Screening at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France) on 13 September 2017 Format: Cinema Director: Kinji Fukasaku Writers: Masahige Narusawa, Yukio Mishima Based on the story by: Edogawa Rampo Cast: Akihiro Maruyama, Isao Kimura, Kikko Matsuoka, Junya Usami Original tile:Kuro tokage Japan 1968
The delirious adventures of a queer criminal as seen by Yukio Mishima and Kinji Fukasaku.
Footsteps echo in the dark. A hand knocks on a door. A flap is lifted, a pair of eyes peeks out, the door opens. Footsteps lead down a corridor decorated with fluorescent drawings. Another door flings open and the psychedelic lights and music of a nightclub explode onto the screen, frenzied dancers wearing little aside from body paint gyrate to a wild groove while men gleefully grab handfuls of sequined breasts, the walls around them decorated with Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. In such a heady atmosphere of decadence and loose abandon, it does not seem unnatural that the mistress of the place, a femme fatale in slinky black dress and diamonds, should be played by a cross-dressing male actor (the celebrated Japanese transvestite Akihiro Miwa, here credited as Akihiro Maruyama). Mrs Midorigawa, aka the famous criminal Black Lizard, approaches Detective Akechi, sitting alone at the bar, who came ‘by chance’ to the secret club, and their encounter is the start of a sexually charged, fatal face-off where romantic tension is played out as the mind games of two people on opposing sides of the law.
Death Walks on High Heels Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood), Dino Verde
Cast: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1971
Death Walks at Midnight Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood)
Cast: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1972
Hallucinations, deadly mediaeval gloves and make-up fetish are the marks of Luciano Ercoli’s entertaining giallo double bill.
This typically lavish Arrow BluRay/DVD box set collects two gialli from director Luciano Ercoli, following up his genre debut, Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970) with a matched pair of mysteries built around leading lady Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) and more or less the same supporting cast (though the heroine has a different duplicitous love interest in each film).
In La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971), Paris-based stripper Nicole (Scott) suspects her useless layabout lover Michel (Simón Andreu) has donned blue contact lenses and a black ski-mask to terrorise her with a straight razor in an attempt to get his hands on some diamonds everyone thinks her murdered jewel thief father left with her. Nicole hooks up with eye surgeon Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a fan-cum-stalker who whisks her off to a strange version of the British seaside with pub gossips (including a one-handed handyman with a secret fetish), an ice-delivering fish vendor (crucial plot point), voyeur neighbours and more murderous attacks.
In La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Death Walks at Midnight/Cry Out in Terror, 1972), Milan-based model Valentina (Scott), duped into taking hallucinogen HDS by her sleazy photojourno pal Gio (Andreu), has a vision of a girl being murdered with a spiked mediaeval glove in the surreally empty apartment across the way. Later, it turns out she’s described a six-month-old crime which has already been solved. The heroine’s alternately sensitive and vicious sculptor boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza/Peter Martell), a desperate widow (Claudie Lange), another sinister doctor (Ivano Staccioli), some hippies and a pair of nasty drug dealers cloud the issue, and Valentina is further imperilled. In both films, Carlo Gentili plays an affably unconcerned police inspector who turns up after every violent outbreak to puzzle things out – though Ercoli prefers to resolve mysteries with shock revelations, sudden attacks, punch-ups (sound effects make fist-blows sound like planks of wood snapping) and rooftop chases.
As in many gialli, the bizarre trappings – weird weaponry, hallucinations, masked heavy-breathers, burbling lounge music, fabulously garish fashions and decors, bursts of ultra-violence – litter plots which turn out to be indecently fixated on money rather than mania. It’s all about the stolen diamonds… or the smuggled drugs. Except, of course, it’s not: these films are memorable because of everything else, and resemble fractured mash-ups of Edgar Wallace Presents programmers with post-Blow-Up swinging psychedelia. Some of the extraordinary frills are so ludicrous as to be almost transgressive – like Nicole’s black-face stripping act in High Heels, which prompts a fetish sex scene as her boyfriend is turned on by wiping off her body make-up.
