Tag Archives: LFF

When Animals Dream

When Animals Dream
When Animals Dream

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 April 2015

Distributor: Altitude Film Distribution

Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby

Writer: Rasmus Birch

Cast: Sonia Suhl, Lars Mikkelsen, Sonja Richter

Original title: Når dyrene drømmer

Denmark 2014

84 mins

A Danish teenage lycanthropic affair, When Animals Dream concerns the pubescent awakening of Marie (Sonia Suhl), a girl growing up in a tiny coastal village, where everybody is in each other’s pocket and the single onshore industry involves the gutting of fish. On top of the usual libidinal stirrings and physical developments Marie has more singular problems to deal with: there’s the growing realisation that her domestic situation is far from normal. Why is the local doctor suddenly scheduling monthly appointments? Exactly what is the condition that has left her mother heavily sedated and wheelchair-bound? Clearly there is something her father (Lars Mikkelsen) isn’t telling her, and it seems to have the locals spooked.

Whilst swimming the same waters as the likes of Ginger Snaps or Teeth, this is a much more Scandinavian affair. It’s a slow burner with sparse dialogue and a distinctive gloomy look, all lowering skies and creamy yellowing light. Performances are subdued and naturalistic, and there’s none of the flip snarkiness that’s become de rigueur with US productions. Instead we have something a bit more generous, humanistic and affecting. The adolescent agony is conveyed effectively, and there’s a very real sense of small town oppression, with a terrific scene where a traditional first day at work humiliation ritual bubbles with understated hostility. And whilst the messy transformative business isn’t exactly box fresh, the film hangs on an interesting question: what do you do with a problem like Marie? Whilst the film is largely seen from her point of view, and Suhl’s delicate, defiant performance ensures that we are on her side, Rasmus Birch’s screenplay does not sideline or downplay the villagers’ understandable concerns. The tale could be a metaphor for every outsider status from homosexuality to mental illness, but this metaphor means that there’s a heavy price to pay when, if you’ll forgive me, things get hairy every month. No wonder her dad looks so tortured, he’s paralysed by love and fear.

Though this is Marie’s film, and is built around her path from awkward confusion to outright rebellion, I can’t help noticing that the last act, like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Spring, centres around a would-be boyfriend’s acceptance that his lover is prone to ripping the occasional throat out. There seems to be something in the air, and whilst it might not mean much (other than Let the Right One In casting a long shadow), in this case it takes Marie’s story away from her and gives it to someone else. In all three films you know which way the finale is going to go, and wonder how the toothier direction might have played. Although it could have benefited from a rise in heat towards the end and it is probably a little too understated for some genre fans, it is nevertheless classy, smart stuff, and a promising debut from director Jonas Alexander Arnby.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

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No Man’s Land

No Mans Land
No Man’s Land

Director: Ning Hao

Writers: Ning Hao, Shu Ping, Xing Aina

Cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie

Original title: Wu ren qu

China 2013

117 mins

One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films in the Berlinale 2014 Competition line-up, No Man’s Land was originally shot in 2009, but then held by censorship authorities and rescheduled several times over the past few years because of its allegedly negative portrayal of the police. After at least three official resubmissions and endless editing and re-cutting, the currently circulating version of the film finally got a general release in China in 2013. Except for its newly attached, and effectively arbitrary ending, it comes as a welcome surprise that Ning Hao’s wildly cynical (and frequently bonkers) fable remains tightly paced and eminently fun to watch.

A nihilistic neo-Western road movie comedy thriller, No Man’s Land concerns the relationship between man’s animal instincts and social responsibility, with greed being the driving force in a spectacular cat and mouse game set on a lonely stretch of the Gobi Desert highway. The action-packed, if inherently simplistic, plot spins around attorney Pan Xiao, a swanky city slicker who drives to the remote desert region of Xinjiang to defend Lao Da, a falcon poacher accused (and, in fact, guilty) of murder. An expert in his profession, Pan manages to get him off the hook, but when the two men sit down to settle business, disagreements about Pan’s fees lead the greedy lawyer to take over the reins and drive off in his client’s brand new red mustang. And while things may have been slightly ‘off’ from the outset, they inevitably turn sour from here.

