Essential Killing

Essential Killing

Format: Cinema

Screening at: the opening night of Kinoteka on 24 March 2011

Venue: Renoir Cinema, London

UK release date: 1 April 2011

Venues: tbc

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Writers: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska

Cast: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner

Poland/Hungary/Ireland/Norway 2010

83 mins

Frustrated with lack of control over his work, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski had abandoned filmmaking for 17 years, dedicating himself to painting instead, until he returned in 2008 with the intimate psychological thriller Four Nights with Anna. He has followed this up with Essential Killing, a more ambitious film in scope and theme that echoes his career-long interest in outsiders, and in the struggle of the individual against oppressive forces.

Essential Killing opens the 9th Kinoteka Festival of Polish Cinema on March 24 at the Renoir in London. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Jerzy Skolimowski. For more details, go to the Kinoteka website.

Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, Essential Killing opens as he attacks American soldiers and is captured among barren mountains. After a brief depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in a flimsy orange boiler suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like.

Despite the initial politically charged prison scenes, Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Although the orange boiler suits and the torture scenes of the beginning are highly recognisable, the film gives no further indications of place and time, and the identity of Gallo’s fighter is purposefully left undefined. There are memories of prayers and preaching, and a woman in a blue burqa with a baby, but nothing can be established from these fragmentary images, which, as we find out later, come not just from the past, but also from the future. As Gallo’s motivations are never elucidated, the film leads us to relate to him simply as a man, whatever he may be.

The film is virtually dialogue-free and events and emotions are conveyed almost exclusively through the images. After Gallo’s capture, he is interrogated by his American captors, but no amount of shouting via a translator can get him to answer their questions - not because he is unwilling, but simply because he can’t, for a reason the Americans have not even thought of. This is a great detail that is part of the film’s thought-provoking exploration of various forms of non-verbal communication, one of its central concerns.

Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed.

Essential Killing is released in UK cinemas on April 1. Read our interview with Jerzy Skolimowski next month.

Virginie Sélavy

Larks on a String

Larks on a String
Larks on a String

Format: DVD

Part of The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Vollume II DVD box-set

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jiří Menzel

Writers: Bohumil Hrabal, Jiří Menzel

Original title: Skřivánci na niti

Cast: Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlasimil Bfodský, Václav Neckář, Jitka Zelenohorská

Czechoslovakia 1969

94 mins

Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation.

Those who know Jiří Menzel from his Oscar-winning debut feature Closely Observed Trains (1966) may find Larks on a String (1969) disappointing. Unlike the earlier film, Larks is in colour, but this attribute only serves to accentuate the ugliness of the film’s drab and bleak setting: a scrap metal yard in 1940s Czechoslovakia. Here, hard labour is the means of re-educating opponents of the new communist regime: a group of female prisoners who attempted to defect to the West, and a collection of men who are guilty of middle-class origins. Happily, Larks is a comedy, and so not entirely as oppressive as it sounds.

There are two types of humour in the film: political satire and romantic comedy. The satire would be more enjoyable if it were not so direct. In The Party and the Guests (1966), for example, Jan Nemec created a metaphor for authoritarianism in a party where the guests were implicitly forbidden to leave. In this abstract context, it was easy to identify and condemn the hypocrisy of the host and the guests who tried to win his favour. Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation: despite the prisoners’ attempts to identify and laugh at the absurdity of their situation, the ultimate power of the authorities to control their lives makes the film more tragic than comic. This is particularly so because the film focuses mainly on the prisoners: the villains in power make occasional appearances, and so can only be occasionally mocked.

The two-stranded romantic comedy is by far the most winning element of the film. Angel, the soft-hearted guard in charge of the female prisoners, marries a young Roma girl named Terezka. Her difficulties in adapting to married life, and particularly to a fixed abode, make for some enjoyably playful scenes. There is also a romance between two prisoners, Pavel and Jitka. As the male and female prisoners are supposed to be kept strictly separate, their relationship calls for ingenuity. The underlying faith in the determination of the individual spirit brings a much-needed element of optimism to the film.

Second Run’s release comes with liner notes by leading academic Peter Hames. Although his essay at times feels like a barrage of information, it usefully outlines the numerous collaborations between Menzel and writer Bohumil Hrabal: Larks was based on one of Hrabal’s short story collections of the same name. There is also a brief contribution from Jaromír Šofr, the film’s cinematographer. He explains the impact of censorship on Larks, which was ultimately banned after the Warsaw Pact invasion brought the Prague Spring to an end. Larks was not released until 1990, when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Best of all, the DVD includes an extra feature: a short video piece by Menzel himself, specially made for this release, where the director talks about Larks, communism and film in general.