The vision of a soulless, exploitative modern world revolving around poor, abused Navarro/Scott is cartoonish. Seemingly every man in these films is useless or evil, and both movies eventually despair of masculinity so much that the guy we initially take to be the most repulsive (played by Andreu) is positioned by default as the hero. The scripts – by Ernesto Gastaldi and May Flood from stories by Dino Verde and Sergio Corbucci – feel like several drafts patched together by collaborators who never met (High Heels has a mid-film twist that At Midnight acknowledges as a misstep by not repeating) but Ercoli ringmasters the material for maximum entertainment. Odd funny touches and lines (‘Inspector, he’s a bit less fuddled now’) alleviate the sourness of the genre’s habitual cynicism – so these are among the jolliest, least downerific gialli. When Bava or Argento batter or slice victims’ faces in close-up, you flinch… when Ercoli does it, you can tell he doesn’t mean any harm, really.
In this seminal American independent film, a black man takes on the identity of his ‘identical’ white twin brother.
Sampling a single frame from any of the features directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel offers evidence of the striking visual aesthetic that defines their work. A thrilling synthesis of composition, editing and design (visual and aural), Suture (1993), followed by The Deep End (a carefully calibrated update of Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment that gave Tilda Swinton one of her first American roles in 2001) and Bee Season (2005), has seen them imprint their indelible signature style on contemporary American filmmaking. Completed under the aegis of a major studio, Bee Season was a move up in division, but it was vastly under-appreciated on release, and so it is perhaps little surprise that McGehee and Siegel have returned to independent production with the as-yet-to-be-released Uncertainty, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008.
Introduced by McGehee’s sister Kelly, who was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute alongside Siegel, Scott and David bonded over movies and discussed a possible collaboration. Neither had attended film school (McGehee was studying for a PhD in Japanese Film History at UC Berkeley; Siegel was doing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design), but with Kelly as production designer the pair completed a number of short films before deciding to tackle a feature. Audacious enough in its conception stage to attract the attention of Steven Soderbergh, who came on board as an executive producer, the witty and supremely confident Suture made an immediate impact on the American independent landscape. When it was originally released in the UK at the Institute of Contemporary Arts I vividly recall going to see the film seven consecutive nights in a row. Some 16 years later, its potency and originality remain undimmed.
Despite having met his identical half-brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert, today best known as the pre-Obama black American president in 24) just once – at their murdered father’s funeral – wealthy sophisticate Vincent (Michael Harris) invites his blue-collar sibling to stay with him in Phoenix, Arizona. As this is ostensibly a bonding exercise, Clay is dismayed to learn upon arrival that a business trip necessitates Vincent’s immediate attention. After dropping his brother at the airport, Clay is involved in a horrific car explosion that leaves his face burned beyond recognition, his memory erased and Vincent’s desirable Rolls Royce a write-off. With the aid of a psychoanalyst and a leading plastic surgeon, Clay is slowly pieced back together. Unfortunately, he’s reconstructed as Vincent, now the primary suspect in his father’s death.
Suture is a sophisticated, post-modern affair borrowing freely from the B-movie thriller, the American avant-garde and the film noir, including stylised chiaroscuro lighting, a complex flashback structure and the focus upon a moral landscape predicated on corruption and greed. The film nonetheless brings its own intoxicating embellishments to the Hitchcockian mix (1945’s Spellbound, with its Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequences, is an obvious and acknowledged influence). An intelligent analysis of identity, class, the Lacanian duality of mind and body and the physical and mental means by which we define ourselves, Suture features at its core compelling performances from Harris, who is slight and white, and Haysbert, muscular and black. ‘Our physical resemblance is striking’, remarks Vincent in a typically deadpan moment. The naming of a character after the philosopher Descartes and the use of ‘Ring of Fire’ (both Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions appear) as a charred Clay is transported to surgery offer further evidence of the mischievous humour of the filmmakers – who both briefly appear as gurney operators – amidst the film’s lightly and comfortably worn highbrow tendencies.
Masterly shot in austere black and white by Greg Gardiner (who won an award for the cinematography at Sundance in 1994) and boasting Kelly McGehee’s stunning production design (the inventive use of modish 60s office interiors evokes Godard’s Alphaville), Suture is also significant in its compositional assurance and positioning of characters in relation to objects and buildings. The Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo) would perhaps be the closest contemporary point of reference. The final face-off between Vincent and Clay, shot from high above in an ornate bathroom, an image that became the film’s enticing poster, is especially memorable. The film is also remarkable for its disjunctive editing and the overlapping use of sound from one scene to another, techniques that reference the pioneering work of the late 60s theorist Jean-Pierre Oudart, who drew parallels between the psychic processes of subjectivity and the structuring language of cinema.
