Somers Town

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 August 2008

Venues: Cineworld Haymarket, Curzon Soho, Odoen Covent Garden (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Shane Meadows

Writer: Paul Fraser

Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Piotr Jagiello, Ireneusz Czop, Elisa Lasowski

UK 2008

75 mins

Somers Town, the latest feature from cult British director Shane Meadows, is the charming story of two 16-year-old boys who find friendship when they fall for the same French waitress.

Tommo (This Is England‘s Thomas Turgoose) is running away from an unhappy life in Nottingham when he finds himself in the Somers Town area of London. However, on his first night, he’s beaten up and his bag is stolen. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) is the son of Polish construction worker Marius (Ireneusz Czop), who is working on the renovations to turn St Pancras station into the new international terminus for Eurostar trains. Marius can’t afford to send Marek to school, so Marek spends his days exploring Somers Town and taking photographs. When Marek meets the bruised and broken Tommo, he decides to hide Tommo in his room and hope his father doesn’t find out. After a bit of light stealing to find Tommo some replacement clothes – Tommo’s idea – Marek introduces Tommo to his muse, the beautiful waitress Maria (Eliza Lasowksi). However, when Maria is called home, the boys hatch a plan to visit her in Paris.

Somers Town has a good script by Paul Fraser and a strong young cast. Meadows combines the two through his preferred working method of improvisation to create naturalistic acting and dialogue, allowing for moments of both comedy and pathos. Similarly, the film is nicely shot in black and white by director of photography Natasha Braier in an attempt to find a visual way of uniting the old and new architecture of Somers Town.

However, these successes are overshadowed by the questions that the plot raises about what it is exactly that Meadows is trying to say with Somers Town. Why are almost all the characters in the movie immigrants, and legal ones at that? Why choose to set the movie around St Pancras International, given that this is where future immigrants will be alighting? Perhaps Meadows wants to offer an alternative vision of England to the white nationalist one he presented in This Is England? Maybe he wants to show an England where legal immigrant workers are essential to the success of a project of national pride like St Pancras International? The disappointing answer to all of these questions is that if Somers Town seems like one big advert for Eurostar, it’s because it is! The film started life at an advertising agency as an idea for a short promotional video, which Eurostar then decided to produce as a full-length movie.

Meadows has always been very open about directing commercials for companies such as McDonald’s as a way of funding his films, which is fine as long as the two things remain separate, but this is a different Filet-O-Fish altogether and feels like deception on the part of Meadows and the movie makers. Meadows is going to have his work cut out defending against the inevitable accusations that he has sold out. Like this one.

Alexander Pashby

For more films by Shane Meadows, see This Is England and This Is Shane Meadows.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 August 2008

Venue: ICA (London) and key cities

Distributor ICA Films

Director: Mika Ninagawa

Writers: Moyoco Anno, Yuki Tanada

Based on:the manga by Moyoco Anno

Cast: Anna Tsuchiya, Kippei Shiina, Yoshino Kimura

Japan 2006

111 minutes

Some films are virtually impossible not to like. Mika Ninagawa’s debut feature, Sakuran, based on the manga of the same name by Moyocco Anno, is an exuberant film with an infectious pop sensibility. A well-known fashion photographer, Ninagawa’s experience shines through in the film’s gorgeous visuals and set pieces. Starring Anna Tsuchiya, herself a model and pop-star, Sakuran tells the story of Kiyoha, a young girl sold into prostitution in 18th-century Edo, Japan.