This review refers to the original DVD release of the film by Second Run in 2011. The special features are the same as included on the new box-set edition. For a full list of extra contents, visit the Second Run website.

Alison Frank

The Beyond

The Beyond

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci

Original title: E tu vivrai nel terrore – L’aldilí 

Cast: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

Italy 1981

87 mins

Among fans of graphic, visceral horror, there are few names as highly regarded as that of Lucio Fulci. Thirteen years after his death, Fulci is still considered one of Europe’s most important purveyors of cinematic terror and his greatest films are regular fixtures in fans’ and critics’ best-of lists. In a career that spanned nearly half a century, Fulci directed more than 50 feature films as well as a number of documentaries and had countless credits as screenwriter, producer, assistant director and special effects technician. His extensive filmography includes a variety of different genres, from comedies, musicals and Westerns to historical dramas and soft-core erotica. Although his efforts in these fields were occasionally excellent, Fulci’s best (and best-known) work was in the horror genre. It is there that he made his lasting contributions to international cult cinema.

The pinnacle of Fulci’s career came in 1981 with the release of The Beyond. The second part of a conceptually linked trilogy that includes City of the Living Dead (1980) and The House by the Cemetery (1982), The Beyond is the tale of an abandoned Louisiana hotel situated over one of the seven gates of hell. As the hotel’s new owner, Eliza Merrill (Catriona MacColl) must deal with the supernatural visions and manifestations that begin when she starts to renovate the old building. One of the workmen is severely injured after he sees something in one of the upstairs windows, while the plumber has his eyes gouged out by a thing in the cellar. Eventually the dead begin to rise, as the hotel expands its malign influence. With the assistance of the sceptical Dr McCabe - played by Italian cinema stalwart David Warbeck - Eliza must find a way out of the growing nightmare.

As this synopsis suggests, The Beyond features plenty of Fulci’s trademark graphic gore, including the notorious crucifixion scene and a Scanners-style head explosion, perpetrated on a young child, no less. Suffice to say, it is not a film for the squeamish. Not all of these episodes work as well as they might, most noticeably the ‘spider attack’ scene, in which the special effects are laughably poor, despite being generally excellent throughout the rest of the film. Like Dario Argento in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), Fulci uses The Beyond‘s basic storyline as a means of connecting his increasingly grotesque and terrifying set-pieces, paying little attention to the overall structure of the film. This has led to a certain amount of hostility from first-time viewers, frustrated by Fulci’s refusal to maintain a linear progression or a solid internal logic. However, he does succeed in his primary goal of presenting the horror film as a nightmare, where little makes sense but everything is inherently frightening. He is ably assisted in this by Sergio Salvati’s excellent cinematography and Fabio Frizzi’s score, both of which help to establish the atmosphere of unease that filters through the entire film.

The chances are that fans of Euro-horror and cult movies - or just ambitious horror films in general - will already have sampled the alien delights of The Beyond, but anyone who hasn’t could do worse than pick up Arrow’s forthcoming Region 2 special edition. Wisely, Arrow have managed to include the extras from the earlier Grindhouse-Anchor Bay edition, including the MacColl and Warbeck’s commentary track, recorded shortly before the latter’s death. On top of this, we have a new and near-flawless print of the film itself, a commentary from Fulci’s daughter Antonella, new featurettes on MacColl, co-star Cinzia Monreale (a.k.a. Sarah Keller), SFX technician Giannetto De Rossi and Fulci himself. One final question remains, however: why is the opening sequence in black and white, as opposed to the sepia tones seen in the Sergio Salvati-approved Grindhouse edition?

