Category Archives: Festivals

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

LSFF: The Cursed Cassette

I’ve just returned from the London Short Film Festival’s Music and Video shorts at the Roxy Bar and Screen, a smorgasbord of playful and elaborate musical and visual delights. Look out for the write-up next month but in the meantime you can check out one of the films in the programme below, Paul Cheshire’s very brief but brilliantly strange The Cursed Cassette. There is still one day of LSFF left, with some very exciting stuff going on, such as the Leftfield and Luscious programme, which we previewed here, and the Salon des Refusés and Rich Pickings events. For more information, check out the LSFF website.

Virginie Sélavy

Watch a scene from The Cursed Cassette:

Jackboots on Whitehall

Jackboots on Whitehall

Format: Cinema

Date: 8 October 2010

Distributor: Vertigo Films

Venues: Empire (London) and nationwide

Directors: Edward McHenry, Rory McHenry

Writers: Edward McHenry, Rory McHenry

UK 2010

91 mins

What if the British army was stranded at Dunkirk and we lost the Battle of Britain? What if the Nazis thought of the Channel Tunnel 50 years before we did? What if Hadrian’s Wall was still intact and no one had heard from the Scots in 100 years? This is the alternative Second World War England of Jackboots on Whitehall, the epic stop-motion animation debut from brothers Edward and Rory McHenry. When Nazis invade London it’s up to farm boy Chris (Ewan McGregor) and vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike) to rescue Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and lead him to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, marshalling an army of villagers along the way.

Jackboots is a film for anyone who played with Action Man, Barbie, Airfix kits or Hornby model railways as a child. The animation is excellent, with large-scale battles, plenty of plastic gore and only the bare minimum of computer manipulation to help with the lip-syncing and facial expressions on the dolls. Similarly, the sets are incredibly detailed and anyone familiar with London will appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating the model versions of real landmarks.

The brothers McHenry have done a great job attracting a cast of big British names (even American volunteer Billy Fiske is voiced by great British export Dominic West), but this cannot have been based on the strength of the script, which is sadly lacking. Because there are just not that many mainstream stop-motion films, Jackboots invites comparison with films like Team America: World Police. Indeed, it shares the same simplistic dialogue and immature sense of humour. But whereas in Team America the childish jokes provided an ironic counterpoint to the serious subject matter, Jackboots doesn’t have that excuse.

There’s something in our received culture, be it from our grandparents’ war stories, or the war films we’ve all seen, that means we’re still happy to watch the Nazis being drubbed even in an alternate version of history. In this way Jackboots can be said be to be British both in terms of production and spirit, and it’s wholly appropriate that it was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. This British spirit should carry Jackboots a long way, and in spite of its flaws it is an impressive debut feature. However, it will be interesting to see how its subject matter and technical achievement fare against the similar, child’s toy based Belgian stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, which is released the same day, and while less technically accomplished, is more original, surreal and has a superior sense of comic timing.

Jackboots on Whitehall opened the Raindance Film Festival on September 29. Raindance runs until October 10, for more information go to the Raindance website.

Alexander Pashby



Director: Sam Huntley

UK 2010

78 mins

Zoomer website

The owner of a ramshackle junk shop called Zoomer’s Treasures, located by the side of a rarely used highway in Kansas, Mary DeBoutez Zellmer-Fenoglio (aka ‘Zoomer’) is an eccentric, larger-than-life character and the living embodiment of a decades-old struggle with rural poverty in America. The director Sam Huntley first met her while on a cross-country road trip across America and returned 18 months later to shoot his first feature-length film chronicling her unusual day-to-day life.

The first words we hear from Zoomer – ‘When I was born, my grandmother delivered me. I searched for that silver spoon that I was hoping would be in my mouth, but all I could find was a pile of shit’ – express her frustration at never quite being able to raise herself out of the poverty she was born into. Looked down on as white trash during a lifetime spent in the shadow of an overbearing, abusive father, Zoomer alternates between infectious good humour and bitter sadness. Scenes filmed in the early hours of the morning, before she’s teased her blonde hair or painted her toenails green, poignantly reveal a battle with debilitating pain and manic depression.

The documentary offers an interesting insight into American backwater culture, and it is humorous, although a little irritating. The main problem is that its focus is too narrow and almost too intense: Huntley devotes almost every frame to Zoomer, who speaks either to her cats or directly to the camera in monologues that begin to blur into endless digressions. It’s a shame – her life story is both fascinating and tragic, but as a director Huntley never really gives the audience a chance to breathe.

Sarah Cronin



17th Raindance Film Festival

Date: 30 September-11 October 2009

Venue: Apollo Cinema, London

Title: Kakera – A Piece of Our Lives

Part of a Raindance strand on Japanese Women Directors

Director: Momoko Ando

Based on the manga by: Erica Sakurazawa

Cast: Hikari Mitsushima, Eriko Nakamura

Japan 2008

Raindance website

Kakera - A Piece of Our Lives does what its title suggests. Kakera presents a slice of life. No grand narrative; no neatly conceived conclusions; just a segment of a relationship between two women, Haru and Riko, as they define their feelings for each other. Shooting with a microscopic attention to detail, first-time director Momoko Ando creates a thoroughly compelling world - beautiful, surreal, romantic and personal - aided by an excellent soundtrack and strong visual sense.

