All posts by VirginieSelavy

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Female Prisoner Scorpion 2
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Part of Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection limited edition box-set

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Shunya Itô

Writers: Shunya Itô, Fumio Kônami, Hirō Matsuda

Based on a manga by: Toru Shinohara

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Yukie Kagawa

Original title: Joshû sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bô

Japan 1972


The second instalment of Itô’s Female Prisoner series remains a fascinating film that deserves to be rediscovered for its wildly inventive portrayal of an uncommon, gutsy female rebel.

In Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second in a series of women’s prison films adapted from a violent manga by Toru Shinohara, the supremely cool Meiko Kaji, made famous by her role as a badass delinquent in the Stray Cat Rock films, stars as the implacable avenger Matsu – nicknamed Scorpion by her co-detainees. As Jailhouse 41 opens she is lying in a dreary basement cell in solitary confinement, from which she is taken out only to be hosed down, beaten and variously abused. But nothing can break Matsu, and after escaping with six other female prisoners, she leads them on a violent rampage, ruthlessly striking down the men who have wronged her.

The Female Prisoner series is often seen as part of the seventies wave of exploitation films, in particular the sub-genre of the Women In Prison flicks. However, while on paper the plot of Jailhouse 41 may sound like a flimsy excuse for bawdy bondage and Sapphic shenanigans, in fact the film contains very little in the way of exploitative material. For a start there is no nudity, and there is nothing remotely alluring or revealing about the shapeless striped dresses and grey woollen capes worn by the female convicts. Although there are two rape scenes in the film, in both cases very little flesh is exposed, the female victims fully retain their dignity, and it is not long before the most horrifying punishment is meted out to the bestial perpetrators.

In fact, rather than showing scantily clad women in salacious situations this is a film that takes every opportunity to depict the abject humiliation of as many male authority figures as is possible in the course of 90 minutes. The rapists are beaten up, stripped, and even, in one truly grisly scene, emasculated. Early on in the film Matsu’s violent outburst against the Warden frightens the visiting Head of Prisons so much that he pitifully wets his pants before being stripped of all his clothes by a crowd of riotously guffawing female prisoners. This is most definitely not exploitation as we know it.

Paradoxically Jailhouse 41 has also been described as a feminist film. It is true that director Shunya Itô’s vision is highly polarised. While all the male characters are without exception self-important cretins, the women’s crimes were acts of self-defence or retaliation against abusive men. Each of their stories is told by a narrator in a striking theatrical interlude, the traditional music and dress and the bare setting giving poignancy and gravitas to the women’s tragic tales. While the women also display less than pleasant sides – the aggressive Haru in particular – absolutely nothing redeems any of the men and it is clear that Ito’s sympathy lies with his female characters.

Yet this is no feminist manifesto, as Itô himself explained in an interview conducted on the occasion of the French release of the DVD. Rather, he said, it was about creating the ‘ultimate rebel’. Ito therefore uses a gender opposition to explore another kind of conflict -rebels versus authority. In Jailhouse 41 all the women are outlaws while all the men are connected to some kind of institutional authority – they are prison wardens, policemen, businessmen. Let’s remember that at the time Japan was still a deeply misogynistic society where power remained the almost exclusive preserve of men while women were confined to a subservient role. In that context the ultimate rebel has to be a woman, someone who by her very gender is the polar opposite of authority. What Itô’s heroine is fighting is less gender oppression than the larger social order of which it is a part, and the brute moronic force used to maintain it.

That Jailhouse 41 is not a feminist film is confirmed by the shocking absence of female solidarity in the group of escapees. While Matsu’s violent attack against the Warden first galvanises the other female prisoners into open revolt, they soon turn against her, and over the course of the film, betray, abuse and savagely beat her. Matsu is therefore no symbol for women’s revolt but a lone rebel too radically different to fit into any group. For Itô, the ultimate rebel is no social reformer fighting to improve the plight of her community but a fiercely individualistic outsider.