As he rushes back to town for his very own book launch party, Pan gets caught in an escalating cycle of ugly misunderstandings that, eventually, prevent him from meeting his self-aggrandising commitments. And it’s not to say he isn’t trying. It’s just that every one of his more or less ingenious attempts to save his skin is answered with more car crashes, gunfire, high kicks and heavy punches.

With its engine deliberately set to run idle, the film adopts a blatant gonzo style and mocking tone that aptly serve its underlying philosophical parable about a society which has gone completely off the rails, while pitch-black wit and occasional daredevil stunts ensure that one does not lose interest for too long. Visually compelling and suitably fitted with a boisterous Morricone-inspired score, No Man’s Land is, quite literally, a blast.

Pamela Jahn

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal Thin Ice
Black Coal, Thin Ice

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 June 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Diao Yinan

Writer: Diao Yinan

Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing

Original title: Bai ri yan huo

China 2014

106 mins

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.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Hard to Be a God

Hard to be a God
Hard to Be a God

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 August 2015

DVD/Blu-ray release date: 14 September 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Aleksei German

Writers: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita

Based on the novel by: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitriy Vladimirov, Laura Lauri

Original title: Trudno byt bogom

Russia 2013

170 mins

Last month, the Etrange Festival presented Aleksei German’s sixth and last film, Hard to Be a God, an artistic testament on several accounts. It took the director nearly 15 years to complete: after releasing Khrustalyov, My Car in 1998, German spent seven years shooting in the Czech Republic, with additional interior scenes shot in Moscow, followed by six years of editing. He literally put his life into the film, as he died in February 2013 during the last stage of the editing, which was then completed by his son Aleksei Junior. But Hard to Be a God is more than just his final film: German had been thinking about adapting Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy’s successful novel virtually from the moment it was published in 1964, coming up with a first script as early as 1968, which failed to pass the filter of Soviet censorship. One can easily imagine how familiar an echo the persecution of all intellectuals in the fictional Kingdom of Arkanar might have sounded in the late 1960s when, after a relative thaw during Khrushchev’s era, Brezhnev restored the stranglehold on information and academia with new Stalin-like trials of writers in 1966.

The book tells the story of scientists supervising a planet whose evolution has reached the stage of the Dark Ages, but where the Renaissance has not happened, as we are told at the beginning of the film. All those who can read and write are persecuted and executed, and Don Rumata, the visiting observer who is forbidden to interfere, suffers because of his despair and helplessness at improving their civilisation.
In contrast to the previous adaptation of the novel by Peter Fleischmann, Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein in 1989 (which German may have seen, as Andrei Boltnev, who played the titular character in German’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin, also played Budach in Fleischmann’s film), German chose to reduce the science fiction plot to almost imperceptible hints. This invites comparison with Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of another of the Strugatskiys’ novels, Stalker (1979), not so much because of the common source, but rather because both directors opted for a minimalistic treatment of the science fiction genre.

German’s cinematographic language, which he had so masterfully perfected in Khrustalyov, My Car, combines black and white wide shots reminiscent of Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films (which is not surprising, as German had studied with him) and the painstakingly precise construction of long shots and relentless camera movements already used in his previous films – which may also have influenced Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faustus (2011). The images are conjured up to present the civilisation of Arkanar in as odd and uncanny a way as possible, leaving the spectator with the difficult task of interpreting the puzzling actions that unfold on the screen. The first two shots of the film set a stark contrast: the black and white beauty of a mountain village overhanging a snow-covered lake, worthy of a Brueghel winter landscape, is immediately followed by the filthiness of the streets where two characters get happily splashed with excrement by a man using his first floor window as a latrine. Throughout the film the muddy, rainy and dirty moistness of the urban environment is echoed in the social conventions of spitting, sneezing, belching and farting, added to the bleeding, gutting and poisoning of brutish violence. Often felt as salutary for the spectator, the choice of black and white, or rather infinite shades of grey, provides a visual echo of the colour and meanness of Don Reba’s guards and ministers, who persecute all forms of culture. This disquieting atmosphere has a hypnotic effect, endlessly dragging the spectator through closed, stifling, claustrophobic indoor spaces, crowded with a cornucopia of objects scattered across rooms and hanging from ceilings, which the protagonists spend their time avoiding bumping into, while minor characters do all they can to divert attention from the main story, even making signs to the camera.