Kiyoha’s feisty character refuses to settle into the narrow confines of Yoshiwara, the nightlife quarter, yearning to escape back into life outside. Her attempts merely result in her repeatedly being caught, beaten and called a ‘filthy, little boiled root’. Her stubborn streak leads to a change of tack – her new goal is not to get away, but to master the art of being an oiran – the highest-ranking prostitute. Though dismayed by the ‘women, women, women… a world of women’, the young Kiyoha’s determination to prove people wrong leads her up the ladder to become one of the brothel’s most valuable assets, stepping on numerous silk-clad toes as she climbs. But her bitchy, riot-girl demeanour conceals a remarkable generosity and tenderness, perfectly captured by Tsuchiya in her terrific performance. Kiyoha refuses to believe that the women are like goldfish – beautiful only within the glass bowl of the brothel, ugly carps in the wild, never giving up on her desire to escape from Yoshiwara on her own terms.

Ninagawa’s film is the perfect antidote to the appalling, Western view of Japanese women propagated by Rob Marshall’s unfortunate Memoirs of a Geisha (which sadly cast two otherwise talented Chinese actresses in the main roles). Anna Tsuchiya’s spirited performance refuses to pander to a male desire for submissive Asian women. And though popular themes in Japanese cinema abound here – the rebellious teen, the star-crossed lovers, the sense of being trapped within the confines of tradition – Ninagawa creates a world that is all hers, a lavish, alternate reality, full of reds and golds, that delights in an almost sensual pleasure, whether it’s the stunning kimonos or the smooth texture of the women’s skin. Most importantly, she creates a world where Kiyoha discovers that she can make her own rules.

Despite its historical setting, the film insists on being contemporary. The soundtrack by Shiina Ringo flows from jazz to pop to heavy rock, continuing the break from tradition. In one scene, Kiyoha, now the brothel’s oiran, performs the traditional promenade to the sounds of drony, heavy guitar; in another, Kiyoha’s passionate lovemaking ends with a burst into a cabaret tune. The eclectic music adds yet another dimension to the film’s playful punk-rock aesthetic.

Cherry blossoms are a national obsession in Japan. Every spring, weather forecasts track the spread of the blossoms across the country, while people throw endless parties beneath the trees, eating and drinking for hours. Named for these blossoms, Sakuran is a beautifully vibrant film, full of colour and light, and simply gorgeous to watch.

Sarah Cronin




Release date: 29 August 2008

Venue: BFI Southbank, London

Distributor BFI

Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

USA 1973

94 mins

As is the case with Orson Welles, Terrence Malick’s first film is also his best. Indeed, the reclusive director’s 1973 masterpiece can justifiably make a claim to be one of the greatest debuts ever made: by turns frightening, funny and deeply beautiful, there’s very little else like it, as this new print from the BFI proves.

Badlands is a fictionalised account of the 1959 Charlie Starkweather/Caril-Ann Fugate murder spree, and when Malick came to write his script Fugate was still in prison and up for parole, meaning that the 29-year-old director was forced to change their names for his version. Badlands instead presents the story of young rubbish collector Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and his teenage sweetheart Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), who murder Sargis’s father before faking their suicides and lighting out for the badlands of Montana.

Made at the height of summer for little money ($300,000) with a non-union crew, Malick’s script was inspired by great American myths from Tom Sawyer to James Dean. But Malick was also influenced by Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and its reworking of the classic tropes of film noir – the first-person voice-over, the doomed couple on the run (the film is dedicated to Bonnie And Clyde director Arthur Penn). Like Godard, though, Malick sidesteps any of the kind of moral judgements associated with the great films noirs. Unlike its many lesser imitations, this is a movie which is almost startlingly lacking in comment on the violence we are presented with. The strapline on the original movie poster proclaimed ‘in 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people’. We’re forced to do the same, neither identifying with nor being forced to condemn the actions of the lead characters, instead being shown Kit and Holly alongside images from nature, perhaps suggesting that the world is a cruel place and that their crimes are just another product of that cruelty. Certainly that was the conclusion of Bruce Springsteen, the title track of whose 1982 album ‘Nebraska’ was inspired by the film and contained the lyrics ‘they wanted to know why I did what I did/well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world’.