Jim Harper

5 Centimetres per Second

5 Centimetres per Second

Format: DVD

Release date: 14 March 2011

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Writers: Steven Foster, Makoto Shinkai

Original title: Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru

Japan 2007

63 mins

Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimetres per Second is having a belated DVD release on March 14. With only one feature film, three shorts and one medium-length work to his name, Makoto Shinkai is a thirty-something animé director who has generated far more praise than his relative youth and short career would seem to deserve. Dubbed the new Hayao Miyazaki by the animé press, this is something of a misnomer as the two directors have very little in common other than creating films with greater emotional depth and a more singular vision than those of their peers. However, while Miyazaki works primarily in the nostalgic fantasy genre for a child/family audience, Shinkai makes thoughtful, austere films that tap into contemporary concerns about humanity’s relationship with technology and how it both connects and separates us from the people around us. While 5 Centimetres per Second is slightly underwhelming compared to his previous two films The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Voices of a Distant Star, his films at their best show a director who has a genuinely affecting visual aesthetic that recalls the live action films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is this sensitivity to form and place that have earned the director his reputation, cemented by the fact that his first two shorts were made by the director almost entirely by himself on a home computer.

Alex Fitch

Paper Theatre

Thomas Beale Cipher

Do you remember when film was democratised? Heady days. It was 1999, The Blair Witch Project had conquered the cineplexes and a hundred thousand auteurs blossomed overnight.

Or something like that; for all the talk of the barriers to entering the film industry shattering it’s still a huge lurch beyond most people’s reach. Compare it to, say, pens and paper - the two artistic tools that are native to almost anyone over the age of two - and you start to see how ridiculous a claim it is.

Recently though paper-craft blogs have gone wild for two films that seem to challenge even the assumption that pens and paper are easier than cinema.

Train of Thought is a gem from The Arts Institute at Bournemouth, shot in 2008. It resurfaced a few months back, when filmmakers Leo Bridle and Ben Thomas uploaded it to Vimeo. It’s had almost 100,000 views since and it’s an absolute treat.

The film follows one man’s journey by train to meet his lover. It’s that simple.

But the film is a product of painstaking stop-motion animation, made up almost entirely of cardboard cut-outs. Every frame of the characters moving involves a photo of the actor printed to card and shot on a paper set. Writing that does it a disservice, sells it short somehow, so you’ll just have to take a few minutes out of your life to watch it; the footage is mesmerising.

Yes, it’s paper craft, with the cut’n’stick aesthetics of an eccentric drawing table, but it’s sophisticated and touching in its transitions between cut-out set-piece and hand-drawn fantasia. At four minutes it only manages to sketch an emotional narrative, but as a model for creative and engaging visuals it’s magnificent.

Where Train of Thought is defined by its light touch and airy sensibilities, Thomas Beale Cipher appears murky, mired in obfuscation, smoke and mirrors. It too is brilliant.

The 10-minute film, directed by Andrew Allen, explores a snapshot in the life of code-breaker Professor White. His story too unfolds on a train, the mechanical motion of the engine playing off against the perpetual motion of the code-breaking machine he carries with him, a machine that almost gives away his presence to Mister Black, the FBI agent on his trail.

The noir-lite story, great as it is, would be nothing without the visuals, animation that sits somewhere between rotoscoping and fluid graphic design. It seems as if perfectly cut sheets of paper are moving before a camera. Elements blend and fracture, bisecting characters but allowing key objects to float above the surface of the film. It’s incredibly dynamic, and thoroughly moody.

By wrapping such energy up in paper it feels like these films leave something in their wake; something with a footprint, something with a weight. Somehow that seems especially true when I can shoot a scene on my smart-phone and upload it to YouTube in less than the time it took to write this column.

Matthew Sheret

Les diaboliques

Les diaboliques

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 March 2011

Venues: BFI Southbank (London) and key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Henri-Georges CLouzot

Writers: Henri-Georges CLouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, Frédéric Grendel

Based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel

France 1955

114 mins

One of cinema’s great misanthropes, Henri-Georges Clouzot combined a sombre view of humanity with a supreme mastery of clockwork suspense that made him Alfred Hitchcock’s rival and equal. These two characteristics found their peak in Les diaboliques (1955), a noir thriller set in a private school on the outskirts of Paris. Headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a particularly nasty bully who mistreats not only his wife Christina (played by the director’s wife, Véra Clouzot), but also his mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and the boys in his charge. The fragile Christina, who has a heart condition, and Nicole, sporting a black eye as the film opens, are led to comfort each other and conspire to murder their common tormentor.

Read reviews of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Le corbeau and Quai des orfèvres.