In the novel the real experiment is not observing the barbarians’ evolution, but determining whether the evolved scientists from Planet Earth are likely to regress to a state ruled by emotions. Unsurprisingly, the film’s climax – Don Rumata’s bloody intervention – is reduced to one unique killing, the rest being relegated to an ellipsis, which is probably why German renounced the alternative title of History of the Arkanar Massacre. Rumata’s failing is inscribed into the film’s framing structure: it opens and closes on a snowy landscape, but the innocence of the initial lake is contrasted with another snow-covered countryside where death is omnipresent. A further framing element is the Duke-Ellington-like jazz music played by Don Rumata on an odd and anachronistic clarinet, the only tangible sign of his modernity, rejected by Rumata’s slaves plugging up their ears, and the last words of the film, a little girl complaining that the music makes her retch. But the spectators will know better: this three-hour baroque and nauseous journey through mankind’s worst nightmares is a lesson in cinema and humanity that one is not likely to forget.

This review was first published as part of our Etrange Festival 2014 coverage.

Pierre Kapitaniak

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The Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy
The Duke of Burgundy

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 February 2015

Distributor: Curzon Film World

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna

UK 2014

104 mins

Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the impressive Berberian Sound Studio is a strange and methodical study of a relationship under strain. We are introduced to Evelyn and Cynthia, the former apparently a servant to her cold lepidopterist boss, dutifully doing her chores, being found wanting, and suffering abuse. But it slowly emerges that this is an elaborate dominant/submissive game, in which both are playing their parts. The supposedly submissive Evelyn is actually in control, creating the scenarios that Cynthia has to precisely act out, selecting the clothes that her ‘master’ wears. Evelyn seems to be deliriously happy with the scenario at first, but for Cynthia the strain of maintaining the performance is beginning to show. As the days repeat the cycle of servitude, transgression and punishment, cracks start to form in the façade, and it seems inevitable that something will break.

If a lesbian sub/dom two-hander already seems to be a singular enough cinematic prospect, this does not begin to prepare you for the oddness of Strickland’s treatment. We are in an unnamed location; although it was shot in Hungary, British accents dominate, and the trappings of the story suggest a rural home counties university town. We are adrift in time, too, though the technology, dress and pastiche title sequence suggest that it is set in the 60s-70s. There appear to be no men, and the evening’s entertainment consists of lectures about butterflies, moths and crickets, which are attended by immaculately styled ladies, and the occasional shop window dummy. The suggestion is that everybody in this world is in a similar relationship to Cynthia and Evelyn’s: the services of a specialist bondage furniture maker are in high demand, and Cynthia suspects her lover of betrayal in polishing another woman’s boots. This appears to be an attempt to allegorise and abstract the nature of all relationships. The Duke Of Burgundy is focused on the moments where passion gives way to obligation and duty, and the demands made on a couple as they try to keep each other happy begin to eat away at the affection they are trying to maintain. It’s a film about performance and the people we have to be.

It’s also a film of very precise and measured derangement. The production design, wardrobe (by Andrea Flesch) and set dressing seem to have been agonised over, creating a specific, very sensual world of patterned tile and wallpaper, pencil skirts and corsets, silk, mushrooms and endless mounted butterflies. The soundtrack is an extraordinary thing: the music by Cat’s Eyes ranges from dreamy folk to near Morricone operatics, supplemented by foregrounded foley work and amplified insect noise. As with Berberian Sound Studio, there is a growing sense of insanity, of reality slipping its moorings. The editing brings to mind the work of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, cross-cutting from scene to scene, repeating visual motifs that all culminate in an extended nightmarish sequence where Cynthia’s anxieties burst into a riot of moth wings and horror movie symbolism. In its emphasis on power shifts it recalls Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1964). In its dreamy look it brings to mind the 70s euro-sleaze of Rollin and Franco.

But all of this would be worthless without the committed work of Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn, both giving performances of performances for much of the running time, leaving the moments when the masks slip to display the increasing desperation and dissatisfaction, the fleeting moments of joy. D’Anna’s glowing face as she waits expectantly for chastisement is funny and affecting, Knudsen’s slow breakdown as she fails to deliver the requisite level of bitch is quietly devastating. At 104 minutes it overstays its welcome a little, although it is both amusing and entrancing. It is hermetically sealed, and some will find it suffocating, too mannered and strange for proper engagement, but Strickland is aiming for something ambitious and transcendent, and pretty much gets there. Pay attention at the end for some of the oddest credits you’re ever likely to read.

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Mark Stafford

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