Relatively rarely seen in recent years due to restricted availability, Suture is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK in a brand new 4k restoration so that first-time viewers and those who were seduced by its innumerable pleasures back in 1993 can now be reminded of the film’s originality and vitality.
Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.
Cast: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech
Original title:5 bambole per la luna d’agosto
A stylish but minor entry in the Mario Bava oeuvre with an Agatha Christie-type set-up.
Following a week long Mario Bava marathon, I approached Five Dolls for an August Moon with some trepidation for two reasons. First of all the cost that I and my family personally paid for the marathon had been brutal and bloody. Secondly Mario Bava himself hated the film, considering it one of his worst movies. For a director to be so forceful in his objections makes the potential viewer pause, but it must be done.
The premise is something out of Agatha Christie. On a remote island businessman George Stark (Teodor Corrà) has gathered a group of people together for a weekend of business and pleasure. Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger) is a scientist whose new formula is the secret motive for the gathering and who will inveighed upon to sell it to George or perhaps his treacherous partner Nick (Maurice Poli from Rabid Dogs). Adding to the industrial intrigue, there’s also sexual shenanigans afoot as Farrell and Stark’s wives, Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg) and Jill (Edith Meloni) are having an affair. Nick’s wife Marie (Edwige Fenech) is openly dallying with the manservant Charles (Mauro Bosco). Among this bohemian mélange only Jack (Renato Rossini) and his wife Peggy (Helene Ronee) are on an even keel, but the ingénue Isabelle (Justine Gall) stalks the house, a wide-eyed voyeur to the goings-on.
Following a jokey satanic ritual – only Bava would attempt such a red herring – the killings begin at a fair clip. There’s nothing particularly inventive about the kills – quite a few of the victims just get shot! – and the pace of the film doesn’t allow for much in the way of atmosphere. With Antonio Rinaldi’s brightly lit camerawork Bava replaces his mist-laced Gothic piles with postmodern kitsch and a swingy careless ease. The blistering rock soundtrack that punctuates proceedings with blaring guitars lends the film a great 70s feel but does little to promote dread in the viewer. If there were a few jokes, the film could almost be taken as a parody of the giallo genre that Bava inadvertently launched. The plot twists in a way that is so confusing as to be not so much surprising as dumbfounding, and some of the production feels genuinely rushed and slapdash. Bloodless bullet wounds and smokeless gunshots, fiendish plots that make very little sense, a title that seems utterly irrelevant and characters who are barely set up before being summarily dispatched. On the plus side, it is short at just over 80 minutes and an occasional shot will impress – glass balls cascade down a staircase like a pram down the Odessa Steps in one particularly well taken sequence. However, if you’ve never seen a Mario Bava film before I would point you towards several other films before arriving at this self-confessedly minor work.
Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts
Leonard Kastle’s brutal, gritty take on the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ is a masterwork of ugly desperation.
A lonely and bitter nurse, Martha (Shirley Stoler) lives alone with her unstable mother in Mobile, Alabama. She is friendless, apart from her conspiratorial neighbour, Bunny (Doris Roberts), who makes less-than-subtle comments about her weight, especially as Martha gorges on a bag of pretzels after a tortuous day at the hospital. So Bunny mischievously signs her up to a lonely hearts club, and sets in motion a chain of events, described in The Honeymoon Killers’s title card, as ‘…incredibly shocking… perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime’. Based on the true story of the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, the only film ever made by Leonard Kastle (who was actually a composer) is a gripping, original crime drama, a low-budget cult classic.
When Martha receives her first letter from Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), the audience is given a glimpse at his game – he writes her from a desk full of framed photographs of other women. Ray is a con man who seduces then fleeces desperate women, going so far as marriage (one woman pays Ray to marry her to disguise a pregnancy – the myth that sex before marriage is clearly a sin with severe consequences runs through the film like a joke). Martha, at first, is no different than his other marks – but somehow she clings on to him, becoming a part of his scheme, masquerading as a sister who never leaves his side, even when they travel to meet his various women. Although Martha wants in on the cash, she’s far from a willing accomplice. She’s jealous, possessive and insistent that Frank never touch the others, even going so far as to sleep in the same bedroom as the other lonely hearts; it’s his violation of Martha’s rules that eventually leads to murder.
