Van Diemen’s Land

Van Diemen's Land

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 May 2010

Distributor: High Fliers

Director: Jonathan auf der Heide

Writers: Jonathan auf der Heide, Oscar Redding

Cast: Oscar Redding, Arthur Angel, Paul Ashcroft, Mark Leonard Winter

Australia 2009

104 mins

Jonathan auf der Heide’s gritty, gristly drama Van Diemen’s Land follows the travails of a group of escaped convicts in the remotest area of Australia in 1822. With its majestic but grim location photography and brooding, mystic voice-over (our narrator is prone to mystic utterances like ‘I am blood’), this is somewhat akin to one of Herzog’s tales of wilderness survival, or its opposite.

Initially, it is hard to get to know the characters - eight mostly bearded and unwashed ruffians in prison garb - but we’re helped by the fact that the cast of characters is steadily dwindling throughout as they are forced to resort to cannibalism. With no recognisable star faces, and a unified acting approach (gruff and sweary), the filmmakers rely on physiognomy and dialect to distinguish the characters, which partially works. Some sympathy is created (mainly for the characters who tell the best jokes), so that who is next for the pot does becomes a matter of at least mild viewer interest.

With such subject matter the prospects of a happy ending are slight, but the whole tone of the film has prepared us for that. In fact, one of the film’s greatest strengths, its brooding, relentless plod forwards, is also potentially a weakness: from the darkly jangling music to the darkly overhanging arboreal environment, there’s little opportunity for tonal variation - except in some truly black humour, provided by the traumatised characters rather than by filmmaking wit.

Ellery Ryan’s cinematography, with every lambent shot speaking of the hard physical effort it must have taken to capture these scenes, is the film’s strongest point, striking a balance between the impressionist wash of light through branches, on rushing water, through smoke, and the rough tactile qualities of dirty skin and unwashed hair, mud and bark and stone. It all has an impressive ‘you are here’ quality. The dialogue is sometimes less sure-footed, with anachronistic-sounding expressions like ‘OK’ and ‘no fucking way’ breaking through some generally convincing regional dialects and harsh profanity.

Besides being a persistent visual feast, in its dour way, the movie scores in its sensitive handling of the unpleasant business of cannibalism. Neither squeamishly coy nor gloatingly visceral, the treatment of most of the characters’ eventual fates manages to show enough to appear quite frank, while making it seem as if we’re catching most of the more gory details by accident. An arm is placed in a sack, and it feels like we weren’t supposed to see. The violence is certainly intense, and quick except when it goes wrong. Realism doesn’t become an excuse for splatter excess.

In the end, the escape attempt doesn’t seem to have had much point, and it’s not absolutely certain that the film does, in narrative terms at least. But in its evocation of a bleak, hostile environment in which even the meanest cannot eke out an existence, it packs a bloody punch.

David Cairns

The Temptation of St Tony

The Temptation of St Tony

Format: DVD Region 1

Release date: 25 January 2011

Distributor: Olive Films

Director: Veiko &#213unpuu

Writer: Veiko &#213unpuu

Original title: Püha T&#245nu kiusamine

Cast: Taavi Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Tauraite, Sten Ljunggren, Denis Lavant

Estonia 2009

110 mins

The Temptation of St Tony website

It needs to be said that Tony (Taavi Eelmaa) is not an angel. Tony exhibits rarely the defenceless qualities that other characters see as angelic traits, and only then does he do so to highlight the abject emotional poverty of the people he is surrounded by. In every other instance Tony is as cold as the world around him, lacking the iconic properties of sainthood or martyrdom. Tony is unmoving, and unmoved by his immediate landscape. Tony’s outbursts - such as they are - are tiny compared to the scale of atrocity heaped upon the earth. Tony is swimming in big themes, big metaphors, but doesn’t have the power to react to them himself. Tony is not where the audience can find themselves. Tony is a role played onscreen.

The ordeals are unevenly distributed among five parts. They may see Tony’s father buried, his wife cheating on him, his spirituality shaken, his workers sacked, his mistress abused, his car hit a dog, his life threatened. They may not. It is unclear how these intersect with the surreality of a pastor possessed, Satan’s private club The Golden Age, the ritualised slaughter and devouring of whores. The symbolism is heaped, it doth overflow, it bludgeons the viewer about the head with the words INTERPRET ME until five parts seem like five thousand.

Tony’s landscape is a panorama of depression. Empty vistas filled with negative space swamp the screen in shades of grey of cinematographer Mart Taniel’s vision, drowning every character, isolating them among loved ones. Where there are buildings there are no trees; where there is nature it is permitted no beauty. It is a caricature of the contemporary suburban landscape, wet with mud, striking but grotesque. When scenes end, fading to white or black, the characters are literally swallowed by this bleak world - you may find yourself hoping that when the sequences fade back in they are no longer alive to live through the ceaseless horror of existence. Yes, the threat of unburied bodies lies in every frame, but that certainty becomes one of the film’s only redeeming qualities.

There are, in the first act, glimmers of a world without hate, cast into darkness by bystanders who say things like ‘A life isn’t worth a shit’. After that the metaphysical evisceration of love, marriage, religion and glamour is superseded by the physical evisceration of Nadezhda (Ravshana Kurkova), the only person that represents escape. She is the closest to human that any character comes in the film, allowed to portray a grand total of two emotional traits - the sadness of a doting and loyal daughter and the feistiness of a whore - while lacking the agency to do anything but submit to the darkness of her circumstances.

The Temptation of St Tony leaves the viewer desolate, inconsolate, incredulous. There remains, throughout, a distinct lack of temptation, no moment of promise or redemption, no sense that Tony has any say in his destiny. Instead the slow crawl to its brutal, silent finale is crushing and depressing. The world the film inhabits is, in its totality, entirely shit and the viewer has no reason to believe otherwise. Its desired effect is to upset, but it lacks the emotional traction for that; instead the viewer is moved only if they project their feelings about lust, hate and horror onto the screen. You come to despise the film as object, not the content.

Matthew Sheret

The Temptation of St Tony will be released on Region 1 DVD by Olive Films on 25 January 2011. More information at Olive Films and on the The Temptation of St Tony website.

Film writing competition: Battle Royale

Battle Royale

Electric Sheep Film Club

Venue: Prince Charles Cinema, London

Every second Wednesday of the month

The winner of our April film writing competition, run in connection with the Electric Sheep monthly film club at the Prince Charles Cinema, is Adam Powell. Our judge was John Berra, editor of Directory of World Cinema: Japan. This is what John said:

Battle Royale was burdened by the ‘Asia Extreme’ banner when it was released in 2000, but more recent discussion of Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial cinematic swansong has focused on its underlying social commentary, which considers the ‘collapsed class’ syndrome that is affecting the Japanese education system and the cut-throat world that awaits students upon graduation. The reviews submitted for this competition strived to place the horrific imagery into social-political context, carefully considering this aesthetically visceral and culturally complex film from a variety of perspectives. Adam Powell’s winning review references many of the most graphic moments of Battle Royale as a means of illustrating Fukusaku’s critical stance towards both the modern media and the almost sacrificial manner in which young people are sent to war by their government, while identifying some of the elements that make the film a uniquely Japanese experience.

Here’s Adam Powell’s review:

A scrum of outstretched microphones and flashbulbs attempt to reach an almost idyllic lone infant sat soiled by endless flecks of blood. A hysterical media satire, Battle Royale plays out like a dystopian Japanese game show where the grizzly body count is confirmed constantly through a subtitled scoreboard. Japan’s favourite game show host Takeshi Kitano even oversees the bloodbath, appearing as himself by way of the morose and scorned sensei of the supposedly delinquent children. The school kids are dispatched by government order, screaming and tearful in their prim uniforms to do battle on an island where waves collide against the rocks and fog streams across empty landscapes like a warzone. The children die as soldiers among rapturous gun fire, crossbows, swinging axes, sickles and samurai swords. A fable for history’s children of war, it wallows in the bitterness of its graphic executions and suicides with a romantic and lushly melancholic classical score. A boy’s decapitated head is thrown mouth stuffed with grenade, a pretty schoolgirl repeatedly stabs a randy classmate through his genitals, playground confrontations become terminal and one boy learns of justice and honour in a senseless situation. As Kitano says, ‘Life is a battle, so fight hard for survival!’

Next screening: Wednesday 12 May – Midnight Cowboy + Q&A with London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival programmer Emma Smart. More details on our events page.