The oppressive atmosphere of the school, the high contrast black and white, the evocative shadows and the basic premise characterise Les diaboliques as a film noir, but as noir triangles go, this is a very strange set-up. In the classic formation, two men compete for the attention of the same beautiful temptress (Gilda, The Killers, Out of the Past) and a number of films revolve around a femme fatale seducing her lover into murdering her husband (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Les diaboliques presents a fascinating inversion of the usual pattern, with two women becoming allies to murder the man for whose affection they are meant to compete. The result is a powerful reversal of traditional male and female roles: whereas in classic noirs the (criminal) action is performed by a man on the instigation of a woman, here it is performed by two women; and while the noir perpetrators are usually a couple ostensibly wanting to get rid of the person standing between them, here they are rivals for their victim’s love, or at least they should be.

The lesbian undertones of the situation are clear, especially as the film predominantly focuses on their relationship as they plot the murder, showing their complicity, their concern for each other as well as their disagreements. As they plan a secret weekend getaway to Nicole’s pad to accomplish their dark deed, the sexual connotations of the plot become even more evident, and the crime they are about to commit suggests a ‘criminal’ sexuality, a transgression of sexual and social roles as they overthrow the authority of the man who brutally rules their lives.

The casting further enhances the ambiguities of the plot. Simone Signoret, a blonde and curvaceous 50s sex symbol whose best-known role was as a gangster moll and femme fatale in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), is here masculine, decisive and physically strong. Beautiful and immoral, she recalls the blonde temptress of classic film noir, but in her relationship to Christina, she occupies the traditional position of the man, leading the action and making decisions. The delicate, slender, raven-haired Véra Clouzot is the ultra-feminine half of the couple, and yet, in spite of her physical weakness and moral doubts, her Christina may be capable of murder. As the male/female contrast is paralleled by a good girl/bad girl opposition, traditional images of the sexes are blurred further.

Although the relationship between the two women is central to the film, the sexual ambiguity in itself is not the main theme of the film, but rather an essential part of it. Here, as in many of his films, Clouzot is concerned with the dissolution of certainties: sexual, moral and otherwise. He makes us identify with a would-be murderess confronted with increasingly incomprehensible events before a final twist changes our perception of everything we’ve seen up to that point. Correspondingly, on a formal level, horror and supernatural elements disrupt the noir world established in the rest of the film. In Clouzot’s vision, truth is mutable, love is a lie, human relationships are constantly shifting and the human heart is complex, contradictory and compromised. Formally, morally and sexually, it is a world in which nothing is ever simple or as it seems. The only certainty that remains is that, in Les diaboliques, Clouzot has created not only a perfectly crafted noir gem, but also an enduringly fascinating female double act.

Les diaboliques runs at BFI Southbank from March 18 to 31.

Virginie Sélavy

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood

Format: Cinema

Pan-Asia Film Festival opening night screening: 2 March 2011

Venue: BAFTA

Release date: 11 March 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Tran Anh Hung

Writer: Tran Anh Hung

Based on the novel by: Haruki Murakami

Original title: Noruwei no mori

Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Kenichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara

Japan 2010

133 mins

Norwegian Wood has long been one of Haruki Murakami’s most popular novels, selling millions of copies in Japan alone. But despite its success, Norwegian Wood is one of my least favourite Murakami novels, lacking the surrealistic magic of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World.

The perhaps-daunting job of directing the big-screen adaptation has fallen to the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who won the Camera d’Or and an Oscar nomination for his 1993 film The Scent of Green Papaya. His latest film is lovingly faithful to the spirit of Murakami’s novel, capturing the sensual and emotional longing that pervades the original - but also replicating its frustrating story and weak protagonists.

The adaptation, like the book, is often pure melodrama, mixing together love, sex and grief. The relationship between three close friends is torn asunder when Kizuki, best friend to Toro Watanabe and long-term boyfriend to Naoko, commits suicide. The two survivors pull themselves together long enough to find their way to university, where, against the backdrop of student protests in the late 60s, they meet again by chance. Their friendship is rekindled, but a sexual encounter triggers guilt and regret in the fragile Naoko, and she disappears, emerging only months later with the news that she’s sequestered herself in an institution outside Tokyo.

Naoko is tormented by a preoccupation with her feelings of loss and betrayal; Watanabe, madly in love with her, is helpless as she struggles to reconcile her despair with desire. Played by Rinko Kikuchi, best known in the West for her role in Babel (2006), Naoko is full of contradictions, but her tendency for self-indulgence, her inability to let her misguided guilt go, is as irritating in the film as it is in the novel. It’s unquestionably a sympathetic performance from the soft-spoken, waif-like Kikuchi, and anyone who isn’t as exasperated as I am by the very nature of her character might find it endearing.