Aloof and apart from all, Matsu never speaks – she utters no more than one line in the whole film. This is a departure from the original manga in which the heroine rained down streams of obscenities on her enemies. As that was unacceptable to Meiko Kaji, Ito and the actress decided that Matsu would remain silent. Born out of necessity, this is a great touch that considerably enhances the charisma of the character. Wordlessly darting lethal arrows of cold reproof out of her coal-black eyes, Matsu seems possessed of an uncommon force. What’s more, while the other women’s crimes are revealed in the theatrical interlude, Matsu’s is not. As no cause is ever given for her imprisonment, she becomes an almost abstract embodiment of pure revolt. Her silence and the deep mystery surrounding her raise her above the mere human, projecting her straight into the realm of the mythical.

This mythical aspect is emphasized by the weird, unreal landscapes through which Matsu leads the escaped convicts – desolate no-man’s lands, barren, moon-like hills of stone, and a ghost town covered in volcanic ash. The violence of the story irrupts into nature and a waterfall turns red after a brutal murder while sumptuous autumnal woods turn wintry to mark the death of a tragic old woman. The music, recalling Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks, underlines the film’s affinities with the cool detachment, anarchic spirit and offbeat sense of tragedy of Sergio Leone’s westerns.

The protracted final show-down, shot in a crude, cartoonish style, is a rather disappointing and unsatisfying denouement, rendering the violence comical and therefore ineffective, which significantly diminishes the impact made by Matsu’s character. Despite this, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 remains a fascinating film that deserves to be rediscovered – not because it inspired Quentin Tarantino’s ridiculously overrated Kill Bill but for its wildly inventive portrayal of an uncommon, gutsy female rebel.

Virginie Sélavy

This review was first published in February 2007 in connection with the DVD release of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 by Eureka Entertainment.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 February 2007

Distributor: BFI

Director: Luis Buí±uel

Original title: Los Olvidados

Cast: Alfonso Mejia, Roberto Cobo, Estela Inda

Mexico 1950

88 mins

After Un Chien Andalou (1928), L’Age d’Or (1930) and Land Without Bread in 1932 Luis Buí±uel didn’t direct another film until 1947. A period dubbing American films into Spanish and producing mainstream films was followed by the disruption of two wars and a move to America, where he worked briefly managing the film programme at MoMA.

He was about to get US citizenship, when producer Oscar Dancigers persuaded him to move his family from LA to live and work in Mexico. His first two films, Gran Casino (a musical) and El Gran Calavera (‘impossibly banal but made a lot of money’, according to Buí±uel in My Last Breath) were followed in 1950 by his first real film in Mexico, Los Olvidados – a title variously translated as The Forgotten, The Lost Ones, The Young and the Damned and Pitié pour eux (Pity for Them – Buí±uel’s least favourite).

It was Dancigers who suggested they make a film about slum children. Buí±uel was an admirer of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thieves and loved the idea. In preparation he dressed in ‘threadbare clothes’ and toured the slums of Mexico City watching, listening and asking questions. ‘Much of what I saw went unchanged into the film’, he claimed.

Despite an opening montage suggesting that this happens in all big cities (New York, London, Paris), the film was much criticised on its initial release for Buí±uel’s negative portrayal of his adopted country. There were even calls for his expulsion. It was only after it won the prize for best direction at Cannes that it began to find an audience.

‘Don’t worry if the movie’s too short, I’ll just put in a dream.’

Although Buí±uel doesn’t specify which of his films he was referring to, it could apply to many. But also, the just putting in of a dream would be no time filler; for Buí±uel dreams are a central part of being. Although on one level Los Olvidados is an almost neo-realist film about the plight of slum children (a lot like a section from Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan but with crueller children and a few surrealist touches), it is the central character Pedro’s inner turmoil that triggers both the film’s famous dream sequence and the plot itself.

Los Olvidados follows a dream-like (nightmarish) narrative reminiscent of such contemporary film noirs as Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. Pedro cannot escape his nightmare world. Every time his future starts to look more positive something bad turns up (usually his ‘friend’ Jaibo). The film starts with a warning, not about sex and violence, but about the ‘not optimistic’ ending, which adds to the film’s noirish fatalistic feel. It’s a lethal combination of bad luck and bad company (Jaibo turns up just as Pedro is about to prove himself trustworthy) mixed with his dire economic situation that brings about Pedro’s inevitable downfall.