A photo exists of the real Starkweather and Fugate – who killed eleven people over the space of six months across Nebraska and Wyoming – immediately after their capture. They’re both handcuffed, but are grinning into the camera. Badlands presents Sheen and Spacek’s characters as equally remorseless but far more solemn and self-obsessed. Spacek’s character is fixated with the fantasy world of celebrity magazines and there is a sense in which she has been bred to be a passive consumer of images, no matter how disquieting: at one point Carruthers shoots an acquaintance from his garbage truck route in the stomach (Holly: ‘Kit never let on why he shot Cato’) and the couple follow this futile and meaningless act of violence by watching him slowly bleeding to death.

It’s not exactly their fault: this is a world where moral authority is entirely absent from the moment that Holly’s father (Warren Oates) shoots her dog, where the bounty hunters and police who hunt Carruthers and Sirgis do so only for money or personal fame. Living out in the woods in a tree-house before their capture, we see Kit and Holly achieve a kind of innocence, before nature’s savagery forces them to set out again on their journey to the very end of the world.

Pat Long


Man on Wire

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 August 2008

Venues:Curzon Soho & Key Cities

Distributor: Icon

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Annie Allix, Ardis Campbell, Paul McGill, Jim Moore, Philippe Petit

USA/UK 2008

94 mins

Now that enough time has passed for movies about the World Trade Centre to be tinged with nostalgia rather than hysteria or pathos, the first post-post-9/11 movie is an intriguing docu-drama about high-wire walker Philippe Petit, who staged one of the most outrageous stunts in modern urban history. Intercutting between Petit remembering the events now and an actor (Paul McGill) recreating them in the past, Man on Wire tells the story of Petit’s 1974 riveting and illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, 1,300 feet from the ground.

Filmmaker James Marsh seems equally confident making documentaries and dramatised films, having even approached Elvis from both angles: the documentary The Burger and the King and the fiction drama The King with Gael Garcí­Â­a Bernal. However, where his 1999 film Wisconsin Death Trip perfectly mixed drama and documentary, Man on Wire is not quite so successful and it seems like two different films are vying for attention in the same space. The suspense of drama doesn’t quite work here as the scenes of Petit in the present assuage any worry that he might not survive his architectural heist.

That said, it’s easy to see why the director was torn between the two approaches. The real Petit is an affable and engaging character who is obviously perfectly happy to tell his tale one more time while the dramatised Petit is reminiscent of a young Malcolm McDowell, complete with rakish insouciant charm. Both strands of the movie have a lot to offer, even if they don’t quite fit together. The straight-to-camera interviews with Petit and his associates reveal a variety of characters whose lives have irrevocably been changed by the event, mainly on the personal level, as the original gathering of Petit’s ‘team’ both forged and broke friendships. These relationships vary from touching to acerbic in the dramatised part and the film excellently conveys the feeling of lost youth of all these characters, a youth that remains forever crystallised in this news-making event.

The director films the dramatised scenes on a grainier stock with washed-out colours, using this as visual shorthand for a decade marked by the end of hippy subculture. When plot points approach a mythic quality, Marsh treats them like scenes from a fairy tale – the night before the event, shot in high-contrast monochromatic chiaroscuro with unconvincing clouds obscuring our vision, feels like an out-take from a Guy Maddin film – or the rehearsal for a production of The Wizard of Oz. The latter in particular seems to have inspired the sequence in which the real-life Petit moves back and forth from behind a curtain as he relates and re-enacts the incident where he hid from a security guard by following him around a pillar like a character in a 1930s screwball comedy.

Perhaps for American audiences Petit’s stunt is the second most famous thing to have happened to the World Trade Centre – indeed the cover of ‘The New Yorker’ on September 11th 2006 – had a silhouette of Petit on a wire but no buildings or landscape around him; the WTC represented by its absence. For international audiences though, the recreation of the stunt joins a distinguished group of comedies / dramas which use the high-rise building for dramatic potential from Safety Last to Die Hard.