As Naoko and Watanabe (played by another rising star, Kenichi Matsuyama) struggle to cope with their shared loss, he is offered solace by Midori, a fellow student who falls for him despite - or perhaps because of - his tortured feelings for Naoko. Played by the model Kiko Mizuhara, Midori’s the most likeable, charming character in the film; she’s spirited, light-hearted, and a relief from the emotional angst that weighs the film down.

Frustrations aside, Norwegian Wood is a lovely film to look at, beautifully shot by Lee Ping-bin, with a lush autumnal colour palette and an evocative late 60s backdrop. The sensual nature of the images perfectly captures the erotic tension that complicates the relationship between Naoko and Watanabe, and the bleak, emotional despair that follows Naoko’s incarceration and worsening breakdown. Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography is complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s terrific score, adding another rich layer to the film.

There can be beauty in suffering, as Tran Anh Hung believes, and for fans of Norwegian Wood, this is as good an adaptation as anyone could wish for.

Norwegian Wood will be opening the Pan-Asia Film Festival on 2 March at BAFTA. Screenwriter-director Tran Anh Hung, musician Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and actress Rinko Kikuchi will be at Asia House for a special discussion on the art of adaptation on 1 March.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 28 February 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Yang Chul-soo

Writer: Choi Kwang-young

Original title: Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal

Cast: Seo Yeong-hie, Ji Seong-won, Hwang Min-ho

South Korea 2010

115 mins

A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.

Directed by Yang Chul-soo, this South Korean feature debut has the feel of a folk or fairy tale. Denouncing the oppression of women in Korean society, it tells a compelling story, but the characterisation is two-dimensional and it comes across as very heavy-handed. That said, it is interesting to note that the film shares similarities with another South Korean film released the same year. Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid was another slow-burn Korean film about the exploitation of a lower-class woman that culminated in a stunningly extravagant, violent dénouement. Considering also Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless (2009), it seems that what may come across as excessive to Western audiences is in fact a strong response to an acutely unfair and brutal state of affairs in Korean society. For further explanation of the context and the real events that inspired the film, see an extract from a promotional interview with Yang Chul-soo below.

Both Bedevilled and The Housemaid follow a similarly unusual structure, proceeding at a slow pace for most of the film until the abuse of the central character erupts into a spectacularly violent ending. In Bedevilled, the sudden change of tone makes the blood-splattered finale all the more shocking. Although flawed, Bedevilled paints an intriguing portrait of a woman faced with the most extreme injustice and creates an original and engaging horror heroine in Bok-nam.

Virginie Sélavy


To what extent is Bedevilled inspired by real events?

Yang Chul-soo: There were three shocking cases that shook Korean society, which had given me inspiration. First was the KIM Boo-nam case in 1991 when KIM, a 30-year-old woman, murdered a man who used to be her next-door neighbour and raped her when she was 9 years old. Second was the KIM Bo-eun/KIM Jin-gwan case in 1992 when KIM Bo-eun, with the help of her boyfriend KIM Jin-gwan, murdered her stepfather who had abused her sexually for 10 years. And the last was a case where a large group of high school boys had sexually abused two junior high school girls, who were sisters, in Milyang for over a year. Out of around 40, only three assaulters had received a mere 10 months’ sentence, and the police mishandled the case, one officer implying it was the girls’ fault. All three cases had extreme results because the bystanders showed no concern.

Why have you decided to tackle Korean women’s social status in your first feature film?

Women in Korean society are the weak, but they are not the weak kind. Women are discriminated against and have obligations under the feudalistic customs, but Korean society has in fact been maintaining itself as it is and developing because there are mothers who strived to protect their families. In reality, women and mothers are mostly given supporting roles, so I wanted to have a woman as the main lead in my film. The film is a personal dedication to my own mother and all the mothers in Korea.

Can you say some words about the gender politics of the movie?

I’m not sure how to describe this but although the film deals with gender issues, I had not considered politics in it. I only mirrored out the general relationships between Korean men and women that I had noticed, but without any political views. The film shows a complex aspect of the men oppressing the women, the suppressed women putting the men on a pedestal while oppressing another woman, and that woman to take revenge against those women and men. I believe this sort of evil circle happens because humans, regardless of their sexes, are weak beings.