However, as is often the case in crime films, Pedro’s defeat and his adversary (Jaibo) are very much part of himself. This is dramatically illustrated with the matching shots of both Pedro and Jaibo dishing out vicious clubbings. Jaibo is the devil on his shoulder offering bad advice (his mother plays the angel). Or in Freudian terms (Freud is as central to Buí±uel as Catholicism) the id and the superego. It is through his relationship with the other characters (particularly Jaibo and his mother) that Buí±uel shows the conflicts in Pedro’s unconscious mind.

Buí±uel claims that although he was a serious Communist sympathiser, he always found Marxist doctrine lacked attention to the inner desires – people’s psychological drives. Los Olvidados doesn’t show the conflict between rich and poor but it does show how poverty affects the psyche. Animal instincts drive the characters, most notably hunger. The young innocent Ochitos drinks milk straight from a donkey’s teat. In the dream sequence, Pedro and Jaibo fight over a piece of raw meat. The slums are a place where the id (Jaibo) can bully the superego or even club it to death when it’s not looking. Morality and conscience have no place in the fight for survival. As shown by L’Age d’Or‘s fighting scorpions, Buí±uel’s world is one where big animals eat smaller ones. When Jaibo explains how the weak are picked on in reform school Pedro finds this cowardly, but to Jaibo it is natural, the law of the jungle. Jaibo is a hunter. His victims are blind, crippled or just smaller. Pedro resorts to scavenging for food in a rubbish dump, like one of the stray dogs wandering through the film, before being chased off by two rivals claiming it as their territory.

Los Olvidados is the film where Buí±uel most finely balances the conscious and the unconscious, dream and reality. It is a social-issue film about the realities of poverty and the expansion of the cities, the rural peasants adapting to a new way of life in the slums of Mexico City. It is also a film about psychological conflict. However, Buí±uel does not use Freud Hollywood-style as shorthand for character motivation (although Jaibo’s memory of his mother is a bit of a ‘rosebud’ moment). And despite Buí±uel’s determined atheism and anticlericalism, it is a film about good and evil.

Paul Huckerby

Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill
Branded to Kill

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 February 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Writers: Hachiro Guryu (aka Group of Eight)

Cast: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari

Original title: Koroshi no Rakuin

Japan 1967

91 minutes

Quentin Tarantino’s main gift to the world of cinema in the last year or two was the wretched Hostel, of which the best I can say is that it spared me any nagging ambivalence by marrying political ineptitude with perfect aesthetic nullity. I mention this at the head of a review of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill because, when he is not frittering away his credit by endorsing incompetent horror flicks, Tarantino is relentlessly re-building his stock by referencing cult classics whose relative unavailability safeguards him from embarrassing comparisons. Until now. This DVD release of Branded to Kill marks the latest instalment in a remarkable digital renaissance.

Branded to Kill is re-released in UK cinemas on 25 July 2014 by Arrow Films, followed by a dual format Blu-ray/DVD release on 18 August.

Hanada, number 3 killer, has to either kill or be killed; the only possible outcomes are die or become the new number 1. Nominally setting this in motion, but actually only giving the inevitable an eerie beauty, is Annu Mari’s Misako. Hanada botches the kill for which she hires him when a butterfly lands on his gunsight. Misako may be an instrument of Hanada’s fate: her apartment is full of nothing but pinned butterflies, and the ornament dangling from her rear-view mirror when he first meets her suddenly reveals itself as a canary pinned through the throat. Or she may be nothing of the sort. At any rate, Mari’s face, impassively luminous, shot through fountains, or head-on with an astonishing mixture of clarity and hangover bleariness, is the desireless object of desire around which everything revolves. Her torture by flame-thrower while tied to a sort of mobile crucifix, screened for Hanada’s benefit onto the back wall of her apartment, is one of the most astonishing scenes in a film of many breathtaking set-pieces.

