourself?

MN: Before I took ibogaine, I had seen several treatments, and yet I didn’t understand how a hallucinogen could help a drug user detox. Also, most people who take ibogaine find it difficult to describe the psychedelic journey. I wanted to see what it was like, so I asked Dimitri to give me a dose. The trip is like a dream. If you don’t have a pad and pen at your bedside and scribble notes, you may not remember anything the next morning. You have to make a real effort to put the visual and aural experience into words. I guess you could say I became a believer after I took it, and that changed the course of the film.

JB: What are the characteristics of the ibogaine underground and what distinguishes it from more conventional methods of health care?

MN: One of the things I find so intriguing is that former drug users like Dimitri created the ibogaine movement. In the film, you see several addicts go through ibogaine treatments and they return later to help Dimitri take other addicts through treatments. Drug users understand detox and they know how to be empathetic. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about conventional health providers.

JB: What is the significance of the title, I’m Dangerous with Love?

MN: It’s a line from one of Dimitri’s poems. Interestingly enough, he wrote the poem in 2002 just after undergoing the ibogaine treatment in Holland that made him stop using. He inscribed the poem in the ‘guest book’ of the woman who took him through the treatment. The poem ends with the lines, ‘I’m dangerous with love, I’m dangerous with love’. After the crisis in Canada, I thought it was an appropriate title for the film because Dimitri can be dangerous with his love. The title also has a double meaning; my subjects are people who live on the fringes, and I’ve often tested ethical and moral boundaries by filming them. Sometimes I think my passion for making documentaries makes me dangerous as well.

Interview by John Berra

Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Primitive

Still from Primitive by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has received acclaim for such dreamlike films as Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006), quietly haunting explorations of time and space that have won the adoration of critics and art-house aficionados. This success has not been entirely without setbacks; the Thai censorship board tried to ban the award-winning Syndromes and a Century, resulting in a very limited release in Bangkok with the offending content blacked out, while Weerasethakul’s plans to shoot a logistically ambitious science fiction project in Canada in 2008 fell through due to funding issues. However, these problems did not deter the director from embarking on Primitive, a multi-platform video installation concerning a turbulent chapter in Thailand’s political history that was commissioned by the Haus der Kunst Museum (Munich) in collaboration with FACT (Liverpool) and Animate Projects (London). Primitive premiered at the recent Abandon Normal Devices festival, while Weerasethakul has also contributed some notes about his work to date to James Quandt’s recently published Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a critical appreciation that features essays by Tony Rayns, Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton. John Berra met with Weerasethakul during AND for an enlightening interview that explores the origins of the Primitive installation, his difficult dealings with the Thai censorship board, and his long-gestating ‘dream project’ Utopia.

John Berra:Your video installation work is more politicised than your feature films, is that because of the freedom afforded by this particular format following your dispute with the Thai censorship board regarding Syndromes and Century?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive stems from many issues; I spent a year fighting and trying to make sense of the system, because it had not affected me before. It’s a very fascist system, but we cannot do much about it; new censorship laws have been passed, partly because of our movement [the Free Thai Cinema Movement], but it is still full of bureaucracy. I was thinking about how I live in Thailand. I started making lists of what I could not do, and what I could not say. There were a lot of lists. At the same time, I was reading books about the extinction of species and animals, so there was a link between rare species being hunted, and minorities and immigrants; immigrants in Thailand have been pushed to the margins and are disappearing. I was very interested in the disappearance of memories, and the other source was a book that was given to me by a monk called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Life, which is about a man who can remember hundreds of years. It’s supposed to be a true story. So I shelved an American project that I had been working on, and decided to make a film in Thailand about this issue of extinction. I’m not a political person. I’m not comfortable with expressing direct feelings through film, so I try to find my own approach. I talked to my producers but the process of gathering funding is getting harder each year for this kind of film. During the time of Syndromes and a Century, I also produced some artworks for galleries, photographs and videos, so we decided to try other forms of expression, and we found support from Liverpool, London and Munich.

JB: Primitive concerns the history of the border town Nabua, which became a ‘red zone’ in the 1960s when the Thai government targeted the local community as communist sympathisers. How did you settle on this subject, and is there a lot of recorded information about what occurred in Nabua?

AW: There are reports of what happened but they are not focused on individual or collective experience of what happened afterwards, or what happened to their psychology, how they were traumatised. The villagers are not really the focus of the reports. I travelled from my home town, where the monk gave me the book, and I did not know what I wanted until I went through this village, and I felt a connection, because the village has a very troubled history, which some villagers try to forget. When I interviewed them, a lot of them told shocking stories about how the military treated them, and there was no apology from the government until now. Primitive reflects Thai society now, because we recently had a military coup, and also during the making of this piece. It is a sad thing that we really have no voice. So I decided to spend time in this village. I was fascinated by the teenagers, who are farmers, and just hang around. When they harvest and grow the rice, they have nothing to do, like teenagers all over the world. I wanted to work with them and make a portrait.