As Petit’s life became defined in retrospect by this one act, we shouldn’t be surprised that the film should only cover it up to that point – but it’s frustrating that the documentary doesn’t tell us what happened next. A coda to his release from brief incarceration sees the tight-rope walker sleep with a fan to celebrate the joy of being alive. We can only speculate as to how the man responsible for this stunning act of aesthetic terrorism lived for the following three decades.

Perhaps this gap in the narrative, which could have been remedied by some on-screen text before the credits rolled, is meant to be as exasperating to the audience as the antics of the man himself were to the authorities at the time. It is, however, another element of the film that prevents it from being a classic. But while the film may be flawed, the combination of aspiration, humanity and courage in Man on Wire make its single iconographic stunt a worthy and welcome alternative to the interminable summer blockbusters that show characters forgettably defying gravity in almost every scene.

Alex Fitch


Ben X

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 August 2008

Venues: Odeon Panton St, Rich Mix, Coronet (London) + key cities

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Nic Balthazar

Writer: Nic Balthazar (from his novel)

Cast: Greg Timmermans, Laura Verlinden, Marijke Pinoy, Pol Goossen

Belgium 2007

93 mins

Ben X may seem like a predictably tragic computer nerd’s coming-of-age story but Nic Balthazar’s debut as a filmmaker is a smart, thoughtful tale about school bullying, mental distress and the social impact of online role-playing games. The ambitious themes are treated with great sensitivity and imaginative power in a tale that is both touching and beguiling, pushing beyond the form and frame of conventional feature-length fiction.

Sharing an apt (and somewhat detached) voice-over narration with other classic studies in teen angst such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Ben X opens with a powerful interweaving of lush 3D game graphics and live action. This, coupled with Ben’s commentary, beckons the audience in with an intriguing premise and then forces them to endure Ben’s painful reality by placing them right inside his head. Ben is affected by Asperger’s Syndrome and therefore is not able to communicate his thoughts properly through speech. He finds it hard to connect with the real world in any normal, straightforward way, making him the perfect target for the cruel games that his stronger classmates like to inflict on him. Incapable of striking back, Ben devises his own survival strategy by completely immersing himself in the 3D universe of ‘Archlord’, a massive multi-player game that allows one player to rise through the ranks to rule the world. His online avatar, Ben X, is as vigorous and brave as Ben’s real persona is introverted and anxious. In this custom-made fantasy world, even his wish for a friend seems to come true when online gamer Scarlite appears. Yet, still she cannot save him from the permanent bullying he faces at school and it looks like tragedy is inevitable.

Revisiting the source material of his own novel-turned-stage-play (based on true events), Balthazar has settled on film as the most suitable medium for the story. A dazzling blend of skilfully rendered computer graphics, punchy editing and impulsive sound makes for some extremely intense and powerful moments, especially at the beginning of the film. However, as the story progresses, leaving Ben with no choice other than to dive back into black despair, the pace decelerates and the final scenes succumb to over-the-top symbolism and pathos.

Ben X suffers most from Balthazar’s attempt to mix the animation and live action with a vérité documentary style. Snatches of interviews with Ben’s parents and friends are interspersed throughout the film, intending to enhance the story but failing to explain what we learn more poignantly through the deeply moving acting and narration. Played with spacey diffidence by Greg Timmermans, Ben never feels too comfortable in front of the camera but it is this very awkwardness that makes his character so endearing.

Despite the melodramatic overload, Ben X is wonderfully compelling whenever it relies on its lush visual and aural landscape. Not only does the semi-animated form allow Balthazar to comment on the desperation caused to young people by the horror of daily bullying in a manner that feels fresh and original, it also offers an astonishing insight into the adolescent mind. As such, Ben X is a film to savour, as soft-spoken, eccentric and smart as its main character and as satisfying in its visual details as it is in its larger intentions.

Pamela Jahn



Format: DVD

Release date: 14 July 2008

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

Titles: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, The Bunker of the Last Gunshots

Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, Gilles Adrien

Cast: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Ron Perlman

France 1991/1995/1981

99/112/26 mins

Before Amélie and before Alien: Resurrection, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had a partnership with designer and comic book artist Marc Caro, which began in 1974 when the pair met at an animation festival. In the early animated shorts they made together, Jeunet was responsible for the camera work and the cast, and Caro would take care of the overall design. Later they went on to make two live action features, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children – arguably Jeunet’s best work – which are now collected in a new box-set from Optimum together with their 1981 short The Bunker of the Last Gunshots.

Delicatessen is the story of Louison (Dominique Pinon), an ex-clown in a post-apocalyptic France who is forced to take a job as a handyman in an apartment building above a butcher’s in exchange for food and lodging. There he meets and falls in love with Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the butcher’s daughter. However, the reason the tenants survive while everyone outside is starving is that the butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is supplying them with ‘long pig’ and next on the menu is filet Louison!

Several critics have argued that the plot of Delicatessen is really just an excuse for the visually stunning and endlessly creative set pieces. This is supported by the theatrical trailer, which only contains the celebrated scene where some squeaky bed springs provide the rhythm for a symphony arising from the activity of each tenant – painting with a roller, playing the cello, inflating a bicycle tyre, etc. However, this is to do an injustice to Jeunet and Caro’s storytelling abilities. In the context of the film, the tenants are trying to drown out the noise of the local tart earning her cut of the meat by satisfying the butcher’s sexual appetite. So while the set pieces are very funny, they’re never gratuitous and each scene is in line with the plot.

Like that other great directing partnership the Coen brothers, Jeunet and Caro use circles as a kind of visual signature for their work. In Delicatessen, it’s bubbles, plug holes and manhole covers. In The City of Lost Children, it’s the bionic eye that Krank (Daniel Emilfork) – the degenerate clone of a mad scientist who must steal children’s dreams in order to live – gives to blind men in exchange for their service as cyclopean child catchers. However, the most important circle to Jeunet and Caro is the circus. Delicatessen‘s clown Pinon returns in Lost Children as the original scientist, playing also seven of his healthy clones. He’s joined by Ron Perlman as a strongman looking for his kidnapped brother and by Delicatessen‘s butcher Dreyfus as an-ex ringmaster who’s lost everything except for his flea circus. Taking the best bits from Oliver!, Annie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and transporting them to a sci-fi future, the film has it all, including incredibly detailed sets, CGI that at the time was pioneering, costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier and a soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti. The performances are great too, with the precocious Judith Vittet as the leader of a gang of orphans being the perfect counterpart to Perlman’s monosyllabic giant.

Both movies have been available as separate DVDs with all the usual extras for a while now. However, the box-set offers the first chance to see Jeunet and Caro’s 26-minute live action short The Bunker of the Last Gunshots. The film focuses on a bunch of soldiers and military scientists who become increasingly paranoid while waiting for the enemy to show up during the last days of a war that could have created the barren world of Delicatessen and Lost Children. This short will be of most interest to fans looking to trace the development of Jeunet and Caro’s style. With no dialogue, there’s already the emphasis on rhythm and the bald bad guys with wires coming out of their heads that characterise their later work. There is also an interesting connection to Aliens: the striking similarity between the external scenes and armoured personnel carrier in Bunker (1981) and the external scenes and armoured personnel carrier in Aliens (1986) makes it possible to speculate that James Cameron may have seen and been influenced by Bunker.

Alexander Pashby


Blackmail is my Life

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 June 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Writer: Kinji Fukasaku

Titles: Blackmail is my Life, Black Rose Mansion, If You Were Young: Rage

Cast: Hiroki Matsukata, Tomomi Sato/Akihiro Miwa, Eitaro Ozawa, Masakazu Tamura/ Tetsuo Ishidate, Gin Maeda

Japan 1968/1969/1970

90/90/89 mins

The Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku is arguably best known in the West for Battle Royale (2000), his controversial depiction of civil unrest which re-imagined Lord of the Flies with high-tech weapons and Nintendo generation teenagers. However, he was also the director of sixty-five features, at once a commercially consistent ‘journeyman’ capable of working within numerous genres for Shochiku Studios, and also a serious social commentator with an acute awareness of the potential perils of post-war Japanese capitalism.

Blackmail is my Life (1968) follows the fortunes of a crew of hustlers who attempt to graduate from small-time extortion scams to taking down the yakuza and corrupt government officials. Although the film embraces the freewheeling spirit of Godard and Richard Lester, whilst also sharing stylistic similarities with the altogether more eccentric work of Seijun Suzuki, Fukasaku’s initially feverish depiction of youthful camaraderie in the age of new money belies a cautionary tone, or as its anti-hero puts it, ‘the prettier something looks on the outside, the more revolting it is on the inside’. This is also an apt description of the heroine of Black Rose Mansion (1969), in which the famed female impersonator Akihiro Miwa portrays a nightclub performer who becomes the star attraction of the titular gentleman’s club, only for her enigmatic presence to lead to tragedy when both her wealthy benefactor and his son fall under her spell. It is a rare excursion into gothic melodrama for the director, but he is not shackled by formal restrictions and indulges in a lurid nightmare sequence and a sitar-infused soundtrack. Less surreal and more socially relevant, If You Were Young: Rage (1970) concerns five low-level workers who pool their resources to purchase a truck and set up a delivery company, but the character flaws imbedded by their poor upbringing sabotage their plans for progression. Fukasaku’s social anger is palpable, yet each character is fully realised to avoid becoming a political mouth-piece, and the truck that they name Independence No. 1 serves as a symbol of the heavy price that can be paid for aspiring to economic freedom.

These films exhibit a vibrant aesthetic sensibility, one that maintains a cinematic coolness that never succumbs to camp or kitsch. Fukasaku frequently uses jump cuts, freeze-frames and colour-coded flashbacks to capture both a nation and a cinematic movement in transition, while scenes often erupt into moments of signature graphic violence, with each film featuring a protracted death, usually the result of a fatal knife wound. Although the influence of the French New Wave is evident, Fukasaku’s work is rarely as self-consciously detached as that of Godard or Truffaut; even the criminals of Blackmail is my Life develop a social conscience and recognise their own shortcomings, while If You Were Young: Rage employs the music of Taku Izumi as a stirring cry for the hopeless fate of the uneducated men who were left neglected by the economic boom. This box set will hopefully extend Western appreciation of the oeuvre of Fukasaku beyond his notorious cinematic swansong.

John Berra



Format: DVD

Release date: 23 July 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Writer: Kazuro Funabashi

Original title: Kuchizuke

Based on: the novel by Matsutarô Kawaguchi

Cast: Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Hitomi Nozoe, Aiko Mimasu, Sachiko Murase

Japan 1957

74 mins

‘In July 1957, Yasuzo Masumura’s Kisses used a free revolving camera to film the young lovers riding around on a motorcycle. I felt now that the tide of a new age could no longer be ignored by anyone, and that a powerful irresistible force had arrived in Japanese cinema.’ These lines were written by Nagisa Oshima in a landmark 1958 essay in which he described the revolution that was taking place in Japanese cinema, initiated two years earlier by the rich wild youth or ‘sun tribe’ (taiyozoku) movie Crazed Fruit, and confirmed by Masumura’s assured first feature. With its cool monochrome, nonchalant protagonist, freshness of tone and naturalistic feel, Kisses has as much to do with European neo-realism as it does with Japanese cinema, and was no doubt influenced by Masumura’s stint as a student at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in the 1950s.

Just as in Oshima’s own Naked Youth (1960), Kisses centres on a young couple in post-war Japan, struggling with their first experiences of love and desire against a background of strict social conventions and difficult economic conditions. This oppressive environment appears literally: Kinichi and Akiko meet in prison where they’re both visiting their fathers, the former’s held for election fraud, the latter’s for embezzling funds in a desperate attempt to find the money to pay for his sick wife’s care. Kinichi and Akiko each need 100,000 yen to pay for bail, and it looks like Akiko may be forced to resort to prostitution. Despite her desperate situation, Akiko bursts with joie de vivre and she and Kinichi spend a blissful, carefree day at the beach, after an unexpected win at a bicycle race.

Kisses is an unaffected, crisp, fresh film, entirely devoid of the perverse pleasures of Masumura’s later films, and yet some of the director’s recurrent themes already surface here. Though social rules weigh the two young characters down, they face the morose repressiveness of the adult world with tremendous reserves of spirited energy. Both Kinichi and Akiko resist expectations and are rebels of a sort, but their revolt is fuelled by youthful exuberance and an irrepressible sense of freedom, rather than by a desire to destroy conventions or transgress boundaries. Akiko prefigures the long line of fascinating female characters to come in Masumura’s work, but without the (self-)destructive edge that marks so many of them. Kinichi describes Akiko as ‘full of life’, saying she ‘loves everything’. And indeed while later Masumura characters give in to more complicated and dangerous desires, Akiko is driven simply by an immense and infectious lust for life.

At the core of the film lies the initiation of Kinichi and Akiko to both love and money, and more specifically to the uneasy relationship between the two in the adult world. This is made particularly clear by Kinichi’s mother, a tough divorcee who will only pay her son attention if he makes himself ‘valuable’ to her. The later-period Masumura surfaces in the initial hardness of the mother, and in the suggestion that love is just another kind of transaction in a world where everything is valued in financial terms. But even she softens up in the end, as Akiko’s lovely spirit wins over. As in Naked Youth, it is the female character who teaches her boyfriend how to love.

An unusually sweet and sober film in Masumura’s oeuvre, Kisses is full of youthful energy and hope, with at its heart characters who believe that they can win against the odds. While Oshima’s films of the period are filled with disillusionment and despair, Kisses celebrates the pleasure of being young, poignantly framed within a difficult social and economic situation.

Virginie Sélavy

By the same director: Irezumi, Manji, Red Angel, Blind Beast.


Spider Forest

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 June 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Il-gon Song

Writer: II-gon Song

Original title: Geomi sup

Cast: Woo-seong Kam, Jung Suh, Kyeong-heon Kang, Hyeong-seong Jang, Byung-ho Song

South Korea 2004

120 mins

The central protagonist of Spider Forest is not the luckiest of souls. When we first encounter Kang Min, he is awakening in the titular forest, having been knocked unconscious, only to wander into a remote cabin where his girlfriend and his boss have been brutally hacked to death. Catching a glimpse of the killer, he is pursued through the woods until he finds himself on a freeway, and is hit by a vehicle, sustaining a head injury that renders him comatose. Spider Forest then balances two time-frames that gradually deconstruct the fractured psyche of Kang Min. Through flashbacks, we learn that he lost his wife in a plane crash, and has embarked on a new relationship with a colleague from the TV station where he serves as the producer of a true-life mystery programme. This is juxtaposed with Kang Min’s return to the Spider Forest to reconstruct the events prior to his accident, and revelations about his own past and its relation to the area.

Writer-director II-gon Song has adopted a determinedly obtuse approach to the psychological thriller genre, and although details of his film will continue to puzzle even the most attentive viewer long after the closing credits, the twist in the tale is obvious from the outset, making Spider Forest a dramatically inert experience, albeit an intriguing and atmospheric one. Non-linear narratives and distorted memories have become favoured cinematic approaches and subjects in recent years, and Spider Forest shares similarities with David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr in its juggling of the real and the imagined. The relationship between Kang Min and the sympathetic police detective who wants to believe that the obvious murder suspect is actually the victim of an elaborate corporate set-up, is reminiscent of the bond that develops between the disfigured playboy of Alexander Amenabar’s Abre los ojos and his fatherly psychiatrist, although Song’s film is too preoccupied with its own form of symbolic logic to properly develop any palpable character dynamics or emotive undercurrents.

Ultimately, Spider Forest lacks the narrative momentum of those earlier films, succeeding more as a series of strangely unsettling moments. Kang Min grinning perversely when he cuts his mouth on a whisky glass whilst drowning his sorrows, or his wife miming the eating of an apple as she makes herbal tea are scenes that linger longer than the themes of memory and personal loss, or the explicit blood-letting of the final reel. Woo-seong Kam is oddly emphatic in the lead role, but of the supporting characters, only Kang Min’s stone-faced boss registers, delivering such business maxims as ‘If the sword is too short, you lunge’ and ‘If things are tough, double your efforts’ as he simultaneously performs sexual acts and munches on fresh fruit. Those who become entangled in Spider Forest may struggle with its sedate pacing and overly interpretive conclusion, yet the beautifully photographed opening and closing scenes, and a haunting score that is reminiscent of Mychael Danna’s music for the films of Atom Egoyan, lend the film a dreamlike quality that is far removed from most Asia Extreme offerings.

John Berra


Eden Log

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 July 2008

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Franck Vestiel

Writers: Franck Vestiel and Pierre Bordage

Cast: Clovis Cornillac, Vimala Pons

France 2007

98 mins

As soon as the epigraph that opens Eden Log appears on the screen, ‘So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden to serve the ground from which he had been taken’ [Genesis 3.23.], you know that you’re in for a sci-fi movie with metaphysical pretensions along the lines of Cube.

Clovis Cornillac plays a man who wakes up naked in a cave with no idea of who he is or how he got there. Climbing out of the cave, he finds the entrance to a plantation where an automated orientation video tells him that if he wants to be admitted to paradise, he must tend to the tree (the Tree of Knowledge? the Tree of Life?) growing in the centre of the plantation. The video goes on to say that the tree’s sap is the source of enough energy to power a city. Not only that, but the sap makes the workers mining it down in the caves impervious to pain and fatigue. But where are all these workers? Unfortunately for Cornillac’s character, what’s really going on is that the tree absorbs energy from the workers by plunging its roots into them and if that doesn’t annihilate them, the sap turns them into mutants with a taste for human flesh.

Through this highly metaphorical plot, writer-director Franck Vestiel could be referring to organised religion as a system of control, or – as it’s later revealed that the workers are immigrants – he could be making a comment on the political expedience of crusades such as the war on terrorism. However, the religious/political references don’t really stand up to close scrutiny and the film is best enjoyed if they are just interpreted as an excuse for an atmospheric escape movie.

Atmospheric, but not exactly original. Fully aware of the history of the genre, Vestiel foregrounds his influences: the elevators used to take up the dead bodies that have been discarded by the tree like spent batteries are translucent cubes. But the film that Eden Log owes most too is Alien. There’s an Alien homage early on when Cornillac’s character finds a technician being eaten alive stuck to a wall. Endless corridors and hanging ducts represent the roots of the tree instead of the guts of a spaceship. Instead of stomachs bursting out, they are burst into by the tree’s roots. Like Ridley Scott, Vestiel relies on dimly lit, highly detailed sets to create atmosphere. Refreshingly, there’s no CGI in sight until the very last scene.

Because almost all the dialogue comes from the video recordings that Cornillac’s character encounters along the way, the DVD is able to boast both a French and an English version of the film. It seems like a great idea, allowing Vestiel to double his audience. However, it doesn’t quite work as not enough attention has been paid to the dubbing of the little dialogue that Cornillac does have, so you’re still better off watching the movie in French with English subtitles.

Alexander Pashby