Shot in stark black and white – often gleamingly bright, in contrast to the usual noir aesthetic linked to such torrid stories – it’s a documentary-style film, but laced through with dark, erotically charged undertones, captured by the cinematographer Oliver Wood in some terrific moments. In a scene when Ray first comes to visit Martha, celebrated with a sad little party, the camera films him from behind as he dances in front of her, his hips at her eye level, as he sways suggestively to the sounds of tropical music – for Martha, he’s irresistible. Though the film is rarely explicit, sex is at its beating heart; after the first, explicit killing, Ray strips off all his clothes, the camera again following him from behind as he enters Martha’s bedroom, linking the pleasures of violence with sex.
Shirley Stoler perfectly captures Martha’s unhappiness and desperation. She’s an ugly person, shrill, irrational and brutal. Lo Bianco’s Ray is the perfect (if stereotypical) Latin lover; his is perhaps the more nuanced performance of the two. In fact, the film is peopled with unpleasant characters, hinting at an ugly world full of sad, pathetic people (this cynicism is compounded when the killers bury two religious icons alongside one of their victims). It’s only Ray’s final lonely heart who is kind, attractive and caring – and too much for Martha, who’d rather she and Frank were in jail than see him sleep with another woman – which is, of course, the final outcome of their killing spree. Martha and Ray were executed in Sing Sing in 1951.
Watch the Arrow Video Story for The Honeymoon Killers:
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane,
Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson
USA, UK 2015
Scott Cooper’s violent thriller about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger fails to engage.
** out of *****
Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a derivative ultra-violent homage to Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be (failing miserably in that respect).
Berlinger’s picture is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It’s the victims who give Berlinger’s film oomph. Cooper’s picture does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger’s ‘career’. Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There’s clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger’s actions become.
Focusing too superficially on the family dynamic between Bulger, his State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), the movie mostly targets Bulger’s 30-year history as a federal informant via old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our ‘hero’ is attempting to rub out so his Irish Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston. Seeing as Bulger is so ruthlessly reprehensible (sans the perverse fun Scorsese injects into his pictures), so much of the proceedings are humourless and just plain unpleasant.
Much will be made of Depp’s performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. His flamboyant excess delivers prime entertainment value, but only to a point. It eventually becomes tiresome. I’ll take Depp’s work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger over this any day.
The biggest problem is a screenplay that doesn’t provide a strong enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn’t a problem in Berlinger’s great documentary since Bulger’s prime victim was the protagonist, genuinely fearing for his life (and indeed getting rubbed out during the film’s shooting and subsequent Bulger trial). What drives the world of Black Mass is Bulger’s enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches. It’s the human factor that’s missing right across the board. Humanity is what makes great crime
Cast: Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Loes Haverkort, Maria Kraakman
After the haunting and otherworldly Borgman, presented two years ago at L’Étrange Festival, Alex van Warmerdam – the enfant chéri of the festival – returned this year with Schneider vs. Bax, only to win the Grand Prix. As suggested by the title, the film’s plot is built around the duel between two contract killers hired by the same employer to do each other in. The film starts with the two protagonists waking. Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) – allegedly an engineer – is woken up by his beautiful wife (Loes Haverkort) and children on his birthday, and has to cancel his day off because of a phone call from his boss Mertens (Gene Bervoets). Ramon Bax, a solitary writer living in an isolated house by a lake in the middle of a swamp, is woken up by the thought of his daughter Francisca’s (Maria Kraakman) imminent visit, and unmannerly chases away his young mistress, Nadine (Eva van de Wijdeven), to avoid an embarrassing encounter.
Long before the duel is put in place, Warmerdam establishes the comic nature of his film, when Mertens clumsily falls from his chair and accidentally knocks himself out after Schneider’s phone call. From there on, a long series of unexpected twists and blunders complicates the trap originally set for Schneider, in a way reminiscent of Édouard Molinaro’s A Pain in the Ass (1973).
Yet Warmerdam does not play by the rules of the hitman genre. He remains faithful to his criticism of the Dutch middle classes, and in this dark, social-comedy thriller, we go through every stage of a family crisis: the grown-up daughter’s depression, the father’s drug abuse, the grandfather’s incest, to name but a few.
Once again, Warmerdam succeeds in creating a perfect, absurd mix of very realistic action and very unrealistic sequences of cause-and-effect, the accumulation of which fuels the plot. The mystery of Borgman gives way here to exhilarating comedy, indulging in some delightfully trashy jokes, as when Nadine returns with her friend Jules, who threatens to crush Bax under his thumb, only to have his thumb shot off a few minutes later.
In Schneider vs. Bax Warmerdam yields to nature’s call, which was already budding in his previous films. The gardens, forests and countryside there provided a counterpoise to the urban, middle-class setting that Warmerdam is so keen on satirising (the countryside is also an occasional burying ground). This film was shot on location in a nature reserve, and the choice of the wild marshes deeply affects the aesthetics of the film, which moves away from the usual Hopper/Tati-like atmosphere. Much more than in The Last Days of Emma Blank (2009), the exceptionally picturesque landscape has enabled Warmerdam to achieve an unprecedented level of mastery in articulating elements of the plot with visual effects. Bax’s white, immaculate lakeside house (contrasting with his profession) is made even brighter by the fact that the house has a glass roof to let more light in. The obsessive cleanliness of the interior is almost uncanny, especially as Bax returns there all muddy from the swamps, without affecting the pristine state of the house. This is perhaps the most original of Warmerdam’s aesthetic choices: rather than a chiaroscuro reflecting the moral stakes of the protagonists, the screen is overwhelmed by the unchallenged brightness of the swamps in broad daylight, which thus paradoxically enhances the film’s dark atmosphere and the characters’ no less dark motivations. No pathetic fallacy here – the weather remains sunny all through the fight between Schneider and Bax, and the different deaths that occur in its course, even until the film’s ‘happy ending’, when Schneider returns home to his ‘perfect’ family, who are blissfully ignorant of the pater familias’s profession.
Notoriety has long swirled around Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, a box-office failure in the US that famously ended his Hollywood career. But it has since become much admired for its often emulated long take, which masterfully introduces us to the dusty town on the Mexican border in which the story is set.
In the dramatic opening scene, we see a bomb placed underneath a convertible, before the camera pulls away to soar over the streets of the town, following not only the movements of the car, but also the newlyweds whose lives are about to be derailed when the bomb explodes on the American side, killing a local construction magnate and a strip club dancer. The scene is beautifully orchestrated, with stunning sound design. Music pours out of the bars that the couple stroll past, the sound of guitars and jazz flowing into rock and roll, evoking the sultry, sweaty streets of the south, adding a risqué, decadent feel that is echoed throughout the film.
The murder pits two very different law enforcement officers against each other. Vargas (Charlton Heston) is the newly married, upstanding man who’s successfully targeted one of the biggest drug gangs in Mexico; Quinlan, overweight, dishevelled, puffy-eyed, is the revered cop who never fails to get his man, even if it means breaking the law, his convictions based ‘on intuition, rather than fact’. The murder victim is barely relevant to the unfolding plot; rather, the killing is the catalyst that turns the crime thriller into a dark, brooding meditation on good versus evil.
Caught in the middle is Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), who becomes a victim of both Quinlan and the Mexican gang, who are now on the same side in their war against Vargas. The crime family is led by the unassuming, overweight Joe Gardi (Akim Tamaroff), who has a gang of young thugs in black leather jackets to carry out his dirty work. Susan starts out as a tough broad in pearls and cashmere sweater, but when they hound her in a deserted motel she’s no match for them. In a twisted party scene, the threat of sexual violence, with its racial undertones, pulsates to the sound of the rockabilly music piped through the motel.
Touch of Evil deserves to be watched multiple times, not for the story, but to absorb its brilliance and audacity. The cinematography is a work of art, a virtuoso example of the noir aesthetic, using angles and lighting to heighten the tension. Quinlan looms above the camera, the sweat on his meaty face almost palpable. In one shot his menacing shadow, thrown up against a wall, stalks Vargas as he walks away down a dark road. When Gardi meets his fate, the camerawork and editing are dizzying, the tension and drama escalated by the screeching jazz horns.
There are some weaknesses in the performances by Heston (ignoring the fact that he is, of course, not Mexican) and Leigh, though Marlene Dietrich as the fortune teller who predicts Quinlan’s demise is seductive as always. Joseph Calleia also deserves mention as the tragic sergeant devoted to Quinlan, who will later pay a horrible price. While there is undoubtedly a hint of the B-movie at times, it’s a masterpiece of the noir genre, one of the last true great films of that era, and a fantastic turn by Welles.
Creative control of the film was taken away from the director by Universal, who released a botched version of the film; after seeing it, Welles penned a 58-page memo detailing his desired changes. In 1998, it was re-cut by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who tried to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible. It’s a thing of beauty.
Diao Yinan’s disarming frozen noir begins in 1999 in northern China, where we follow the progress of a package mixed in with a coal delivery to a plant, where it is discovered to be a severed hand. Several other body parts are found in other coal shipments, and recently divorced mess-of-a-cop Zhang (Liao Fan) is part of a team called in to work the case. The investigation has barely started, however, before an attempted arrest at a beauty salon turns into an unholy clusterfuck that results in Zhang taking a bullet and losing his place on the force. In 2004 we find him a drunken wreck with a gig as security guard at a coal factory, when a chance encounter with an old colleague leads to his becoming entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve…
While all the ingredients for a standard policer are present and correct, and plot wise, there’s nothing new here, Diao seems to take great delight in taking things apart and making them strange; it’s slow burning and snowbound and largely music-free. There’s an absence of Hollywood glamour, and everyone and everything looks a bit shabby and worn down. His femme fatale is skinny and passive and taciturn, unable to stop the unwelcome attentions of her boss at her unrewarding dry cleaning job. Our hero rides a crappy scooter after having his bike nicked. Following a police interview, a witness turns the corner of her residential block to find a horse in the corridor, in a typical scene that doesn’t advance the story much, but suggests a dysfunctional world of absurdity and neglect.
Visually, the film is extraordinary: the camera continually does unexpected things, the framing is unconventional, fights and shocking moments disappear off camera or appear in deadpan medium shots. The passage of time from 1999 to 2004 is accomplished in one majestic take, as we ride with Zhang’s car through a motorway tunnel to find him sprawled drunkenly on the other side. There’s a magically odd skating sequence where Zhang pursues the widow as she glides, impossibly smoothly, into the darkness, a Strauss waltz playing over Tannoy speakers. The days are harsh white, the nights taken over by yellow sodium and coloured neon.
All of this visual invention does not alter the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. There’s a hard-drinking cop, a woman who spells trouble, a killer to chase and a mystery to solve. But it does make Black Coal, Thin Ice engaging, and raises it a cut above the rest. There’s a mood of melancholy underlying the piece, a sense that justice may well be served, but love will be crushed along the way. Everybody seems to be lonely and lost and hurting, and this atmosphere, and the film’s off-kilter focus, make it linger in the memory.
Guy Pitt’s debut feature Greyhawk takes place on a London housing estate. Mal, a blind ex-soldier (the excellent Scottish actor Alec Newman), is playing fetch with his guide dog. On the third throw of the squeaky ball, his dog does not return. An escalating moment of anxiety (‘Anxiety has no upper limit.’ – Roman Polanski). The dog has been stolen. And so the determined man, who’s carrying quite a bit of barely pent-up anger anyway, must venture into the scheme to get his companion back.
The filmmaking is assured, using the frame, and the focus, to give a stylised sense of the limitations of its hero’s perceptions, and there’s some arresting architectural framing, positioning the central location as antagonist. Greyhawk is at its best using the tense dramatic premise, which you can’t help invest in emotionally, as a means of exploring character. As a study of anomie it’s not entirely convincing: it feels less intimately familiar with its story world than something like Attack the Block, even though its intentions are more serious. Some people might even be offended by the suggestion that so many people on one housing estate would be so unsympathetic to a disabled person’s plight. But the combination of an interesting, defiantly un-ingratiating central figure, strong support from Zoë Telford and Jack Shepherd, and a nerve-racking situation, make the movie a compelling experience. – The detective story aspect of Mal’s investigation is cleverly scripted, just barely avoiding too neat a feeling of contrivance, while continually throwing difficulties in his path.
Greyhawk is one of several imaginative British features screening at EIFF (including opening film Hyena), offering encouraging signs of life and the possibility that this year’s Michael Powell Award for best British film might conceivably go to something Powell would have recognised as cinema.