JB: You worked with non-professional actors on this project. Your work is deliberately structured, how do you manage to get performances that fit into your vision?

AW: For this installation, I operated in a different mode, because these are not professional actors, they are farmers, so it was more of a collaborative project. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I just filmed every day. With feature films, there is a process of getting to know each other, so I like to make sure the actors have their own personality in the film, but at the same time I am very in control so that they serve the storyline and the mood. The important point is to be with them; it’s not just about coming to the set and improvising. It’s about spending time together, having meals together, and we would do that before shooting. I did not have first-hand experience of the history of the village, so it would have been difficult to work with the elders. The teenagers are more like me. We share some world views and listen to some of the same music.

JB: The notion of parallel worlds is inherent in your work, with dual story strands and different incarnations of certain characters. Does this stem from your own Buddhist beliefs?

AW: It’s more to do with legends; the world I grew up in was full of legends. I wouldn’t say I believe in them, but I am fascinated by them in a romantic way and also in a scientific way. Legend links together the circular relationship between humans, animals and plants. I went to China a few years ago, and I was told about a plant that, in one season, will turn into an animal and then, in another season, will turn back into a plant, and this can apply to our own span of being. I read texts about reincarnation and the mind, how the mind can travel, and I think there is a scientific link with the impermanence of things; they are moving all the time and they have particles inside that are not solid.

JB: Syndromes and a Century encountered censorship difficulties in Thailand for scenes that seem innocuous to Western audiences; a monk playing a guitar, a doctor drinking whisky, doctors kissing. To what extent does the power of the censorship board affect the Thai film industry?

AW: At the censorship board meeting, I was surrounded by 11 people, and it was surreal because I was brought in and attacked. They asked, ‘why did you have to show the monk like that?’ or ‘why did you have to show the doctor drinking whisky?’ In Thailand, there are always monks around, and I like to show monks outside the temple, playing soccer or playing guitar. This is very typical in Thailand, but it is not accepted in movies. A film scholar in Thailand commented that I should stop making films. This was shocking to me and I have become more protective of my work. The system we have is ridiculous; there is a scene in a Thai horror movie called Sick Nurses where the sign of the hospital falls down and kills someone. But the sign was a red cross, so the censorship board said that this was not acceptable and they had to digitally change the cross to the number four. The censorship board has a lot of power because they do not accept video, they only accept a real print, and it is very expensive for the studio to make digital alterations.

JB: How does the studio system function in Thailand?

AW: There are four or five major studios, but they operate more like a family business. If they have a plan for three movies, and the first one comes out and flops, they may not make the second; it is not very stable. I like a director called Yuthlert Sippakak, who directed Killer Tattoo. He makes maybe two films per year. We planned to work together, but he is too prolific and I cannot keep up with him. He is financed by the Thai studios and his movies do well.

JB: How do you feel about the work of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, a more transnational Thai filmmaker who directed Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves in collaboration with a Japanese star (Tadanobu Asano) and an Australian cinematographer (Christopher Doyle)?

AW: Pen-Ek is a friend of mine; his background is in commercials, but he is one of the few directors who tried to break away from mainstream Thai cinema, which is populated by nonsense. I have mixed feelings about his work, because it is both national and international. He has a very good sense of humour and I really liked his early films Monrak Transistor and Sixty-Nine because his personality showed through.

JB: Can you reveal some details about Utopia, which I believe is your ‘dream project’?

AW: It’s a science fiction film. I started working on it many years ago, after Tropical Malady. It’s a big movie and it’s based on my experiences of studying in the United States. I want to have the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek in the department store Macys, but broken down, and have the store surrounded by a snow-covered landscape. I want to work with the original science fiction actors, who are now in their 50s or 60s, and have them play scientists in this landscape who discover this broken-down Enterprise ship. There is a parallel narrative about a monster that is the product of these humans. The whole movie is about my memories of the science fiction movies that I grew up with.

JB: Music plays an important role in your movies, although it is used sparingly; in Syndromes and a Century, there is a discussion about pop music between the monk and his dentist, and people exercise to a loud dance track in a public park. Does the music in your films have personal significance in terms of memory?

AW: The music in my movies refers to the time of the shooting, the music that we would listen to on the set, in the moment. I’m not a huge fan of music. I don’t like noise. It’s more an appreciation of a particular time. I don’t like to have music on when I am sitting reading a book. Strangely, after I made Mysterious Object at Noon, I stopped listening to CDs. Syndromes and a Century was the first movie where I used a score, but I had a hard time adding the score because I don’t like telling the audience how to feel.

JB: Your films are very much open to interpretation. How do you respond to the various meanings that audiences and critics find in your work?

AW: It’s interesting because it shows that the movie has a life of its own. I like to hear what people have to say about my work, but when I have to answer their questions, I really struggle to find the right vocabulary to communicate what I do because a movie cannot simply be explained by words. It’s very difficult.

JB: It becomes my difficulty when I write about your movies.

AW: I would like to apologise, I feel sorry for you. (laughs)

Interview by John Berra

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews