Format: Cinema

Date: 29 January 2010

Venues: ICA Cinema and key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Entertainment

Director: Yang Ik-joon

Writer: Yang Ik-joon

Original title: Ddongpari

Cast: Yang Ik-joon, Kim Kot-bi, Jeong Man-shik

South Korea 2009

130 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer.

In Yang Ik-joon’s stupefying Breathless (Ddongpari), gangsters are only marginally more violent than wife-beaters and equally as contemptible. There is nothing glamorous about the outlaws who inhabit the directorial debut of South Korean actor Yang, or about the astounding ultra-violence that punctuates the film. The main character, the psychotic Sang-hoon, and the boys under his command work in parasitic packs, intimidating and beating up unfortunate people because it is the only life they know.

These low-level thugs are an exaggerated version of the men of South Korea, the casual brutality required in their line of work a heightened form of generalised patriarchal abuse. As Sang-hoon says while pounding a wife-batterer: ‘Fathers in this country’s all fucked up. They’re pathetic fucks but when it comes to family, they’re Kim Il-sung.’ The film presents an uncompromising view of a society where the most primitive law of the jungle prevails: fathers hit their wives and children, brothers bully their sisters, men beat up young boys. Although sons may sometimes rebel against the fathers’ rule, they inevitably end up perpetuating the cycle of violence as adults: Sang-hoon, having witnessed the killing of his sister by his father as a child, has become a vicious debt collector for whom violence is the only mode of social and personal interaction. All relationships are exclusively defined by who takes the beating and who gives it, although these roles regularly rotate, as Sang-hoon observes: ‘The fucker who does the beating thinks he’ll never get beat up. But there comes a day when even that fucker gets a beat down.’

And yet, when Sang-hoon meets tough schoolgirl Yeon-hue, it seems that there might be hope of breaking out of this pattern. Their encounter is shockingly unsentimental, disturbing and funny in equal measures; as the spirited Yeon-hue, although clearly physically weaker, will not let Sang-hoon get away with his usual thuggish behaviour, an unlikely relationship develops between them. Both isolated misfits in their own way, they take tentative steps towards each other, always modulated by diffidence and wariness, their spiky verbal duelling hiding their vulnerabilities and traumas until it slowly gives way to something a little gentler, although the most important things are left unsaid.

This achingly fragile relationship and their hesitant, small gestures are one of the film’s pleasures and relieve the unrelenting bleakness of the world depicted. Yeon-hue is a great female creation, sassy and strong, but profoundly real as, weighed down by familial pressures, she tries to find her own path of resistance against patriarchal law. Sang-hoon, played by Yang himself, is a phenomenal achievement and Yang entirely succeeds in eliciting sympathy for a callous, morally compromised man prone to horrifying acts of aggression. Despite its subject matter and harrowing scenes, Breathless is never depressing, partly because it is infused with the fervent energy of a deeply felt anger, partly because the encounter of Yeon-hue and Sang-hoon offers a glimpse of hope, as the two brutalised characters begin to re-invent a different type of relationship. Breathless is a lot more than a film about domestic violence in South Korea: it is no issue movie, but a profoundly singular, devastatingly powerful, intensely personal vision of both the explicit and hidden violence underlying social and familial relationships.

Tina Park

Read Pamela Jahn’s interview with Yang Ik-joon in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with The Road director John Hillcoat, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!

The Road

The Road

Format: Cinema

Date: 8 January 2010

Venues: Vue West End + nationwide

Distributor: Icon

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Joe Penhall

Based on the novel by: Cormac McCarthy

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron

USA 2009

111 mins

A post-apocalyptic landscape is not exactly a road less travelled when it comes to storytelling and is, indeed, a staple setting of the science fiction and fantasy genre, from classic novels (such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and HG Wells’s Things to Come) through cinema (from Mad Max to the I Am Legend variants, based on Richard Matheson’s novella) and more recently video games (the Fallout series) and comic books (such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead). But whereas many of these tales are adventure stories, John Hillcoat’s big screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road is as faithful in its dramatic bleakness to acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) bestseller as it can be.

And yet despite being set in a world without hope, The Road is far from a forlorn experience, thanks in main to an engrossing narrative, which thankfully disregards the usual spectacular trappings of Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic special effects (think the visually stunning but emotionally barren The Day after Tomorrow) to concentrate on the characters, which is supported by captivating performances from the principal cast. Viggo Mortensen and moppet newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee are exceptional as the father and son survivors wandering the desolate landscape of a world devastated by fire and earthquakes. Widely unknown before the Lord of the Rings films despite a lengthy filmography, Mortensen has quickly become one of America’s greatest contemporary acting talents and his emotionally restrained style is well suited to the role of a father who will do anything to ensure the safety of his 10-year-old angel.

Despite having less screen time than Mortensen, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall put in equally memorable performances, as Mortensen’s ill-fated wife and a wizened old man that father and son come across on their travels respectively, showing just why they are such well respected actors. Guy Pearce, reuniting with Hillcoat after their turns on Aussie Western The Proposition, and Michael K Williams (Omar in TV’s The Wire) make notable cameos and round off the better-known names in the cast.

One criticism you could level at the film is that it features a score written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (another Hillcoat reunion from the Proposition days). While in itself this is no bad thing - the music is predictably wonderful - it tends to undermine the realism of the film. Perhaps this is something of a moot point, after all the film is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, but then again maybe no score at all would have better suited the film’s downbeat story.

While many films of this type offer some glimmer of hope, The Road is perhaps more realistic (or should that be nihilistic?) in its harrowing depiction of a cataclysmic future (mirrored by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s gloomy visuals, which are bereft of all but the most minimalist colour). Humanity has been reduced to its basest level, scavenging, looting, raping, killing and, in some cases (as illustrated in the film’s most disturbing scenes), feeding on each other. And yet within the darkness lies an irresistible sliver of light, found in the boy’s innocence, the father’s resolute attitude and their few acts of decency.

Perhaps humanity can be saved after all…

Toby Weidmann

Read our interview with John Hillcoat in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!

A Prophet

A Prophet

Format: Cinema

Date: 22 January 2010

Venues: Curzon Soho, Odeon Covent Garden (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Jacques Audiard

Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit

Original title: Un prophí¨te

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif

France 2009

149 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer.

Following up his gripping and much praised drama The Beat that My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arríªté, 2005), Jacques Audiard’s latest effort feels almost like a continuation of that film in many respects. In A Prophet (Un prophí¨te), we are in dark territory again as the writer-director dives into the murky pool of the Gallic underworld once more when youngster Malik El Djebena (played by newcomer Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to a six-year stint in prison and soon becomes embroiled in the gang culture and petty intricacies that preside. The young Arab is forced to align with a Corsican gang, led by César Luciani (a disquieting performance by the ever-excellent Niels Arestrup), and although initially treated with little more than contempt by them, finds himself rising up the ranks through a series of often violent acts.

Arestrup reprises the ambiguous fatherly role, part ogre, part mentor, that he was already filling in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, while Rahim plays Malik with the same sort of nervous intensity Romain Duris brought to the character of Thomas Seyr in the same film. The score by Alexandre Desplat recalls the subtle strains underlining Thomas’s struggle to better himself that the composer had concocted for The Beat. Audiard’s interest in exclusively male environments, evident in the rest of his work, is here exacerbated by the prison setting. Just like Thomas in The Beat, Malik is caught between two worlds, this time defined by racial and ethnic ties rather than familial ones, and succeeds in negotiating his own, individual path between them.

Perhaps it is the familiarity of the theme and of its treatment that lessens the impact of what is otherwise an excellent film. Yet, to be fair to Audiard, the elements that are specific to A Prophet very much matter, especially when considering the climate of racial tension in France. While A Prophet charts a transfer of power from a father figure to the son, from the older generation to the younger, as in The Beat, this time it is also about the victory of an intelligent young Arab over the racist Corsican thugs who despised and mistreated him. And where The Beat deliberately presented a very unglamorous view of the underworld, A Prophet is entirely accepting of Malik’s various criminal activities. In fact, incarceration, although harsh, is paradoxically what gives Malik the opportunities he never had outside as an isolated, illiterate young man with no family and no possessions: opportunities to learn, grow, become someone (even if that’s the leader of a criminal gang) and create ties with the Arab community.

Those who have yet to be captivated by the prodigious talents of the director may find this film a somewhat challenging introduction - there’s certainly more warmth and originality in The Beat that My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips (Sur mes lí¨vres, 2001) - and at a bum-numbing 149 minutes this sprawling gangster saga is not for those with an MTV attention span. However, there’s a reason why it was so acclaimed at both the Cannes and London Film Festivals (at the latter, it won The Star of London Best Film award): its gritty, realistic portrayal of life within the brutal corridors of prison is thoroughly riveting and makes another impressive addition to Audiard’s growing filmography.

Toby Weidmann & Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Date: 25 January 2010

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Writers: Chigumi Obayashi, Chiho Katsura

Original title: Hausu

Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yôko Minamida, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo

Japan 1977

88 mins

Midnight Movies present a pecial screening of House on 22 January at Curzon Soho, London.

Scroll down to watch the trailer.

There must have been something in the air in 1977: horror and surrealism combined to make some of the world’s most interesting schlock movies, which launched the careers of seminal directors who would define the decade to come. Alongside the more obscure House, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and David Cronenberg’s Rabid were released in cinemas that year. Cronenberg and Lynch had previously made short experimental films, as had Nobuhiko Obayashi. Rabid was Cronenberg’s second feature, but his first to have reasonable international distribution and therefore influence, while Suspiria is possibly Argento’s finest, expertly fusing an experimental approach to lighting, camera design and score, rarely seen in European cinema. Certainly, B-movies were big business in the late 1970s, due to audience dissatisfaction with mainstream releases, and wide demand for horror, sci-fi and fantasy meant there was room for all sorts of expressions of those genres.

The plot of House has the kind of lurid fairy tale scenario that Asian cinema does well: a petulant Japanese teenager refuses to spend her holiday with her father and his new girlfriend and tracks down a long-lost aunt who lives reclusively in the woods with only a white cat for company. The girl brings along some friends from school for the visit and they get killed one by one as the house and its environs devour them in increasingly bizarre ways.

From the point of view of a modern audience, House seems both strange and familiar. The super-saturated colour and kitsch style of the film predicts the oeuvre of Tetsuya Nakashima (Memories of Matsuko). The bizarre shifts in tone between comedy, horror and teenage romance seem so similar to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films that I’d be fascinated to know whether Raimi came across House while at film school - he made his first short Within the Woods in 1978, which would be remade as Evil Dead and Evil Dead II in the following decade.

In terms of Japanese fantasy, the film is clearly influenced by the possessed animals and demonic flying severed heads of Yôkai fiction, the restless spirits of folkloric Kwaidan tales and the notion of the well as an entrance to hell. Obayashi takes these tropes and mixes them with a fetish for 1970s pop culture: the characters’ nicknames reflect both the contemporaneous popularity of Enid Blyton-style tweenage fiction and brand names in the increasingly pervasive advertising of the time - indeed the director himself, outside of experimenta, gained a reputation for slick adverts starring Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson.

The score is relentless, repeating a catchy but ultimately annoying musical phrase that sounds like an instrumental version of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ (a song allegedly not about inhaling marijuana). Its repetition is obviously intended to heighten the audience’s unnerved reaction to the lurid events on screen, but actually made me glad to be watching the film at home with a volume control. However, the startling visuals - memorable scenes include one of the girls being eaten by a piano and another spontaneously combusting while looking in a mirror - make up for the score and the often saccharine dialogue. As in many horror films, the audience enjoys the guilty pleasure of watching banal teenagers get dispatched in increasingly inventive ways by the forces of evil. Adding to the visual delights, the spectacle of possessed household objects used as unlikely tools of execution is complemented by the exaggerated deployment of over-saturated Matte paintings as backgrounds to many of the scenes.

House is another great example of late 1970s horror, which, like its peers, pushed the boundaries of the depiction of terror on screen and reveals the interest in the language of experimental filmmaking in genre and mainstream cinema of the time.

Alex Fitch

Midnight Movies present a pecial screening of House on 22 January at Curzon Soho, London.

Buy House [Hausu] Masters of Cinema [DVD] [1977] from Amazon



Format: DVD

Date: 25 January 2010

Distributor: BFI Flipside

Director: Peter Watkins

Writers: Norman Bognor, Peter Watkins, Johnny Speight

Cast: Paul Jones, Jean Shrimpton

UK 1967

90 mins

Following the success of his television docu-drama Culloden (1964) and a surprise Oscar for the BBC-banned The War Game (1965), director Peter Watkins resigned from the corporation and went to Universal Studios to make his debut feature Privilege. Shot in the same docu-drama style complete with BBC-style narration, it was almost universally panned on release and has rarely been seen since.

With the former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones and supermodel Jean Shrimpton in the cast, it seems that Universal thought they would be getting a marketable ‘Swinging London’ film. Instead, Watkins set his film in a dystopian future as in The War Game; the post-nuclear panic of the earlier film is replaced with a world of terrifying conformity where Conservative and Labour parties have formed a coalition government and youth rebellion is channelled through pop performances. Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is the king of pop: his songs constantly play on all radio stations and he is even treated to Britain’s first ever ticker tape parade. His bizarre stage act involves being beaten by prison guards before breaking free, inciting the crowd into pantomime booing and hysterical stage invasions. As well as calming unruly youth, Shorter’s popularity is used to sell dog food and tackle the nation’s apple glut. It seems he has become a commodity himself - one ad claims: ‘When you buy here you’re buying Steven Shorter’. This empty personality is perfectly embodied by Paul Jones’s performance of studied blandness, which drew much criticism at the time. He seems ill at ease and/or bored, and at times looks like he is about to vomit, but no one seems to care. He is a poor overworked pop star, with Vanessa (Shrimpton), an artist hired to paint him, being the only one with any sympathy. His management makes plans for him to promote religion and nationalism amongst his fans. ‘A better way of life, a fruitful conformity’ is to be endorsed. That this is done without consulting him leads to an act of defiance (asking for hot chocolate instead of wine with his lobster).

Perhaps the highlight of the film is the music, with great original songs by Mike Leander (the man who later gave us Gary Glitter), from the pleading melodrama of ‘Privilege (Set Me Free)’ - famously covered by Patti Smith on her album ‘Easter’ - to Paul Jones’s poppy top 5 hit ‘I’ve been a bad, bad boy’. But best of all are the ‘hymns’ played by Shorter’s backing band, The Runner Beans, sporting tonsures and monks’ habits (not to be confused with the American GI band The Monks): we get a raucous rhythm and blues version of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and a gorgeous Byrds-esque ‘Jerusalem’.

Although Privilege is a fascinating and unusual film in some aspects, the allegory is often too heavy-handed (the chanting ‘We Will Conform’ and Nazi salutes albeit with Union Jack armbands). But its greatest flaw is that it fails to capture the way music and rebellion were being commodified and sold at that time and would be in the future too. Peter Watkins admits to knowing very little about the music industry when he made Privilege, picking up what he could from watching the documentary about American teen idol Paul Anka, Lonely Boy (1962). Where the narration in Culloden is informative about the economic and social structures behind the historical battle, in Privilege it fails to shed light on the workings of the music business in the way a film such as, say, DA Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1965) does. Unlike the disturbingly realistic The War Game, Privilege is convincing neither on a documentary nor dramatic level. And where The War Game and Culloden stand as two of the most distinctive pieces of television, Privilege holds a less exalted position in the history of cinema.

Paul Huckerby

Buy Privilege [BFI FLIPSIDE 007] [DVD] [1971] from Amazon

I’m Gonna Explode

Voy a explotar

Format: Cinema

Date: 1 January 2010

Venues: Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Gerardo Naranjo

Writer: Gerardo Naranjo

Original title: Voy a explotar

Cast: Juan Pablo de Santiago, Maria Deschamps

Mexico 2008

106 mins

Gerardo Naranjo’s third feature, I’m Gonna Explode (Voy a explotar) is an infectious, stylish take on the classic theme of young lovers on the run. Roman (Juan Pablo de Santiago) is the son of a congressman with a penchant for murderous fantasies; kicked out of his private school after his incriminating diary is discovered, he winds up at the same middle-class high school as Maru (Maria Deschamps). She’s bored and detached, desperately looking for some kind of meaning in her seemingly pointless life. The connection between them is instantaneous, and they quickly decide to run away together; in Maru’s words, spoken in a voice-over, ‘Two kids disappear, and it’s an adventure’. While they dream about going to Mexico City, their rebellious, yet quaintly domestic fantasy is played out much closer to home, where they can keep a mischievous eye on their concerned parents.

Maru and Roman’s rebellion has a childlike quality to it; they’re caught up in the excitement of skipping school, not answering to authority, getting drunk on tequila and wine. But also mixed up in their new-found freedom is the flush of first love, and a growing awareness of their sexuality as their platonic friendship evolves into something much more intense. The film is scattered with beautiful, wordless moments that capture their feelings for each other: in one perfect shot the camera rests on Maru’s face as she stares intently at Roman, a subtle half-smile on her face hinting at her desire.

Maru’s thoughts, voiced in her diary, reveal her belief that they were destined to meet; that finding a twin in Roman has given her something to live for. But Roman is less idealistic, more narcissistic, with a desperate edge that she lacks. As their parents and the police inch closer to finding them, he’s forced to reconcile his feelings for her with his own instincts for self-preservation. Ultimately, a childish obsession with guns and an inability to know when to stop running lead to a devastating chain of events that shatters their naí¯ve pursuit of freedom.

Naranjo, who studied film at the American Film Institute alongside another rising talent, Azazel Jacobs, whose Momma’s Man was released in May, lovingly pays tribute to the films that helped inspire I’m Gonna Explode. There’s an unmistakeable fondness for the aesthetics of the nouvelle vague, with Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) an obvious inspiration, while the composer Georges Delerue’s music from Le Mépris (1963) also features on the eclectic soundtrack (along with bands like Interpol). And as the bond between Maru and Roman grows deeper, Tobias Datum, the director of photography, borrows a few iconic shots from Badlands (1973), his camera lingering on close-ups of blue sky and wild flowers, reflections on the fleeting beauty of young love.

I’m Gonna Explode is a beguiling, yet tragic love story, told with a very modern, pop sensibility. While the film is a little rough around the edges (the handling of the plot is a little clumsy at times), it marks Naranjo out as a unique filmmaker in the Mexican new wave.

Sarah Cronin