Watching Suzuki’s delirious descent into the self-annihilating logic of the assassin, and the inevitability of desire, made me wonder: what is it that makes this film primary and Tarantino secondary? It is certainly not that Suzuki’s film has no sources and reference points of its own. The sharp suits, cool violence, claustrophobic spaces and chiaroscuro could easily be traced to American noir. And as in noir, the unadvisable yet irresistible, in the shape of Misako, liquor and tobacco, is very much to the fore. So why, beyond snobbery, do I not find Suzuki knowing and wannabe in the same way as a lot of Tarantino? One way into this would be Suzuki’s film’s relationship to commodities. Tarantino’s aesthetic is affluent to the point of being bloated: there is no sense of desperation or risk. Suzuki’s Japan, on the other hand, is aspirational with its Ray Bans and cigarettes, but it is also avid with austerity. A car that looks a bit like a Morris Minor trundles round a beach mowing down colleagues/adversaries in a battle with no apparent motivation beyond itself. The car, even then surely ridiculously, absurdly cute for the job, struggles up a dune towards a concrete blockhouse, presumably a second-world war coastal defence. One petrol-can later, the bunker is ablaze.

The scene encapsulates a clash of commodity and landscape that seems to me to inform the whole film. The blockhouse stands as a reminder of the recent past, of defeat, ruin and desertion. The car has been built from a British design under licence; the foundation of an automotive industry that will soon, but not yet, cap Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Beyond the ‘existential’ futility of a shoot-out between the numbered minions of a nameless organisation, there is another battle going on here, between fetishisation and pathos; between the desire for, and the humiliation by, imported glamour. The bottle of Napoleon brandy that glows centre-screen against a murky interior is there for one thing as the counterpart of Annu Mari’s femme fatale, but for another as a popular and longstanding Japanese tipple. But this is the flipside of Bill Murray’s abortive ads for Suntory Whisky in Lost in Translation. Suzuki neither mocks nor apologises for the bottle of Napoleon. His aesthetic imports the fatality of the commodity along with its glamour. Tarantino, on the other hand, imports nothing because his aesthetic already owns everything on the same flat plane of lazy availability.

There is a danger in this argument of casting commodification itself as an export from the west. The bottle of Napoleon as a normal feature of Japanese life is already a clue here. In another remarkable scene, Hanada takes out a hit with one shot in the blink of a giant mechanised cigarette lighter on an advertising hoarding. Does commercialization equate to Americanisation here? The subsequent American appropriation of Japan as the very source of grandiose advertising and media hyperreality, from Blade Runner to William Gibson, somewhat complicates this model. This re-release, and this review, are likewise testimony to a willing re-invasion from the east that is at once imperialistic and critical. The critical element depends on the fact that this film is, in all the senses I have been discussing, not simply ‘Japanese’; securely oriental and comfortably other. There are ‘Japanese’ elements in Suzuki’s film, but they are ones that do not allow me to simply orientalise. Hanada’s house takes the structure of the Japanese house to a level of abstraction approaching noirish delirium: the camera pans across a field of lengthy, too-close-together partitions that reduce the space to a series of brutally foreshortened corridors, broken only by a shower room and spiral staircase. The main indication that there is living space at all is provided by Hanada and his wife’s inventive and gymnastic lovemaking. The space that emerges is neither ‘authentically’ Japanese nor manneristically noir: it is a properly artful Japanese noir that reminds us, more forcefully than anything, that the American original was itself more than mere, easily appropriated mannerism.

Stephen Thomson



Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 February 2007

Distributor: Tartan Films

Director: Kim Chapiron

Original title: Sheitan

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Roxanne Mesquida

France 2006

91 minutes

Some cultural commentators will automatically applaud anything presented as ‘youth’ or ‘street’ for fear of looking like old farts. This has very much worked in the favour of Kourtrajme (French street slang for ‘short film’), an urban collective of young film-makers, musicians and graphic designers, to which Kim Chapiron, director of Satan, belongs. After the crude shorts posted on the Kourtrajme website gained underground fame, the group was hyped-up by the French press and bigged-up by La Haine director Matthieu Kassovitz and actor Vincent Cassel – both of whom appeared in some of the early shorts. Even Chris Marker, the legendary director of La Jetée (1962), who surely should know better, did not hesitate to anoint them as the new wave of French cinema.