Rumpled and gamine, Haru is an especially engrossing heroine. All expressive eyes and otherworldly charm, she belongs to the Amélie school of little-girl-lost. Just starting out at university, Haru is growing more and more detached from her two-timing, loutish boyfriend, when she meets Riko, a self-assured medical artist working for Tanaka prosthetics. The film follows Haru’s sexual confusion as she tries to decide between Riko and her increasingly obnoxious boyfriend. As a young director (she was born in 1982), Ando perfectly captures the intensity of the women’s age and the excitement of their first, stumbling conversations. But while Amélie praised naive, kooky heroines in a nauseatingly self-congratulatory fashion, Kakera presents the reality of living with Haru’s dreamy drifting. The film explores both the allure of the inexperienced girls and their sometimes hurtful, self-centred behaviour.

The self-absorption of youth is beautifully played out in a subtle scene when a disinterested, distracted Haru leaves a university lecture discussing the oppression of women, only to be confronted with her boyfriend arm-in-arm with another girl. Gender and what it means to be a woman is an important theme underlying the entire film and one of the reasons the work is to premiere at this year’s Raindance Festival, as part of a special strand devoted to women in Japanese cinema. Again, Ando chooses not to present us with a coherent theory but prefers fragmented, conflicting ideas and discussions. Riko, for example, gives a beautiful initial speech on the arbitrariness of gender but later becomes irrationally hostile towards men. Beautiful fireworks enjoyed by Riko and Haru are echoed by aggressive, masculine explosions on television in Haru’s boyfriend’s flat. When the two women first meet, Haru has accidentally given herself a milk moustache while drinking a mug of cocoa while later in the film Haru’s boyfriend is unkind about the hair on her upper lip.

Kakera is all about the pieces that make up the whole: from the prosthetic body parts made by Riko to the chromosomes that determine the difference between men and women. When a distraught Haru eats too many marshmallows, she is advised ‘not to over-eat the food you love. Favourite foods are better eaten a little at a time’. Kakera takes each character little by little, each life slice by slice, allowing us the luxury to come to our own conclusions.

Eleanor McKeown

Kakera is part of a strand on Japanese women directors at Raindance. Director Momoko Ando will attend the festival, as well as pink director Sachi Hamano, the most prolific female director in Japan, who will present her 2001 non-pink title Lily Festival. Also showing are the rarely seen Hotaru by the critically-garlanded Naomi Kawase and Yukiko Sode’s distinctive and promising debut Mime-Mime. More information on the Raindance website.


Spider Lilies

Format: Cinema

Screened as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

Director: Zero Chou

Writer: Singing Chen

Original title: Ci qing

Cast: Rainie Yang, Isabella Leong, John Shen, Jay Shih

Taiwan 2007

94 mins

A soft and tender tale of queer love and loneliness in modern Taiwan, Zero Chou’s second feature Spider Lilies was screened as part of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, only a few weeks after her latest and strongest film to date, Drifting Flowers, premiered at the Berlinale. Though beautifully shot and acted, both films are far from being perfect. But nor would one, perhaps, want them to be. Their weaknesses and flaws indicate a thoughtful and promising filmmaker who gradually improves with every new production and consistently displays a marvellous sensitivity towards her characters.

Fuelled by metaphors and layered symbolism, Spider Lilies is essentially a film about desire in all its twisted complexity and the fleeting line between reality and imagination that goes with it. Jade (Rainie Yang) is a sweet and cheerful 18-year-old who lives with her senile grandmother. At the centre of her life is a webcam, which she operates out of her bedroom to make money in a soft-core chatroom, but which also allows her to escape from the drab monotony of real life into a brightly coloured fantasy world.

The film’s opening sequences detail Jade’s utter isolation. Using her webcam to create some sort of interactive diary, she carries on conversations with the dolls in her room or her internet clients, jumping in and out of the frame according to her fancy. Each time she moves out of sight though, one gets a glimpse of the grey loneliness that is looming at the boundaries of her faked, fluffy wonderland. When she meets tattoo artist Takeko (Isabella Leong), Jade recalls the crush she had on her as a child, and helplessly falls for her again.

Takeko is just as lonely as Jade, but while Jade’s loneliness merely seems to be a temporary stage she is eager to break out of, Takeko’s is an existential condition. The most notable evidence is her spider lily tattoo – copied from her father’s, who died in an earthquake. An important link between father and daughter, the image also becomes vital to Jade, who wants it tattooed on her own body as a mark of her undying love for Takeko.

Although it is explicitly about the tentative romance between two young women, Spider Lilies touches upon the polarities that underlie all human relationships: honesty and dishonesty, trust and distrust, concession and repression. But Chou explores these issues through a tangled storyline, and with no qualms about using somewhat tired clichés – a sensitive undercover police agent starts sympathising with Jade instead of tracking her down; Takeko has a cute younger brother traumatized by their father’s death. Although it offers a fantastic ride through the lush imagination and emotionally loaded memories of the protagonists, the problematic script eventually undermines the film’s potential impact.

Nevertheless, the film has a dreamlike quality that makes it an original, strangely fascinating and self-assured work. Some viewers might be put off by Jade’s excessively girlish attitude or Takeko’s meditative character and taciturn caginess, but for those willing to enter Jade’s candy-coloured webcam universe, Spider Lilies is nothing short of mesmerising.

Pamela Jahn