Agreed, their juvenile energy and joyous bashing of the rule book may appear like a breath of fresh air in the face of a stale, stilted French cinema that currently only seems capable of dull middle-of-the-road fare or low-brow, big-budget American-style productions. But youth and cheek are no substitute for talent, something that is sorely lacking in Satan, which Cassel starred in as well as produced.

In this buffoonish comedy horror flick a teenage temptress picks up four urban youths in a club and lures them back to her country house. What they find there is a derelict mansion housing a creepy collection of broken dolls and a manic, moustachioed caretaker – played by Cassel. After an unsettling encounter with a bunch of Deliverance-type inbred bumpkins the city kids get seriously freaked out by the increasingly psychotic caretaker and his heavily pregnant wife, who lurches unseen in the background.

The plot is a mish-mash of regurgitated horror clichés, awkwardly stirred towards a chokingly bad punch line. The humour is grossly puerile while the gratuitous, sleazy sex scenes seem filmed by randy teenagers delighted to have found an excuse to get pretty girls to strip. The face-off between multicultural urban youth and inbred French-born locals offered some promise but unfortunately this satirical furrow is left unploughed.

This is all in line with Kourtrajme’s ‘revolutionary’ manifesto:

– I swear not to write a script worthy of that name.
– I swear to never justify the gratuity of my gratuitous scenes: violence, sex, racism, drugs, animals.
– I swear that Jojo the gorilla will appear in each and every one of Kourtrajme productions.
– I swear that I will not give any sense to my films but I will make films for the senses.
– I swear that each artistic composition (direction, music, actors’ performances) must be dominated by my instinct and not by my reason.

Satan sure ticks all the boxes.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Release date: 26 February 2007

Distributor: Verve Pictures

Director: Andrea Arnold

Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran

UK 2006

113 minutes

A directorial debut from Andrea Arnold (winner of an Oscar for Best Short with Wasp in 2003), Red Road pulls out all the stops in an attempt to get to the heart of loss and mourning Glasgow style. Set predominantly in a large Glaswegian housing estate, the main character Jackie – a security camera operator by night, intensely grieving woman by day – accidentally stumbles on a man, who in ways only disclosed at the end, is closely tied to her past.

The emotional tour de force by its lead character Jackie, played by Kate Dickie, goes a long way to maintain the intensity of the film. Nevertheless, and despite great performances by an assortment of renegade working-class Glaswegians, the somewhat contrived revenge plot doesn’t work half as effectively as the film does in its portrayal of a particular place, namely Red Road. Captured with an assuredness that doesn’t quite match the plot, the shots of the tower-like structures, the debris and rubbish that contaminate the surrounding estate, give the viewer a sense of an environment where people have been reduced to an absolute state of dereliction. This state or rather estate is rendered astonishingly well, from a brutal pub fight between a son and his dad, to the stray dogs pissing endlessly on graffitied walls.

All the stranger then that Jackie’s nemesis turns out to be more of a gentleman than a thug, and an absolute star at what must be one of the most believable scenes of cunnilingus to hit the English screens for a long time. The problem is that the intensity of Jackie’s inner turmoil is allowed to simmer up, erotically speaking, but is otherwise kept at a distance for much of the film.

While the aim is undoubtedly to maintain a level of narrative suspense, I was gripped not by the scene where she hugs the clothes of her dead daughter, which made me want to gag rather than cry, but by the damaged environment so starkly portrayed around her.

This is, then, an extremely well-meant film – grappling with what should be a far more nuanced idea of how to achieve closure after death. I had a brief flashback to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, also about a woman in a state of protracted post-traumatic shock, but Red Road’s move from murderous red to sunny skies ends up – sadly – being too corny. Jackie may be on the road to healing her inner pain, but perversely enough I wanted her to return to the Red Road estate.




Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 February 2007

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako

Cast: Aí­Â¯ssa Maí­Â¯ga, Hélí­Â¨ne Diarra, Habib Dembélé

France/Mali 2006

115 minutes

Riding confidently on a growing wave of anti-capitalist sentiment in Western culture, Bamako should have no trouble finding an audience. Set in the capital of Mali and filmed in the home of director Abderrahmane Sissako’s father, Bamako is an elegant, poignant – and prejudiced – attack on the consequences of IMF and World Bank policy in Africa.

The film, a twist on the courtroom drama genre, revolves around a trial: the people of Africa vs. the World Bank and the IMF. The trial itself is formal, almost Western. A panel of judges presides over the hearing, while a team of professional lawyers represents each side in the case. A guard wearing a tousled uniform stands on duty, attempting to prevent anyone who isn’t a witness from entering the courtyard where the trial takes place (unless a small bribe is slipped his way). Sissako has assembled a cast made up of actors and activists, local villagers and well-known public figures from both African and Western society, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.

Between the passionate, emotional testimonies of the witnesses for the prosecution, life carries on in the courtyard. A marriage falls apart, a gun is stolen, a man lies dying in a darkened room off the dusty courtyard. Melé, played by the striking Aí­Â¯ssa Maí­Â¯ga, sings in a bar, desperate to escape her marriage and life in Bamako. Her husband Chaka drifts listlessly on the fringes of the trial, caring for their young daughter. He teaches himself Hebrew for a time when Israel will open an embassy in the city. Their relationship, and the glimpses into the lives of the people in Bamako – the police photographer who prefers the faces of the dead to the living; the young, unemployed men listening to the trial piped out of a rusty loudspeaker; the women who dye cotton to make the tie-die, traditional clothes – provide the film with its colour, charm and touches of humour. These scenes, and Jacques Besse’s serene cinematography could easily have been spun out into a film of its own, perhaps one with a more subtle message.

The esteemed witnesses make their case. Mali has been crippled by the strain of paying off the debt owed to the financial institutions. The railroads have been virtually shut down as a result of privatization, isolating and eventually destroying villages that once thrived. Teachers lose their jobs. Children are dying, their families unable to afford medicines that would keep them alive. There seems little doubt in the director’s mind that the West’s actions have helped to ruin Africa and destroy its unique culture. Corruption is touched upon only briefly, in what feels like a half-hearted attempt to demonstrate some semblance of objectivity about the source of Mali’s despair. The defence is represented by a somewhat buffoonish French attorney, Roland Rappaport. In reality a distinguished human rights attorney, Rappaport, in the role he’s been given, is arguing a case that he simply cannot win. His African colleague is meanwhile accused of criminal complicity for her involvement in defending the Western institutions.

It is impossible not to be moved by the impassioned testimony of the witnesses, followed by a brilliant closing argument by William Bourdon, also a French attorney and former secretary-general of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. The tragedy occurring in Africa is undeniable, but the causes are enormously complex. While a case against the World Bank and the IMF cannot justifiably be made in 115 minutes, Bamako is nonetheless a film that ought to be seen, for its humanity and its original approach to the debate over globalisation. Its timely release ensures that it will be.

For a more academic approach and two contrasting views on the local consequences of the so-called “Washington consensus”, see Joseph Stiglitz’ Globalisation and its Discontents and Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 3 April 2006

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: Gela Babluani

Cast: Georges Babluani, Aurélien Recoing, Pascal Bongard

France/Georgia 2005

93 mins

Just over a year ago the bold first feature of young French-educated Georgian director Gela Babluani was released in the UK to great press acclaim but little public notice. While salivating in anticipation of Babluani’s new offering, scheduled to pop up on these shores later this year, we take a look back at 13 (Tzameti).

In a small town on the French Atlantic coast, Sébastien, a struggling young Georgian roofer (played by Babluani’s brother Georges), starts working on a house belonging to a shady, ageing drug addict by the name of Godon. When Sébastien’s work engagement abruptly comes to an end without hope of payment, he steals a letter addressed to his former employer, which contains instructions regarding a mysterious and possibly dangerous money-making scheme. Recklessly impersonating Godon, Sébastien follows the instructions and arrives at an isolated mansion outside Paris. There he finds that he is to be a player in a deadly game of Russian roulette in which men bet on other men’s lives. Unable to back out, Sébastien is assigned the number 13.

While the number 13 immediately suggests bad luck, it proves to be neither lucky nor unlucky in the film. The number is not important in itself but in the fact that it strips the man it designates of all that makes him human, reducing him to a lottery ball spun around by the cruel law of chance. Gone are his hopes, desires and loves. Sébastien is now simply number 13, his thoughts limited to where the bullet is, and whether his whole being will be casually obliterated like nothing more than a fleck of dust in the next round of the game.

This game is truly an initiation to life in all its random brutality. The fresh-faced Sébastien is put through a trial by fire by a pack of hardened old gamblers who watch jadedly as he learns that in the game of life one can only kill or be killed. In the first round, still innocent, he simply cannot bring himself to fire his pistol into another man’s head. In the acute tension of that scene we experience right through our bones the emotions of an ordinary man suddenly faced with no other choice but to kill another man. Once that line is crossed the only thing that remains in Sébastien is a ferocious survival instinct – no longer innocent, he now plays by the rules of the game.

The tension that builds up as the players go through the different rounds is almost unbearable. And what the game lacks in ingenuity and sophistication, it more than makes up for in sheer, brutal efficacy. As economical as it gets, the bare-bone set-up lets Babluani’s visual flair and gift for dramatic tension shine through. The high-contrast black and white photography infuses the film with an oppressive feel – right from the more mundane opening scenes the grey sky is laden with the promise of inevitable doom. The strange, almost claustrophobic atmosphere is compounded by the impressive gallery of rugged, leathery gamblers, who, with their crocodile skins and glassy eyes look like the monstrous offspring of film noir villains and Goya portraits.

13 displays obvious similarities to the earlier Spanish thriller Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Intacto also revolved around a game of chance but while the plot was more complex than in 13, the exploration of the central theme was paradoxically shallow and simplistic. In Intacto luck was reduced to a simple attribute tied to one’s photograph, which rather too straightforwardly could be augmented by stealing other people’s photos or lost if one’s photo was taken. While it was an undeniably engaging thriller, Intacto had neither the elegance of a Borgesian conundrum nor the raw power and existential intensity of 13.

13 also has much in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’. In that story Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful confidant Colonel Geraldine, having gone out in the mean streets of London in search of an adventure, follow a desperate young man to the Suicide Club, a secret society set up to ‘help’ ruined men desirous to commit suicide. Brought together by misfortune, these men become the instrument of fate in each other’s lives. Every night they solemnly sit around a table for a random card draw, the ace of clubs designating the man who must kill, the ace of spades the man who will be killed that night. Once there, Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine find that they are now bound by the rules of the Club and must take part in the fateful card game.

Just as in ‘The Suicide Club’, the world of 13 is a fascinating secret society of men who meet to play a game of life and death. And just like Prince Florizel, Sébastien naí­Â¯vely embarks on what he thinks is a promising adventure, unaware that by doing so he has already signed his name at the bottom of a diabolical pact. The fates of both men are sealed as soon as Prince Florizel follows the suicidal young man and Sébastien opens his employer’s letter, with no possibility of turning back. Of course, Stevenson being such a conservative writer, the ending of the otherwise compelling ‘Suicide Club’ is a boring, moralistic, and rather unconvincing return to order. Not so in 13.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 23 August 2004

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Samira Makhmalbaf

Original title: Panj é asr

Cast: Agheleh Rezaie, Abdolgani Yousefrazi, Razi Mohebi

Iran/France 2003

102 mins

After making Blackboards in Kurdistan, twenty-three-year-old Iranian film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf has chosen post-Taliban Afghanistan as the setting of her third feature, the winner of the 2003 Cannes Grand Jury Prize. The film tells the story of Noqreh, a young woman who wants to be president of her country. Unbeknown to her fanatically religious father she attends a new school for girls. However, even there, Noqreh’s ambitions are initially met with laughter. Undeterred, she sets out to find out more, asking everybody she meets how the leaders of their countries came to power.

This leads to many humorous moments, but Noqreh’s naí­Â¯ve attitude is also a way to prod and question political and social structures and to explore the complex reality of Afghanistan today. The film does not demonise anyone, not even Taliban followers. Fundamentalist old men are playfully mocked, and Noqreh’s father is portrayed as a bewildered man rather than as a tyrannical monster.

The non-professional actors add authenticity to a film that gives a voice to the Afghan people, and it is worth seeing if only for the non-Western perspective it offers on the country. The sight of Kabul in ruins is chilling and the overall picture is that of a country plunged in chaos and confusion, with no hope of a better future any time soon. Describing the harsh realities of life in Afghanistan, the film remains admirably unsentimental.

A slow-paced, elegant meandering through places and ideas, the film takes its title from a Garcia Lorca poem about the death of a matador, and the line recurs throughout the film, imbuing it with dreamy mystery. A beguiling mix of realism and poetry, of humour, hope, beauty and despair, At Five in the Afternoon is a deeply affecting work, highly rewarding both visually and emotionally.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 27 February 2006

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow

Original title: Inosensu: Kôkaku kidôtai

Japan 2004

96 mins

Almost ten years after the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, Japanese anime master Mamoru Oshii has delivered a new episode of his existential cyber-thriller. In the year 2032 a number of doll-like female robots designed for sexual purposes have gone haywire and killed their masters. Cyborg detective Batou and his mostly human partner Togusa are assigned to the case. Clues lead them to Locus Solus, the company that makes the ‘gynoids’ and soon they are on their way to its headquarters, situated in a remote Northern region.

Visually, Ghost II is even more impressive than the original film, which is no small feat. The incongruous Gothic fortress in the midst of a stunning post-apocalyptic landscape, the procession of gigantic automated figures that greets Batou and Togusa on their arrival there, the sinister mansion by a lake where they fall prey to evil cyborg Kim’s enchantments all contribute to create a wonderfully surreal, unsettling world.

It is a world where the boundaries between human and robot, animate and inanimate are entirely blurred. In this Oshii reprises the theme of the first Ghost and furthers his reflection on what it is to be human in the computerised age. In Oshii’s poetic vision, dolls with human souls deliberately malfunction and humans turn their bodies into machines to transcend their limitations. A highly literate work, Ghost II opens with a quotation from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam while the name Locus Solus is a reference to the world of fanciful machines dreamed up by French maverick writer Raymond Roussel. However, although Oshii’s ambitious approach is admirable, the dialogue is overloaded with too many opaque philosophical aphorisms. This is the only weak point in a film that is in all other respects truly remarkable and one of the most thrilling and sophisticated animes this reviewer has seen.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 27 October 2003

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Víctor Erice

Original title: El Espí­ritu de la colmena

Cast: Fernando Ferná Gó, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent

Spain 1973

93 mins

Víctor Erice’s 1973 classic is a wonderfully dreamy, slow-paced evocation of rural Spain just after the end of the Civil War, seen through the eyes of six-year-old Ana. Set in the barren plains of Castile, the film starts with the projection of James Whale’s Frankenstein, brought to the village by a travelling cinema. After seeing the film, impressionable Ana becomes obsessed with meeting the monster. Eschewing the rules of a conventional plot, the film proceeds to paint the vivid imaginary world of childhood by weaving together subtle, suggestive imagery. Particularly beautiful are the intimate, honey-hued, candle-lit night scenes in which Ana and her sister whisper stories about the monster. Particularly revealing are the games they play, from the more innocent to the more unsettling ones, from pillow fights to playing dead.

The Spirit of the Beehive provides an impressive example of the creative benefits that can come from budgetary constraints. Lack of funds prevented Erice from making a horror film, as was his original idea. Instead, he used a classic horror film as the starting point of his work, infusing it with an understated Gothic mood all the more potent as it is found in the ordinary, as when little Ana walks through a cascade of half open doors, alone in the dark, big house. The moral ambiguity that surrounds the monster in Frankenstein is further explored and given depth, as it resonates, through Ana’s encounter with the wounded soldier, with the confusion and ambivalence of a country torn apart by Civil War.

The film is economical with words, the elliptical plot carried forward almost entirely visually. Erice’s lightness of touch avoids obvious metaphorical meanings and lets the juxtaposition of poetic images and strong scenes build a rich, poignant, complex world, the compelling atmosphere enhanced by a masterful use of light. The result is a haunting masterwork that elegantly connects the trauma of a whole country to the personal trauma of a little girl confronted with death.

Virginie Sélavy